The cities of Delhi: From the legend of Indraprastha to Qila Rai Pithora
In this series, Hindustan Times revisits the skeletal remains of Delhi’s oldest cities that silently bear testimony to the city’s past glory.
In Faridabad, a few hundred metres from Surajkund, neither the villagers nor the GPS can give us directions to where we are headed: the ruins of Anangpur dam.
Built by the Tomar Rajputs, who established the first known city of Delhi more than a thousand years ago, today the site lies unmarked and rarely visited. A meandering dirt path from the more famous Surajkund reservoir leads to the dam.
The area in and around present-day Delhi has been the site of many ancient cities. Earlier historical accounts suggested seven cities waxed and waned here, but the number of settlements was higher, going up to nine or ten.
Revisiting the sites of these ancient cities is to suddenly see a glimpse of Delhi’s past lives. “If there is one place in Delhi which gives one a sense of experiencing a thousand years of history at once, it is Lal Kot,” says writer Rana Safvi, author of Where Stones Speak: Historical Trails in Mehrauli.
Lal Kot was a citadel built by Anangpala II in the middle of 11th century. All that remains of it are a few mounds and ruins which lie in present-day Sanjay Van, Mehrauli and parts of the wall have completely collapsed.
“Lal Kot was Delhi’s original ‘red fort’. What we call Red Fort or Lal Qila today was called Qila-e-Mubarak,” explains Safvi.
Apart from Lal Kot, it is in Delhi’s earliest surviving waterworks that the true legacy of the Tomars comes to light. Several Tomar kings shared the name Anangpala, and they built tanks, dams and baolis.
Anang Tal, a water tank abutting the Lal Kot ruins, is one such structure. In Delhi: An Ancient History, historian Upinder Singh writes that the remarkable feature of the tank are the Rajput-period ‘mason marks’ or symbols incised on the semi-dressed stones, such as a swastika, scorpion, drums and circle divided in four parts.
In 1311 AD, when Alauddin Khilji was constructing the Alai Darwaza near Qutub Minar, water from the tank was used.
The hard-to-locate Anangpur dam is also attributed to Anangpala II. It is made entirely out of quartzite. On closer inspection, you can see steep steps on either side. It is 50 metres long and 7 metres high, with stepped sluices to control the flow of water. Today, even at the peak of the monsoon, there is no water in sight.
The completely dry Surajkund reservoir, hardly 2 kms away, tells the same story of rapid ecological change. The semi-circular reservoir is said to be built by King Surajpal Tomar to collect the water from the Anangpur dam. Steps run around the tank with a gap for a stone ramp, which according to historian Percival Spear, “was for elephants when they came down to bathe”.
As recently as a decade ago, the valley was a lake filled with rainwater. Karamvir Singh, who works at the nearby office of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), remembers his early years here. He points to the Surajkund reservoir, some 300 meters away. “Even until 2000, I would come here by paddle boat from the Kund,” he says. “None of this,” he points to walled farms and Badarpur sand pits in the valley, “was around then.”
Unchecked mining in Aravali foothills lead to the drying up of Surajkund, and other neighbouring lakes such as Bhadkal and Damdama. The Supreme Court imposed a ban on mining activities in this area in 2002, but the damage had been done. Illegal mining continues till date, despite the ban.
While picknicking near Surajkund lake dried up with the lake, the reservoir continues to attract visitors, largely due to the annual crafts mela held every February. The mela began in 1987, and now draws a crowd of thousands.
But in off season, the kund only gets a few devoted visitors: young lovers and a tribe of monkeys.
Myths of the first cities
The story of Delhi, goes beyond the Rajputs, both in history and legend.
The first city of Delhi, if you believe mythology, was Indraprat or Indraprastha, a city fit for the gods. It was built on what was once a forest, and was home to Pandavas from the Mahabharata epic. Present-day Purana Qila is widely believed to be site of the famed Indraprastha, and the Archaeological Survey of India has carried out several excavations in the hope of discovering painted gray ware that would tie in with the period.
No conclusive historical evidence has, however, emerged and so Indraprastha remains shrouded in myth. But pre-Rajput artefacts that have been discovered point to smaller, ancient settlements in Delhi. At the Purana Qila, excavations revealed remains dating back to the 4th to 3rd century BC Mauryan period; in Jawaharlal Nehru University in South Delhi, tools dating back to Stone Age were discovered in the 1970s; and at the very heart of Delhi, in Bahapur near East of Kailash, there is a rock engraving of an edict from the time of Ashoka.
In the middle of the first millennium, north India was controlled by factions of Rajput clans, all fighting for power. Archaeological evidence indicates that the first group to make a city out of Delhi, then known as Dhillika, were Tomar Rajputs, who arrived as generals of the Pratiharas dynasty. They later established independent rule, using ancient Delhi as a capital.
Roughly contemporaneous to these ruins is Prithviraj Raso, a 12th century Brajbhasha epic poem that narrates a mythical story of how Delhi got its name, in an episode titled Killi-dhilli-katha (Pillar-Loose-Tale).
Once upon a time, according to the story, King Anangpal Tomar ruled in a city which had a pillar. The king was told that the pillar was rooted so deep into the ground that it rested on the hood of the king of serpents, the ruler of the underground realm. A Brahmin prophesied that Anangpal’s rule would last as long as the pillar stood.
But the curious king ordered the pillar to be dug up for examination, and found that its bottom was indeed covered in serpent blood. He immediately ordered it to be reinstalled, but the pillar was irremediably loose (‘dhilli’), providing the city with its name. In Prithviraj Raso, this act eventually leads to the destruction of the Tomars.
The pillar in this legend is widely thought to be the Iron Pillar, which continues to stand today, refusing to rust, in the middle of the Qutab Minar complex.
How Prithviraj Chauhan lost Delhi
In the mid-12th century, the Tomars were overthrown by the Chauhans, another Rajput clan. It was Prithviraj Chauhan III, the last Chauhan king, who further extended the Lal Kot citadel by building Qila Rai Pithora, fortifying the city against attacks by Turks. The remains of Qila Rai Pithora, named after the legendary king, are in present-day Mehrauli and at the intersection of Saket and Aurobindo Marg.
Chauhan ruled from Ajmer, but Delhi was an important city, albeit a provincial one compared to other Rajput-ruled cities of the time.
In 1191, Prithviraj lost the city to the Turks. A 100-odd kilometres from Delhi lies Tarain, the site of the Rajput king’s clash with Muhammad Ghuri, the Turkish sultan of Ghazni in Afghanistan. When the two first met in battle, Ghuri was severely wounded, and galloped away to safety aided by one of his soldiers. The next year, however, Ghuri employed a clever military tactic to defeat Chauhan, despite having a smaller army than the Rajput king.
The reign of the Rajputs was over. For the next 300 years, Delhi became the seat of the Turkish Sultans.
(Zehra Kazmi contributed reporting to this story)
Tomorrow: The Delhi of the Sultans