Lal Quila (the Red Fort) was built between 1638 and 1648 at the command of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who also built the Taj Mahal) as the royal residence in his new capital, Delhi. The fort, representing the highest achievement of Mughal architecture, contained all the accoutrements befitting a center of empire: public and private audience halls, domed marble palaces, luxuriously appointed private apartments, a mosque, and exquisite gardens. Much of the opulence has gone, but in its heyday its magnificence would have been unparalleled, as boasted by an inscription on one of its walls: “If on Earth be an Eden of bliss, it is this, it is this, none but this.”
Delhi stands at the western end of the plain of the Ganges. The epic Mahabharata speaks of it as a thriving city built about 1400 b.c., although archeo-logical reality suggests it was settled about 1,000 years later. The first city named Delhi was founded in the first century b.c. by Raja Dhilu; southwest of the modern location, it had six successors. Its Mughal history is relevant here. In 1526 Babur, the first Mughal ruler, established Delhi as the center of an empire that would unite vast areas of south Asia for the next two centuries. His son Humayun built a new city near Firuzabad but it was leveled when Afghan Sher Shah Suri overthrew him in 1540. He built a new capital, Sher Shahi, as the sixth city of Delhi. Once more eclipsed when the emperors Akbar and Jahangir moved their courts elsewhere, Delhi reached prominence, even glory, in 1638, when Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan moved his capital from Agra to establish the seventh city of Delhi: Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi. Most of it is still embraced by Shah Jahan’s walls, and four of its seventeenth-century gates still stand. He also built Lal Quila as the royal residence within the new city.
Almost immediately, Shah Jahan commissioned the architects Ustad Hamid and Ustad Ahmad to design a fitting royal residence—the Red Fort—at the northeastern corner of Shahjahanabad. It was completed within about ten years. An area of 124 acres (50 hectares) was enclosed within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of formidable defense walls. It was flanked by the Yamuna River on the eastern side, which fed a moat 76 feet (22.8 meters) wide and 30 feet (9 meters) deep. Thick red sandstone walls (from which the fort derives its name), punctuated by turrets and bastions, rose 60 feet (18 meters) from the river; those on the other side stood up to 112 feet (33.5 meters) above the surrounding terrain. Two of the six main entrances—the Lahori Gate and the Delhi Gate—survive. Now the moat is dry and the Yamuna flows almost a kilometer away, but Lai Quila towers above the modern city of Delhi that spreads out to the west.
The buildings within the walls are all carefully arranged on the long north-south and shorter east-west axes of the octagonal plan. Although they reveal the delicate work that can be found in all Mughal architecture, they exemplify the later phase of the style, characterized by the increasing use of marble, elaborate floral decoration of external surfaces, and the proliferation of tall minarets and bulbous domes. Shah Jahan seems to have preferred the flowing plant motifs inspired by the European sixteenth-century herbariums that had been perfected by his father’s artists. The walls of carefully cut marble were patterned with precious and semiprecious stones and surfaces were decorated with inlaid flowers of hard stones in many colors.
Immediately inside the fortified Lahori Gate was the Chatta Chowk, a vaulted two-story arcade containing thirty-two shops. East of it, on the same axis, was another gate called Naubat Khana (Drum House), also two stories high, from which musicians played martial, music for the emperor five times a day, or announced the arrival of important guests. Further east on the axis and across a courtyard stood the Diwan-i-Am (Public Audience Hall), ornamented with gilded stuccowork and hung with heavy curtains. There the emperor, seated in a canopied, marble-paneled alcove set with precious stones, would hear through his prime minister the complaints and petitions of the commoners. The Diwan-i-Am was also used for state functions. At the eastern terminus of the short axis of the plan stood the Rang Mahal—(Palace of Colors), its roof crowned with gilded turrets. It housed the emperor’s wives and mistresses. The interior was richly decorated with painting. Its ceiling, overlaid with silver and gold, was reflected in a pool in the marble floor. The Nahr-i-Bihist (Stream of Paradise) flowed through its center, feeding small water channels that flowed to cool the other rooms of the Red Fort.
The north-south axis, through the center of a courtyard that separated the Diwan-i-Am and the Rang Mahal, was flanked by sumptuous pavilions. In the Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences), the emperor met with his courtiers and dignified guests. Standing on a plinth and supported by thirty-two pillars, the white marble hall was decorated with floral patterns of precious stones. At its center the fabled Peacock Throne (carried off to Persia in 1739) stood on a white marble dais under a ceiling inlaid with silver and gold. South of that building lay the emperor’s private apartments, the Khas Mahal. On their east side was a large sitting room that opened to a cantilevered gallery, where each sunrise the emperor appeared before his subjects. At the northern end of the large square in front of these buildings stood the Hammam (Royal Bath). Built of marble and extravagantly decorated with inlay, glass, and paint, it comprised three apartments that were also used for private meetings. Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb built the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque) within an enclosing wall beside the Hammam in 1659–1660. At the northern end of the long axis stood a three-story octagonal tower, Shah Bhurj—the shah’s private working area. At the southern end Shah Jahan built the Mumtaz Mahal, a palace for his favorite daughter Jahanara Begum.
Mughal power waned in the eighteenth century. The British captured Delhi in 1803, and the city was the focus of India’s first war of independence—the British still prefer to call it the Indian Mutiny—in 1857. In 1911 the colonials moved their imperial capital from Calcutta to Delhi and began to build the eighth city, New Delhi, officially inaugurated in 1931. India finally expelled the British in 1947, and the nation celebrates its liberty by flying the Indian flag above Lal Quila each 15 August, Independence Day.