The first image is from a page in Sir Thomas Metcalfe's Reminiscences of Imperial Dehlie (1844), courtesy of the British Library, which has very kindly allowed us to use images from its Online Gallery. Please see their site for conditions of reuse. Second image capture and caption by George P. Landow. You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the New York Public Library and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on both images to enlarge them.]

The Red Fort, 1843

East face of the palace of the Red Fort Delhi. 1843. Ink and colours on paper.

With its vast defensive walls and elaborate gateways, and its plethora of towers, domes and minarets, the Red Fort in Old Delhi looked like a typical Indian palace-fortress. Compare this illustration, for example, with the late-Victorian engraving of the Palace of Agra as seen from the Yamuna River. The Agra Fort had been built on an older site by the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, in the sixteenth century. The Red Fort in Delhi was completed in April 1648 by his grandson, Shah Jehan, when he moved his capital to Delhi, and from 1837 it was presided over by their descendant, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II. The Delhi fort was the more splendid. Under chief architect Ustad Ahmad Lahori, it was "the climax of more than 600 years of experimentation in palace-building by Indo-Islamic architects" (Dalrymple, City of Djinns, 217).

The Red Fort

The King's Palace at Delhi. Steel engraving. 1859. New York Public Library ID: 835821.

Both Agra and Dehli forts were subject to despoilation though. The power of the Mughals waned, and despite its impressive appearance from outside, parts of the Red Fort complex in Delhi were in very poor repair by the early nineteenth century (Peck 187). By the time the engraving above was made, its appearance had changed considerably. Zafar had already surrendered to the British: he had left the fort before dawn on 16 September 1857, taking refuge from the encroaching Delhi Field Force in his magnificent ancestral mausoleum, Humayun's Tomb. He was brought back to the Red Fort later only to be tried and sentenced to transportation. He would die in Burma. The army that commandeered the fortress-palace after his original departure had quickly proceeded to ransack and plunder it, stripping away its decorations and using the area for their own purposes. The perimeter walls were saved for their defensive potential, but much else was destroyed: an estimated eighty percent of it was razed to the ground, and "a good deal of blowing up" was still going on in the March of 1859 (qtd. in Dalrymple The Last Mughal, 459). The difference can be seen clearly by comparing the engraving of 1859 with the watercolour illustration above it, of 1843. Little more than fifteen years separate the two, but the change has been immense.

The tall rectangular buildings on the far left of the engraving, with a flagstaff, must be some of the functional British army barracks and offices that were quickly built on the cleared grounds to house the troops and for administrative purposes. They were a sad replacement for what was originally there. Nevertheless, when the Red Fort became a World Heritage site in 2007, even these buildings were deemed to be of interest: there are plans to restore them, along with the rest, "removing alterations made by the Indian army" when it took over from the Raj (Red Fort, 82). Some parts are already in use for museum displays. Of course, times have changed enormously, but this generous attitude, with its recognition of the British buildings' historic importance and usefulness, contrasts markedly with nineteenth-century British treatment of what was once a truly fabulous complex.

Related Material


Dalrymple, William. The City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi. London: Harper Perennial, 2005.

____. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. Delhi: Penguin, 2007.

Peck, Lucy. Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building. New Delhi: Roli (Lotus), 2005.

Red Fort. Based on the text of Y. D. Sharma. Delhi: Archeological Survey of India (Goodearth Publications), 2009.

Last modified 20 February 2015