Thursday, April 18, 2024

Resilience and Sustainable Development: The Example of the Red Fort

Text and Images of the Talk delivered on 18 April 2024: 

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji


Good evening.

Since we have a paucity of time and since it is said, a picture is worth a 1000 words, I have chosen to share some pictures to explain my take on how tangible and intangible aspects of heritage can help us to develop resilience in sustainable ways — taking some cues from the Venice Charter of 1964.

I’ll do so by focusing on the specific example of the Red Fort of Shahjahanabad — an archival image of which is on the poster for the event today. Quite pertinently so, since the Fort is a national icon, apart from being an important symbol of our city and a world heritage site. This archival image also features in my book, which is a detailed analysis of the design principles of the Fort and its transformation through time — and leading from that, an examination of appropriate conservation approaches. Much of what I intend to say and show — very briefly, let me assure you — draws on the information and analysis in this book.

There are of course multiple meanings that may be associated with resilience, but in its essence, it is defined as ‘an ability to recover or regain form/position/shape after something difficult or bad has happened; or after being subjected to an external force’. Sustainable, as we know, means ‘a method of using a resource, so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.’

In the context of the Red Fort, there are very few visual records dating from the time of its establishment. But we do have references to it in multiple textual and visual sources, apart from primary data in the form of original surviving buildings, all of which help us to arrive at its original form and qualities. These are some records from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries that show us glimpses of its appearance and structure — at a time, let me add, when it had already been through significant internal transformations in rulership and society, as well as subject to external forces of plunder and assault.


However, from 1857 onwards, the damage and destruction that the Fort and the city suffered, was so devastating that they still have not recovered. These are photographs from 1857-58, barely 10 years after the time of the images I shared earlier in this talk. This destruction was followed by a complete appropriation and re-modelling of the Fort. And this can be clearly understood through these figure-ground drawings I’ve made, where I’ve filled the open spaces in black. These are based on records before and after 1857: the crucial turning point for the Fort and indeed for our country.

Even when tentative attempts at conservation of the Fort were made later in the 19th century by British officials, these were limited to just a few remaining original buildings. Additions were made by the British even though they ‘detracted from the buildings, their traditional settings, and their relationship with surroundings’ — as indeed, subsequent conservation efforts continue to do in contravention of the advice in the Venice Charter’.

This is an aerial photograph of the Fort with plans and locations of original surviving Mughal structures superimposed on it. We can see how the setting and scale detract from these heritage structures. And this plan shows quite clearly how the destroyed original spatial components of the Fort — that I have indicated as shaded areas — have been colonised and interrupted, post-British occupation. 

Photographs of the Fort today speak for themselves about the ill-conceived interventions and the ill-maintained original Mughal structures. They record the pressing need to incorporate appropriate maintenance, social inclusion and local needs, as well as to safeguard original buildings as ‘works of art’,  in keeping with the advice in the Venice charter; and to allow us ‘to maintain and use these vital resources, so that they are not depleted or permanently damaged’, in keeping with the definition of sustainability.

To end I would like to show two images. This is a part of the 1846 map of Shahjahanabad which illustrates the close relationship of the Fort with the river and the city; their great number of public and private gardens which were essentially orchards; their provision of many kinds of accessible and open social spaces, which included orchards and river banks. Above all, their connection and concern for the topography, hydrology, and ecology of Delhi. These are the factors that make for sustainable development. And these very factors allowed the Fort and the city to be resilient through two centuries — before British colonisation set into motion their forcible rejection.

The last image I have is of a ber tree, and some craftspeople. This was photographed two weeks ago, during a seminar organised by IGNCA, as part of the initiative of Atma Nirbhar Bharat Centre for Design housed in one of the British barracks at the Red Fort. This image, to me, highlights the way forward in integrating heritage perspectives for resilience and sustainable development. The provision of trees, particularly indigenous fruit trees, renders open space comfortable, accessible, equitable and fosters biodiversity. This is what we ought to follow as a rule, rather than the unsustainable and colonial concept of water-guzzling lawns or so-called ornamental trees/shrubs. 

The image also conveys the positive presence of craftspeople in shaping our tangible and intangible world. The craftsector can directly fulfil 9 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals: including Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities; Goal 12 : Responsible consumption and production. We must also remember that craftspeople and their skills were instrumental in making for us the World Heritage site of the Red Fort in the first place. Not just that, but also — as records show — the Fort functioned as the economic mainstay and centre of patronage for the best crafts of the country, as well as for the specific crafts of Shahjahanabad, from where people came daily to work, where they were frequently honoured and their products were displayed, celebrated and sold. These are aspects that can and ought to be brought back — most certainly in the Fort in keeping with its historic use, as well as other heritage sites — and also integrated into current ways and policies of developing contemporary habitats. Only such a perspective can help us deal with the difficult times ahead with resilience, especially in the face of climate change.


See in particular, Article 6 and 13 of the Venice Charter.

The Crafts-Sector which is directly linked to the conception, creation and continuation of tangible and intangible heritage, is especially crucila in achieving the UN SDGs 1: No poverty, 3: Good health and well-being; 5: Gender equality, 8: Decent work and economic growth; 9: Industry, innovation and infrastructure; 10: Reduced inequalities, 11; Sustainable cities and communities; 12 : Responsible consumption and production, 13: Climate action.

Image credits: 

The Oriental and India Office Collections, British Library, London

The Golden Calm, Memoirs of Emily, Lady Clive Bailey and her Father, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, Viking Press, New York 1980, ed. M.M.Kaye

The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, Oxford University Press, Delhi 2003

The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, Westland 2024

Anuradha Chaturvedi

Snehanshu Mukherjee

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