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Panorama of Delhi with view from the Red Fort, painted by Mazhar Ali Khan in 1846 (via Asia Society)

shah jahanEMPEROR SHAH JAHAN returns to his Imperial engagements with renewed interest after his son’s marriage. He is pleased to see another son, Aurangzeb, coming into his own. Meanwhile, the Emperor moves as the occasion demands – the Deccan, Kashmir, Lahore. He has been thinking of setting up a new capital near Delhi for some time now. Agra is turning into a city of cenotaphs and he has complained rightly that all his capitals so far have not been really planned on a scale that accommodates the ceremonies required for an imperial capital. In time, after lengthy deliberations with planners, Shah Jahan narrows in on an area of land twice the size of the fort at Agra.

The chosen site overlooks the Yamuna and is North of the historic city of Delhi. It is to be called Shajahanabad and will be the New Delhi. Work commences in 1639 and over the next ten years as masons, stone cutters and carpenters toil away, Shah Jahan drops in regularly to oversee progress, reward workers and point out improvements/changes. By 1648, the Red Fort, enclosing an area of 125 acres, is finally complete – a feat of scale and workmanship – it is a self-contained metropolis with sectors for imperial chambers, government offices, bazaars and workshops that produce everything from textiles to perfume.


The central water feature in Chandni Chowk; the bazaar, within the new Mughal capital, designed by Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan. Image: 19th C painting by Sita Ram (Source credit: British Library)

Winding through these spaces are avenues and watercourses, keeping this an island of cool even in the heat of summer. The harem quarters are done in white marble and mirrors. The marble pavilions of the Private Audience Hall are set with precious stones and within it is placed the bejewelled Peacock Throne (takht-i-shahi). Celebrations to mark the inauguration of the citadel roll out over 10 days.

Jahanara, who shares her father’s interest in architecture, has involved herself in the design of Chandni Chowk which will quickly become one of the most important bazaars within the fort complex.  It is designed as a series of galleries on either side of a central canal. She also designs a serai, gardens, a bathhouse and a palace for the new city.

* Quoted: Line by the 19th Century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib