Monday, March 18, 2024

Qila e Mubarak, The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad

 Qila e Mubarak, The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad

Text of the talk delivered for K.H.A.K.I. Labs


I am going to begin my talk today with an image which most of us, including children across the country, who have just entered formal school, will recognise.

This image is part of Dilli ka Lal Qila, the Red Fort. And this photo of its red walls, is not just deeply symbolic of Dilli but also of the subcontinent of India. The Lal Qila is a national icon; a symbol of the struggle for freedom against British rule; a name and an image used to advertise all sorts of products — from basmati rice to restaurants in London to matchbox labels — as well as to endorse all kinds of ideologies, political persuasions, and philosophical beliefs.

However, what exists inside these impressive walls, is barely one-tenth of what there was when the Lal Qila was built during the reign of the 5th Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan. Visitors to the Fort are oblivious of this fact. So was I, when I visited the Fort for the very first time. But even though I did not know then how little of the original Red Fort remained, I sensed that something did not — make sense! As a trained architect, I found it hard to understand basic questions about where did the emperor — or for that matter anybody living in the Fort — eat or sleep or bathe? This intrigued me so much that I started ferreting around for answers. It set me off on a research quest which went on for decades, sifting through and analysing the fragments of records available — of which the handful of Mughal buildings in the Fort are the most vital. 

After all that, I was able to get a little more sense of the original form and functioning of this unique Fort — some of which I shared in a book that first came out 20 years ago, and whose second edition has just been published. The book is fairly long (about 400 pages in this edition) and detailed, but there are still many aspects of the Fort that I feel I have not been able to do justice to. So, what I am going to try to explain today is quite a tall order: I am going to describe something that you and I actually see very little of, on the ground — and in the brief time that we have of about half an hour or so. Naturally, there will be much that I will be obliged to leave out of this talk, but I hope I will be able to convey, what to me, are the most important aspects.

To do this, let me go back to the image that we are all very familiar with. We see this often, and we routinely salute it: especially each Independence Day with the Flag of India fluttering aloft the Red Fort’s Lahori Gate. 

But, what if I said that this is actually the antithesis of the Fort’s original design? Yes, it is! The ramparts from where the Prime Minister of India addresses the nation, were not part of the Red Fort when it was built in the 17th century. What difference does this fact make? Well, it means that the street that we now call the Chandni Chowk, which was the main street of Shahjahanabad, the city that Shah Jahan established, was not blocked by these ramparts. Instead, it led straight through a bridge into the main gate of the Fort, the Lahori Gate — which in turn led in a direct axis to the Emperor’s Throne of Justice, where he sat every day in the Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience. This means that visually, spatially and functionally, there was no bar between Shah Jahan and his people in the city.

This changed when the ramparts and an additional smaller gateway that we see today, were made on the orders of Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan, who was then imprisoned at the Agra Fort, is reported to have written, ‘Dear Son, you have made the Fort a bride and put a veil upon her face’.1 This act of making the ramparts across the direct entrance to the main Gate, meant that access to the Fort — and the Emperor — was metaphorically and actually, made longer and more indirect. And this distance and difficulty was converted into something far more opaque and ominous, when the Fort fell into the hands of the British after 1857. 


The spaces inside these ramparts, around these ramparts, and within the Fort were irreversibly altered by the British after 1857. They removed battlements, planned the demolition of everything within 500 metres around the Red Fort, and destroyed almost all the Fort’s original buildings. In their place they constructed tall grim barracks. The structures that were spared, were attacked, pillaged, remodelled and abused. Practically all its art and artefacts were looted, scattered or lost. 

Some conservation work was carried out by the ASI at the beginning of the 20th century to undo part of this damage, as well as to present the Fort as a showpiece to and a backdrop for visiting British aristocracy and royalty, such as King George and Queen Mary’s state visit for the 1911 Durbar. A garden party was held for them at the Red Fort, after which they put on their robes and crowns and ‘stood on the balcony where the Mughal emperors formerly showed themselves’ as Queen Mary records in her diary. Though some parts of the Fort were restored this was done in haste, and this conservation impetus soon petered out. Today — 370 years after it was established as the crowning jewel of Shahjahanabad on the banks of the river Yamuna, only a few pavilions and walls are left in the Red Fort: as you may see in this aerial photo of the Fort where I have outlined the existing Mughal structures. So, the reason we see — and understand — so little of how the Red Fort was used, is because so little of it remains today! This is also the reason that earlier Mughal Forts, such as those in Agra and Lahore, which have far more of their original structures remaining, seem grander and more like what we imagine an imperial fort to be.

The question is, why did the British specifically demolish and make-over so much of the Red Fort?

The reason for this lies in the Red Fort’s reputation, the fame of its design and riches, the symbolic stature of its occupants, and the way in which it was used, described and represented. All these facets of the Fort are linked. Let me explain how.

The Qila-e-Mubarak or Qila-e-Mualla, the Blessed and Exalted Fortress — some of the many names by which the Red Fort was famous — was designed as  the grand finale of imperial Mughal forts, just as the Taj Mahal was the grand finale of imperial Mughal tomb-gardens. The Taj and the Fort were created at the peak of Shah Jahan’s superlative patronage, recognised both in his time and after. The Fort’s foundations were marked out on the 29th of April 1639 CE, and its design was reportedly led by the master-architect Ustad Hamid and his brother Ustad Ahmed, who is also believed to have been associated with the building of the Taj Mahal. Records show that in its original form, the pavilions, gardens and palaces of the Red Fort were crafted with Fatehpur Sikri sandstone, the finest Makrana marble, Allepo glass, and a range of semi-precious stones, gold, and silver from all over the trade centres of the Mughal empire. They were built in perfect proportion and detail, with the same quality of refinement as the Taj Mahal still shows. Shah Jahan moved between his Forts in different cities, but the Red Fort came to be his favourite abode. Though his successor, Aurangzeb, did not live in the Fort after the initial years of his reign; and neither did Aurangzeb’s son, practically all the Mughal rulers after them chose to stay in the Red Fort.

Thus, as the seat of the Empire, and as the Mughal rulers' favoured residence, the Red Fort enjoyed a huge reputation. It not only set the trend for architecture all over the Indian sub-continent, but also attracted invaders during its long and chequered history. These attacks culminated in the British assault of 1857 — which was different from all the previous attacks, because the British did not just loot and leave; they looted and stayed on. After exiling the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar from Delhi, and hanging or shooting most of his descendants, the British erased all traces of the earlier way of life, by large-scale demolition of the architecture of Shahjahanabad — and of its Fort. The pioneering British historian-explorer James Fergusson called it ‘a fearful piece of vandalism’ to ‘the most magnificent palace in the East—perhaps in the World’. 

After this vandalism, the British stamped their presence in this famed palace of the Mughals through their own version of architecture. To better convey the extent to how they transformed the Fort, I have darkened the open spaces in these two maps of the Fort — from just before and after the demolition. You can see from these how the Fort has been converted into practically an empty shell after the British took over. Let us also refer to some drawings a little before the British appropriation of the Fort, some of which were commissioned by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the chief representative of the British Governor-General at the Mughal court in Delhi from 1835-53. Thus, these drawings date from the time when the later rulers — whose power and resources, we know, were greatly reduced — lived in the Fort with their families and entourages. The interior of the Red Fort is very different from what we see today. It is complete, populated, and pulsating with life and activity, even if it is run-down in parts. And if we consider some other British accounts from this time, spanning two ends of the social spectrum as it were: the diary of Sir Metcalfe’s daughter, Lady Emily Bailey in 1848; and the memoirs of the marauding soldiers who roamed the Fort soon after the takeover of Delhi in 1857, we find they describe ’the vast size of this castellated palace’, how they ‘wandered through its courts’;  of how ‘it was quite a form in itself’, and of its ‘sublimely beautiful buildings intermixed with gardens.’

So, evidently, before the destruction and conversion that followed 1857, the Red Fort still retained much of its fame as well as the power of its design. What was this design? How did it manage to survive even the change in fortunes of its later inhabitants, who we are told were such reduced versions of the earlier great Mughals?

  1. Well, this design was made up of many different kinds of interlinked buildings, spaces and functions ― almost like a city, in the same format as earlier forts established by the Mughals. But, it was also different from these earlier forts. While these were amalgamations of various styles and modes of construction built over the reigns of different rulers, the Red Fort was the only urban Mughal palace complex to be built at one go, at the same time as its supporting city. Its design could thus improve upon all the other issues faced in the older Forts — of overcrowding, of danger of erosion of the river-bank, of problems in movement within and around the Fort. By an intelligent site-location, and by creating separate areas, connected by a formal sequence of grand streets, walled gardens, and open courtyards, the Fort succeeded in creating an atmosphere reflective of a powerful emperor, while also retaining many areas away from the public gaze, with sufficient privacy for multiple functions. And the residential and other buildings of the emperor were a series of different pavilions for different functions, linked by screened courtyards and gardens.

  1. What this meant was that the private areas were not visible from the ceremonial parts of the Fort. Also, because of the fact that it had so many gardens and forecourts, when some of these open spaces were taken over for less impressive buildings during the reigns of the later Mughals, it did not affect the general impression of vastness and grandeur of the Fort. And even when individual buildings in the Fort were looted later on by the Persians, Afghans, Marathas, etc. the overall procession of one forecourt after another leading up to the different palace-pavilions, still added up to a grand effect. 

  1. The design of the Fort accommodated multiple kinds of uses and users, even when Shah Jahan was ruling. It was not only a residence of the emperor and ladies of his household, but it also efficiently housed soldiers, maids, and craftspeople who worked within the Fort, — while being a showpiece of the Mughal empire, a recreational space, an administrative centre. The intricate configurations of its pavilions, courts of justice, imperial gardens, halls of audience, kitchens, stables, etc. made it something like a combination of Rashtrapati Bhawan, North and South Block, Parliament House, Supreme Court, Secretariat, cantonment, and Crafts Museum! And all these functions were planned such that each was part of a formal larger plan, but yet retained its individuality.  


So, what can we learn from the Red Fort’s design? 

The planning and detailing of the Red Fort — which made it not just an epitome of urban architectural patronage in Shah Jahan’s reign, but also one of the finest examples of planning, building, and living — have important lessons for us, both as designers and clients.

Firstly, the design of the Fort demonstrates how many activities can be accommodated within a relatively limited area without intruding upon each other. Despite being the residence and the prized patronage of the richest ruler in the medieval world, the Fort did not just function as the residence of a monarch. It was socially inclusive and created opportunities for economic and cultural interaction. Visitors-great and small, from within the city and beyond the boundaries of the empire — kings, noblemen, petitioners, soldiers, ambassadors, craftsmen, weavers, even the poorest of the poor residents, all came regularly to the Fort, or worked within it.

Secondly, the Fort’s design shows how we can be ecologically considerate. The different spaces and buildings within it were planned so that there was no unnecessary wastage of resources. Instead of the high-maintenance lawns that pass for gardens today, the vast gardens in and around the Fort were essentially orchards. They worked as productive areas as well as places of pleasure, entertainment and repose; they moderated the micro-climate, and they used the optimum amount of precious water. Similarly, water in the fountains that cooled and decorated the Fort’s pavilions, gardens, and imperial bathing chambers, was recycled for irrigation, or for watering animals. The palaces of the Emperor and his family were single-storeyed pavilions, not conventional huge towering vertical complexes. Their imperial status was signalled by the quality of their proportions, materials and detailing; as well as the series of grand entrance sequences that led up to them. Different pavilions were connected to each other through colonnades, verandahs and courts. This gave flexibility in them being used at different times for interchangeable functions. All its forecourts and gateways were also multifunctional — they could be used for people to gather, for administrative work, for court ceremonial, as well as circulation spaces. 

Thirdly, the Fort’s design as a development of the traditional indigenous courtyard typology, seamlessly integrated built and open areas; this shows how utilisation of space can be maximised while keeping construction to the minimum amount. As the Fort’s original design shows, the open spaces in it are far greater than the number of built structures. The built structures and open spaces were located and configured based on an interlinked and sophisticated system of geometry, as well as a system of use. Awnings, qanats, and water-channels in verandahs, walls, arcades, and pavilions shaded and enclosed open space so that it could be used comfortably in all seasons.

And finally, the Fort demonstrates how high art and design may be used for spatial and functional benefits. Each of its components ―- whether the form or detail of its gardens, pavilions, forecourts, or colonnades was useful and beautiful; their form, structure and decoration could not be separated from each other.


This leads us to the question of how the Fort should be conserved today. Indeed, since the British broke up so much of the Red Fort, and if practically nothing of it exists on ground, should it be conserved at all?

The answer to the question of why it should be conserved, lies in the fact that we can all learn so much from even the little that remains of the Fort — as I did. As to how it should be conserved, well, the official custodians of the Fort, the ASI follow a programme of conservation. But, this programme in effect, continues the British template. As we saw, the British not only removed or misused the Fort’s original Mughal structures, they also isolated and separated the Fort from its city. And even when they conserved and restored part of the Fort, they concentrated on just some of the few remaining Mughal buildings. Their prime objectives in doing so, were to use these few parts of the Fort as exotic backdrops to stage ceremonial shows or political events. There was no serious or sustained attempt to convey the original qualities or functions of the Fort, or restore the form of its open spaces: whether the gardens, (which they interpreted as swathes of lawns instead of reinstating them as orchards); or the formal geometrical forecourts and streets, which they kept undefined and amorphous.

This is precisely the same approach today. The Fort is separated from the area around — even its contemporary city of Shahjahanabad — by fences, roads, water-guzzling lawns, dreary municipal parks, gates and officialdom. Many of the few remaining Mughal buildings in it are in a state of neglect and decay. Some parts of the Fort continue to be used for staged spectacles, but there is no attempt to communicate either the volume or plantation or scale of the original architecture — or to bring back their function as social spaces open to the people of Shahjahanabad and Delhi.

While many different layers of history have left their mark on the Fort, making it of great historical interest, the reason for the Fort to be designated a World-Heritage site stems from its unique original design. It is clear that any conservation attempt should aim to communicate this design. Here, it is important to state that the design of the Red Fort depended as much on the treatment and form of its open spaces and landscaping, as on its buildings. Thus, the interpretation and presentation of these spaces and their components — courtyards, colonnades, gardens, water channels — is as important as that of the buildings they enclosed.

Let us also remind ourselves that the Red Fort has lived through an equivalent of around 15 human generations; that only about 10% of its unique original form and detail exists; and that records of this form are few and far-between. So, how is it possible to communicate its original design and its cultural, architectural, and artistic value? We can look at the example of another city, destroyed, resettled and remade time and again: to which Delhi has often been compared as ‘the Rome of Asia’. One could equally call Rome, ‘the Delhi of Europe’. Many historical parts of Rome do not exist anymore. Yet one can still comprehend what their scale was, and experience some part of their original form, even when there is no building left above ground, through glimpses of their foundations and a sense of their overall extent.

There are other ways too, of conveying how the original appearance of the Fort may have been: through adequate and authentic 3-D and 2-D information explaining the unique design and life-cycle of the Fort; through reinstating its cultural, architectural and artistic attributes; through restoring the same qualities of inclusiveness, of concern for the environment and for material and human resources that Shah Jahan and his builders had; through promoting the very crafts and construction skills that made the creation of the Fort possible. So that the Red Fort remains the Qila-e Mubarak, and truly continues to be blessed — and a blessing for all of us. 

1 comment:

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