March 19, 2013

Naubat Khana and Indian War Memorial Museum, Red Fort complex, Delhi

This article is part of a series about Red Fort, Delhi. Refer Pixelated Memories – Red Fort complex for the composite post.


“There is ornamentation distributed over every portion, of gilt, coloured, and inlaid patterns in sinuous scrolls and serpentine lines accentuating that atmosphere of voluptuousness with which these buildings (within Red Fort) were so obviously associated. Within the traceried foliations on the walls, piers, and arches, conventional flowers were freely introduced, roses, poppies, lilies, and the like, for the Mughuls were flower worshippers, not content with those growing naturally in the gardens outside, but they craved for pictures of them always before their eyes.”
– Percy Brown, British art critic-scholar-historian-archaeologist,
“Indian Architecture, Volume II: Islamic Period”

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” (John Keats)

Conceived of glistening rose-red sandstone, lavishly glazed with coats of sparkling white shell-lime plaster and profusely embossed with unbelievably intricate floral representations, the last even more exquisite than the real and dexterously encrusted with an incredibly thin layer of glittering gold paint – despite its bewildering artistic and sculptural excellence, functionally the superlatively majestic “Naubat Khana”, or “Music Gallery” or “Drum House” as it has often been referred as, was to the matchlessly extravagant Mughals a trifling formal gatehouse, undoubtedly constructed to inspire wide-eyed awe for their unparalleled lavish grandeur, yet technically just a functional demarcation between the magnificent fortress-palace’s peripheries and its regal interior divisions.

The gargantuan Red Fort – “Qila-i-Mu’alla” – is unquestionably considered as the pinnacle of Mughal fortress construction, and the imposing double-storied Naubat Khana aka Naqqar Khana was tactically built at the complex’s entrance. All visitors to the exemplar court, except princes of royal blood, would here dismount from their elephants and proceed further to the emperor’s majestic presence on foot – thus “Hathi Pol”, the edifice’s alternate nomenclature (“hathi” being the Hindi equivalent of “elephant”). Notwithstanding their prominent position or battle-worthiness, nobody, not even illustrious ambassadors, influential ministers or formidable military generals, were exempt from the rule. Twin arcades of six lofty chambers each existed on either side of the dignified edifice and housed royal guards and men attached with the regular routine of helping visiting notables alight from their vehicles and assemble their convoys.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dresses of honor, conferred by the emperor on celebrated personages, were placed in smaller side-rooms (“toshkhana”), and were carried from there through the illustrious assembled crowds to the impressive royal courts (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Am and Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas).

Besides playing tuneful compositions five times a day at propitious hours, bands of accomplished musicians accommodated in the upper floors of the grand entrance would also play solemn music whenever the mighty sovereign arrived from, or was about to depart for, a tour of his extensive territories. Drummers would play their instruments to announce the arrival of princes and other esteemed dignitaries amidst a booming pronouncement of official honorifics and regal pretensions proclaimed by court attendants. Francois Bernier, the French physician-traveler-chronicler who traveled through, and extensively documented, the Mughal Empire in the years AD 1656-68, initially took intense unbearable dislike to the overwhelming music consisting of oboe and cymbals.

Soon after the formidable Emperor Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57) had envisioned the stunning fortress-palace as a glorious imitation of paradise on earth, the erstwhile unwavering revenue collection from far-flung provinces began to decline and the immense coffers of the sovereign treasury were even further strained by near-continuous wars and intrigues, so much so that the Emperor’s son and successor Aurangzeb Alamgir (reign AD 1657-1707) had to content himself with living life as an impoverished ascetic fulfilling his mortal requirements by sewing prayer caps and copying pages of the holy Quran that he then sold. Court patronage of music obviously had to be discontinued, the royal musician-composers were disbanded and the noble Naubat Khana, despite its enthralling ornamentation, was miserably transformed into a measly, uncared-for gateway which nonetheless fascinated visitors with its architectural opulence and the voluptuous flourishes of its decorative adornments.

...with a museum to vaunt

The history associated with the distinguished edifice has been notably sober, only intermittently taking the turn for gruesome brutality – it was within its exalted expanse that the emperors Jahandar Shah (reign AD 1712-13) and Farrukhsiyar (reign AD 1713-19) were murdered, the latter after having been first blinded. The privileges associated with the gorgeous edifice, especially its functional and prestigious importance, too transmuted into a fierce bone of contention between the despairingly destitute later Mughals and the incorrigibly conceited mutineers who prevailed upon the former to demurely participate in the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Here too were appallingly committed numerous barbaric atrocities and murders, and yet all these terrible tales from this much maligned long-distant and half-remembered past seem forgotten today, to only occasionally be borne on the fluttering wings of contemporaneous literary records and modern historical documentation.

“Along the edge of this tank (opposite Naqqar Khana), on the morning of 16th May 1857, were seated and were murdered the Christians who had been captured in the city, and chiefly in Daryaganj, during the five previous days – in number some fifty souls… One of the bitterest complaints of the last roi faindant of Delhi was that the mutinied soldiers used to ride through this gate, up to the Hall of Special Audience even, and walked about that hall with their shoes on, things which, he said plaintively, neither Nadir Shah nor Ahmad Shah, nor any British Governor-General (!) had ever done.”
– H.C. Fanshawe, 
British administrator and Commissioner of Delhi
“Delhi, Past and Present” (1902)


Of course, after the post-mutiny takeover of imperial Delhi, arrogant British soldiers would ride horseback till as far as the royal seraglio, and afterwards even proceed to demolish many of the opulent palaces, grandiose pleasure pavilions and functional edifices, including the immense arcades existential on either side of the Naqqar Khana, on frivolous accounts like being unsightly, unsanitary, or the space being required for strengthening the fortifications and raising monstrous military barracks!

The small ornamental tank in the middle of the court that Mr. Fanshawe mentions, where perpendicularly intersected the two arterial roads connecting the colossal fortress-palace’s interiors to its two considerably massive gateways, has also been obliterated entirely and in its place exists a small grass-carpeted square punctuated in the center with a perfect circle of flower-bearing shrubbery.

Visiting the enormous fortress-complex a few days back, armed with a comprehensively-detailed guidebook issued by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), I examined the beautiful edifice with great scrutiny and instantaneously fell in love with it. Undoubtedly, it exists as a mere wretched shadow of its original inspirational grandeur and bewitching artistic adornments, yet it is exceedingly well preserved and meticulously restored, especially vis-à-vis numerous other noble buildings within the unbelievably imposing palace complex.


The British East India Co.’s army had converted the edifice into an Officers’ barracks and several unappealing additions were instituted to its structure. The glimmering gold paint layering the design patterns and the lustrous lime plaster, which rendered it a shiny marble-like appearance congruous with the other palaces within the gigantic complex, gradually decayed and peeled off over the course of time until eventually only the vibrant red sandstone layer underneath remained.

In 1907, the said additions made to the poor structure were removed and it was painstakingly repaired as close to its original condition as financially feasible then – the British weren’t of course inclined to spend more financial, academic and human resources restoring edifices they themselves damaged and/or destroyed. Post-independence, ASI, cash-strapped, under-staffed and over-exhausted, never got around to garner enough funds to gold-leaf the dexterously embossed floral motifs, but nonetheless realized that they should at least layer the structure with white paint, a well-intentioned but poorly implemented administrative decision that has since caused widespread controversy and been thoughtlessly and unconscientiously put on hold in-process, as a despondent consequence of which the entire rectangular building is tastelessly divided into two precisely demarcated halves – the front carelessly painted brilliant white, the rear retaining the bright red, and the sides neatly divided into the two!

Exquisiteness, stolen from Sultan Iltutmish's mausoleum

While the white face is minimally festooned with shallow rectangular depression motifs, it is the exquisite floral embossments, dexterously sculpted in bewilderingly refined patterns, ornamenting the sandstone walls that spontaneously fixate one’s attention and invoke stunned admiration from amazed visitors. After spending an inordinate amount of time observing and photographing the majestic edifice and its various equally attractive decorative motifs on either side from every possible angle, alignment and composition, I still felt I am yet to understand the true extent of the ethereal beauty which permeates even the most inconspicuous of its surfaces. Even the otherwise plain base of the sandstone plinth on which the entire structure stands is marked with a line of painstakingly carved, exceedingly symmetrical, recurring inverted flower motifs!

Of the three almost equally-proportioned arched niches gracefully delineating the exteriors, the central is pierced by a massive entrance while the other two flanking it possess tiny doorways leading to the side chambers. Along the interior surfaces, the numerous high and pointed arches stretching around to climax in tiny bursts of radiant colors, the immaculately flawless curves, and the spider-webs of straight lines and geometric meshwork culminating in numerous thin star-patterns, all endeavor to picturesquely frame the smaller imaginatively conceived and ingeniously painted frescoes bearing in their midst remnants of impossibly incredible multi-hued foliage which unarguably steals the show, to say the least, and perennially reflects favorably upon Emperor Shahjahan’s exquisite tastes and his artist-craftsmen’s fantastic skills. Along one side of the entrance is embedded a strikingly intricate carved sandstone panel said to have been removed from the mausoleum of Slave Dynasty Sultan Shamshuddin Iltutmish (reign AD 1211-36, refer Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb).

Spiders' envy!

A staircase along the unpainted rear side leads to the first floor where is located the Indian War Memorial Museum, a fascinating collection, as the name suggests, of sparkling battle insignia, corrosion-stained weaponry and numerous war-related technological breakthroughs, constituted to honor the Indian soldiers of the British army who gallantly fought in the two World Wars.

Sparsely furnished, the first gallery displays medieval Indian weaponry including several sorts of curved swords, ivory-inlaid daggers, inscribed battle-axes and rust-tarnished soldiers’ armors. The first highlight is a small diorama depicting the armies of Emperors Ibrahim Lodi (reign AD 1517-26) and Zahiruddin Muhammad “Babur” (reign AD 1526-30) facing off in the First Battle of Panipat.

The dimly-lit second gallery exhibits modern armaments and ammunition – numerous revolvers, ferocious-looking machine guns, easily-concealed pistols, golden glistening tank shells, cross-section of bomb fuses, French grenades, entire sets of soldiers’ uniforms, various shoulder badges and ribbons indicating military rank and hierarchy, and original models of telegraphic receivers.

Reminiscent of preserved biology samples in school!

Earlier, in an article about the desolate Shah Burj (refer Pixelated Memories - Shah Burj), I had mentioned how the once-unparalleled fortress has become full of heartrending anguishes and conservation-associated horrors on account of its forgotten history, obliterated grandeur, devastated architecture and annihilated ornamentation, and how to visit and observe it now is sadly not invocative anymore of excellent fantasies of its wonderful conception and beyond-fantastical execution but a horrific study of how a matchless palace complex can be overwhelmed and shattered. I am, to some extent, now forced to eat my words because the fortress-palace is still a worthy specimen, especially considering the presence of such dazzling edifices as Naqqar Khana and Diwan-i-Khas (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas), to gain a memorable insight into the ceaseless affluence and the refined opulence of medieval Indian sovereigns, the spellbinding architectural entities commanded to existence agreeing with their unopposed commands, and the charming artistic ornamentation gloriously festooned on the same by supremely accomplished craftsmen bearing in their bosoms several millennium of interminable hereditary learning and dexterous expertise at plying even the most resilient stone like mere malleable wax.

“Stick 'em with the pointy end!”

Location: Red Fort, Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad). The fortress, located at an extremity of the renowned Chandni Chowk street and connected to all parts of the city via regular bus and metro services, remains open everyday from 9 am to 6 pm, followed by a light-and-sound show.
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
Nearest Bus stop: Red Fort
Nearest Railway Station: Purani Dilli
How to reach: The fortress is a mere half kilometer from the metro station and about a kilometer from the railway station. Walk from either of them. The bus stop is located immediately across it and is connected to all parts of the city via regular bus service. There are regular trains throughout the day to Purani Dilli on Delhi circular railway line and from the neighboring suburbs.
Entrance fees (inclusive of museum charges): Indians: Rs 15; Foreigners: Rs 250
Photography/video charges: Nil. Tripods not allowed without prior permission.
Relevant Links -
Composite post about the fortress complex -
Pixelated Memories - Red Fort complex
Other monuments/landmarks located in the immediate vicinity -


  1. Lovely photos. They show aspects of the Red Fort that can remain almost hidden when one visits the fort. Thanks so much.

    Karen D

  2. Jayshree ShuklaSeptember 09, 2014

    Thank you, Sahil. As always, I look forward to your posts and greatly admire the work done by you to increase awareness of our heritage.