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Two faces of the fort

entertainment Updated: Aug 20, 2008 15:39 IST
R V Smith

The Red Fort presents two faces to the viewer. The front view is that of a sophisticated building with a face that attracts the eye with its architectural beauty. In Shah Jahan’s time, there was a gate facing the Chandni Chowk so that the emperor could see right up to the Fatehpuri Masjid and feel the pulse of the city.

The slightest hubbub and the occupant of the throne in the Dewan-e-Aam would know that something was amiss. There were occasions when the traders closed their shops in protest against some unrest. A theft, a murder or a brawl could always affect trading then, as now. The kotwal was sent for and stern action was taken in the matter.

Not that such happening occurred every day, and the fact that the emperor could see things for himself kept the kotwal and his men on their toes. It was one of those things that marked out Shah Jahan as a conscientious ruler of a city he had built according to his dreams and named after himself. To see that its day-to-day affairs were smooth and above reproach was his concern. No wonder his reign is still referred to as the golden epoch.

It was Aurangzeb who had the gate facing Chandni Chowk closed with a masonic naqab or veil. It seems that he was disturbed, while holding court in the Dewan-e-Aam, by the ‘vulgar’ activities of the traders. Some of them eased themselves in the drains or even bathed in front of their shops. Mad men wandering in the nude also offended the emperor’s sensibility. All these things and worse are still witnessed in the Chowk but at that time the control was stricter.

Now compare the front view with the rear of the fort. Most attacks on the fort were made from this side after the death of Aurangzeb — during the days of Jahandar Shah, Farrukseyar and their successors, especially Shah Alam, and later during the Sepoy Mutiny when Bahadur Shah Zafar was on the throne. It was also from this side that captive princes or nobles escaped or tried to escape by jumping into the Jamuna which flowed just below the walls of the fort.
Even now, while travelling on the Ring Road, one cannot escape the feeling that one is viewing the more rugged part of the fort. The Jamuna is far away now but its deserted bed forms a convenient place for madaris to display their monkeys.

The front portion, incidentally, marks more harmonious functions like the Independence Day gathering. Did Shah Jahan and his masons have anything to do with this aspect of the Lal Qila, too? I wonder.