How could one miss the opportunity of a stroll through the beautiful lawns of Firoz Shah Kotla on a sunny day amidst the foggy mornings, with Venkat Sundaram, the renowned cricketer, a keen golfer, a philanthropist, a devout mason and now the Chairman Grounds and Wickets Committee.
Venkat met me at his office at DDCA and we walked towards Firoz Shah Kotla. He had grown up, practicing hard in its neighborhood and knew the surroundings like the back of his hand and upon my request, agreed to brief me on the history of that place.
Many of us might have been hearing about Firoz Shah Kotla for decades, primarily on account of the most popular game of the country – cricket, being played on the Kotla grounds, where once stood the enormous city of the medieval period called Firozabad.
Now to understand it better, let’s go back a little to the history of Delhi.
Though Delhi traces its history to the mythical city of Indraprastha of Mahabharata fame, where once a citadel stood, its only surviving evidence today is a few pieces of painted grey ware pottery, which is dated to c.1000 BC. The more tangible evidence comes from its next incarnation of Lal Kot, credited to Raja Anangpal of Tomar Dynasty and with time, Lal Kot evolved into Quila Rai Pithora, named after Prithviraj Chauhan (1180 A.D.). This was followed by the Slave Dynasty’s commissioning of the stupendous Qutab Minar and other structures in Mehrauli. Delhi’s new avatar, Siri of Jalaluddin Khilji’s (1303) too was short lived.
Another face lift of the city by way of Jahanpanah was given by Muhmad Bin Tughlak (1325-1351) and also the architectural beauty of Tughlaqabad reached new heights. The great builder, Firoz Shah’s dream project indeed gave a new dimension to the city (1351-1388). Yet all these are practically the architectural relics of yesteryear.
Then came the Mughals who gave yet another dimension to the design and architecture, with the establishment of Dinpanah (popularly known as Purana Quila) at the site of Indraprastha, which was fortified by Sher Shah suri (1538- 1545), who rechristened the fort as Shergarh. Thereafter came Shahjahan who founded the walled city (1638-1649) containing Jama Masjid, Lal Quila and Chandni Chowk, whereas Luteyn’s efforts gave the city a new flavor and a new significance, after the independence of the country, a multi-faceted development was witnessed and Delhi is now considered as one of the largest cities of the world.
Thus, the popular perception is that Delhi, is an amalgamation of as many as seven cities built at different times during its thousand years old history – Quila Rai Pithora, Mehrauli,Siri, Tughlakabad,Firozabad, Shergarh and Shahjahanabad. Now each one has its own story to tell but let’s talk about the magnificent period of history of Firoz Shah Kotla, the three storied pyramidal structure, located in the heart of the city, close to Delhi Gate on the Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.
Those were the days of the Sultanate when the Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88), the nephew of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and successor of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, following the latter’s death from a fatal illness, built the enormous city of Firozabad with its citadel in 1354. At the time of crowning of Firoz Shah, Delhi consisted of three contiguous enclosures – Lal Kot, Siri and the adjoining Jahanpanah walls that enclosed the palace of Muhammad Shah. The partially abandoned Tughalakabad was further up. The huge Begumpur Mosque and the two more mosques constructed during the reign of Firoz Shah (Kalan Masjid in Old Delhi and Khirki Mosque in South Delhi) suggest that a considerably large population lived within these walls. Additionally, some settlements also existed near the sufi shrines of Nizamuddin and Mehrauli.
Not satisfied with the existing infra structure and as per the practice in those days, Firoz Shah decided to have his own new quarters. Thus in 1354, started the coming up of Firozabad. Sultan’s major building project was his fortified palace complex beside the river Yamuna, which is now known as Firoz Shah Kotla and the city built during his sultanate is referred to as Firozabad. It is believed that this city was spread over a very large area and extended from the Ridge in the north to Hauz Khas in the south, where Firoz Shah built a madarsa. At the ridge, southwest to Pir Ghaib, near Hindu Rao Hospital one can still have a glimpse of the dilapidated hunting lodge built by the emperor.
Very close to where we were standing, a tourist guide was telling the visitors that the Firoz Shah Kotla complex was designed by Malik Ghazi and Abdul Haq (I believe that’s what he said) and was then popularly known as Kushk-I-Firoz, which meant Firoz’s palace. Consisting of three rubble-built walled rectangular enclosures, it forms an irregular polygonal plan with its eastern wall in one alignment. The eastern wall of the citadel was built on the bank of the River Yamuna. It is said that Firoz Shah erected this citadel here in spite of having three other palaces in Delhi, which experienced water shortage.
Among the three enclosures of the citadel, the central one is the largest and is presently known as ‘Kotla Firoz Shah’ as one can only find the ruins of the northern and southern enclosures amidst the modern constructions. The central enclosure had an imposing main gateway from the western direction and bastions on either side flanked it, the ruins of which can be seen even today. The southern enclosure, with an extant independent gateway, now encloses the Vikram Nagar Colony).
In order to have a better understanding of what the Kotla witnessed during its glorious existence during 1354 to 1490 A.D., let’s have a peep into the interesting history of that period.
When Firoz Shah was enthroned he was middle aged. Though militarily he was not very successful, his emphasis being on the improvement of the existing domain rather than recapturing the provinces lost by his predecessor, Muhammad Bin Tughlak, proved him to be a popular king and his reign was reportedly more peaceful than of the earlier rulers. In fact there were hardly any rebellions during his rule. Knowing fully well that India was predominantly an agriculturist country, he paid special attention to agriculture. He is believed to have lowered certain taxes for the cultivators, who also benefited from some major irrigation works, enabling them to take two crops a year. He also abolished some of the oppressive taxes, imposed by his predecessor, which were a great burden to the poor subjects. It is said that Firoz Shah Tughlaq instituted suitable economic policies to augment the material welfare of the common citizens. Many inns, gardens and tombs were built. A number of Madarsas (Islamic schools which provided Koranic education) were opened to encourage literacy. He also had set up hospitals to provide free medical aid to the poor. Besides commissioning many public buildings in the city, he also developed several villages. However, the imposition of jizya (poll tax) on non-muslims, was not much appreciated by some of the subjects.
Firoz Shah is said to have a passionately genuine interest in the ancient buildings and history. Some of the historians believe that he was an early conservationist. The restoration of the Qutab Minar (struck by lightning in 1368 AD, knocking off its topmost floor and it was restored by him by adding two floors, which introduced white marble in the otherwise red and buff sandstone exterior), the restoration / repair of two tanks at Hauz Khas and Suraj Kund, the construction of a madrasa at Hauz Khas and the transportation of the Ashoka Pillars, a monolith over 12.8 meters in height and 28 tones in weight from Topar in Ambala to the Kotla and the one at his hunting lodge at the ridge, are a few of the examples.
Talking about Hauz Khas (royal tank), this was excavated in 1300 A.D. by Sultan Alaudin Khilji, mainly with a view to supply water to his new city of Siri. Fifty years later, Firoz Shah restored Alaudin’s abandoned tank and undertook major repairs (like unblocking of the streams, construction of stone embankments), thereby making it usable once again.
He also established a madrasa on the banks of the tank and built an enclosure for his own tomb, which connects the two wings of the madrasa.
Looking at the age old edifice, it is difficult for the contemporary visitor to comprehend the layout of the college building, but it appears that the medieval Islamic education was centered around small group discussions and the long pillared halls were perhaps the lecture rooms.
Firoz Shad died at the age of 81 in 1388 and his great-grandson and the nominated heir, Tughlak Shah became the Sultan. He was murdered in the following year and Abu Baqr, a grandson of Firoz Shah was put on the throne. Muhammad Shah, Firoz Shah’s son who was at his power base at Nagarkot (Kangra), came back and with the help of allies around Delhi took control of the Sultanate. Muhammad Shah died in 1394 and this created another political upheaval. His son, Mahmud Shah, who inherited the throne was not in complete control of the situation and this provided a perfect opportunity to Timur (Tamburlaine) to invade the city. This was the first invasion of Mongols to India. Timur defeated Mahmud’s army and Mahmud fled.
Unfortunately, despite Timur’s assurance to the local officials of sparing the local population, some of the soldiers of his army picked up fierce fights with the locals and went on rampage, killing people, looting the city and putting the city to flames. After a leisurely stay of around fifteen days, Timur decided to go back to Samarkand.
On the way back, there was a large scale slaughtering and looting. Timur’s invasion of Delhi reduced a fine city to a city of ruins as he took away with him elephants loaded with treasures and costly building material, architects, artists, masons, craftsmen and skilled workmen as prisoners, as he had a desire to construct a few mosques and other structures there.
The Kotla stood helplessly witnessing this massacre.
For three years the devastated city had no Sultan. Mahmud Khan, who had established himself at Kannauj, ruled the city with the help of Mallu, one of his powerful ministers, who too was killed in a battle with Khizr Khan and then Mahmud Khan himself ruled the city until his death in 1412.
With the passage of time, the Sayyid dynasty (Khizr Khan, Mubarak Shah), the Lodi dynasty (Bahlol, Sikander and Ibrahim) used Kotla as their citadel and the emperors and their courtiers also left a legacy of some of the beautiful monuments in Delhi.
The Kotla was finally abandoned in the year 1490 AD.
The information tablet close to the main gateway states “Most of the building material from Firoz Shah’s city was robbed to build Shahjahanabad (1638-48)”, which probably hastened the process of further decay of the already deteriorated edifice.
Monuments within the Firoz Shah Kotla.
Venkat cleared his throat, took a swig from the Bisleri bottle and in his deep voice started talking about the existing monuments.
(Picture courtesy Sushil Khandelwal)
Approached from Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg nothing much survives in and around this once beautiful palace, apart from the Ashokan Pillar 3rd century BC, the remains of the Jami Masjid and a circular Baoli. Still the monuments are so interesting that they are among the favorite tourist destinations of the capital.
Located north of Jami Masjid, stands a pristine polished sandstone pillar from the 3rd century B.C. rising from the palace’s crumbling remains, one of many pillars left by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka; it was moved from Topar and re-installed in its current location in 1356.
The 13 meters high sandstone Ashokan Pillar on a rubble-built three-tiered pyramidal structure with Ashoka’s edict stands a testimony to the history of this old city in ruins which has seen many rulers over years. Firoz Shah Tughlaq moved this 27 ton pillar to Delhi from Topar in Ambala, where the great Emperor Ashoka erected it. The pillar is similar to the one fixed on the ridge, which was also brought by Firoz Shah. The transportation of both the pillars was done with utmost care and precautions to avoid any damage. It is said that the transportation of this pillar involved wrapping up of silk cotton around it and it was then lowered on a soft bed, encased in reed and raw skins and placed on a 42-wheel carriage. Two hundred men pulled the carriage with strong ropes to the Yamuna bank. The column was then transferred to large boats and carried down to Firozabad and then to the palace. After completion of each storey, the pillar was raised on to it, till it reached the top.
The pillar has seven main edicts of Emperor Ashoka. Written in Brahmi script in the Pali language, James Prinsep first deciphered the edicts in 1837. Like all Ashokan Pillars, this pillar also served the purpose of spreading Buddhism and its doctrines among the people. Though made of sandstone, the pillar was so polished that till date it looks as if it is made up of some metal. The best time to see the pillar is in the afternoon on a bright day as the pillar glitters like gold when the sun rays fall on it.
As stated above, among the few surviving buildings inside the citadel is the Jami Masjid. The southern and western walls with the gateway today are the surviving remnants of one of the largest mosques of the Tughlaq period. Located just next to the Ashokan Pillar, the mosque rests on a series of cells on the ground. Built of local quartzite stone, the prayer hall and cloisters on the sides of the courtyard, have all disappeared. The mosque has its entrance from the northern direction and was once connected to the pyramidal structure by a bridge.
It is believed that Timur visited the mosque to say his prayers in 1398 AD. The information tablet standing outside the Mosque testifies this.
We met Mumtaz Ansari, a building construction supervisor, on the steps leading to the mosque and were told that the mosque is still in use and regular prayers are offered there.
Upon our request Ansari Sahib accompanied us to the courtyard next to the mosque, where we could see a few vaulted chambers. He told us that though one can find many persons lighting diyas and incense sticks in the precincts of the edifice on any day, especially on Thursdays a throng of people could be seen, who come to pray.
Baoli (1354) and other structures
Located northwest of the Ashokan pillar, just in the center of the garden is a fine large circular baoli or step well. The baoli has subterranean apartments. It has a large underground drain for the water towards its eastern side. Like all other baolis, this baoli also served as a cool retreat in summer and was used by persons of royal lineage.
Apart from these monuments there are ruins of many other structures, which have not yet been identified , because of their present dilapidated shape. For example the foundation structure of a square hall to the north of Jami Mosque and behind Ashokan Pillar, and the southern most building of central the enclosure where one can find mosaic work and many more.
Venkat also told me about Qadam Shariff, (situated just north of New Delhi railway Station) the burial place of Firoz Shah’s son and the hunting lodges of Bhuli Bhatiyari Ka Mahal (as this was located very close to our house in Karol Bagh, I remember having visited the place many a times) and Mahipalpur hunting lodge built by Firoz Shah. Incidentally, Firoz Shah’s own Tomb at Hauz Khas Village was built in his own life time.
While visiting the Kotla, it is very convenient to have a look at the Khuni Darwaza (blood-soaked gate) located between the carriageways on the main Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg (close to Maulana Azad Medical College). As per the tradition, Dara Shikoh’s head was displayed here, after he was beheaded by Aurangzeb, in the battle for the throne of Delhi. It is also believed that the two sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar were shot dead by the British in 1857 and their bodies displayed for public viewing.
We were fast approaching lunch time and decided to have a quick lunch at DDCA’s lounge. What could be better than a chilled beer and steaming hot sizzlers to add to the memorable walk in the Firoz Shah Kotla Grounds.
Puffing a Hawaiian cigar, walking down the steps heading for the cricket ground, Venkat remarked “Yes, life did come back to Firoz Shah Kotla upon the decision of the Sports authorities to construct a stadium for cricket lovers way back in 1883, just outside the Kotla”, and started talking about his beloved place, where he spent around a couple of decades, polishing his skills and finally leading the Delhi team in the Ranji trophy and the North Zone Team in the Duleep Trophy matches.
Well writing about this historical cricket stadium would in all the fairness, require a separate detailed post, which I would endeavour to submit shortly.
And before I thank you for visiting, I would very humbly submit that this write up is based on my observations about the places mentioned in the post and the discussions I had with some of the visitors, residents of the close by areas and my close friends and also some of the books I had read, simply to give a glimpse of the Kotla and Hauz Khas, which could possibly have several gaps and shortcomings. I pray that these are ignored.