Delhi 101: #15 Purana Qila (Old Fort) – Where Emperors take Fatal Tumbles

Entrance to the Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi
Entrance to the Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi

Three different rulers (one mythological, two real) zeroed in on the site of the present day Purana Qila (Old Fort) as their seat of power – and somehow none survived long enough to really enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Delhi 101: Cover image of book by Ajay JainThis post has been taken from Delhi 101, a book written by Ajay Jain. It is about 101 surprising ways to discover Delhi, one of the most amazing cities in the world for travelers. To know more about the book and to order one, click here.

The legendary Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame are believed to have established the kingdom of Indraprastha here tens of thousands of moons ago. It is sometimes referred to as the first city of Delhi. But there is no evidence to support this claim – and so far, thankfully, the far right Hindus have not dug up the Purana Qila yet to provide some. Many still refer to the citadel as Pandavon ka Qila (the fort of the Pandavas). If this were so, it would be the longest surviving man-made structure in history. In earlier times, houses were made of mud and palaces of wood – even if the Pandavas ruled from here, no structures would have survived till now. The earliest proof of human settlement are archaeological excavations going back to the 4th century A.D. Gupta period.

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The first recorded foundations were laid by the second Mughal emperor Humayun in 1533 who called his new city Dinpanah (Refuge of the Faithful). But after Sher Shah Suri ousted Humayun in 1538, he demolished the earlier structure and built a new fort called Sher Garh and the city around it, Sher Shani. This was the sixth city of Delhi. Humayun came back to power in 1555 after defeating Sher Shah’s weak successors, and started building upon what was already there. The name Old Fort came about when Shahjahan, who also built the Taj Mahal, made the Red Fort (the new fort, and thus the other one became old) in 1648 and established the city of Shahjahanabad (referred to as Old Delhi now). Funnily, during British times, Old Delhi was referred to as Mehrauli(in south Delhi now); but when Lutyens started work on New Delhi (central Delhi currently), Shahjahanabad became Old Delhi. The Parliamentary constituency of central Delhi is called New Delhi – confusing for many as New Delhi actually covers a much bigger area as far as postal addresses go (when a postal address reads only Delhi, and not New Delhi, it refers to Old Delhi; both Old and New Delhis are contiguous areas). We could go on adding to the confusion but let’s go back in time first.

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The fort itself has three main gates: the western Bara (Big) Darwaza (Gate) on the Mathura Road is where one enters from. The one to the south is called Humayun Darwaza, while the northern one is called Talaqi (Forbidden) Darwaza and lies locked since time immemorial. According to legend, some king ordered it shut when he went to battle with orders to open it only when he returned victorious. Apparently he never returned; if the story is true, the king may have been Sher Shah Suri who was killed in 1545.

The Sher Mandal is an octagonal structure – its infamy overshadows its architecture. Sher Shah might have built it as a pleasure chamber but Humayun converted it into his library. Coming down the steps one fateful afternoon in 1556, he heard the call to prayer. While attempting to kneel down immediately, he tripped on his robe and tumbled to his death. He did not enjoy the return to power for even a year.

A word of advice: Do not wear a robe whilst snooping around the steps of the Sher Mandal.

The compound inside is quite extensive, with well maintained lawns (the Mughal Emperors would have approved of this for they loved their gardens). Few structures remain though. The most striking is the Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque built by Sher Shah in 1541 with its five-arched entrance. The use of different coloured stones (red sandstone and white, black and grey marble) along with the carvings and inlay work make it one of the beautiful mosques in the city. A tank in front was used for ablution before prayers. A deep step-well was also constructed to ensure water supply.

Metro: Pragati Maidan, but a 15 – 20 minutes walk from there.

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The Sher Mandal at Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi
The Sher Mandal at Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi
The Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque at Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi
The Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque at Old Fort (Purana Qila), New Delhi

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