Named for its red-sandstone walls, the Red Fort, near the Yamuna River in Old Delhi, is the greatest of Delhi's palace cities. Built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, Lal Qila recalls the era of Mughal power and magnificence—imperial elephants swaying by with their mahouts (elephant drivers), a royal army of eunuchs, court ladies carried in palanquins, and other vestiges of Shah Jahan's pomp. At its peak, the fort housed about 3,000 people. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British moved into the fort, built barracks, and ended the grand Mughal era; eventually the Yamuna River changed course, so the view from the eastern ramparts is now a busy road. Still, if you use your imagination, a visit to the Red Fort gives an excellent idea of what a fantastic city Shahjahanabad was.
security—to the dismay of Shah Jahan, his father. From his prison, where he was held captive by his power-hungry son, Shah Jahan wrote, "You have made a bride of the palace and thrown a veil over her face."
Once you pass through Lahore Gate, continue down the Chhatta Chowk (Vaulted Arcade), originally the shopping district for the royal harem and now a bazaar selling rather less regal goods. From the end of the arcade you'll see the Naubat Khana (Welcome Room), a red-sandstone gateway where music was played five times daily. Beyond this point, everyone but the emperor and princes had to proceed on foot. Upstairs, literally inside the gateway, is the Indian War Memorial Museum (Tuesday–Sunday 10–5; no extra charge), with arms and military regalia from several periods.
An expansive lawn leads to the great Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience)—you have now entered the Delhi of Shah Jahan. Raised on a platform and open on three sides, the hall is studded with some of the most emblematic arches in the Mughal world. In the center is Shah Jahan's royal throne, once surrounded by decorative panels that sparkled with inlaid gems. (It was stolen by British soldiers after the Indian Mutiny, but some of the panels were restored 50 years later by Lord Curzon.) Watched by throngs of people from the courtyard below, the emperor heard the pleas of his subjects; the rest of the hall was reserved for rajas and foreign envoys, all standing with "their eyes bent downward and their hands crossed." High above them, wrote the 17th-century French traveler François Bernier, under a pearl-fringed canopy resting on golden shafts, "glittered the dazzling figure of the Grand Mughal, a figure to strike terror, for a frown meant death."
Behind the Diwan-i-Am, a row of palaces overlooks the now-distant river. To the extreme right is the Mumtaz Mahal, now the Red Fort Museum (Tuesday–Sunday 10–5, no extra charge), with numerous paintings and relics from the Mughal period, some in better lighting than others.
Heading back north, you'll come next to the Rang Mahal (Painted Palace), once richly decorated with a mirrored ceiling that was dismantled to pay the bills when the treasury ran low. Home of the royal ladies, the Rang Mahal contains a cooling water channel—called the Canal of Paradise—that runs from the marble basin in the center of the floor to the rest of the palace and to several of the others. You can't enter this or any of the palaces ahead, so you must peer creatively from the side.
The emperor's private Khas Mahal has three sections: the sitting room, the "dream chamber" (for sleeping), and the prayer chamber, all with lavishly carved walls and painted ceilings still intact. The lovely marble screen is carved with the Scale of Justice—two swords and a scale that symbolize punishment and justice. From the attached octagonal tower the emperor Muthamman Burj would appear before his subjects each morning or watch elephant fights in the nearby fields.
The Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience) was the most exclusive pavilion of all. Here Shah Jahan would sit on his Peacock Throne, made of solid gold and inlaid with hundreds of precious and semiprecious stones. (When Nadir Shah sacked Delhi in 1739, he hauled the famous throne back to Persia. It was destroyed a few years later after Nadir Shah's assassination.) A Persian couplet written in gold above a corner arch sums up Shah Jahan's sentiments about his city: "If there be a paradise on Earth—It is this! It is this! It is this!"
The Royal Hammam was a luxurious three-chamber Mughal bath with inlaid-marble floors. The fountain in the center supposedly had rose-scented water. Sometimes called a Turkish bath, the hammam is still used in many Muslim cultures. Peek through the windows for a look.
Next door to the hammam is the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque), designed by Aurangzeb for his personal use and that of his harem. The building is now closed, but the prayer hall is inlaid with musalla (prayer rugs) outlined in black marble. Though the mosque has the purity of white marble, some critics say its excessively ornate style reflects the decadence that set in late in Shah Jahan's reign.
Beyond the mosque is a typical Mughal charbagh, or four-section garden. Stroll through this quieter part of the fort to see some small pleasure palaces including the Zafar Mahal, decked out with carved sandstone jalis (screens) and once surrounded by water.