Gallows, Memorial, Prison, Fort, Lost City

(First published in the May 2010 issue of Terrascape. Photographs by HIMANSHU JOSHI.)

I am old and cranky and am getting balder and cynical by the day, I have started looking more and more like the medieval ruins that I haunt. This haunting of forgotten ruins, is probably the reason why I am a little out of touch with T20, IPL and such other earth shaking events. This is also perhaps why I tend to get more than a little edgy when people begin to talk of memorable matches, great catches and those classic innings, the moment I say Firozeshah Kotla ! These gentlemen and ladies have, in most cases, nothing to do with the game, that G.B.Shaw despised so vehemently, and yet they are all chronic enthusiasts of the game.

A majority of the Indian enthusiasts of this ‘gentleman’s game’ have little idea that the Kotla I have in mind is the original Firozeshah Kotla, now in ruins and not the permanently under renovation modern structure, that has borrowed the name of its illustrious neighbour. There are times, when I decide to forgive them, at others I begin to blame my generation and the one that has predeceased me, (you know what I mean, they have passed on and I have to follow ) for not inculcating among the youth ‘respect’ and love for our rich heritage’, that our leaders constantly talk about.

Today I am in one of those self critical moods and since I have this space to articulate my thoughts I will talk about the original Kotla and its surroundings. I do so in the fond hope that during the next cricketing season, a few of the enthusiasts, on not managing to acquire free passes for a fixture, will take a little walk into the right Kotla, built more than 650 years ago. This piece is also for those who are interested in history, even if it be of an anecdotal kind.

The Mosque

Kushk-e-Firoze – the Palace of Firoze was built like a fort within the capital city Firozabaad that Firoze Tughlaq built in the 1350s and ruled from till 1388. The Kushk-e-Firoze later came to be known as Firozeshah Kotla. “Kot” or “Kotla” as in Sialkot, Kot Lakhpat, Malair Kotla or Kotla Mubarakpur is colloquialism for a fort. Firozeshah Kotla, the fifth capital built in Delhi, is the first of the three forts that were built on the banks of the Jamna, the other two being the Quila-e-Kuhna or Purana Quila and the Quila-e-Mu’alla or the Red Fort.

Firozeshah was a great builder and restorer; he carried out extensive repairs on the Qutub, the Hauz-e-Shamsi, the Hauz-e-Khaas and other buildings aside from building Firozabaad – the Kotla of today and a hunting lodge, known as the Kushk-e- Shikar atop the North Delhi Ridge, and many other structures.

The Baoli

Reaching Firozeshah Kotla is not difficult at all. It is situated off Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. If coming from New Delhi you have to take a U turn at the Delhi Gate traffic light, drive straight beyond the Ambedkar Stadium to your to your left and the Khooni Darwaza to your right turn left after the bus stand and before the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Memorial. As you turn you will have an open ground to your left and the Bhagat Singh Memorial to your right. Maulana Azad Madical College is across the road and the Khooni darwaza about a 100 meters short of the turn and located in the middle of the median that divides the right and left lanes.

I suggest you stop near the Bhagat Singh Memorial for a while; the place around you is teeming with history and it will be worth our while to spend some time at this corner before going in to the Kotla.

To your right, as you stand facing Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg is the Khooni Darwaza. Earlier known as the Lal Darwaza (The Red Gate) it is now universally known as the Khooni Darwaza (Blood soaked or Killer Gate). This was perhaps one of the main gates built in the citadel wall of the Old Fort or Purana Quila – the capital built by Sher Shah Sur, the Gate is however ascribed to Humayun’s period.

The gate came to be called Khooni Darwaza because it is believed that two sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar were killed here on 22nd of September 1857 by Hodson, a mercenary soldier in the Service of the East India Company. It is said that the princes were arrested from Humayun’s Tomb along with Bahadur Shah Zafar and were being taken to the Red Fort, as prisoners. Hodson was escorting them. He believed that an attempt will be made to free them by the people of the city and to prevent that imagined possibility from becoming a reality he killed them at point blank range.

According tradition many people were hanged to their death from this gate after the British recaptured Delhi in September 1857. The legends of ghosts and Djinns frequenting this area at night might have something to do with these executions.

The Cold blooded murder of the sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar by Hodson was recorded as an act of bravery and the mercenary was given the commission of a captain and the command of a Cavalry Unit called the Hodson’s Horse. This much decorated unit continued to exist in independent India and was only recently amalgamated into the Skinners’ Horse. Skinners’ Horse is incidentally named after another mercenary who merrily switched sides and was known as Sikandar Saheb. Skinner built a Haveli for himself and the beautiful St. James Church at Kashmiri Gate. The famous Hindu College functioned from Skinner’s Haveli Between 1902 and 1953.

Ashokan Pillar

Anyway, to come back to the anecdotal history lesson at BSZ Marg, the grounds where the Maulana Azad Medical College stands today was the location of the Delhi District Jail during the times of colonial occupation and many freedom fighters spent long years in confinement in the prison that is now long gone. Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were kept here in custody after the Delhi Assembly Bombing. A stone tablet inside the Medical college campus marks the location of Bhagat Singh’s cell. My father also spent several years in this prison for his participation in the Quit India movement and for generally being a threat to the peace and stability of the empire.

Before being turned into a prison by the British, the place was a Sarai, Known as Sarai Fareed Khan, the Sarai was probably built by Fareed Khan, the Subedaar of Gujarat during the reign of Shahjahan. The building of the settlement of Faridabad, now a bustling industrial city is also, according to one tradition, associated with the same gentleman. Farid Khan also carried out extensive repairs at the Saleemgarh Fort and it is said that the bridge connecting Saleemgarh with the Red Fort was also built by him.

The lane opposite the Times of India building leads to Bal Bhavan and runs past what used to be the massive main gate of the Sarai, atop which was a huge house, later turned into the Jail superintendent’s quarters. Many of the Sepoys posted at the prison used to live in the large rooms located on top of the Khooni Darwaza.

As a student, I joined a celebratory meeting at the Khooni Darwaza in 1977, when a large number of people, journalists, poets and students gathered on the Khooni Darwaza terrace to celebrate the withdrawal of the internal emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975.

The Bhagat Singh Memorial of today was an open ground till a couple of decade ago and was frequented by young lads from the city who gathered here to play marbles, fly kites and have Gilly Danda championships. Part of the ground was later converted into the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Bus Terminal by the Delhi Transport Corporation, Luckily the DTC was evicted and this memorial to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru came up here.

Bhagat Singh and his comrades had met in the ruins of Ferozeshah Kotla on 9th September 1928 to change the name of their organisation from the Hindustan Republican Association to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association and to declare their intention of fighting for the establishment of a Socialist Republic in India.

This about covers the immediate vicinity of the Kotla and it is time that we move into what remains of the city that Firozeshah caused to be built. Till a few years ago, the only sign that the structure was of any importance was the ubiquitous blue and white ASI sign board that said that this was a protected monument and those causing any damage to the structure were liable to be prosecuted. Things have improved a little bit and now you have to buy a ticket to gain entry.

You pass through a narrow passage as you enter the remains of the main gate that was flanked by bastions and was approached through a draw bridge. A moat would have, probably, run around the citadel walls but has now disappeared. The wall and the fort were built with rubble and limestone mortar and most of them have fallen to such ruin that it is difficult to understand the purpose they served.

What can be discerned is that the palace was built on an irregular four sided plan the eastern side abutted the river and was divided in three sections, each enclosed within walls, the southern section, with its own gateway has, like parts of Tughlaqabaad Fort, been under encroachment for a long time now, while the northern part has also been built over.

In my childhood, the place used to be thronged by families out on a picnic, especially those from the walled city. They came carrying Tiffin Boxes loaded with Qeema and Parathas, they carried sheets for spreading on the lush green lawns. Under the shade of the huge tamarind trees during the hot summer months or under the open skies during the months of the winter chill.

The grownups sat around while the kids went hunting for the sharply sour tamarind fruit or were escorted by an unwilling elder to go scampering over the ruined walls to run around the Asokan Pillar. It is here that I first saw a huge black cobra that was hiding inside a broken wall and raised its fearsome hood to warn us off. The place is now almost deserted, the picnickers have all but gone and there are just a handful of young lovers looking for privacy.

Firozabaad in its heydays was a large city. according to Shams Siraj, a contemporary chronicler, the city spread from near the present site of the Old Fort and Hauz-e-Khas in the south to the mausoleum of Shah Turkman Bayabani near Bulbuli Khana in the present day Shahjahanabaad and beyond to the top of the north Delhi ridge, though later historians have not been able to corroborate these claims but Cunningham claims that the city was probably larger than Shahjahanabaad and would have had a population of close to 150,000.

Shams Siraj records that the city of Firozabad had nine huge mosques while there were three major palaces or structures in side the fort, the Angoori Mahal-the hall of private audience, the Chajja Chaubeen-a place where the king met the palace staff and his courtiers and the Baar-e-Aam or the Hall of Public Audience. Firozeshah is also believed to have commissioned a hunting lodge (the Kushk-e-Shikar) on the north Delhi ridge. The city also had a large number of Sarais and numerous palaces of viziers and other high officials. Despite the fact that nothing of that remains, one can not deny that this paraphernalia would be an essential part of any capital, in fact we find contemporary parallels in the national capital as well.

When Taimur Lang (Tamerlane) invaded Delhi, he camped outside Firozeshah Kotla and offered at least one Friday prayer at the Jami Masjid inside. The design of the mosque impressed Temerlane greatly and it is said that he carried a drawing of the plan of the mosque with him in order to replicate the design in his own capital. If the story is true then it is one more proof of the constant dialogue and two way exchange that continued for centuries between architects, designers, artists and others belonging to South Asia and Central Asia. This would also show that many of the architectural innovations that emerged in the sub-continent would have left their impact on the evolution of architecture in Central Asia as well.

Mosques in South Asia normally have an East facing main gate. This is because, Kaaba, first mosque built under the supervision of prophet Mohammad at Mecca, that the devout face while offering their prayers, lies to the west from South Asia. The Jami Mosque at Firozeshah Kotla is, however, approached after climbing a flight of steps from the north. The main gate is located to the north because the mosque was placed on the eastern edge of the Palace and overlooked the river. The Jami Mosque could also be approached through 4 other staircases. The ground floor, designed more like a basement, consists of a series of enclosures, that could have served the purpose of residences for the mosque staff or as a refuge from the sweltering heat of the Delhi Summers.

The basement and many small domes are features that are common to the design of the Jami Masjid at the Kotla and several mosques built by Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Tilangani – the Prime Minister of Firoze Tughlaq. This mosque, however, was not built by him, though there are references to a small mosque built by Juna Shah inside the Kotla as well.

The Jami mosque is now only a shadow of what it would have been when it was built. From the remains one can imagine that there were corridors that ran along all the four walls, only the west wall remains intact. The corridor along the west wall would probably have been 2 or three arch deep, since this would be the area used for prayers more regularly while the rest of the space would have been used only for Eid and Friday prayers. Traces of Pillar bases in the middle of the mosque courtyard have led to the suggestion that the entire mosque could have had a roof with a large dome rising from an octagonal collar resting on 8 pillars.

The mosque is currently in use, it was not the case when I came here as a child. The gentlemen who pray here have carried out, what they would consider improvements to the structure. These additions consist primarily of applying coats of green paint to several of the niches and broken domes, giving the entire structure a strangely garish and kitschish look.

To the north and adjacent to the mosque is a three storied structure, each succeeding tier is smaller than the one below. Each floor has rows of small enclosures entered through arched openings. Atop the three storied structure is fixed one of the Inscribed Pillars that Asoka had got installed through out his kingdom. The Pillar was originally installed at Topra in Ambala and was brought to Firozabaad by Firoze Thughlaq.

Shams Siraj, has left behind a detailed description of how the pillar was dug out, lowered onto piles of cotton, wrapped in uncured hides, placed onto an especially designed cart, pulled by hundreds to the river, transferred on to a huge barge, on the Jamna, towed to Firozabaad and then step by step taken atop the roof and fixed in the centre of the structure atop a pillar base that ran through the three floors.

Firoze Tughlaq can rightly claim some credit for our understanding of the Brahmi script and of the tolerant and inclusive vision of Asoka, because it was after detailed study of this pillar that James Princep was able to decipher the Brahmi script in 1837.

Popular superstition has invested the pillar with supernatural powers, it is believed that the Djinn of the laath (pillar) can grant any boon and hundreds congregate here every thursday, lighting lamps, praying, asking for the blessings and munificence of the Djinn. The Djinn can apparently read several languages because the devotees leave behind letters to the baba of the laath, who, it is believed, will read them and address their grievances.

The third significant structure that has not fallen into utter ruin inside the citadel is a circular stepped well or baoli. The baoli located to the northwest of the Asokan Pillar has many underground enclosures that would have provided a welcome escape from the searing summers of Delhi. There rare traces of a drain leading off from the Baoli in the general direction of where the river would have been at the time of Firozeshah Tughlaq.

You can only view the Asokan pillar from the lush green lawns, because ugly iron fencing has been placed all around the structure, the baoli has also been similarly imprisoned.

I fail to see the logic of this. Here is a city that boasts of more singularly remarkable monuments than many countries can ever dream of possessing, and yet we keep them under lock and key. The only place that is open is the mosque and those who have control of the place care two hoots for the architectural, cultural, archaeological and historical worth of the place.

I have said it earlier and I say it again, in case a protected monument is in use- any kind of use- those using it should not be permitted to alter the structure in any manner.  Appoint more guards, educate them, turn these monuments into places that are more inviting, let people see them and internalise the processes that have made us into what we are today. Without this cricket enthusiasts will continue to think that Ferozeshah Kotla is only a cricket stadium.

4 thoughts on “Gallows, Memorial, Prison, Fort, Lost City”

  1. amazing piece of writing with information that touches heart and connects one to his past.And His Humanity.
    Best Wishes


  2. I am a student at Maulana Azad Medical College. Glad to know that the place is teeming with history :-)

    Dr. Aditya Prakash


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