Photographs by the author, except for the Victorian one of the Drum House, reproduced, by kind permission, from the British Library's Online Gallery. It has been cropped from the enlarged original. Please see the Library's own site for conditions of reuse. You may use the other images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on all the images to enlarge them.]

Red Fort, Delhi

Red Fort, Delhi, today: approaching the ramparts and the Lahori Gate on the west side from Chandni Chowk, the main hub of Old Delhi.

Shah Jehan's seventeenth-century Red Fort in Delhi, where the last Mughal emperor lived until 16 September 1857, was a fabulous complex within the stoutest of walls. Fortunately, for defensive purposes, the British kept these walls intact when they took over the fort. They give the best idea now of the palace's expanse. The Lahori Gate, shown above, is marked by two octagonal towers, while its centre is decorated with a row of small domed chhatris between two minarets — the sort of design elements that British engineers and architects like Henry Irwin sought to incorporate into a new hybrid Indo-Saracenic style.

Left to right. (a) The Delhi Gate, on the south side, in line with Old Delhi's busy Daryagang / Faiz Bazaar area. (b) A corner tower and the immense wall, stretching towards the Lahori Gate. (c) A side view of the flame-shaped battlements, stout octagonal towers and chhatris of the Lahori Gate.

Having finally stormed Delhi on 14 September 1857 after a prolonged siege of the town, and much loss of life, the British recognised that the Red Fort was a "magnificent palace ... a stately and royal castle indeed," but also saw it as "since June the scene of manifold crimes and cruelties" (qtd. from a contemporary account in Featherstone 120). Indeed, the "cruelties" had started even before that, as mutinous sepoys poured into Delhi and persuaded the Emperor to lend his name to their revolt. Those British living in Delhi had been mercilessly attacked. For example, according to Sir Evelyn Wood, whose record is very specific,

At sunset on May 11 the surviving 50 Christians in Dehli, adults and children of both sexes, were brought to the Palace and placed in a dungeon. Five days later they were led out into the courtyard and, by order of the King, conveyed by his son, Nuiza Mughal, they were butchered before a crowd of exulting spectators, and their bodies thrown into the Jamnah. [27]

That sort of incident, including particularly the more infamous massacre at Cawnpore in July of the same year, was what lay behind the conquering troops' shocking desecration of the Fort's buildings once they had stormed it. It was fortunate indeed that at least the curtain wall and these two gatehouses survived.


Chatta-Chowk, leading from the Lahori Gate to the palace courtyard.

Both during and after Mughal times, passing through the main Lahori Gate was only the first stage of a long process. Next the visitor had to pass through Chatta-Chowk, the long vaulted passage of kiosks lying beyond the gateway. The Victorian architectural historian and specialist in Eastern architecture, James Fergusson, was much impressed and wrote the following account of it: "Entering within its deeply-recessed portal [at the Lahori Gate], you find yourself beneath the vaulted hall, the sides of which are in two storeys, and with an octagonal break in the centre." This hall, he explained, "has very much the effect of the nave of a gigantic Gothic cathedral, and forms the noblest entrance known to belong to any existing palace" (206-07).

The kiosks and hagglers of Chatta-Chowk, shown on the left above, might seem quite out of place here. However, as Emily Bayley, another Victorian spectator, observed, the palace "covered an enormous space of ground, in fact it was quite a town in itself, thronged with thousands of natives, hangers-on of an oriental court" (168). Those "natives" included shopkeepers, and from its earliest times, even from Shah Jehan's days, the long roofed passage between gatehouse and courtyard served as a bazaar: "At its inner end," Fergusson continues, "this hall opened into a courtyard ..., from the centre of which a noble bazaar extended right and left, like the hall, two storeys in height, but not vaulted" (Fergusson 207; see also Red Fort, 29). The difference is that these days the shoppers are not hangers-on but tourists.

The Drum House

The Drum House in 1858, reproduced by courtesy of the British Library (see "Within the Palace, Delhi").

The long nave- or perhaps tunnel-like passage of Chatta-Chowk was not the end point of the entry process. "In front, at the entrance, was the Nobut Khana, or music hall, beneath which the visitor entered the second or great court of the palace...." (Fergusson 207-08). This building too was spared by the British in 1857, one of the few within the grounds to have been thus privileged. Among the portfolio of photographs that Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife, Harriet, took in the aftermath of the uprising, though, is one showing its miserable state then. By this time it was being used as officers' quarters (see "Within the Palace"). It looks much more cheerful today.

Carved facade of the Naubat-Khan, at the Red Fort, Delhi

Intricate floral, foliate and geometric carvings on the sandstone on the archway through the "Naubat-Khan" or Drum House, on the side facing the courtyard. The designs on the façade were apparently once painted in gold (see Red Fort, 33).

Left: The ceiling inside the dome of the Drum House. Right: Close-up of one of the sandstone reliefs. Stylised flower motifs like this would often be seen on British house fronts during the later nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts period.

In the Emperor's time, the lavishly decorated central arch of the Drum House was where all visitors, apart from the royal princes, were finally required to dismount from their elephants: it was therefore known as the Elephant Gate. The name of the whole structure (Drum House) comes from the fact that above the arches was a set of rooms, perhaps with fretted windows, from which musicians performed at auspicious hours, and welcomed or bade farewell to the emperor. This then was the formal inner gateway to the palace (see Red Fort, 32). From here visitors could finally proceed on foot to the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Audience, to be presented to the Emperor, who held daily court there (see Peck 187).

All this would seem to have made it impossible for anyone to launch an attack on the palace residents. The walls alone look utterly impregnable. But in fact in 1857 "[t]he Palace proved an easy target for British gunners, and one British howitzer was soon fixed permanently so as to lob shells inside Shah Jahan's red stone walls" (Dalrymple 257-58; emphasis added). On one memorable occasion the Emperor himself was almost hit. Soon afterwards, the defeated octogenarian would pass under this arch to seek refuge in Humayun's Tomb, returning only to face trial at the Red Fort in January 1858, a trial that ended with his sentence of exile to Burma, and final departure from the palace, from Delhi — and from India.

Related Material


Bayley, Lady Emily. The Golden Calm: An English Lady's Life in Moghul Delhi, ed. M/. M. Kaye. Exeter: Webb & Bower, 1980. (This includes her father's Reminiscences.)

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

Featherstone, Donald. Victorian Colonial Warfare: India. London: Cassell, 1992.

Fergusson, James. History of Indian and Eastern Architcture. Vol. II. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 22 February 2015.

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.

"Within the Palace, Delhi." British Library Online Gallery. Web. 24 February 2015.

Wood, Sir Evelyn. The revolt in Hindustan, 1857-59. London: Methuen, 1908. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 24 February 2015.

Last modified 25 February 2015