Table of contents for Daastaan- E - Dilli
Delhi has been jinxed with a prophecy – Whoever builds a city, will lose it. However, the damning prophecy has not deterred successive rulers from building their own shiny new cities; only to lose them along with their heads with uncanny regularity. Some cities have survived; some are partially seen while others have totally disappeared. In his review of Lucy Peck’s book, Delhi – Thousand Years of Building, Aravind Adiga says, “Delhi has probably been ruled by a more continuous string of misfits, incompetents and cowards than any other imperial city, which may be why it has been sacked so often.” This is even more apt in the present times.
Nizamuddin Auyliya might have famously declared ‘Hunuz Dilli Dur Ast’ (Delhi is still far away) but Delhi has always been close to you. After all how many Delhi denizens are lucky enough to be born in the tony Diplomatic Enclave, to attend school in Chanakya Puri and to live in the leafy environs of the erstwhile Willingdon Crescent of Lutyens’s Delhi – Eighth city and the latest incarnation – in the company of Indira Gandhi (when she was out of power), Amitabh Bachchan (his father Harivanshrai Bachchan was the allotee of a bungalow) and playing the evening game of football and cricket within the walls of President Estate. There is a simple reason for all this – Delhi Police had plonked our family at Teen Murti Traffic Police Lines. Those were the innocent days when even Sanjay Gandhi would be seen driving his own Matador van. During the run up to the Republic Day Parade, the rumble of tank carriers would have us running to the street waving to the army men. This was my Delhi of childhood with wide boulevards, flowery roundabouts, where even the summers were couple of degrees cooler. Thankfully that part of the city has only grown prettier.
What was so attractive about Delhi that it continued to be occupied for centuries? Why were the rulers always drawn towards Delhi? Although several times the capital moved away from Delhi but people eventually moved back. Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq – founder of Tughlaqabad, Delhi’s Fourth City – took off for Daulatabad and then returned. Sikandar Lodhi moved to Agra, also returned and chose to be buried in Delhi. Islam Shah, son of Sher Shah Suri – founder of Shergarh, Delhi’s Sixth City – moved to Gwalior but his successor Hemu chose Delhi, Akbar moved to Agra but Shahjahan chose to headquarter the Mughal Empire in Delhi and built Shahjahanabad, Delhi’s Seventh City. British sensing the importance of Delhi and their NW Provinces moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi.
There were several strategic factors. One was the Yamuna River providing water and protection on the east. Of course, a boat ride on Yamuna from Delhi to Agra was far more comfortable than trudging on elephants. Beyond the Yamuna were the fertile lands of the Doab for agriculture. Delhi was centrally located on trade route both from Deccan and the East to Arab lands. Also, it lay comfortable distance away from the northern borders from where invasions took place and the desert on the west. The outcrop of Aravalli Hills provided additional protection and abundant supply of quartzite for building purposes. But then as history showed none of these factors helped and Delhi was plundered at invaders’ whims.
The legacy of successive invasions, the sackings, the periodical massacres, the burning down has given the Delhiwallas the unflagging combative spirit and resilience along with the swagger. This conditioning honed over skirmish laden centuries also imparts this certain special coarseness, the loving snarling personality and the endearing roughness around the edges. Delhi has repeatedly borne the brunt of all foreign invasions from the north-west that has cut inches off the fuse wire. So next time during the event of a minor fender bender on the road, if the Delhiwalla has exploded in a rage and is hell-bent to send you to your Maker, you know he is just thinking of you as another Central Asian invader. The physiological reaction here is Fight or Flight. It is Fight for the Delhiite and Flight for you. All you need to do now is to smile, accept your offence, pronounce yourself guilty and thank God for surviving another day. The Delhiwalla is only trying to make up for the killer instinct that Prithviraj Chauhan – founder of Delhi’s First City – so woefully lacked.
If you want a quick snapshot of how history unfolded in Delhi, take a drive in Lutyens’ Delhi – The Eighth City of Delhi. The roads provide a real life slide show of the different eras. Starting with Prithviraj Chauhan and then moving to Tughlaq and Lodhi and the assorted Mughal emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb – it appears like a regular musical chair was played over the centuries. Empire after empire bit the dust but Delhi outlived them all. Ironically, British names have been wiped clean from Lutyen’s Delhi. Your childhood street Willingdon Crescent is now safely christened Mother Teresa Crescent.
Archaeological evidence unearthed during digging at Purana Qila indicates that Delhi has been occupied continuously for three thousand years. Despite the killings, invasions and sackings, Delhi has never been deserted. Archeologically there was never a break in Delhi’s occupancy. Now this is what is called true resilience and not the so called resilience usurped by other cities. So it is true what they say about the Djinns of Delhi – The Djinns love Delhi so much that they hate it to be deserted. Maybe it is the Djinns who do not let the city die.
Delhi’s history goes back possibly to the times of the old village of Indrapat in and around Purana Qila. Other villages of that time were Sonepat, Panipat, Baghpat and Tilpat. Indrapat is the site of Indraprastha, the mythological capital of Pandavas believed to be buried in the area where Humayun built Purana Qila. The village settlement possibly was cleared during the building of Lutyens’s Delhi in 1913. However, archaeological evidence like the Painted Grey Ware found here as well as at other Mahabharat sites – Hastinapur, Kurukshetra, Kaushambi – does not provide clinching evidence that could conclusively prove this was the site of Indraprastha. The actual site of Indraprastha, if there is, would be down south towards Humayun Tomb. The excavated site at Purana Qila in one glance provides the stratigraphical snapshot of Delhi from early historic period (600-300BC) to the Mughal period. Today, the excavated site lies behind Sher Mandal unseen covered in grass. A communication was sent to Delhi Circle of ASI to clear the grass. A verbal message from them along expected lines says that budgetary constraints will delay the grass clearing exercise.
The earliest archaeological evidence of remains of a possible Mauryan city in 3rd century BC in Delhi is the Ashokan edict discovered on a rock in Srinvaspuri in South Delhi. The surrounding area must have been important and populated for Emperor Ashok to commission an edict to propagate his ideas. To reach the spot take Captain Gaur Marg in East of Kailash area. Turn into Dhirsen Marg which houses the more popular ISCON Temple. Few metres ahead on Dhirsen Marg on the left just before the ISCON temple hemmed in by houses on all sides is a fenced garden housing a rock outcrop. An ugly caged shelter sits incongruously on the top of the rocks. Inside the shelter there is another smaller cage housing the rock with Ashok’s edict discovered in 1966. The engraving on the smooth rock has almost faded away. A Buddha statue, fresh flowers and burning incense on the sides of the rock completes the picture. The caretaker woman explained that visitors from countries like Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka have instructed her to wash the rock daily and light up the incense sticks. She was right, Thai coins and incense packets lay nearby. Around the rock children play and people rest on the benches in the garden.
Later during 320-540 AD the Guptas were in charge of North India. Along with the literature and plays of Kalidas, the greatest contribution of the Guptas was the Iron Pillar currently installed in the courtyard of Qutub Complex. After all these years the pillar stands tall unrusted. The pillar is marvellous testimony to the metallurgical capabilities of that era considered in the background that such technology only came about in the 19th century in Europe.
Now we fastforward to 8th century when the Rajput clan Tomars (700 – 1160 AD) established settlements in the Suraj Kund area in Haryana bordering Delhi. The Tomar King Anang Pal I founded the village Anangpur south of Suraj Kund in the 8th century. The village still exists in the same name.
Anang Pal-I also built the Anangpur Dam – a marvel of water harnessing capabilities of that era. The dam is built of quartzite blocks found in plenty locally. The dam straddles the shallow valley between two hills. The dam is about 50m wide and 7m high. The upstream side of the dam has sharply falling steps. There is a sluice gate on the downstream side where the channelled water was released for Anangpur. This side has a gentle gradient. You are surprised to see two manholes on the top deck of the dam with steps leading down. You are alone in the wilderness and therefore do not feel brave enough to venture down. They were probably made to monitor the flow of water and release the water through the sluice gates on the downstream side. To reach the dam, take Badhkal Lake road from Suraj Kund. Drive down few kms until you see Anand Van resort on the right opposite NHPC apartments. Drive through the resort until you hit a dirt road. Climb a slight hill and turn right. Drive on this rocky trail until you see Trehan Farms. Park the car and walk towards the rising hill on the right. As you crest the hill you see the valley below with the dam stretched across the hills. You are surprised to see construction happening on the stream bed. And this is supposed to be a protected forest area housing Delhi’s earliest heritage structure. Thankfully the dam itself is well preserved and clean. You are not sure if this stream carries water during rains. But what is certain is that with the rampant construction going on, sewage would be flowing pretty soon through the dam. Wind suddenly picks up, thundering clouds roll in – it is Delhi’s periodical Western Disturbances at work that keeps the summers bearable. You have a hard time standing straight on the deck. For a moment, Sun breaks through the cloud to spread this glowing light all around. An unlikely Delhi piece of history visited and catalogued in the eyes and camera. There is a warm feeling inside. Another connection established with the ancestors. It is time to leave.
Suraj Pal, son of Anang Pal I built the Suraj Kund about a kilometre north of Anangpur village. The tank is named either after the king or Sun because the tank is designed in the shape of sun and was dedicated to Sun God. There are ruins of a Sun Temple in the east. Extensive repair work was carried out by the original builder of Delhi Feroz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century so it is uncertain how much original design is retained. We used to go to Suraj Kund for school picnics. You remember the tank had slippery steps and was always full of greenish water. It was our Goa. In fact the tank earned notoriety because of few cases of school kids drowning. Crestfallen with the mishaps, the government allowed the ravaging of the hills around the tank. Entire hills have been gouged out and obliterated and in their place multi-storey apartments have risen. The discriminate construction and digging has interrupted the flow of streams and other underground channels into the tank. The stream over which the dam is built also brought water to Suraj Kund. Today, the tank is bone dry but at least there are no school kids drowning.
About two centuries later around 1050 AD, the Tomar ruler Anang Pal II decided to build a new city called Lal Kot ten kilometres to the North West in Mehrauli area. The reasons are unclear about the move. Probably the rocky outcrop provided better defence. Anang Pal II also installed the Iron Pillar next to Qutub Minar believed to be brought from Udaygiri in Vidisha, MP. The pillar carries a short inscription referring to Anang Pal and to the city as Dhilli. The Iron Pillar is a historical fact of establishment of Delhi as political centre perhaps for the first time.
Lal Kot had strong fortified walls with bastions and the population of the city at that time numbered about 6000. The ruins of Lal Kot walls are still seen around Adham Khan’s tomb in the deliciously green Sanjay Van neighbouring Meharauli village. To reach them walk past the Adham Khan tomb next to Mehrauli bus stand. Then 100 metres ahead to the right just before a girl’s school boundary wall, heave yourself up, tiptoe around the garbage dump until you climb the first of the bastions of the Lal Kot’s embattlements. Both sides of the walls are covered with Keeker trees and shrubs. The wall is about six feet high. You can see huge quartzite boulders with perfect edges fitting into each other without any mortar. Round bastions fortify the walls at regular intervals. The wall is thick enough for a SUV to drive on. However, it is better to visit with company as the area is desolate and groups of people are out drinking making you beat retreat in a haste.
And this is when you are treated to another of Delhi’s most awesome of the views. In the East rising above the carpet of fresh new keekar leaves is the Qutub Minar. Delhi it seems has disappeared and it is only you and the seemingly suspended Qutub Minar in the distance. The moon has just made an appearance in the evening sky. The breeze rustles through the leaves. The dirt and grime and chaos and din of Mehrauli have faded away. You are back in the 12th century. This is the magic that Delhi springs on you every once in a while so unexpectedly. Delhi has this ability to transport you from complete anarchy to the calm of bygone eras in moments.
If you are feeling even more adventurous then walk to the Mehrauli Idgah also called Ashiq Allah Dargah. Walk beyond the dargah with the Lal Kot Walls running to the right. Look out for thornbrush and the rocky terrain. There are unmarked graves all around. The grave caretaker who showed you the way around says Djinns haunt the place and they can be seen. You ask him if he meant to say that he spent forty one days in prayer like the dervishes do to be able to see and talk to Djinns. He says he means the Djinns of the night. Hair on your neck suddenly shoot up. Come to the point where the walls turn right towards Adham Khan Tomb. Climb the corner bastion and marvel at the greenery all around. This is the probable location of one of Lal Kot’s gates called Fateh Burj. In the north if you just look harder you can see Ghori’s army rolling in with captured Prithviraj Chauhan in chains. Also entering Delhi through the gate that day was the Muslim rule for the next 600 years until the British took over in 1857.
Another Rajput clan, the Chauhans defeated the Tomars in 12th century AD. Prithviraj Chauhan (1149-1192) popularly known as Rai Pithora, extended the old city of Lal Kot and added ramparts and moat. The extended new city came to be known as Qila Rai Pithora – First City of Delhi. Prithviraj’s rule saw building of scores of temples with exquisitely carved pillars. The city had thirteen mighty gates out of which few like Barkha and Badayun gates survive. Ibn Battutah is believed to have entered the city through Badaun Gate. The new city was four times bigger with eight kilometres of circling fortifications.
Prithviraj Chauhan was the last Hindu King of Delhi before Hemu ascended the Delhi Throne for a brief period three centuries later in 1556. In 1191, the Turkish warlord Muhammed Ghori arrived with his army looking for some plunder and excitement. Ghori was defeated by Prithviraj Chauhan in the First Battle of Tarain. But as Indians consider all guests as God, Ghori was released due to Prithviraj’s magnanimity. A year later it was payback time. Ghori duly arrived with a bigger army and they met again in the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192. Prithviraj was defeated and carted away to taste Ghazni’s hospitality and Qila Rai Pithora ransacked and burnt down. This would not be the only recorded instance of the Delhi city being sacked. Temples of those times – sixty seven in all – were razed down and their pillars used to build the first mosque in India Quwwat-ul-Islam at the Qutub Complex. This victory laid the foundation of Delhi Sultanate.
The walls of the Qila Rai Pithora are the only legacy that Prithviraj left. Well, there was also the epic called Prithvi Raj Raso written by the bard Chand Bardai. It is believed Bardai accompanied Prithviraj to Ghazni. Legend says that during an archery competition in Ghazni, blinded Prithviraj Chauhan killed Ghori with Shabdbhedi Baan as his poet gave away Ghori’s position. Prithviraj’s grave still lies in Afghanistan with sporadic attempts to bring the remains back to India. His descendents owned the Neemrana Fort that has been sold and converted to a heritage hotel.
Qila Rai Pithora walls have also survived due to appreciable conservation efforts by ASI. To reach the walls, come out of Malviya Nagar Metro Station, cross the road and walk to your right on Press Enclave Road until you reach the entrance to the park developed around Rai Qila Pithora. Lush lawns surround the walls. There is a walking track where people from neighbouring colonies come to get their fresh air. You recognize a former Delhi Police Commissioner trying to work up a sweat. People are spread out with their weekend picnic baskets. Prithviraj Chauhan’s statue rises on the top of the circular library building. Here, Tughlaq city Jahanpanah’s walls meet with Qila Rai Pithora to create an even bigger city later. For Jahanpanah city Lal Kot served as the living quarters for the common people; Siri – Delhi’s Third City – housed the military.
There is another stretch of Qila Rai Pithora walls south of Mehrauli Badarpur road. Get off at Saket Metro Station on the Saidulajab side, immediately turn left on Westend Road leading to Garden of Five Senses. The ramparts lie on the right. Grounds are fairly well maintained. These walls are at least 15 feet wide with their height reaching lofty 60 feet in their heydays. Combined with the moat, these embattlements were seemingly impregnable. Walk to the last bastion where the walls turn right into desolation. Climb over the wall remains, come down, and take the gravelled path to walk back towards MB Road with the walls on your right this time. If you are lucky you will see this watch tower of unknown ancestry hanging on to its dear life on top of a rock outcrop.
High walls could not prevent Prithviraj Chauhan from losing his city. The story repeated itself over the centuries; the prophecy never failing. If only the current rulers read the city’s history.