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Delhi national capital of India

by Nilutpal Gogoi
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The national capital of India, this place is also pronounced ‘Dilli’ or ‘Dhilli’. It was earlier called ‘Dhillika’. Deemed the first medieval urban center, its location was on the southwestern fringe of the Mehrauli region of the present-day Delhi. The present metropolitan is a conglomeration of the past and the present. In fact, each nook and corner of Delhi tells a story. The skyscrapers rub shoulders with the ramparts and ruins. You can bathe in the luxurious modernity and also sit on the time machine of your creativity as you walk by the tottering walls of the ancient and medieval forts and palaces. The air of this mega city – broadly divided into Old Delhi and New Delhi – is typically Indian.

Connaught Place in Delhi an important economic hub. Image Source Wikipedia

SOURCES: Historical and archaeological materials on the place are not adequate before the 12th century. Written records on the ancient history of Delhi are scarce to come by. The Mahabharata – one of the two Indian epics with the other being the Ramayana – is the principal source of information about ancient Delhi. The Mahabharata has the earliest reference of this region being capitalized. The five Pandava siblings ruled their kingdom from Indraprastha – the huge and highly advanced (compared to those times) fortress including Delhi. some 5,000 years ago that is around 3500 BC. The capital also included the following four other prasthas (plain areas) namely, Baghpat, Panipat, Sonepat and Tilpat (near Faridabad). Several Hindu texts written in Sanskrit refer to Delhi as Hastinapur meaning ‘elephant city’.

Some researchers trace the name of the place Delhi to an ancient Indian king named Raja Dhilu or Raja Dihlu) who is believed to have laid the foundation of the ancient city of Delhi in 800 BC. Firishta – a 16th century Persian chronicler – recorded a local tradition that Dilli or Delhi was founded by a Hindu king, Raja Dhilu, before the invasions of the initial foreigners like the Muslims. Swami Dayanand in his Satyarth Prakash (written in AD 1875) also traces it to King Dhillu in 800 BC.

Researchers have further found that this was the name of the maiden medieval township in the south-west fringe of modern Delhi – around Mehrauli. During that period, four other towns also came up there at various times. There is also reference to this place as Yoginipara (the fortress of female divinities known in Sanskrit as yoginis).

On the other hand, several eminent researchers claim that Anangpal (also known as Ananga Pala Tomar, a Tomar Rajput chief) founded ‘Dhili’ by constructing the formidable 13-gate fortress ‘Lal Kot’ in AD 736. In AD 1180, the Chauhan rulers of Ajmer captured Lal Kot and rechristened it as ‘Qila Rai Pithora’. It was renamed after the famous Rajput King Rai Pithora (also known as Prithvi Raj Chauhan) when he brought this place under his control in the 12th century. Prithvi Raj Chauhan was the first of the last two Hindu rulers to reign in Delhi – the other being King Hemu who was defeated by Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great in Second Battle of Panipat much later in AD 1556.

Nonetheless, there are copious sources since the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century. In the 14th century, Tughluqan ruler Firuz Shah Tughluq brought to Delhi two sandstone pillars bearing the edicts of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC). Gupta ruler Kumara Gupta I (AD 320-540) commissioned the fascinating iron pillar. It was transplanted to Delhi next to the Qutub Minar at Mehrauli only during the 10th century. The British regime also made Delhi its capital in AD 1911. For the Indian Railways, Delhi is the most important centre – it being the headquarters of the Northern Zone. The main languages spoken in this cosmopolitan state are Hindi, Khariboli, and Urdu.

STRATEGIC LOCATION: Situated on the western bank of the Yamuna River, its eastern side is marked by a ridge. This strategic central secure location always made Dilli one of the most preferred insulated capitals for a number of rulers at various periods of Indian history. Delhi is not just one of the oldest populated urban locales of the world but also one of its longest serving political hubs. Invaders from outside the subcontinent ransacked, destroyed, and reconstructed the city umpteen times at various points of history. Some among them were attracted by its strategic location and even established their capitals here. They then redesigned the place according to their plans.

THE 11 CITIES: Various sites of modern Delhi were the capitals of different ruling clans. The geographical area of the present-day Delhi has the remains of at least 11 capital cities. Some researchers even mention Delhi as a cluster of more than 11 cities. Of them, five were located in south Delhi. The 11 sites are Indraprastha, Lal Kot (Qila Rai Pithora), Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Ferozabad (Feroz Shah Kotla), Dinpanah (Shergarh, Purana Qila, Old Fort), Shahjahanabad (Puraani Dilli, Old Delhi) and the present New Delhi. Of these, only seven cities are officially recognized. They are Lal Kot (Qila Rai Pithora), Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Ferozabad (Feroz Shah Kotla), Dinpanah (Shergarh, Purana Qila, Old Fort), Shahjahanabad (Puraani Dilli, Old Delhi) as they have indigenous heritage and distinct identity.

Qutubuddin Aibak built Mehrauli in the 12th century;

Alauddin Khalji constructed Siri in AD 1303;

Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (AD 1321–1325) built Tughluqabad;

Muhammad bin Tughluq (AD 1325–1351) set up Jahanpanah;

Firuz Shah Tughluq (AD 1351–1388) built Ferozabad;

Humayun constructed Dinpanah while Shershah Suri built Shergarh (between AD 1538 and 1545) in the area beside the speculated site of the Mahabharata-famous Indraprastha.

The Lodi rulers – the last and the least significant of the Delhi Sultanate (AD 1451–1526) constructed what is now called the ‘Lodi Complex’; and

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built and developed the walled city of Shahjahanabad (containing the Red Fort and the Chandni Chowk) from AD 1638 to 1649. Popularly known as ‘Old Delhi’, it was the capital of the Mughal Empire during the time of Shah Jahan.

New Delhi (also referred to as Lutyen’s Delhi) came up during the British regime on the south west. It was declared the capital of Independent India on December 12, 1911. Notably, the Hauz Khas area in South Delhi is formed of two medieval historical cities, namely Ferozabad and Siri. While the monuments and tombs are a part of the former, the Hauz Khas Lake belongs to the latter.

THE CONTROVERSY ABOUT ITS ROOTS: Several theories exist as to the date when the city was established. Some scholars try to trace the history of Delhi to almost millennia. But data is scarce to support this stand. Nevertheless, most of the researchers converge on the point that this city is at least 5000 years old. This school of thought corroborates its claim by referring to the Mahabharata where the maiden mention of this place is to be found till date. The Yogmaya Temple also traces Delhi to that hoary past. There is a popular belief that it one of the five temples of the Mahabharata days in Delhi. Besides these two sources, there is scarcity of materials to back up the above claim.

Nonetheless, this location has been under continuous settlement since 300 BC when the Mauryan Empire flourished. This is substantiated by the architectural vestiges extant in and around Delhi. For instance, an inscription of Mauryan ruler, the Great Ashoka (273-236 BC), was discovered beside Srinivaspur in AD1966.

DELHI SINCE THE 8TH CENTURY: However in the post-Christ period, Delhi was established as an independent political entity in the eighth century. Most of the researchers give the credit to the Tomar Rajputs who ruled this place in the eighth century. Christened Lal-Kot, this political and educational hub (near the Qutub Minar in the Mehrauli area of Delhi) was established by the Tomar Rajput chief, Anangpal, in AD 736. He also constructed a bastion at a place10 km from Surajkund in AD 731. His name is to be found inscribed on the Iron Pillar located within the Qutub Complex. The Lal-Kot gold-gilded city gates were studded with gems.  The people of the city spoke several languages eloquently. The Chauhan Rajputs captured Lal-Kot in AD 1180, and rechristened it as ‘Qila Rai Pithora’. Afghan invader Muhammad Ghori defeated Prithviraj Chauhan III in AD 1192 and captured the place. Sultan Qutub-ud-din Aibak of the Slave Dynasty made Delhi his capital and thus became the first Sultan of Delhi in AD 1206. He was a slave but rose to be a general and then a governor. He started the construction work of the Qutub Minar but died before its completion. He demolished 27 temples of the Jain community and then had the Quwwat-al-Islam mosque built with the debris. Thereafter till India’s independence in 1947, Delhi has been the capital of several Islamic rulers. During the late medieval period, after the Slave Dynasty, the city was also the capital of the following four other Turkic and Afghan dynasties: Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid, and Lodhi. In AD 1398, Timur Lang invaded India and left Delhi in ruins in AD 1398.

Zahiruddin Babar established the Mughal Empire here after defeating the Afghan Lodhi chief in the first Battle of Panipat in AD1526.  He ruled with additional capitals in Lahore (now in Pakistan) and Agra (near Delhi). His successor Humayun had to flee from Delhi and seek refuge in Afghanistan and Persia after being defeated by Shershah Suri at the fag end of the 16th century. Shershah Suri during his reign from AD 1540 to 1556, rebuilt the city and also constructed the ‘Purana Quila’ or Old Fort which is one of the popular tourist destination spots in Delhi. Humayun could regain Delhi with help from Persia but that too only after the demise of Suri. Humayun’s son and successor Akbar shifted the capital from Delhi to Agra. In AD 1553, Hemu Vikramaditya defeated Akbar’s forces at Agra and ruled Delhi till AD 1556. Akbar reclaimed Delhi from Hemu after the second Battle of Panipat (AD 1556).  Shah Jahan, Akbar’s son and successor shifted the capital back to Delhi from Agra. During his regime, both Delhi and Agra were reconstructed. It was after his name that Delhi was renamed ‘Shahjahanabad’ which is now known as ‘Old Delhi’ or ‘Old City’. Known as the Great Architect, Shah Jahan built several architectural delights like the Jama Masjid – the largest mosque in Delhi till date – and the Lal Quila’ or Red Fort. In 1658, his son Aurangzeb grabbed the throne of Delhi from him and crowned himself in the Shalimar Bagh (also called Aizzabad Bagh) and ruled the empire till his demise in AD 1707. Persian ruler Nadir Shah defeated the Mughals in the Battle of Karnal in February 1739 AD. He then looted the city and carried away with him the famous Peacock Throne among other riches to his country. The Mughals then signed a treaty with the Marathas to safeguard the then tottering Mughal prestige. The rising power of the Marathas across central and northern India was stopped by Ahmad Shah Abdali in the third Battle of Panipat in AD 1761. Delhi again faced the raid and plunder of Abdali.

The British forces defeated the joint forces of the Marathas and the Mughals on September 11, 1803, and set up just puppet Mughal regime in Delhi. The final British takeover of Delhi and all the areas under Mughal rule happened in 1857 after the first War of Independence dubbed by British historians as the Sepoy Mutiny. The Last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was exiled to Rangoon. It was only in 1911 that the British made Delhi their capital. They appointed Edwin Lutyens as their chief architect to design the Government offices and buildings in the typical English style. The British ruled the Indian sub-continent from Delhi till 1947. Delhi has remained the capital of Independent India. Battered seven times and rebuilt an equal number of times, Delhi has come out strengthened and will remain to be so in the years to come! Various rulers of the respective dynasties extended, beautified and fortified the place at different points of time. Thus, we find that the following 11 dynasties held sway over the place prior to Delhi becoming the capital of Independent India: Tomaras-Chauhans (AD 736-1192), Mamluk (AD 1206-1289), Khilji (AD 1290-1320), Tughlaqs (1320-1413), Sayyids (AD 1414-51), Lodis (AD 1451-1526), Mughals (1526-1540), Suris (AD 1540-1553), Hindu King Hemu (AD 1553-56), Mughals (AD 1556-1857),  British (AD 1857–1947).


By Road: A network of highways connects Delhi to the principal cities of India. The three principal bus terminals of Delhi are the Inter-state Bus Terminus (ISBT) at Anand Vihar, Kashmere Gate, and Sarai Kale. Several privately-run and state-operated air-conditioned, deluxe and ordinary buses ply within and out of Delhi daily.

You can also opt for taxis for long-distance travel.

By Rail: The three main railway stations are Delhi, New Delhi and Hazrat Nizamuddin. Delhi is connected to the different small and big cities in the country. While traveling within Delhi, you will come across several smaller railway stations.

You can avail of the Metro Rail services to travel within the metropolitan area.

By Air: All major airlines operate out of the Indira Gandhi International Airport of Delhi. It also has domestic flights. This airport of connects Delhi to almost all the cities within the country as well as of the world.

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