Newest Review: ... The new Delhi Metro has a stop at Lahore Gate in the heart of Old Delhi which is convenient for the Fort. It will cost you just a few r... more
Sweating it out at the Red Fort in Delhi
The Red Fort (New Delhi, India)
Member Name: koshkha
The Red Fort (New Delhi, India)
Advantages: Fabulous architecture, great history
Disadvantages: Can be exhausting when the weather's too intense
In the middle of the 17th Century, the Moghal Emperor Shahjahan established a new city on the ruins of previous settlements in the place that today is Delhi. This new city became known as Shahjahanabad - or the city of Shahjahan. Today Shahjahanabad forms the area of Delhi commonly referred to as 'Old Delhi' or 'Purani Dilli' in the local lingo. Lal Quila (the Red Fort) is one of Shahjahanabad's best preserved monuments.
'Shahjahan?' you might be saying to yourself, 'Now where have I heard that name before?'
Shahjahan was the Emperor whose love for his wife Mumtaz and distress at her early death led to the building of the Taj Mahal - much admired as one of the most beautiful, expensive and over-the-top monuments to love ever built. Shahjahan was overthrown by his son who imprisoned him in Agra fort, just across the river with a view of the Taj Mahal. It may have been an act of kindness or a punishment depending on whether he was thinking of its beauty or contemplating his overdraft.
Lal Quila - or the Red Fort in Delhi is a monument to power, wealth and military might. And whilst it will never be as admired as the Taj or as impressive as Fatephur Sikri, the Red Fort deserves more tourist attention than it seems to receive.
Why don't more people go to the Red Fort?
As a tourist, you are spoilt for choice on all the things you could go and see in Delhi - and if you are spending just a day or two in the city it's not easy to fit it all in. Many tour companies treat Delhi as a 'necessary and expensive evil' at the beginning and end of a tour and they will generally not go further than squeezing in a half day run around the city in a bus. Most of their customers are either so jet-lagged after a long flight in to India or so keen to cram in some shopping before they fly out again, that the poor old Red Fort gets pushed to one side.
I have to plead guilty to having ignored the fort. In many visits to Delhi, I had never been tempted to venture into Old Delhi and had heard many rumours that it was dirty, smelly and overcrowded. Somehow the relative calm and order of the new city with the lure of good shopping and great restaurants always got in the way. But this time, I was determined to pull myself together and go and have a look. We had three days to kill before the flight back to London and so when we were offered a free half day with a minibus and a driver, we set off to see the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque).
Setting the Scene
It was a hot day - hot in the way that only Delhi on the verge of the monsoon can be. With the temperatures pushing 40 degrees and the humidity at maximum, it really wasn't the best of conditions to go out and look at architectural marvels. Imagine going sightseeing in a sauna (but without the naked people). On the plus side nobody else was much in the mood for sightseeing either - so the Fort was not very crowded, the queues were shorter and the touts slightly less persistent.
We went by minibus but any taxi or auto-rickshaw will take you to the fort. The new Delhi Metro has a stop at Lahore Gate in the heart of Old Delhi which is convenient for the Fort. It will cost you just a few rupees to make the underground journey up from Connaught Place (metro stop - Rajiv Chowk). If you are interested, please see my other reviews for more info on the Metro system. If you are starting from a point already in the old city you would also have the option of cycle rickshaws. Regardless of how you go, be sure to agree a price before you get into the vehicle.
From the Outside
When you arrive at the Fort the first thing you notice is the high red stone walls stretching out parallel to the road. You'll probably be dropped at the roadside by the Lahore Gate entrance. From here you pass lots of barriers. In the past you'd have been able to drive right up to the gate but India is now exceptionally security conscious and the barriers are erected (my guess) to prevent car bombings. As you walk from the road young boys will try to sell you postcards, nick-nacks and a shoe shine. Don't say 'maybe later' unless you mean it. These guys have incredible memories and they'll be sure to spot you as you leave.
(By the way, if any kind soul can teach me the Hindi for 'my walking boots are very expensive and can only be treated with special Goretex-compatible shoe creams' I'd be very grateful for a message in my tooyoo guest book.)
Tickets and Entry
Tourist tickets cost 100 rupees - about Ł1.20. Locals pay just 10 rupees. There's no camera fee at the Red Fort so make sure you take advantage.
Once you have your tickets, proceed to the gate for the security check - men take one line and women the other (usually the shorter one). You will have to go through a metal detector - similar to one at an airport - and you may well have your bags searched and get a quick rub-down as well. Rubbing sweaty tourists on a hot day in Delhi must count as one of the world’s least attractive jobs.
Getting around inside the Fort
Once you are through the security area you find yourself inside a small courtyard inside the Lahore Gate. Every year on Independence Day (August 15th) the Prime Minister raises the national flag at the flag pole in this courtyard. But unless it's August 15th there's not a lot of reason to hang around.
Leaving the gate area you pass through a covered bazaar (chowk means market) full of tourist curios and gift shops. You can also buy drinks and snacks. You will probably be approached by registered tourist guides offering their services and, whilst it's entirely up to you whether you hire one, you'll get more out of the visit if you do. No unregistered guides are allowed to ply their trade inside and if you are with a tour group, your leader also won’t be able to guide you inside the fort. Check that any potential guide is wearing an official badge around his neck and (most importantly) talk to him for a few minutes to make sure you can understand him. It's going to seem like a really long tour if you can't get past his accent. We paid our guide 100 rupees for half an hour but I think the girl who negotiated the deal was too hot and bothered to argue and if she'd been tougher she probably could have got him cheaper or for longer. So with 30 minutes on the clock, we set off at a trot to keep up with our guide and his parasol.
**Naqqar Khana (Welcome Room)
Leaving the bazaar, you'll take a short walk through the gardens to the Naqqar Khana - this is the gate where you will show your tickets to some more security people. This building has an open arched hall at the top where musicians would have played music to welcome the Emperor's visitors. Today it houses the Indian War Memorial Museum. As you pass through the Naqqar Khana turn around and look back at it. This is where a guide comes in handy. He will point out that the arches of the building are built in a mix of architectural styles reflecting Islamic, Hindu and Persian influences. As this building would have been right in the line of sight of the Emperor whilst he was holding public audiences, it's believed that he had the arches built to remind him to treat all the people fairly, regardless of their religion.
**Diwan-e-am (Hall of Public Audience)
This is the building where the Emperor held meetings with his public. He sat on a raised white marble 'throne' on a dais of red sandstone in a hall with many pillars. This is the last of the red sandstone buildings before we move onto the white marble that we all associate with the Taj Mahal.
The elegant white marble pavilions are lined up on the opposite side of the gardens to the Hall of Public Audience and were linked by a channel of water which flowed between them and cooled the buildings. This was known as the Canal of Paradise. When the fort was built, these buildings looked out over the Yamuna River and benefited from cool breezes. However, after the British took control of the city in the mid-19th Century, the river was diverted to run along a different course leaving the pavilions looking out over waste ground and roads.
The most southerly of the buildings is the Mumtaz Mahal which now houses the Museum of Archaeology. We were being marched around by our guide so there was no time (and to be honest, not a lot of will) to look at this or the other museums. If the weather had been cooler and we'd had more time they would have held more attraction.
The next in line is the Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours) where the royal ladies would have lived. This was effectively the purdah area where the ladies would have been able to look out through carved screens and watch what was going on around them without risk of being seen. Directly between the Hall of Public Audience and the Rang Mahal sits an ornamental pond with a stage in the middle where dancing girls and musicians would have performed for the family and their guests with the ladies watching from one side and the men from the other.
Next in line is the Khas Mahal (Emperor's palace) which has a beautiful balcony which would have projected over the river. This building has lots of beautiful Jaali screening and semi-precious stone inlay work - similar to what you would see at the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately you can't wander through the palace as it's fenced off but you can look in and imagine how it must have been at the height of its opulence.
Next is the Diwan-e-Khas which was the Emperor's Hall of Private Audience where he would have received his most important visitors. This has the finest carving and inlay work of any of the buildings in the fort complex. It is situated next to the Hammam or bath house which in turn is at right angles to the mosque. This would have been the Emperor's private mosque. We weren't able to go inside either building but we did have a peer through the dirty windows and the bath house looked like it would have been fascinating.
The Final Courtyard/Garden Area
There is another set of small buildings spread out in the final garden area behind the hammam and the mosque. I have to confess that we viewed these from a distance as we collapsed under a big shady tree and mopped our soggy brows with paper hankies. Here you can also see some very unattractive and more modern buildings, which are completely out of keeping with the rest of the fort. These were the barracks built to house the British Army after they took control of the Fort. Built entirely unsympathetically, these big grey square buildings are best ignored if you can find a way to look in the other direction and are proof if ever it were needed that town planners and people who deal with planning permission are often needed more than we imagine.
There are public toilets next to the mosque. My husband, who has dedicated much of his travel time to investigating the state of foreign toilets (be glad you don't have the photos of some of them!) claims these were the cleanest free toilets he'd seen anywhere in India. There are probably more toilets somewhere in the complex but these were the only ones that caught our attention.
At the northern-most end of the complex is a small snack bar and gift shop. We had limited time and by that stage the grass was feeling very comfortable and we couldn't work up the energy to go and investigate.
Would I recommend a visit?
We only had an hour to get round the fort. In view of the temperature, I don't think we could have lasted much longer. If you visit in the cooler seasons, I think there would be plenty here to fill two or three hours - especially if you want to see the museums or do a bit of shopping in the bazaar.
It's not the greatest Moghul monument in India by a long way but it's worthy of more attention than it seems to get and if you can combine it with a visit to the Jama Masjid (mosque) it's a good half-day excursion. I definitely recommend getting a guide - preferably for an hour rather than 30 mins so you don't have to run round like a lunatic.
If you aren't going further afield than Delhi, I'd say that a visit should be high on your agenda but if you've done the full Rajastan moghul palace circuit, you might prefer to head into New Delhi and do a bit of shopping instead.
Summary: Well worth a visit and deserves more attention than it normally gets
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