April 20, 2013

Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort, New Delhi

On April 1, my Holi vacations came to an end & I returned to Bengal from Delhi. The same night, a thief broke the window of my friend's hostel room & made away with my & my friend's laptops. Along with the laptop, I lost all my research regards this blog, travel & otherwise, & also all my photographs, internship projects & certificates. It has been a difficult time & I have been miserable & mostly sulking since then. But the loss also helped me set right my priorities & aims. I realized I will have to start over everything anew, but start I had to. I compiled this post after borrowing a friend's laptop. Hopefully I shall soon buy a new laptop & get back to writing again. Do let me know what you think of this post, would appreciate that.


If there is one structure which could perfectly describe India’s story since the time of the Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) till now if it could speak, it would definitely be the Diwan-i-Khas palace within the Red Fort complex. Built of polished white marble, covered with a layer of fine pearl dust & richly ornamented with jewels of multiple hues & shapes & sizes – the Diwan-i-Khas was constructed with the sole aim of overawing the visitors to Shahjahan’s fabulous fortress. The palace, functioning in the capacity of the emperor’s private audience hall, was so splendidly decorated the craftsmen who worked on its construction were instructed to inscribe on one of its walls a couplet by the legendary poet-historian-composer Amir Khusroe that reads –

"Agar Firdaus bar rue-i-Zamin ast, Hamin ast, Hamin ast, Hamin ast” 
(“If there be heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”) 

The palace was also referred to as the Shah Mahal (“Royal Palace”) & Daulat Khana-i-Khas, & it was here that Shahjahan recieved select ministers & nobles of the highest ranking & discussed matters of state, security of the frontiers, administration, revenue & such. Standing on a high plinth, the rectangular structure is surmounted by a chattri (dome-like structures mounted on thin pillars) on each of its four corners & has five arched openings on its front face & three arched openings each on its shorter sides. The fourth side used to face the river Yamuna (which has since diverted its route) & is engrailed with elegantly carved jalis (“stone latticework”) that helped keep the interiors airy by providing ventilation & letting in cool breezes from the riverside. It was from this side that the emperor, sitting on his throne, would look down the currents of the river & make up his mind about issues concerned with the empire’s administration.


Old paintings show how the palace used to be covered with red shamianas (“tents”) that contrasted with its brilliant white lustre, fine rugs & carpets were strewn around the place to complete a picture of lavish & laid back life. The picture was also that of nomadic traditions – the Mughals, once nomads & used to a life in the vast & arid plains of Afghanistan still found it difficult to live in closed buildings & instead preferred structures that resembled tents with arches & openings instead of walls. The courtyard outside the palace was divided into two portions by means of colonnaded pavilions. The pavilion close to the emperor’s seat was screened by red curtains & marked by gold railings – it housed high-ranking ministers & generals. The other pavilion, the one further away, was marked by silver railings & had no distinction as such for it was here that the lower-rung nobles stood in attendance waiting for the emperor’s commands. 

Diwan-i-Khas - Painting by Ghulam Ali Khan (1817) (Photo courtesy - www.columbia.edu)

The walls of the palace were encrusted with jewels & pietra dura work in stunning designs & patterns, while the roof was built of silver & gilded with gold. It is said that just the roof was built at a cost of Rs 39 lakhs (3.9 million). James Fergusson, a European traveller, was forced to write in his chronicles about the palace “If not the most beautiful, it is certainly the most highly ornamented of all Shahjahan’s buildings.” The Nahr-i-Bihisht (“Stream of Paradise”) canal that Shahjahan conceived of as an imitation of heavenly brooks flows through the centre of the palace, adding further grace to its royal appearance.

The main attraction of the palace was the famed Takht-i-Tavus (“Peacock Throne”) which was built entirely with solid gold in which were hewn gems, rubies & emeralds of all shapes & sizes. The throne was flanked by two large, solid gold peacocks with huge rubies for their eyes & other adornments. The entire piece was built at an enormous cost of a hundred lakh (10 million) rupees. The emperor would sit on the throne wearing the magnificent 186-carat Koh-i-noor diamond (“Mountain of Light”) on his ring, the scene must have been that of a spell-binding lustre & exorbitant pleasures. Court fawners & poets described the throne in glorious words, often stating that the earth had become short of gold on account of the amount of it used to build the throne.

Notice the marble dias on which the Emperor's throne used to be seated

During the Mughal rule, the palace played a very important role in court politics & was the main arena for a number of scenes involving wars, battles, gore & mischief as well. Sadly, the very reasons that made the palace a central part of these incidents also proved to be its downfall.

The Persian emperor Nadir Shah invaded Delhi in 1739. After overrunning the Mughal armies, Nadir Shah marched to Red Fort & occupied the Peacock Throne, reducing the then emperor Muhammad Shah "Rangila" (ruled 1719-48) to a state of supplication & fear. For the time Nadir stayed in Delhi, the palace was his home. Here he met visitors, accepted tributes from the Mughal princes & local landlords, entertained girls & dictated the terms of defeat to the Mughal emperor. Though the people of Delhi initially welcomed Nadir Shah’s armies with showerings of flowers & virtually offered him a red carpet, the mood soon turned sour. Eager to make profits, many merchants started quoting higher prices for basic neccessities to the Persian soldiers leading to many scuffles & quarrels. One particular day, a scuffle turned into a big fight that saw many of Nadir Shah’s soldiers being killed or decapitated by Delhi’s population. Nadir Shah’s presence at the Sunehri Masjid (“The Golden Mosque” at Chandni Chowk street, refer Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid) gave the impetus required to magnify the hostilities, an archer tried to kill him but failed. Enraged at the loss of his soldiers’ lives & the attempt on his own, Nadir Shah unleashed his forces with vengeance on the people of Delhi, himself signalling the beginning of the Qatl-i-Aam (“massacre”) from the ramparts of the mosque. In a span of 6 hours, the Shah’s men heckled down over 20,000 citizens, including even women, old folk & children. In the end, a cowering Muhammad Shah had to go to the Diwan-i-Khas & beg Nadir Shah to spare the lives of his subjects. The Great Mughal was reduced to a shivering beggar in his own private court. A few weeks later, Muhammad Shah married one of the daughters of his own line to a son of Nadir Shah. Before departing Nadir Shah decided to deprive Muhammad Shah of his most valuable ancestral possessions & forced him to give up the Peacock Throne & the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The throne has since been broken down & no trace of its parts have ever been found, while the diamond passed on from the Iranians to the Sikhs & then to the British & is now part of the Queen’s crown along with several other jewels taken from India. Over time, many Indians have demanded that the British government return the diamond, or rather whatever remains of it since it was cut to increase its brilliance – but I don’t think that could or should happen because of several reasons. Firstly, the diamond is an integral part of the history of British imperialism & the colonialization of India. It represents what India lost as a result of its internal squabbles & bickerings. Secondly, if England went about returning everything it took from its former colonies, it would be broke. Third, many parties – the Sikhs, the Pakistanis & even the Iranians have made demands for the diamond to be returned to them. Placating them all at the same time would be an issue. & finally, the diamond is supposed to be cursed. Its owners have always met bad fortune – the Rajas of Gwalior, Mughals, Iranians, Afghans, Sikhs & the British were all defeated & vanquished soon after they came into the possession of the diamond. We certainly do not want it back, do we?? Let the Brits have it!!

The Koh-i-Noor diamond (Photo courtesy - famousdiamonds.tripod.com)

Back to Diwan-i-Khas, the Empire ran out of its share of mighty Emperors & was so weakened after Nadir Shah’s invasion that the Mughal rule did not extend much beyond the boundaries of Delhi. The king remained a nominal head, unable to defend his own frontiers agains the attacks by Marathas (Hindu revolutionaries from Central India, chiefly Maharashtra), Rohillas & Jats (a sub-caste of Hindus, they once formed parties of brigands who looted & plundered the countryside around Delhi & Haryana). Each of these attacks took its toll on the Red Fort, the Diwan-i-Khas was also plundered. The jewels that adorned its walls were chiseled out with knives, its exquisite interiors were spoiled & its subtle grace destroyed.


By the 1760s the Mughal house had fallen severely from its position of supreme power & had to put up with invasions from the Afghans on the Northern frontiers & from the Marathas on the Southern frontier. The Afghans & Marathas took turns to plunder Delhi & other provinces & humiliate the Emperor, the Afghans even captured most of Punjab & Kashmir. In 1760, the Afghans led by Ahmed Shah Durrani invaded India, the then emperor Shah Alam, unable to defend the empire, had to ask his arch-enemies, the Marathas, for protection against the invaders. As payment for their help, the Marathas took all the treasures from the fortress & even melted the silver-&-gold roof of the Diwan-i-Khas to pay for war expenses. But the combined Mughal-Maratha army was also defeated by the Afghans & they then proceeded to take whatever the Marathas had left. The entire fortress was thus emptied of all its riches & stood only as a skeleton of its previous self.

Again in 1788, the Rohillas overran Delhi & their chief Ghulam Qadir Rohilla reduced the aged Shah Alam to a prisoner in his own fortress. Holding court in the Diwan-i-Khas, Ghulam Qadir ordered the Emperor to surrender all the treasures & valuables to his men. The treasury was already empty & the royal family too did not have much in its possession. Enraged, Ghulam ordered his men to gouge out the eyes of the old king. Shah Alam beseeched the invader that for several decades his eyes had seen nothing but the pages of the Quran & so they be spared (The state of affairs of the Mughal lineage had become such that even the emperor was forced to copy pages of the Holy Book & sell them to sustain himself. The tradition of doing so was started by the powerful yet pious Aurangzeb, but he would have never have foreseen that one day his family would fall so low that the emperors would be forced to carry on the practice out of compulsion). Ghulam Qadir spared the emperor, but had his men kill his family members instead in front of the emperor’s eyes in the Diwan-i-Khas. So horrible were the killings that the Emperor broke down & again begged Ghulam Qadir – only this time he wanted to be blinded in order to escape watching his family being butchered mercilessly. Ghulam Qadir complied & had the Emperor’s eyes cut out immediately. Ghulam then dug up the marble floor of the Diwan-i-Khas expecting to find treasure buried below, but alas! there was none to be found in the entire fortress. But the Rohilla mercenaries carried away whatever they could find & the Diwan-i-Khas was shorned of all its ornamentation & reduced to a state even more pitiful than before.

Gone are the gems & the stone..

As the Mughal power dwindled, another force made its intentions to control the Indian sub-continent known. The British East India “Trading” Company had arrived, it started controlling its own territories, commanded a superior army & began generating its own revenue from the territories it was granted by the Mughals. Slowly, the Company started following an expansionist policy, subduing smaller kingdoms & local landlords & seizing their domains too, amassing huge profits in the process. Everything was going smooth for the Company, but in 1857 it committed the blunder of introducing rifle cartridges smeared with the fat of cows & pigs. So far divided by their religion, Hindu & Muslim soldiers of the Company immediately joined hands in the resistance against the British policies. Thus began the Sepoy Mutiny aka the First War of Independence. The soldiers marched into Delhi from all over the country, butchering English men, women & children & destroying British magazines, armouries & other institutions. The soldiers marched into the Red Fort & in this final act of the Mughal empire too, the Diwan-i-Khas formed the backdrop. Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II was declared the king of a united India, Hindus & Muslims swore allegiance to him & carried his banner in the battles & skirmishes. Despite their proclamations, in reality the soldiers paid no heed to the Emperor’s commands & premonitions & he was simply a minor player in the whole affair. The British swore vengeance against the Indians & soon retaliated with their guns & cannons. The Indian forces were defeated, most of the soldiers killed or hanged, Bahadur Shah Zafar was imprisoned in his own palace & his sons & grandson were shot in cold blood by the British commander Major Hodson near the Khooni Darwaza of Old Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - Khooni Darwaza). Betrayed by his relatives & acquaintances, Zafar was charged with treason, attempt to overthrow the British government & murder. His trial was conducted in his own court, the Diwan-i-Khas, & he was sentenced to be exiled to the faraway land of Rangoon (Myanmar). The British overtook the fortress, destroying many of the Mughal palaces & pavilions & converting the rest to barracks & soldiers’ quarters. The Diwan-i-Khas too was turned into an Officers’ Mess & suffered on account of the demolition of the associated arcades that once housed the nobles. Although each party of invaders indulged in loot & plunder, the British took it a step further – institutionalizing the whole process by employing special “Price Agents” who evaluated the value of every item confiscated from the fortress as well as the houses of the nobles & the merchants. These items were then sold in market or gifted to the officials of the British government. Such was the greed of the British that they took even that which the previous waves of invaders & brigands had left behind – including the gilded domes of the chattris of the Diwan-i-Khas.

Half a century after they had occupied the palace, the British started waking up to the excesses they committed & the amount of damage the people as well as the structures suffered during their rule. This was the period of the Nationalist movements, & sensing an upheaval in the public mood, the British started taking remedial measures. Though the damage could not be fully repaired, they did make considerable advances in restoring the structures within the Red Fort to their glory. Among these measures, one was to paint the wooden roof of the Diwan-i-Khas to replicate its original gilded designs. This was carried out in the year 1911.


After India gained independence from the British rule, the Indian Army continued to be stationed in the fort complex till the year 2005. After that the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I) got the charge for the protection & upkeep of the structures within the grand complex. Continuing with the Mughal policy of not allowing random visitors to the Diwan-i-Khas premises, the A.S.I keeps it barred by means of rope barriers. The visitors can adore the intricacies of the designs & perfection of the architecture from outside, but its story of anguish & the fall from glory would resonate in the hearts of the multitude of citizens who feel pained at the loss of India’s power & prestige at the world stage.

Location: Red Fort, New Delhi
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Station
Open: All days except Monday
Timings: 10 am - 4 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Khooni Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid
Suggested Reading - 


  1. Smith CapaApril 25, 2013

    Interesting post. Saddened by the loss of your laptop, hope you will regale us with your stories & photographs soon..

  2. Thanks Smith. I hope the same :)

  3. AnonymousMay 14, 2013

    Hi Sahil,

    I have been reading your awesome posts for some time now. I felt bad when you mentioned losing your photos and research work.

    You are doing some incredible work at your age. But then William Dalrymple wrote City of Djinns when he was 25! It is a wonderful book.

    I am sure you are over your loss by now. I will be writing another commment at your Azim Khan tomb post.


    Nirdesh Singh

  4. Nirdesh,

    Thank you for the generous compliments. This means a lot!!

    Hopefully I shall buy a new laptop in a few weeks. I am already writing articles on my sister's laptop with some of the photos that I still have, though I can't do it with as much frequency as before.

    I am much obliged by your patronisation of "Pixelated Memories" Nirdesh.