May 16, 2013

Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort, New Delhi


Indian history is replete with instances of so many intriguing & interesting personalities that most historians studying it have often been forced to ignore or relegate to obscurity some of the relatively minor characters. Nevertheless, it has never been a source of disappointment to those who wish to find enchanting stories & plots woven in its many schemes. Boasting of numerous sultans, princes & princesses, generals, nobles & warlords, saints, priests & mendicants alike, the scope & expanse of Indian history is enough to confuse even those who claim to be masters over it. & yet one does not understand why many of our historians - both native & foreigners alike - felt compelled to distort historical narratives & introduce scenes & players in order to alter the storyline or prop up new theories that are seemingly absurd to begin with but gain wide currency caused by these misinterpretations & false premises. One such personality that keeps cropping up when one is dealing with the reign of Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) is the Florentine goldsmith Austin de Bordeaux. Modern historians are no longer sure if Austin actually existed or was a fragment of imagination of those Europeans who took it upon themselves to define & pen medieval & ancient Indian history.


The Diwan-i-Am hall


Austin has been credited with the construction of three of the most widely acclaimed architectural achievements of Shahjahan’s reign – first is the famed Taj Mahal of Agra, some historians, especially the European ones, claim that Austin had a role in laying out the design & the plan of this magnificent mausoleum, but most historians concede that if Austin did exist, his role was merely limited to designing & executing the silver doors of the mausoleum. Second, Shahjahan granted Austin with several kilograms of gold & numerous precious jewels & gems to build a splendid seat for the emperor. The final craft was christened the “Peacock Throne”, you can read about the throne’s history in one of my previous articles here - Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort. However, even this theory seems largely unlikely as Austin is considered to be one of the greatest frauds alive in 17th century Europe & it is said that he escaped to India after conning several European kings & princes out of their family heirlooms. It would be very stupid of Shahjahan to keep such a person on his payroll & given charge of gold & pearls worth millions of rupees. Given Shahjahan’s shrewd nature & bargaining capabilities, & the intelligence capability of his army – it is not possible that Shahjahan did not know the past of a man he was harbouring in his court & instead of condemning the fraud’s existence & activities, had granted him the position of court jeweller, the title of “jewel-fingered” & a monthly pay of two thousand rupees. Shahjahan is also said to have commissioned Austin to design & execute the pietra dura work on the wall of the Diwan-i-Am palace hall in Delhi’s Red Fort. The Peacock Throne was carried away by the Persian invader Nadir Shah when he overran Delhi in AD 1739. The Taj Mahal’s silver doors were looted & melted in AD 1764 by the Jat invaders who took to plundering Delhi & other neighbouring provinces after the later Mughal rulers proved too weak to retain command over the massive empire bequeathed to them by their forefathers. The only remain of Austin’s superior craftsmanship is the pietra dura work in Diwan-i-Am & even that has come under great scrutiny lately as a result of a series of discoveries of manuscripts & records that actually whitewash the existence of Austin & instead credit native Hindu & Muslim artists for several of the designs & creations that have been attributed to him. One again wonders what reasons could have compelled Shahjahan to retain a man of dubious character & questionable integrity in his court, entertain him & even allow him to conceive & build enchanting artworks in stone & marble when native craftsmen & stonemasons far excelled in the craft of pietra dura (Pietra dura, locally called “Parchin kari”, has been traditionally used in Indian jewellery & construction industry). Moreover what were the previous achievements of Austin that prompted Shahjahan to hire him?? He isn’t even known in France or Florence & no records or remains of his impeccable craftsmanship exist, then why did Shahjahan employ a fraudster with no real skills to boast of?? Furthermore, I am at loggerheads with the accepted belief because of one simple doubt - why don't contemporary writers mention Austin if he was such a skilled (& notorious!!) goldsmith. Court gossipers & sycophants wrote almost everything about their sultan - why not mention that the sultan found an artist in a crook??


Shahjahan loved arches!!


Nonetheless, here is a primer about the Diwan-i-Khas or the “Hall of public audience” – Built with red sandstone, the striking palace was Shahjahan’s idea of a lavish court room where he could meet his subjects, listen to their grievances, take note of petitions & pass judgements & grants. The impressive hall was once covered with a layer of ivory & shell plaster giving it marble-like finish & boasts of nine arches on its front face & three arches on its sides, all supported on sturdy pillars. Chattris (small umbrella domes supported on very thin pillars) adorn the front of its roof. Its stateliness is further spelled out by the arches that give it an appearance of curves & waves. The hall boasts of chajjas (hanging eaves), an Indian architectural innovation that was combined with Islamic design elements by the Mughals. During the reign of Shahjahan & his son & successor Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1658-1707), the hall used to be draped with heavy curtains & was decked with stunning stucco work that incremented its opulence manifolds.


The throne - not made of gold, but impressive nonetheless (Photo courtesy - mountainsoftravelphotos.com)


At present, the most attractive part of the hall is the niche in its back wall where a canopied marble throne (called a "baldachino") rests. The emperor would sit on the throne & listen to his subjects’ grievances, the wazir (prime minister) would sit on a four-legged marble pedestal kept in front of the emperor’s throne. At one time, both the throne & the wazir’s pedestal were inlaid with jewels & designed in such a way that they sparkled & glittered in the daylight. The throne pavilion was referred to as Nashiman-i-Zil-i-Ilahi or “the seat of the shadow of God” & is an impressive piece of craftsmanship with its fluted pillars & curved Bengali roof. The marble wall at the back of the canopy throne is the one supposedly crafted by Austin. The white marble is inset with precious black stone & several stones of different colours are used to create exquisite patterns within the black stone. This is the renowned pietra dura artwork of Diwan-i-Am – the inlay stones are used to create replicas of several birds, flowers & foliage that are worth mentioning. Over 200 types of birds have been depicted in these panels, including numerous mythical birds - the most realistic being the parrot & the crows, but all of them being breathtakingly stunning. Since figurative workmanship is very unusual in Islamic buildings, this sort of pietra dura work is not seen anywhere else in India & this is the sole reason that gives weightage to the theory about the presence of European artists & their influence in Shahjahan’s court. But the most widely renowned panel amongst these is not that depicting any bird – real or imagined, it is another panel, much smaller than the rest, that sits on the very top of the arched niche & depicts the Greek minstrel Orpheus sitting under a tree & playing violin to a charmed audience that sits near his feet & consists of a lion, a hare & a leopard. Orpheus was the son of King Oeagrus & Calliope in Greek mythology – he possessed a melodious voice & was taught to play the lute (& not violin as the panel shows) by the Greek God Apollo. With his songs he could even make inanimate objects obey him. His voice facilitated his inclusion in several mythical adventures & he even travelled to the netherworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from death. However in the context of the Diwan-i-Am, not many people are aware of the image’s history nor has it ever been determined who conceived it & what its purpose was, but most scholars hold that the decontextualized image was meant to serve as a commentary about the just rule of Shahjahan where the mighty (lion) & the weak (lamb) would lie down together & pay obeisance to the king.


Pietra dura artwork behind the throne - Who designed these?? (Notice the small Orpheus panel in the center, top)


After the defeat of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ II (ruled AD 1837-57) at the hand of the British during the Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857 & the subsequent takeover of the fortress by the British military, the fort’s riches were confiscated & even those items were taken away which even the previous barbaric plunderers would never have thought of looting – several of the pietra dura panels were damaged, & 12 of these, including the Orpheus panel, were removed from their niches & carried away to be displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were returned to their respective places in 1903 following concerted efforts by the then Viceroy Lord Curzon. What would be interesting to know would be if the story concerning Austin’s employment & position in the Mughal court came into existence before or after the return of these panels. Sadly I could not find any books/sources on the internet that deal with the subject. The Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) accepts Austin’s existence & credits him for the construction of the ornamental marble wall on its website. The A.S.I. put up an iron railing around the emperor’s throne & the accompanying pedestal to prevent visitors from touching the same, but I still don’t understand the point of covering the two & the marble wall with thin synthetic net – it actually perplexed me to see a net thrown over the entire baldachino but then my friend Adil at DHPC explained to me that the net is used to keep the pigeons out. There are actually too many pigeons in the complex if you did not notice already!! The photo of the throne I uploaded here is an old one sourced from another website - here the throne is not covered with the net - having visited the fort complex several times over the past few years, I can say that the net is seldom taken down.

The emperor would enter the hall from the verandah on the first floor towards the back of the hall & follow a passage that opened up on the side of his marble throne. The stairs that the emperor would have climbed to reach his throne from the passage’s exit can still be seen inside the hall, however entry to the passage or the other rooms that exist towards the back of the hall is now prohibited. Although today the back of the hall & the verandah are in a run-down condition with the plaster peeling off & the walls getting blackened due to exposure to the elements, once even these were coated with plaster mixed with shell dust. At that time even the announcement of the emperor’s arrival would have caused all mutterings & whisperings to cease & hush up his subjects, today the hall continuously abounds with the incessant chatter of the visitors. The French traveller Francois Bernier describes his travels through India during the reign of Aurangzeb in his memoirs & recounts how the hall would become the site for many extravagant & majestic ceremonies & how the gifts to the emperor, which often included elephants, oxes, rhinoceros & leopards, would be paraded in front of the hall. The elephants would be decked up with jewels, colours & embroidered clothes & would often steal the show. The emperor would then indulge in a hearty chat with his astrologers, dream interpreters & physicians regarding illness, dreams & other (supposedly ominous) happenings in the kingdom. The nobles would entertain him with anecdotes, stories & debates. Then the emperor would proceed to hear petitions & matters related to day-to-day administration of his empire, he would often impart justice on the spot – often causing an aggrieved party to be compensated, or an oppressor to be whipped or even beheaded. The subjects held the emperor in awe, for them he was the Zil-i-Ilahi, the “shadow of God” , a concept conceived by the mighty Sultan Balban (ruled AD 1266-86) but carried forward by all the later Sultans of India, including the Mughals.


This (now shabby) side was where the emperor entered the hall from.


Visiting the Diwan-i-Am now, one can only wonder with astonishment & disbelief mixed in equal measure at the might & grandness of the Mughal court, but never can be the brilliance of the court & the nobility of gestures be surpassed or even re-achieved. The Mughals brought a certain lavishness to the country, of which the Diwan-i-Am is a prime example. It might be battered & ignored now, but what still matters even today is that once European historians invented figures such as Austin to claim their land’s association with the Mughal structures!! These stories aren’t going anywhere for they too have become a part of the record & been assimilated in the collective Indian history just like the thousands of invaders, travellers & refugees who came to the country & got intertwined in its enchanting life & culture.

Location: Red Fort
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 - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort

6 comments:

  1. Nicely written! A bit long but satisfactory! I liked the various questions you raised regarding Austin and the Shah Jahan's rule.

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  2. Thanks Shrey. Welcome back after such a long time.. :)
    I agree my posts are getting longer everyday, just can't resist sharing what I know, hope that's not an issue with the reader!!

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  3. Philippe Launay-DebnathSeptember 09, 2014

    That is probably sure the Pietra duras (like the famous Orpheus) was made by European or, at least influenced by westerners, all art in the world are influenced by other culture , the mix of the cultures make very nice things , but if Austin did exist we should find mention somewhere, is it the case? I do not believe he could have a major influence on the building-up of the Taj Mahal

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    1. I do agree that Europeans influenced the design of some of the panels here, especially the Orpheus one. But they did not necessarily themselves execute these, I am more at loggerheads with the accepted belief - why don't contemporary writers mention Austin if he was such a skilled (and notorious too) goldsmith. Court gossipers and sycophants wrote almost everything about their sultan - why not mention that the sultan found an artist in a crook??

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    2. Indeed Philippe, art & architecture have always been influenced by different cultures and techniques - look how we Indians evolved from trabeate arches to squinches & finally the true arches. The process of transferring knowledge and design is a continuous one. Sadly we do not patron such exquisite and in most cases environment and life friendly (temperature control, earthquake resistance, aesthetically pleasing) architecture.

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  4. I think Austin was a mere fragment of imagination and the several kilograms of gold & numerous precious jewels & gems given to him was just a part of gossip.

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