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Dinpanah and Shergarh of Purana Qila: Why 2 rival kings chose the same site to raise cities

The second Mughal emperor, Humayun, built Dinpanah and died there on his way from Lahore to Agra in 1556. The site was appropriated by Sher Shah Suri for Shergarh after he defeated Humayun in 1540.

delhi Updated: Jan 26, 2018 17:10 IST
Parvez Sultan
Parvez Sultan
Hindustan Times
Delhi history,Seven cities of Delhi,Delhi monuments
A view of Purna Qila. The site witnessed the rise and fall of two dominant empires, Mughal and Sur, but is also linked with ancient civilisations. (Arun Sharma/HT PHOTO)

January 1556, Delhi. It has been eleven months since Mirza Nasiruddin Baig Muhammad Khan Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, reclaimed his kingdom from Sher Shah Suri, the Pashtun founder of the Sur Empire. On the way from Lahore to Agra — the capital city — Humayun’s royal entourage and army halts at Dinpanah, the sixth city of Dilli, which he established 23 years ago.

It is a sunny winter afternoon. Humayun reaches the rooftop of his library, Sher Mandal, a two-storied octagonal building in the fort that offers a panoramic view of the city. Humayun has called astrologers to discuss a plan for setting up an institute to study the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. Since the Sur Empire laid waste to the city of his dreams, Humayun now intends to resume the construction of “Dinpanah” (Persian for “the asylum of faith”).

As the sun lowers on the horizon, a muezzin recites the call to prayer. It’s Humayun’s habit to sit down wherever he is when he hears the azaan. But something different happens this day: a foot entangled in the robe, tripping down the steps, a fatal fall. A few drops of blood trickle out of Humanyun’s right ear. Two days later, the king is dead.

With the death of Humayun, the story of the great city he hoped to create also came to an end. The site, which witnessed the rise and fall of two dominant empires — Mughal and Sur — now lies in ruins in the Purana Qila, once Sher Shah’s great palace, now a group of ancient structures flanked by a zoological park, a lake, and the Bhairon temple.

Ancient land

Before Humayun thought of his dream city, the site of Dinpanah had been a settlement for centuries. According to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a village at the site that existed until 1913 named “Indarpat” was the direct descendant of the Mahabharat’s Indraprastha, founded by the Pandavas after the epic’s famous Kuru War, also referred to as the Mahabharat War. (The Marathi author Chintaman Vinayak Vaidya has estimated this war occurred around 3101 BC.)

During excavations undertaken between the 1950s and 70s, the ASI found sickles, parers, terracotta toys, kiln-burnt bricks, and painted grey bowls and dishes. Painted grey wares have also been recovered from other locations associated with Mahabharata, such as Hastinapur, Mathura, and Kurukshetra.

“These circumstantial evidences establish the fact Indraprastha or Inderpat was among the five areas asked by the Pandavas from the Kauravas, for which the Kuru War was fought,” said an official of ASI who requested anonymity since he is not authorized to speak to media.

While the ASI argues that the origins of this site relate to Indraprastha and other aspects of the Mahabharat, other scholars are not certain.

Sohail Hashmi, a Delhi-based writer and filmmaker who leads heritage walks, contested the view that today’s Purana Qila has a demonstrable link to places describes in the Mahabharat.

“On three occasions, excavation was done at Purana Qila site,” he said. “There were traces of continuous human habitation for about 2,000 years, from 300 BC to 19th century. The excavators did find objects related to third century BC — Mauryan period. But nothing was discovered from earlier times. Mahabharat period is considered to be older than Mauryan era.”

Countering the painted grey ware theory, Hashmi added, “They had been in use for a longer period. To connect them with Mahabharat period, carbon dating of utensils should be done.”

Farhat Nasreen, who teaches medieval Indian history at Jamia Millia Islamia, also said that recovery of painted grey wares at Purana Qila does not definitively establish its connection with the Mahabharata city. “If a new city was being settled, it would have been on virgin grounds. Probably there might have been a village or two here, which have been associated with Mahabharata because Delhi does have a history of habitation from very ancient times. Even stone-age tools have been found in various sites in Delhi.”

Either way, the site enjoyed its first moment of fame during modern times in August 1533, when Humayun laid the foundation stone of Dinpanah. In Swapna Liddle’s book, Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, the foundation laying ceremony is described as follows: “All the great mushaikh (religious men), the respectable saiyids (descendants of Muḥammad through his daughter Faṭima), the learned persons, and all the elders of the city Delhi accompanied the king to the spot. His majesty with holy hand put a brick on the earth, and then each person from that concourse of great men put a stone on the ground.”

Hashmi said Humayun must have zeroed in on the location for the security it offered. “It was next to the river on an elevated piece of land. River water must have been diverted to the moat, making it more secure in case of an attack.”

Second empire

After routing Humayun in the battle of Kannauj in 1540, Sher Shah Suri decided to construct another city in Delhi, since building a city was considered the ultimate sign of victory at the time. He opted for the same site as Dinpanah, whose construction site was razed and replaced with that of another new city — Shergarh.

Sher Mandal at Purna Qila. It is here that the second Mughal emperor Humayun fell to his death, while coming down the stairs of his library. (Arun Sharma/HT PHOTO)

The complex spread over 35 acres, from Feroz Shah Kotla in the north to Nizamuddin’s tomb in the south. Purana Qila was surrounded by 18-metre-high ramparts, and the whole fort was enclosed within a wide moat. Three gates, all double-storied structures, were built with red sandstone and chhatris (domed pavilions).

One of them, built towards the west, is called Sher Shah Darwaza or Lal Darwaza (Red Gate), an imposing structure standing tall next to the Delhi High Court on Mathura Road and Bapa Nagar. This gate was used to enter Shergarh. The remains of a series of apartments with a verandah in front are still visible. Ruins of a structure filled with many small chambers indicate this site also contained a market. The ASI is carrying out a restoration, as parts of the structure collapsed during rain in 2012.

The fort and its remains

At present, no remains of Shergarh are visible except the ruins of Purana Qila and its fortification wall; Kunha Mosque, Sher Shah’s royal chapel; the three gates; and a red stone octagonal tower known as Sher Mandal. The building material used for Sher Shah’s city was later appropriated for the construction of Shahjahanabad, and a significant chunk of the land was taken over for the British imperial city, New Delhi. Similarly, Dinpanah was built with the remains of previous cities of Delhi.

After ruling for five years, Sher Shah died in gun power explosion during a war against Chandel Rajputs in 1545 at Kalinjar in Uttar Pardesh.

The Qila-i-Kunha mosque inside the Purana Qila complex. The mosque was built by Sher Shah Suri,a nd he and his nobles prayed here. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

No more significant structures were added to Delhi during the remainder of the Sur Empire with the exception of Salimgarh, which was built by Sher Shah’s son, Salim Shah. The fortress, which served as a bulwark against the Mughals, was turned later into a prison by the Mughals and the British, who used it to house Indian National Army leaders such as Shah Nawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sahgal, and Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of Indian National Army during their trial in 1945. Fifty years later, the site was made into the Swatantrata Senani Smarak (Freedom Fighters’ Memorial).

First Published: Jan 26, 2018 16:12 IST