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The rear side of Red Fort. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The rear side of Red Fort. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Is this really ‘red’ fort?

The white side of the great Delhi monument

Is the Red Fort (Lal Qila), red? Yes, the same Red Fort from whose red standstone ramparts the prime minister delivers his Independence Day speech.

You would say yes, it certainly is. But that’s only half the story.

Stroll around to the other side—on the Rajghat-Kashmere Gate stretch of the Ring Road—and you’ll discover that parts of the Delhi monument are, in fact, a pale white.

For the rear, unlike the front portion, allows you a peek into the fort, built by emperor Shah Jahan as his palace when he made Delhi the capital in 1638.

You’ll get a chance to peer at the domed white structure at the centre that was the emperor’s apartment, the Khas Mahal. Just to the right was his harem, the Rang Mahal. Then there’s the Diwan-i-Khas, where the great Mughals granted private audience to VIPs while perched on the peacock throne.

The Ring Road perspective throws new light or, rather, colour on Red Fort. Hardly anything seems to be red.

“In building the Red Fort, Shah Jahan continued the red-white contrast used by Akbar to such great effect at Humayun’s Tomb, with red sandstone providing the fortifications and enclosures and white marble used for prominent structures," says architect Ratish Nanda. As project director of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, he helped restore Delhi’s Humayun’s Tomb complex.

Nanda explains that “much of the Red Fort’s internal enclosures—all of which would have been red—were demolished by the British in the aftermath of the first war of independence in 1857". The private buildings of the Mughals were all white, he says, and built in marble or daubed in lime plaster with marble dust.

Indeed, in 2011, it was in the news that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) would be repainting a Red Fort gateway from red to white lime plaster, apparently its original colour. The UK-based Telegraph newspaper quoted the then head of the Delhi circle of ASI as saying that “the ‘Red Fort’ is a ‘misconception’ because although its exterior ramparts are red sandstone, ‘more of the Red Fort is white than people realise’".

As any self-respecting Delhiite will tell you, the Lal Qila-facing stretch of Ring Road was originally part of the river. Way back when the Ring Road was the Yamuna river. It’s said that you could fish from the windows of Red Fort. The river changed course sometime after 1857, meandering to the east.

The polluted river now flows far from the fort, and is separated not only by the Ring Road but also by a green ribbon comprising the memorials of the great and the famous, including Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat. The rear portion of the fort itself is now bordered by sprawling grounds and greens, the Dilli Chalo Park. Deriving its name from the slogan given by the nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, the garden was landscaped in 2003 by Jagmohan, then Union minister of tourism and culture.

Till then, it looked almost derelict. It was a site for demonstrations, and the site for the Chor Bazaar, where you could get everything from old gramophones to car tyres for a bargain—all stolen stuff, they say.

Today, the park’s gates remain closed for security reasons. All you see is grass, trees, benches, dry fountains, a couple of policemen, and scores of pigeons. And, of course, you may spot a gardener or two. I exchanged greetings with a red sari-clad woman who cuts the grass. It was evening, and she was walking home barefoot to a nearby slum with her little girls.

Opposite the park is Vijay Ghat, the memorial to prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri—a popular destination for the city’s romantic couples, who meet here away from prying eyes.

Decades ago, Dilli Chalo Park was a mosquito-infested swamp peopled by the homeless. “I had got the area between the Ring Road and the Red Fort cleared of squatters"—boasted a Delhi administrator in his memoirs. Dharam Vira was briefly the Capital’s chief commissioner during the 1960s and was also once the principal private secretary to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Long before it was landscaped into a park, this cordoned area was a living stage for sights of what would be branded later as Incredible India, appealing to foreign tourists looking down from the fort. “During the day, the place was taken over by nomads," says the elderly Delhi chronicler R.V. Smith, about Red Fort in the 1960s. “Some nomads would perform acrobatics by walking the ropes and some would come with their performing monkeys and bears which would salute salaam-namaste to the excited foreigners looking on from the Red Fort." Smith says the tourists would take photographs and throw coins wrapped in currency notes as tips.

Few contemporary tourists know about this side of the story. They need only, however, walk down the lane parallel to the Ring Road. You’ll still hear traffic, but the area nonetheless seems enveloped in silence: seemingly miles away from the teeming city.

Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will also deliver his Independence Day address next month from the red ramparts. But why not break with tradition? By addressing the nation from the white side, he would then be facing east Delhi and its suburbs—home to a large number of migrants in search of a new beginning: a theme that the PM himself endorses.

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