Delhi Stories and Tips

Thirty Centuries and Counting

An artisan's craftsmanship- incised plasterwork Photo, Delhi, India

On a misty winter morning, my sister Swapna, leading a historical tour of Old Delhi, was trying to find a mansion known as Namakharam ki Haveli (the Traitor’s Mansion- a namakharam, literally, is one who is not true to his salt). A man drinking tea, when given the address, looked blank. When one of us from the group whispered "Namakharam ki Haveli", enlightenment dawned. The man sipped noisily at his tea and said, "That turncoat? You want to see his house?"

The traitor in question switched sides during the Battle of Patparganj, when he went over from the Marathas to the British. The Battle of Patparganj was fought in 1802. Memories in Delhi are long.

All across the city, in fact, are stark reminders of the fact that Delhi- known also in Hindi and Urdu as Dilli or Dehli- is an old city. Very old. And thankfully, even though it modernises itself by leaps and bounds, it still hangs on to its past. The place where the invader Temur the Lame set up camp is still known as Timarpur. Kilokri was originally the 13th-century palace township Kilugarhi, established by the ill-fated Kaiqubad (Ill-fated because he drowned in the Yamuna during a bit of light sport with his concubines, who’d rolled him up in a carpet. The poor inebriated soul tumbled into the river, thus bringing to an end a short life that had been spent in the pursuit of pleasure).

But on to more serious stuff. And thirty centuries of hectic activity of war, intrigue, treachery, invasions, and cultural development is definitely serious stuff. Serious enough, in fact, to impart to Delhi a significance all its own.

The first mention of Delhi is to be found in the part-history, part-mythology of Hindu religious scriptures, which hold that this particular stretch on the bank of the river Yamuna was the site of Indraprastha. Indraprastha, the capital of the five Pandava brothers (heroes of the Mahabharat) was believed to have been founded sometime in 1450 BC. Although archaeological excavations have revealed the existence of a township, most scholars feel that Indraprastha could hardly have merited the epithet many bestow on it: that of being the first `city’ of Delhi.

Delhi is popularly believed to have been, at various points of time, seven distinct cities. Historians generally regard the true figure to be anywhere between 10 and 15. The point of the matter is that Delhi has been ruled by men (and some intrepid women) of every ilk, and a number of the more independent-minded felt it necessary to build their own cities, complete with forts, palaces and markets. In most cases, little remains except solid ramparts- but there’s loads of history hidden away even in the rough-hewn blocks of grey Delhi quartzite and red sandstone.

Indraprastha may have been little more than a myth; but by around the 1st century A.D., Ptolemy of Alexandria was recording the existence of a city he called `Daidala,’ but known to the locals (even as it is today) as Dilli.

Dilli too remained small and inconsequential until it was occupied by the Tomar Rajputs, warriors who made it their capital in the 8th century. The Tomars built a number of monuments, including the fort of Lal Kot, some broken ramparts of which can still be seen near the Qutub Minar. The Chauhans, who succeeded the Rajputs, expanded Lal Kot further, and renamed it Qila Rai Pithora.

In 1191-92, the course of history altered suddenly and dramatically for Delhi. Qutubuddin Aibak, commander of the Turkish ruler Mohammad Ghori, captured Delhi, and the city quickly acquired (though perhaps not willingly) a distinctly Islamic flavour. Over the next seven centuries, till the British took over, Delhi was ruled by Islamic dynasties, and their legacy lives on even today. Not just in the exquisite architecture of mosques, tombs, and palaces around Delhi, but also in traditional foods and crafts.

Qutubuddin Aibak began work on the stunning Qutub Minar, but the next `city’ of Delhi dates to the late 13th century, and is credited to Kaiqubad (he of the watery death). Kaiqubad may have been a profligate, but he did set up a palace, along with a surrounding township, and called it Kilugarhi (the name has since been corrupted to Kilokri- a village near Maharani Bagh).

The next city appeared not long after,in the early 1300s, when Alauddin Khalji selected Siri as the site for a fortress. Although little remains of Siri today, except remnants of the fort walls, the settlement was (as reported by Temur himself) a fairly active town.

The next important city of Delhi, Tughlaqabad, is one of the few of which substantial sections can still be seen. Built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (whose unusual fortified tomb stands opposite the Tughlaqabad Fort), this city took about four years to construct. Only two years after it was ready, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq died. His son and successor, the impulsive and whimsical Mohammad bin Tughlaq, promptly set about building yet another city, which he called Jahanpanah. Jahanpanah included sections of pre-existing fortifications, such as Dilli, Siri and Tughlaqabad.

The Tughlaqs were, apparently, great builders of cities, for the third ruler of the dynasty, Feroze Shah Tughlaq, also made his own city: the area known as Ferozabad. Modern-day Feroze Shah Kotla (which lies north of the Red Fort) is about all that remains of Ferozabad.

From the time Ferozabad was constructed (in 1354), till 1533, city building in Delhi went through a slump. And not surprisingly, for these were turbulent times. The city was attacked by the invading forces of Temur, and the dynasties that followed- the Saiyyads and the Lodis- did not set up cities of their own. It was, in fact, not till the time of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, that a new city was envisaged. Humayun, encouraged perhaps by the fact that he was able to spend more time in Delhi than his father Babar had managed, chose the site of the ancient Indraprastha to build a city. He began work on a large fortified township called Din Panah (today known as Purana Qila) in 1533, and within 5 years, managed to create a fairly impressive monument.

Humayun’s luck wasn’t with him, though, and he was hounded out of Delhi by an intrepid rival, Sher Shah Suri. Sher Shah managed to hold on to the imperial throne for fifteen years, and spent the time fruitfully. He made additions to Din Panah, the Qila-e-Kuhna mosque and the octagonal tower of Sher Mandal being among the most impressive structures that still stand. Sher Shah was enough of an egoist to name his Delhi Dilli Sher Shahi (or, sometimes, Sher Garh). He built an extensive series of ramparts around the city, which is believed to have been about double the size of its major successor, Shahjahanabad.

Shahjahanabad was built, as is obvious by its name, by Shahjahan. Generally regarded as the greatest aesthete among the Mughal emperors, Shahjahan is best known for building the pristine Taj Mahal. Shahjahanabad, constructed over a period of seventeen years starting in 1639, was Shahjahan’s most ambitious project, and was in its heyday a city that few could equal.

Shahjahan’s court is estimated to have been among the wealthiest in the world at the time—it was rivalled only by that of the Ming emperors—and Shahjahanabad, as the capital city, had to be a suitable setting for this jewel. The court was centred round the awesome Lal Qila, the Red Fort, with its many pavilions, palaces, gardens and halls of audience. Beyond the walls of the Lal Qila were more gardens, mosques (including the stunning Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India), mansions, and markets.

Shahjahanabad remained the centre of power (even if the power itself was in name only) until the deposition and death of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, after the mutiny of 1857. The British, now in control, ruled from Calcutta.

But Delhi has a prestige all its own; and even the British had to finally succumb. At the Durbar of 1911, the capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi. The next year itself, a designer and architect was found- Lutyens- to set about giving shape to the new capital. The work he did, in combining Indian and Western styles of architecture, resulted in some of the greatest landmarks of Lutyens’ Delhi: Parliament House, India Gate, and the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Delhi today is a far cry from what it was in Qutubuddin’s or Shahjahan’s day. But there is still a lot of history buried under the 21st century version of Delhi. And unearthing that history is invariably a rewarding task.

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