Siri – Third City of Delhi

Before the celluloid Hollywood Terminator, there was the real life Delhi Decapitator. Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316) had a penchant for decapitated heads. If it was not Mongols then it was the common thieves. But everyone had to lose his head. You figured that the only excursion by Mongols into India was when Genghis Khan chased Jalal-ad-Din Mengübirti to the river Indus in Kashmir.

Jalal was the Sultan of the Khwarezmian Empire – empire founded by Mamluks; Mamluks incidentally also founded the first dynasty of Delhi Sultanate comprising of Qutub Aibak, Iltutmush and Balban. Jalal’s army was wiped out but he escaped into India. Genghis Khan inexplicably returned from his only foray into India. Later, India beckoned Mongol successors of Ghenghis Khan.

These attacks happened around Delhi where they finally met their match in the Decapitator. Legend has it that Alauddin beheaded 8000 Mongols living in the settlement now called Mongolpuri and built the foundation of his City on these heads. Thus the first Muslim city of Delhi was built in 1303 and called Siri (‘Sir’ is Hindi for head) as a homage to all the severed heads. In fact, Khilji chased the Mongols and pushed them north of Kabul that ensured the Mongols would not attack India again for some time.

History offers great twists of irony. Khiljis who were originally Turks, settled in Afghanistan as different Pashtun tribes. They deserted Jalal in his battle with Genghis Khan, were themselves defeated by Mongols, escaped and joined Delhi Sultanate army.

The Khiljis rose to power to end Mamluk dynasty and established Khilji Dynasty as the second dynasty of Delhi Sultanate and then – surprise – again got to fight the same Mongols: but this time around, the Khiljis routed Mongols out of India. In the bargain Mongols lost 8000 heads. Mongols would come back for revenge as the later Tughlak dynasty found out. Poor Mohd-bin-Tughlaq had to shift his capital from Tughlakabad to Daulatabad because of this continuous Mongol harassment. But that is another story.

Headquartered in Siri Fort, Alauddin Khilji embarked on his various campaigns – Chittorgarh in Rajasthan with the associated account where he looks at Rani Padmini’s reflection in mirror and becomes besotted with her; Mandu on Malwa plateau in MP where every king or emperor worth his ruby encrusted crown craved for a monsoon retreat home.

Deogiri in Maharashtra which was later called Daulatabad and to where Mohd–bin-Tughlak shifted his capital from Delhi; Warangal – home of Kakatiyas dynasty – in Andhra Pradesh from where Khilji got the ultimate trophy – the Koh-i-Noor diamond which today adorns Queen Elizabeth’s crown and which recently the visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron declined to return to India.

Most of the campaigns against the Mongols and in South India were led by Khilji’s slave general Malik Kafur. Departing from the established norm, in earlier times Khilji had castrated Malik – instead of beheading – when they clashed as belligerents in the battle for Gujarat. Malik was subsequently inducted into Khilji’s army where he rose to head the army. It is said Malik Kafur became too ambitious and poisoned Khilji. Malik Kafur was himself killed three months after Khilji’s death. It remains unknown if Malik beheaded Khilji as the ultimate tribute to the Decapitator.

Siri Fort Ruins

Siri Fort Ruins

The Siri Fort was so massive that the Mongols could never breach it despite sieges lasting months. It is said that about 70,000 Selijuq workers were involved in building the Siri city. Today, only few walls of the once mighty Siri Fort survive. Sher Shah Suri walked away with most of the stones and bricks to build Shergarh, the Sixth City of Delhi.

The same tragedy befell Firoz Shah Tughlak when his Firozabad – Delhi’s Fifth City – was dismantled to build Shahjahanabad. Probably the Delhi emperors should have been made to sign ‘I undertake not to dismantle other people’s property to build my own’ clause administered by some agency like DUAC. This way we could still be admiring the magnificent Hazar Sutan Palace of thousand pillars with marble floor. Those impregnable walls now just few metres high run parallel to the August Kranti Marg with the intervening space landscaped. Locals stretch out under the January sun.

Neighbouring the fort walls is the urban village of Shahpur Jat. The combination of Shahpur Jat and Siri Fort is a distant cousin of the more upscale and trendy Hauz Khas Village and the serene Firoz Shah Tomb. Shahpur Jat is playing catch up to Hauz Khas village where general stores and tailor shops jostle with travel agencies and boutiques. Once home to Jats tilling farms spread over present day Panchsheel Park, Malviya Nagar, Hauz Khas and Greater Kailash; the village now is witnessing boom with original inhabitants creating vertical real estate and renting out to sundry working class, sweatshops and cafeterias.

Tohfewala Gumbad Masjid

Tohfewala Gumbad Masjid

The only surviving monument in the Siri Fort is the Tohfewala Gumbad Masjid. Walk into Shahpur Jat and keep to your left. Surrounded by multi-storeyed architectural horror stories on two sides, lies the mosque. It seems INTACH’s attention has escaped this structure. There is no identifying sign or guard. Children play under its arches. Some plaster repair has been carried out on the front which will duly turn pink in due course of time – another one of ASI’s follies.

Chor Minar

Chor Minar

To further aid his propensity for beheading, Alauddin built the Chor Minar. The short tower is poked with 225 holes and was called the Tower of Beheading. The holes were not made for admiring the nearby Siri Fort or Hazaar Sutan Palace but for housing spears with impaled heads. The heads usually belonged to common thieves and robbers and the sight was specially arranged to dissuade people with similar ambitions. Nowadays, the tower stands in a roundabout bang in the middle of Hauz Khas with houses on all sides.

Hauz Khas

Hauz Khas

To provide water supply to city of Siri, Alauddin built water supply system including excavating the magnificent water reservoir initially called Hauz-i-Alai in the Hauz Khas village complex. The tank lies off the Deer Park after walking past the Park Baluchi restaurant and presents a wonderful sight looking down from Firoz Shah’s tomb and madrasa. The sight rivals in magnificence to that of Vijay Chowk and Rajpath. Hauz Khas today is a tranquil oasis with ducks strutting their stuff.

Alai Minar

Alai Minar

Every time Khilji sat in his balcony in Siri Fort, the towering Qutub Minar on the western horizon filled him with envy. He wanted one of his own and bigger and taller to commemorate his victories in Deccan. He had plenty in the bank – all the loot Malik brought from Deogiri, Warangal and Madurai. Plans were soon made to build a minar twice the size and height of Qutub Minar.

Work soon started but Malik Kafur had other plans. Khilji was poisoned and work stopped on the minar. The unfinished minar with base diameter twice that of the Qutub, can still be seen in the Qutub Complex. Here credit has to be given to Khilji. Had it been other later emperors, they would have simply dismantled the Qutub Minar and the new minar would have been ready even before the poison took effect. The Alai Minar now just a mere painful allegory, a history footnote, sits wistfully, cringing under the shadow of the same Qutub Minar which its creator wanted to obscure; its lofty ambition crushed by a scheming general.

One question remains unanswered: Feroz Shah Tughlaq of the Tughlaq dynasty that succeeded the Khilji dynasty was a prolific builder and conservator. Instead of tearing down buildings of earlier rulers, he actually repaired them. Tughlaq repaired Suraj Kund, cleaned up Hauz Khas and adorned it with his madrasa and tomb. He also repaired the Qutub Minar by installing top two floors after it was damaged by lightning. Why Tughlaq did not attempt to complete the Alai Minar – was it the paucity of time and money or was the Alai Minar too ambitious for its time?

Alai Darwaza

Alai Darwaza

Khilji's Madarsa

Khilji’s Madarsa

Khilji's Tomb

Khilji’s Tomb

Alauddin also extended the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque in the Qutub Complex and built the magnificent Alai Darwaza in 1311 as the southerngateway. Alai Darwaza was the first structure in India with ‘true dome and true arches’. With red sandstone, white marble inscriptions, lattice windows, Alai Darwaza was the first building in India incorporating Islamic architecture and was the precursor to Qila-e-Kuhna built by Sher Shah Suri in Purana Qila and Humayun Tomb. Alai Minar, Alai Darwaza, madrasa and tomb all reside harmoniously in Qutub Complex along with their predecessors.

Khilji must be wondering what else he was supposed to do to get a road in Delhi named after him when the Tughlaqs, Lodhis, and Mughals boast of personalised roads. Maybe the decapitating trait did not go down well with the road naming committee.

Getting There: Siri Fort, Shahpur Jat and Chor Minar are all within short walking distance from Hauz Khas metro station. Hauz Khas Complex is easily accessible from Green Park metro station. Qutub Complex can be reached by Qutub Minar or Saket metro stations. In Hauz Khas village visit the cafeterias, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and Deer Park. Qutub Complex is perhaps the best maintained monument complex in Delhi with zero garbage and excellent facilities and signage. Under exceptionally clear and azure blue skies on a February day, you will fall in love with the monuments.

27 Comments

  • Stone says:

    What a brilliant post Nirdesh; makes one feel like going back and exploring all the monuments in the light of this newly acquired knowledge.
    Thanks a lot.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Stone,

      Thanks a lot!

      History gets amazinger as you peel the layers.

      Delhi has tons of monuments as I am discovering for the first time. For instance, it will take at least three days just to visit all monuments in Mehrauli area – one for Qutb Complex, second for Mehrauli Archeological Park and third for Mehrauli village and neighouring areas.

  • This one is the history thriller.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Praveen,

      History indeed is one thrilling novel.

      Delhi Sultanate history is nothing compared to the intrigues, murders, fratricides of mughal times.

  • Rakesh Bawa says:

    Nirdesh Ji,
    Really enjoyed this post.
    Sir, Mongols did attack India afterwards also as Mughal word is said to be derived from the word Mongol, loosely and we get instance of Mongols attacking for the last time at the time of Tughlaq also. The question of Alai minar is revelation to me, never heard of it. Overall mazaa aa gaya ……..

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Rakeshji,

      Thanks for enjoying the post!

      Yes Mongols kept attacking India. That was one of the reason for the construction of formidable Tughlaqabad Fort built by the later Tughlaq dynasty.

      Babur’s ancestor Timur Lame was a descendent of the greatest Mongol Ghengis Khan who attacked India during the Tughlaq times. Later, Babar founded the Mughal dynasty. But then 1 in 200 men today are direct descendents of Ghenghis Khan. So a lot of men in India have Mongol blood!

      Alai Minar is wonderful story of what could have been.

      Thanks again.

  • Anupam says:

    Delhi has so many historical places, that even people living in Delhi for ages do not know. Same happened with me, until i started exploring in recent time.

    This blog comes as a eye cleaner. Wonderful write-up. Thanks.

    Regards
    Anupam Mazumdar

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Anupam,

    Thanks for the appreciation.

    I have just started exploring the historical Delhi. If you want a great guide then look up Lucy Peck’s – Delhi – A Thousand Years of Building. It has practically every single monument described and mapped. Last weekend the book helped me negotiate the lanes of Nizamuddin Village and Sunder Nursery!

    Thanks again!

  • Gita AM says:

    Another interesting post Nirdesh, and the Siri Fort is added to my list. I have stayed at Green Park several times on visits to Delhi but spent the spare time mostly at Evergreen Sweets, and the Deer Park. Now I know where to go.

    “Tower of Beheading. The holes were not made for admiring the nearby Siri Fort or Hazaar Sutan Palace but for housing spears with impaled heads”
    …………… and undoubtedly their ghostly spirits remain to haunt us forever . I would not want to go there alone at night…………

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Gita,

      Thanks for reading.

      Siri Fort does not have much left. You can see its stones used in building Purana Qila or Shergarh! Instead you can go a short distance south of outer ring road and visit Bijay Mandal and Begampur Mosque built by Tughlaq. Ibn Battutah on his way to meet the king encountered several human torsos lying just outside the palace.

      Of course, Hauz Khas village complex is a must see along with Firoz Shah’s tomb and Madrasa. There are few monuments scattered in Deer Park. Also see the few tombs on the way to Hauz Khas village from Aurobindo Marg.

      I doubt Delhi people are scared of spirits haunting. If we had our way we would use Chor Minar as our backyard playground. You can see people stretched and kids playimg in the small lawn surrounding the minar. First floor balconies in Hauz Khas village are hanging over the pavilions of ASI protected monuments!

      All in all very exciting times!

  • Very informstive post !!!!

    As a father of a growing children , wish to visit such historical monuments

    Delhi has been a Historical city. There is so much to see in Delhi.

    Thanks a lot for sharing with us.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi Mahesh,

      Thanks!

      This is what I like to say – ban all visits to malls and take kids out in the sun to all these wonderful monuments and all the stories lurking in the background.

      This winter I have witnessed huge crowds at all these monuments. Lodhi Gardens was packed this sunday. Of course it interferes with your photography and half the time you are steaming at the garbage strewn grass and trampled flower beds.

      But it is all worth it. Enjoy!

  • Brilliant post.. .you have covered so much in a single post, that too with a touch of humor… looking forward to read more about your excursions in Delhi…

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Hi DT,

      Thanks for the appreciation!

      Yes, when I started to write I thought it will be a very short post. But then these layers started unravelling and Khilji’s reign became really interesting.

      I have covered three cities of Delhi so far here on Ghumakkar. Hope to cover the remaining four cities soon.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    I am thankful to you for at least mentioning DUAC. Trust me, if not for this log and the most appropriate mention (actually just the mention) of the premier institute, the world would not have known them. I am sure that nor the lal-dora overarching balconies of HK village neither their owners know these folks. DUAC definitely arm-twists common man like E. Sreedharan as soon as any of his trains (or even thoughts, someone said once ‘train of thoughts) try to get a closer view of these monuments, but to everything else, they stay calm. Thank you. DUAC is humbled.

    Kohinoor is very proudly (and expensively) showcased in a museum. When I got my only opportunity about 15 years back, I remember seeing a blue large glass artefact safely tucked inside layers of protection, in the tower of London. I guess more people are able to see it (and possibly know the Indian connection) than if it would have been somewhere here. I visited ‘India Museum’ at Kolkata last summers which I guess is the biggest and the burliest museums and I don’t think it would be a good idea to keep the Kohinoor there. ‘National Museum’ in Delhi, is definitely much more plush but if we can lose the only copy of ‘Aalam Aara’ in a fire (c’mon, not even a high draft Mission Tom-Cruise Impossible theft, just a simple fire and we lose the only copy) , we can certainly lose the diamond, many more times.

    Enough of cribbing. Tohfewala Tomb pic has kids. :-). I can see them.

    I have linked the history together for an easier access to different times. Thank you. Reading your stuff makes me better.

  • ashok sharma says:

    very well researched post.good pics.

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Thank you Nandan for christening the posts Daastaan-E-Dilli and bringing them all together!

    Reading your comments has made me feel even better. Now I think I should start on Delhis first city which I have been putting off for sometime.

    Recently, there was an article in TOI which said property owners cannot build or make changes if they are within 100m of notified monuments. Hauz Khas people must be happy that they have already built their balconies hanging over the monuments. You are right: metro has to realign their tracks everytime they get close to the heritage buildings!

    When I see the crumbling ruins and artefacts strewn around, I am glad that these priceless articles at least have a safe house in the environs of foreign museums or private collections. Here they would just end up uncatalogued in the basement of some musty government building only to be lost to fire or termites. Tagores Nobel Prize that was stolen is still untraced. Tom Cruise would be out of a job here!

    Yes, Tohfewala Gumbad had the neighbourhood kids playing inside and who posed for me and actually were not content with the photos on the camera screen but wanted printouts!

    Thanks again!

  • prashant bhujbal says:

    Dear Nirdeshji,
    I have shifted to Delhi 4 months back.History too fascinates me.visiting these places
    After reading ur posts is a journey downlanes .I come from Maharashtra
    Where you will find d Deogiri , Raigad Fort capital of Shivaji.do visit
    Keep posting
    Regards,
    Prashant

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Prashant,

    Yes, just like Maharashtra, Delhi too is full of forts and tombs.

    I went to college in Aurangabad so Deogiri/Daulatabad Fort is dear to me. You can read my post on Daulatabad here on Ghumakkar.

    Though I feel generally Maharashtra forts are not being taken care of – Daulatabad is crumbling, Sinhgad Fort near Pune is almost gone, Ahmednagar Fort has nothing left besides the crumbling wall. Chand Bibi’s fort was the only saving grace. Hope to visit more in the near future.

    You can start visiting different cities of Delhi and then you will be sucked into the amazing history of Delhi. As already recommended, you can get hold of Lucy Peck’s Delhi – Thousand Years of Building which has ecevey monument described and mapped for easy visit.

  • Reading the post long after it was published, really loved your writing style, the subtle humor and the detailed facts! Thanks for working on this!

  • Jatinder Sethi says:

    Nirdesh Singhhi

    I have come aboard 3/4 years later to all the cities of Delhi that has been my abode since 1947,

    Fascinating to read such scholarship of history to know on whose head you are standing today in this millennium,. You say:-
    “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”
    Does this apply to this millennium also?

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Yes Sir – it will keep happening – Just go back into the recent past and the prophecy continues!
      Thanks for taking time out to read about our favourite city!

  • Taher Kagalwala says:

    Congratulations on getting your post on Siri highlighted! It is a great post. I will return to read your other dastaan-e-Dilli posts, but for now, I salute your lovely historical background and the subtle sense of irony and humour that you have injected in your post.

    • Nirdesh Singh says:

      Taher ji, nice to hear from you after all these years! History had its share of violence and tragedy and some humour never hurts!
      Thanks for reading and the appreciation!

  • Debjit Chakraborty says:

    Impressive historical information

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