Purana Qila


I took a short break in the meetings to visit Purana Qila. This little mound may have been Delhi’s first entry into history; the archaeological museum inside has artifacts from the middle of the first millennium CE found in digs conducted here. The walled enclosure and most surviving structures come from the time of Sher Shah (1486-1545) and are among Delhi’s final burst of architectural creativity before the Mughal monuments.

The entrance to the Purana Qila is right next to the zoo. This confused the driver of the taxi I was on. With a little verbal prodding I managed to get him out of the zoo and point the nose of the car at the correct gate. There was a short, quickly moving, queue for tickets. From here you walk uphill to the very impressive western gate. A little board just inside of it says that this gate was built by Humayun. Apparently Humayun had just built the ramparts and this gate before Sher Shah attacked and drove him out to briefly become of the Emperor of the country.


The gardens inside the ramparts are blanketed with grass. The most beautiful structure inside the walled city is Sher Shah’s mosque, called the Qila-e-Kuhna masjid. You walk up to it from the back (west) and a path leads you around to the front. This initial sight of the mosque from the back is very interesting. The first thing one notices is that the rubble walls of the Lodhi tombs have been replaced by dressed stone. Next, you see that the built-in minaret no longer mirrors the Qutb Minar. Then, you notice the brackets which hold up the balcony would not have looked out of place in a temple. And, finally, you see the pointed arches in the towers at the corners. This fusion is one of the reasons why Percival Spear called this mosque a flowering of the Indo-Persian style of architecture. Finally, when you follow the path around to the front, you see the breathtaking facade (photo above) and you begin to realize why this was called a flowering.


The central arch is breathtaking. The photo above gives just a little inkling of the intricate decoration you see. The red sandstone and white marble are mixed with a grey and a yellow stone to build up the wonderful geometric tessellations which you see. These, together with the balcony and its brackets, and the two lotus decorations: again remind you that this is the fusion known as Indo-Persian style. The beautiful stone work makes the mosque look as bright today as it must have been in Sher Shah’s time.

The prayer niches inside also glow with the natural colours of the stone. They are largely made of marble, and the other three colours of stone are used to create beautiful geometric patterns. The contrast of the marble with the red sandstone would continue to be used in Mughal architecture. But the intricate jewel-brightness of this mosque is not something I have seen in any other structure.


South of the mosque is a two-storied building faced in red sandstone, with magnificent pointed arches. Visitors are no longer allowed inside. This is presumably Humayun’s library. A piece of morbid history clings to this lovely building: the emperor died when he slipped while hurrying down its stairs. Obviously, this happened after he won back his empire from Sher Shah. I haven’t yet found out who built this library building.


I walked around this building and continued south towards the gate called Sher Shah’s gate. An amphitheater has now been built around its ruins to seat people during light and sound shows at night. Some cupolas still remain (see photo alongside). If you go around the seats, and take a few steps up the wall, you can look south and get a view of Humayun’s tomb. I was here on a clear and windy day. I wonder whether you see anything on the typical smoggy day in Delhi.


I turned around and walked to the northern gate: called Talaaqi darwaza. Legend says that Sher Shah ordered it to be closed until his return when he rode away to his last battle against the Mughals. The Mughals won, and this gate remains closed even today. The gate is similar to the south gate, but better preserved. One can still see the plaster and decorations on the inner walls (photo alongside). There is no eastern gate, since the mound overlooked the Jamuna river when it was built. The river has moved away by now. The eastern ramparts are in ruins.

I was not sure whether the trip to Purana Qila would be interesting. It turned out to be the perfect link between the ruins in the Lodhi garden and the exquisite tomb of Humayun.

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