Book Box: The destroyed fort that lives on - Hindustan Times

Book Box: The destroyed fort that lives on

Jan 27, 2024 09:16 PM IST

Conservation architect Anisha Shekhar Mukherji pieces together the stories of the Red Fort in a beautiful new edition of her book, The Red Fort of Shajahanbad.

Dear Reader,

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji ( photo by author) PREMIUM
Anisha Shekhar Mukherji ( photo by author)

I am outside the Red Fort. With me is architect and storyteller, Anisha Shekhar Mukherji. She is the author of The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad, a new edition of which has just been published by Westland, in a beautiful paperback version, filled with photos, drawings and stories. This conservation architect is also a translator, having learnt Bengali when she married her architect husband Snehanshu Mukherjee, and now putting her language skills to good use in translating from Bengali to English. She has translated children’s stories and even a poem by Rabindranath Tagore on Shah Jahan and the Red Fort.

Anisha and I were in school together at DPS, RK Puram, where we were co-editors of the Dips Diary, our school magazine. Forty years later, we meet on a cold and sunless January afternoon. We learn from an A4-sized paper mounted atop a police barricade, that the Red Fort is barred to us, in advance of the Republic Day celebrations. The streets outside are freezing, but Anisha’s impassioned stories take the edge off the cold, as we walk down the length of Chandni Chowk, talking about the Red Fort, about books and reading. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation, on our walk, and later on the phone.

What helped you become a reader?

I think the fact that we moved so often in my childhood- practically every year. There was no continuity of neighbours, neighbourhoods or even cities. The only continuity was the presence of at least some books in the Army libraries. But if I were to cite a single incident that made me become a reader, it was a fat bundle of books jointly given to me as a gift on my sixth birthday by all the officers of my father's battalion. I don't know where they managed to get these books since we were far away from any town, and there were only fields and orange orchards around for miles. But it was an eclectic and fascinating mix, and I was hooked as soon as I went through them!

When you were growing up, where did you get your books from?

Generally, from the Army libraries, some of which were veritable treasure-houses of generations of books! And when we went to my grandfather's house in Dehradun, on summer holidays, it was essentially from the extensive collection there - most of the books belonging to my father, many still packed in trunks sent home since he couldn't carry them around on his frequent postings.

How did you get interested in the Red Fort?

I was 21, in my fourth year of college at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, when I first visited the Red Fort. I remember impressions of isolated buildings, of trying to make sense of the disconnected way of moving through the Fort. And wondering if Shah Jahan also had to scramble behind it in this undignified and confused way — and unable to imagine him doing so!

Later in 1999, after I finished my MA in Architectural Conservation, I came back to the Red Fort, as a conservation consultant for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). By then, I had been doing a lot of personal research on the Red Fort, finding the answers to what puzzled me earlier.

In the ASI archives, I found a drawing made by the British in 1857, where they outlined large areas in red, these were the areas they deliberately decided to destroy. You can see a rendition of this drawing in my book, which reveals the scale of multiple areas destroyed all over the fort.

One day, at the Red Fort, I had tea with a man who said he was a descendant of the last Mughal Emperor. He had approached the ASI, asking for some space in the Red Fort, because it was his ancestral home. He looked ordinary, not very tall, didn’t look very Indian either, spoke in a British accent since he had been living in London, and was nothing like the pictures of Bahadur Shah Zafar. But it was a fascinating experience to meet him, like something out of a storybook.

The book against the backdrop of the Khas Mahal (photo courtesy Anisha Shekhar Mukherji)
The book against the backdrop of the Khas Mahal (photo courtesy Anisha Shekhar Mukherji)

You have the most beautiful illustrations of the Red Fort– how did you come by these?

When I started investigating the Red Fort, I found no sources that could explain how the Mughal emperors lived and worked in the Fort. I started to look for first-hand sources - court histories, paintings and maps.

I also made my own drawings. Many people contributed to this primary research: my immediate family and SPA students, friends, classmates, teachers; colleagues and even chance acquaintances - by accompanying me to the Fort even in the height of summer, helping with site measurements or giving permission to access spaces in the Fort, to making CAD drawings for the book.

I particularly remember a painting; the mid-19th century watercolour of the Fort’s Eastern Face was first shown to me by Dr JP Losty at the OIOC in the British Library.

Another striking map is the 1840s map of Shahjahanabad, which is a major source of information on the Fort and is from the maps collection of the British Library. It is a very beautiful piece of art. It was all I could do to focus on studying it for specific information, rather than simply gaze at it!

And imagine my surprise, when I encountered a perhaps even older version of the same map in an old trunk in the strong room of Mumtaz Mahal Museum at the Fort — cloth mounted and partially damaged.

Some of the photographs featured in your book are stunning ones you took in the Imperial hammam area, what was it like to be in this space?

The Imperial Hammams are not publicly accessible because of the fragility of their delicate inlay work. I was lucky enough to be allowed in. Inside the hammams is a sense of repose and restraint, that awakens nostalgia for a more thoughtfully paced life of beauty from another time. It’s a heightened experience of simultaneously inhabiting the past and the present. The proportions of the rooms within, and the light softly illuminating the delicate inlay of flowers on the floors all contribute to that effect.

THE IMPERIAL HAMMAM (picture courtesy Anisha Shekhar Mukherji)
THE IMPERIAL HAMMAM (picture courtesy Anisha Shekhar Mukherji)

If you could visit only three spaces in the Red Fort, which would they be?

First, the Diwan-i-Am, whose image is on the cover of my book. One could call it the heart of the Fort — both in the way it functioned and in the way it was positioned with its large forecourt right in the centre of the Fort. The Diwan-i-Am pavilion, though it looks simple, is a sophisticated arrangement that beautifully optimises structure, decoration, and function. Its columns and arches divide, support, and extend space. As you move within and around it, you get a fresh view with almost every step.

The second space I’d choose would be the Khas Mahal. It is a pavilion that comprised the Emperor’s own living areas, and is devised to afford different levels of privacy, with a sequence of rooms and verandahs with beautiful glass inlay, carved columns, and screened walls. Lots of sensory stimulation!

And finally, the Asad Burj at the southern end of the Fort’s river face. This is a very dramatic collection of spaces with battlemented walls leading off it and a baoli, elephant ramps, and a roof-top pavilion crowning it all.

You tell of how Red Fort was once very much a part of the city and has now been reduced to an island.

The Red Fort was unusual in the degree of access it had to the city. Spatially, socially, and culturally, the Fort and Shahjahanabad were inseparable. Visually also, there was no barrier from the Emperor’s throne in the Diwan-i-Am of the Fort down to the Fathepuri Masjid at the end of Chandni Chowk. This lack of barrier by Shah Jahan shows the degree of confidence he had in himself, his reign and his relationship with his people.

What Aurangzeb does is put up this barrier, it makes access to the Fort a little more circuitous, it blocks the direct line of sight and access. The entrances are now from secondary gateways on the side. This reduces the symmetry and blocks the straight axis between the Fort and the rest of the city. This meant that the direct line of sight as well as the straight route into the Fort was now visually and spatially changed. In Shah Jahan’s words, this act veiled the Fort’s face. Symbolically, this constituted a barrier between the emperor and his people and indicated a reduced degree of political security and spatial connection.

In 1857, the British destroyed the Fort, leaving just a few buildings. This was radical and violent, the scale of destruction unprecedented and far worse than even Nadir Shah. They removed all connections between the Fort and the city, destroyed everything within 450 yards of the Fort and banished all the surviving inhabitants of the city. In an act of political reprisal, they effaced an entire way of life, reduced it to a mockery of its original form — and erased as many physical and architectural records of it as possible.

What is your favourite old Delhi city walk?

For dramatic views and sheer variety, my favourite walk is down the length of Chandni Chowk between the Fort and the Fatehpuri Masjid.

What are three eat/drink/shop must-dos while visiting the Red Fort and old Delhi area?

Eat and drink: Dahi bhalla and piping hot Alu-tikki from Nataraj Dahi Bhalla Corner; authentic Bengali sweets and samosas from Annapurna Bhandar in Chandni Chowk; delicious lassi served in big kulhars from Shyam Sweets at the junction of Nai Sarak and Chawri Bazaar. And the very special khurchan and kalakand from a tiny shop down the way from Parathewali Gali to Kinari Bazaar.

Buy: I also highly recommend the Spice Market in Khari Baoli, which is a great visual and sensory experience. The air is always redolent with the fragrance of cardamom and coriander — and you can get very good value and a huge range of dry fruits.

What is your favourite fiction set around the Red Fort?

Last Light in Delhi by Mirza Farahtullah Baig, the English translation of ‘Dehli ki Akhri Shama’ by Akhtar Qamber. This is partly fictional in the sense that it is an imaginary mushaira, but it draws on an actual mushaira held in Delhi in 1845. It describes life in the Fort and the kuchas, havelis, lanes, and localities of Shahjahanabad. I particularly like the way the city is animated through the personalities of different patrons and poets, and through examples of their poetry.

I also found My Life, the English translation of the autobiography of Nawab Sarwar-ul-mulk Bahadur, fascinating.

A very interesting book based in Shahjahanabad is a children’s story which I think grown-ups will also enjoy The Mystery of the House of Pigeons by Subhadra Sengupta.

And finally, can you share your English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Shah Jahan on the Red Fort?

You are gone today, Emperor;

Your empire like a dream has flown.

In pieces lies your throne;

Your soldiers, whose marching feet

Made the earth ring and beat,

Their memory carried on the wind

Flies with the dust of Delhi’s streets.

Within your walls are songs no more;

With the Yamuna no longer does the naubat roar;

The sound of the anklets your perfect woman once wore

Dies away with the crickets’ drones,

In the corners of your broken palaces

As the night sky mourns.

Even so, your messenger ever high,

Unsoiled, untiring,

Above the ruins of empires rising,

Above the turn of life and death,

Through time and after in a breath

Of bereavement infinite

Avers without respite

“Beloved, I have not forgotten, nor will I.


On that elegiac note, it’s a wrap for now. Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

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