From the time of the rise of the Seljuk Turks, the nomadic tribes of Central Asia had established a succession of empires across Asia. The last great Turkic/Mongol Empire in the east was that of the Mughals, which at its height during the late medieval period dominated much of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The successor to the realm of Timur, the Mughal Empire reached its peak during the reign of Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Shah Jahan was largely responsible and most famous for expanding the Mughal Empire into India. To protect his conquests, Shah Jahan constructed an impressive series of fortifications across the Subcontinent. The greatest of these are his famous Red Forts of Agra and India. Both the Red Fort Complex in Delhi and the Agra Fort are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Central Asia, and most of the rest of Asia for that matter, spent the better part of five centuries enduring wave after wave of nomadic invasions from various Turkic and Mongol tribes. Until the 16th century, the people of the Indian Subcontinent were largely spared the ravages that plagued their neighbors. However, India’s luck ran out in the early-mid 1500s, when Babur, a descendent of Tamerlane, swept down from the Central Asian Steppe with his horde into the Hindu Kush in what was the last great nomad onslaught. By the time of Babur’s death, the Mughals had conquered all of Afghanistan, Pakistan and most of India.
As the Mughals expanded their power, they clearly needed to improve the military infrastructure of their holdings. When Shah Jahan was born 1592 AD, he inherited an enormous empire, but an empire with many difficulties. By the time he ascended the throne in his thirties, the Mughal realm was facing encroachments by rival Muslim kingdoms, European adventurers and scattered insurgencies throughout his own realm. Early on he transformed the government and economy to support large-scale military operations, and spent the better part of the next thirty years expanding his Empire and crushing all opposition.
By the time he was done the Mughals had defeated the various insurgent movements, driven the Portugese out of Bengal and expanded across vast swaths of Northern India. In his day he created the greatest empire that the Asian subcontinent had yet seen. But for all of his conquests, Shah Jahan became best known as one of history’s great builders. Despite the economic strains of his wars, the emperor managed to pour vast sums into civic improvements, monuments, mosques and palaces.
The palaces of Shah Jahan were among the largest ever built. Constructed in strategically and politically important cities, all of his palaces were first and foremost fortifications, and in fact were generally known as forts. His fondness for red bricks in the construction of the outer walls led most to be known as the Red Forts, including the Red Fort of Delhi and the Red Fort of Agra. The latter was actually started before Shah Jahan, but it is closely associated to him due to his substantial additions and improvements.
The Red Fort of Delhi was built by Shah Jahan when he moved the capital of the Mughal Empire to Delhi. It is the only one of his major palace/fortresses that is attributed exclusively to him. The layout of the palace is roughly square and enclosed on all four sides by an immense red-brick wall. Unlike traditional fortifications, which are usually as featureless as possible, the stonework of the outer walls is intricately designed, especially around the various towers. Inside the outer walls is the towering white-brick and marble palace. Most of the palace is given over to the extensive royal apartments. The highlight of the palace is the audience pavilion, which is lavishly decorated in gold, silver and jewels. The Red Fort of Delhi was substantially damaged by the British in 19th century, and many portions of the fort date from the repairs of the 20th century.
The Red Fort of Agra is the most fortress-like of Shah Jahan’s palaces. It was started by his predecessors, expanded by Shah Jahan and completed by his heirs. He spent the last years of his life imprisoned here by his son. The outer fortress consists of a double-walled structure constructed from the familiar red brick. Additional fortifications in some places add a rarely seen third wall. The height and thickness of the inner walls and towers are immense even by European standards. Inside the walls are palaces and pavilions, as well as mosques and extensive gardens. The Audience Hall once housed the legendary Peacock Throne, which was seized by Persia in the 18th century.
The Red Fort of Delhi is located on the northeastern fringe of the Old City of Delhi. It is open daily except Fridays from 8:00am-5:00pm. Admission is Rs20 for the museums. The Red Fort of Agra is located in the heart of Agra less than a mile west of the Taj Mahal along the Yamuna River. It is open daily during daylight hours. Admission is Rs15. Web: www.delhitourism.gov.in (official website of Delhi Fort); http://agra.nic.in (official website of Agra Fort).
The forts of Shah Jahan were not the only palatial citadel left behind by the Mughals in North Central India. Among the best are the Allahabad Fort built by Emperor Akbar, and the Jahnsi Fort built by Bir Singh Deo. Pre-Mughal sites in Uttar Pradesh include the medieval Tughlaqabad Fort and the ruins of the very ancient Kalinjar Fort. The Qila Mubarak Fort is one of the few major fortifications built by the Sikhs.