The Seven Cities of Delhi

01/06/2018 09:19

On the banks of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges, halfway between the sands of the Rajasthan deserts and the foothills of the roof of the world, the Himalayas, had risen again and again one of the most populous cities in India and the whole world: Delhi.

In the second book of the Mahabharata, the Sabha Parva, is reported how the five Pandava brothers founded about 1400 years before our era, a great city from which dominated their kingdom. They called it Indraprashta. Abandoned by the last king of his race, Yudhisthira, it had not even left traces for archaeologists.

The first of the medieval towns was built in the beginning of the eighth century under the reign of the Tomara Rajput clan, who protected their new city with a fortress, Lalkot. In the twelfth century a new Rajput clan coming from Ajmer occupied the city. One of their kings, Prithviraja Chauhan III extended the urban area with new walls in the south and renamed it. Now it was Qila Rai Pithora.

Still in the twelfth century, in 1193, a new wave of invaders introduced new habitudes and beliefs. These came from Ghor, in the Hindu Kush lead by Turkmen Mohammed Ghori. With them Islam arrived. Ghori left in place one of his top lieutenants, Qutb-ud Din Aybak, who at the death of his mentor would become the new chairman of the Delhi Sultanate, starting the Mamluk dynasty  in the city.

His remarkable legacy is today found at Qutub complex, where was the great Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, the power of Islam, built upon ancient Hindu temples. It had a wide courtyard, cloisters and a prayer room with a large doorway with arches, some of which are still preserved. Next to the mosque was erected to commemorate the victory and call to prayer the Qutub Minar, the tallest minaret in the Islamic world with its two hundred forty feet high. Looking like, but surpassing, that of Djam, Afghanistan. Each floor is bounded by a balcony decorated with endless arabesques. Each of the first three stories is covered with red tiles and grooved, reproducing Koran verses. In the mosque old courtyard there is a huge iron pillar just over twenty four feet high and six tons in weight much older than the whole, dating from the fourth century built by order of Chandra Gupta. Another inscription adds that the city, Delhi, was rebuilt by Ang Pal in the year 1052. The column has no rust marks, not showing signs of corrosion, which led to the suspicion that it was not but some iron alloy, however analyzes have shown that it has an extraordinary purity ore.

The Mamelukes rule finished in 1290 with the overtaking of the Khilji dynasty and its first Sultan Alauddin. They undertook the construction of a new town three miles northeast. In 1303 Siri city was completed and was reinforced with a stone and brick fortress to defend the frequent Mughal incursions.

Just twenty years have gone when a new dynasty, the Tughluq, dominated the scene. Between 1321 and 1388 each of the sultans decided to build his city. The first one, Ghiyasuddin Tughluq built up Tughlaqabad, the remains, major sections of the wall that reaches up to fifty feet, may be seen today along the Mahrauli-Badarpur road. There are still thirteen of the fifty-two doors allegedly opened, and the Sultan’s mausoleum where is believed also lies his wife and his son and successor Muhammad bin Tughluq. He founded Jahanpanah between Siri and first city Qila Rai Pithora. The third sultan of the dynasty, Firuz Shah Tughluq, not to be less than their ancestors ordered the construction of Firozabad. Sovereign iconoclast, he destroyed many Hindu temples and build new and sumptuous palaces and splendid mosques. Interestingly only remains the indestructible and older than him, Ashoka pillar, dated in the third century. The Sultan himself, intrigued by their inscriptions, bring it from Ambala in Punjab, now in Haryana state.

The Delhi Sultanate dynasties had continuity with the Pashtun Sayyid and Lodi, the latter originating from Afghanistan. The architectural heritage of the two dynasties has been kept in the Lodi Gardens, which occupy about ninety  acres in the city. Here are the beautiful mausoleums of Mohammed Shah, Sikander Lodi, Sheesh Gumbad and Bara Gumbad.

Ibrahim Lodi, the last Sultan of Delhi, was defeated at the Battle of Panipat in 1526 by Zahiruddin Babur, a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan himself. When he was thirty years old had barely managed to control the Kabul, Kandahar and Badakshan triangle. Babur turned his attention and interest towards India, divided into many kingdoms. In the South the Vijayanagar Hindu Empire, on the west coast the small Muslim sultanates, the warlike north Rajput princes and the Sultanate of Delhi.

The Mughal emperors chose more than once Agra or Fathepur Sikri instead  Delhi as residence. The second, Humayun, founded the sixth city near the river Yamuna and south of Firozabad. Called it Dinpanah, where he died and where in 1565 his widow, Haji Begum, roused his colossal mausoleum, Humayun's Tomb, which served as a model to inspire the Taj Mahal in Agra. Near the entry, on the left, is the marble coffin retaining the beheaded body of Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s son, who was murdered by order of his brother Aurangzeb.

In 1638, Shah Jahan, who buried his wife in the Taj Mahal, built a new walled city near the Yamuna River, giving his own name to the city: Shahjahanabad. The perimeter of the enclosing walls fits current old city, Old Delhi, which is accessed through its fourteen gates. In its enclosure Shah Jahan built the royal residence of Lal Qila, the Red Fort, and Jama Masjid, the greatest mosque in India, with a large central courtyard surrounded by galleries and a prayer hall covered with three bulbous marble domes. Next to it is one of the main markets of the old city, Chodni Chawk, meaning the silver square, commercial hub where it’s possible to smell all the perfumes of the Orient. In the nineteenth century there was a pond in the middle of the square, it was replace for many years by the Municipal Clock Tower. All around are the narrow streets lined with small shops always crowded.

The last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, even direct descendant of Genghis Khan, was exiled to Rangoon when, in 1817, the British East India Company took over in most states of the Deccan. The British made Calcutta their capital until in the early twentieth century, in 1911, King George V announced the transfer of the capital back to Delhi.

Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker were the architects in charge of developing the urbanization of the area where the new British administration buildings would be located. South of the old city, New Delhi was formally concluded in 1931.

Here is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the Indian Union President, formerly home of the British Viceroy. A large and broad avenue, Raj Path, links with India Gate, a memorial reminiscent of the one hundred thousand Indian soldiers killed in World War I fighting for a foreign empire.

Next to Raj Path is the seat of Parliament, a circular block of 187 yards in diameter that houses the Rajya Sabha, the upper house formed by two hundred and fifty members, and the Lok Sabha, the lower house where the five hundred thirty deputies meet.

To the north, in Connaught place radially converge streets that link New Delhi with the old Shahjahanabad. Connaught Place is a double concentric circus where a central park hides an underground mall. There are small and large businesses and shops, hotels and restaurants and a Tibetan market that lasts up to the packed Janpath.

Along the river, amid a large garden, there’s a black marble podium. Marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated on January 31, 1948.

Since the times of the Mahabharata, the number of inhabitants has attracted by the large conurbation along the Yamuna has grown exponentially. In 1949 the partition of India and Pakistan, after gaining independence from the British Empire, bring in thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Punjab. They settled north and west of the Indian capital. In the late sixties the war in East Pakistan or Bangladesh generated new waves of refugees housed in a space created by the way, the EDPD, East Pakistan Displaced Persons, south of the city. In the eighties the settlement was renamed as Chittaranjan Park.

In 1991 the metropolitan area already was crowded by more than eight million souls. In 2009 was over eighteen.

© J.L.Nicolas


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