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Delhi – The Mistress of Emperors

Delhi – The Mistress of Emperors

Delhi the magnificent. Delhi the terrible! What orgies of feasting, what horrors of pillage and bloodshed has it not endured-Norah Rowan Hamilton Geographically, Delhi is in the shape of a 30km radius circle and it sits like a huge blob of black and grey at the edge of the Indo Gangetic plain, one of the flattest, most fertile and most densely populated regions in the world. On the east and north of Delhi are the lush green fields of the plains, on the west is the Thar Desert and on the south is the river Yamuna. Some 300km north of Delhi are the Himalayan Mountains. Delhi is no ordinary city. I

t was always the vortex of significant political events and has a strong historical background. Owing to the fact that it was ruled over by some of the most powerful emperors in Indian history, Delhi has been witness to political turmoil for over five centuries. Coming into prominence with the first ruler who identified the strategic advantages of the location, it has since not looked back. Every wall and pillar of crumbling monuments and ruins has a story of its own to tell. Every yesterday is replete with history. Delhi has a regal and majestic history which is quite vivid from the rise and fall of various rules. While rulers came and went, the city lived through wars and resurrection, repeatedly rising from the ashes. There is no denying the fact that history of India revolves around the rich history of Delhi.

Nobody really knows for sure when Delhi began. Archaeological excavations near the city have unearthed ruins that are thousands of years old. Some of the ruins have been identified with the Indus Valley culture. This is a significant discovery as this culture has been identified as one of the four centers that were origins of human civilization (the others were China, Mesopotamia and Egypt). Evidence for habitation around Delhi from early historical to medieval times comes mainly from the archeological excavations at the Purana Quila site. Evidence of the Mauryan Period (300 B.C) is provided by the occurrence of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW), a fine earthenware marked by a glossy surface, and punch marked coins. According to Y.D. Sharma “Habitation appears to have begun at or around the site of Delhi about three thousand years ago.

Underneath the Purana Quila, raised in the sixteenth Century, trial trenching in 1955 revealed the occurrence of a fine grey earthenware, usually painted with simple designs in black. Known as the Painted Grey Ware (PGW), this pottery is often dated to c. 1000 B.C. Archeological Evidence has shown that the region in and around Delhi was inhabited from earlier times. Stone age tools found are indicative of this. Stone tools belonging to early Stone Age were discovered from the Aravalli tracts in and around Anangpur, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Campus, the northern ridge and elsewhere – evidence that the Early Man lived here. Excavations at Mandoli and Bhorgarh in east and north-west Delhi respectively have thrown up remains of Chalcolithic period dating back to 2nd millennium BC, 1st millennium BC as well remains of 4th-5th century AD have been traced here. The excavations of the ancient mound of Indraprastha, capital of the Pandavas, located within the fold of the sixteenth century Purana Quila revealed evidence of continuous habitation of the site for almost 2500 years.

India is a land of religions. It has facilitated the origin of many organised religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism etc. Religions have always influenced the day to day lives of the Inhabitants of India. While India is not known for writings its history, its writers did leave behind much religious literature that contained epics, stories and philosophical treatises. It may be said with confidence that two epics that have defined the Indian Psyche are-The Mahabharata and Ramayana.


Delhi’s history is intertwined with the Mahabharata, referred to as the national epic of India. It is a very passionate work that has been frequently compared with the Illiad, the national epic of Classical Greece. The crux of Mahabharata is a great war between the opposing forces of right and wrong represented the brother Pandavas and Kauravas respectively. Composed in the classical Sanskrit language in 10,000 stanzas, the epic is attributed to the sage Veda Vyasa. Mahabharata is a mixture of both Fables and sacred literature. It describes rationally impossible feats attributed to divine, semi-divine and mortals. The Great War described in great detail is the product of highly advanced cognitive functions of imagination.

The weapons of war described includes fancy infantry vehicles like chariots, advanced ballistic munitions including precision-fire arrows, weapon systems resembling guided bombs, nuclear weapons etc. The epic like Ramayana doesn’t fail to astonish the reader with the clarity of its descriptions and the richness of its details. Mahabharata was possibly inspired by a skirmish between two tribes. Exaggerated and combined with fertile imagination a small story went on to capture the imagination of its readers and have profound and impactful effect on their psyche. The scope of the war expanded with the participation of Gods and divine beings. As a chapter or rather a book within the epic is the Divine revelation “Gita” that is described as the ideal way of life (as per Dharma & the principles of Karma) as described by Krishna an avatar of Lord Vishnu. A heady mix of the sacred and the profane makes Mahabharata a very compelling tale.

Thus, popular belief attributes the laying of the foundations of Delhi to the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishtira. Delhi finds mention in this epic as a place that was a thick jungle inhabited by many species of animals and tribal people. Its transformation began after the arrival of the protagonists of the epic-Pandava brothers. The “righteous” brothers burned the jungle which resulted in the death of all its inhabitants. There was only one survivor of this carnage-the demon Maya who was also an architect who was spared based on his promise to build a unique city that would never be replicated anywhere in the world, any time. On the newly acquired space, Maya built the Pandavas their new capital Indraprastha – ‘abode of the king of the gods’. This burning of Kandava Forest could have been symbolic of the slash and burn technique used earlier to claim land. Legends emphasize that this was the first city of Delhi. Nigambod Ghat, a sacred cremation ground for the Hindus that is still in use and the Nilichatri temple situated on the banks of the Yamuna are believed to have been constructed by Yudhishtira, the elder brother of the Pandavas-the protagonists of the epic, Mahabharatha. Though mythical, the orgiastic violence that marked the creation of its first city (albeit mythical) was to be a recurring theme throughout the history of Delhi.

Though hard archeological evidence has been hard to come by, the strong association between Delhi and the epic continues. As if to corroborate the legend, there was indeed a village located near the Purana Quila area called Indrapat. In the words of the eminent archeologist Y.D Sharma “It is significant that the Painted Grey Ware occurs at several places associated with the story of the great epic Mahabharata, and one of these places, Indraprastha, capital of the Pandavas, is traditionally identified with Delhi. Significantly enough, a village by the name of Indarpat, which is obviously derived from the word Indraprastha, lay in the Purana-Qila itself till the beginning of the present century, when it was cleared along with other villages to make way for the capital of New Delhi to be laid out”.

Like its origin, etymology of Delhi is also shrouded in the mists of time. Not many ancient travellers have mentioned about Delhi with Ptolemy being an exception. He mentions in his writings about a place called “daidala” close to Indraprastha which is identified with Delhi. According to other legends, after the decline of the Indraprastha, a king called Dillu or Delu who ruled the strategic region of Kannauj founded the city of Dilli around 57 B.C. According to this legend, Delhi (called Dilli in Hindi) derived its name after the King Delu/Dillu. It is also known that the coins in circulation in the region under the Rajputs were called delhiwal, suggesting a link to Dilli. There is also a theory that the name of the land is possibly derived from Dilli, a corruption of dehleez or dehali-Hindi for ‘threshold’-and symbolic of city as a gateway to the Indo-Gangetic Plains. There is no corroborative evidence these diverse theories.

The political History of Delhi begins with the arrival of Tomar Rajputs. Tomars were most probably feudatories of the powerful north Indian emperor Harshavardana. It was possibly after his death that Tomars became bold enough to strike out on their own.They had initially settled around the “Suraj Kund” area near Delhi. Archeological evidence has proven the existence of many temples, tanks and fortifications in and around the area pointing to the existence of a flourishing community life. In the midst of the area falls the village of Anangpur associating it with the founder of Delhi Anangpal who it is assumed lived around the 8th century.

The Rajputs constructed two formal urban areas where population was centered-Suraj Kund area and Mehrauli. The Suraj Kund area has many architectural remains. The prominent ones are the Suraj Kund Dam (dated around the 8th century) and Tank by the same name (dated around the 10th century). King Anangpal possible created ideal conditions that enabled population growth in and around Suraj Kund. This also probably brought in wealth and prosperity to the area bringing to front the threat of invasions. The Tomars thus felt the need for fortifying their growing acquisitions in order to organize urban living as well as protection from marauding invaders. Thus they built the first city of Delhi called Lalkot.

The expansion of Delhi under the Tomars attracted the attention of the Chauhan clan who were powerful rulers who had concentrated their rule in the area between Sambhar and Ajmer in Rajasthan, North India. The Chauhan ruler Vigraharaja defeated Tomars and left Delhi for his brother Prithviraj Chauhan to administer. Prithviraj was known for his military prowess. He is also known for the kidnap and marriage of his rival Jayaraj’s daughter Samyuktha. His exploits have been recorded in the rhetorical work of his courtier Chand Bardai titled “Prithviraj Raso”. He also expanded Lalkot fortifications to include newer areas. His expansion of Lalkot was known as Qila-Rai-Pithora.

The battles of Tarain:

India was known in the medieval world as an extremely rich land. Politically fragmented and parceled among numerous rulers, the central weakness of India was the lack of a central leadership or a sense of political unity. This template was an open invitation for enterprising invaders. Many invaders did accept this invite-they came, destroyed everything on their way, and looted its wealth to their heart’s content. The source of most of the looted wealth was Hindu temples as they were repositories of wealth. Most of such aggressors chose to return home and enjoy the newly found wealth. Those who exceptionally chose to stay eventually lost their distinct identities and became one among the inhabitants.

It was the ascension of Mohammad Ghori in Afghanistan that became a game changer for Indian rulers and its inhabitants. Mohammad Ghori was not a particularly bright military general and had faced few significant military defeats that had left him licking his wounds. An ambitious person looking to expand his kingdom, his attention turned to India. He had already heard about the enormous wealth of India and his main inspiration was Mohammad of Ghazni who had raided India multiple times and returned with enormous booty. Mohammad of Ghazni is particularly noted for his attacks on the Somanatha temple in Gujarat.

Ghori’s raids to India did face resistance but not enough to deter him from grabbing substantial territories. His territorial gains and ambition brought him to the borders of one of the most powerful Kingdoms of Delhi then ruled by the iconic Prithviraj Chauhan. Despite Prithviraj’s fearsome reputation, the trumpets of war were blown and the armies met at Tarain located near Delhi in 1191. Facing a Rajput coalition led by Prithviraj, Ghori was thoroughly defeated. He barely survived with the help of a water carrier. Humiliated, he thirsted for revenge. He returned to the battlefield the very next year. In 1192, Ghori was able to redeem his earlier defeat and the Hindu Rajput army was decisively defeated. Though there are various versions about the fate of Prithviraj, it may be assumed that he was killed on the battlefield in order to demoralize his soldiers as well as other rulers who may have potentially presented resistance.

The defeat and murder of Prithviraj Chauhan was a turning point in the history of Delhi. Unlike previous invaders, Mohammad Ghori wanted to stay and consolidate his gains. He designated his deputy Qutub-ud-din Aibak to administer his Indian territories. Qutub-ud-din lived unto his king’s expectations and went on to defeat other rulers in north India to expand his territory. By the twist of fate, Mohammad Ghori was assassinated and Aibak declared himself Sultan of India. He chose Delhi as his administrative capital. With exceptions when the capital was shifted outside due to strategic reasons, Delhi has always been the capital of India and continues to be the pivot around which political power revolves in India.

Although already a regionally important urban centre, Delhi only became a capital after being taken by Muhammad of Ghor in 1192 after his victory against Prithviraj Chauhan. There were various reasons why the Turko-afghans established Delhi as their capital. (1) Their original power base was in Afghanistan and the Punjab and Delhi was proximate to both these places (2) Delhi is strategically located on the River Yamuna providing easy mode of transportation as well as guarantee of agricultural prosperity (3) It is located at crossroads between the mountains and the desert. Most of the inland trade traffic between Central Asia and Peninsular India passed through this area (4) Delhi had turned into a potent symbol of Hindu power (5) It was a fortified city offering protection to its new occupants (6) It could be used as a safe base to further acquire territory in India.

In the words of John Finnemore – Age by age, invader after invader has swept into the land through the Khyber Pass, that solitary gap in the vast mountain rampart, the only path by which India maybe entered. All have marched down from the hills and entered with delight the rich plains of the Punjab. Then, upon gaining them, they have heard with wonder stories of a fairer and more goodly land to the South east, a land of splendid cities stored with wealth, of broad plains waving with luxuriant crops, a land of corn and wine and oil. So they pushed on and on. On their right hand they found a vast desert spreading away. On their left rose the vast mountain wall of the Himalaya. But straight ahead an easy way lay before them……Not only did the plains of old Delhi offer an easy way, it also afforded ample stores of food. So from the earliest days every invader had to seize Delhi and hold Delhi. To seize it that he might be able to march forward, to hold it lest he should find his road barred on the way back. To do this he had to be the strongest man of his day. Therefore he who held Delhi, held India.

Delhi thus turned a new leaf in its history from the date of its capture by Qutub-ud-din-Aibak. Aibak being an experienced General concentrated on consolidating his rule. As a strategy, he focused on clearing all administrative symbols of Chauhan (Hindu) Rule including destruction of religious buildings like Hindu and Jaina temples that had proliferated during the Rajput rule. Buildings or monuments have always been one of the primary tools of imperialism.

Thus while he destroyed these temples, he re-arranged them in the plinth of the largest Vishnu Temple in the area to create the earliest mosque in north India-“Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque”. For more on Islamic impact on architecture on Delhi, Please read “Qutub Minar-The Tower of Power”. The invaders also strengthened the Lalkot fortifications and created a palace for their leader to live. Remains of Structure called Khushk Safed or white palace has been unearthed during Archeological investigations. Aibak had just started off a building frenzy. The architectural make-over began by him was continued by rulers who followed him. The invaders virtually took over the political reigns from the time of their arrival and the impact of Islam was felt for the next six centuries and a half till 1857.

Ironically, Delhi was re-positioned and re-branded by its new owners-the Islamic invaders. They made Delhi the most attractive Islamic capital attracting some of the prominent travellers, soldiers and intellectuals from all over the Islamic world. The city became the locus of Islamic political aspirations. It became the most happening city for an aspiring Muslim to be in. Its great monuments and limitless wealth became the talk of the Islamic world.

The Dynasties that ruled from Delhi:

Delhi went on see frequent change of guard as far as dynasties are concerned. While the dynasties changed, their fundamental characteristic remained constant-Muslim. The list of dynasties that ruled Delhi is as below:

1. Rajput (Tomars & Chauhans) 736-1192 A.D.

(Consolidation of Turko-Afghan rule) 1192-1206 A.D.

2. Mamluk Dynasty 1206-1290 A.D.

3. Khilji Dynasty 1290-1320 A.D.

4. Tughlaq Dynasty 1320-1413 A.D.

5. Sayyid Dynasty 1414-1451 A.D.

6. Lodi Dynasty 1451-1526 A.D.

7. Mughal Dynasty 1526-1857 A.D.

8. English 1857-1947 A.D.

Delhi as the centre of power also saw the building of many cities. Every ruler wanted to stamp his authority over the members of the ruling class as well as the inhabitants. They tried to overwhelm and overpower the ruled in order to ensure some level of security to their rule (like the more contemporary “shock & awe” tactic). While chroniclers have numbered more then seventeen such cities, we are able to clearly identify the remains of nine.

The Cities of Delhi:

1. Lalkot -attributed to King Anangpal

2. Qila-Rai-Pithora- Prithviraj Chauhan

3. Siri-Ala-ud-din Khilji

4. Tughlaqabad-Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq

5. Jahanpanah- Mohammad bin Tughlaq

6. Feroz Shah Kotla-Feroz Shah Tughlaq

7. Dinpanah/Sher Garh-Humayun & Sher Shah

8. Shahjahanabad- Shahjahan

9. New Delhi-British

The cities of Delhi themselves were victims of cannibalization. Whenever a ruler wanted to build a new city, he would destroy an existing one and reuse its materials to construct his dream city. Among the many cities that were built in Delhi, two prominent ones exist today-Shahjahanabad and New Delhi represent contrasting time periods. Both of them also encompass rich remains of earlier cities.

Thus, Delhi is not just one city but the amalgamation of many. To reiterate, its history goes back to more than a 1000 years. Compared to Delhi, the other major cities of India including Mumbai (earlier known as Bombay), Chennai (earlier known as Madras), Hyderabad, Bengaluru (earlier known as Bangalore), Kolkata (prior name-Calcutta) all have relatively recent histories as far as political prominence is concerned. Bloodbath:

Many invaders have landed in Delhi and they did their bit to shed the blood of its inhabitants. Many such Pogroms have been recorded in detail by Muslim chroniclers. During the attack of Timur and Nadir Shah, Delhi witnessed large scale killings that may in contemporary standards be regarded as genocides. Such killings were again repeated by bloodthirsty villains like Ahmad Shah Abdali, the Rohillas etc.

During the first organised rebellion in 1857 against the British, all action shifted to Delhi considering its associations with power as well as the presence of the nominal Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar. Once the rebels reached Delhi, they made him the nominal leader of the movement. Due to endogenous reasons, the rebellion was bound to fail. Delhi saw some fierce battles between the rebels and the English soldiers. Post rebellion, the English took revenge on the participants and any suspected sympathisers. The revenge was both bloody and humiliating. Their action would have put any dictatorial regime to shame.

The inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent exhibited “masochistic tendencies” when post their independence from the British, the nation was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. People moved between these two countries mainly based on their religion. They killed, looted and raped each others women. Needless to say partition resulted in the death of many people as well as loss of millions of dollars. Many people also went missing and this violence left a deep scar in the psyche of both the nations-India and Pakistan. Its impact continues even today.


Modern India had to handle its own issues after its independence in 1947. One of the events that had far reaching events was the partition of the country (as mentioned above). This event had a profound effect on Delhi. It completely changed the demographic pattern of Delhi as floods of immigrants poured into it. It is estimated that the population of Delhi in the decade 1941-1951 went up by 90.0 %. Huge rehabilitation colonies were set-up in various parts of the city. Most of these immigrants were Punjabi entrepreneurs who brought their knack for enterprise to Delhi. Once the political dust settled down and economic conditions began to improve, these new comers became the pioneers in opening up new frontiers, in the then far flung locations of Delhi, which are today known as the exclusive abode of the rich. In order to control and plan for, what was even then a turbulent future, the parliament passed the Delhi Development Act and cleared the way to the setting up of the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in 1957. The area of Delhi which was 43.25 Sq Km in 1901 grew to 624 Sq Km in 1991.

Contemporary Delhi is a mixture of the medieval and the modern. Its old values are struggling with contemporary forces of change. Its socio-cultural life consists of many layers and they from different time zones & they overlap, interact and assimilate into a continuum of inexplicable complexity. Not many metropolitan cities can claim the historical footprints of this city. Delhi is truly a historic city with more than 10 distinct dynasties ruling it at different times. Its skyline has been transformed many times. One of the greatest game changers has been architecture. Despite centuries, many of the monumental architecture still exist in Delhi in various stages of preservation. They include mosques, forts, pleasure palaces, tombs, wells, dams etc. They compete with contemporary glass and steel buildings for attention. They never fail to remind a visitor its historical significance.

The ruins and ramparts still stand tall in dignity – and amidst them rise modern buildings and giant skyscrapers. It’s a breathtaking synthesis of yesterday and tomorrow, the holding on to the past and surging ahead to the future. Today the ruins of these above mentioned ancient and medieval royal citadels, together with Shahjahanabad and Lutyens’ Delhi, are part of the Delhi of the twenty first century. Overall, the city of Delhi has evolved through continual metamorphosis since the ancient times, and had the distinction of being the capital and the epicenter of politics and intrigue since the Sultanate period. The history of Delhi is dotted with the creation of several architectural masterpieces, and many remnants and ruins, which are now an integral part of the heritage of this great metropolis. Its traditional historic and cultural identity battles to survive against the sweeping powers of modernity.

Today’s Delhi is the blend of old and new. New Delhi, the capital of India, sprawled over the west bank of the river Yamuna is one of the fastest growing cities in India. It is the third largest city in India and now the most preferred city in terms of investments, industrialization, Information Technology, Healthcare, Real Estate etc. for the contemporary visitor to delhi, there is enough and more to enthrall his/her senses. Perhaps, it might not be an exaggeration if one were to boldly state-there is no city like Delhi. But a word of caution-understand it, to enjoy it.


A few prominent monuments in Delhi:

(1) Qutub Minar Complex:

(a) Qutub Minar, Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque

(b) Tomb of Iltutmish

(c) Alauddin Khilji’s tomb

(d) Alai Darwaza

(2) Siri Fort

(3) Sultan Ghari’s Tomb

(4) Tughlaquabad Fort Complex:

(a) Gates

(b) Palace

(c) Underground Tunnels

(d) Tank

(e) Adilabad

(f) Ghiyassuddin’s Tomb

(5) JahanPanah

(a) Bijay Mandal

(b) Begumpur Mosque

(c) Kalu Sarai Mosque

(d) Lal Gumbad

(e) Khirki Mosque

(6) Chirag Delhi Mosque

(7) Hauz Khas

(8) Firoz Shah Kotla

(a) Mosque

(b) Asoka Pillar

(c) Baoli

(9) Moth Ki Masjid

(10) Mohammad Wali Masjid

(11) Bada Gumbad

(12) Bade Khan ka Gumbad

(13) Mubarak Shah’s Tomb

(14) Sikander Lodi’s Tomb

(15) Sheesh Gumbad

(16) Safdarjung’s Tomb

(17) Purana Quila:

(a) Quila-i-Kohna Masjid

(b) Gateways

(c) Sher Mandal

(18) Khairul Manazil Masjid

(19) Humayun’s Tomb complex

(a) Humayun’s Tomb

(b) Atgah Khan’s Tomb

(c) Isa Khan’s Tomb and Mosque

(d) Bu Halima’s Garden

(e) Afsarwala tomb and mosque

(f) Arab Serai

(20) Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb

(21) Nizamuddin complex

(a) Nizamuddin’s Tomb

(b) Chausath Khamba

(c) Amir Khusro’s Tomb

(d) Baoli

(e) Jahanara’s Tomb

(22) Shahjahanabad

(a) Red Fort Complex

(b) Jama Masjid

(c) Fatehpuri Masjid

(d) Jami Masjid

(23) Delhi Gate

(24) Lalkot walls

(25) Quila-Rai-Pithora

(26) Adham Khan’s Tomb

(27) Balban’s Tomb

(28) Rajon-ki-Baoli

(29) Jahaz Mahal

(30) Jamali Kamali Mosque & tomb