The Purana Qila, literally ‘old fort’, is located on a site which has a long history of habitation. Excavations have revealed definite layers from the fourth/third centuries B.C., and pottery fragments that could date from an era approximately 1000 -500 B.C. Popular tradition in fact links the site to the ancient city of Indraprastha, described in the epic, the Mahabrarata, as having been founded by the Pandava brothers on the banks of the river Yamuna. Though the epic itself talks of the subsequent abandonment of the city, the memory of the place name lived on in the later village of ‘Indarpat’ – that was within these walls till the beginning of the twentieth century.
In 1533, the second Mughal emperor Humayun (reigned 1530-40 and 1555-56), decided to build on this spot a fort that was called Dinpanah – the ‘refuge of the faith’. It is believed that the walls and gates of the fort were completed within a year, and it is not unlikely that many other buildings were added in the next few years. Humayun’s reign was interrupted in 1540 when Sher Shah Sur, the Afghan-origin chieftain from eastern India, ousted Humayun from the throne to capture Delhi and the Indian empire. Sher Shah and his successor ruled till 1555, when Humayun returned to reclaim the throne back but then died within a few months of it.
The walls of the fort form a rectangle with a perimeter of about 1.9 kilometers. The eastern side was originally bounded by the Yamuna, but the river has long since changed its course eastwards. Apart from the imposing gateways, very few buildings still remain within the fort. An ambiguous historical record makes it difficult for us to say for sure which of the structures of the fort were commissioned by Humayun and which by Sher Shah and Islam Shah.
This western entrance to the fortress was most probably built under Humayun, as it is part of the main fortifications. On either side of it are bastions which, along with the curtain wall beyond, have arrow/gun slits. Kanguras or merlons would originally have run along the top of the entire length of the wall, but have now completely disappeared except at the top of one of the bastions. The surface ornamentation of the gate consists of inlay patterns in sandstone and marble, some stone carving and tile work. Decorative jharokhas (balcony windows) and chhatris (pillared kiosks) also serve a decorative purpose.
Left: Plan of the Talaaqi Darwaza
Right: Incised plaster and tile detail above the entrance way
The northern gate of the fort is a tall and imposing structure. It has entrance ways on two levels – the lower originally being at the level of the water. The upper entrance way seems to have been the main way in, as it is more ornamented. If so, a drawbridge or causeway must have connected it to the land on the other side of the moat that encircled the fort. Decorative features include sandstone and marble inlay, carving, tile work, jharokhas (balcony windows) and chhatris (pillared kiosks). There is no credible explanation for the origins of the name, which literally means ‘forbidden gate’.
The name of this building literally means ‘the mosque of the old fort’ and it was the congregational mosque of the fort. Its construction is usually attributed to Sher Shah. The profuse decoration includes stone inlay using red and yellow sandstone and white and black marble, stone carving, and tile work. The mosque faces away from the inside of the citadel, because it is oriented towards the west which, being the direction of Mecca, is the direction of prayer.
As can be seen in the elevation drawing above, a large number of jharokahs – decorative windows, and the octagonal turrets at the corners of the walls are distinctive features.
This baoli or step well was a source of water for the inhabitants of the fort. Given the height on which the fort is built, the ground water would have been quite far down, so this is a deep well. A narrow flight of 89 steps, separated by 8 landings, lead down to the water, which could also be drawn up with a bucket from a conventional well at the other end. Step wells were constructed so that people could go down to the level of the water. The building kept the water was covered, to keep it clean and minimize evaporation.
The name of this octagonal building suggests that it was built by Sher Shah, but in style it has parallels in descriptions and images of early Mughal pavilions. The lower storey is mostly solid, with stairs leading to the upper storey. At the centre of the upper storey is a small room. At the very top of the building is a domed chhatri or pavilion. On 20 January 1556 Humayun was on the roof of this building when he heard the call to prayer. In a hurry to descend, he fell down the stairs, was grievously hurt, and succumbed to his injuries three days later.
This ruined brick structure is all that remains of a hammam or bath house. The remains of terracotta pipes and a ribbed water chute can still be seen. Such bath houses, with provision for hot and cold water and even steam rooms, were a particularly important part of Mughal culture. In the years after the abandonment of the fort as a capital of the empire, this structure was forgotten and built over. It was revealed beneath a hut when the clearance of the village of Indarpat and conservation of the site was undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India in 1913-14.
Though called the Humayun Darwaza, this gate is attributed by some to Sher Shah on the basis of a fading inscription in ink that was found in one of the rooms on the upper storey. There are two entrance ways, one on top of the other. The lower one opened at the level of the water in the moat, while the upper would have been approached via a drawbridge or causeway from across the moat. Decorations include inlay work and carving in sandstone and marble, and tilework. The decorative merlons on top might originally have existed over the other gates of the fort too.
The building in which the museum is housed is part of the inner walls of the fort. Original plaster decoration can still be seen, particularly on the vaulted ceiling. The exhibits tell the history of Delhi, as revealed in excavations in the Purana Qila and elsewhere in Delhi too.
Inside there are artefacts unearthed during excavation – pottery, figurines, glassware, tiles, Mughal period Chinese porcelain, etc.
Other monuments in the Purana Qila precinct
This gateway is believed by some to mark the southern edge of Sher Shah’s city of Shergarh, though some contend that Shergarh extended much further south. The precise extent of the city is not clear from historical records. In any event the arrangement of the gate and the fortified wall attached to it makes it clear that it was the south facing gate of some walled area. On either side of the road leading south from the gate, there are remains of arcades that might have been rows of shops. Ornamental stone inlay and tile work are the main surface decoration.
The Khairul Manazil (literally the 'most auspicious of houses') was built in 1561-1562 by Maham Angah, one of the wet nurses of Akbar, to house a mosque and a madrasa (a school of learning).
The complex is laid around a central courtyard with a shallow tank, and consists of the mosque spread across five bays, double-storeyed colonnades housing the madrasa, and an impressive arched gateway.
— All material for this exhibit has been taken from INTACH Delhi Chapter's publications.
CONVENOR — A G Krishna Menon
CO-CONVENOR — Swapna Liddle
PROJECT CONSULTANT — Annabel Lopez
PROJECT TEAM — Abhiram Sharma, Arpita Ghatak, Niharika Singh, Tanya Singh, Aditya Mehta, Deb Banerji, Pulkit Taneja