The first point to be ‘ticked’ off the list when a traveler visits Delhi is usually the Red Fort, the beautiful red-sandstone-and-marble citadel built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1648 AD. Though not much of its splendor remains, visitors are still touched by the imagined beauty of the palaces where Mughal life once thrived. The fort underwent many changes after the British overthrew the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar after the Revolt of 1857…to the extent that royal pavilions, chambers, and gardens had been altogether removed and replaced by barracks occupied first by the British officials and later- after independence- by the Indian army. It was only as late as 2003 that these barracks were vacated and the fort started to be developed exclusively for tourism purposes.
Today, unfortunately, the palaces within the fort are cordoned off with thick ropes to keep visitors from entering the inner chambers. So all you can really do is peek around the ropes and try to get a glimpse of what once was a marble palace encrusted with jewels and gilded to perfection.
But hold on! There’s more to this gorgeous fort than meets the eye! The path designated for visitors will usually take you through the Lahore Gate, Chhatta Chowk or Meena Bazaar, Naqqar Khana, Diwan-e-Aam, and then on to the inner palaces. But there are treasures galore in every corner of this citadel…and like any medieval period fort it has its share of mysteries, intrigues and bloody stories. Secret entrances to the fort, escape tunnels supposedly leading all the way to Agra, old prisons and step-wells are only a few of its well-guarded treasures. Who knows what else lies buried within the layers of dust and years?
So when I went there with my intrepid friend (let’s just call her F for now) on an early morning last week, we tried to explore the paths NOT meant for the tourists. Of course we were met by guards at every corner- some angry, some amused- but all of them telling us how we were not allowed to be there. But a bit of slyness, another dose of coyness, and of course a big portion of impudence, did the trick.
F and I ventured to the roof of the Meena Bazaar and saw the back of the famous Red Fort rampart where the Indian tricolor is unfurled, until some dogs barked so ferociously that guards appeared out of nowhere and ousted us from the roof.
Next we escaped some guards to take a good look at the pre-Mughal baoli (step-well), whose cells actually imprisoned some of the leaders of the 1857 Mutiny.
Then on we went to the little known Salimgarh fort at the corner of the Red Fort, a smaller fort built by Sher Shah’s son during a brief hiatus in the Mughal rule when the Surs had seized power. Going to Salimgarh was very much permitted, but once inside, when we saw all that remains are British barracks and jails housing museums, we decided to look around further inside. A guard stopped us on our tracks and pleaded when we argued, ‘Madam kachhe baniyan mein rehte hain wahan pe, please mat jayiye’ (apparently the buildings house private security guards nowadays, and to go into their domain would be to risk seeing them in undergarments! Of course 2 women should not be allowed to do that!).
From the bridge connecting the Red Fort to Salimgarh, we saw an almost beautiful view of the Inner Ring Road, where the river Yamuna once flowed. From the foot-over bridge inside the smaller fort, we looked down on the thoughtlessly-created railway line that cuts through the fort with zero respect for heritage conservation.
Back in the main Red Fort complex, we got into trouble once again for approaching too near the Shah Burj, a corner pavilion where the king sat once upon a time. Visitors today are not allowed a glimpse of either of the corner bastions, cordoned as they are by thick ropes. Sigh!
Here are a few pictures of our escapades at the Red Fort. I am sure there would have been many more if the world did not have as many security guards and ropes cordoning away parts of our history from us! But it is what it is…