the-south-asian Life & Times                       Oct - Dec 2010






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Delhi – The Resilient City

- SALT feature


Delhi is one of the oldest surviving cities in the world today. Almost five thousand years old, it is an amalgam of eight cities, each built in a different era on a different site – each era leaving its mark, and adding character to it – and each ruler leaving a personal layer of architectural identity. It has evolved into a culturally secular city – absorbing different religions, diverse cultures, both foreign and indigenous, and yet functioning as one organic entity. It was known for its riches – both material and cultural – foreign travellers were hypnotised by it, books have been written on it since time immemorial, poets have loved it and Kings and Emperors have fought over it. 

Delhi has a history of resilience – it was plundered, looted and destroyed several times over by central Asian and Persian rulers, but the city always returned to its cultural sophistication and intellectual sensitivity – a tribute to the undying spirit of the citizens of Delhi. An inscription on one of the walls at Diwan – I – Khas in the Red Fort describes Delhi as

"If on earth there be a place of bliss

It is this, it is this, it is this"

Mir Taqi Mir, a poet from Delhi, wrote:

"The streets of Delhi are not mere streets;

They are like the album of a painter"

The streets of Delhi have also flown red with blood – it has seen massacres of tens of thousands of its innocent citizens, yet the same streets have also seen the joy of freedom.

The first city of Delhi was Indraprastha founded by the Pandavas at the time of Mahabharata, around 3000 BC. Much later, the Tomar Rajputs, who ruled over Delhi, founded Dhillika; Alauddin Khilji built Siri; Tughlaqs added Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah and Firozabad. Humayun constructed his capital city Din Panah. His grandson Shahjahan built Shahjahanabad and almost a century and a half later Lutyen designed New Delhi – the Imperial capital of the British Raj. New Delhi was inaugurated in 1931. Today Delhi spills into the adjoining states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh – still thriving in different eras of its rich history – and in step also with the rest of the world.

Following are the milestones in the city’s, at times traumatic, historic past – information contained therein is compiled from various sources, prominent among them - ‘Delhi’ by Khushwant Singh, ‘The Great Mughals’ by Bamber Gascoigne, ‘The Mughals – Splendours of the Peacock Throne’ by Valérie Berinstain, and ‘The City of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple .  It is not within the scope of this issue to publish all the happenings in Delhi since the time of its earliest recorded history.

The story begins ....

Grey earthenware pottery, found at Tilpat, near Delhi, belonging to 1000 BC or earlier – suggests a city more than 3000 years old. The Mauryas, Kushans and the Guptas held sway over the region for centuries and the Tomar Rajputs came to rule Delhi in the seventh and the eighth centuries. Surajpal Tomar was one of their foremost chieftains – Surajkund in Delhi, now the site of an annual arts and crafts fair, was named after him. Anangpal Tomar, a later ruler fortified the town of Anangpur and also built a dam to harness rainwater. He later built his own capital city of red sandstone and called it Lal Kot. Prithvi Raj Chauhan was the last Hindu ruler of Delhi. He renamed Lal Kot and called it Qila Rai Pithora.

Prithviraj Chauhan was also the first ruler of Delhi to face the onslaught of a foreign army – that of Mohammad Ghor who was defeated and pardoned by Prithviraj - in the true Rajput tradition and code of honour. The following year Mohammad Ghor led another invasion in which he defeated and killed Prithviraj – the same Prithviraj who had pardoned him the year before! Thereafter Delhi was controlled by foreigners – Turks, then by Afghans, later from central Asia, and subsequently from Britain. The first few waves of foreign invasion were nothing more than plundering and looting expeditions, beginning in the eighth century. Islam came to India, and hence to Delhi, as the faith of these foreign armies.

Suraj Kund (built in the 10th century), now the site of an annual Crafts Festival, is perhaps the only pre-Islamic structure remaining in Delhi. It is believed to have been constructed by the Tomar king, Surajpal. The remarkable Hindu structure, dates back to the pre- Islamic period of temples and sun worship, much before the mosques and tombs of Delhi were built, many on the sites of temples razed by the invading armies. Built in the shape of the rising sun with semi-circular stepped stone embankment, it was constructed as a grand reservoir to collect rain water from the surrounding hills.


Historic milestones of last millennium in Delhi

AD 1000 – AD 1200

Raja Anangpal Tomar,  Prithviraj Chauhan (the last Hindu ruler of Delhi), Mohammad Ghor, Qutb ud din Aibak

Read the entire feature in the print edition of
The South Asian Life & Times



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