January 13, 2012

Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, New Delhi

Located on the renowned Chandni Chowk street under the shadow of the ethereally majestic Red Fort, Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, one of the most revered Sikh shrines in the city, was built in remembrance of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth of the ten Sikh Gurus (spiritual masters). Its copper-plated, golden gleaming onion domes and towering Nishan Sahib were what attracted my friend Nikhil and me to visit this historical Sikh pilgrimage while on our way to the expansive Red Fort complex – and surprisingly, we experienced tranquility and spiritual calmness to such a degree in here that we preferred being here over being at the magnificent fortress, which we visited later. The Gurudwara, much like the rest of Chandni Chowk, remains crowded at all times of the day – but the people here are more ordered, intent on their own being instead of disturbing or judging others and seeking spiritual and mental peace without any shoving, pushing or rushing through – in fact, as long as we weren’t disturbing anyone, nobody seemed to mind in the slightest our going around and photographing the proceedings without bothering to pray ourselves or even sit in the carpeted shrine a little while.

Shining like a beacon - Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib

To begin with, here's the history of the place – Guru Tegh Bahadur ("Mighty of the Sword") was born Tyag Mal in the holy city of Amritsar in the year 1621. After he showed unmatched valor against the mighty imperial armies of the Mughal Dynasty (ruled AD 1526-1857), his father Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, bestowed him with the title “Tegh Bahadur”. Following his father’s demise and his own ascension to the ultimate seat of Sikh religio-spiritual and political power, he continued with the unrelenting rebellion against the terrible atrocities committed towards non-Muslims by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707) who fervently wished to convert India to an Islamic state. He was on a missionary tour in Bengal and Assam when he heard that the Emperor, continuing with his intensive efforts to compel Hindus to convert to Islam, had turned his attention towards Brahmins, the custodians of Hindu faith, and begun persecuting and torturing them under the assumption that if they embraced Islam, the rest of the Hindus, under sustained pressure from the state, would soon follow suit. Iftekhar Khan, the Governor of Kashmir, began vigorously executing this horrific policy since Kashmiri Brahmins are considered amongst the most learned and spiritually inclined. Prominent Hindu warlords like the Maratha leader Shivaji and Rajput vassals of Aurangzeb expressed their helplessness in the matter, and legend goes that the terrified Brahmins convened at the renowned Amarnath shrine to pray and discuss about this calamity that had befallen their faith when Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction and the presiding deity of Amarnath, appeared to them in their dreams and ordered them to seek Guru Tegh Bahadur. 500 Brahmins, under the leadership of Pandit Kripa Ram of Kashmir, met the Guru at Anandpur (Punjab). Moved by their woe, the Guru had a challenge proclaimed that if the Emperor could succeed in converting him to Islam, all Hindu Brahmins and their followers would accept his dictates too, but if he failed to do so he must stop this appalling persecution and torture. The Guru then proceeded towards Delhi but was arrested enroute and brought to the royal court as a prisoner. The year was 1675 and the official (misguided) explanation for the arrest was that his armed accomplices had wreaked havoc in the province of Punjab through acts of dacoity and pillage and he was also nefariously involved in converting Muslims to Sikhism. Despite incessant torture and humiliation administered, the Emperor, who perceived the Guru’s growing popularity a threat to his own sovereign standing, failed to convince him to convert to Islam and, as a last resort at persuasion, had his foremost disciples (who were bluntly outspoken in public condemnation of the former’s and his Governors’ misdeeds) arrested and imprisoned at the jail ("Kotwali") that existed at the spot where the Gurudwara exists today. The disciples too were tortured in front of the Guru’s eyes – Bhai Dayala was tied and thrown into a large cauldron of fiercely boiling oil and burned till his mortal remains were reduced to a block of cinder, Bhai Mati Das was slowly sawn alive in two and Bhai Sati Das was hacked to pieces – each of them expressed the last wish of being allowed to face their adored Guru while they were being tortured and died courageously with Sikh hymns on their lips.

A closer view

The sight of the heroic martyrdom of his disciples did not disturb the Guru's mind in the least and he continued to refuse to convert in the face of death. Frustrated in his heinous efforts, the Emperor eventually had him beheaded on November 11th, 1675, in the presence of a large crowd under a Banyan tree adjacent the kotwali. Immediately upon the Guru’s execution, the city was shrouded in a fierce dust storm and everyone, including the Emperor and his administrators, had to return indoors. Before the body could be quartered and exposed for public view, Lakhi Shah Vanjara, one of the Guru’s disciples, stole it under the cover of darkness and took it to his home which he set alight to cremate the body – a small shrine was built at the spot to commemorate the event. Another follower Bhai Jaita (later Jeevan Singh) took the severed head (“Sis” in Hindi/Punjabi) to the Guru’s family at Anandpur where it was cremated by Gobind Rai, the Guru's anguished young son and successor. Guru Gobind Singh became the tenth and last Sikh Guru and commissioned another Gurudwara, also christened Guudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, at Anandpur where he cremated his father's head. Obliged by the Guru’s sacrifices, Hindu Brahmins posthumously entitled him “Hind di Chaddar” (“The Shield of India”).

When the Sikh military leader Baghel Singh defeated Mughal forces and overran Delhi in AD 1783, he ordered construction of several Gurudwaras including Sis Ganj Sahib in Chandni Chowk at the venerated spot where the tree under which the revered Guru was beheaded grew and Rakab Ganj Sahib where Lakhi Shah’s house once existed and the Guru’s body was cremated. It is interesting to note that Baba Baghel Singh was such a formidable adversary that he performed the ultimate act of political defiance by building Gurudwara Sis Ganj in the immediate vicinity of Red Fort, the seat of Mughal sovereignty and military authority from where the tyrant Emperor Aurangzeb had ordered the arrest and torture of Guru Tegh Bahadur (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort). The present structure of the Gurudwara was added in 1930 and its majestic gold domes were added in later years. The trunk of the Banyan tree is still preserved in the shrine of the Gurudwara (more on that later).

Before entering the premises, one is required to remove footwear, wash their feet and also cover their head with a scarf as a mark of respect for the martyred Guru. An open chamber on the ground level is where benches are provided for people to sit and remove their shoes which can then be deposited at one of the numerous counters manned voluntarily by faithful devotees who consider it their duty and part of pilgrimage to take care of visitors and their comforts. A small shrine is provided adjacent to this chamber where exists a tableau of the original well where the Guru used to bath during his period of imprisonment; water in the taps used for ritualistic washing comes from the same source that supplies the well its water and is therefore considered hallowed and drunk by many of the pious visitors. Small, brilliantly colorful scarves are also provided prior to entering the prayer chamber to visitors who aren’t carrying handkerchiefs/scarves/stoles of their own to cover their heads (the same are to be returned at the time of exiting the premises).

A replica of the well that existed at the site when Guru Tegh Bahadur was imprisoned here

One has to climb a staircase, the base of which is continuously wetted by clear water to clean polluting dirt off one’s feet, along the side of this ground floor chamber to reach the prayer chamber as well as the associated buildings including the massive community kitchen, Gurudwara administration offices and donation counters located on the expansive first floor. The prayer chamber is a beautiful, vast rectangular hall housing along one of its shorter sides a gold pavilion under which has been reverentially placed a copy of Guru Granth Sahib, the venerated holy book of Sikhs. Surrounded by flower vases and shadowed by a large cloth canopy hung from the roof, the shrine is a picture of vibrant magnificence and serenity. A priest continuously waves a white fan over the book while a group of old singers seated along one side near the base of the pedestal sings “Gurbani” (“Guru’s sermons” – mesmerizing religious hymns), throughout the day. The entire proceedings are recorded and live telecast throughout the country on dedicated channels and internet feeds. The expensive gold pavilion is located on the immediate location where the Guru was beheaded (referred to as “Shahidi Sthan” (“Site of Martyrdom”)) and staircases behind it lead to a slightly lower level shrine, also entirely composed of gold but separated from the queues of devotees prostrating before it by a glass wall, where the said remains of the Banyan tree, photos of the Guru and several daily-use accessories which he is said to have used in his lifetime have been placed.

The shrine. Notice the golden glow emanating from the glass window (framed in the marble platform) of the shrine underneath. 

Near the exit staircase, a plate full of "Karah Prasad" – steaming, sumptuous halwa (sticky, sweet confectionery made from wheat flour, sugar and condensed butter) – is distributed to every visitor free of cost. In my humble opinion, the halwa served here is possibly the most delicious in the entire city! Instead of exiting from this side to the street level, one can retrace one’s steps to the large community kitchen building also located adjacent to the Gurudwara on the first floor where food ("Langar") is served to all who wish to partake of it. Visitors in the kitchen sit together on the ground irrespective of any distinctions of faith, socio-economic status, gender or beliefs – this is a very important tenet in the functioning of Gurudwaras and the way of life of devout Sikhs since the religion categorically opposes any and every form of discrimination and exclusion and firmly stresses upon the unambiguous equality of all human beings. Philanthropic men and women donate in cash and kind for the running of these kitchens while others voluntarily perform community service by helping the Gurudwara perform the more mundane tasks (considered to be spiritually more rewarding) like peeling vegetables, cooking and serving the food and clearing and cleaning of utensils. One doesn’t need prior permission to undertake such activities and can show up at the kitchen at any time of the day and offer services to the people already working there. Charitable monetary contributions for running the kitchen can also be deposited at a counter nearby.

A fountain, painted brilliant blue but not functional at present, was unveiled as a traffic square immediately opposite the Gurudwara – christened Bhai Mati Das Chowk ("square"), it commemorates the sacrifices of the brothers Mati Das and Sati Das. The unending surge of traffic and humanity makes photographing the square nearly impossible at almost all times of the day except perhaps early morning. Nearby also stands a large museum dedicated to the Guru and his followers and depicting scenes from their lives and Sikh history. The Gurudwara and the museum open-heartedly welcome visitors from all walks of life and from all religious sects on all days.

Bhai Mati Das Chowk opposite the Gurudwara. On the right is the Sikh Museum Building (Photo Courtesy - Flickriver.com/KhalsaSoulja)

Location: Chandni Chowk, near Red Fort
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
How to reach: Walk from the metro station. Alternately, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city for Chandni Chowk/Red Fort.
Open: Everyday, early morning to late night
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Suggestions: The Gurudwara being a site of worship, it is advisable to be dressed modestly. All visitors are required to remove their footwear and cover their heads with handkerchief/shawl/scarf before entering the sanctum.
Other monuments/landmarks in the neighborhood - 
Suggested reading - Wikipedia.org - Guru Tegh Bahadur

January 03, 2012

Sabz Burj, New Delhi

“A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret, that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”
– Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

Although only historians, heritage-enthusiasts and conservationists are concerned about the existence and condition of the enchanting Sabz Burj ("Green Tower"), the unusual medieval structure looms over millions of people who either travel or had on an occasion traveled on the ever-crowded arterial Mathura Road where it gracefully protrudes in the middle of a traffic roundabout, it's striking presence in so public a space forcing passer-bys and eager tourists to grant it a second look and admire it with appreciation and amazement. Its history and character of course are also a mix of interesting and crazy –
  1. Barring the name, the enthralling monument is not green at all! In fact, the vividly-colored dome of the structure is actually blue!
  2. Nobody knows – or bothers to guess – what purpose did it serve – it could have been a mausoleum, or a pleasure pavilion, or even served a functional purpose, but not a fragment of its history is known.
  3.  And although it's not known why it was actually built, what we do know is that it was utilized in several unimaginable capacities (including as a funky police station for a few years during British reign!) that were totally alien to its original purposes.
And despite all this, the beautiful tower has miserably garnered much less popularity than it ideally should have.

Secretive - The Sabz Burj

Locally referred to as "Neeli Chattri" ("Blue umbrella") and often confused with the Nila Gumbad ("Blue-domed tower") monument that exists a few miles away (refer Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad), the octagonal structure is medium in height, its deep blue dome glistens in the sunlight and even brings one to consider it a far-off cousin of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) of Istanbul. Technically, it is "Baghdadi" in nature, more influenced by Central Asian than Indo-Islamic architecture and consists of alternating wide and narrow sides – each side possessing an arched recess, though entrances have been built only along the wider sides and the narrower ones are ornamented with incised plaster and paint patterns. It is said that no two recesses are decorated alike, but I could not verify the same as entry to the grassy circle that surrounds the tower is prohibited – high railings surround it and a guard, who refuses to open up saying he is not allowed to, is always present on duty inside (Sigh! Another example of a monument snatched from the public!) The double dome rests on a very high drum (base) – in fact, the tower is one of the very first examples of the use of double-dome in Delhi (the first recorded construction of double-dome in India is in Kashmir – the tomb built by Zain-ul-Abidin for his mother in AD 1465). Originally it possessed vibrant green tiles covering its dome and drum, thus lending it its characteristic name "Sabz Burj", but a restoration fiasco by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) witnessed it ending up with brilliant blue tiles, although one can still spot the remnants of green, yellow and blue tiles in varied patterns on the drum.

The structure was supposedly built between AD 1530-50, though it is not known who commissioned it. Most historians now state with a fair degree of certainty that it could also have been built somewhere in early 15th century, 100 years before its accepted period of construction. 6 years after its last possible window of construction, Hamida Begum initiated the construction of a magnificent tomb for her deceased husband Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56) close to Sabz Burj and eternally changed the nature of the surrounding area as well as Indian architecture – today the entire area is classified under Humayun's Tomb Complex, a World Heritage Site that boasts of several hundred graves, tombs and mosques (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex ).

Exquisite - Patterns on one of the recessed niches (Photo courtesy - Igougo.com/Phileasfogg)

This mysterious and beautiful piece of architecture is there for enthusiasts to adore day and night and happens to be one of those few structures that make me fall in love with Delhi again and again on every encounter. Throughout the day, a barrage of cars, autos and buses surrounds it, after all it stands on the intersection of two of the busiest arterial roads of Delhi – Mathura Road and Lodi Road. Roads branch off on either side of it, the first leading to Humayun's Tomb complex and the other to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). Chemical treatment a few years back ensured that the structure retained its cream-pink finish. More recently, it was restored as part of the monumental urban makeover for the Commonwealth Games 2010 that were held in Delhi. Illumination was also appended on the roundabout around the tower to make it more popular among tourists and to promote night travel.

Be wary of the traffic!

Location: Intersection of Mathura Road and Lodi Road, near Humayun's Tomb complex
Nearest Bus Stop: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, also about 2 kilometers away
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium Station, though it is approximately 2 kilometers away.
How to reach: Buses and metro are available from different parts of the city. Walk/avail an auto from the metro/railway station.
Entrance: Prohibited
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Other monuments located in the immediate vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Atgah Khan's Tomb 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Chausath Khamba 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex
  7. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Road - Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium Trail 
  8. Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad
Suggested Reading - 

Khooni Darwaza, Delhi

The notorious Khooni Darwaza ("Bloodied Gateway"), the most macabre of all gates of medieval Delhi has throughout its history seen enough bloodshed and violence to even paint its tears red and thus be known by its alternate nomenclature "Lal Darwaza" ("Red Gateway"). Situated opposite the entrance to Feroz Shah Kotla, the sixth city of Delhi, in the middle of a traffic divider, the gate is an impressive structure. Unlike other gateways, it has never been a victim of encroachment nor has a vandalizing hand ever been laid on it. Thus it stands, preserved almost in its original condition, except for the grilles that prevent entry to its interiors and upper floors (a relatively recent modification though). The majestic double-storied structure was once part of the several gates that Sher Shah Suri (ruled AD 1540-45) built into the wall he built for the protection of his city Shergarh that was headquartered at the Old Fort of Delhi – after defeating and chasing away the Mughal emperor Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56), Sher Shah began ruling from the latter's seat in Old Fort and added several layers of defenses to the city to protect it from a rebuttal from the disgraced Humayun (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). A mighty wall enclosed the entire city, and though no traces of the wall have ever been discovered, its size and girth could be imagined by the majestic gates that punctuated it. During Sher Shah's time, the gates were known by the names of the cities they faced and it is debated whether Khooni Darwaza is the Kabuli Darwaza through which the caravans bound for Afghanistan passed – there are no records to indicate the same but it has been argued time and again given the absence of a Kabuli Darwaza which is supposed to exist somewhere near this same location (it could also have been destroyed later on in one of the numerous battles of Delhi or when Emperors dismantled entire cities, including gateways and bastions, to provide construction material for new strongholds).

The gate is 15.5 m high and constructed using strictly local materials, most prominently the hard Delhi quartzite stone; the window frames are composed of red sandstone. There exist three separate flights of stairs leading to different levels of the gate.

A gateway hidden amidst the foliage

The structure derives its popular name because of the numerous bloodbaths committed in its premises. Following Emperor Akbar's (ruled AD 1556-1605) demise, his son Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-28) ordered the killing of two of the sons of his step-brother Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan here on the charges of being traitors since they sided with the Emperor's elder brother Prince Khusrau during the brutal war of succession. Their bodies were left here to rot and be eaten by birds of prey. Khan-i-Khanan himself was a renowned noble in Emperor Akbar's court and went by the single name "Rahim" when composing couplets (yes! The same guy whose "Rahim ke Dohe" are still taught in schools in India). He himself was opposed to the idea of Jahangir's ascension to the throne of Delhi, but perhaps later reconciled with the new emperor since his other sons have been known to be powerful generals in Jahangir's army and assisted him in various military campaigns. Khan-i-Khanan himself was buried in a mausoleum he commissioned for his wife near the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and can be read about here – Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb.

In AD 1658, Emperor Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1658-1707), after he ousted his father Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) from the throne of Delhi and executed all his brothers, had the head of his elder brother Dara Shukoh hung at this gate. Dara Shukoh's body is buried in the crypt underneath Humayun's tomb in an unmarked grave while the head was presented to the aggrieved Shahjahan as a gift from Aurangzeb before being displayed very prominently at this blood-laden gateway. It is not clear if the head was also later buried with the body or was disposed off in some other disrespectful, gruesome manner – this has given rise to the fantastical but inconclusive speculation that a grave on the terrace of Humayun's massive mausoleum that flaunts a cleave in its marble panels over the portion where the head must be resting belongs to Dara (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex).

The gate is supposed to have seen bloodshed in 1739 AD when Delhi was ransacked by Sultan Nadir Shah of Persia. However, this is disputed – according to some sources, the massacre occurred at another gate of the same name located in the Dariba locality of Chandni Chowk (which is more likely since much of the killing was concentrated around old Delhi, Nadir Shah himself commanding from the Red Fort and the Sunehri Masjid in Chandni Chowk). A complete history of the invasion and the subsequent bloodbath has been recounted here – Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid.

On September 22, 1857, as a retaliation to the Sepoy Mutiny that in itself was a retaliation against the practices of the British East India "trading" Company, Major Hodson murdered outside this gate Mirza Mughal, Mirza Khizr and Mirza Abu Bakr, respectively the sons and grandson of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah "Zafar" (ruled nominally AD 1837-57). The princes fought vehemently along with the mutineers but were overpowered and arrested. Hodson was escorting them to his superiors but panicked on seeing a 3000-strong crowd following them – he asked them to strip their garments in order to prove how powerless they were but even then when the crowd did not thin, he shot them through the head assuming the crowd was there to free them – such was the dejection and disenchantment of the population that, to Hodson's surprise, not a person stirred or protested against the cold-blooded killing. He then went on to kill all the remaining members of the royal family under his arrest. Like at present, the gateway was merely limited to an existence as an archway during the revolt of 1857 and not a gate in its traditional sense since Shahjahan had dismantled most of the walls to be reused as construction material while raising his majestic capital Shahjanabad that is hailed as the pinnacle of Mughal architecture.

The gateway again saw bloodshed during the riots of 1947 when the British decided to partition India into two sovereign states. Many refugees were murdered here while they were proceeding towards the camp established in Old Fort.

A few stories also refer to the place being used as an execution site by Sher Shah since it was on the outskirts of the city. The heads of those executed were displayed here as a fair warning to future criminals and traitors and conjecture is that the gate came to be known as Khooni Darwaza since then. There is however no record that mentions if Sher Shah executed people here, nor is the gate ever mentioned by its present name before the events of 1857.

The plaque installed by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)

The gateway is said to be haunted because of the gory incidents connected with it. Folklore is that it is in the realm of spirits and djinns and blood stains can still often be observed appearing on its walls. Spirits of the slain Mughal princes are also said to apparition here regularly. Legend also has that blood drips from the ceiling during monsoons. Hence the name Lal Darwaza, though there are at least two other gateways known by the same name – interestingly, like the Khooni Darwaza, one of them too was commissioned by Sher Shah Suri as his city's frontier entrance and can still be observed in a much better preserved condition immediately opposite the Old Fort entrance.

Found in the undergrowth

The gateway is a protected monument under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It lies hidden among trees with a lone watchman sitting guard. Visitor entry to the interiors is prohibited by means of grilles and iron gates. One would not want to be there anyway, what if the blood starts dripping when one gazes up at the ceiling??

Location: Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, about 2 km from Daryaganj
Nearest Metro Station: New Delhi
How to Reach: Avail metro/local buses till Red Fort/old Delhi and take an auto from there on to reach Feroz Shah Kotla. The gateway is immediately opposite the Kotla ruins. The metro station is quite a walk from there and one has to take an auto from there too.
Entrance Fee: Entry prohibited
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Delhi Zoo
  2. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Old Fort
  6. Pixelated Memories - Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb
  7. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  8. Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid
Suggested reading - 

Red Fort, New Delhi

I felt this post needs to be worked up again. I now have better photos as well as details. Shall soon upload individual articles about the structures within the complex as well re-do this post. Kindly bear with me till then. Thanks!!

This was one place I wanted to see for an excruciatingly long time. Last I visited the Red Fort was with a school trip 10 years back. So I lapped up the chance when my college buddy Nikhil suggested visiting Chandni Chowk, which includes the Red Fort along with the surrounding labyrinths of bazaars & gullys & tombs of kings long gone by.

The Fort looks incredibly large, a walk around the outside from the Lahore Gate to the Delhi Gate took us an hour to complete, mostly because we had to stop so many times to photograph the beautiful walls of this octagonal fort. Not surprisingly, we enjoyed this going around more than being inside the fort complex itself. This was what many people missed, since they wanted to go inside the fort first.

Built during the reign of Shah Jahan in the walled city of Old Delhi , the Red Fort has been a mute witness to innumerable conspiracies, scandals, battles... It served as the residence of the Mughal Emperors & the capital of the Mughals until 1857.

The Red Fort was the palace for Shah Jahan's new capital, Shahjahanabad, the seventh city in the Delhi site. Of the city's fourteen gates, the important ones are the Mori, Lahori, Ajmeri, Turkman, Kashmiri and Delhi gates, some of which have already been demolished.

The Red Fort

Shahjahan started construction of the massive fort in 1638 and work was completed in 1648. The fort contains many features including halls of public and private audience, marble palaces, a mosque and elaborately designed gardens. Even today, the fort remains an impressive testimony to Mughal grandeur, despite being attacked by the Persian Emperor Nadir Shah in 1739 and by the British soldiers during the war of independence in 1857.

It represented the pinnacle of Mughal palace-fort building, and symbolized political and economic power. It was also perhaps the most extravagant and sophisticated theatre ever built for daily performances of one of the world's most dazzlingly grand courts. But its glory was short-lived; as the Mughal Empire waned, so did the Fort. Later Emperors abused the fine buildings, raiders snatched its treasures, marauders wrecked its buildings and finally the British, pulled down the greater part. Even this century, what remains has been largely ignored, unappreciated and uncared for.

The fort walls are intercepted by many bastions & gates

The Red Fort was originally referred to as "Qila-i-Mubarak" (the blessed fort), because it was the residence of the royal family. The layout of the Red Fort was organised to retain and integrate this site with the Salimgarh Fort.

View of the entrance to Salimgarh Fort

Salimgarh Fort - Close up of wall motif

Many important elements were added on after the fort's construction by Emperor Shahjahan. Important physical changes were carried out in the overall settings of the site after the Indian Mutiny in 1857. During the British period the Fort was mainly used as a cantonment and even after Independence, a significant part of the Fort remained under the control of the Indian Army until the year 2003.

The fort lies along the Yamuna River, which fed the moats that surround most of the wall. The wall at its north-eastern corner is adjacent to the Salimgarh Fort, a defence built by Islam Shah Suri in 1546.

The last Mughal emperor to occupy the fort was Bahadur Shah II "Zafar". Despite being the seat of Mughal power and its defensive capabilities, the Red Fort was not defended during the 1857 uprising against the British. After the failure of the 1857 rebellion, Zafar left the fort on 17 September. He returned to Red Fort as a prisoner of the British & was exiled on 7 October.

The walls of the Red Fort stretch over 2.5 km in length with a height that varies between 16 metres and 33 meters cascading along the banks of the Yamuna River and surrounded by a canal or trench that was once fed by the River. These aspects act as a formidable structure against unwarranted attacks from the enemies.  On the outside, you can still see the moat that was originally connected with the Yamuna River.

The Red Fort showcases the very high level of art form and ornamental work. The art work in the Fort is a synthesis of Persian, European and Indian. The walls of the fort are smoothly dressed, articulated by heavy string-courses along the upper section. They open at two major gates, the Delhi and the Lahore gates. There are 15 distinct structures within the fort with the first being the Lahore Gate and the last one the Moti Masjid.

View at the Delhi Gate

Entrance to the fort is through the imposing Lahore Gate, which takes its name from the fact that it faces Lahore, now in Pakistan.

The main entrance opens on to the Chatta Chowk, a covered street flanked with arched cells that used to house Delhi's most talented jewellers, carpet makers, weavers and goldsmiths. This arcade was also known as the Meena Bazaar, the shopping centre for the ladies of the court. Today, the Chowk lies only on the lower arcades selling only artificial souvenirs. This Chowk leads to a space within the Red Fort where the western side was used for military functions and the eastern side houses beautiful Palaces.

Arches of the Chhatta Chowk

Just beyond the Chhata Chowk is the heart of the fort called Naubat Khana or the Drum House, which earlier formed part of a square enclosure with apartments for the umrah (Nobles) on duty.

Naubat Khana - Front view

The musicians used to play for the emperor from the Naubat Khana and the arrival of princes and royalty was heralded from here. This place was also known as the 'Hathi Pol' or 'Elephant Pole' as all commoners except the Royalties had to use only this place to dismount from the elephants. The first floor of this building has been converted into a 'War Memorial Museum' that houses a huge collection of armouries used by the Mughal Emperors.

Naubat Khana - Back view

Floral engravings on the Naubat Khana

The Fort also houses the Diwan-i-Am or the Hall of Public Audiences where the Emperor would sit and hear complaints of the common folks. His alcove in the wall was marble-paneled and was set with precious stones, many of which were looted after the mutiny of 1857. The columns were painted in gold and there was a gold and silver railing separating the throne from the public.

The Diwan-i-Am

The Diwan-i-Khas is the hall of private audiences where the Emperor held private meetings. This hall is made of marble and its centre-piece used to be the Peacock Throne, which was carried away to Iran by Nadir Shah in 1739. Today, the Diwan-i-Khas is only a pale shadow of its original glory. The hall, with openings of engrailed arches on its sides consists of a rectangular central chamber surrounded by aisles of arches rising from piers. The lower parts of the piers are inlaid with floral designs, while the upper portions are gilded and painted. The four corners of its roof are surrounded by pillared chhatris.

The pavilions of the fort are connected by a continuous water channel, known as the Nahr-i-Behisht, or the "Stream of Paradise", that runs through the centre of each pavilion. The water is drawn from the river Yamuna, from a tower, the Shah Burj, at the north-eastern corner of the fort. The palace is designed as an imitation of paradise as it is described in the Koran. The planning of the palace is based on Islamic prototypes, but each pavilion reveals in its architectural elements the Hindu influences typical of Mughal building.

The other attractions within this monument are the Royal Baths or hammams, the Shah Burj, which used to be Shahjahan's private working area and the Moti Masjid or the Pearl Mosque, built by Aurangzeb for his personal use. It is a small, three-domed mosque carved in white marble, with a three-arched screen which steps down to the courtyard. The Rang Mahal or the "Palace of Colours" housed the Emperor's wives and mistresses. It holds a spectacular Lotus shaped fountain, made out of a single piece of marble

The Tasbih-Khana ('chamber for counting beads for private prayers') consists of three rooms, behind which is the Khwabgah ('sleeping-chamber'). On the northern screen of the former is a representation of the Scales of Justice, which are suspended over a crescent amidst stars and clouds. Adjoining the eastern wall of the Khwabgah is the octagonal Muthamman-Burj, from where the emperor appeared before his subjects every morning. A small balcony, which projects from the Burj, was added here in 1808 by Akbar Shah II, and it was from this balcony that King George V and Queen Mary appeared before the people of Delhi in December 1911.

Red Fort - a UNESCO World Heritage Monument

Each building in the Red Fort displays the hallmark of perfect taste and elegance. Built at the height of one of the most cultured courts the world has known, this is Mughal palace architecture at its most ambitious and sophisticated. Imagined in its original completeness, it would have easily outshone its contemporary European rival, Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, and it covered twice the area of the largest European palace, the Escorial.

The Red Fort is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Old Delhi, attracting thousands of visitors every year. The fort is also the site from which the Prime Minister of India addresses the nation on 15 August, the day India achieved independence from the British. It also happens to be the largest monument in Old Delhi.

View outside the Lahore Gate

Today none of the water features, which are extensive, contain water. Some of the buildings are in fairly good condition and have their decorative elements undisturbed. In others, the marble inlay flowers have been removed by looters and vandals. The mosque and hamam are closed to the public, though one can catch peeks through the glass windows or marble lattice work. There is also an archaeological museum and an Indian war memorial museum.

The fort complex is better viewed from the outside, the inside was boring & crowded, the palaces had nothing much to offer except the wall carvings & the ornamental motifs, & the Chhatta Chowk is highly overrated for souvenir shopping. Its too expensive & lacking in choice of traditional Indian wares available. A much more better option would be to buy detail-books from the Red Fort Souvenir Shop. All in all, the Red Fort is an amazing place to be for history-seekers & photography enthusiasts like me. More than anything else this fort has played an integral role in the history of my beloved Delhi & it is the place to be for every Delhiwallah.

Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
Open: Tuesday to Sunday, Monday closed
Timing: 10:00am - 4:00pm
Entry Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)
Sound & Light Show: 6 pm onwards in Hindi and English, Ticket: Rs. 80 (adults), Rs. 30 (children)