Truth is often stranger than fiction. Incidents that actually happened are sometimes more interesting and absorbing than made up stories. This is especially true of monuments. And more so when it happens to be an entire city. A lot goes into the making of a dynasty and the building of a new capital. It is bound to be a saga of ups and downs, joy and sorrow, love and hatred, violence and bloodshed, bravery and sacrifice. Some of it is captivating. Some – especially the gory details – might make painful reading. But one needs to read it, all the same, if one wants to get a complete picture. And also because it actually happened and is a part of our heritage.
Those of you who are familiar with Delhi would understand why people have often described it as a city of monuments. No matter where you are you are sure to come across ancient structures along the road, within gardens or among deserted green patches that are getting rarer by the day. You might find some tucked away amidst modern, fashionable colonies such as South Extension, Green Park, Hauz Khas, or the Asiad Games Village. You might discover some of them hidden amidst high-rise buildings at the heart of busy Connaught Place. Built by people long, long ago, they belong to different periods in history.
The Archaeological Survey of India lists over 1,300 monuments in and around Delhi. They owe their existence to kings or people rich enough to build them. Many of them have withstood the ravages of time and are in pretty good condition. So much so, that a few seem to be almost new and free from the shadow of yesterday. Some of the important monuments in Delhi include Humayun’s tomb, the Red Fort, the India Gate and the Qutub Minar. They are specially looked after and are popular tourist spots. Some of the monuments look bright although they are hundreds of years old. Others look impressive despite their obvious age. A good many monuments are no more than crumbling reminders of their shadowy past. It might be better to call them just ruins. They lie around dotting the capital, deserted and forgotten. Very few, if any, remember who built them and why.
India has many beautiful forts too. All of them have interesting stories behind them as to how and why they were built and what happened within their walls.
One of the most outstanding among them the magnificent Lal Qila of Delhi, popularly known as the Red Fort. It was built by Shah Jahan who was the fifth Mughal Emperor.. In fact, the entire concept of the original structure came from Shah Jahan himself, considered to be one of the greatest builders of all times. It is a unique monument for many reasons.
Perhaps there is no other single monument in the country that reflects the height of glory as well as the heartbreak and the tragedy of a dynasty the way the Red Fort does. Like most important monuments it was built in hope and joy. It has been the scene of rejoicing, festivity, happiness and ecstasy on the one hand and also the site of hatred, jealousy, bloodshed and agony, on the other. It has faced the attacks of invading tribes followed by storms of destruction. It has witnessed the nightmare of captivity and also the dawn of independence.
The story of the Red Fort starts with Shah Jahan who built it. It is here that he enjoyed days of glorious reign. Here again he faced the heart breaking news of his first born son being killed by another son. It was followed by moments of miserable imprisonment in the hands of the same son, Aurangzeb. The fort has been witness to the story of Shah Jahan’s sons, grandsons and the rest of the dying Mughal dynasty. It has soaked within its walls memories of brutal invasions when the grand citadel was emptied of invaluable treasure. Treasures such as gold and silver; gems and precious articles; horses, camels, and elephants; artisans and craftsmen. The same walls also hold happy memories of communal harmony, the coming together of two faiths through the celebration of festivals like Raksha bandhan when one of the last Emperors accepted as his sister a commoner who had saved his life and gave her many gifts.
We get to know about the many stories about the fort from the vivid memoirs of the tormented as well as the tormentors; from people who lived in it and outsiders who visited it. The fort that stands as a faithful reminder of events against the backdrop of our history tells the story of a people that ultimately succeeded in making it the symbol of our freedom. It happened when our leaders finally unfurled the national flag of free India from the ramparts of the Red Fort for the first time on August 15, 1947.
My story – taken from various sources, mainly standard works of history, accounts of important travellers, and the memoirs of poets and writers (in English translation) - is mainly about the incidents that took place within the Red Fort and nearby areas within the walled city of Shahjahanabad, known as the “Seventh City of Delhi”. Wherever possible I have quoted from the original sources instead of condensing, paraphrasing, or simplifying them in my own words. It is because I felt that the quotations would give my readers a better feel of the period than any explanation, even where they are in translation.
The story of the Red Fort is a story of triumph and joy. It is a story of love and loyalty. It is also a story of hatred and violence, written in blood and laced with cruelty. It is a story that deserves to be remembered because it is a true story about our rulers and our people.
Next: The Coming of Nadir Shah
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