July 07, 2013

Freedom Fighter Museum & Salimgarh Fort Complex, New Delhi

The Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s reign saw an unprecedented development in the native art & architecture which was truly reflected through the magnificent structures that he commissioned – the Jama Masjid & Red Fort of Shahjanabad, his citadel in Delhi, & the Taj Mahal in Agra, his erstwhile capital before he shifted base to Delhi. His architects achieved such prowess in their craft that they could conceive bazaars, palaces, garden complexes & even canal-lined avenues with such ingenuity that visitors from far & wide were left gaping at the Mughal Emperor’s wealth & splendor. The structures that Shahjahan & his architects envisaged were superior to those built before him, they were a synthesis of both form & function that had been reached after several centuries of experimentation & fusion of Indian art & building designs with skills & science imported from as far as Europe – his open palaces are reminiscent of the nomadic ways of his Afghan ancestors, the onion domes & tall minarets come from Central Asia & the pietra dura work that his palaces were adorned with was inspired by European culture & mythology. & yet, unlike many previous rulers who reigned over the Indian subcontinent, Shahjahan did not lay to waste structures that had existed in the country from before his ascension to the throne - if he did have any of them pulled down, it was solely for the purpose of rebuilding them with better material & ornamentation. Shahjahan did not believe in Sher Shah Suri’s savagery – the latter had Dinpanah, the under-construction citadel of Humayun, whom he subjugated & forced into exile in AD 1540, destroyed in a show of overarching power & domination (refer Pixelated Memories - Dinpanah/Old Fort). Sher Shah then went on to build his own citadel, Shergarh (“Lion’s lair”), over the ruins of Dinpanah with the latter’s debris & construction material plundered from previous fortresses of Delhi (such as Siri, see Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains). Shhajahan wasn’t Sher Shah Suri, he was more intelligent, more calculating. Rather than destroy a citadel & raise a new one over the previous’ remains (& add woe to his exchequers, not that his treasuries were not overflowing with precious jewels & mounds of gold, silver & diamonds), he went ahead to incorporate the existing fortress into his newly built one.

Connecting fortresses..

The older fortress, christened Salimgarh after Islam Shah Suri aka Salim Shah (ruled AD 1546-52) who commissioned it in AD 1546, is not as impressive as Red Fort that Shahjahan built along one of its walls in the period 1638-48 AD. In fact, not even close. It once stood on a triangular delta in the middle of river Yamuna which explains its roughly semi-circular orientation. Perhaps Islam Shah had intended the fortress to be the treat of the city, very much like his father’s citadel Shergarh, remains of which still exist close by. Perhaps Islam Shah had wanted to raise a splendid palace-fortress, ornamented with stunning stone work, impeccable craftsmanship & exquisite calligraphy & surrounded over by massive defensive walls & ramparts to offer protection against enemies (after all, Humayun might have been exiled from the country but he was very much alive & seeking forces from his ally, the Shah of Persia). Sadly, Islam Shah passed away before he could complete his fortress & line it with impressive palaces that would have stolen the limelight during the day & put the moon at unease at night. Only the ramparts were completed – the massive walls & thick circular bastions built of rubble indicate highly defensive posturing on the part of Islam Shah, but there are no holes to allow archers to shoot through. Perhaps Islam Shah had counted upon the might of the river Yamuna & its (then) torrential flow to thwart his enemies & plundering armies. Or maybe he relied on the defensive walls that his father built to enclose the entire city in order to keep out the raiders.

An array of historical reasons make the fort culturally so important – it has been associated with several of Delhi’s rulers in its more than four & a half centuries long existence. Besides that, the fort has also played a central role in the period when India was colonized by the British & turned into one of its trading posts (& later a controlled territory).

Salimgarh as seen from outside (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)

1) Disgraced Emperor Humayun finally did return to India & laid siege on Delhi. He set his camp at Salimgarh & stationed his troops here before he captured Delhi from Sikandar Suri. But the poor man did not live long enough to take stock of the new fortress that had come up close to the ruins of his own city – the only thing that he did was to decree that Salimgarh be referred to as “Nurgarh” henceforth since he did not want Sher Shah or his successors to be mentioned in his court. Perhaps he was aggrieved that Sher Shah had destroyed his beloved citadel which was to be the “asylum of the faithful”, the faithful here referring to scholars & theologians equally or more learned than Humayun himself who is said to be a pretty learned Emperor, devoted to the affairs of mind & philosophy more than those of state & military. Whatsoever be the reason, Humayun soon made peace with Shergarh & the new palaces & mosques built by Sher Shah & began to call them home. He met his untimely demise after falling down the stairs from Sher Mandal, a tower that Sher Shah had started building & Humayun retro-fitted to convert it into his personal library.

2) Humayun’s successor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) shifted the capital to nearby Agra in order to control the rebellious elements there & also for ease of movement of his soldiers to different parts of the country. The fortunes of Delhi were clouded over & the city’s status was relegated to that of a mere province. 80 years after Islam Shah’s death, Akbar had given this fortress as a grant to Farid Khan (aka Murtaza Khan) who was a noble in both Akbar’s & his son & successor Jahangir’s (ruled AD 1605-28) court.

The last remaining link to Salimgarh's medieval history

3) Jahangir too preferred to rule from Agra, but he did take control of Salimgarh & converted it into a state prison where enemies of the empire were confined, tortured & executed. Jahangir built a three-arched bridge to connect Salimgarh with the mainland (Before that point, people used boats to reach the fortress, that’s how Humayun transfer his troops to the military camp he set up there). Debate is on about whether it was Jahangir or Farid Khan who built the bridge, most scholars lean towards Jahangir. In that time, a Tughlaq-era fort existed where the Red Fort stands today, the fort was obliterated when Shahjahan raised the Red Fort over it, but the baoli (step-well) was renovated & accommodated within the Red Fort Complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli for details of the baoli).

4) When Jahangir’s son Prince Khurram came to the throne after the former’s death, he took up the title Shahjahan (“King of the World”) & decided to shift his capital to Delhi. After much consideration, the site that was finally chosen for the construction of his citadel, the Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort), was next to the river Yamuna, directly across the Salimgarh Fort. Perhaps the presence of “Salimgarh military & prison facility” was also on his mind when he chose the site – what better place to keep political dissidents & military renegades than a stronghold in the center of a river & so close to the king’s palace that the presence of armed battalions was a guarantee?? From a royal fortress, Salimgarh turned into a provincial prison, who would have foreseen that it would be even put to use as a royal prison?? It continued to be one for a long period thereafter, in fact for more than 300 years!! Shahjahan repaired the arched bridge built by his father to connect Salimgarh to the mainland  & had the Red Fort designed in such a way that the bridge now connected Salimgarh with the new fortress.

Of miserableness & dejection..

5) Shahjahan's pious son & successor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707) built striking mosques out of white marble within the Red Fort for his personal use, while Salimgarh was turned into a dreaded prison-cum-torture facility. Aurangzeb has been infamous for his use of this prison – he imprisoned his own brother Murad Baksh here after the war for ascension to India’s throne broke out among the brothers following Shahjahan’s depreciating health. Aurangzeb also had his daughter Zebunissa imprisoned here for the simple reason of her being a poetess-musician, characters unacceptable to an orthodox Aurangzeb (she wrote under the pen-name of "Makhfi" or “the Hidden One” & was adept at philosophy, calligraphy, mathematics, astronomy, literature & arts, & also had mastery over Persian, Urdu & Arabic). She languished in Salimgarh prison for 20 years – one wonders if her situation was better than that of the other prisoners?? Was she given silken clothes & delectable food instead of the prison gruel & whiplashes that the other prisoners were subjected to?? One can have a look at some of Zebunissa’s couplets by following the links at the end of this post.

6) Interestingly after the Mughal Empire had declined & the British had taken over the Red Fort & the rest of the country as well in AD 1857, they too decided to continue with Salimgarh’s use as a prison. Despite their abhorrence of native traditions & practices, even they could not resist the lure of a state prison housed within a massive fortress. The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was captured by the British from the Humayun’s Tomb (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex) after they recaptured Delhi from the mutineers. He was imprisoned in Salimgarh while his case was heard in his own royal court, the Diwan-i-Khas (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort). The British went on to level many structures within Red Fort-Salimgarh complex & raise military structures in their place. They built artillery caches, magazines, barracks & prisons within Salimgarh & that is all that remains now in the fortress. The British repaired Jahangir's bridge & also added a five-arched bridge almost parallel to it in 1867 AD (more on it later). The new bridge was sturdy enough to be able to withstand heavy loads & it has since then carried the load of the trains passing over the railway line that the British engineers laid passing through Salimgarh fortress & chipping Red Fort (perhaps the British engineers thought that Salimgarh, orphaned since the death of Islam Shah, was expendable & hence brought down portions of its wall, but couldn’t do the same with Red Fort which is elaborate, architecturally more magnificent & built of exorbitant materials).

Barracks - This is what the British would be remembered for in Salimgarh-Red Fort Complex

7) Among the most notable prisoners that Salimgarh jail housed were Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sehgal & Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of the Indian National Army (INA or the “Azad Hind Fauj”) that was instituted by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to wrestle control of the Indian subcontinent from the British. The three military heroes, along with several other soldiers captured by the British in Malaya, Singapore & Burma faced trial & court martial on the charges of treason, murder & abetment to murder. The court was held at Red Fort – such was the turn of events that by right of conquest, the great Mughal’s court, palaces & country turned into the court, palaces & territory of those who ousted them in the first place.

The river Yamuna that flowed between Salimgarh & Red Fort has since diverted its course & its place has been taken up by the arterial Ring Road. Salimgarh is connected to Red Fort by the massive brick masonry bridge that was built during the reign of Jahangir. The bridge is lined on either side by walls with arched (arrow/gun??) slits made into them & the gateways on either side of it (that is one at Red Fort’s periphery & the other at Salimgarh’s) are high & ornamented with floral medallions. Somewhere during the course of history, Jahangir's bridge was renovated by the British engineers & christened with the name Mansi (also pronounced Mangi) Bridge. Almost parallel to Jahangir’s Bridge is the railway bridge that the British laid & which once passed over Yamuna but now demarcates the five carriageways that run underneath. One can see the railway bridge cutting through an extremity of the Red Fort, the engines passing over it seem distant & dream-like. CRPF men keep guard over the two bridges & keep an eye on the visitors to the complex, issuing instructions to the errant ones who would often cross over into the portions of the complex that are used to station these armed men & are therefore inaccessible to general public. The Mansi Bridge has been a bone of contention over the past few years between several civic agencies – Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Public Works Deptt. (PWD) & Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) – because of the height of the road passing underneath, the damage caused to the structure by the trucks that scrape against its arched lower side. The issue has been highlighted by several leading newspapers over the years (see links at the end for reference).

Not to be forgotten, the railways too were introduced in the country by the British

As soon as one crosses over the Mansi Bridge, one comes face to face with a large iron foot over bridge, painted rust red & winding its way over the fortress complex & railway lines that pass through it. Sign boards declaring the way to Swatantra Senani Sangrahalaya (“Freedom Fighter Museum”) guide one to the final destination while ropes tied between several points keep the visitors from strolling into the out-of-bound areas. The bridge spans a long distance, passing over railway tracks, soon one gets the feeling that one should turn 180 degrees & go back to the Red Fort rather than cover almost a kilometer on an iron bridge with not much to see around, but then the spirit of curiosity is a terrible thing, it never ceases to motivate one forward. But the walk to the base of the bridge is long & deserted, very few visitors make their way to Salimgarh – it is the palaces & the pavilions within the Red Fort, though now are only a skeleton of their erstwhile glory, which steal the visitor’s attention & time. At one point from the bridge, one can see the massive red sandstone walls of Red Fort jutting into the sky & Asad Burj’s black-ish dome gleaming in the sunlight (Asad Burj is one of the two domed towers that grace the corners of the side of Red Fort which faced the river Yamuna & was parallel to Salimgarh). At other points, the greenery below the bridge looks inviting, but mostly there are army barracks projecting out of the vegetation till as far as the eye can see.

A long bridge that tests one's patience

Finally on reaching the base of the bridge, the view one encounters is a bit disappointing given that one has walked almost a kilometer to be here – there are a few barracks that seem to be abandoned, one of them was the jail that housed the INA prisoners. One can enter the jail, look at the cells within, they seem much larger compared to ordinary jails. Everything within is painted white, though the paint is peeling away, the walls are covered with heaps of cobwebs, pigeons flutter around in the corridor connecting the cells, building nests in the small ventilator windows. They would sit over the iron bars that project from the roof & support it & would coo at the visitors – perhaps trying to inform them of the history of the place & singing paeans to the soldiers who were imprisoned here. Did they know Zebunissa was here, that their nests flank a princess’ life-long chamber?? Do they coo the poems that she wrote during her short but dejected life??

Another small holding cell has been converted into a museum dedicated to INA & commemorating its soldiers – the glass cases display INA uniforms, maps of India with the movement of INA & their attack plans marked, the insignia used by INA hierarchy, several sepia-tinted photographs showing INA stalwarts such as Netaji Bose, G.S. Dhillon, P.K. Sehgal, Shahnawaz Khan & Capt. Lakshmi Pandit. The diary of Shahnawaz Khan is also on display. The museum was opened in 1995 & this very structure was used to hold the INA prisoners for the two years between their apprehension & India’s independence from British rule (1945-47).

Commemorating the bravehearts..

One of the barracks has been turned into a gallery displaying the findings of an excavation project carried out here in the year 1994-95. The excavations proved that the land on which the fortress has been built has been almost continuously a part of human settlement since 900 BC, except for small periods when it was unoccupied before re-settlement. I am yet to see this gallery (wasn’t even aware of it before writing this post, further underlining the fact that the fortress needs to be promoted more aggressively by the ASI & Delhi Tourism) & hence am compensating with photos from the INA museum’s gallery.

Close to the barracks are the remains of a ruined mosque – its face has been blasted away, perhaps as a result of the shelling the fortress saw when the British attacked & captured Delhi from the mutineers in the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Not unlike many other mosques that dotted the landscape of medieval Delhi, the mosque has a single dome resting on a high drum (base) ornamented with kanguras (decoration resembling battlement). It presents a picture of desolation & dejection, an isolated piece of architecture destroyed by a brutal force & now separated from humanity by the whims of soldiers & the threats of terrorists – visitors are not allowed to go close to the mosque or the medieval brick & red sandstone gateway built by Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” (& christened after him too) in 1854-55 that exists close to it & connects the fortress to the outside world since a few years back terrorists tried to blast their way into the fortress through this gate & hence the security here has been increased manifolds & a few guards are always patrolling the area (This has also led to another administrative decision - direct entry to Salimgarh Fort has been stopped since then & the fort can only be accessed through the bridge connecting it to Red Fort.). Though photography isn’t disallowed, the guards could & would stop one from going too close to the walls & taking photos of the gateway or the carriageway that descends to a lower level before passing through the gateway & meeting the road outside, hence I do not have any photographs of the fortress’ ramparts or bastions.

Forgotten heroes & old memories

The railway line passes through the complex, very near to the barracks. The passing engines make immense noise, at times disturbing one’s contemplation & permanently breaking the chain of thought. But then thoughts are easy to form in the silence that ensues between the passage of consecutive trains. One can take a leisurely stroll in the complex for as long as one wants to, but then there isn’t much to see & it isn’t such a wonderful experience to be walking around with the gaze of several armed men following your every movement. One can climb the stairs to one of the ramparts & from here look at the trains that pass over the bridge – there is one every 5 minutes & they would come chugging & whistling & one can even see men & women sitting on the seats & the doorways & looking with admiration at the massive walls of the two forts. Are they wondering about the fort’s history & vintage?? Did anybody tell them about this distant cousin of the famed Red Fort?? The fortress raises more questions than it answers. Returning back to Red Fort after visiting Salimgarh comes as a powerful shock – the crowds, the melee of Indians as well as foreigners clamoring to click photos of the palaces & bargaining at the Chatta Chowk (refer Pixelated Memories - Chatta Chowk, Red Fort) – stark contrast with Salimgarh’s loneliness & the haunting silence that permeates its grounds. Perhaps the long walk from Red Fort complex to Salimgarh discourages most visitors – it did prevent me from crossing the iron bridge even though I had crossed most of it when I visited the complex after a span of almost a decade. The Salimgarh-Red Fort complex was included in the World Heritage Monuments list in the year 2007 because of the historical legacy associated with it.

Records of battles & captivity

One important but often ignored character of this mighty citadel is that it is said to be haunted!! Interesting, right?? The ASI, which has been the guardian of the fort since 2003, doesn’t mention it on any of the sandstone plaques that dot the complex, most of the guidebooks too are silent on it, but the myth has gained such credence that it has been the subject of newspaper articles & has also assisted the fort in gaining popularity as one of the most haunted spots in the entire city. It is claimed that the ghosts of Zebunissa as well as several other prisoners who had been broken physically or executed here still abound in the fortress campus, perhaps waiting for their rightful justice – they would be disheartened to know that the Indian judicial system is very slow on account of an all-pervading lack of enough judges & court officials & hence take almost as many years in clearing a case as the ghosts have survived in this realm (OK, I’m exaggerating, but you get the drift right?). The caretakers of the complex as well as the passer-bys at night say that laughter, footsteps, shrieks, painful moans as well as conversations can be heard around the fort all night, but when one tries to follow the source of the sound it disappears without a trace. Zebunissa’s ghost is commonly sighted on full moon nights, covered in a black veil & singing the poems she composed during her lifetime. Did she compose any new ones after death, I wonder.

How to reach: The fortress can be accessed through the Red Fort Complex
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 - Chatta Chowk, Red Fort
  2. Pixelated Memories - Dinpanah/Old Fort
  3. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  6. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  7. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli
  8. Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Adatewithdelhi.wordpress.com - An alternate view | Red Fort, Delhi
  2. Allaboutindia.net - Salimgarh Fort
  3. Asi.nic.in - Swantratata Senani Museum, Red Fort
  4. Hindu.com - Article "A bridge too precious" (dated June 29, 2009) by R.V. Smith
  5. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Dead prisoners make merry at Salimgarh" (dated May 20, 2008) by Sarat C. Das
  6. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Mangi Bridge falls down" (dated June 18, 2009) by Jatin Anand
  7. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Mangi Bridge repair work in limbo" (dated March 01, 2012) by Nivedita Khandekar
  8. Infrawindow.com - Monuments Authority gives NOC to railways for new bridge near Salimgarh Fort
  9. Razarumi.wordpress.com - Mughal Princess Zebunnissa
  10. Razarumi.wordpress.com - The invisible Princess Zebunnisa
  11. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "New bridge to take burden off Salimgarh Fort" (dated May 14, 2012) by Richi Verma
  12. Wikipedia.org - INA trials
  13. Wikipedia.org - Zeb-un-Nisa
  14. Wisemuslimwomen.org - Zebunnisa


  1. AnonymousJuly 28, 2013

    I have been to Red Fort several times but never came across to Salimgarh fort. I couldn't make out the way from Red Fort complex, could you advise.

    Having read the stories of ghostly presence, and about Zebunisa, and other legends associated with it, I have a deep desire to visit this place.

  2. Hey Anon Individual,
    There are signages throughout the Red Fort complex that would point you to "Swatantra Senani Sangrahalya". You can take the left turn just before the Naubat Khana palace & keep walking. You will come across caved in barracks & schools, the path would fork many times, but you will either find your way by following the sign boards or the security personnel would flag you down when you enter prohibited portions of the fort complex. Finally a masonry bridge would take you over the busy Ring Road & into the Salimgarh complex.
    Hope you enjoy your visit!!

  3. Here is what Google maps show. Salimgarh is the triangular tract north-east of Red Fort, just across the Mahatma Gandhi Marg (Set map settings to "Traffic")


  4. Thankyou!! I will make a note this time, and really excited to be there...

  5. I visited here today, and found this place in a really pathetic situation. Really felt for the forgotten ones, who laid their lives for our brighter tomorrow. Couldn't find a single visitor. The pictures and the artifacts, seems to be waiting to be explored. The fort is turned to military base, and entry is restricted. Thanks again, for sharing the information, and direction.

  6. Anon Individual,
    Indeed, this is what I observed too. Sadly, the Red Fort complex is so vast that visitors are generally unable to visit each & every structure in a single go. The lack of awareness & publicity makes matters worse. It isn't just with Salimgarh, there are hundreds of monuments waiting to be explored, but we do not know about them as they are tucked behind colonies or reached through winding lanes or sometimes hidden in dense foliage. Exploring Delhi throws up jewels one would never expect to find. Keep exploring!! Cheers!

  7. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

    "Zebunissa’s ghost is commonly sighted on full moon nights, covered in a black veil & singing the poems she composed during her lifetime. Did she compose any new ones after death, I wonder."

    Lovely write up Sahil Ahuja .. you made it quite interesting at the end.. I always wondered, why I never went to salimgarh fort, probably as you said one thinks he will have to walk too long.. nevermind just to check Zebunissa's new composition, i would say it will be worth walking..