The Red Fort which overlooks the oldest parts of India’s capital, New Delhi, is today considered a symbol of the country’s magnificent past. It is from the ramparts here that successive prime ministers address the nation on each Independence Day. Every year, thousands of curious Indians come to admire its red sandstone walls dominating the old town and the remains of the Mughal courtyards inside. This monument is considered a lasting achievement of the once powerful Indian rulers, whose fame had spread to all corners of the earth.
However, the entire history of the Fort is not exemplary or admirable. Much of it is sordid. Much fascinating. And most are tragic. Author and amateur historian, Debasish Das, has painstakingly researched and resurrected the multifaceted stories of the fort and produced a book rich in anecdotes, facts, anecdotes and stories.
“The Red Fort, where the Mughal rulers resided until the end, is now an empty shell,” observes Das. “His Hayat Baksh garden, where emperors wandered in the fragrant air and moonlighted functions were held, is anything but a grassy land without a soul.” “Today, as we join hundreds of others who pour into the monument’s skeletal remains to admire its beauty, all we can find are fragments of fragile memories from a long forgotten age – a age of greatness and opulence which we can only witness in the eye of our mind, ”writes the author.
The book therefore seeks to resuscitate the past, to tell us how the Red Fort was born and how the fortunes of successive Mughals, their courtiers, many wives, children and supplicants were inextricably linked to it. One of them is the extravagance, opulence and wastefulness of Mughal lifestyles.
We are told that Inayat Khan in the Shah-Jahan-Nama wrote about how the emperor conceived the idea of the Red Fort on the banks of the Yamuna much further upstream from Agra, the original Mughal capital. Shah Jahan wanted “a pleasant site, distinguished by its pleasant climate, where he could find a splendid fort and lovely buildings, pleasing to the promptings of his generous heart, through which streams of water should flow, and whose terraces should overlook the river ”.
And so the fort was built: “From 1648, the Qila-Mubarak, Qila-i-Surkh, Qila-i-Shahjahanabad, or Qila-i-Mualla, as we have known variously during ages saw not only the age of the Mughal Empire flourished under its founder, but also the decline and even decimation of the same great empire.
The book follows the vicissitudes of the Mughal lineage and adds many small sections on the habits, customs and delicacies of the Mughals. Besides the architectural influences that defined the monument and the descriptions of its main components like the Diwan-e-Aam, Diwan-e-Khaas, its gates and gardens, the book makes sudden forays into areas such as eating habits. Mughals, their intoxicating, costumes, jewelry, pastimes and pleasures.
The book sometimes seems eclectic and unstructured. Here, one is tempted to listen to the warning of professional historians against the amateur. Dilettantes, historians argue, with little understanding of the nuances and limited academic discipline can do more harm than good. It is therefore with a little apprehension that we must approach a book like this one, edited not by a historian but by a telecoms professional.
However, where the professional historian would bustle about the sources, meditate at length on academic debates, and dwell on one point over long pages, the amateur historian Das is fresh, energetic, and teeming with tales of days and days. strange ways of the Mughals of the Red Fort. His book will serve as a fascinating guide for the layman reader and visitors to the Fort, if only for its exuberance.
While much of the book and its many short sections tend to be somewhat disjointed and tottering, as we approach the end things change. The narrative of the 1858 battle between Indian rebels holding Delhi and British forces is masterfully told. The thrill of battle, the tragic chaos that followed, and the pitiful end of a magnificent empire are well delivered.
Here, the amateur excels. Where a formal historian would have been conservative and measured, the author of this book is flamboyant and truly captures the mood at the time of the capital defeat of the Indian force and the fall of the Fort: “In the Red Fort, the soldiers Britons with their black hands stained with gunpowder, threw open drawers containing Mughal trinkets, tore off illuminated Persian manuscripts, and in the still intoxicating zenana of rose scents ittar, they ripped curtains, turned and threw rich fabrics and rugs. Even General Wilson couldn’t resist the temptation to sit on the Mughal throne for a while.
The end was the complete and abject defeat of the once magnificent Mughals. The last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and his wife were exiled to Rangoon while all their children were systematically murdered by the British so that no Mughal heirs remained. The Red Fort itself was saved although most of its buildings were razed to the ground. The book, in the final analysis, is a refreshing collection and a well-told story.