• Omer Haq

The Shah's Elysium

Updated: Jan 13

Reginald Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta, who visited the Mughal capital of Delhi during his tour of Northern India where he was presented to the ageing emperor, Akbar Shah II at the magnificent residence of the imperial family, the fort which was originally known as the "Blessed Fort" (Qila-i-Mubārak)

Red Fort
Red Fort and it's barbican

It was the eve of the new year, a foggy and freezing morning in Delhi where a chilling cold breeze blew in from the Jamuna river enough to crack bones. Half past eight was the appointed time for the Lord Bishop of Calcutta Reginald Heber to present in front of the Mughul Emperor. As he mounted his elephant, the acclamation of ‘Bismillah! Allahu Akbar! Allah hu Kareem!’ were made by the attendants.

Accompanied by Lushington and a Captain Wade, the Bishop was welcomed by Mr Elliot, who was the son of the Delhi Resident appointed in the Mughul court by the East India Company, as they rode into the barbican. Spruce and fashionable horsemen on white stallions preceded the procession where they were presented arms once they entered through the majestic gateways of the Lal Qila.

Vestibules while entering the Red Fort Complex
Vestibules while entering the Red Fort Complex
They proceeded through what the Bishop called ‘the noblest vestibules and gateways he ever saw.’ The elephants walked through the great gothic styled arches and made their way to the aisle which began at the great gate tower.

The middle consisted of a small open octagonal court all of granite and finely carved with inscriptions from the Quran and with beautiful flowers, red, blue and green inlay with beautiful stones. As they made their way through the arched aisle continuing after the court, their eyes laid on a ruinous stable yard.

Reginald Heber Bishop of Callcutta
Bishop of Calcutta Reginald Heber

Shortly after, elderly men dressed in long, golden brocade coats holding large gold headed canes decked like royalty themselves approached the incoming caravan. Among them was Captain Grant, the Mughul's officer on guard. The golden headed canes were the usual insignia of office in the Mughul court.

Asked to dismount, the bishop and his company were then asked to continue on foot for the rest of the walk towards the Mughul’s grand court. They passed by the lush Mughul gardens with the calming, trickling sound of water of the stream accompanied by a flock of pigeons and birds flying in, the bright blue sky that was merciful today to appear after the harsh rain the previous night. The roads were inconvenient after the downpour making it difficult for the bishop to manage his cassock and gown as he made his way to the beautiful and majestic view of the Diwan-e- Khas,

the court of special audience. It was a striking court made of a richly ornamented building with an open pavilion of richly carved marble, flanked by rose bushes and fountains, adorned with tapestry and striped curtains bordered with golden thread work hanging in festoons around it.

Emperor Akbar Shah or Akbar II
Emperor Akbar Shah or Akbar II

Among a sea of people sat the poor old descendants of Tamerlane on a richly ornamented marble bedstead with gilding that was raised on two or three steps.

The bishop and his company bowed three times to the Emperor upon presentation and the ceremony repeated two more times as they advanced towards the steps of the pavilion. The heralds called out, in a sort of harsh chant,

" Lo, the ornament of the world! Lo, the asylum of the nations! King of Kings! The Emperor Akbar Shah! " Just, Fortunate and victorious!"

Heber moved forward and bowed down offering a nazrana as a tradition of the Mughul court - fifty one gold mohurs (gold coins) in an embroidered purse offering it on his handkerchief .This was received and laid on one side and he remained standing for some time. The emperor made himself friendly with the Bishop asking him about his health and his journey so far through the upper parts of Hindustan, while Heber took the opportunity of the conversation to see the old gentleman a little more plainly. He observed him to be pale, thin with a handsome face, with an acquile nose and a long white morrish (Muhammeden) beard. His complexion was little if at all darker than that of a European. His hands were very fair and delicate, and he had some valuable-looking rings on them. His hands and face were all that he could see of him, for the morning being cold, he was wrapped up in shawls.

A Mohur (Gold Coin)
Two Mohurs (Gold Coin) issued by East India Company

Heber stepped back a bit and ceremoniously presented five more mohurs to the heir apparent on the left side and on the right stood the British Resident of the Mughul court. The Emperor then beckoned Heber to step closer to him. At such invitation, Mr Elliot,the Resident, signaled at him to take his hat off his head and the Emperor then tied a flimsy turban on his head made of brocade. The company was then directed to retire into a small private room adjoining the zenana where they were provided “Kehlats'' as a bounty from the Alam Panah. Here, the Bishop was presented with a handsome flowered caftan edged with fur and a pair of common shawls for his ‘servants’. He walked back again in what he called a strange dress while his name was announced by the criers succeeding his name with honorific titles which he recorded in his diary as ' Bahadur, Boozoony and Dowlat Mund”.

The Bishop again approached the Emperor and presented him with a gift: an Arabic Bible and Hindostanee Common Prayer handsomely bound in blue velvet laced with gold, and wrapped up in a piece of brocade.

He then motioned to the bishop to stoop, and put a string of pearls round his neck, and two glittering but not costly ornaments in the front of his turban. Soon a white stallion horse was presented to the Bishop in the Emperor’s name, the ceremonious presentation of the imperial munificence was accompanied with heralding the proclamation of his largesse. Heber then made his way out as he bowed thrice for his salams and sought permission to leave.

Mr. Elliot, accompanied the royal guest to his room. Heber was immediately struck with the beautiful ornaments of the room, entirely lined with marble, inlaid with flowers and leaves of green serpentine, lapis lazuli, and blue and red porphyry; the flowers were of the best Italian style of workmanship.

The Lotus Fountain
The Lotus Fountain

All, however, was dirty, desolate, and forlorn. Half the flowers and leaves had been picked out or otherwise defaced, and the doors and windows were in a state of dilapidation, while a quantity of old furniture was piled in one corner, and a torn hanging of faded tapestry hung over an archway which led to the interior apartments. "

"Such,” Mr. Elliott said, “is the general style in which this palace is kept up and furnished. It is not absolute poverty which produces this, but these people have no idea of cleaning or mending anything."

Heber in his memoir wrote down the Perisan line that hit him while he stood witnessing the absolute dilapidated condition of the place,"The spider hangs her tapestry in the palace of the Caesars."

From his current lodging, as tradition demanded, he sent a gift of five mouhurs to the Queen or when in Mughul’s days of yore she would have been addressed as the Empress of Hindustan. The Emperor’s Chobdars eagerly came up to the room seeking to know when they were to get their bakshish.

Diwan E Khas
The Diwan e Khas

After waiting for some time, news reached that the Emperor had now retired into his Zenana. Heber was now taken to the hall of Audience again which he had seen, but “imperfectly” because of the crowd. He describes the Diwan-e-Khaas -

“It is a very beautiful pavilion of white marble, open on one side to the court of the palace, and on the other to a large garden. Its pillars and arches are exquisitely carved and ornamented with gilt and inlaid flowers, and inscriptions in the most elaborate Persian character. Round the frieze is the motto, recorded, I believe, in Lalla Rookh: *' If there be an Elysium on earth. It is this, it is this! it is this"

He observed the marble floor of the Audience hall and found it equally exquisite if not more than the room where he had been lodged. He made his way towards the edges of the hall to find the luscious gardens with fruit trees and more prominently orange trees and parterres filled with rose bushes surrounded by a channel of white marble for water with little fountain pipes carved like roses from the marble.

The Shahi Burj
Shahi Burj

Among these parterres, and at the end of the terrace lay a beautiful octagonal pavilion and a tower called Shahi Burj, also of marble, lined with the same mosaic flowers as in the room which he first saw, with a marble fountain called Nahr-e-Behisht literally translated into “stream of paradise” flowing from the center through most of the pavilions and structures of the fort including the Diwan-e-Khas with lotus carved fountains from marble in the centre, and a beautiful bath in a recess on one of its sides.

The windows of this pavilion, which are raised to the height of the city wall, (in set) commanded a good view of Delhi and its neighbourhood. But all was, when they saw it, dirty, lonely, and wretched: the bath and fountain dry: the inlaid pavement hid with lumber and gardener's sweepings, and the walls stained with the dung of birds and bats.

They were then taken to the private mosque of the palace, this one built by the last great Mughul Aurangzeb. Heber described it to be an elegant little building, also of white marble, and exquisitely carved, but in the same state of neglect and dilapidation, with peepuls allowed to spring from its walls, the exterior gilding partially torn from its dome, and some of its doors coarsely blocked up with unplastered brick and mortar.

Diwan E Aam
The Diwan e Aam

He went last to the “Diwan-e-Aam" or ‘Hall of public audience’, which is in the outer court, and where, on certain occasions, the great Mughul sat in state, to receive the compliments or petitions of his subjects. This also was described to be a splendid pavilion of marble, not unlike the other hall of audience in form, but considerably larger, and open on three sides only; on the fourth is a black wall, covered with the same mosaic work of flowers and leaves as described, and in the centre a throne, raised about ten feet from the ground, with a small platform of marble in front, where the vizier used to stand to hand up petitions to his master. Behind this throne were mosaic paintings of birds, animals, and flowers, and in the centre, what decides the point of there being the work of Italian, or at least European artists, Orpheus playing with a small group of beasts.


Orpheus was a Greek mythical character whose singing and instrument were supposed to soothe all animals. But to understand why a Greek mythological character was chosen to be in a Mughul 17th century public hall, became the soul question that governed the thesis of Ebba Koch who is now an acclaimed expert on Mughul architecture. Her thesis makes an interesting observation that the motif of Orpheus had both wild animals and their prey sat in peace and harmony. That was the message that Shah Jahan wanted to convey to his subjects: that in his reign, everyone – the powerful and the weak – can live with each other in peace.

This hall, when they saw it, Heber writes “was full of lumber of all descriptions, broken palanquins and empty boxes, and the throne so covered with pigeon's dung, that its ornaments were hardly visible. Heber in exasperation writes

"How little did Shahjahan, the founder of these fine buildings, foresee what would be the fate of his descendants, or what his own would be! "Vanity of vanities!" was surely never written in more legible characters than on the dilapidated arcades of Delhi.”
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