July 10, 2014

Sawan–Bhadon Pavilions and Zafar Mahal, 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.


“The spirit of Delhi has always been staccato, and full of fractures. 
The greatest period of stability came under the Mughals, a dynasty originally from central Asia, whose legendary wealth and magnificence reached their height in the seventeenth century. It was at this time that the emperor Shah Jahan removed his capital from Agra and brought it to Delhi, where he built a new metropolis on the banks of the Yamuna river... this glistening paradise of domes and gardens sprang up, stupefyingly, in less than one decade... in the days of its magnificence, it seemed that obsolescence could never visit such dewy bowers, such inordinate splendor, such implausible avenues, with their rose-water fountains, exquisite merchandise and royal processions.
– Rana Dasgupta, “Capital, A Portrait of Twenty-first century Delhi”

Unsurprisingly regarded by historians as the most formidable builder ever born in the Mughal dynasty, emperor Shahjahan, a learned purveyor of civic planning with a keen eye for minute ornamental details and equally refined architectural sensibilities, possessed (like almost all rulers who reigned over India) an interminable love for commissioning magnificent edifices to last centuries and illuminate his proof and his reign as the majesty. He left his imprint on Delhi by commissioning two of its most magnificent structures – a massive fortified citadel conceived of deep red sandstone and hence christened “Qila-i-Surkh” ("Red Fort") and the breathtakingly gorgeous Friday congregation mosque Jama Masjid not very far from it. The sheer proportions of these two edifices, along with the painstaking effort that went into their construction is bewildering to say the least – but the real eye-opener is the precise detail with which these were constructed, the spectacular skill that went into their execution and the spellbinding artworks with which these were thoughtfully embellished.

Of all the lesser known features within the immense fortress, the most charming are two endearingly small, flawless white marble pavilions christened “Sawan” and “Bhadon” after the rain months according to Hindu calendar. Intended as an earthly imitation of paradise, the unparalleled fortress was envisaged complete with a huge garden that was flanked by exquisitely designed public buildings on one side, the royal family’s lavishly adorned personal quarters on the opposite and the fortress' enormous periphery on the other two sides – this was the “Hayat-Baksh bagh”, the “life-bestowing garden” planned according to the typical Mughal charbagh pattern of garden design where large square lawns are divided into smaller quadrants by means of causeways and walkways. Imparting a sophisticated, otherworldly charm to the entire complex, a noiselessly whirling water stream, referred to as “Nahr-i-Bisht” (“Stream of Paradise”), flowed through the vast gardens and all the royal quarters and pavilions.

Delicate - The Sawan pavilion

At the center of the garden existed a large ornamental water channel at either end of which symmetrically sat these two glittering pavilions surrounded by fragrant flower beds and lush grassy lawns for company. The well-thought nomenclature of these brilliantly shimmering pavilions betrays the purpose for which they were conceived, viz, creating a beautiful illusion of perennial waterfalls for the entertainment of the extravagant royalty. Perfectly complimenting and mirroring each other in almost every aspect, the two are set on high plinths which were once reached via staircases which do not exist anymore. Also entirely obliterated is the lavish ornamentation with which these identical picturesque edifices were adorned.

What still remains however are the unblemished pearly facades built exclusively of marble, the small decorative niches along the center of the front faces of their plinths, and the ethereal beauty and symmetry of the two that is further underlined by the three engrailed arches on three sides of each remarkable pavilion. That said, minor structural differences between the two, such as the presence of a complementary set of niches at the back of the wall through which water sprouts in the Bhadon pavilion and the absence of the same in Sawan pavilion where water flows through a shallow channel, do exist.

Their peerless functionality imperceptibly camouflaged by their elegant ornamental existence, both graceful pavilions were provided with a water channel running from the back wall to the front where the water cascaded down in front of the plinth niches – the view would have been unquestionably mesmerizing – it's said that during the day these niches were richly decorated with expensive vases made of gold and silver with vivid bursts of golden flowers peeping through, and at night the vases were replaced by slender white candles which when lighted appeared like twinkling stars in an obdurately dark night, with the soothing gurgle of gently falling water completing the dreamy scene. Matchless singers and renowned musicians, seated in these otherworldly marvelous pavilions, would often play their instruments and belt out heart-touching renditions.

The entire area is dry now, the still unmistakably handsome pavilions and the wide water channels appear irredeemably parched; the red sandstone has begun losing its vibrant character and the marble is gradually turning less milkier by the day; the skilled singers, the colorful flowers and the vivid golden ornamentation are long gone. The inspiring floral patterns carved in the marble of the back wall betray the fact that these were once intricately jeweled with stunning pietra dura inlay work with exceedingly expensive, colorful stones.

Vacant niches in a skeleton fortress where once treasuries overflowed

As the incomparable empire aged, its unequaled strength and enviable glory waned to such an extent that most princes and members of the royal family found it difficult to sustain their lavish lifestyles and rich passions – the outstanding fortress soon horribly transformed into an overpopulated residential quarter with asymmetric and austerely embellished tiny buildings to house these regal personalities cropping up without any regard to the original plan that Shahjahan (reigned AD 1638-58) had so lovingly conceived and his descendants painstakingly maintained – apparently, most of these royal relatives took to architecture as a means to assert their dwindling authority and the arguable right to reside in the imposing fortress and hence undertook these misguided constructions which stuck out like sore thumbs in Shahjahan’s paradisaical setting.

In a move that would have had Shahjahan inconsolably turn in his grave and roll his eyes with grief, the last Mughal Emperor Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reigned AD 1837-57) had, in 1842, a red sandstone pleasure pavilion constructed in a massive tank in the center of the extensive waterway connecting the Sawan-Bhadon pavilions. He also commissioned two more threadbare simplistic structures christened Hira Mahal and Moti Mahal along the fortress' impressive peripheries from where they pensively overlooked river Yamuna that once languidly flowed immediately adjacent – while Moti Mahal was barbarically dismantled by British administrators following the First War of Independece/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Hira Mahal still exists and has been documented on this blog here – Pixelated Memories - Hira Mahal.

Zafar Mahal - The last Mughal's last commission

The contrasting red pavilion was accessed by means of a sandstone bridge that connected it to the tank periphery, however it has since collapsed along with much of the roof and floor of the pavilion. Formidable water jets were employed along its avenues, but these too have since irreversibly decayed and disappeared. That the new pavilion, unimaginatively named “Zafar Mahal”, is a striking piece of architecture consisting of small rooms built around a central hall, the entire distinguished edifice notably possessing exquisite stone lattice screens (“jaalis”) along its outer peripheries, and delineated from both its own roof and the high plinth on which it sits by means of wide protruding “chajjas” (eaves), might have been the last shred of relief that the mighty Shahjahan might have been afforded since soon thereafter the enviable fortress was sacked when the British took control of it following the defeat of the imperial forces in the disastrous events of 1857. In the rioting and wanton destruction that followed, hundreds of rebel Indian troops and most of the (seemingly blameless) royal family were executed, imprisoned or exiled; the otherworldly beautiful Jama Masjid mosque of Shahjahan was humiliatingly converted into a grotesque horse stable (refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid), but the severest punishment was reserved for his gigantic fortress – the exquisite pleasure pavilions and the magnificent regal quarters were horrifically turned into Officers’ mess, majestic public buildings and their annexes were thoughtlessly blasted to smithereens, the famed Hayat-Baksh garden was brutally destroyed to raise monotonous soldiers’ barracks in its place, and lastly, unscrupulous agents were avariciously employed for looting and sale of the rich adornments that imparted the fine edifices their brilliance, and as Sawan and Bhadon can testify to with their bare, gaping artwork which once delectably sparkled with the twinkle of precious stones, even the colorful gemstones were carved out with knives from the wall niches which they so endearingly jeweled. Appallingly, these two pavilions were later converted into urinals for soldiers, while the impressive Zafar Mahal and its associated pool became a site for swimming contests!

Parched and sunburnt!

Gordon Sanderson (1886-1915), the celebrated Superintendent of the northern circle of Archaeological Survey of India, famously responsible for the conservation and restoration of several monuments of national importance, noted in his "Delhi Fort: A Guide to the Buildings and Gardens" –

“Many of the buildings were then sadly in need of repair; others were used as barrack rooms or stores, while the area in which they stood was cut up by modern roads, and disfigured by unsightly military buildings. The old levels of the ground had been obliterated and bewildered visitor to the palace of the ‘Great Mogul’ wandered aimlessly about from building to building” 

The colossal fortress today stands as a mere lifeless skeleton of its erstwhile glory; of the unparalleled fame that it once boasted of there is none now; the glimmering shimmer of candles and the multi-hued vibrance of flowers is long gone. Hundreds of thousands of tourists still flock to it every day, but the astonishment, the twinkle that once creeped into an onlooker’s eyes and left them bewitched has disappeared with the last of the Mughals. The seemingly unassailable empire which began with the march of the mighty Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (reign AD 1526-30) from Afghanistan in the west ended with the demise of a heartbroken Bahadur Shah Zafar in Myanmar in the east.

Zafar Mahal, once upon a time (Photo courtesy - Jhss.org)

Zafar was left lamenting his punitive exile from his beloved country, penning his anguish thus –

“Lagta nahin hai jee mera ujare dayar mein, Kiski bani hai alam-e-na paayedar mein
Bulbul ko paasbaan se na saiyyad se gila, Qismat mein kaid likhi thi fasal-e-bahar mein
Keh do in hassraton se kahin or ja basen, Itni jagah kahan hai dil-e-daghdar mein
Ik shaakh-i-gul pe baith ke bulbul hai shadmaan, Kaante bicha diye hai dil-e-laalazaar mein
Umar-e-daraz maang ke laye the char din, Do aarzu mein kat gye do intezaar me
Din zindagi ke khatam hue sham ho gyi, Faila ke paon soyenge kunj-e-mazaar me
Kitna hi badnaseeb hai Zafar, dafan ke liye, Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku-e-yaar mein”

“My heart has no repose in this despoiled land, Who has ever felt fulfilled in this futile world?
The nightingale complains about neither the sentinel nor the hunter,
Fate had decreed imprisonment during the harvest of spring
Tell these longings to dwell elsewhere, What place is there for them in this besmirched heart?
Sitting on a flowery branch the nightingale rejoices, strewing thorns in the garden of my heart
I asked for a long life, received four days, Two passed in desire, two in waiting.
The days of life are over, evening has fallen, I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb
How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial not even two yards of land were to be had,
in the land of his beloved.”

Otherworldly magnificence, despite the physical assaults and the desecration

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 edifices/museums located within the fortress complex -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Baoli, Red Fort complex
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chatta Chowk, Red Fort complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Freedom Fighter Museum and Salimgarh Fort complex
  6. Pixelated Memories - Hira Mahal, Red Fort complex
  7. Pixelated Memories - Khas Mahal, Red Fort complex
  8. Pixelated Memories - Mumtaz Mahal and Rang Mahal, Red Fort complex
  9. Pixelated Memories - Naubat Khana, Red Fort complex
  10. Pixelated Memories - Shah Burj and Burj-i-Shamli, Red Fort complex
Other monuments/landmarks located in the immediate vicinity -


  1. Very nice blog

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Sahil. I have read it previously, but every time I read there is always something new to learn.