New Delhi, the capital of India, has an illustrious history and its landscape is dotted with iconic structures that have withstood the ravages of time. The Salimgarh Fort is one such timeless monument offering a glimpse into the city’s historical legacy. It stands tall on the North-Eastern side of the colossal Red Fort and predates it. Although the Salimgarh Fort has largely faded into obscurity, it has intriguing tales of freedom and captivity to share.
The imposing structure of the Salimgarh Fort is triangular, with massive rubble brick walls. Once a military stronghold, it was fortified with circular bastions at regular intervals. An arched bridge, built during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar, connects it to the Red Fort. The main entrance to the Salimgarh Fort is an unadorned edifice coated sparingly in red sandstone and is popularly known as the Bahadur Shah Gate.
The Salimgarh Fort was built by Salim Shah Suri, the son of Sher Shah Suri, in 1546 CE, to protect his territories from potential attacks. In 1540 CE, Sher Shah Suri defeated the Mughal Emperor Humayun to establish the Sur dynasty’s control over Delhi, putting a halt to Mughal domination. This formidable fortress was constructed on a site that was hemmed by the Yamuna River on the one side and the sprawling Aravalli Hills on the other. However, Salim Shah Suri died in 1555 CE before the fort could be completed. Only a mosque and the surrounding walls of the fort were constructed during his reign.
The Sur Empire could not hold the fort for a long time. In 1555 CE, Mughal Emperor Humayun returned from his self-imposed 15-year exile in Persia. He defeated the armies of Sikander Shah Suri, the last ruler of the Sur dynasty, and re-established the Mughal Empire. He captured the Salimgarh Fort and renamed it “Nurgarh”. Emperor Akbar is believed to have given the Salimgarh Fort as a jagir to Shaikh Farid Bukhari (a Mughal noble). Several Mughal rulers, notably Emperor Shah Jahan, resided at this fort. When Shah Jahan relocated the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi, the fort of Salimgarh gained prominence once again. His imperial fort, the Qila-e-Mubarak or the Red Fort, in the new capital city of Shahjahanabad, was built close to Salimgarh.
During the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, the Salimgarh Fort was converted into a prison. Thus began the Fort’s long history as a monument of confinement and captivity. The Salimgarh Fort had many notable prisoners. Aurangzeb is believed to have incarcerated his youngest brother Murad Baksh and daughter Zebunissa at the Salimgarh Fort. Murad Baksh was moved to the Gwalior Fort and subsequently executed there. Zebunissa was imprisoned here for the last 21 years of her life. Dara Shikoh, Emperor Shah Jahan's eldest son, was captured by Aurangzeb's troops in 1659 CE and imprisoned in the Salimgarh Fort together with his younger son Sipihir Shikoh. The Mughal emperor Jahandar Shah was also imprisoned in the fort briefly in 1712-1713 CE. It is also believed that Shah Alam was blinded by Ghulam Qadir Rohilla (an Afghan Rohilla chief) and kept in the Salimgarh prison till the Maratha ruler Mahadji Scindia rescued him.
The year 1857 CE marked a new beginning, as this once oppressive edifice nurtured resilience and revolution. During the Revolt of 1857, the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, is said to have operated from here. The revolutionaries pledged to oppose British rule and return Hindustan to its rightful ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar. They gathered at the fort of Salimgarh to discuss war strategies. Bahadur Shah is said to have observed the rebels fighting the British from the fort's ramparts after the outbreak of the revolt. The British eventually crushed the rebellion and took hold of the Salimgarh Fort. After seizing the fort, they used it as an army camp and a prison.
By the 1940s, the political movement to liberate India had reached its peak. After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Provisional Government of Free India and the Indian National Army (Azad Hind Fauj) were formed, and war was declared on the British Indian Army and Allied Forces. The Indian National Army, unfortunately, was defeated in 1945. Thereafter, many prisoners of the INA were held captive at the Salimgarh Fort and tortured. The Salimgarh Fort became a symbol of the Indian freedom struggle that ultimately resulted in the independence of the nation. The trials of these prisoners were later held at the Red Fort.
In 1995, owing to its close connection with the Indian National Army, the fort was turned into a memorial for Indian Freedom Fighters and renamed “Swatantrata Senani Smarak”. Consequently, this monument of oppression became a symbolic structure glorifying our freedom struggle. The uniform worn by Col. Prem Kumar, riding boots and coat buttons of Col. Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon, and photographs of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose were some of the prized articles displayed here.
The crumbling walls of this fort have witnessed some of history's most tumultuous and brutal events. The monument stands as a tribute to the sacrifices of our national heroes. Presently a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the Red Fort Complex), the Salimgarh Fort thus presents a juxtaposition of captivity and independence.