The Old Fort

(First published in Landscape. Photographs by HIMANSHU JOSHI.)

The South Gate as seen from within the fort. This became the back drop for the staging of Tughlaq

The Old Fort, popularly known as Puraana Qila, was known to both the Author of Asaar-us-Sanadeed- Syed Ahmad Khan and the author of Waqeyat-e-Daar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli- Bashir Ahmad as Qila-e-Kuhna. The three terms Old Fort, Puraana Qila and, Qila-e-Kuhna mean exactly the same thing, The first is English, the last is Persian and the second is Urdu. Somehow the Hindi equivalent Pracheen Durg has never been in use despite the popular, though as yet historically unsubstantiated claim that this is the site of the legendry Indraprasth or Inderpat built by the mythological Pandavas.

Reaching the Purana Qila is quite easy, it has the National Zoological Park, popularly known as the zoo or chidiya ghar as its next door neighbour. The Zoo is probably one of the three most visited sites in Delhi. It is a place that is forever crawling with people –Delhiites, visitors to the city and rallyists, the place appears to accommodate even more humans per animal than the famous Ranthambore Tiger reserve. It is a place that always seems to have more noisy kids milling about at all hours than the number of droopy eyed thirsty Journalists eagerly waiting for the Bar to open at the Delhi Press Club. Despite all this no one and I repeat no one, barring young couples in search for some privacy, enters the Purana Quila.

On weekdays you will see a whole lot of people out side the fort, they are the ones who are waiting for their turn for a boat-ride in the moat outside the fort. They are not, as the American cliché goes, going inside the fort any time soon. On Sundays there is even a bigger crowd, this lot consists almost exclusively of extremely thirsty males. They come in all shapes, sizes, ages and states of disorientation. The gathering occurs for purposes that are strictly spiritual and I do not use it in the dictionary meaning of the term.

Sher Shaahi Mosque

Adjacent to the northern wall of the fort and bang opposite the Pragati Maidan is an old temple, the Kilkari Bhairon Mandir. Sunday has been kept aside for the worship of Bhairon Baba and the Prasad (votive offering) that at one time used to be Bhang (cannabis) is now alcohol, The local varieties, the IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor- whatever that means) and imported versions are all welcome and are offered regularly to the deity, the heady cocktail that results from this strangely secular spiritual intermingling is collected and consumed rapidly by the aforementioned gathering of thirsty gents, making them a little more disoriented than they were at the point of their arrival.

Surrounded as it by exotic animals, a boat house and Bhairon baba’s munificence, is it any wonder that no one is interested in the Purana Quila? Being an optimist at the worst of times I’ll wager that even after excluding the multitude thronging the three diversions, there would still be a substantial remainder with an interest in the long neglected fort. This piece is meant for that remainder. So if you are still reading this piece, do please carry on.

Of the seven Delhis that were built between the Arravalis and the Jamna, The Puraana Qila is the fifth, and the second to be built along the western bank of the Jamna, the first being Firozeabaad or Firozeshah Kotla of Firoze Shah Tughlaq. The Fort is an irregular four-sided structure with a perimeter of around 2 kilometers, pierced by three double storied sandstone gates to the north, the south and the west, that are topped with chatrris (small cupolas set atop carved pillars fixed on to a low platform).

The south facing gate now opens into the Zoo and is not approachable from the outside. The Northern, also known as the Talaqi (prohibited) gate, has been closed for long. Who declared the gate prohibited and why is not very clear. Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad quotes a local tradition according to which the gate was closed when an attack was mounted on the fort through this gate. It was ordered that the door would now only be opened for the victor and since there has not been a victor since that time the door remains closed.

Interesting fable but I won’t bet my Monday formals on its historical veracity. Humayun built his fort called Din Panah on this location but lost his kindom to Sher Shah Sur who seemed to have demolished what Humayun had built, replacing it with his fort Sher Gadh. Several years later Humayun defeated Sher Shah and recaptured the Fort. So there have been at least two victors at the fort and the gate is still closed. The only way this story can become believable is to establish that it was Humayun who ordered the gate closed during his second stint.

The Hammam

There are in all 15 bastions that pierce the northern, western and southern walls there are none on the east or river facing side, for the simple reason that the builders of the fort did not fear an attack from that direction. Of the 15 bastions, Four that is one each at the four corners, are much larger than the others and could have been built for large canons. Two bastions flank each gate and the remaining five are spread along the western wall of the fort, The northern and southern flanks of the fort being much smaller than the Western side could be guarded through the larger bastions at the corners with help from the smaller bastions guarding the gates, since there was little possibility of an attack from the river the western wall came to be the most protected, guarded as it was by two large corner located and 7 smaller bastions, two of which also guarded the western gate.

The western gate is now the only gate through which you can access the fort. If you are keen to cheat the impoverished ASI of the meagre ticket money and are of an adventurous bend you could try stealing into the fort through the water gate (don’t confuse it with American politics, the continent did exist when this particular water gate was built, but the country was yet to be conceived. The water gate is a small entrance into the fort from the riverside. To reach the water gate you have to walk past the Bhairon Mandir, scramble through thorny bushes and puddles of stagnant water before you gain access to the fort. It is really not worth the effort, pay those 5 rupees and walk in like a king. Try the route if you are a poor non Indian hitchhiker, you might save a few dollars.

Enough of running around the gates let us buy the tickets and get in through the west gate. You enter the two storied imposing gate through a slopping road that runs over a bridge. Under the bridge, runs a moat that would have surrounded the fort on three sides when it was built and instead of the road, there would have been a draw bridge that would be pulled up at night to secure the fort. Similar draw bridges would have existed on the southern and northern gates as well. The eastern site of the fort was secured by the river.

As you enter, a large open ground opens up before you and the road through the gate takes you straight to the mosque built by Sher Shah Sur, the mosque is to the left of the road while a little short of the mosque to the right, there is a deep stepped well, another road branches off to the right and heads straight to the south gate. The road is flanked by stately palm trees that were planted by the British when they began preserving and restoring historic monuments in Delhi in the early 20th century.

In front of the southern gate, there are steps arranged in the shape of an Amphitheatre with the gate and the ruined enclosures on both sides of the gate giving an appearance of an elaborate set for a theatrical production about medieval times, the Amphitheatre is precisely that. The south gate was in fact used as a set for the production, in early 1970s, of the renowned play Tughlaq written by Girish Karnad and directed by Ebrahim Alkazi, the then director of the National School of Drama (NSD). The Amphitheatre was built in front of the gate for the Mammoth production and those of you who are interested in re-living those moments can see photographs of the production in the NSD collection Rang Yatra.

The southern gate is called the Humayun Darwaza and there was according to ASI records, an inscription in ink that mentioned the name of Sher Shah and the date 950 Hijri (1543-44 CE) Humayun’s name appeared in one of the recesses of the Talaqi Darwaza and it is possible that Humayun either built the northern (Talaqi) gate or repaired it.

If you stand facing the southern gate (the one looking into the Zoo) you will see a narrow footpath taking off to you left, follow the path for some distance and you will be walking next to a double row of arches that run along the fort wall. This arrangement would have encircled the entire fort but now very few of these arches survive. The double row of arches comes to an abrupt end, an opening in the wall leads to an octagonal enclosure with two sets of steps leading to the terrace.

Interior of the Sher Shaahi Mosque

This is one of the bastions of the fort. The walls and ceiling were profusely decorated with carvings done in the thick layer of plaster that was applied on the Delhi quartz stone built walls. At most of the places the carvings have flaked off but what remains is enough to give an indication of the care that was taken to make these places aesthetically pleasing. Take one of the staircases and climb to the top and you get a panoramic view of the Zoo to the south, the ring road, the trans- Jamuna colonies to the east and Edwin Lutyen’s Delhi on the other two sides.

Climb down and retrace your steps to the south gate, to your right you will see a depression, if you go down and walk towards the east wall you will reach the water gate that we talked about a little while ago, walk to the west and you will come across steps coming down from the footpath that you left a little while ago, along the steps there is also a water channel and it is possible that this channel was used for draining out rain water. As you go down into the depression, you will see some broken down structures on the land that slopes up in front of you. This is the site where excavations took place in 1955 and later, during 1969 -1973. During exploration pottery shards of painted grey ware (PGW in ASI Parlance) were recovered. The occurrence of these at any habitation site indicates that the place was under occupation between 1000 to 500 BCE.

The discovery of PGW at the Purana Qila digs has led some to suggest that the evidence is substantive proof that this is the site of the legendary Inderpat. The issue as far as archaeologists are concerned is not yet settled because the PGW has not been found in one specific layer and that the recovery is not substantive enough to suggest a large settlement of the kind that one would associate with a major urban settlement. The fact that there is no other corroborative evidence of large buildings, halls and other contemporary structures to support this view has prevented serious archaeologists from coming to a definite conclusion.

Serious archaeologists are very careful in making such definite statements unless they are very sure. Your narrator, who is not a historian, much less an archaeologist, would be better off extricating himself from this debate and moving on to what is more certainly known.

The excavations point to continuous settlement on this site from around 300 BC to the 16th century AD. Close to 2000 years of continuous settlement. Archaeologists have found pottery, coins, terracotta figurines and seals, mud brick and burnt brick structures, pieces of fine sculpture, traces of a rubble built wall, glazed pottery, pieces of household goods, pottery from China, wine bottles and many other artefacts that have been linked to various periods from the Mauryan (around 300 BC) to the Mughal period.

All these are housed in a museum located on site inside the fort. The museum is located in the restored section of the double arched corridor adjacent to the west gate, to your right as you enter the fort. Unfortunately, the museum only opens at 10 am while the fort opens at sun rise. I have not been able to understand this mis-match between the timing, it would be so much more convenient for the visitors if both opened at the same time, at sun rise. If all of you who go to the fort, pester the ASI over the next couple of years something might happen.

And now about the buildings, there is the mosque built by Sher Shah, this is easily one of the most beautiful mosque in Delhi and without any doubt one of the finest examples of Pathan architecture in India. The five arched building is beautifully covered, outside and inside, in intricate carving both floral and geometric, the use of red sandstone, marble and black stone breaks monotony and creates pleasing visual patterns.

The Quranic verses, carved in several calligraphic styles, are among some of the finest seen in Delhi and this is saying a lot, considering the hundreds of buildings, beginning with the Qutub and coming up to the beautiful little mosque of Nawab Rukn-ud-Daullah in Chawri that are covered with calligraphy.

The series of recessed arches and mehrabs gives the entire structure a look that is simultaneously imposing and delicate. Words cannot describe the impression that you would carry with you even if you were to spend just a few minutes admiring the structure. In fact you can spend hours wondering at the care and planning that would have gone into making this remarkable structure. The mosque built by Sher Shah has recently been restored carefully and lovingly by the ASI and it shows.

If you stand facing the mosque, you will see the Sher Mandal to you left, this beautiful 3 storied structure is profusely decorated inside with tiles and plaster carvings. It is believed that when Humayun finally defeated Sher Shah, he converted the structure into a library and an observatory and that he stumbled down the steps as he stepped back from observing one of the heavenly bodies or according to another tradition, he heard the Muazzin’s call for prayer and hurried down the steps, his foot slipped, he rolled down died a few days later. There is another view that insists that he did not stumble but fell straight down from the top floor. The result was the same and all are agreed that it is a fall from here that killed the second Mughal emperor.

Unfortunately again, the Sher Mandal is kept locked and you cannot go inside. I have been fortunate to go up and see it from inside but I only have childhood memories because access has been denied for many years. I am sure the ASI can make arrangements to post a couple of guards and charge a little extra fees from those who want to explore and view the structure from inside. I fail to see the point of keeping such beautiful structures barred to common visitors and opened only for visiting dignitaries and VIPs.

Between the mosque and the Sher Mandal, there are two more structures and I have always wondered why ASI and other writings do not talk about them. The baoli that I have already mentioned is quite deep and is one of the few in Delhi that still has water in it. The other baolis that have water in them like the Rajon Ki Baoli, the Nizam-ud-Din Baoli and the so called Agarsen Ki Baoli are all kept open and at least two of them are regularly used by local urchins for diving into and swimming. Some of the water less Baolis like the Gandhak Ki Baoli and the Baolis inside Tughlaqabad are also open to public. Why should this be kept locked is another of those mysteries that one cannot crack.

Between the Baoli and Sher Mandal, there is another very interesting structure. I have not read anything about it in whatever little research that I have done but I am certain that this was a Hamaam. There are water inlets and outlets, there are little pond like structures on the terrace with glazed ceramic pipes fixed into them. Down a flight of steps, there is a largish room with a couple of ventilators and a slopping shaft on the eastern wall with indentations carved on it, the shaft opens above a square depression in the floor.

I am certain that water fell down the shaft and the indentations made it ripple and fall like a shower on whoever sat or stood in the square depression. I believe that this was a royal Hamaam, there is a well close by that is built at a level higher than the Hamaam and it is possible that water was drawn through a Persian wheel to fill the ponds atop the terrace, once the ponds were full, water would cascade down into the chamber below.

The Shermandal from where Humayun fell and died

What beats me and caused a detailed discussion between Devendra Chauhan and Himanshu Joshi (the photographs are by Himanshu) , who I had dragged with me to the fort at break of dawn, is the question of what happened to the water once Sher Shah, Humayun or whoever were through with their bath. Where did the dirty water go. Was it through some underground channel directed to the nala that led to the water gate? I have no idea. Go there explore the place and form your own theories. Just keep one thing in mind – don’t disturb the young couples. The city gives them little privacy, don’t take it away.

The Purana Qila became a refugee camp for those who had escaped the killings in and around Delhi in the aftermath of the partition. My mother’s family, having decided to emigrate had spent some painful days here, before shifting to the refugee camp at the Humayun’s tomb.

Begum Anees Qidwai who belonged to the illustrious Qidwai family and who had lost her husband in the communal violence was distraught and had lost the will to live. She met Mahatama Gandhi and told him about the feeling of helplessness that she constantly lived with. The Mahatama said to her, go and live among those whose pain is greater than yours and your pain will become a little more tolerable. For weeks and months after this, Anees Qidwai worked at the Purana Qila refugee camp and was to later document her experiences in an extremely powerful and moving document Azaadi Ki Chhaon Mein. The book originally written in Urdu is also available in a Hindi and English translation published by National Book Trust. Any of you with an interest in the History of contemporary India and what makes us what we are should read the book.

One last thing, why is it that there are no other buildings? It is said that Humayun had built a palace here, what became of it. How could Humayun rule from here twice without erecting a single residential or administrative structure? Sher Shah is believed to have pulled down Din Panah, the capital that Humayun built, what did he replace it with? I think there is a whole lot of history buried under the carefully manicured lawns and at the risk of disturbing the much in love couples the ASI needs to begin digging again. Who knows we might unearth evidence to settle the Inderpat issue as well.

The monuments that dot the Landscape of Delhi are not mere structures, they are living witnesses to the unfolding of History, at least that is how I look at them and that is how I try to present them to those who happen to read what I put together.

4 thoughts on “The Old Fort”

  1. This is what R V Smith has to say about Humayun’s death in his recent article in Hindu (

    “…Humayun eventually met his end after an accidental fall on the steps, which he was descending in a hurry to answer the evening call for prayer. The stair on which his foot got caught in his robes still exists and one can see that it is crooked and accident-prone. Was it a deliberate act by the masons or Sher Shah to teach a lesson to hasty enemies or a quirk of destiny that the stair should have been there in the first place? Secondly, the call for prayer was given at the wrong time by a man seemingly deputising for the regular muezzin while Humayun was scanning the skies for a constellation that “had swung into his ken” (to quote from Keats, as much an opium eater as the King). No doubt he was surprised by the early azaan, and his impulse to get down and rush to the masjid proved fatal. Was it kismet’s way of retribution for the sudden end of the Sur dynasty? One cannot help thinking thus, though it is not true.”


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