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City of forts


Delhi has been a city much fought over. The legacy of these wars is a profusion of forts, from the ancient Lal Kot to Shahjahan’s Lal Qila.

Photos: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar and Abhilash Gaur

Imposing citadel: The Red Fort.

Delhi came under Muslim rule in 1192 A.D. When the Turks saw its fort, Qila Rai Pithora, they were struck by its scale and strength. Their chronicler, Hasan Nizami, notes: “in height and strength (there is) not its equal nor second throughout t he length and breadth of the seven climes”.

The fort’s walls cast a protective ring some eight km long and 30 feet high. Built hardly 20 years earlier, by Rai Pithora (Prithvi Raj Chauhan), the slain Hindu sovereign, they were very strong at the time. And when the Turks finally got inside, they found themselves up against the still taller walls of the older citadel, Lal Kot.

“By different measurements, I found the ramparts to be from 28 to 30 feet in thickness…they have a general height of 60 feet above the bottom of the ditch…at all the salient points there are large bastions from 60 to 100 feet in diameter,” wrote Alexander Cunningham, the first chief of the Archaeological Survey of India, about the walls of Lal Kot in 1865 A.D. But in the 150 years since, most of that fort’s remains have been levelled to make space for Delhi’s growing population.

Lost forts

Lal Kot and its surrounding, Qila Rai Pithora, are not the only lost forts of Delhi. Kaiqubad, the city’s 10th Sultan, had built a fort-palace on the Yamuna’s bank at a place called Kilokri, in 1287 A.D. He was very young at the time, and quickly embraced a life of debauchery after 17 years of puritanical upbringing. So it wasn’t long before he was killed by Jalal-ud-din Firoz Khalji, the 70-year-old commander of his armies.

The Khaljis were a tribe of Turkish origin who had settled in Afghanistan 200 years earlier. So the ruling elite of Delhi — all Turks —regarded them as Afghans and resented their usurpation of power. The new sultan therefore made Kilokri his citadel, and kept a safe distance from Lal Kot for one full year. What was the fort-palace at Kilokri like? We don’t know, for, the site has been completely built over in the centuries since. However, the village retains its ancient name, and driving down Delhi’s “Ring Road” you will spot signboards stating “Kilokri” just past the Ashram flyover.

Six years after he rose to power, Jalal-ud-din was treacherously murdered by his ambitious nephew and son-in-law Ala-ud-din Khalji, who paraded the sultan’s severed head on a spear through the two provinces he governed. Ala-ud-din knew that, as a regicide and parricide, he was unlikely to be welcomed by the populace of Delhi, so he made use of his hoard of gold to soften the popular feeling. The chronicler Barni records, “He scattered so much gold about that the faithless people easily forgot the murder of the late sultan, and rejoiced over his accession.”

The ramparts of Tuqhlaqabad seen against an ever-expanding Delhi.

And so, towards the middle of the year 1296, Ala-ud-din was seated upon the throne in Lal Kot. It was a time when the Mongol horde had started attacking India in earnest. They struck first within months of his accession. Then again in 1297 and 1299 A.D. The fourth time, they managed to reach Delhi under their chief, Targhi. Since most of Ala-ud-din’s troops were away on a campaign, the sultan had to entrench his military camping ground a few miles northeast of the city. There he remained besieged for two months. And when the Mongols finally withdrew, Ala-ud-din built a fort at the site.

Some years later, Ala-ud-din’s troops captured and beheaded around 8,000 Mongols who had sneaked across the northwest frontier. Their heads were then buried, it is said, in the walls of the new fort, which thereupon came to be called Siri (sir is Hindi for head). When the conqueror Timur visited Siri in December 1398 AD, he observed, “Its buildings are lofty. They are surrounded by fortifications of stone and brick, and they are very strong.” Little remains of this 700-year-old fort now, as it has been swallowed by the village called Shahpur Jat, which is a fashion hub of modern Delhi. But the name Siri is kept alive by the city’s famous cultural centre: Siri Fort Auditorium.

The Khalji dynasty wound up within four years of Ala-ud-din’s death, and was replaced by the Tughlaqs. Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq, the first sultan of this dynasty, ruled only five years, but built a massive fort called Tughlaqabad whose walls stand to this day. Rising 30 to 50 feet above the ground, they run a length of 6.5 km, and, surprisingly, were built inside two years! Across the road from Tughlaqabad, stands the smaller but no less robust fort, Adilabad, built by Ghias-ud-din’s son and successor, Muhammad Tughlaq. And still further stands Nai ka Kot, a fortress that served as Tughlaq Junior’s residence while he was building Adilabad.

Lone survivor

Muhammad’s successor Firoz was a peaceable man and an avid builder. Three years after his accession, he commenced building a new city, Firozabad, several miles north of Jahanpanah. About this city, the chronicler Shams-i-Siraj Afif wrote in 1388 A.D., “So many buildings were built that from Indrapat to Kushk-i-Shikar, five kos (10 miles) apart, all the land was occupied.”

Of this city, only Firoz Shah’s citadel remains. Called Firoz Shah Kotla, the fort originally overlooked the Yamuna, but the river has moved away down the centuries. Today, you’ll find the fort on Delhi’s version of Fleet Street: Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. The fort stands a little away from the road, and since its walls are not imposing, it is easily missed in a hurry. But there are numerous ruins inside the low walls, including a 14th-century mosque and the remarkable building serving as a base for the sandstone pillar of Ashoka that Firoz Shah transplanted here from Ambala, 200 km away.

Coming back to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, there’s an old gateway called Khooni Darwaza on the median. This is where the sons of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, were shot dead by Major Hodson in 1857 A.D. But it is a much older gateway, and once formed part of the Afghan king Sher Shah Sur’s city, Dilli Sher Shahi. His citadel, which he called Shergarh but is now known as Purana Qila, is an imposing sight with high walls and higher gates. Built between 1540 and 1545 A.D., this fort has the most beautiful mosque in Delhi, called Qila-i-Kohna. It also has the double-storey pleasure pavilion called Sher Mandal, from the steps of which the second Mughal, Humayun, fell to death.

Contrasting uses

Sher Shah’s son and successor Islam Shah, who was also known as Salim Shah, built another fort around 1550 A.D., amidst the Yamuna. It was, of course, called Salimgarh, but was seldom put to any royal use, for, the Sur dynasty came to an abrupt end with the return of the Mughals in 1555 A.D. The sixth Mughal, Aurangzeb, used Salimgarh as a State prison, while the British later on built barracks inside it, and used it to imprison the soldiers of Indian National Army at the end of WW II.

If Salimgarh was utilitarian, Shahjehan’s Red Fort across the river from it was an image of luxury. It was completed in 1648 A.D., and in his bedchamber the emperor had the following verse engraved: “if there be paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” The fort suffered extensive damage during the Mutiny of 1857, and most of its “heavenly” buildings and gardens were obliterated. Yet enough has survived to engage you for several hours. Be it the walls, the gateway or the halls of audience, Red Fort has many surprises in store. You might not visit Tughlaqabad or Firoz Shah Kotla, or even Purana Qila, but do set aside some time for Delhi’s youngest and prettiest fort on your next visit.

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