PURANA QUILA (OLD FORT), MATHURA ROAD, NEW DELHI, INDIA.
Lost cities: The asylum of faith.
File Fact: Din Panah was the sixth city of Delhi constructed by the second Gurkani emperor Humayun during his reign stretching from the early to the mid 15th century as a symbol of imperial tolerance of all religions, particularly the different sects of Islam. It was among the first cities to be built by the Gurkanis after their entry in Hindustan and at one point of time so popular for its open arm welcome to the learned and wise, it is believed to have overshadowed towns and cities of Persia, Central Asia and Turkey as the center of Islamic culture. During World War II, its citadel was home to Japanese detainees and later during the partition of former British India, a shelter for thousands of refugees in transit for present day India and Pakistan. Today, only the citadel survives and is a historical attraction.
In 1533 A.D. just a year prior to his Gujarat wars, the second Gurkani emperor, Humayun, just about had enough of the stifling bigotry that prevailed in the Delhi of the Pashutan Lodis, a town that existed where the present day Lodi era tombs now stand in Lodi Gardens, in New Delhi, India. It reeked of sectarianism, religious persecution and suffocated him with its bickering politics. So he did what a self respecting Gurkani regent with lofty morals could possibly do. Eclipsed its presence by founding a new city resplendent in power and splendor and turned it into an asylum of faith for all sects of the Islamic world. Yet was this the emperor’s only reason?
Massive stone bastions guard the western entrance of what once was the mighty citadel of the bustling medieval city of Din Panah on a warm afternoon in the month of January 2014, as a trickle of visitors wended their way in and out of its arched door way, dwarfed by its thick forty feet high walls deliberately etched with battlements and defenses to scare the living day lights out of any invading army that in the 15th century might have foolishly dared to lay siege for the dream it stood for.
Founded in 1533 by Naseer-ud-din-baig-Muhammad-Humayun, the embattled Turcko-Mongol regent (see Farbound.Net story: Humayun the Merciful) who practically spend most of his career as king sprinting from one corner of his realm to the other putting down external and internal threats during a phase when Gurkani sovereignty was an unconsolidated power constantly challenged by powerful Afghan kingdoms who saw him and his father before him as nothing more than marauding adventurers and usurpers of their rightful place as overlords of Hindustan – a word then described as a Mughal which over the following centuries latched on to his descendants and entered history as a description of their race – Din Panah was the very first city to be built by the Gurkanis in the region of present day New Delhi, India after their victory over the Afghans in the battle of Panipat in 1526, and may well have been Humayun’s favourite refuge till his son, Akbar shifted base to Agra and his predecessors built their own cities, leaving it to wither and decline in importance and grace.
Once sprawled across what is presently the Mathura Road in New Delhi, close to the banks of the river Yamuna that over the centuries altered its course, much of the city now lost and forgotten underneath layers of modern day construction, is speculated to have been built of brick and stone, and with the definite purpose of developing into a cosmopolitan center for the learned, wise and holy men of every religion to gather and dwell in harmony – an irrefutable testament of the scholarly Humayun’s liberal policies, one he had inherited from his father, Babur, the founder of the Gurkani empire in the region of Hindustan.
As medieval regents with Mongol blood running in their veins, Babur and Humayun had been a pair of fish out of water. Not only did the regents show restraint when it came to being ruthless, they both shared a deep aversion towards religious persecution, a personal moral outlook that shaped their policy of governance of clemency, fair play and tolerance – one that eventually reached its pinnacle under Humayun’s son Akbar.
Drawing direct lineage from the great house of Timur of Samarkhand and farther beyond from the Great Genghis Khan himself, Humayun’s father, Babur had been a very unlikely Turcko-Mongol regent. Less barbaric and bloodthirsty than his Mongol and Turki ancestors, inspite of being a brilliant general and conqueror, his cultured morality had been appalled by Hindustan and the governance of the Hindustani Afghans whom he whole heartedy considered as inferior. The 320 year rule started by the slave kings rife with oppression, debauchery and cruelty had disgusted his senses as had the hot and humid region itself to the extent the regent had made it a point to thoroughly criticize the land in his memoirs that one can still find flipping through his personal diary now available in almost all libraries and book stores (see Farbound.Net snippet: The Baburnama). Possibly, the architecture too, may also not have been up to his taste for during his stay at Sikri, that now falls in district Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, the regent had carved the landscape with Persian style gardens and pavilions to feel more at home – as he had waited for his new conquest that yielded immense treasures to turn into a stable state so he could proceed with his master plan of conquering Central Asia with Kabul as the capital of the empire.
Groomed by this dotting warrior father with a deep fascination for all that was Persian and inheriting many of his traits while growing up, Humayun had turned out to be a scholarly king with a flair for languages and disciplines. A passionate student of astronomy, astrology, philosophy and theology, the regent had spend endless hours in discourse with the learned and spiritual, encamped in the midst of nature when out on military campaigns if the opportunity so presented itself and immersed himself in developing architectural projects reflecting Timurid designs now thought by scholars to have been floating palaces built on barges, collapsible multi-tired residences, tents inspired by astronomical charts and concrete palatial buildings at Gwalior and Agra of which only the citadel of Din Panah survives – a city that most certainly did not sprout out of the regent’s passion for creativity but possibly had roots that sprung from the core political and social events prevailing in the fifteenth century and more importantly the dilemma Humayun had found himself in.
The Sher Shah Gate: Constructed by the Afghan king Sher Shah Sur during his occupation of Din Panah after Humayun’s defeat in the battle of Kannuj and expulsion from Hindustan for a period of fifteen years, the crumbling vestige is what little remains to indicate the site of the actual city of Din Panah. Sher Shah had the original walls razed to the ground in order to build anew. The structure can be seen on the other side of the road from the citadel, next to the mosque of Khair-u’l-Manzil, a later building constructed during the reign of Humayun’s son Akbar. See Farbound.Net snippet: Built by a woman prime minister of the Mughal court.
Din Panah’s construction came about at a time when the political and social structure of both the east and the west was witnessing rapid transformations as emerging powers were beginning to spread their branches.
Near about the same time, the Ottomans in the west under their greatest Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, having displaced ten centuries of Byzantine rule, were busy rampaging across Europe and the Safavid dynasty, under the Tahmasps, in the middle east had embarked upon eliminating the Sunni sect of Islam in favour of Shiaism, Humayun had succeed his father as the chosen heir of the tottering Gurkani realm in Hindustan and almost immediately found himself engulfed in defending his sovereignty and policies of governance from both external and internal threats.
Practically surrounded by hostile Afghan kingdoms who hammered at the doors thirsting for his blood and pinpricks within his own stock of haughty nobles eager to stab him in the back, the young regent had struggled to keep his fragile realm from splintering into pieces and making his position even more difficult had been that policy of religious tolerance he had inherited from his father Babur – who in his own lifetime had lost much support for his liberal minded views. Just prior to his ascending the throne, Humayun’s coronation had been opposed by a leading member of the Timurid court close to his family with historians speculating the reason to be Humayun’s mother, Maham, a Shia woman wielding power in a court dominated by Sunni noblemen. Then had followed the revolt of his brother-in-law, again speculated to have been born out of the intense rivalry that was gradually beginning to seep deeper into medieval Islamic courts.
The regent’s troubles had not just been restricted to his borders and his bunch of power hungry high born nobles inclined to acting on their own accord and projecting themselves as equal to the emperor they had encompassed his family too. Barely two years into his reign, his half brother’s impatient act of forcibly taking over a province had made him relinquish a large and prosperous region of his realm as the prince’s rightful share of territory out of genuine brotherly affections and in accordance to their father’s wish. The cessation had been the right thing to do and the delay a mistake on Humayun’s part, but his half brother’s high spirited behavior had humiliated his authority and robbed him of a prime source of recruiting manpower and raising revenues. By this time also, for the Afghans of Hindustan out to reclaim their lost supremacy the old town of the Lodis had become somewhat of a magnet standing as it did as a reminder of their bygone days of power – a town whose presence itself had stiffed Humayun for its bigotry and politics.
Inspite of lacking the experience or natural acumen of a born conqueror and heavily criticized as a failure of a king by nineteenth century historians, the emperor had been a wise monarch and at this stage may very likely have realized if he needed to strengthen his rule to keep his enemies at bay without depleting his limited source of manpower in a prolonged conflict, he desperately needed to wean out of his troublesome nobles, surround himself with liberal minded men, and if possible make a statement that could lift him above their ranks.
The Sher Mandal: The squat red brick tower is another monument built by Sher Shah Sur during his occupation of Din Panah. Six months after the reconquest of his lost realm, Humayun tumbled down its staircase sustaining fatal injuries that led to his death in 1556. Through out his life the crafty Afghan had remained Humayun’s nemesis. Sher Shah not only ousted the Gurkani from his throne of Hindustan but the tower he built ultimately became the cause of Humayun’s death. See Farbound.Net story: Was the emperor Humayun murdered?
The idea of building a new city had come to Humayun during a brief sojourn in the region of Gwalior, that now falls within the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A city that he may purposely have intended to be not just a monumental symbol of his policy of imperial tolerance but also his might and prestige.
The actual founding of Din Panah had taken place some time after his mother Maham had expired in 1532 and, Humayun, after the usual forty day period of mourning had once again begun to concentrate on the problems that had continued to plague his reign since the time of his coronation. Among his ever growing list of antagonists, a new addition had been the Sultan of the neighboring Islamic kingdom of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, who emboldened by his own recent victories over the Portuguese and Rajputs princes had suddenly emerged out of placidity and sponsored a three pronged invasion of Gurakni territory in favour of an Afghan pretender.
Though the invasion had been dealt with easily and Bahadur had prudently abandoned future hostilities, the sultan had revealed himself as a threat and Humayun for a long while had vacillated between a counter military invasion and diplomacy. In the past, on his mother Maham’s advice he had organized lavish feasts to celebrate his victories and proclaim his might and glory as a means to consolidate his right to rule and keep his detractors quiet. The subtle strategy had seemed to work and not just for the nobles hellbent on undermining his authority but Bahadur as well. In Humayun’s mind, thus, the idea of building a city may well have been the next step. A city that would let him proclaim his imperial policy of tolerance, win him the support of the liberal minded and perhaps raise him above the ranks of haughty princes prone to acting as kings themselves.
Visitors walk past a section of the massive walls at the citadel of Din Panah. The city was built over an area that many historians and archaeologists today believe was the site of the fabled city of Indrasprasta of the Mahabharat. Even if the Turcko-Mongol regents were generally more friendlier than the Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate and Humayun’s policy of imperial tolerance extended to the Hindus of his time, it is unlikely he was aware of its ancient past, see Farbound.Net snippet: Indraprasta, a likely truth.
A creative builder and an expert astrologer, Humayun, practically supervised every aspect of Din Panaha’s construction starting with determining the exact date of its founding in June 1533.
Almost everything about Din Panah is believed to have been handpicked by Humayun and planned to the last detail. For the site of the city, the regent had selected the very area on which many modern day archaeologists and historians are inclined to think once stood the fabled city of Indrasprasta of the epic Mahabharata. While it is not certain if the regent’s decision may also have been spurred by the same reason or he even may have been aware of its more ancient past, in 1533 A.D., the area is stated by scholars to have possessed several vantage points none of the previous cities of Delhi including the old town of the Lodis offered.
Protected by the Aravali mountain range on one side and a six mile wide river on the other, it was vast, open and came with a clear line of sight of the surrounding countryside. It had the space for a fledgling city to grow, a river that provided water and easy transportation, and in case of an attack, natural barriers to impede an enemy and a location that was more easy to defend by its garrison. Further more as a bonus in the vicinity had been present the 14th century tomb of the Sufi saint Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya (located in present day Nizamuddin West, New Delhi), revered by Humayun and the Islamic world. The site had been both militarily wise and holy.
The citadel of the city that still stands today was planned by Humayun to be his own residence and court. Selecting an enormous part of the designated area some 1950 feet by 950 feet spacious, the emperor had it surrounded by a forty feet high wall etched with battlements and bastions and begun the work of populating its interior with multi-storied places, orchards and pleasure gardens as a grand reflection of his love for nature, fine living and importantly a symbol of his might. Attesting to the fact the citadel may indeed have been Humayun’s strategy of exhibiting his might and his preparedness for war is the recorded reaction of the Gujarati regent Bahadur Shah. Right upon the completion of its walls, the Gujarati Sultan had send envoys to the Gurkani court to broker a treaty of peace and cordial relationship between the two powers. The pact may have lasted only about a year but for a short while it had relieved the tensions that had been brewing between Gurkani realm and Gujarat Sultanate.
Under Humayun’s patronage Din Panah had become a center for the learned and holy. Its streets had filled up with scholars, saints and academicians from even as far as Persia and well within the Ottoman empire.
Whatever other ulterior motives Humayun may have had for founding a new capital city, what can be stated with certainty is that the regent’s desire to create a center for all faiths of the world to collect and live in harmony untainted by prejudice or impartial treatment had been genuine and sincere – Humayun had not only been a scholar who loved the company of scholars but a liberal minded king averse to religious persecution. Recorded to be completed within the span of a year, Din Panah under Humayun’s patronage had burgeoned and very quickly lived up to its name as an asylum of the faith, drawing in the learned and holy from near and distant lands. His court had filled with philosophers, astronomers, astrologers, mathematicians, scientists and spiritual men who had engaged the emperor in conversations and discourses. Freely and without fear of punishment or persecution. Here the emperor had held banquets to honor them, walked with them, gazed at the stars with them and welcomed more of them as they arrived seeking refuge from the tyranny and oppression that prevailed from Persia to deep within the Ottoman empire. Believed the scholar and professor S.K Banerjee, the author of the Humayun Padshah, a comprehensive book explaining the life of the second Gurkani emperor –
“Humayun was so successful in his patronage that a very large number of intellectuals gathered in his court, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that in his time the centre of Muslim culture was Delhi and not any town of Persia, Turkey, or Central Asia. It was the liberal outlook of the cultured king that improved the tone of society in this remarkable way.”
-S.K BANERJEE, HUMAYUN PADSHA
The city of Din Panah was founded in July, 1533 and is cited to have been completed within the span of a year. A Gurkani era seal on the walls of the citadel indicate April, 1534 as the year of its completion. In practical terms much of the construction may very likely have continued and the date likely relates to the erection of the walls of the citadel and possibly the court taking up residence inside and a few city houses cropping up.
A passionate disciple of astrology, Humayun, himself, is believed to have chosen the date for the commencement of the construction of the city that he had conceived during a sojourn in Gwalior as a monumental symbol of projecting his policy of imperial tolerance and possibly power. Chronicles of the era record the emperor had been enthusiastically supported by the Islamic holymen of his court as well as liberal minded subjects who like him had developed an aversion for the old town of the Lodis.
In 1539. A.D. as Humayun was locked in combat with Sher Shah Sur at Chausa, it is possible Din Panah was the city that was besieged by his younger half brother Mirza Hindal then in open rebellion. The city may again have been abandoned at the time of Akabar’s war with Hemu – the Hindu general and king who so nearly ousted the Gurkanis a second time.
After his defeat in the battle of Kannuj and his expulsion from Hindustan for a period of fifteen years, Din Panah passed into the hands of the Sher Shah Sur. The Afghan king demolished the city walls to have them rebuilt in his own fashion, a portion of which can still be seen on the other side of the road opposite the citadel next to the mosque of Khair-u’l Manzil, a second Mughal era monument. Sher Shah also added two new structures and is said to have completed some of the pending works that remained.
During his refuge in Persia at the court of Shah Tahmasp, a devoted advocate of Shia Islam, the Sunni Humayun had been humiliated and forced to embrace Shiaism in return for military aid. Tahmasp well aware of the prestige Din Panaha had acquired before Humayun’s expulsion and what the city stood for had made it a point of argument and accused Humayun of trying to belittle the Persian realm which indeed may have been Humayun’s intent – as Din Panah’s founding was meant to indirectly express disapproval of tyranny and the Safavid’s acts of religious persecution against the Sunnis.
In 1555, Humayun reclaiming his lost empire from Sur’s successors had made a triumphant entry at Din Panah. He had spend six months within its wall working to improve the administration of the realm till on 24th January, 1556 in haste to answer a call for prayer he had tumbled down the staircase of the Sher Mandal, sustaining fatal injuries that led to his death three days after. The squat red tower had been built by Sher Shah – one Humayun upon his return had converted into his library.
The site Din Panah occupies is thought by many historians and scholars as the area where once stood the fabled city of Indrasprasta of the epic Mahabharata. In the early nineteenth century this view was so prevalent it spurred the British Government of British India to shift the seat of power from the city of Calcutta to Delhi so as to strike the cord with the populace. Edward Luyten, architect of the the Viceroy’s house (now known as the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the president’s house), the Parliament building, India Gate and Connaught Place had his projects aligned with the area for its supposed ancient past.
The citadel of Dinapah is a monumental testament of Humayun’s love for nature and fine living. Its forty feet high walls are speculated to have been constructed within nine months of putting in place the foundation stone. The entire area encased within the lofty walls measures some 1950 feet in length and 950 feet in width. One can sense the vastness simply by entering the fortified enclosure. Humayun plans was to populated the interior with pleasure gardens, orchards and multiple tired palaces of beauty and grace.
Much of the construction material was obtained from abandoned houses of Lodi Delhi (present day Lodi Gardens, Delhi) and the ruins of two former cities of historic Delhi built during the 320 year reign of the Delhi Sultanate – that of Firuzabad (present day Firoz Shah Kotla, Delhi) and Siri (present day Sri Fort, South Delhi).
The medieval architectural style is a fusion of Timurid and Indo-Islamic architecture – a form that had been developing since the time of the Delhi sultanate. Evident from the stone Chattris of Hindu origins (umbrella style domes) that adorns the interior. Though it is not known if the Hindu elements were added by Humayun who like his father Babur preferred Persian elements more or later by Sher Shah Sur during his occupation. The Afghan king at the time was a bigger patron of the Indo-Islamic style.
Among the few surviving structure that can still be seen within the walls of the citadel is a decaying Hamam (bathhouse), a step well cut deep into the earth, the mosque of Sher Shah Sur and the Sher Mandal, a red tower of ruble masonry in which Humayun tumbled down to his death. Occupying a part of walls near the main entrance is a small museum under the care of the Archaeology Survey of India which houses artifacts from the Harappan era and vintage black and white photographs of the area, possibly from the British period. In the evening the fort authorities organize a light and sound show.
The site is refereed to by the Archaeological Survey of India as Shergarh indicative of Sher Shah Sur’s occupation of the city after ousting Humayun for a period of 15 years. The Afghan Sher Shah was Humayun’s arch rival.
15th century Hindustan comprising of large tracts of the present day countries of Northern India and Pakistan was a patchwork of Islamic and Hindu Rajput kingdom fighting for survival. Frequent battles, wars, intrigues and tales of atrocities stemming from religious persecution was a common feature of the age. While Islam flourished predominantly in the North and in portions of the East and West patronized by successive Islamic dynasties united by a code that prevented an Islamic kingdom from attacking the other when engaged in war with an infidel, the Hindu empire of Vijayanagra holding dominance in the south had stalled Islam at its borders and flourished Hinduism.
With the advent of the Gurkanis in 1526 the entire region had gradually begun to witness a state of transition in thought and belief as the Gurkani emperors with their liberal policies slowly but surely superseded the preceding Islamic kingdoms of the Delhi Sultanate that had entrenched its presence in the soil for more than 320 years with several short lived dynasties holding power over the centuries.
The Gurkanis were to not only change the political structure of the region but also the method of warfare by their use of cannons and gun powder. And later play an instrumental part in endowing Islamic court culture, art and architecture by sowing in Persian inspirations – that would lead to the introduction of miniature paintings, elegant forts, mosques and mausoleums. During this time the Portuguese, a rising naval power of the time, is also known to have gained a foothold in what is today Daman, Diu, Vasai and Mumbai – areas ceded to them by Bahadur Shah of the Gujarat Sultanate.
Both land and sea trade had also not only thrived with the east and west as is evident from the wealth of the Gujarat sultanate but the time frame also witnessed settlers of different origins entrenching their roots in the region particularly in the medieval armies such as that of Bahadur Shah who frequently hired mercenaries from Egypt, Africa and Arabia. Rumi Khan, a reputed gunner in the army of Bahadur Shah and later Humayun, was a Turk from Constantinople.
The Gurkanis were the last Islamic dynasty to rule large tracts of present day India and Pakistan. The dynasty’s founder, Babur, was a well educated and cultured regent of Turcko-Mongol stock drawing direct lineage from Timur of Samarkhand and farther beyond from the great Genghis Khan himself.
Babur had turned towards Hindustan after three unsuccessful attempts of conquering Samarkhand, the city of his ancestor Timur. He is known to have originally invaded the region to support the plans of two disgruntled Afghan nobles in toppling the oppressive regime of their king Ibrahim Lodi and placing on the throne the defeated king’s uncle. But upon realizing the treacherous attitude of the Afghans had instead planted his roots in the country that he wasn’t too fond of in the first place. The regent’s plan had not been to settle in Hindustan but to make it a part of his larger Central Asian empire with Kabul as its imperial capital.
His dreams, however, had ended with his death and the empire had instead grown within the present day country of India. Consolidated and enlarged by five noted regents of his bloodline it had spanned nearly 4 million square kilometers at the height of its power and survived for nearly three centuries (1526 to 1862) with 19 regents at its helm. The empire had gradually begun to crumble with the rise of the Hindu Maratha and Sikh powers till in 1739 an invasion by the Iranian conqueror Nadir Sha had delivered the fatal blow from which recovery become impossible. Nadir not only crippled the Mughal army but sacked the city of Delhi. Plundering it of every bit of glory including the peacock throne and the Kohinoor diamond – that had been gifted to Humayun by the family of the king of Gwalior, Vikaramjit, for sparing their lives in 1526.
The last ruler of the dynasty, Bahadur Shah II, was disposed by the East India company and exiled to Rangoon, Burma after the failed Indian Mutinity of 1857. His death in 1862 is officially taken to indicate the end of the Mughal empire that by his time had shrunk to only a few kilometers outside Delhi. The empire’s greatest regent is contested between Jalla-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, the son of Humayun and his great grandson, Aurangzeb.
Indo-Islamic architecture is the use of Hindu and Islamic elements in combination. The form had begun to take shape during the 320 year span of the Delhi Sultanate as the garrison commanders left behind by Muhammad Ghor had declared independence after his death and feeling the need to commemorate their rule with lasting legacies had taken to hiring local talent from the indigenous Hindu populace for their building projects. From the time of Humayun, the fusion became increasingly more Persian in appearance and style as both Babur and Humayun held a deep fascination for Persian art and architecture eventually reaching its pinnacle under later Gurkani emperors. A noted early example is Humayun’s Mausoleum Complex and the later Taj Mahal in Agra – two UNESCO world heritage sites.
Plan a visit.
In present times, the citadel of Din Panah located on the Mathura Road in New Delhi, India is more commonly known as the Purana Quila or the Old Fort. It is a historical attraction cared for and maintained by the Archaeology Survey of India.
While it holds particular interest for history buff, specially those into Mughal history, travelers and tourists interested in exploring the city of Delhi, during the day its interior can be crowded by noisy school kids bunking classes, couples of all ages looking for a bit of me time and families on outings or relaxing on its manicured lawns or aspiring models with photographers in tow working on their portfolios.
The premise is open for visiting all seven days of the week from sunrise to sunset however touring the citadel requires a ticket that differs in price for Indian nationals and foreigners. Photography is free but video recording may come with an extra fee. There is a toilet inside and a canteen that offers light snacks. A constable booth is also present inside and guards patrol the premise. Outside the citadel there is a small lake for boating.
The citadel can be reached via bus, car or a metro shuttle.
The Purana Quila (Old Fort) is located right next to Delhi’s National Zoological Park with a small market of food and beverage outlets within its outer perimeter. In the vicinity of the fort also can be found the National Science Museum that exhibits replicas of Mughal era weapons and across the road can be seen two other Mughal era vestiges: The mosque of Khair ul-Manli and the Sher Shah Gate.