Mughal harem building in Red Fort restored, opened
The Mumtaz Mahal, one of the only surviving palaces to have housed the Mughal harem inside Red Fort, has been conserved and thrown open to the public from last Sunday.
The palace housed one of Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) oldest museums, which was opened by the British in 1911.
The museum has been shifted to another building and will open for public viewing before October-end. “The museum contained antiquities from the late Mughal period sucb as the ‘farmans’ of Bahadur Shah Zafar, his clothes, astronomical instruments, pottery. They have now been shifted to the L5 building, which was one of the British barracks,” an ASI official said.
“This way we have been able to restore the Mumtaz Mahal to its Mughal glory and at the same time provide a space with controlled temperature, necessary for the preservation of the antiquities,” he added.
After the revolt of 1857, British troops had destroyed and altered large parts of the Red Fort complex. Almost every other palace housing the imperial harem had been demolished, but the
Mumtaz Mahal had been retained. It was used for a while as a prison and then later as a sergeants’ mess.
In 1911, when the capital was shifted to Delhi, the British decided to exhibit a collection of objects of historical interest inside the Mumtaz Mahal, to be put on display during the visit of King George V. The museum remained inside the palace till about a few months ago.
Apart from removing the antiquities, the museum doors and wooden partitions from the 17th century palace, the year-long conservation work included the monument’s flooring in red sandstone and the application of lime punning on its walls. The whitewash on the arches and ceilings were removed to expose Mughal paintings.
During the conservation, the ASI found evidence of the Mughal-era water channel, ‘Nahr-i-Bahisht’ (canal of paradise), inside the palace. “We conserved that as well, filled it up with sand and paved it with lime concrete. A depression has been made on the sandstone floor to show its existence,” the ASI official said.
The Nahr-i-Bahisht is known to have flowed through all the buildings inside the Red Fort complex and drained into the moat. It provided a continuous supply of water through the gardens and the interiors and acted as an air-conditioner.
Archaeologist Maulvi Zafar Hasan’s record suggests that gilded chhattris (elevated, dome shaped pavilions) existed on the roof corners of this structure, and that the building underwent considerable repair under the British in 1911. “It is not possible to restore the chhatris since we do not have evidence of the original structure. We are continuing with the structure as it was renovated under the British,” the official said.
The name of the structure appears to have undergone an interesting alteration over the years. “Syed Ahmed Khan, writing in the mid-19th century, called this the ‘zenana mahal shahi’, and this would have been the place where the chief queen and earlier Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara would have stayed. The name ‘Mumtaz Mahal’ is a later development,” said historian Rana Safvi.
Interestingly, records suggest the palace was also called Chhota Rang Mahal (small house of paintings), the Rang Mahal being situated north of it. “Most of the Mughal-era names got corrupted over the years. Rang Mahal itself is a later development, perhaps because of the paintings in its interiors. It was originally coined ‘Imtiaz mahal’ by Shah Jahan,” said Safvi.
Conservation of the Mumtaz Mahal was carried out with a cost of ₹1.7 crore. At present, ASI is constructing a pathway to connect the palace with the Asad Burj and Delhi Gate to its south.
Mumtaz Mahal was constructed from 1639-48 AD.