April 07, 2015

Mumtaz Mahal and Rang 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 Seraglio (within Red Fort) contains beautiful apartments, separated, and more or less spacious and splendid, according to the rank and income of the females. Nearly every chamber has its reservoir of running water at the door; on every side are gardens, delightful alleys, shady retreats, streams, fountains, grottoes, deep excavations that afford shelter from the sun by day, and lofty divans and terraces on which to sleep coolly at night. Within the walls of this enchanting place, in fine, no oppressive or inconvenient heat is felt.”
– Francois Bernier, French physician-traveler-chronicler
“Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-68”

Whitewashed to ordinariness - Interiors, Mumtaz Mahal

Conspicuously drenched with an unnaturally inordinate quantity of sparkling white lime plaster which ruthlessly and almost entirely obliterates the lingering traces of its erstwhile ornamental splendor, the uninspiringly mediocre “Mashku-i-Mu'alla” (“Exalted Female quarters”) within the magnificent Red Fort complex is more popularly referred to as “Mumtaz Mahal” (“Most Exalted Palace”) after Emperor Shahjahan’s (reign AD 1627-57) favorite wife, “Lady of the Taj” Nawab Aliya Arjumand Bano Begum “Mumtaz-i-Mahal” (“Most Exalted in the Palace”).

Originally profusely adorned with intricately multi-hued floral scrollwork, exquisitely designed paintwork and dexterously crafted mirror work adornments, in delicate conjugation with glittering gold paint for the remaining unrelieved surfaces, the huge palace physically constituted a not insignificant fraction of the elegant imperial seraglio (“Daulatkhana Khas-i-Wala”). From underneath the shockingly hideous (yet ironically flawless) lime plaster facade, minute traces of marvelous floral motifs and stucco embossments still heartwarmingly peep intermittently, particularly along the scintillating multi-foliated arches.

Concealed in a corner - Interiors, Mumtaz Mahal

The original lustrous shell-lime plaster “Sang-i-Nihali” (also known as “Sang-i-Bahtali”), mined in and transported from Gujarat, was layered over with cheap plaster after British East India Co.’s colonialist army overtook the immense fortress following the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of AD 1857 and miserably transformed the gorgeous edifice first into a Sergeants’ mess and afterwards into a retributive prison. Gone too are the expensively gilded “chattris” (umbrella domes surmounted on slender pillars) crowning the palace’s four corners, as well as the adjacently located smaller subsidiary buildings, such as “Choti Baithak” (“Small Sitting room”) and “Khurd Jahan” (literally, “Little World”), which constituted the rest of the vast imperial seraglio.

“The palace at Delhi is, or rather was, the most magnificent palace in the East, perhaps in the world… Of the public parts of the palace all that now remains is the entrance hall, the Naubat Khana, Diwan-i-Amm and Khas, and the Rang Mahall – now used as a mess-room, and one or two small pavilions. They are the gems of the palace it is true, but without the courts and corridors connecting them they lose all their meaning and more than half their beauty. Being now situated in the middle of a British barrack-yard, they look like precious stones torn from their settings in some exquisite piece of Oriental jeweller’s work and set at random in a bed of the commonest plaster.”
– James Fergusson, Scottish businessman-architect-writer
“The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture” (1876)

Salvaged from ruins - Assorted antiquities,
Mumtaz Mahal Archaeological Museum

It is infuriatingly difficult to perceive whence came into existence the outlandish belief about Mughal sovereigns forbidding their cherished daughters from marrying for fear of bitter filial disputes concerning administrative governance, territorial division and familial prestige – William Darlymple references the same in his celebrated book “City of Djinns” – and still unbelievably shocking is the inexplicable ignorance offered to the unquestionable evidence stacked against this extraordinarily perplexing theory in the form of lesser known monuments scattered throughout the country, including in the historically legendary Nizamuddin area where are existential within a vernacularly-christened edifice (“Bada Bateshewala Mahal”) the mortal remains of Emperor Akbar’s son-in-law.

The same eccentric belief extends to the magnificent Mumtaz Mahal which is mistakenly alleged to have been the exclusive residence of “Malika-i-Zamani” (“Mistress of the Age”) Jahanara Begum, the eldest and most beloved daughter of the formidable Emperor Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57), where she would secretly receive forbidden lovers and consummate her passions without the explicit knowledge of her authoritarian father. When discovered, the ruthless Emperor, in one instance, very composedly ordered one of her infatuated lovers to be boiled alive in a huge cauldron within the gorgeous palace; others are said to have been remorselessly tossed over the towering curtain-walls to severely mortal injuries and agonizingly prolonged deaths.

The impoverished Zafar's undistinguished belongings,
Mumtaz Mahal Archaeological Museum

To wide-eyed fascinated seekers of folklore and gossip, the massive palace’s present whitewashed and uneventfully mediocre existence is inconsequential to the steady conviction of its erstwhile indelible association with the powerful princess and its being terrifyingly haunted since on account of the ghastly murders committed within. They neither perceive that the grand palace is within the immediate vicinity of the emperor’s own personal quarters (refer Pixelated Memories - Khas Mahal, Red Fort complex), nor do they indulge contemporaneous literary documentation, for instance the biographical court chronicle “Badshahnama”, which unequivocally refer to Jahanara Begum’s enormous mansion to have been gracefully located near Naubat Khana (refer Pixelated Memories - Naubat Khana, Red Fort complex) amidst vibrant ornamental fruit gardens and luxuriously opulent pleasure pavilions.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has transformed the beautiful edifice into a splendidly-maintained archaeological museum housing, among other fascinating antiquities, vividly sketched Mughal miniature paintings, brilliant Persian glazed tiles, decaying manuscripts, consecrated royal copies of the Quran, dexterously penciled maps and lithographs of Delhi, brightly glistening porcelain paraphernalia, enthralling calligraphy specimens of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reign AD 1837-57), life-like portraits of contemporary legendary personalities like Mirza Asadullah “Ghalib”, stately-composed royal letters, painstakingly engraved marble inscriptions, the sorry emperor’s personal wardrobe, and lastly, vibrantly paint-drenched decorative metallic “Akitoosha-i-Ukba” (religious texts signifying provisions for the next world) salvaged from the royal palaces.

Fairy tales reiterated on stone - Persian glazed tiles,
Mumtaz Mahal Archaeological Museum

“Rang Mahal” (“Palace of Color”) adjacent, originally officially christened “Imtiyaz Bakhsh” (“Palace of Distinction”) and “Mahal-i-Kalan” (“Massive Palace”), was anointed with the later nomenclature both on account of the extravagant paintwork that decorated its walls, and the exceedingly colorful private lives of its inhabitants, especially the later Mughals who dedicated themselves to excessive alcohol/opiates consumption and sexual debauchery with unparalleled impunity. Word-of-mouth unascertainable gossip records the self-enamored Emperor Shahjahan as having employed a portion of the palace as a veritable “Sheesh Mahal” (“Glass Palace”), ordering its entire palatial surface to be layered with finely-polished, conspicuously seamless mirror wedges and perfectly reflective gold sheets in order to allow him to observe his own lovemaking!

Contemporaneous historic documents record the presently wretched edifice as having been mesmerizingly concealed within layers of shell-lime plaster, lavish mirror work (“dina bandi”) and enchantingly designed paintings (“naqqashi”). Fawning royal raconteurs unabashedly drool matchless flattering praise on its ornamental form –

“In excellence and glory it surpassed the eight-sided throne of heaven, and in luster and color it is far superior to the palaces in the promised paradise.”
– Muhammad Salih, Emperor Shahjahan’s court chronicler

Uninspiring - Rang Mahal and the parched Nahr-i-Bisht fountains

It was originally almost similarly conceived like Mumtaz Mahal except that its colossal structure was resplendent with multi-hued patterns and shards of brilliant light seductively twinkling and reflecting from hundreds of glass wedges, and musical with the subdued murmur of falling water and the classical notes emanating from the well-practiced lips of professional singers. Sadly, the white marble layering the walls appears irrevocably spoiled, and the sorry-looking red sandstone above has become brutally faded. The present uninspiring, featureless roof was originally constructed from silver but was dismantled and replaced with copper gilt during the reign of Emperor Muinuddin Farrukhsiyar (ruled AD 1713-19) to restore the dwindling treasury reserves; during the reign of Abu Nasir Akbar Shah II (ruled AD 1807-37), the copper too was melted and replaced by poor, unadorned wood.

Peeping in - Interiors, Rang Mahal

“The fountain and its setting in the Rang Mahall, besides being a gracefully ornate conception, accords perfectly with its architectural surroundings... The design of the basin represents a large lotus-form of delicately modeled petals contained within a square bordered frame, the whole patterned so exquisitely as to move a contemporary writer to remark that “the waving of the plants and flowers under the dancing water was nothing less than a scene of magic”.”
– Percy Brown, British art critic-scholar-historian-archaeologist,
“Indian Architecture, Volume II: Islamic Period

Apart from the barbaric plunder of its inlaid precious stones and thick ivory surface, the only ornament of the imposing palace practically remaining almost intact is the delicate lotus-basin in its center through which flowed the gurgling “Nahr-i-Bisht” (“Stream of Paradise”), the imaginatively employed water channel enchantingly cascading through all the royal palaces. Sadly, this least impressive of Emperor Shahjahan’s bewilderingly delightful palaces too is out of bounds for visitors now, and thus one can only sadly perceive the vertical extremities of the lotus-basin.

In every other direction one looks to – the palace’s erstwhile enthralling interiors, the huge parched fountains nearby, the rear facade of Diwan-i-Am palace opposite (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort complex) or the sorry remnants of Mumtaz Mahal – certainly, the only perception in the starkly ruinous complex is an all-enveloping, heartbreaking redolence of utter desolation, unbelievable despoliation, and inescapable melancholy.

Obnoxious how a book is being treated! - Firdausi's "Shahnama",
Mumtaz Mahal Archaeological Museum

“The ruins of so many Indian palaces – Mandu, for example, or the great Hindu capital of Hampi – still retain an aura of great dignity about them in their wreckage, but in the Red Fort that aura is notable by its absence. Instead, what remains, despite the completeness of the walls and the outer gates, is a peculiar emptiness, a hollowness at the very heart of the complex. For all the marble, for all the inlay, for all the grand memories glimpsed through finely perforated jail screens, the final impression is sad, almost tawdry.”
– William Darlymple, “City of Djinns

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. Photography not allowed within the museums 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 - Naubat Khana, Red Fort complex
  9. Pixelated Memories - Sawan–Bhadon Pavilions and Zafar Mahal, Red Fort complex
  10. Pixelated Memories - Shah Burj and Burj-i-Shamli, Red Fort complex
Other monuments/landmarks located in the immediate vicinity -

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