Highlights of India | The Red Fort

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Highlights of India | The Red Fort

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The Red Fort, Delhi, India

Red Fort, also called Lal Qalʿah, is a historic fort in the city of Delhi, overlooking the Yamuna River. It served as the main residence for the rulers of the formidable Mughal dynasty for almost 200 years until the British took over in 1857. Like the Taj Mahal, it was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1638 who decided to move the Mughal capital from Agra to Shahjahanabad, in present-day Old Delhi. The construction took ten years and the fort is octagonal in shape, covering an area of 254 acres of land. Now a popular tourist destination, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Designed by Ahmad Lahori, a famous Persian architect, the fort was modelled on the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh but the Red Fort is twice its size. Shah Jahan was known for being a man of lavish tastes, as evidenced by the opulence of the Taj Mahal, so it was important that the Red Fort reflect the strength of the Mughal dynasty. The fort’s massive red sandstone walls stand at 23 metres high and they enclose a complex of palaces, buildings, entertainment halls, a mosque and ornate gardens.

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Close up of the Agra Fort

The Architecture of the Red Fort

The architecture of the Red Fort demonstrates a mix of Persian, Timurid and Hindu traditions and it is considered to be emblematic of Mughal innovation and inventiveness. Laid out in an octagon shape, the fort’s walls are decorated by marble, domes and flower engravings. There are three gates to the fort. The Khizrabad Gate is now closed to the public but it was where the royals entered. The main gates now are the Lahore and Delhi gates.

The inside of the Red Fort
The inside of the Red Fort

Part of the fort’s garden design and other architectural elements indicate that a palace was planned to be built inside the fort. The most important surviving structures today are the walls and ramparts, the main entrance, the audience halls and the imperial apartments on the eastern riverbank. The Diwan-i-Aam (the Private Audience Hall) is a large hall with nine arches and features the Naubat-Khana or drum house where musicians played during celebrations. In the hall, you can also see the ornamented alcove where the Peacock Throne should have sat. The Diwan-i-Khas is the Public Audience Hall. Other important places within the complex is the Mumtaz Mahal, the women’s quarters built out of white marble along the banks of Yamuna River and converted into an archaeological museum that houses artefacts of the Mughal era, the Hammam, a builidng that housed the baths used by the emperors and is said to have used perfumed rose water, and the Khas Mahal, used as the emperor’s private residence and featuring a sleeping chamber, sitting room and the chamber of telling beads.

The History of the Red Fort

Red Fort
Red Fort

The Red Fort was completed in 1648 but Shah Jahan never took up full residence at the fort. He became extremely ill in 1657 and retired to the Agra Fort. With his father weakened, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb took the opportunity to usurp him, snatching the throne and imprisoning Shah Jahan in Agra Fort until his death in 1666.

Pearl Mosque or Moti Masjid, Delhi
Pearl Mosque or Moti Masjid, Delhi

Aurangzeb added Pearl Mosque, also known as Moti Masjid, to the fort complex and built barbicans at the two main entrances of the fort. However, following the reign of Aurangzeb, the Mughal dyansty began to decline and this was articulated in the condition of the Red Fort, which was steadily neglected. Aurangzeb was considered to be the last strong Mughal ruler and a period of unrest and instability followed his death in 1707. In 1749, the fort was plundered by the Persians and many of its treasures were looted, including the legendary Peacock Throne. The Peacock Throne was built for Shah Jahan and was said to be one of the most splendid thrones ever made. Crafted from gold with silver steps, the throne featured the representation of two open peacocks’ tails which were inset with diamonds, rubies, and other semiprecious stones. Since it was stolen, many reproductions of the Peacock Throne have been made.

In 1752, the Mughals signed a treaty with the Marathas (a group of warriors from present-day Maharashtra in India) and they became the protectors of the fort, which lost more of its riches in 1760 when the Marathas melted down the silver ceiling of its Diwan-i-Khas (Private Audience Hall). This was to raise funds in order to protect Delhi from being invaded by Emperor Ahmed Shah Durrani of Afghanistan.’

In 1803, the Marathas were defeated by the British in the Battle of Delhi during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. The British East India Company commenced governing Delhi but the Mughals, who had kept their titles but lacked power or money, continued living in the Red Fort, supported by the British. In 1857, a rebellion led by Indian soldiers and civilians against the British East India Company failed and the British responded with harsh reprisals, convicting Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar of treason and exiling him to Burma.

After this, the British plundered and looted the Red Fort, taking its valuables, destroying many of its structures and gardens and turning it into an army base.

The Political Significance of the Red Fort

Under British rule, the Red Fort became a site of protest and political turbulence. Many people marched to the Red Fort in great numbers as part of the Indian struggle for freedom.  The Red Fort was an important symbol because it was the place where the last Mughal emperor was tried and exiled and it was also the location where members of the Indian National Army were imprisoned and tried after World War II for siding with the Japanese.

Prime Minister Nehru addresses crowds at the Red Fort
Prime Minister Nehru addresses crowds at the Red Fort

On the 15 August, 1947, after India had gained independence from the British, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, made a historical speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort and since that day, it has become the permanent venue for the Independence Day address to the citizens of India. As such, the Red Fort has come to symbolise the unity of India and anti-colonial resistance. Every Independence Day, the Prime Minister hoists the national flag at the main gate of the fort and the speech is broadcast nationally.

The Indian flag flies high at the Red Fort
The Indian flag flies high at the Red Fort

Visiting the Red Fort

The fort is open everyday from 6 am to 9 pm, except Mondays. Ideally, it is best to visit early in the morning, before the crowds arrive, and set aside a few hours to explore the whole complex. If you visit during national holidays (such as Independence Day or Republic Day), there will be added security to contend with. A guided tour of the fort will allow you to notice all the interesting architectural details as well as discover the complex history and symbolism of the monument. The best time to visit the Red Fort is from November to February, when it’s not too hot or wet.

If you’re interested in discovering the incredible Red Fort and more of India, please take a look at our list of tours to India.

Old Delhi, India
Ox cart transportation on early morning in Old Delhi, India

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