History: R.V. SMITH calls for preserving our layered legacy by protecting our forts

The inclusion of six forts of Rajasthan in the World Heritage list is welcome news, but there are several other medieval citadels in that State whose colourful legends have been unveiled in Colonel Tod’s Annals & Antiquities of Rajputana and which also need preservation. Just as fascinating as them are the Purana Quila, the Red Fort and the Agra Fort which have not only played a big role in history but also give a whiff of the ancient and medieval ambience to visitors. When the Purana Quila is lit up at night you “see” the ghosts of history parading themselves in all their splendour. Drive past it and feel the impact of the centuries. Kurus, Guptas, Arabs, Pathans, Moghuls and many more held sway there. The crumbling walls say as much. They have been built and rebuilt, the trees that grow near them perhaps germinated from earlier ones and so the place has preserved an atmosphere that defies time and age. An owl flies in circles till it finds a perch on the ruined citadel of the mighty empires which once drew awe and wonder because of the supermen who ruled them. The Indraprastha of the Pandavas flourished there with its fairy castles and magic fountains. Came the successors of the mighty Kurus and then invaders. The fort was at a vantage point and they built on it according to their needs.

Night imparts its own strange hues to buildings old and new. At the Purana Quila, it seems to merge with hoary time and you begin to hear the sound of trumpets, the battle-cry of the warriors, the clash of swords, the whiz of a thousand arrows, the neighing of horses, the thunderous trumpeting of elephants and the piteous moans of the fallen being trampled upon by man and beast. A hare scurries across the road and finds refuge in the many shrubs growing below the ruined walls. It certainly hasn’t escaped from the nearby zoo. Suddenly, a tiger roars (or is it a lion?), probably finding the mosquitoes too much of a nuisance in its enclosure. You feel and hear so much just by watching this deserted monument floodlit. Light and shadow makes all the difference, added to it is the silence of the night. One of those moments when the heavy traffic is absent. Here history is unfolded before the eyes. You see emperor and clown for what they really were and you hear the perennial song of humanity-of wars and conflicts, peace and tranquillity, the power and glory and the neglect and decay. Is the owl sitting on the wall brooding over the past? Who knows?

The Red Fort has its own charm. Whereas it is generally believed that the ramparts were built by Aurangzeb, the main reason which led to their construction was security and not “purdah” for the Emperor from his nobles and subjects. Even without the ramparts, the Diwan-e-Am would not be visible to people in Chandni Chowk and its vicinity unless one climbed the Jama Masjid or the Lal Mandir, which incidentally is also said to have been built for Shah Jahan’s Jain soldiers.

In the days of Shah Jahan, Chandni Chowk was very different from what it is today. A canal flowed through it and on either side were roads with huge neem and peepul trees and one could not get a clear view of the Fort from Fatehpuri Masjid. Although the Fort’s main gate was in the centre in those days, it was seldom kept open. To suggest that nobles had to dismount because the Emperor was visible to them is rather far-fetched. The nobles actually stayed opposite the Fort in what is now known as Parade Ground and even from the roofs of their palatial houses the Emperor was not visible to them. If a clear view of the court could be had from their roofs, they would have been prohibited from using them. But history books do not record any such ban. Moreover, the Emperor’s seat in the Diwan-e-Am is not the marble throne at the bottom, but under the ornamental canopy above. To reach it one had to cross the entire length of the Meena Bazaar and the wide courtyard, which was fringed by many buildings. These were demolished after 1857. Even the arches of the Meena Bazaar are sufficient to obstruct a clear view of the Emperor on his throne. Diwan-e-Am was not as bare as it is now. It was decorated with huge curtains and screens, apart from the colourful awnings which were suspended from poles in front of most palaces to keep out the glare of the sun. A red curtain (lal purdah) at the side of Diwan-e-Am led to an apartment where the emperor met the high and mighty who came to be known as Lal Pardaris.

Parts of the Delhi, Agra, Allahabad and Madras forts were among those occupied by the Army. The stationing of military personnel in or near forts is a vestige of medieval times when, to guard against palace intrigues, kings preferred having detachments of reliable troops as close to them as possible, notwithstanding the general discomfort to his personal household, more especially the zenana. The Red Fort was the worst sufferer after the Revolt of 1857. Most of the palaces and other buildings it contained were razed and barracks built to accommodate British soldiers. These structures, as visitors to the Red Fort must have noticed, not only look out of place but are positively ugly. Some of the portions occupied by the Army are also of tourist interest. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sign of Four refers to the looting of the “Great Agra Treasure” in 1857. But some of the portions of the Agra Fort mentioned by him in his story are not open to visitors. Sir Fredrick Treves doubted if there was anywhere in the world anything “more fortlike” than the Agra Fort.

“It is such a fort,” he says in his book, The Other Side of the Lantern, “as should figure in an allegory or be engraved on a shield as a heraldic symbol.” This is a tribute to Akbar who built the fort and to which Shah Jahan added more buildings. And surprisingly enough, both the Agra and Delhi forts were diplomatically linked with the forts of Rajasthan, particularly, Amber, which also is among the six included in the heritage list.