Delhi Stories and Tips

17th Century: The Laal Qila

Inlay work at the Laal Qila Photo,

There’s a belief that if an invader captures the Laal Qila (the 'Red Fort’, as it is also commonly known), India will be considered captured. An interesting, but not surprising, belief - since the Red Fort has been, for more than three hundred years, a symbol of empire. When the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi in the mid-17th century, the Red Fort (which was then known also as Qila-e-Mubarak or Qila-e-Shahjahanabad) was built to house the imperial court. Spreading out over 125 acres, the fort was completed in 1648, and contained within it pavilions, palaces, gardens, and even busy markets.

Today, only about 80% of the original buildings remain- and all of them have suffered the ravages of time. But the Red Fort is still an impressive monument, with echoes of what was once the wealthiest court in the world, rivaled only by the Ming dynasty. Recent restoration work has brought back to life some of the lost glory of the Red Fort, so we decided it was time to pay yet another visit to the fort. We arrived a warm morning in October, and spent about five minutes in the long queue before realising that the queue consisted of people who’d already bought tickets. Don’t join the queue until you’ve bought your tickets (Rs 5 per person if you’re Indian; Rs 100 if you’re not) at the ticket counter on the left, opposite the main gate.

Security is a big issue at the Red Fort (it’s actually partly occupied by the army), so be prepared to be frisked and have your camera, bag, etc., scanned.

Once past the security, you step back in time - just a bit. The first sight you’ll see is a dark, narrow covered bazaar full of craft shops - they sell lovely beaded bags, inexpensive jewellery, and faux antiques. In Shahjahan’s time, this was known as the Chhatta Bazaar or Bazaar-e-Musakkaf, and it was patronised by the Mughal aristocracy. The wares in Shahjahan’s time also consisted of items that would appeal to the moneyed - jewellery, rich cloth, and sundry other stuff, such as eunuchs, midgets and slaves from across the world!

Past the bazaar, you circumvent a circular lawn and pass through the Naubat Khana - the Drum House - and to the first of the main palaces of the Red Fort, the Diwan-e-Aam, or the Hall of Common Audience. Like the other Mughal palaces, this too is a pillared hall. It’s made completely of red sandstone, the only relief being provided by the imposing throne of white marble, inlaid with pietra dura. The throne can’t be seen too well - it’s protected by a rather decrepit and dusty netting - but the hall, with its columns and arches forming regimental ranks, is awesome.

Behind the Diwan-e-Aam (where the emperor would meet the less elite of his subjects) is yet another lawn, and a large water tank which once was studded with silver fountains- the fountains today are of stone. In line with the Diwan-e-Aam, but shielded by its bulk, lie a series of buildings made almost exclusively of white marble. The first of these, on your right, is the Imtiyaz Mahal, better known as the Rang Mahal- the `Palace of Colours’. The Rang Mahal is all white marble, shell plaster, and mirrorwork inlays- a fittingly feminine home for the royal seraglio, which it once housed. Another reason for the importance of this now rather frayed palace was that it was through here that water from the Yamuna was channeled into the stream known as the Nahar-e-Bihisht (the 'Stream of Paradise’), which flowed all the way through nearby Chandni Chowk.

Adjacent to the Rang Mahal, and separated from it by a small platform, is what was once the emperor’s personal chambers - the Khwabgah (the bedroom- literally, 'House of Dreams’), the Toshakhana (the wardrobe) and the Tableeq Khana (a private room for prayer - the 'Room of Telling Beads’). All are of white marble, but with some lovely painted floral motifs, and very fine carving. Do wander around it - some of the bronze doors that still exist have very unusual door handles, shaped like mahouts atop elephants.

Next to the Khwabgah, standing in stately splendour, is what was once the jewel of the Red Fort - the Diwan-e-Khaas, or the Hall of Private Audience. This was where the emperor would grant audience to the elite of the Mughal aristocracy, and it’s suitably ornate: the floor and the solid pillars are of white marble; there is extensive pietra dura inlay, very reminiscent of the work at the Taj Mahal; and the ceiling still carries traces of the gold and silver that once covered it. Recent restoration has brought back to life some of the gold, and it’s really rather dazzling. The piece de resistance of the Diwan-e-Khaas is, unfortunately, not here any more: the awesome Takht-e-Taawoos (the Peacock Throne, a magnificent confection of gold, silver, and precious stones) was carried off by the invader Nadir Shah in the 17th century.

Further on from the Diwan-e-Khaas lie a couple of other buildings that were once fairly important but are today locked, so you can just about peer in through the windows and get a glimpse. The first of these are the Hamaams, the Royal Baths, which used to be divided into three sections, one each for dressing, for bathing in hot water, and for cold water baths. The Hamaams, in fact, were so luxurious that the emperor would sometimes spend hours in here, with food and wine being brought to him and meetings with ministers being held.

The second building that’s kept locked is very different from the baths. The Moti Masjid - the 'Pearl Mosque’- is an extremely ornate but small mosque constructed by Aurangzeb (Shahjahan’s son and successor). The Moti Masjid is glaringly ostentatious in its carving, and lacks the subtlety of the surrounding buildings - but peek through the lattice, anyway - it’s worth that much.

You can wander around most of this section of the Red Fort - it’s open to visitors - and you’re bound to come across interesting tidbits of classic Mughal architecture. There is, for instance, next to the Hamaams, the Shah Burj, a bastion that once housed the hydraulic system through which water was drawn up from the Yamuna below and channelised into the Fort. The water, by the way, was used not just for practical purposes, but also aesthetic ones. The water flowed in channels, lay in limpid pools, and sparkled in fountains throughout the Fort’s gardens (major ones included the Hayat Baksh Bagh and the Mehtab Bagh - the latter translates as 'Moonlight Garden’, and fittingly enough, only had white flowers). To add to the beauty of the gardens, special pavilions were built as well. Just beyond the Moti Masjid, you’ll come across two of these, lying opposite each other at the far ends of a garden. The two pavilions, called Sawaan and Bhaadon respectively - named for two seasons - were built to be mirror images of each other. They’re connected by a water channel, and the facade of each pavilion is carved with a grid of niches, over which a thin veil of water used to flow. In Shahjahan’s time, the niches served a purpose; during the day, they held silver vases filled with golden flowers; during the night, they held lit candles - a sight that must’ve been quite pretty, seen through the shifting film of running water. None of that is there any more - all that remains is a memory of a past vividly described by travelers such as Bernier and Manucci - but the Laal Qila must once have been quite impressive.

Been to this destination?

Share Your Story or Tip