Delhi's Red Fort: The Complete Guide

Red Fort, Delhi.

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Delhi's colossal Red Fort (also known as Lal Qila) was home to emperors of the formidable Mughal dynasty for almost 200 years, until 1857 when the British took over. However, the fort isn't just a long-standing symbol of the grandeur of the Mughal era. It has withstood the turbulent trials and tribulations of time—and attack—to be the setting of some of India's most important historical events that shaped the country. Nowadays, the fort is one of Delhi's most popular tourist attractions.

In recognition of its significance, the Red Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. It's also pictured on the back of India's new 500 rupee note, issued post demonetization in late 2016.

Read on to find out more about the Red Fort and how to visit it.

History and Architecture

Construction of the Red Fort started in 1638, when fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan decided to leave Agra and establish a new Mughal capital, Shahjahanabad, in present-day Old Delhi. It was completed 10 years later in 1648.

Persian architect Ahmad Lahori designed the Red Fort (he also built the Taj Mahal for Shah Jahan). If you're familiar with Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking that the fort's exterior looks quite similar. In fact, Shah Jahan liked Agra Fort's architecture so much that he had the Red Fort modeled on it. The Red Fort is more than twice the size of Agra Fort though. Since Shah Jahan was a man of lavish tastes, he wanted to make his mark with a bigger, befitting fort, with no expense spared.

While the Red Fort had an illustrious beginning, it didn't last long. Shah Jahan became severely ill in 1657 and returned to Agra Fort to recuperate. In his absence, in 1658, his power-hungry son Aurangzeb snatched the throne and tragically kept him imprisoned at Agra Fort until his death eight years later.

Unfortunately, the Red Fort's opulence declined along with the might of the Mughal empire and fortunes of the royal family. Aurangzeb was considered to be the last effective Mughal ruler. Fierce battles for succession and a lengthy period of instability followed his death in 1707. The fort was plundered by the Persians, led by Emperor Nadir Shah, in 1739. They left with many of its treasures including the ostentatious Peacock Throne, which Shah Jahan had crafted out of gold and gemstones (including the precious Kohinoor diamond).

Weakened, the Mughals submitted to the Marathas (a group of warriors from present-day Maharashtra in India) in 1752. The fort lost further riches in 1760, when the Marathas had to melt down the silver ceiling of its Diwan-i-Khas (Private Audience Hall) to raise funds to defend Delhi from invasion by Emperor Ahmed Shah Durrani from Afghanistan.

Although the Mughal emperors kept their titles, their power and money had gone. Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II was able to return to the throne in Delhi in 1772, protected by the Marathas. However, the Mughals remained very vulnerable and were subjected to ongoing assaults by various forces including the Sikhs, who successfully captured the Red Fort for a while.

Despite having an army garrison in the Red Fort, the Marathas failed to resist the British in the Battle of Delhi, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War in 1803. The British East India Company ousted the Marathas and commenced governing Delhi.

The Mughals kept living in the fort, supported by the British, until a dramatic turn of events in 1857. A lengthy rebellion of Indian soldiers and civilians against the British East India Company failed. Nevertheless, many Europeans were killed. The British were outraged, and reprisals were violent and swift. They convicted Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar of treason and helping the rebels, killed his sons, and exiled him to Burma.

With the Mughals gone from the fort, the British then turned their attention to destroying it. They looted its valuables, demolished many of its elegant structures and gardens, transformed it into an army base, and hoisted their flag on it. They also showed it off to visiting British royalty.

Almost a century later, when India gained independence from the British in 1947, the Red Fort was chosen as the main site of public celebration. It had become an icon in India's struggle for freedom, and it was a dream come true for citizens to see India's first Prime Minister raise the Indian flag above the fort's Lahore Gate.

Independence Day is still celebrated at the Red Fort on August 15 every year, with the raising of the flag and national address by the Prime Minister. Yet, the struggle isn't over. There have been disputes over the Red Fort by people claiming to be heirs of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Conservation of the fort has been neglected as well, and its condition has deteriorated under the custodianship of the Archeological Survey of India.

In April 2018, the Indian government appointed a private company to maintain the Red Fort and develop tourist amenities under its "Adopt a Heritage" scheme. The handing over of the fort to a private company created widespread debate, particularly because the company will be allowed to promote itself there. And thus, battle for the control of the fort continues.

Location

The Red Fort's hefty sandstone walls enclose nearly 255 acres of land near the western bank of the Yamuna River, at the end of Old Delhi's tumultuous Chandni Chowk thoroughfare. It's a few miles north of the Connaught Place business district and Paharganj backpacker area.

How to Visit the Red Fort

The fort is open daily from sunrise to sunset, except on Mondays. Allow a few hours to explore it and relax on its lawn before heading back out into the chaos. Aim to visit as early as possible in the morning before the crowds arrive. If you do go in the afternoon, it's recommended that you leave by 4 p.m. to avoid the insane rush hour traffic. Or, take the Delhi Metro train.

The special Delhi Metro Heritage Line opened in May 2017, as an underground extension of the Violet Line, making train travel convenient. The Lal Qila Metro Station is situated right next to the fort. Exit the station from Gate 4 and you'll see the fort on your left-hand side. Alternatively, Chandni Chowk Metro Station on the Yellow Line is about 10 minutes walk away. You'll need to pass through a very congested area though.

If you come by car, there are battery-operated rickshaws to transport you from the parking lot to the fort's entrance.

Although the fort has four gates, the only one that's currently open to the public is Lahore Gate on the west side. The ticket counter sits to the left of it. However, you can buy your tickets online here to avoid having to wait, as it does get busy. Tickets cost 500 rupees for foreigners and 30 rupees for Indians. Children under 15 years of age don't have to pay.

It's a good idea to go on a guided tour of the fort, rather than just wander aimlessly and miss out on interesting details about the buildings inside. As an alternative to hiring a private guide, helpful audio guides are available for rent near the ticket counter. Or, download an app for your cell phone, such as this Red Fort CaptivaTour.

Small bags can be taken into the fort but you'll need to pass through a security check before going inside. There are separate lines for men and women. Make sure you decide where to meet afterwards to avoid getting lost in the sea of people.

In terms of weather, the best time to visit the Red Fort is from November to February, when it's not too hot or wet.

Do be aware that groups of pickpockets operate at the fort. So, be careful of your bags and valuables, particularly if anyone tries to distract you. Foreigners will also encounter numerous requests from locals for selfies. If you feel uncomfortable about this (particularly if you're female and it's guys who are asking), it's okay to decline.

A sound and light show that narrates the story of the fort is usually screened every evening. It has been temporarily suspended from mid June 2018 though, as it's being upgraded.

What to See

The Red Fort, while expansive, sadly lacks its former glory. Some of its notable original buildings have survived, and with a bit of imagination you'll be able to get a feel for how magnificent it must've been. However, restoration works are being undertaken during 2018, so you may not be able to see everything.

The fort's entrance through Lahore Gate opens out onto Chatta Chowk, a long arched passageway that used to house the most exclusive royal tailors and merchants. It's now a market area with rows of shops selling rather mundane souvenirs and handcrafts. Make sure you haggle to get a good price.

The Naubat Khana (Drum House), where the royal musicians played on special occasions and to announce the arrival of royalty, is beyond Chatta Chowk. Part of it has been converted into a War Memorial Museum, with an eclectic display of weapons from various wars as far back as the Mughal era.

Naubat Khana leads to the pillared Diwan-i-Am (Public Audience Hall), where the emperor would sit before his subjects on an exquisite white marble throne and hear their complaints.

Beyond the Diwan-i-Am is what remains of the fort's most palatial buildings -- the royal apartments and emperor's bedroom, hammam (royal bath), the ornate white marble Diwan-e-Khas, and Mussaman Burj (a tower where the emperor would show himself to his subjects).

Mumtaz Mahal, the palace of Emperor Shah Jahan's wife, now houses the Delhi Museum of Archaeology. Prior to that, it was used as a prison and army sergeant's mess hall. The Rang Mahal, where the emperor's harem lived, was also occupied by the British military. A small chamber inlaid with fine mirror work provides a hint of its previous splendor.

The Diwan-i-Khas, where the emperor met ministers and state guests, is the most opulent remaining structure even though it's bereft of its silver ceiling and legendary Peacock Throne.

What Else to Do Nearby

A visit to the Red Fort is commonly combined with neighboring Jama Masjid, the landmark royal mosque that was built by Emperor Shah Jahan when he set up his capital in Delhi.

Feeling hungry? Karim's is an iconic Delhi restaurant that's popular with non-vegetarians. It's opposite Jama Masjid's Gate 1. Or, go to Al Jawahar next door. If somewhere more upmarket is preferable, the groovy Walled City Cafe & Lounge is located in a 200 year-old mansion just south of Gate 1, along Hauz Qazi Road. If budget isn't a concern, head to Lakhori restaurant at Haveli Dharampura. It's a beautifully restored mansion in the Old City.

If you don't mind the pandemonium and human gridlock, also devote some time to checking out Old Delhi, including Chandni Chowk and Asia's largest spice market or painted houses at Naughara. Foodies should try some of the street food at these renowned places too.

For an off-beat experience, stop by the Charity Birds Hospital at Digambar Jain Temple opposite the Red Fort to meet some feathered friends. In addition, visit the site where Emperor Aurangzeb savagely beheaded the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, at Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib near Chandni Chowk Metro.

Consider taking a guided walking tour of Old Delhi so you don't feel overwhelmed. These reputable companies all have great options: Reality Tours and Travel, Delhi Magic, Delhi Food Walks, Delhi Walks, and Masterjee ki Haveli.