Delhi 101: #23 The Northern Ridge – History in One Sweep

The Ashoka Pillar on the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Ashoka Pillar on the Northern Ridge in Delhi

Head out to the ridge, a hill area as it is called, near Delhi University, for a 360 degree view of the city below. Actually, make that in the past tense. There was a time when the city had (much) fewer buildings, was less polluted and the green cover was not that expansive and you could see as far as the river Yamuna and beyond. No longer. But walk along the ridge for a sweeping view of history going back to King Ashoka’s time in the 3rd century B.C.


Imagine moving a 32 feet long (or tall depending how you are looking at it) rock pillar weighing a gazzilion tons – can be quite a task no matter how far it is to be moved. For reasons best known to him, Firoz Shah Tughlaq decided to move one such from Meerut to Delhi in A.D. 1356.

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.

We are talking of the Ashoka Pillar, one of the many erected by Ashoka the Great around 250 B.C. engraved with edicts spreading the message of righteousness and morals based on Buddhist tenets. The pillar had to be cushioned on semal (cotton) and moved on wheels gently up to and from the river. It was installed in his hunting palace known as Kushk-i-Shikar (Shikar means hunt) or Kushk Jahan Numa (means that which shows you the world; because of the views from this hill, it was akin to seeing the world from here).

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The pillar stood tall till it fell from grace around 1713. A powder magazine exploded near it and broke it into five pieces. It lay largely ignored till 1838 when it was handed over to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. The part bearing the inscription in Brahmi script was sawed off and sent to Calcutta. The pillar’s fortunes looked up again when it was reassembled in 1867 on its present day platform.

// P.S. Carrying of explosives near the pillar may be injurious to its health.


The last remains of Kushk-i-Shikar are now known as Pir Ghaib. The place got associated with a mystic saint (Pir) who suddenly disappeared (Ghaib) one day. There is a cenotaph erected in his memory by his followers. Interestingly, its orientation is East-West whereas Muslim graves are usually to be found North-South.

The structure may have been used as an observatory too – it is high and there is a hollow cylindrical feature to enable one to see through. Muhammad Tughlaq was known for his interest in astronomy. But it may also have served as a look-out tower for animals to be hunted.

And a baoli (step-well) nearby is in ruins too – and does not seem to have been cleaned in a long time. The ridge is very rocky, and one had to dig real deep to reach the water table. Careful you don’t trip over.

Talk about an identity crisis. The British Raj got its first major jolt when Indian soldiers rose in Mutiny against their officers in Meerut in 1857 – and they all marched to Delhi to fight the British. And, were joined by thousands more. After weeks of battle, the British finally prevailed. And built a memorial in 1863 near the Ashoka Pillar in the memory of, as a plaque says: ‘Officers and soldiers, British and Native of the Delhi Field Force who were killed in action or died of wounds or disease between 30th May and 20th September 1857. This monument has been erected by the comrades who lament their loss and by the Government they served so well.’

Other plaques list the battles and combats by date, and statistics of those killed, wounded or went missing (segregated by Europeans and ‘Natives’). The structure itself is an ‘octagonal red sandstone tapering tower on the site of Tailor’s Battery (an artillery unit) during the siege of Delhi’ or so reads a goverment sign.

All was well till someone in the Indian establishment woke up in 1972 when India was celebrating its 25th year of Independence – and figured the Mutiny Memorial should instead honour those who fought the ‘rulers.’ The name of the structure was changed to Ajitgarh and another plaque put up to read: ‘The “enemy” of the inscriptions on this monument were those who rose against colonial rule and fought bravely for national liberation in 1857.’

Whose side are you on?

And once you are done exploring the above, cross the road into the green belt along the ridge. Just walking through its parks – on its well laid out walking tracks – takes you to another world, where you barely hear the traffic and the air suddenly seems cleaner (unfortunately, the older part of Delhi is much more polluted than central and south).

While you are in there, watch out for the Flagstaff Tower and Chauburji Masjid. Mind your step in the greens; you don’t want to step on any snails.

The Flagstaff Tower
A circular building, situated on the highest point of the ridge, was likely to have been built around 1828 when the British moved their cantonment here. It was used to hoist their flag to symbolize their dominance. English survivors sought refuge here on 10 May 1857 hoping for reinforcements from Meerut to save them, but these never came and the ‘mutineers’ took control of the complete ridge area.

Chauburji Masjid
Chauburji Masjid, meaning the Four Domes Mosque, is left with only one dome. It was originally a tomb built during the Tughlaq period, with additional brick work done (still visible) on it in the 18th century during the Mughal period. In 1857, it functioned as a battery to mount guns on, damaging it further. It is often referred to as the mosque near Bara Hindu Rao, but there is no evidence it was ever used as one.

During the uprising of 1857, the British assembled a force of 30,000 between Kashmiri Gate and the ridge – the area is thus called Tis Hazari (Tis Hazaar means Thirty Thousand) and has district courts by the same name.

One of these soldiers was beheaded in combat. It is believed that his ghost still hovers in the area with his head in his hand. He is known as the Sar Kata Bhoot (or the ghost whose head has been cut). For a long time, people stayed away from this area out of fear, and many still do after dark.

Talk about facts mixing with hearsay. Hindu Rao was a Maratha noble whose sister Baiza Bai was married to Daulat Rao Scindia, the ruler of Gwalior state. Baiza Bai became all powerful when she was widowed in 1827. The British decided to support her young adopted son, forcing her to leave the state in 1835 with her brother. Hindu Rao bought the house originally built by Edward Colebrooke – who it turn had to leave controversially after selling the house to William Fraser; Fraser himself was murdered in 1835. The house is currently in use as a part of the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital.

And so we have a house named after someone who was not its original creator. And Hindu Rao is popularly believed to have helped the ‘mutineers’ – but he himself passed away two-three years before the mutiny of 1857.

Metro: Tis Hazari or Civil Lines; you may need to hop onto a cycle rickshaw from there.


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The Pir Ghaib on the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Pir Ghaib on the Northern Ridge in Delhi
Hindu Rao's House on the Northern Ridge in Delhi
Hindu Rao’s House on the Northern Ridge in Delhi
 Chauburji Masjid, meaning the Four Domes Mosque, along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
Chauburji Masjid, meaning the Four Domes Mosque, along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Flagstaff Tower along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Flagstaff Tower along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The stepwell (Baoli) near Pir Ghaib along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The stepwell (Baoli) near Pir Ghaib along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Mutiny Memorial along the Northern Ridge in Delhi
The Mutiny Memorial along the Northern Ridge in Delhi




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