Made from silk, velvet and gold, this royal red tent moved with a great Mughal emperor as he travelled across cities conquering them. One of its kind in the world, it is now being preserved by the Mehrangarh Fort in Rajasthan where it has been for centuries.
The city of Jodhpur in the north Indian state of Rajasthan is home to the Mehrangarh Fort, which is perhaps one of India’s most well known forts. The caretakers of this royal legacy have precious art items of gold and silver, to protect and preserve, and present it to curious visitors. Amongst the many art objects of metal and marble they conserve, there is a tent that they are guarding and protecting from the vagaries of time. They do this because this is no ordinary tent as it was the humble abode of one of India’s greatest Mughal emperors.
Belonging to Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, the shahi lal dera, literally translates to the royal red tent and used to be the mogul’s ‘travelling palace’.
Made from exquisite red silk and velvet, the tent has flowers stitched in thread made of solid gold and when unfurled, stands at a height of four metres or 13 feet.
It is believed that when the Mughals travelled from one city to another, conquering territories, Shah Jahan made himself comfortable in the shahi lal dera, which housed all his necessities and luxuries including cushions, bolsters, bed, and objects like hookahs, wine flasks, jewellery cases, etc.
A piece of artwork and a sample of what defined royalty, the tent is believed to have been looted during a battle, whose victors, the rulers of Jodhpur took it back to their fort, Mehrangarh.
Art historians still argue over whether the red tent belonged to Shah Jahan or his ruthless son, Aurangzeb, who put his own father under house arrest. Nonetheless, it is a rare treasure that is now demanding its share of royal treatment in the form of its first proper spring cleaning in 350 years.
“The shahi lal dera was on display in one of the galleries here at the Mehrangarh. But every morning the staff would see a sort of gold dust on the velvet and the brocade. Since it is 350 years old, we thought of carrying a special restoration work by expert conservators,” Karni Jasol, director, Mehrangarh Museum Trust tells Media India Group.
Until now the tent’s unique kind of labour and intricate weaving done by hand kept it intact and increased its life; but now it is taking a team of five conservators and their expertise to save it from wearing out.
Preserving what’s precious
Before the conservation of the tent began, its condition was documented in great detail in order to draw guidelines for its restoration and its future handling and storage.
A customised designing condition report was prepared, which included associated technical and historical aspects, visible marks and inscriptions, motifs and subject depictions, materials and processes involved, pattern techniques and physical description. Moreover, basic textile analysis such as weaving specifications like thread count, type of weave, seam and stitch analysis, conservation status, glossary of visual damages, curative treatments were also charted.
The shahi lal dera is truly one-of-its-kind left in the world and demanded much more than a mere dusting. The management at the fort and the conservation team are thus using curative conservation techniques like the ‘smoke sponge cleaning’ which is helping restore the lustre of the metal threads by cleaning them with vulcanized sponge and getting rid of the dirt. They are also removing the previous restorations done in 1980s, which were had tears, cuts and holes and not providing any support to the tent. Various stitch repairs have also been done to stabilise the fragile areas by using conservation stitches, hair silk thread and silk crepe line as a support material dyed in the similar colour.
The Mughals were used to erecting temporary cities and travelled with similar royal abodes but all other tents of the same size have been dismantled and the pieces scattered. This tent is thus rare and of interest to many who wish to witness a scene from history. For the curious tourists, it will soon be put on display at one of the special galleries in the museum of the Mehrangarh Fort.