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    South Asia
     Feb 23, 2012


Mughal 'paradise' gets tortuous makeover
By Raja Murthy

Agar Firdaus bar rue Zamin ast, Hamin asto, Hamin asto, Hamin ast!
If there is a paradise on earth, this is it, this is it, this is it!
- 13th century poet Amir Khusrau's famous couplet describing India, inscribed on the walls of the 17th century Red Fort.

DELHI - The earthly "paradise" that is the Red Fort in Delhi is getting a stuttering makeover even as it continues drawing thousands of visitors as one of Asia's most popular historical monuments.

The Archaeology Survey of India (ASI) is face-lifting the Red Fort to preserve the site's tumultuous legacy. The fort not only represents painstaking craftsmanship and creativity, but also a decadent lifestyle that weakened and destroyed one of the most

 

powerful empires in history - the Mughals.

A bit of Mughal-style wealth would come in handy right now, say the restorers. "The Red Fort is far too important a monument to be left neglected," ASI conservation officer Milind Angaikar told Asia Times Online. "But our biggest challenge is shortage of funds. Being declared a World Heritage monument [in 2007] has not increased the budget."

No such financial constraints hampered Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (1592-1666) whose architectural credits include the Taj Majal. He took nearly 10 years to complete building the Red Fort in 1648. There was nothing like it in existence. An English general described it as the greatest palace in the world of that time, if not all time.

Merging Indian, Persian and European art, the fort holds marble and red stone structures of low height set amid wide rectangular lawns, gardens, trees, fountains, music played five times a day, waterways and lights. This palace of palaces was ruled by Mughals, ransacked by Persians and Afghans, colonized by British and retrieved by India.

The largest and most significant of the seven forts or seven old cities of Delhi, the Red Fort, or Lal Qila in Hindi, still carries much significance in modern India. The flag of a free India fluttered here on August 15, 1947. Indian prime ministers have addressed the nation every Independence Day since from the Red Fort ramparts near the Lahore Gate entrance.

The Red Fort gets hours of my time often when I am in Delhi. There is a sense of deja vu, a feeling of wonder at the happiness, sorrows, triumphs, tragedies, intrigues, struggles these skeletons of the past might have seen, the stories the red sandstone walls could tell of the people who lived and died within.

They were a curious breed, those emperors of the Mughal dynasty (1526-1857). The founder, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babar, was descendant of the Mongolian psychopathic mass murderer Ghenghiz Khan from Central Asia. The word "Mughal" comes from "Mongol".

Shah Jahan, the fifth of the Mughal emperors and builder of the Red Fort, died a prisoner of his son Aurangzeb (1618-1707). Aurangzeb, whose coronation in the Red Fort came after he'd murdered his brothers, became an intolerant extremist, an one-man ancestor of the Taliban who was ignorant to the fact that one respects one's own religion by respecting others'. His intolerance for non-Muslims destroyed regional alliances his forefathers had built. He was the last of the powerful Mughals who ruled from the Red Fort.

He sowed the seeds for the end of the Mughals, even as the Red Fort was epicenter to one of the largest empires in the world, the second-largest in Asia after the Qing Dynasty domains in China. At its peak, Mughal lands stretched across 4.6 million square kilometers, nearly all of South Asia except for a part of present-day Kerala in south western India.

In the next hundred years, the Red Fort became a temple for the empire's luxuries and pleasures of the flesh. But attachment to excessive physical comforts can creates mental discomfort, and the following generations of Mughal princes grew up progressively weak and incompetent.

Their final fall came in the Red Fort within 150 years. In 1857, the English colonials captured Bahadur Shah Jafar the second, the 17th and last of Mughals and a figurehead in India's First War of Independence, which saw him led him out in chains and shipped to exile in Burma (now called Myanmar).

The last known descendant of the Mughals, in the lineage of Babur, Akbar "the Great" and Shah Jahan, was in 2009 discovered living in dire poverty in a Kolkata slum. She was running a small tea stall, and later given a job as a maid servant running errands for the government-owned firm Coal India.

The wealth this maid servant's Mughal forefathers hoarded in the Red Fort hints at the riches the sub-continent once owned. The loot Persian raider Nadir Shah carried out of Delhi in 1739 needed 1,000 elephants and 800 horses to carry it. His booty included the golden Peacock Throne encrusted with sapphires, emeralds, rubies and the famous Kohinoor diamond now part of the globally stolen property comprising the British queen's Crown Jewels.

"All this was like a jungle, full of weeds, when I came here," said gardener Dinanath, watering the lawns in front of the palace where two of the most powerful emperors in the world lived. Dinanath, working here for over 35 years, is part of a team of 105 gardeners trying to recreate a semblance of what was once called Hayat Bakhsh Bagh or "Life-Bestowing Garden".

The garden had its own "Stream of Paradise" or "Nahri-i - Bisht", an elaborate waterworks running throughout the royal living quarters. Water lifted from the River Yamuna flowed out of copper and clay pipes in lavishly appointed bathrooms called the "Hamman" to offer a choice of hot, cold and steam baths. In a late February afternoon a few hundred years later, a child delightedly scampered up and down a small wooden board bridging the now bone-dry, dusty "Stream of Paradise".

"In about two or three months, there will an improved sound and light show with computerized laser beams and projections," said Pradeep Kumar, manager of the nightly Sound and Light show manager since the mid-1980s. The Red Fort itself was built for light effects. The important edifices, including court halls and the emperor's living quarters, are laid out to face the setting and rising sun in an east-west line.

The Rang Mahal or "Palace of colors", for instance, must have been a spectacular sight as the sun rays reflected off small mirrors embedded on ceiling and walls. The late winter sun at about 5.30 pm glowed exactly on the marble pedestal in the Diwan-i-Khaas where the bejeweled golden Peacock Throne once stood, probably turning it into a shimmering glow of rainbow colors.

Even the waterways contributed to the light effects. The water ran through garden tanks with niches for candles or oil lamps - so the flickering light plays on the water and turns it into rippling gold at night.

Yet all the sensory delights of this "paradise" proved a gilded trap that across centuries choked the life out of the Mughals. One of the major reasons the tide turned against them was people revolting against excessive taxation imposed to pay for Mughal luxuries, compared to which European kings of the era could be said to have been living in budget accommodation.

A now poverty-stricken Red Fort depends on revenue from visiting tourists, but at the same time these visitors threaten its existence. "Increasing footfall on the marble floors creates reverberations that are damaging the structures," says conservation official Angaikar. "Some of the sections that are closed may never be opened again."

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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