On April 17, 1648, Shah Jahan ‘illuminated’ the new Qila (fort) he had ordered to be built on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi with his ‘blessed presence’ and celebrations began.
The Qila-e-Mubarak, or blessed fort as it was named, was indeed like an octagonal flower in full bloom and had taken 10 years to build. The master architects Ahmed and Hamid had envisaged it as a piece of paradise and perhaps that is why the famous Persian couplet was inscribed here: Gar firdaus bar ru e zameen ast/ Hamin ast-o, hamin ast-o, hamin ast (If there is a paradise on earth/ It is this, it is this, it is this).
This was in keeping with the paradisiacal theme with rivers and gardens that were laid in the Qila by the architects. A Nahr-e-Bahisht, or stream of paradise, originating near Shah Burj and designed to flow into the row of palace buildings in beautifully carved channels, connecting them to the gardens, further heightened the effect. This was interspersed with marble fountains of outstanding beauty, inlaid with jewels and pietra dura in the palace complex and silver fountains in the gardens.
Transported to history
Now close your eyes and come for a walk with me in the Qila that was. The winter sun is pouring in, and this is just the right time to walk in the Bagh-e-Hayat Baksh, or life-bestowing garden. The Bagh is planted with fragrant and colourful flowers, flowering bushes and trees.
The dew is still damp under our feet and the flower buds are slowly opening up, giving out their fragrance. I can imagine what went through Sir Syed Ahmad’s mind when he described it in his book on Delhi’s monuments, Asar-us-Sanadid : “This garden is a sign of God’s Divine Grace and rejuvenates the heart of the onlooker and makes him ecstatic and cheerful… The gardens of Heaven come up in front of the eyes. The height of the trees can make men envious of its stature and every flower can make a fair maiden blush and its tendrils put to shame the beloved’s curls.”
The sound of gently running water, the flow of a thousand fountains and the heady smell of camphor incense rejuvenate me. In my mind I can see the Nahr-e-Bahisht flowing over the marble niches in the two identical pavilions built facing each other in the Bagh-e-Hayat Baksh. The northern pavilion is Sawan and the southern one is called Bhado’n. They were so named because they recreated the effect of monsoons when the Nahr-e-Bahisht flowed through them and onto the gardens.
There are small arched niches made in the pond and the chutes of this building in which flower bouquets were placed during the day and camphor candles lit at night. The cascading water over these candles and flowers created an unbelievable feeling.
Let’s keep walking and enter the Mehtab Bagh, or moonlit garden. For heavenly evenings and nights, the scent from the flowers overpowered the senses and the camphor lamps and candles from the Sawan and Bhado’n pavilions made one dreamy and languorous. This was planted only with those flowers, bushes and trees which had white blossoms. They exaggerated the effect of moonlight.
Perhaps the Badshah walked here with his begums, the prince and princesses dreamt of crowns and palaces.
Back to reality
I am rudely awakened from my dream by loud voices. Who is this who shouts out and disturbs the emperor’s entourage in the Bagh? Oh! It’s a group of tourists and I am back with a thud in the 21st century. There is no Mughal Bagh, just some very English-looking manicured lawns and shrubs.
During the 1857 uprising, this Qila saw much action by the Indian sepoys who had risen up against the British East India Company rule. As a result, once the British crushed what they termed a mutiny, they exiled the Mughal emperor and demolished 80% of the Qila.
In 1902, the remnants of Bagh-e-Hayat Baksh was found buried deep in debris: that is, those portions which had not become part of the roads, which the British had built for their convenience inside the Mughal Qila.
Ugly army barracks replaced the Mehtab Bagh and its fountains silenced forever. Its nahr, waterfalls, water channels, flower and footpaths for roaming in the garden were all destroyed. Whatever we see today are the portions that were preserved and repaired by George Curzon. He replanted lawns and trees in the portion not occupied by the barracks.
The Qila-e-Mubarak is now the Red Fort, a symbol of India’s independence, from where the Prime Minister addresses the nation every August 15.