The Seven Cities of Delhi

by newuser09876 30. March 2011 04:54


Delhi is steeped in antiquity and legend; it is perhaps one of the few States in India, where historical glories and windfalls exist in well-preserved pockets, carefully camouflaged by a modern metropolis. It has been a mute witness to the entry and exit of many dynasties over a millennia of history; its prominence as the gateway into India had long been established before its current position as the repository of Indian politics and the Capital of the world’s largest democracy.

Delhi was never planned; it grew around itself. Its social structure and plan was dictated by the whims of her many rulers. Some sanity was restored under the British and Lutyens’ Delhi came into existence. The broad layout of Lutyens’ Delhi, which was interspersed with Colonial monuments, was embraced by a curious mixture of architectural styles, where the medieval co-existed with slum colonies and unorganised settlements. But this is modern Delhi. Today, very few visitors to the Capital actually realise that it was originally made up of several indepen
dent cities that were established over a period of time. 

Few cities in India can claim the continuity and status that Delhi has enjoyed. The recorded history of Delhi coincides with the time of the Mahabharata; chapter 209 
(book 1) of this great epic describes the city of Indraprasta, which was sited on the banks of the River Yamuna, close to the modern national capital. Excavations at this site (known by different names at different time periods) have pointed to the evidence of continuous occ
upation from the Mauryan to the early Mughal Era. In the 8th century, the Tomar Rajputs built the citadel of Lal Kot, four centuries later another Rajput clan took over and renamed the city Quila Rai Pithora – the first city of Delhi. Most of this ancient site was destroyed by the invading Afghan armies who established the Delhi Sultanate that marked the beginning of the long Muslim rule over northern India. In 1206, Qutubuddin Aibak crowned himself the Sultan of the Slave or Mamluk dynasty, and became the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. The Khilji rulers displaced the Slave dynasty in 1290, and in 1303, Alauddin Khilji established ‘Siri’ – the second city of Delhi, of which nothing remains except the embattlements. He also commissioned the construction of a huge reservoir ‘Hauz Khas’ to supply water to the city.

In the 1320s, Ghiasuddin Tughlak, an influential Turk governor who had his stronghold in the western provinces invaded Delhi and wrested control. Tughlak who was a headstrong tyrant, created the third city of Tughlakabad. The magnificent Tughlakabad Fort with its high battlements is among the best preserved ru
ins around Delhi. To the south of the fort is a vast reservoir, which was created by erecting bunds between hills. The tomb of this infamous ruler also stands on the sprawling lawns of the reservoir; it was originally connected to the fortress of Tughlakabad by a causeway, which was demolished to build a road. Ghiasuddin’s descendant Mohammad Tughlak went on to extend his hegemony over much of India. He also raised the city of Jahanpanah (1326–1327) which largely comprised of a walled enclosure between Qila Rai Pithora and Siri.  This is sometimes referred to as the fourth city of Delhi; however, Tughlakabad continued to serve as the commercial district.  Jahanpanah was abandoned in 1528 when the ruler moved the capital to Daulatabad (near Aurangabad) in the Deccan. The move to Daulatabad was catastrophic and the sultan soon returned to Delhi. In 1354, Firuz Shah Tughlaq succeeded his cousin Muhammad bin Tughlaq and established Firuzabad (Kotla Firoz Shah) as the fifth city; this was also on the banks of the Yamuna River, albeit several kilometres to the north. For the next 150 years, the area around Firuzabad was urbanized by successive dynasties although the pivotal central area fell into ruin. In 1534, the Pashtun Sher Shah Suri or Farid Khan founded the sixth city on the ruins of Firuzabad. A man of incredible military and political skill, Sher Shah succeeded in defeating the superior forces of the Mughals under Humayun at Chausa (1539) and Kannauj (1540). He captured both Delhi and Agra and established a kingdom stretching far into Punjab. This remained the Nucleus of Delhi until 1638, when the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan established the city of Shahjahanabad. This was a huge development in the north with the Red Fort at its centre. When the British laid out the present city of New Delhi, Shahjahanabad became Old Delhi. New Delhi is essentially an Anglo-Indian city with few traditional Islamic buildings. The area it occupies includes some fine Islamic tombs, the most famous of which is that of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor.

Today, tourists are lured by remnants of an ambiguous historical past that helped shape the des
tiny of modern India. Delhi is perhaps one of the only Indian cities where a skyscraper overshadows a heritage building, and a tomb of a Mughal ruler is embraced by a modern multi-storied residential complex. While Delhi allows the discerning tourist a chance to explore a unique combination of the past and the present, it can also be a lesson in India’s tryst with destiny. 

Sunil Vaidyanathan/ Shayoni Mitra 




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