The Mumtaz Mahal museum in the Red Fort is 100 years old, observes R.V. Smith, digging out the facts on how it came about

It may surprise some to learn that the Mumtaz Mahal museum in the Red Fort is 100 years old. Browsing through a contemporary's “100 years ago” one read a news item dated August 20, 1911, “By desire of Sir Louis Dane, E.C.I.E. Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab, a committee has formed under the presidency of the Commissioner of Delhi Division, for the purpose of making a loan collection of objects of historical and archaeological interest for exhibition during the coming cold weather. One of the old buildings in the Fort (the Chhoti Baithak of Mumtaz Mahal), which has for many years been used as a sergeants' mess, is being adapted to receive the collection, and to exhibit it to the best advantage. The combined collection will be on view on the occasion of the garden party which is to be given in the Fort in honour of His Majesty the King Emperor, but it is intended that it shall remain open during the whole of the cold weather. It is hoped that the collection will be the best of its kind ever exhibited in India, and it is sure to attract large numbers of visitors. The objects wanted for the exhibition the item says, should be sent to J.P. Thompson, I.C.S, Divisional and Sessions Judge, Delhi, or to the Hon. Secretary, Gordon Sanderson, Superintendent of Mohamedan and British Monuments, Northen Circle, Agra.

According to Maulvi Zafar Hasan, the building formed part of the imperial seraglio and was used as a prison in 1857. It measures 26.9 meters by 25 meters east to west. However the gilded chhatris have now disappeared but the chajja or parapet, reconstructed in 1911 remains. He goes on to say “the lower portions of the walls and piers are of marble and traces of some of the old painted and glass decoration, with which the building was formerly adorned, exposed”. The date of its construction is given as 1639-48. The Mumtaz Mahal was again renovated a few years ago and now looks as spick and span as a modern building.

Away from public gaze

Why was it named Mumtaz Mahal? After the Lady of the Taj, whom Shah Jahan wanted to commemorate in the Red Fort too. Some think that it was so named in Akbar Shah Sani's time, whose wife bore the title of Mumtaz Mahal II. But this is most unlikely. It acquired the named Chhoti Baithak or the emperor's drawing room because of the use to which it was initially put. After the Uprising the British imprisoned Moghul princes here and other members of the royal family as a safe way of keeping them away from the public gaze and exciting mob anger. But soon after it became a mess where British officers had their meals and often quarrelled after drinks. Some of the quarrels were the result of uncharitable comments on absent sweethearts, whose names had been inscribed on the walls of the mahal with sharp objects.

The food served at the mess was cooked on the spot now occupied by a lawn, just at the side of the mahal. The cooks, incidentally, were from the Jama Masjid area. Among whom may have been the relatives of the present owners of Karim and Jawahar restaurants, one of the descendents was the owner of a dhaba with the fanciful name of Hotel Shahen-Shah below Haveli Sadar Sadur in Bazar Matia Mahal, whom one met 50 years ago. The museum has the gharara of Zeenat Mahal, the chogha and pyjamas of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the rapier of Shah Jahan the dagger of Humayun and the gigantic sword of Aurangzeb. The royal clothes were stolen some 30 years ago when thieves from the Ring Road side entered the museum. Luckily they were recovered. One puzzle which confronts the visitor is the sarcophagus at the far end of the mahal. Whose it is nobody knows but it is a weird exhibit all right.