Book Excerpt: Negotiating Monuments in a New Light

An excerpt from ‘Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories’, which highlights the need to move beyond a monument-centred vision and treat heritage sites as repositories of a wider historical and cultural legacy.

Listen to this article:

Monuments, like museums, are critical sites for public consumption of historical knowledge. In fact, they constitute sites where people come closest to the idea of experiencing history. The depth of this experience, however, is based on the extent of one’s knowledge of these sites. As a discipline based on evidence and context, which systematically studies the role of time and space, the relationship between the part and whole, and engages in a creative dialogue between the past and present, history has an enormous potential to contribute to public understanding of heritage sites. 

However, there is a conspicuous lack of such material on such sites, either in the form of books or knowledge platforms. For one, academic books and resources either do not reach heritage sites or even if they do, they are not very accessible to the layperson. Hence, people tend to rely more on travel websites, guidebooks and tourist guides for their understanding of monuments and connected histories. The problem is that the content of such guidebooks available at/around/about the sites are not regularly updated. Most travel websites, too, churn out the same generic and outdated material, albeit with minor modifications. Heritage walks, and light and sound shows are restricted to a few cities/sites. And most tourist guides available at the sites are not trained by historians but by tourism and hospitality management institutes. They are not adequately trained to deal with sensitive historical matters. 

Shashank Shekhar Sinha
Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories
Macmillan (September 2021)

Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories (Pan Macmillan) underlines the need to have more accessible histories. It also calls for a more inclusive conceptual framework which moves beyond a monument-centred vision and treats heritage sites as repositories of a wider historical and cultural legacy.  In such a framework, monuments’ larger geo-cultural connections, their afterlives, and the role of individual structures and artefacts play an important role. The book also underscores the need for a critical but creative engagement with elements of popular history rather than being summarily dismissive about them.  In a context where the gap between academic and public understandings of history is progressively increasing and where heritage sites are fast becoming sites of identity and sectarian politics, it is important to restore monuments to their rightful place, in history and in the public domain, in an informed but interesting way. 

Red Fort after Shah Jahan  

The fortunes of the palace-fort started dwindling after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the process of disintegration of the large Mughal empire had already set in during his reign. The post-Aurangzeb phase of Shahjahanabad witnessed battles for succession, rise of ambitious nobles and king makers, invasions from abroad, attacks by regional powers and natural calamities. However, the city and the court also experienced artistic and cultural efflorescence during some periods. Muhammad Shah (regnal years 1719–48), one of the later Mughal emperors, patronized Urdu language as well as musical performances particularly qawwali, spiritual music sung by Sufis, and khyal, a kind of Indian classical vocal music. Paintings of Holi (festival of colours) celebrations of his period are quite well known.

The Red Fort and its Lahori Gate which now forms the public entrance. The barbican (fortified outer structure) around the Lahori Gate was constructed by Shah Jahan’s successor Aurangzeb. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

In 1739, Nadir Shah, the Turk ruler of Iran, crossed Afghanistan and Punjab and defeated the Mughals at Karnal, located around 120 kilometres from Delhi. In the subsequent display of power, Nadir Shah’s name was proclaimed as the sovereign in the khutba, the sermon during the congregation Friday noon prayers, in the mosques of Shahjahanabad. 

Nadir Shah also got Muhammad Shah to receive him at the palace-fort where he symbolically returned the throne to the defeated Mughal emperor. On March 22, 1739, infuriated by some minor attacks on his army, Nadir Shah ordered a massacre of citizens of Delhi and witnessed the barbarity sitting on the roof of the Sunehri Masjid near Chandni Chowk. He also plundered the palace-fort and the city and carried away a booty with an estimated value of 700 million rupees, including the peacock throne and the iconic diamond, Koh-i-Noor. The throne was brought to Iran. Nadir Shah died in a campaign against Kurdish tribesmen in 1947.

In the ruckus that followed, the tribesmen dismantled the throne and distributed the precious stones and metals amongst themselves. The peacock throne however became the insignia of the Iranian monarchy and its reproductions continued to be made for later rulers including those from the Shah and Qazar dynasties. It is held that one of these reproductions is housed at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. The Koh-i-Noor, on the other hand, changed several hands before coming under the possession of the British. From Nadir Shah the diamond passed on to one of his lieutenants, Ahmad Shah Durrani (also known as Ahmad Shah Abdali). Later, Shah Shuja Durrani, a descendant of Ahmad Shah Durrani, gave the diamond to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ruler of Punjab, for helping him win back the throne of Afghanistan. After the British conquest of Punjab in 1849, the Koh-i-Noor finally passed into the hands of the British. It currently forms a part of the Crown Jewel collection displayed at the Tower of London.

Meanwhile, the destroyed Mughal city and the plundered empire were further weakened by the raids – by powers like the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Jats, and the Gurjars as well as the Rohillas and Afghans – between mid-to late-19th century. The Marathas captured Delhi in 1759 to lose it to Ahmad Shah Durrani, the Afghan ruler who succeeded Nadir Shah, in the Third Battle of Panipat (1761). They recaptured the city in 1771, made Mughal emperor Shah Alam their pensioner, and stationed Maratha troops in the palace-fort. 

Some scholars say that the Marathas took down and melted the ceiling of Diwan-i Khas, made in silver and inlaid with gold, and used the metal to make coins then worth 23 lakh rupees. The wooden ceiling one sees now in the structure was painted by the British in 1911, around the time of the Delhi Durbar. 

The Diwan-i-Khas, which once housed the peacock throne adorned with the Kohinoor diamond. Its gold and silver ceiling was later taken down by the Marathas and melted to make coins. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

Later, the Rohilla chief Ghulam Qadir captured Shah Alam (regnal years 1759–1806) in 1788 and imprisoned him in Salimgarh Fort. He asked the emperor to show the place where Mughals hid their treasures. When the impoverished and helpless emperor failed to show any such place, an infuriated Ghulam Qadir blinded him and dug up the floors of the Diwan-i Khas looking for hidden treasures. The Marathas soon regained their control over the city and the palace-fort and Shah Alam became their puppet again.

The Mughal Empire as an imperial raj or a political entity ceased to exist in the 1750s. But the ‘imperial’ aspect of the emperor and his distinctive social status as the foremost resident of Delhi ensured that his position remained central to the identity of the city and the palace-fort even after the British occupation. In 1803, Lord Lake defeated the Marathas near Patparganj in Delhi and gained control of the Ganga-Yamuna plains and the Delhi-Agra region. Administratively, the city of Shahjahanabad became a part of the North-Western Provinces and was governed from Agra. A British Resident was stationed in Delhi. He started functioning from the building known as Dara Shukoh’s Library. This is a building on Lothian Road in present day Delhi, on the right bank of the Yamuna close to the imperial palace, and is named after Aurangzeb’s eponymous elder brother.

The early decades of the 20th century, described as the ‘English Peace’, were also the period of the ‘Delhi Renaissance’. This period was characterized by the writings of literary greats such as Mirza Ghalib, Hakim Momin Khan, and Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq; the intellectual endeavours of the faculty at the Delhi College and its English Institute; and, the coming into circulation of printing presses and newspapers. This intellectual and cultural efflorescence was disrupted by one of the most serious challenges to the British colonial rule, the rebellion of 1857.

The barracks, to the right of the Sawan Pavilion in the photograph, were constructed by the British after their suppression of the 1857 rebellion. Photo: Shashank Shekhar Sinha

The year 1857 witnessed armed revolts in parts of central and northern India, leading to a loss of British control over these regions. Recent research shows that the rebellion was more widespread than thought earlier. It began with a mutiny of sepoys but soon acquired a civil and popular character in parts of northern India. The rebel sepoys showed a tendency to converge or congregate at Delhi. The Red Fort thus emerged as a focal point for the rebellion. Under pressure from the rebels and his own princes, the reluctant 82-year-old Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar (regnal years 1837–57), became the titular leader of the rebellion.

The palace-fort soon became the seat of the rebel power and, Bahadur Shah a symbol of the rebellion. There were attacks on Europeans, Christians and those connected with the British government. British officers and army took refuge in the forested ridge around Delhi University and waited for reinforcements from Ambala. Once the British army started gaining control of the city, it went on an offensive against both Hindus and Muslims. Most residents of Shahjahanabad were driven out. They took shelter in areas around the Qutb and the Nizamuddin. The ousted residents could not re-enter the city before the following year. Mosques were also taken over. After September 1857, the British forces unleashed a reign of terror that saw indiscriminate shootings, court martials and summary hangings. Meanwhile Bahadur  Shah escaped the Red Fort via Yamuna and took refuge in Humayun’s tomb. He was soon arrested by the British forces along with three princes. The latter were killed on the way back near the Delhi gate of the city by Major William Hodson.

Bahadur Shah returned to Red Fort as a prisoner of the British.

He was tried in the Diwan-i-Khas in 1858, and exiled to Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), on October 7. British officials were not content with deporting the emperor and killing his descendants. They also unleashed their anger on the palace-fort which had been the citadel of power during the ‘Great Indian Rebellion’. More than two thirds of the inner structures were destroyed. Henceforth, structures in the palace-fort served as quarters for the British garrison and the famed Diwan-i Aam as a hospital.

The buildings south of the Diwan-i-Khas were found to be ‘of little architectural interest’ and were declared suitable for troops. Most jewels, precious stones and artworks of the Red Fort had already been looted during Nadir Shah’s invasion. The aftermath of suppression of the rebellion saw further looting. Several existing Mughal structures were demolished, including the harem courts and gardens to the west of Rang Mahal, the royal storerooms and kitchen to the north of Diwan-i Aam and the Mahtab Bagh. New structures including army barracks, hospitals, bungalows, administrative buildings, sheds and godowns soon came up in the palace-fort complex. The rebellion also ended the rule of the East India Company, and an act passed in the British Parliament in August 1858 made Queen Victoria the sovereign head of British India.

Excerpted with permission from Pan Macmillan India.