' It first occurred to
the omniscient mind that he should select on the banks of the aforesaid
river some pleasant site, distinguished by its genial climate, where he
might found a splendid fort and delightful edifices, agreeably to the promptings
of his generous heart, through which streams of water should be made to
flow, and the terraces of which should overlook the river.' Muhammad Tahir,
Inayat Khan Shahjahan-nama, 1657-58.
Such worthy thoughts,
according to the royal librarian, prompted the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan
to found a fresh city at Delhi in the mid-seventeenth century. He called
it Shahjahanabad, meaning City of Shah Jahan. At its centre stood the Red
Fort, a vast walled complex of beautiful palaces and meeting halls from
which the Emperor ruled with unmatched public pomp and ceremony. Today,
the surviving Fort buildings stand silently amid the still bustling city,
now called Old Delhi.
The Red Fort's success
was instant. It represented the pinnacle of Mughal palace-fort building,
and symbolized political and economic power. It was also perhaps the most
extravagant and sophisticated theatre ever built for daily performances
of one of the world's most dazzlingly grand courts. But its glory was short-lived;
as the Mughal Empire waned, so did the Fort. Later Emperors abused the
fine buildings, raiders snatched its treasures, marauders wrecked its buildings
and finally the British, blind to its qualities, pulled down the greater
part. Even this century, what remains has been largely ignored, unappreciated
and uncared for. But, despite the ravages of time and human action, the
extraordinary achievement of the Red Fort in plan and fine architecture
is still visible today, although it is unjustly ignored. It is time to
set the record straight, to look again at the surviving buildings and to
bring the Fort alive through the personality of its creator, Shah Jahan,
and his Court.
The Red Fort and its surrounding
city constitute the only large-scale Mughal city planned and built from
scratch to survive as a living city. Built in just over nine years, it
burst into life in 1648 and, although the palace buildings are peopled
only by ghosts, the city it supported still thrives today and the inhabitants
of its tiny lanes are often descendants of merchants and craftsmen who
served Shah Jahan and his Court, still practising the same trades in the
same areas. Here they live and work, shop in the markets and celebrate
their festivals in the streets. And a few old families who a generation
ago deserted the lanes for spacious, air-conditioned comfort in the New
Delhi suburbs keep the family haveli (courtyard mansion) in Old Delhi and
speak proudly of the city they come from, even if they have never slept
a night in it.
The key to the Red Fort's
success was firstly that it was designed not merely for Court pleasure.
It may have contained glittering palaces, but it was also the power-base
for the whole Empire, for internal government and external foreign affairs.
It was built for defence, too, although this role would later prove its
Achilles' Heel. The Red Fort was also a complete community, a city-within-a-city,
with its own bazaars (the covered Chatta Chowk is a token survivor), gardens
and mansions for favoured courtiers. Every detail of layout and every building
reflected Mughal greatness, using the finest materials to realise the most
mature Mughal designs.
Secondly, the supporting
city was an essential part of the original plan. It had its own protective
walls; its great mosque, the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), stands on the
only hillock so all can see it; and its host of specialist bazaars, which
supplied the vast Court with everything it needed from silk slippers to
fresh Kabul melons. The city gained enough momentum to survive, albeit
less glamorously, when the Mughal Empire waned and, more importantly, when
the British built New Delhi and its competing shopping centre at nearby
Thirdly, the whole of Shahjahanabad,
both Red Fort and city, was a thoroughly royal undertaking. The city outside
the Emperor's palace-fort was an extension of it in design, patronage and
function. Indeed, Fort and city sustained one another, living in symbiosis.
The Jama Masjid encapsulates the idea, for it was planned as the mosque
for both the city and the royal Red Fort, which had no internal place of
prayer. The city's main market street, Chandni Chowk, was laid out by one
princess; additional markets, sarais (inns), Hammams (baths), mosques and
gardens were given by other members of the royal family; and grand havelis
(mansions) were built by favoured princes and courtiers. The havelis have
mostly gone, but those markets and places of worship are still focuses
of Old Delhi. Conversely, the public had access to the daily public meetings
held in the Diwan-i-Am (Public Audience Hall) in the Fort itself, a fundamental
element of Mughal rule.
As a royal undertaking,
the Emperor's personal interest and vast finances were behind the project.
With a stable empire and a huge income from taxes paid by his subjects, Shah Jahan
could indulge his obsession, building a new and magnificent capital whose
centrepiece would become a legend in his lifetime and whose magnificent
planning and buildings would survive, in part, to be admired by posterity.
Shah Jahan seems to have taken an active part in the design, direction
and encouragement of the whole project. He was involved in the general
plan and in the detailed designs for the marble palaces, the Chatta Chowk,
the Jama Masjid and probably more. As one recorder noted, perhaps with
an overdose of loyalty: 'Occasionally His Majesty supervised the work of
goldsmiths, jewellers and sculptors. Thereupon specialists commissioned
to design new buildings would submit their plans to His Majesty, who discussed
them with expert persons ... Various monuments, which even the best-versed
architect could not have devised, were drawn up by His Majesty personally.
His advice or his objections were regarded as binding.'
Forthly, the Red Fort and
its city are an inspired triumph of urban planning. Within the Fort, the
core of the design is T-shaped, the cross-bar consisting of a string of
palaces facing the Yamuna's cool river breezes on the east side of the
Fort. To the west, they face the main axis of the Fort and city: a procession
of increasingly less private and less royal buildings which leads to a
giant gateway, out of the seat of power and into the city's principal thoroughfare,
Finally, each building
in the Red Fort displays the hallmark of perfect taste and elegance. Built
at the height of one of the most cultured courts the world has known, this
is Mughal palace architecture at its most ambitious and sophisticated.
Imagined in its original completeness, it would have easily outshone its
contemporary European rival, Louis xiv's palace at Versailles, and it covered
twice the area of the largest European palace, the Escorial. Of the surviving
structures, each one perfectly fulfils its function. At the same time,
each is visually satisfying, relates happily to its neighbours and fits
snugly into the overall plan. Lines are simple, proportions human in scale,
detailing restrained and both materials and workmanship of the highest
quality. Architectural historian Percy Brown judged it in 1942 as 'the
last and finest of those great citadels, representative of the Moslem power
in India, the culmination of the experience in building such imperial retreats
which had been developing for several centuries.' Thus the Red Fort symbolizes
the apex of Mughal cultural refinement.
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