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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort

This is the place where Jawaharlal Nehru unveiled the flag of independent India on August 15, 1947. The Red Fort, or Lal Qila, had been built by Shah Jahan in 1639-48, and it continued to serve past Nehru's time as a fortress, its red walls enclosing an area measuring roughly 500 by 2000 feet.

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Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 1

There are two main gates: the Delhi Gate on the south and the Lahore Gate on the west.  The view here looks north from the Lahore Gate.  The moat was drained in 1857--and not refilled.  The British had nearly lost India that year; in May and June, many of them had been executed here.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 2

The Lahore Gate, looking east straight toward the Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience.  That hall lies out of sight, but within the shadows lies the Chhata Chauk, now an arcade for trinkets but in Mughal times a place for jewellers and weavers. The distinctive Persian arch is four-centered: that is, each side is constructed by striking two arcs, one with a much longer radius than the other.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 3

The Hall of Public Audience, or Diwan-i-Am. The lawn occupies what was the Am Khas, or Court of Public Audience. Commoners had access only this far.  The Hall was for the nobility--and a hall to its left, or north, was reserved for the highest of them.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 4

The Diwan-i-Am is open on three sides and consists of nine bays, each of three engrailed arches.  It looks barren, but the sandstone was formerly covered with white plaster (chunam) trimmed with floral-motif paintings.  The hard surfaces were softened with canopies and tapestries, and they were floored with carpets. A gold railing divided the interior of the hall into spaces for nobles of higher and lower rank, while minor officials and commoners stood outdoors in the Am Khas,in which they were confined by a stone railing.  Canopies shaded the part of the Am Khas occupied by minor officials.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 5

The emperor's throne--the "seat of the Shadow of God"--was placed at the center of the building's one wall, and both Shah Jahan and Jahangir appeared on it daily.   Aurangzeb (1618-1707) abandoned the practice because it was based on the (to him heretical) Hindu idea of darshan, or seeing (and being seen by) a god. The bench was for the vizier and it alone, along with the throne, is of marble in this otherwise sandstone building.  The building is in good shape because Lord Curzon, the most imperious of the viceroys, ordered the restoration of both throne and hall.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 6

North of the Diwan-i-Am is the Diwan-i-Khas, or Hall of Private Audience, built of white marble.  This was the home of  Shah Jahan's Peacock Throne until it was stolen in 1743 and taken to Persia.  Between the two halls is the small Khas Mahal, or private palace.  Within it is the Tosh Khana, or Robe Room, with a filigreed marble screen showing the mizan-i-adl, or  "scales of justice." The screen straddles an artificial streamcourse, the Nahr-i-Bihisht, or "river of paradise," which ran through the halls to cool them or at least remind everyone of the cooler places that had once been their home. Babur, the founder of the dynastic line, had come from the Fergana Valley, far to the north.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 7

The Nahr-i-Bihisht, or "river of paradise," began to the north with this fountain in the Royal Tower, the Shahi Burj.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 8

There were other fountains, too.  This one is the source of the water that flowed over the lip in the foreground to irrigate the Sawan garden.  That name comes from the month of Sawan--July, the first wet month.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 9

The water flowed north into a Persian-style char bagh or "four garden" layout, with geometrically tidy gardens separated by fountains and streams.  In the distance is the Bhadon pavilion, named for August.  Sawan and Bhadon together form a square garden 200 feet on a side, the Hayat Baksh Bagh or "life-giving garden."  The palaces lie to the right, or east.  To the west was a Mahtab Bagh or "moon garden" that no longer exists.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 10

Detail of the pool at the center of the Hayat Baksh Bagh.

And where did the water come from? Percy Brown, writing in The Cambridge History of India (1937), v. 4, p. 557, explains that: "a constant supply of water was obtained by tapping the river Jumna at a point seventy miles up stream and bringing it by canal to the fort, where its inlet was at the northern angle."

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 11

A floral detail in a garden pavilion.

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The door to the Moti Masjid, the "pearl mosque" built at the garden's edge by Aurangzeb in 1662 for private use. Behind the door is a pool in a square courtyard rimmed with arcades.  On its far side is a prayer hall with seven bays and three domes--everything of white marble.

Northern India: Delhi's Red Fort picture 13

Looking west over the Hayat Baksh Bagh, with the Sawan pavilion at the left and, still within the fort's perimeter, British military buildings. They're a good reminder of the fact that, after the Mutiny, the British took over the fort and then destroyed the greater part of its private courtyards and apartments. James Fergusson was livid on this point. In his wonderful History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, rev. ed. 1910, he writes that "the whole of the haram courts of the palace were swept off the face of the earth to make way for a hideous British barrack, without those who carried out this fearful piece of Vandalism, thinking it even worth while to make a plan of what they were destroying or preserving any record of the most splendid palace of the world."


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