Though it’s not in fact the oldest part of Delhi, the seventeenth-century city of Shahjahanabad, built for the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is known as OLD DELHI. Construction began on the city in 1638, and within eleven years it was substantially complete, surrounded by more than 8km of ramparts pierced by fourteen main gates. It boasted a beautiful main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, an imposing citadel, the Red Fort (Lal Qila), and an impressive congregational mosque, the Jama Masjid. Today much of the wall has crumbled, and of the fourteen gates only four remain, but it’s still a fascinating area, crammed with interesting nooks and crannies, though you’ll need stamina, patience, time and probably a fair few chai stops along the way to endure the crowds and traffic.
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The Red Fort (Lal Qila)
The Red Fort (Lal Qila)
The largest of Old Delhi’s monuments is Lal Qila, known in English as the Red Fort because of the red sandstone from which it was built. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan to be his residence and modelled on the fort at Agra. Work started in 1638, and the emperor moved in ten years later. The fort contains all the trappings you’d expect at the centre of Mughal government: halls of public and private audience, domed and arched marble palaces, plush private apartments, a mosque and elaborately designed gardens. The ramparts, which stretch for more than 2km, are interrupted by two gates – Lahori Gate to the west, through which you enter, and Delhi Gate to the south. Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, added barbicans to both gates. In those days, the Yamuna River ran along the eastern wall, feeding both the moat and a “stream of paradise” which ran through every pavilion. As the Mughal Empire declined, the fort fell into disrepair. It was attacked and plundered by the Persian emperor Nadir Shah in 1739, and by the British in 1857. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive testimony to Mughal grandeur. Keep your ticket stub as you will have to show it several times (for example, to enter the museums).
The main entrance to the fort from Lahori Gate opens onto Chatta Chowk, a covered street flanked with arched cells that used to house Delhi’s most talented jewellers, carpet-makers, goldsmiths and silk-weavers, but is now given over to souvenir-sellers. At the end, a path to the left leads to the Museum of the Struggle for Independence, depicting resistance to British rule.
The Naubhat Khana (“Musicians’ Gallery”) marked the entrance into the royal quarters. Beyond it, a path leads ahead through wide lawns to the Diwan-i-Am, or Hall of Public Audience, where the emperor used to meet commoners and hold court. In those days it was strewn with silk carpets and partitioned with hanging tapestries. Its centrepiece is a marble dais on which sat the emperor’s throne, surrounded by twelve panels inlaid with precious stones, mostly depicting birds and flowers. The most famous of them, in the middle at the top (and not easy to see), shows the mythological Greek Orpheus with his lute. The panels were made by a Florentine jeweller and imported from Italy, but the surrounding inlay work was done locally.
The pavilions along the fort’s east wall face spacious gardens and overlook the banks of the Yamuna River. Immediately east of the Diwan-i-Am, Rang Mahal, the “Palace of Colour”, housed the emperor’s wives and mistresses. Originally, its ceiling was overlaid with gold and silver and reflected onto a central pool in the marble floor. Unfortunately, it suffered a lot of vandalism when the British used it as an Officers’ Mess after the 1857 uprising.
The Mumtaz Mahal, south of the main zenana, or women’s quarters, and probably used by princesses, now houses an Archeological Museum, displaying manuscripts, paintings, ceramics and textiles, with a section devoted to the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II; exhibits include his silk robes and silver hookah pipe.
On the northern side of Rang Mahal, the marble Khas Mahal was the personal palace of the emperor, split into separate apartments for worship, sleeping and sitting. The southern chamber, Tosh Khana (“Robe Room”), has a stunning marble filigree screen on its north wall, surmounted by a panel carved with the scales of justice. The octagonal tower projecting over the east wall of the Khas Mahal was where the emperor appeared daily before throngs gathered on the riverbanks below.
North of Khas Mahal, in the large Diwan-i-Khas (“Hall of Private Audience”), the emperor would address the highest nobles of his court. Today it’s the finest building in the fort, a marble pavilion shaded by a roof raised on stolid pillars meeting in ornate scalloped arches and embellished with delicate inlays of flowers made from semiprecious stones. On the north and south walls you can still make out the inscription of a couplet in Persian attributed to Shah Jahan’s prime minister, which roughly translates as: “If there be paradise upon this earthly sphere/It is here, oh it is here, oh it is here”. More than just a paean, the verse refers to the deliberate modelling of the gardens on the Koranic description of heaven.
A little further north are the hammams, or baths, sunk into the marble floor inlaid with patterns of precious stones, and dappled in jewel-coloured light that filters through stained-glass windows. The western chamber contained hot baths while the eastern apartment, with fountains of rosewater, was used as a dressing room.
Next to the hammams, the sweetly fashioned Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, triple-domed in white marble, was added by Aurangzeb in 1659, but unfortunately it’s currently closed to the public.
A wonderful piece of Mughal pomp, the red-and-white Jama Masjid is India’s largest mosque. Its courtyard is large enough to accommodate the prostrated bodies of 25,000 worshippers. It was designed by Shah Jahan and built by a workforce of five thousand people between 1644 and 1656. Originally called Masjid-i-Jahanuma (“mosque commanding a view of the world”), this grand structure stands on Bho Jhala, one of Shahjahanabad’s two hills, and looks east to the sprawling Red Fort, and down on the seething streets of Old Delhi. Broad, red-sandstone staircases lead to gateways on the east, north and southern sides, where worshippers and visitors alike must remove their shoes (the custodian will guard them for you for a small tip).
Once inside the courtyard, your eyes will be drawn to the three bulbous marble domes crowning the main prayer hall on the west side (facing Mecca), fronted by a series of high cusped arches, and sheltering the mihrab, the central niche in the west wall indicating the direction of prayer. The pool in the centre is used for ritual ablutions. At each corner of the square yard a slender minaret crowned with a marble dome rises to the sky, and it’s worth climbing the tower south of the main sanctuary for a view over Delhi. In the northeast corner a white shrine protects a collection of Muhammad’s relics, including his sandals, a hair from his beard and his “footprint” miraculously embedded in a marble slab.