The Red Fort

It is a Sunday and, since I now know that Indians love excursions, I decide to try again to visit the Fort early in the morning. No taxi this time; a pleasant walk to the metro on quiet, car-less streets, then zoom to downtown (I imagine a former student, Leah, riding these trains during her fieldwork period) and the abrupt transition from modern convenience to streets of the Chandni Chawk market.

No sooner do I exit the metro than my path takes me past a Hindu temple where one of its caretakers is using a white pole to prod a man lying prone on the pavement just beside the main gate. Since he doesn’t move or respond, the caretaker comes out of the temple and checks the man to make sure he’s alive. Enlisting a passerby, they each grab one appendage–a leg and an arm–and lift the man off the pavement just enough to drag and then deposit him on the other side of the street. I see he is older, with grey hair and a stubbly beard. How he ended up in front of the temple in this state–drunk? sick? worse?– is a story I imagine while following my own compass to the Red Fort.

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Unlike the past several days, Sunday morning has a hazy but warm yellow sun. It brings forth soft reds in the carnations, golds in the chrysanthemums, and in the displays of flower stalls catering to destined for temple offerings. A woman in a lime green, rather gauzy sari steps into the light as she’s buying a strand of carnations. I catch a quick photo with no one paying any attention, then keep heading to the Fort.

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This place was the first site visited some 37 years ago on my inaugural India tour in the winter of 1977. It had then and still retains a unique combination of historical structures, compelling tales of the original builders and rulers, and officially-sanctioned neglect despite it being named a World Heritage Site. These palaces were built by non-Indians, non-Hindus, and yet they retain an iconic value for India due to their superb architecture and craftsmanship that originated in places like Persia and Baghdad but which were localized here. The same is true for many other of India’s Mughal monuments, including the Taj Mahal, built to honor and serve as a mausoleum for the beloved wife of the same Shah Jahan who constructed the Red Fort.

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The story of this family has a supreme irony: a son deposes the father then locks him away till he dies but ultimately enshrines his body in an honorable way. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz’ third son was called Aurangzeb. After Mumtaz died in her forties, her body was buried temporarily for the 20 years it took until the Taj Mahal was built. When Shah Jahan fell ill in the last decade of his life, Aurangzeb’s two elder brothers were governors in distant precincts. Each raised an army and rushed back to Delhi to claim the throne. Aurangzeb was ready and defeated each of them, seizing the kingdom for himself.

His father had recovered by this time, but Aurangzeb pronounced him too feeble to rule and imprisoned him in the Red Fort. For the last eight years of his life, one of Shah Jahan’s daughters cared for him. Upon his death, Aurangzeb prohibited any grand funeral but allowed his father to be buried alongside his mother in the Taj Mahal…where they remain side by side today (in the basement and not, as most tourists think, on the upper level where two marble caskets sit behind a latticed screen of the finest marble).

The difference between my first and second visits were like night and day. For one thing, the first visit in 1977 allowed people to actually walk within the palaces and get a sense of the space and dimensions of the architecture. One could see the fine inlay work on the many flowers, vines, and celestial birds that were believed to reside in the gardens of paradise. A canal that conveyed flowing water from the nearby Yamuna river ran through all the main buildings in the complex, something I could examine closely and imagine how soothing it must have been. The water first refreshed Shah Jahan in his quarters, then the hot and nubile women of his harem, then at the southern end, his wife’s palace (now a historical museum).

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Even with the barriers up and security guards posted, viewing from a distance was still impressive on this recent visit. I got a much better sense of how small the palaces actually were, and how, despite all its opulence, constricted was the world of those who lived here. Sadly, the buildings seem much more decayed and in need of a major renovation–which may or may not be within the reach of India’s bureau of public monuments. The front of the Red Fort is impressive and well-maintained, but looking at the back side away from the TV cameras on Republic Day, there is considerable deterioration.

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I stroll around, letting people pose with me (for no charge!), and enjoy the acrobatics of a young dancer whose two friends snap photos. I offer a word of praise to the toilet concession that, for a 20-cent fee, maintains a spotlessly clean and fragrant WC on the grounds. Nearby, a dead tree provides a perch for 12 freewheeling hawks whose trilling cry provides the soundtrack for my visit to the Fort.
Afterwards, I succumbed to the allure of Chandni Chawk one more time, searching for a finding quickly a Nehru-type vest that fit me perfectly and cost only $5, with no haggling. I even wore it to my lecture the next day at University of Delhi.

And so, with a few more images, I bid adieu to this most frenetic, educational, claustrophobic, market. I even heard a new insult directed at me by one member of a group of teenage boys: “Hey Mitt Romney!” Now that hurts.

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