INTRODUCTION AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE OLD FORT
Delhi’s history is often spoken of in terms of its seven cities. These were fortified settlements, established by various rulers between the 11th and 17th centuries, now swallowed by the sprawling city of today. The Purana Qila, a 16th century fort near the south eastern edge of the city. There are monuments in Delhi older than this Qila which are certainly more impressive in terms of their architecture. But it’s unlikely there exists another place where history runs as deep as it runs here. Excavations by archaeological survey of India and Indian archaeological society reveal that this fort area was inhabited not only by the Mughals but in a five preceding time frame, starting from the Mauryan Dynasty till the British. Also after collating the archaeological as well as the literary data found, archaeologists and researchers believe that somewhere under the Qila lies the remains of a legendary city of Indraprastha which is civilizational of sorts, founded by the glorious Pandava brothers. The aura of this city has enticed kings and governments from the starting of urbanization as we start to trace back its history.
A Mughal chronicler from the time mentions that Humayun’s fort was built on the hallowed site of Indraprastha, a story that sits in the shimmering realm between myth and history. The city Indraprasth appears in one of the India’s foundational Sanskrit epic poems of the Mahabharata as the capital city established by its heroes known as Pandava Brothers. What better way for a ruler to claim legitimacy than to rule from this proto-capital? Remains of fortification that pre-dated Humayun’s rule have been found here probably credited by other kings, perhaps struck by the same idea. Myth or reality, the idea of Indraprastha is now embodied in the Purana Qila and together they have borne witness to some of the most significant moments in the history of India’s capital.
The Purana Qila was constructed by Humayun and Sher Shah. The old fort complex covers an area of about a mile with its walls having three gates, surrounded by a moat fed by Yamuna river. During its construction the strategical location was kept in mind. The double storied gates of the Purana Qila are said to be built by Humayun while the buildings inside the complex are attributed to Sher Shah Suri. The fort was supposedly unlucky for these rulers. Akbar did not rule from here and Shah Jahan built a new fort in Delhi called Lal Qila.
When Edwin Lutyens designed the new capital of British India, New Delhi in the 1920s, he aligned the central vista, now Rajpath, with Purana Qila. The Qila was forgotten for a while after the Humayun’s rule, and then remembered by the British. During the Second World War there was a camp of thousands of Japanese civilians from across British-ruled Asia. During partition of India and Pakistan, This fort along with the neighboring Humayun’s tomb became the site for refugee camps for Muslims migrating to newly founded Pakistan. The camp remained functional till early 1948, as the trains to Pakistan waited till October 1947 to start.
The walls of the Fort rise a height of several meters and have three arched gateways the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) facing west, which is still in use today; the south gate, also popularly known as The Humayun Gate (probably because constructed by Humayun or perhaps because Humayun’s tomb is visible from there) and lastly the Talaqi Gate often known as the forbidden Gate. All the the gates are double storied, sandstone structures surrounded by two huge semi circular bastions towers, decorated with white and coloured marbles inlays the blue tiles of the mosque. They are replete with detailing, including ornate Jharokas topped by pillared pavilions, all features that are reminiscent of the fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture. Despite the grandeur of the exterior, few of interior structures have survived including the Qila-Kuhna mosque and Sher Shah Mandal, both credited to Sher Shah.
The Qila now stands in a landscape and is surrounded by a Zoo, and the moat is a stop for boating beside from history enthusiasts and couples seeking privacy from the crowded city, few enter the red sandstone gate between the fort stout bastions.