Not many of our history books describe the cities of Delhi. This, along with the fact that many of their names are similar, has led to a lot of misconceptions about the Red Fort. While there are two Red Forts in Delhi, neither was built on the ruins of the other and the Mughal fort was not originally called Red Fort.
Delhi was built and destroyed seven times. The ruins of those seven cities are still extant. The first city, for which we have recorded history, is Lal Kot or Red Fort, built by Anangpal Tomar II on the rocky Aravalli hills of Mehrauli in 1052 AD.
Raja Anangpal Tomar I founded the Tomar dynasty in AD 736. He probably chose the Aravalli hills in Mehrauli as his headquarters for its strategic and military advantages. Prithviraj Chauhan (AD 1169–1191), the grandson and heir of Anangpal Tomar II, expanded it. Now it came to be known as Qila Rai Pithaura, named after the dynast.
They built Delhi a peerless fort
After that Alauddin Khilji built the city of Siri in 1304, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq built Tughlaqabad in 1321, Mohammad bin Tughlaq built Jahanpanah in 1326-27, Firoz Shah Tughlaq built Firozabad in 1354, Humayun built Dinpanah in 1534 and Sher Shah expanded it, calling it Sher Shah garh. The seventh city was Shahjahanabad, which we know as Old Delhi. New Delhi, of course, is Lutyens’ Delhi, built by the British after the decision was taken to transfer the capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
At the heart of Shah Jahan’s city Shahjahanabad was an octagonal flower known as Qila e Mubarak (auspicious fort). It was 23km away from the Tomar Lal Kot and was not known as Red Fort till the 19th century. Shah Jahan did not build his Qila e Mubarak on the ruins of Lal Kot. In fact, structures in the fifth city of Delhi, Firozabad, were dismantled and their stones were then used for building Shahjahanabad.Shah Jahan ascended the throne of the Mughal Empire in February 1628. He found the Agra Fort, from where his father and grandfather had ruled, to be too small for his needs and decided to shift his capital along the banks of the Yamuna River to Delhi.
The Qila was planned to be double the size of the one in Agra, and several times the size of the Lahore Fort.
According to his biography Badshahnamah, after consultation with Hindu astrologers and Muslim hakims, an auspicious location was chosen near Salimgarh. Mughal kings Akbar and Jahangir had often come to Salimgarh, the island fort built by Islam Shah Suri (also known as Salim Shah), the son of Sher Shah Suri.
In the twelfth year of Shah Jahan's reign, corresponding to the 12th of Zilhijj, 1048 AH (April 29, 1639), Shah Jahan gave orders to start the digging up of the Buniyad e Mubarak or the blessed foundation. This is recorded in gold on the arch in the royal khwaabgaah or personal apartments.
Ustad Hamid and Ustad Ahmed, the architects chosen for the task, had excelled in the construction of his beloved wife’s mausoleum Taj Mahal. They had no parallel in their field and their intellect was the envy of all.
The time chosen by astrologers for commencing the construction work was Friday evening of the 9th of Muharram, 1049 AH (May 12, 1639). And thus the architects laid the foundation.
Mughal kings were terrific record keepers and had departments for recording all expenditure.
In his classic account of monuments Asar us Sanadid, historian and scholar Sir Syed Ahmad Khan records that the superstructure and the edifice within were allotted 50 lakh rupees each.
The emperor gave strict orders to complete it as soon as possible and, therefore, experts in the field of construction were called from every corner of the empire. Very soon, talented and famous miamar (architects), sang-tarash (sculptors,) artisans, munabatkaar (embossers / carvers) parchiin saaz (those who do inlay work on stone) assembled, and worked their magic, taking the monument to its conclusion.
Qila e Mubarak or Blessed Fort was ready. At the time, Shah Jahan was in Kabul. Makramat Khan, under whose supervison it was completed, sent a message to the emperor that the Daulat Khana Badshahi (royal palace) and Iwan e Hazrat Zill e Ilahi (Palace of the respected shadow of god on earth) had been completed, and that the Diwan-e-Aam and Diwan-e-Khas, the hammams and canals were waiting to be blessed by the fall of his footsteps — that his noble self should sanctify this piece of heaven, which is the envy of heaven itself.
The emperor himself was very impatient to see the fort and gave his company orders to leave from Kabul for Agra and reached as soon as he could. On the 24th of Rabi Awwal, 1058 AH that is June 15, 1648 AD he entered the fort.
Orders were given for celebrations. A darbar or public court was announced in the Diwan e Aam. A huge shamiana or tent was put up outside the Diwan e Aam, which was named dil ba-dil (heart within the heart).
In front of the Diwan e Khas, another shamiana, called Saha Mandal (the sphere of stars), was put up. It was so lofty that its kalasa or pinnacle seemed to soar beyond the sky. These two tents took seven years to complete and were made of Kashmiri Pashmina and Gujarati velvet. They were erected on columns made of gold and silver. Brocade and satin cloth stretched over the poles.
The Diwan e Khas was decorated with Persian carpets and Banarsi brocades. The walls of every building were covered with embroidered brocade, satin and velvet, and the effect was spectacular. In the middle, the Takht e Taoos (peacock throne), was set and a grand darbar was held.
Most of the buildings we see now are red, as the sandstone with which they were built has been stripped of its white plaster, which was once embellished with gilded designs and on which colorful flowers had been painted.
Since the emperors of the peacock throne themselves had fallen on bad times, it was just a matter of time before their seat of power did too.
During the time of the later Mughals, the silver ceilings were stripped and replaced first with copper, then wood and no one had the resources or inclination to redo the gilding. Thus, Qila e Mubarak became Delhi’s Lal Haveli or Lal Qila.
After, the failure of the uprising of 1857 and the fall of Delhi at the height of the British Empire, more than 80 per cent of the buildings inside the Fort were demolished.
The Lal Qila, as we we see it today, is a mere shell of its former self.