Of Seven Cities and New Delhi

Historically, Delhi was a place that all its conquerors made their home, but for the British it was a city that only glorified the power of Imperialism. Photos: Sohail Hashmi/Himanshu Joshi

Red Fort

I return to Delhi, the city of my birth once again, I am prompted to return to Delhi time and again, not only because this is the city that I call home, but also because I believe that Delhi is unlike any other city. I do not say this out of parochial affiliations or jingoist biases, my claim is based on facts, facts of history.

Where else on the earth will you find a city that has been in continuous existence for more than a thousand years, a city that continues to thrive and grow despite its age and shows no signs of slowing down? Where else will you find a city with such a rich vocabulary of architectural motifs, such a diverse array of styles, materials, buildingtechniques and fine detailing, and where else on earth is another location that has seven capital cities in one place. Delhi is unique!

The phrase – seven Delhis – refers to seven distinct fortified capitals built by kings and empire builders. Some of those who ruled from Delhi did not build new cities and made do with pre-existing structures, making perhaps only the necessary additions to palaces and other structures built by the earlier rulers.

The Mamluk rulers, popularly known as the ‘Slave Kings’, ruled from Lal Kot at Mehrauli – the ‘first’ Delhi – ruled earlier by the Tomars and the Chauhans. Prithvi Raj Chauhan, whose name has been used to rename Lal Kot as Qila Rai Pithora, however, did not rule from Delhi; his capital was Ajmer and it is debatable whether the fort associated with him actually belongs to his time. Jalal-ud-Din Khilji continued to rule from Mehrauli, the capital of the Tomars, the Chauhans and the Mamluks and it was his son, Ala’-ud-Din Khilji, who built Siri, the ‘second’ Delhi.

Qutub Minar

The Khiljis were followed by the Tughlaqs, who were great builders. They were unique, they produced three major kings, each of whom built a new city. Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq built the majestic and imposing Tughlaqabad, His son, Mohammad-Bin-Tughlaq, built Jahanpanah. Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, was a man with a vision, one that was, however, a little unusual in that he tried to do things differently: some decisions he took, he could not implement and those he did, did not work out. The decision to shift the capital to a more central location was one of those decisions, He moved the capital from Delhi to Devgiri (now Daultabad) but had to move back quickly when the decision backfired and Delhi was invaded and there were sporadic revolts.

Mohammad Bin Tughlaq was succeeded by his nephew, Firoze Shah Tughlaq. Firoze Shah was perhaps the greatest builder and restorer of the Sultanate period, Aside from building Firozeabad, a new city now known as Firoze Shah Kotla – the first of the three Delhis built on the banks of the Jamuna, he also undertook major restoration and building projects, He started laying a 130-km-long canal from Haryana, which when finally completed in the time of Shahjahan brought water to Delhi. Firozeshah undertook large-scale restoration and repair work on the Qutub Minar, the Sultan-e-Ghari – the tomb of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood – and the Hauz Khas, and built a step well and a hunting lodge on the North Delhi ridge. More importantly, he shifted two Ashokan pillars to Delhi from near Ambala and Meerut.

A little after Firoze Shah’s death in 1388, Delhi was ransacked by Taimur and then followed a longish period of uncertainty; the capital too moved out of Delhi, with the Lodis ruling from Agra. Delhi was to become the capital city again only after the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi at the hands of Babur. It was Babur’s son, Humayun who brought the capital back to Delhi, though this shift again proved to be temporary. Humayun’s capital, Deen Panah, was the ‘sixth’ Delhi; it rose rapidly and fell as quickly. Sher Shah Suri, an extremely capable commander, strategist and administrator, dislodged Humayun and captured his capital.

Humayun spent almost a decade-and-a-half in exile before returning and recapturing his kingdom from Salim Shah, the son of Sher Shah Suri. Meanwhile, the city had been renamed Shergarh and largely rebuilt. Humayun died within a couple of years and the capital moved out of Delhi once again. Both Akbar and Jahangir did not rule from Delhi. Shahjahan brought the capital back to Delhi, building a fort and a new city that he called Shahjahanabad – the city built by Shahjahan. This then is the short and expurgated history of the seven cities.

Ferozshah Kotla

Shahjahanabad was inaugurated on Navroz in 1642 and 269 years after the formal inauguration of Shahjahanabad, the colonial rulers of India inaugurated the new capital of the most significant of their colonies and using ‘great imagination’ gave it the name New Delhi.

From the time of the Tomars in the late 11th century to the time of Shahjahan in the first half of the 17th century and then on to the deposing of the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, there were seven kings or emperors who built a new capital at Delhi. This was even as there were others, like some of the Mamluk kings, the Sayyids, who did not build new capitals but decided to make do after necessary alterations and modifications with what was available. There were also those who ruled, not from Delhi but from elsewhere – Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the Lodis, Babur, Akbar, Jahangir and later Aurangzeb, who spent a major part of his reign in Aurangabad in the present day Maharashtra.

All those who built their capitals in Delhi ruled from there; that, of course, does not include the British, the builders of New Delhi. It is this attitude that shows, more than anything else, the relationship that they had with this land. They had not come here to build a home; they were here for acquiring the materials for building their empire. For them, Delhi was the headquarters of their imperial outpost and if you look at the grand design of New Delhi this is what you see. High atop a hilly prominence sat the Viceroy in his lodge – it can not be an accident that it was not called the residence but the lodge. In any case, it was not the king or the queen who resided here, but their agent, whose prime job was to ensure that the wealth kept flowing in the direction of the imperial capital and his minions carried on their work.

It is clear therefore that all earlier settlements in Delhi were built by those who came via the Central Asian plains. From the Aryans to the Mughals, these were the people who despite their clashes and fights had a cultural continuity, a shared heritage that connected them through trade, spiritual ideas and values. The British, the 17th century arrivals, who had by the middle of the 18th century virtually captured or subdued the entire region, represented not only an unknown ethos; they were also unlike anyone else. They had come to loot and not to live.

When the Viceroy set out from his palatial lodge, he rode down the King’s Avenue towards the All India War Memorial. Across well-kept lawns and water channels that flanked the King’s Avenue were the palaces of the representatives of the Rajahs and Nawabs loyal to the British: Hyderabad, Baroda, Faridkot, Travancore, Patiala, Bikaner, Jaipur, Kota, Jamnagar, Mandi, Bhawalpur, Jind, Jaisalmer, Dholpur, Darbhanga, Tehri Garhwal, etc.

Tughlaqabad Fort

This then was not a capital. It was a place where the British and their loyal servants lived – the Rajahs and the Nawabs and their minions who helped the British in maintaining their façade of Indian rule. As the following inscription in stone told the people of India in no uncertain terms that they did not deserve freedom: “Liberty does not descend upon a people but it has to be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

The pecking order was firmly established, the areas where the masters lived and the areas where the servants lived were clearly demarcated. The masters lived in New Delhi while their servants lived behind a high wall, far away from the clean, plush, modern, forward looking ‘new city’, or they lived in hovels in scattered villages that dotted the landscape. The part of the land that was used by the villagers for building their homes was marked out on maps in a red line and all land outside of that red line was declared agricultural land, land that the government could acquire against compensation at rates decided by it.

And so this incongruous mushroom like growth was foisted on Delhi and this ‘new city’, with no roots in culture, history and tradition, gradually came to eat up all the spaces, physical and intellectual, that were occupied by the earlier Delhis.

Today, this Delhi, conceptualised on the principal of dominance, seems to have succeeded in its mission of brushing out of our consciousness all memories of the Delhis of yore. The architects of New Delhi were given the brief that the Viceregal Lodge should be larger and grander than the Buckingham Palace; the idea was to dominate the landscape to overawe the Indian imagination, to build such an imposing structure that its mere presence would dispel any notion of freedom that the restless Indians might be harbouring.

The only interest King George the Vth apparently had in the entire project of the Viceregal Lodge was to demand that the finial at the central dome should be higher than that at the Central dome of the Jama Masjid. The king was the head of the Church of England and if the roof over the head of his representative in India was a few inches above that of a medieval mosque, the dream of establishing the superiority of the Christian faith over other religions would come true.

The capital of British India shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The Raisina hill complex of buildings, that is the Viceregal Lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhawan) and the North and South Block were all completed in the early 1930s, as was the National Assembly building (now Sansad Bhawan). The All India War Memorial (now known as India Gate) was inaugurated in 1931, Connaught Place was completed in 1936 and it is the same for most of the buildings built by the princely states around the C Hexagon (India Gate lawns). The oldest of these buildings would be between 75 to 80 years old and going by the laws of conservation, all of them have to age another 20 to 25 years before they can qualify to be preserved as heritage structures.

The question that needs to be asked here is that why are so many people so keen to preserve this part of real estate that is barely 80 years old, while very little is being done to preserve Shahjahannabad, an entire city, more than 350 years old? Everyday new laws are being framed to prevent interference with the Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone, but nothing is being done to real estate sharks who are constantly buying and pulling down grand medieval structures and encroaching upon heritage sites in Shahjahanabad and the ruins of the other six Delhis.

Is it possible that we have bought the colonial argument to such an extent that we find nothing in our heritage that we consider worth conserving, while symbols of our helplessness and subjugation are being constantly raised to the status of national monuments?

Purana Qila

Just one example should illustrate this point. The so-called India Gate commemorates the more than 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire during the Third Anglo Afghan War and World War I. The structure was a memorial to those who died while protecting the interests of British Imperialism. All their names are etched on the stones that clad the Gate.

However, the soldiers had little choice; over 1 million were shipped to serve British Imperial interests in Europe, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In all, more than 74,000 died, including 62,000 who died in action, while 67,000 were wounded. The overwhelming majority of them were sons of peasants, who had joined the army then – as they do now – for the financial security it provided. The India Gate, a memorial to the canon-fodder of imperialism, a symbol of our subjugation, a symbol of our helplessness, was first turned into a memorial for all soldiers who have died in all the wars that we have fought since independence. Today, however, drawing-room democrats and cinema revolutionaries have turned it into a symbol of our democratic aspirations and a place where we can light candles for 15 minutes and make our contribution to strengthening ‘civil society’.

Delhi’s other gate, the Khooni Darwaza, however, remains forgotten. The Khooni Darwaza is where two sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar were shot in cold blood by a mercenary in 1857. The Khooni Darwaza is where scores were hung to their death for daring to oppose the British. Today, however, it is not even a blip on our patriotic radar. Instead, the Imperial Arc of Triumph and the Gateway of India where King George Vth first set foot on Indian soil have become the two most easily recognisable symbols of India. Clearly, there is something missing in the way we are chronicling our history. Something is amiss.

(First published in Terrascape.)

17 thoughts on “Of Seven Cities and New Delhi”

  1. The historical type articles on this site are always worth a read. 2 points –
    First – You seem to suggest that the government is focusing on preserving the wrong heritage, or at least not giving equal attention to all heritage. I think that rather than preserve any heritage of any sort the government is only trying to preserve it’s own seat of power. Viceregal Lodge is not preserved and glorified today by that name or because it housed the Viceroy but rather because it is the Rashtrapati Bhavan and because it houses the Rashtrapati. Same goes for other buildings/bungalows in Lutyens Delhi also. Various Cabinet Ministers, MPs, Govt Departments etc. are housed here. They want to maintain some stately pomp and splendor for themselves and therefore they preserve it. Of course you could question whether it is right to perpetuate the symbols of a colonial empire. Whether the Republic of India should see itself as the inheritor of the imperial power. Do we need such symbols and imagery and whether such symbols tie in with our idea of India. Shouldn’t a government which derives it’s legitimacy from the people do away with the exclusivist infrastructure of a imperial power? I don’t mean to say all of it should be demolished but rather that it should be open to restructuring to suit the present needs of the city or country. Why should insane real estate be dedicated to one nominal executive head of the country. A few months ago fakingnews.com had a headline that said something on the lines of – “Pratibha Patil to shelter the Delhi homeless in the Rashtrapati Bhavan”

    I also think there is nothing religious about King George wanting the dome to be higher than the Jama Masjid. Today RSS camps across the country try to tell people that we have so many Christians in our country only because the British forced this religion upon us (akin to the “sword of Islam” theory). If I remember my Bipin Chandra right the British administrators looked down upon missionary activity and did very little if nothing at all to spread Christianity here. Part of the reason you will find that most Indian Christians today are Roman Catholics rather than followers of the Anglican church. Coming back to King George, he probably wanted to show his superiority over Shah Jahan (or the Mughals generally) who got Jama Masjid built.

    Second – All this seven cities business is the cities the Kings built. Which is fascinating no doubt. But it would be really awesome if you could tell us the history of public settlements. I have seen some posts on Kafila that talk about isolated migrant colonies. Indeed it is on basis of those posts that I make this request, because you seem to be very knowledgeable about Delhi. But one consolidated one which looks at settlements from all time periods would be great.


  2. The Lutyens zone stands testimony to the excellent planning, architecture and foresight of the British. It has been preserved because it was so well designed and built that it is capable of preservation with less maintenance. These are very sturdy structures capable of standing the test of time. This area is so well planned that compared to other parts of Delhi which were developed by Indians it still can handle the pressure of overload caused by the ever growing population although it was designed more than years ago.


    1. completed in the late 1930s, the only thing they built was the viceregal lodge ( Rashtrapati Bhawan), the north and south blocks, the National assembly building (the Sansad Bhawan central vista and the india gate. One straight road two blocks on either side, a building at one end of the road and a gate and a canopy at the other end, plus a few bungalows for senior Babus. If this is all that the great british town planners could up in the name of a new town -the capital of their biggest colony, the jewel in the crown- i tip my hat to their great vision


      1. Well, British town planners did come up with Calcutta, Bombay and Chennai, each many times bigger than Dehlee (Kalkatte ka jo zikr kiya tune hamnasheen etc etc). While Delhi might be a big city now, till even 25 years back it was nothing compared to Bombay or Cal. Whatever be said of the ideology or motives of the Brits, there is no doubt that their modern cities were head and shoulders above a “native” Indian city of the time.


      2. I’d beg to differ. Just because you equate it with power-centrism and non-leftism does not mean it was thoroughly useless. The town planning system was very unique, and beyond the two roads that you so myopically speak of, is a wealth of ideas that’s been employed across many successive planning systems. Especially the most egalitarian footpaths the world had seen till then. Please do keep that in mind the next time you walk in a city you feel satisfies your intellectual pursuits.


  3. A brilliant narration of Delhi through ages but disagree with you on some points.
    1.INDIA GATE symbolises the courage and sacrifice of Indian soldiers and not imperial ambitions. Though they were under british instructions they still fought to protect our mother land and its teeming millions.
    2. Khooni Darwaza remindd us of those brave souls who dared to challenge the ruthless british at the peak of their imperialist power. Its sight infuse a sense of pride and courage , and not imperial architectural brilliance.

    Anyway it was a gem of an account of DELHI of yesteryears and would like to have more from you


  4. The colonial masters have been replaced by greedy, corrupt and self-centred rulers! and we, the people, are no different…No one gives a damn! In Purana QIla, close to Humayun gate facing the Zoo one could climb up the steps and get a fantastic view of the Humayun Tomb over the green tree tops , where in winters Siberian cranes nest…Some months ago ASI spent public money and built an iron gate and made offices for themselves. Interestingly, there have been no reports of suicides from that wall…Jaswant Singh as Opposition leader used to demand a war memorial for our soldiers but, as a minister in the NDA govt he did nothing! Congress guys are busy blocking plans for a war memorial . PM is so keen on getting a Nobel Prize for Peace but he himself does not attend any memorial service for soldiers who died in Kargil war 1999


  5. “Where else on the earth will you find a city that has been in continuous existence for more than a thousand years, a city that continues to thrive and grow despite its age and shows no signs of slowing down? Where else will you find a city with such a rich vocabulary of architectural motifs, such a diverse array of styles, materials, building techniques and fine detailing, and where else on earth is another location that has seven capital cities in one place. Delhi is unique!”

    Really? try Rome – 3000 years enough for you? Or, if as i suspect, you prefer Muslim cities (which you’ll probably strenuously deny in labored prose), try Istanbul.

    And if you can’t afford a plane ticket, at least check out a few images on the net before making sweeping statements.

    Wags said that Shah Alam’s kingdom stretched from Delhi to Palam. Your sense of perspective seems to have the same breadth.


    1. Indraprastha ruins, my dear sir. They put Rome and Istanbul into perspective. And also try the variety of LIVING urban heritage to be had (Indic, Islamic and Colonial to say the least), and compare that to considerably less flexible Rome, Istanbul, Damascus, Aleppo, Beijing, Athens. Pardon my historical breadth (or lack thereof), these were some of the places I could think of at short notice.


      1. “Indraprastha ruins, my dear sir. They put Rome and Istanbul into perspective.”

        Just how do you mean this? Do you mean that they’re significantly older, more impressive or more detailed than the oldest Etruscan ruins in Rome? Care to back that up with facts?

        “And also try the variety of LIVING urban heritage to be had (Indic, Islamic and Colonial to say the least)”

        Greater variety than Istanbul with its Classical, Graeco-Roman, Ottoman, Neoclassical and Art Noveau? Perhaps you should stop thinking “at short notice”?


  6. This reminded me of my visit to India with my Naani. She was very excited to show us all the places where she spent her childhood. Whenever I look at the pictures of Delhi, I feel like I am connected to that city. This is where my grandparents came from.


  7. A post which inspired me to write my own series of travelogues on Delhi :-)
    Only point where i agree to disagree is regarding your observations regarding which monuments to preserve and what forms our heritage. India as a country owe more to British that Sultans or the Mughals. As far as 80 years old monument goes, they too are part of our heritage as is the Railways we can’t do away with them.
    Notwithstanding the subjective nature of your musings, I did liked this article.


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