Perhaps it was the only time when one would not encounter crowds at Lal Quila in Delhi. The Red Fort is a landmark in the capital, the centre around which Delhi, in size and in spirit, grew tremendously. Early morning on a Saturday, this larger-than-life, red-stone structure gleamed in soft sunlight.
And without the people that throng this tourist hotspot, our motley group of six, lead by our guide, Jibin Goerge, was free to run with our imagination and to delve deep into the lives of the women that worked in and sometimes headed, the Mughal court.
Surrounded by lush gardens, many mahals and buildings dot the Red Fort complex. These structures, some in white marble and others in red stone, stood with tall arches, jalis and pillars. Jibin tells us that in its heydey, the mahals were embellished with precious stones and jewels, using inlay work and painted in the most vibrant of colours.
He leads us to the Mumtaz Mahal, one of the key structures of the Mughal harem of zanana and of the palaces connected by the ‘stream of paradise’. In the Mughal court, the zanana was a place of utmost secrecy, one of the most restricted places in the complex. The mahals were veiled with curtains and men (except the emperor) were not allowed inside. It was home of queens, princesses, young princes and concubines, who were fiercely guarded by eunuchs. The Mughal harem was a place of pleasure, perfumed by flowers with free-flowing wine and delicacies.
Our guide weaved quite a tale; in a long history dominated by male narratives, the women in the harem constantly tried to break the glass ceiling (curtain) and were often rewarded by prominent positions in the court. It was the tale of Empress Nur Jahan, of Mumtaz Mahal and Jahanara Begum. The power they wielded and their dedication to matters of architecture, city planning, literature and diplomacy. They may have ruled through the harem, but their power was undeniable.
Where it spoke in depth about the women that made this fort their home, the heritage walk was also a keen insight into what it means to carefully conserve and restore historical monuments. The Red Fort, and Delhi by large, is a great example of this exercise. Walking around the Lal Quila, I could not deny its grandness but could not ignore the chinks in its armour either. Gone were lavish embellishments and smaller mahals, replaced by barracks and buildings constructed by the British and later by the Indian government. History lost under layers of development.
And while restoration efforts were in full swing, certain parts of the fort are lost forever. Here too, our guide was quick to point out that while the history of the queens and the harem can be found in autobiographies and other tomes, it was in these mahals and halls that they actually came to life in. We can only hope to preserve what remains of these historical structures; of the gardens, and pillars and arches that compound the stories of the women that once lived in it.
This walk was a part of the India Heritage Walk Festival (IHWF). Organised by Sahapedia and Unesco, this festival was held across 37 cities, from February 2-28. You can find more of these walks here