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Mughal Era to Independence
- Red Fort Stands Guard Through the Ages
|by Madhusree Chatterjee|
This is where India's dreams coalesced during the First War of Independence in 1857; 90 years later on Aug 15, 1947, this is where millions gathered to watch first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru mark the end of British rule as he unfurled the tricolor; and this is from where Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the nation on the country's 61st Independence Day.
The grand red sandstone fortress was built by Mughal emperor Shahjehan between 1638-1648 and has been witness to the long road travelled since -- the palace intrigues and the battles of succession in the Mughal era, the fight against the British when the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II presided over a fading empire, and now as a connect between the past and India's modern present.
Also known as the Lal Quila, the fort that looks over the Yamuna river on one side and Delhi's historic walled city on the other forms the backdrop to the capital's evolution from a Muslim stronghold to the country's "first city" - the nerve-centre of India's realpolitik.
Its modern day relevance apart, Red Fort is the place where the history of medieval India was crafted - and honed to scale pinnacles of glory till the British colonized India.
The Red Fort, a World Heritage site, was the battle frontline of a fast-changing political milieu of the 19th century. It is this monumental fort that braved the onslaught of the marauding British army when it stormed the fort and unseated the last Mughal emperor. Bahadur Shah Zafar was subsequently tried for treason behind its turreted façade.
The fort became a garrison for the British army and remained so for till Independence, when it was handed over the Indian Army in 1947.
It is now the centerpiece of India's Independence Day celebrations, with successive prime ministers hoisting the Indian tricolor and addressing the nation from its ramparts in a speech that has come to be a major policy statement of the government of the day.
"This is most beautiful monument I have ever seen. I have travelled throughout the world and have even visited Egypt and the Byzantine relics of Turkey. But nothing compares with the sheer grandeur of this fort," said Ahmed-al-Ibraheem, a tourist from Kuwait, who is touring India with his American wife.
Within its walls, spanning a length of 2.4 km and varying in height between 18 to 33 meters, stands the Naubat Khana (the drum house) which has been converted into a museum.
Other attractions include Rang Mahal (Palace of Colors), used as living quarters for the emperor's wives and mistresses; the Moti Masjid (pearl mosque) built by emperor Aurangzeb; Shahi Burji, Shah Jahan's private working area; and Diwan-e-Khas, the great baths or the hammams.
But two structures stand out for their sheer beauty, intricate craftsmanship and geometric precision: The Diwan-i-Aam - the pillared hall where the emperor used to hold public courts and the Sheesh and the Khas Mahal - the special inner sandstone and marble quarters embellished with colorful meenakari (enameled) motifs of flowers and twines, baroque architecture and latticed north India screens. It has two main archways - the Delhi Gate and the Lahori Gate - that still serve as the entrances into the fort.
"There is something that sets this fort apart from the rest," observed Ibraheem as he walked through the quarters. It is the Chatta Chowk Bazaar that lies on the approach to the fort. "I loved the jewellery that I saw in the shops," said Ahmed's wife Miriam. The market mostly sells Mughal-style jewellery set in semi-precious gemstones and local handicrafts.
The Chatta Chowk market, nearly 400 years old, was built by Shah Jahan for the women of the "zenana" - or the harem. The market's claim to fame is that it is the oldest covered shopping arcade - in other words the first mall - in the world. It is under renovation now.
The Red Fort, as the tour guide informs Ibraheem, has a chequered history. Before 1857, Red Fort was a well-documented site thanks to the accounts of the travelers for 200 years. Post Sepoy Mutiny till 1947, details are sketchy.
"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," writes Inayat Khan in Shahjahan-nama (1567-58) quoting the emperor's "diwan" (minister) about the epiphany Shah Jahan had prior to building his fort city.
In the mid-17th century, Shah Jahan fulfilled his dream. He built Shahjahanabad, the walled city, at the centre of which stood the Red Fort.
But the architectural growth that marked Shah Jahan's reign gave away to vicious sibling rivalry when Aurangzeb killed brother Dara Sukoh and imprisoned his father to capture the throne of Delhi and Agra. It took a toll on the fort.
While in Delhi, Aurangzeb called the shots from the Red Fort; but each time the emperor travelled to Deccan to quell rebellions, the fort was left in charge of his sons and nobles.
Being devout, Aurangzeb's contribution to the fort was the Pearl Mosque. After Aurangzeb's death, Red Fort was occupied by a succession of lesser-known emperors, beginning with Aurangzeb's son Prince Muazzam and several others till Bahadur Shah Zafar II was crowned the emperor in 1832.
It marked the beginning of the end of the glorious days of the walled fort.
Now, the fort is more of a political and heritage edifice - that pleasures at least 6,000-7,000 tourists every day. And stands tall as a reference point for India through the ages.
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