The Purana Qila is a timeless monument that stands on the South Eastern part of the present city of New Delhi. The landscape of Delhi is adorned by many majestic and quaint structures that have withstood the ravages of time. Colonial historians have drawn parallels between the seven hills of Rome and the seven cities of Delhi- built and rebuilt by conquerors who made this land their own.
The Lal Kot, a fortification wall built by Tomar Rajputs and renamed as Qila Rai Pithora by Prithviraj Chauhan in the 12th century, is believed to be one of the oldest standing structures of Delhi. Prithviraj is said to have lost it, soon after, to the invading forces of Muhammad of Ghor in 1192 CE. The Ghurid commander Aibek, who was left in charge of the dominions in Hindustan, developed the existing fort and built the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar within its premises. This site is traditionally known as the first city of Delhi. Subsequently, along with the coming of other dynasties to power, more cities came up- Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Dinpanah and Shahjahanabad.
The Purana Qila was built by the Mughal Emperor Humayun as a part of his new city of Dinpanah in the 16th century. One might wonder, as to what accords this particular fort the pride of place to be termed as “the Purana Qila” or “the Old Fort”, when there exist much older forts in Delhi. The answer to this question lies in an age known to us not so much through monuments and material culture, but through the kaleidoscopic world of myths and legends.
A strong local tradition believes that the area in which the Purana Qila stands today is the site of Indraprastha, the capital of the Pandavas of the great epic Mahabharata. It is for the same reason that the Purana Qila is often called the “Pandavon ka Qila''. Historians have sought the help of archaeology to verify this claim. Excavations at this site in 1954–55 and 1969 -1973, conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India and headed by BB Lal, revealed a few shards of pottery belonging to the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) variety, that historians trace to the Mahabharata period (1500-1000 BCE). They also revealed the existence of stratified layers belonging to 8 periods starting from the 4th century CE and continuing right up to the 19th century, confirming that the site had a long and unbroken chain of habitation for centuries. Apart from archaeology, textual sources such as the Ain-i-Akbari of Abul Fazal (16th century), mention that Humayun had built the fort at the site of Indraprastha-the ancient capital of the Pandavas. In fact, till 1913, there was in existence a village named Inderpat within the fort walls. The village was relocated after the British started building the modern capital of Delhi.
It is however the epic Mahabharata, that forms our main source of knowledge about Indraprastha. The site is originally known in the epic by the name of Khandavprastha- a distant and little-known tract of land on the western bank of the river Yamuna that was allotted to the Pandavas. The Aravallis were situated on the western side of this land and acted as a natural defensive barrier. The Pandavas are said to have converted this barren piece of land into a prosperous capital city with the more grandiloquent title “Indraprastha'' or the “City of Gods''.
Iravati Karve, in her legendary work Yuganta, a study of the Mahabharata, describes Mayasabha, the grand palace of Indraprastha, in the following manner, “Mayasabha was built very cunningly… Poor Duryodhana…bumped his head against walls, tucked up his garments only to find that he was walking on dry land. Finally, stepping on to what he thought was solid ground, he fell into a pool.” The fall is said to have induced peals of laughter from the onlookers. This insult coupled with the envy of the Kauravas after witnessing the splendour of Indraprastha is said to have been instrumental in leading to the Great Mahabharata War.
This cataclysmic fall was followed, millennia later, by another one. The second Mughal emperor Humayun, the original builder of the Purana Qila, is said to have met an unexpected end within the premises of this fort. In fact, Humayun’s entire reign was of a very unstable nature. He ascended the throne in 1530, and after hardly 10 years of rule, he was displaced by Sher Shah Suri, an Afghan noble with a power base in Bengal and Bihar. Following the defeat, Humayun stayed as a refugee with the Safavid Empire of Persia for a few years. However, in 1555, he was able to regain his kingdom and throw the Surs out of power in Hindustan. But hardly a year after this, Humayun died. His tumultuous life had prompted the British archaeologist Stanley Lane Poole to famously write that the perpetually unfortunate Humayun, “tumbled through his life and tumbled out of it”.
Humayun started building the Purana Qila in 1533 CE as a part of his new fortified city named Din Panah or the “Sanctuary of Faith”. By 1534 CE, the walls, bastions, ramparts and gates of the citadel were almost complete. Although there were many forts present in Delhi by this time, Humayun, like most rulers, desired to mark his ascension with a new citadel and a city. The site must have held symbolic value for the Mughals as the shrine of Delhi’s most revered saint Nizamuddin Auliya was located close by. Later Humayun’s tomb would also be built not very far from the Purana Qila.
It is difficult to estimate how much of the Purana Qila was complete when Sher Shah took over in 1540 CE. The Suri interregnum of 15 years, despite its brevity, was significant in terms of the architectural development of the fort. Sher Shah renamed Din Panah as Sher Garh and built various important structures within it.
The Purana Qila fort complex, as it stands today, is a conglomerate of various structures that lie scattered over an area of more than 300 acres. It was surrounded by a wide moat that was linked to the river Yamuna- the waters of which once lapped against the eastern walls of the fort. It is believed that only a few monuments have survived out of the original structure. Some of these standing structures are believed to be Humayun’s work while others are attributed to Sher Shah.
The grandeur of the Purana Qila can be surmised from the three majestic gateways that stand till today. The Bada Darwaza, acts as the main and only point of entry to the fort today. It is a robust structure flanked by two massive bastions. While the gate is made of red sandstone with inlays of white and greyish-black marble, the bastions are constructed of stone and rubble. Multiple slits for arrows are visible both in the upper part of the gate and the bastions. The Humayun Darwaza is the southern entry to the fort complex. This gateway is divided into two storeys with a high arch in the middle. The third gateway, the Talaqi Darwaza or the Forbidden Gate, is located on the northern side of the complex. The name Talaqi is an intriguing one and has several interesting stories attached to it. One of the legends narrates the story of a queen who had vowed to keep the gate closed till her husband returned victorious from battle. The king, however, was killed and the gate is said to have remained shut ever since. The gateway has two entrances- upper and lower. While the upper and more ornamental one served as the main entrance, the lower one once opened at the level of the moat.
A prominent structure of the Purana Qila is the Qila-e-Kuhna mosque built by Sher Shah in 1542 CE. This mosque is an aesthetic structure that reflects a transitional stage between the architecture of the Lodhis and the Mughals. The architectural features encountered here appear in more pronounced forms in the monuments built by Emperor Akbar later on. The Qila-e-Kuhna is a rectangular domed structure built in grey quartzite with profuse use of red and yellow sandstone. The façade of the structure contains five arches. The central one or the Iwan is beautifully embellished with bands of calligraphy of verses from the Quran inscribed on it. The architectural and symbolic focal point of the mosque are the Mihrabs that face west and indicate the direction of prayer. The main Mihrab is an exquisite structure that contains intricate carved and inlay work in white and grey marble. Apart from the Mihrabs, the ceilings of the Qila-e-Kuhna are also worthy of attention. The ceiling of the central dome represents a fine example of the brilliant craftsmanship involved in covering a rectangular space with a circular dome. The four corners are filled by what are known as squinches that are exquisitely carved.
Throughout the mosque one can witness a harmonious blend- of Islamic architecture, that originated in west and central Asia, and indigenous Hindu stylistic motifs such as the kalash and the lotus. This points to the syncretic outlook of its builders which resulted in the evolution of a composite culture. As Giles Tillotson, a writer and a historian, expertly remarks, “The architecture of the deserts of central and west Asia—composed of brick and tile—is translated on India’s fertile plains into an architecture of richly carved stone, worked by Indian expert hands.”
Another prominent structure inside the Purana Qila is the Sher Mandal. This structure is believed to have been built by Sher Shah in around 1541 CE. After Humayun recaptured the throne, he is said to have converted this building into a library. The Sher Mandal is a compact octagonal structure built in red sandstone and sparingly decorated with white and black marble inlay. Emperor Humayun had a fatal fall on the steps of this very structure. It is said that Humayun, after he heard the call for prayer from the mosque, hurried down the steps of his library, got caught in the flares of his long robe, and fell.
Close to the Sher Mandal lies a baoli or a stepwell. The baoli consists of a long flight of stairs, interrupted by landings, that lead to the water level. This structure is an interesting example of how water supply was managed during the medieval times. Another structure is the hammam or the bathhouse. Flights of narrow and steep steps lead to this closed underground chamber wherein one can still see the terracotta pipes and chutes that enabled the supply of water.
There are two museums housed inside the Purana Qila. The first exhibits artifacts related to the history of Delhi in general along with finds from the various excavations conducted at the Purana Qila. The second museum is unique and is Delhi’s only gallery that displays stolen and lost antiquities of Indian history retrieved by various law enforcement agencies.
Two other outlying structures that are often perceived as part of the Purana Qila are the Lal Darwaza and the Khairul Manazil. The Lal Darwaza or the Red Gate is an imposing gateway built of red sandstone and grey quartzite believed to be the southern entry to the city of Sher Garh. The Khairul Manazil was commissioned by Maham Anga, Akbar’s wet nurse, around 1561-62 CE to house a mosque and a madrassa. The structure though fairly simple still speaks of the power and influence that Maham Anga held in Akbar’s life.
After Humayun’s death, Akbar continued to rule from Din Panah until 1571 CE when he founded the new Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri in Agra. Delhi’s imperial significance then declined for some time until the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan, however, opted to build his own new capital city of Shahjahanabad (1639 CE) instead of reviving Din Panah.
The fate of the modern city of Delhi is not only historically and metaphorically, but also literally and physically aligned with the Purana Qila. Sir Edwin Lutyens, who built the modern imperial capital of Delhi (1912-1930) for the British, is said to have aligned the central vista, now called the Rajpath, with the Humayun Darwaza of the Purana Qila. During the second World War, the premises of the fort also served as an internment camp for Japanese civilians of British India. During the Partition of India in 1947, hundreds of refugees are said to have camped at the Purana Qila for several months.
It is believed that many secrets still lie buried in the depths of this timeless structure. It is somewhat poetic that after sundown the story of the seven cities of Delhi are replayed in the form of a sound and light show at the Purana Qila- centuries of triumphs, defeat, lost worlds and burgeoning cities- all caught in a play of shadows.