What is known as Old Delhi today was originally the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad, built by the imperial court when the capital was moved from Agra to Delhi. Construction began in 1638, and ten years later the Red Fort, Jamil Masjid, Chandni Chowk and the surrounding residential and mercantile quarters were ready for occupation.
The city was surrounded by a rubble wall pierced by 14 gates, of which three -Delhi, Turkman and Ajmeri– survive. An elegantly mannered lifestyle flourished, enriched by the courtiers and merchants, artists and poets who lived in the lanes and quarters, called Galis and Katras, of the walled city.
In 1739, the Persian freebooter Nadir Shah came to plunder the city of Shahjahanabad and left a bleeding ruin behind him. The final deathblow was, however, dealt when the British troops moved into the Red Fort after the Mutiny of 1857, turning it into a military garrison, while a railway line cut the walled city in half.
Yet, the spirit of the place has survived all these vicissitudes and its busy Galis continue to support vibrant life. Modernity has brought a new urgency to the pace of the traditional traders who still live and operate from here.
After an incredible breakfast at Oberoi’s 360 Degrees I get ready to leave the hotel. A tall man in a striped tuban asks the number of the car and the name of my driver. This time it’s Prem Singh. “Ayshman Bhava (live long). Please take me to Lal Quila and be my guide.”
Prem Singh, the driver, parks the car. We are in the heart of the dusty Old City, reaching the entrance of the Red Fort doors. On our way, vendors of all kinds sell us lemonade, green beans, flowers, Kumkum (vermilion powder), fruits, and postcards of the Red Fort. A little girl, no older than 7, speaks to me in 4 different languages about a small guide she wants to sell for 500 rupees.
Red sandstone battlements give this imperial citadel its name. I am in a line for women. Dressed in bright colorful sarees, they all stare at me directly in my eyes, possibly because they are not accustomed to seeing blue eyes. No, they are looking at my sandals from Capri…but I thought they had an India Look!….No, I know what they are interested in…my Borsalino straw hat. Whatever. A woman dressed in a military uniform searches my Louis Vuitton and my body inside out, then finally I am allowed inside the Red Fortress.
Commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1639, it took nine years to build and was the seat of Mughal power until 1857, when the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was dethroned and exiled. Lahore Gate, one of the fort’s six gateways, leads into the covered bazaar of Chatta Chowk, where brocades and jewels were once sold. By the way, I couldn’t resist and bought amazing bangles with pearls from Rajastan and an incredible ‘Rubi Necklace” with matching earrings and head decoration. (Check the picture below)
Beyond this lies the Naqqar Khana, from where musicians played three times a day. I am walking, feeling the gentle breeze of this sunny afternoon, towards Moti Masjid. Named after the pearly sheen of marble, the tiny “pearl mosque” was added by Emperor Aurangzeb in 1659.
Next to the Moti Masjid, I cross the royal bath or Hammam with its three enclosures. The first provided a hot vapor bath, the second sprayed rose scented water through sculpted fountains, and the third contained cold water.
Diwan-I-Am, a 60-pillared spectacular hall, is where the emperor gave daily audiences to all his subjects. Many families, couples, and children line up to have their photo taken in front of the intricately carved throne canopy where a lower marble bench was reserved for the chief ministers.
The light breeze of the day suddenly takes my hat away. I try to run after it. It reaches Diwan-I-Khas, the legendary Peacock Throne, one of Shah Jahan’s seven jeweled thrones housed in this exclusive pavillon where the emperor met his most trusted nobles. The walls and pillars were once inlaid with gems and the ceiling was silver inlaid with precious stones.
Needless to say, no matter what language I spoke to the nearby guard in military uniform (with rifle in hand) I wasnâ€™t allowed inside.Even after explaining that my precious straw hat came from a prestigious house in Milan, I was denied permission to enter.
Hat-less, I continue my walk. The sun is higher in the sky and it’s getting warmer. I pass Khas Mahal, the royal apartments divided by the “Stream of Paradise”, the emperor’s prayer room (Tasbih Khana) flanked by his sleeping chamber (Khwabgah) and sitting room (Baithak). This overlooked the Yamuna and led to a balcony where he appeared before his subjects at sunrise. A woman in a light green saree –probably an “Untouchable”- is sweeping the white marbled floors vehemently, but with grand grace.
At last I decide I have a few minutes left. From across some gilded chambers I see Prem Singh, the driver who lost me right in front of where the lines entered the bazaar.He explains with a relieved smile that these were chambers once reserved exclusively for women.I notice a superbly inlaid marble fountain shaped like an open Lotus.
Going back to our car, leaving this magical place – one of India’s most important building complexes- that encapsulates a long period of Indian history and its arts, I realize that its significance has transcended time and space. It is relevant as a symbol of architectural brilliance and power,showcasing the highest level of art form and ornamental work. A synthesis of Persian, European and Indian art resulted in the development of unique Shahjahani style which is very rich in form, expression and color.
After all, you don’t need to fly to the Taj Mahal to experience this Mughal love of opulence, passion and unlimited creative will visible in the lavish use of marble, gold, gems, but above all being once more, the inevitable manifestation his most precious and powerful dreams.
Mahatma Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, Delhi, India