"Once there was nothing here.
Now look how minarets camouflage the sunset.
Do you hear the call to prayer?
It leaves me unwinding scrolls of legend
Till I reach the first brick they brought here.
How the prayers rose, brick by brick?"
--Agha Shahid Ali
You say Delhi and what comes to mind are the old and majestic monuments, reminding us about the rich historical heritage it houses. Today, Delhi is also renowned as the capital of the country, but even centuries ago, it was here that many dynasties established the capital of their empire. Archaeologists have found that the Mauryas were one of the first rulers of Delhi (c.300 BC), though later, many empires found their way to the region. An inscription found near Srinivaspur was believed to be of Emperor Ashoka who belonged to the Mauryan dynasty (273-236 BC).
It was in 10th century that Kumara Gupta I from the Gupta dynasty which ruled the region from 32-540 BC, got a magnificent iron pillar made and got it to Delhi, which is the renowned pillar situated near the Qutub Minar. It is also interesting to note that the many dynasties and empires that ruled Delhi also put their signature in the region in the form of monuments and cities. There were eight prominent cities in the region with five of them being located in south of Delhi.
It is a shocking fact that Delhi was always a capital, from the yesteryear empires to the present day India. But it is not as if Delhi can just be associated as a capital city but it is also a region that has helped shape the historical heritage of India. Though archaeological evidence points out the evidence of settlement around 2500 years ago, the Mahabharata reference in ancient texts refer to the presence of Indraprastha, the capital of Pandavas, in the region and that means the present Delhi and its surroundings areas were home to kings and rulers around 3000 years ago. Historians have found evidence that around at least seven major empires had their rule established in the region. It is also believed that Delhi is located on the western shores of Yamuna River. Today, you can find the ruins of Purana Qila or Old Fort, once inhabited by Humayun, the Mughal Emperor. The many monuments, old buildings and heritage structures in Delhi will take you to the glorious earlier era of our history and you have to feel it to know it.
Passing through the history of Delhi
One of the first settlements in Delhi belonged to Tomara Rajputs. Anang Pal, who belonged to the clan, is said to have set up the first city of Delhi, and then called as Lal Kot. He is also believed to have bought back the iron pillar of the Gupta dynasty (320-600 AD) back to Delhi. It is the iron pillar that is situated in the premises of Qutub Minar.
It was Qutab-ud-din-Aibak who ushered in a lengthy period of Muslim rule over Delhi. Muslim rulers ruled Delhi for over six and half centuries not just bringing in change in the region but also over hauling the face of northern India. Some of the best architectural wonders came into existence during this period, notably among them being the glorious Qutub Minar and the heavenly Taj Mahal. Though many Mughal rulers over the period of time did leave their glorious imprints on Delhi’s soil, it is the great Emperor Akbar who towers among them all. He was a ruler ahead of his times and his vision truly embodied it. He had a strong military, perhaps the best a ruler had in history and what distinguished him from others was his sense of justice, fairness and sincerity as a ruler. He treated all religions as equal and presented governance based on wisdom and justice. Later, his grandson Shah Jahan too followed in the legendary footprints of his grandfather and ruled efficiently. He also shifted his capital to Shajahanabad, the seventh city in Delhi. Earlier he had his headquarters in Agra. The period in which Shah Jahan ruled is considered to be one of the golden periods of Mughal empire as it was relatively peaceful and the Mughal empire remained as the only power in the region. During this period, many beautiful monuments arose and so did art flourish. The region also saw abundance in wealth. The legendary Peacock Throne was installed during this period at the Red Fort in Delhi. The Throne was fully made out of gold and precious gems were studded on it. It is said that it took seven years to make the throne. Shah Jahan was very particular about art and beauty as it is evident from the many monuments that he created during his rule. Taj Mahal is just an example.
Delhi continued to be a focal point ever since. During British rule, Delhi was where the action was as far as independence struggle was concerned. In 1857, when the Sepoy Mutiny took place, Delhi was the main centre. The revolt could not uproot British but it did have a major impact and this made Delhi the sore point for British. After the British made Delhi their capital, it came to be an eminent place of freedom struggle.
Delhi has always changed or rather made to change as per the whims and fancies of its rulers, but the changes have only added to the beauty of Delhi. The British wanted to make Delhi the place of authority or the place that would suit their might. It wanted to bring in British style buildings and wanted to create an imposing landscape with majestic structures lined with trees. The Parliament building and the Rashtrapati Bhavan were some of the buildings built by the British. Hence freedom fighters had to reach Delhi to send their message across. Azad Hind Fauz had also marched to Delhi because capturing Delhi would have meant a major setback to British. It was at the Red Fort in Delhi, which saw the hoisting of Indian tricolor flag, that announced freedom from British and the country embarked on a new journey filled with hope and joy. Hence ‘Dilli Chalo’ became a popular phrase and came to be associated with freedom struggle. Since post independence too, Delhi was where the government set up its headquarters, even today, protesters who rally against government use this phrase.
Delhi and Mahabharat
Delhi has found mention in the epic Mahabharat as Indraprastha. The epic says that Pandavas created the city out of a barren land and made it their place of residence. Indraprashta was said to be a amazing city which had all the facilities and its beauty too was said to be enchanting with spectacular mansions, wide gardens and palaces, so much so that whoever visited Indraprastha referred to it as ‘second heaven’. Arjun, the Pandava prince is believed to have stayed at Indraprastha with Lord Krishna after the Mahabharat war.
When Delhi was known as Quila Rai Pithora
One of the most noted rulers in Delhi was the Tomar clan who are believed to be the successors of Arjuna. The most renowned of the Tomar rulers was Anangpal Tomar I and is credited with the founding of Delhi city. After him, his son Anangpal Tomar II ascended the Delhi throne. The great Prithviraj Chauhan was the grandson of Tomar II. He was also known as Rai Pithora. Prithviraj wanted to give Delhi a name that would reflect his kingdom’s legacy and he named it as Quila Rai Pithora. It also included some kingdoms of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab. He had to resist attacks from Muslim rulers from time to time and he gave a tough time to Muhammad Ghori who wanted to attack and capture Delhi. The first battle was won by Prithviraj in 1191 but being the great human he was, he released Ghori. The latter with no gratitude but only greed attacked Prithviraj’s kingdom again and this time, Prithviraj could not win. With the end of Prithviraj’s rule, the rule of Hindu Kings in Delhi too came to an end. Later for years, Delhi was under Muslim rulers till the time British came into picture.
Delhi under Slave Dynasty
Muhammad Ghori ruled for years and after his death, his governor Qutub-ud-din-Aibak succeeded him and he gave rise to a new dynasty, the slave dynasty. Aibak was an influential ruler who built many monuments, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque being one of them. He ruled from 1206-1210 during which practically the whole of north India was under him. He also developed the south west Delhi and named it Mehrauli. It was Aibak who initiated the construction of the magnificent Qutub Minar but he died in 1210 and the construction remained incomplete.
Iltumish, a slave but who became the son-in-law of Aibak, succeeded him. He ascended the throne in 1211 and he continued rule for over 25 years till his death in 1236. He brought in many reforms in the administration and he also started the use of silver and copper coins. He also started the Iqtadari system. It was under his rule that Qutub Minar’s construction was completed.
Since Iltumish had no sons, his daughter Razia Sultana became Delhi’s ruler in 1236 and is the only woman ruler to have ruled over Delhi. She ruled only for four years till 1240.
After her, other rulers occupied Delhi’s throne but none could leave an impact. Ghiyasuddin Balban, also a slave of Iltumish, was one who lasted and ruled for 21 years from 1266. He was also the last ruler from the Slave Dynasty and then Khiljis took over Delhi.
Delhi under Khilji Dynasty
Khilji Dynasty was one of the powerful rulers of Delhi and was established by Jalal Ud Din Firuz Khilji. He ruled only for nine years from 1290 and was killed by Ala-ud-din-Khilji, his own nephew. Such were the power equations of those days, kins killed kins for the seat of power. Ala-ud-din Khilji was a powerful ruler and perhaps the only famous ruler from this dynasty. He was keen on expanding his kingdom and attacked and captured many adjacent regions of Delhi. He also deputed his associate Malik Kafur to south, who also brought many southern kingdoms under Khilji rule. Ala-ud-din Khilji also built the Delhi fort and the Siri City. His rule came to an end with his death in 1316. Though he was succeeded by others from the dynasty, none were as powerful or as efficient as him and the dynasty rule died a natural death.
Delhi under Tughlaq Dynasty
Khilji Dynasty was succeeded by Tughlaq Dynasty which had a fairly long run from 1320 to 1414. The founder of Tughlaq Dynasty was Ghiyas-ud-din-Tughlaq but he ruled only for four years beginning from 1321. It was he who built the Tughlaqabad city near Delhi. He was succeeded by his son Muhammad bin Tughlaq who ruled for 26 years from 1325 to 1351. Though he was a learned man and had a vast knowledge of varied subjects such as sciences, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, his silly policies made him infamous. The Tughlaq Empire almost came to an end with his death in 1351. Though his successor Firoz Shah Tughlaq ruled from 1351 to 1388, he could not keep the kingdom united and strong. The city of Ferozabad was built by him. His successors were weak and inefficient and the Tughlaq Empire which was already falling into pieces ended. It was during this period that Delhi saw a destructive phase wherein Timur created havoc in the region looting and destroying Delhi and harassing the people.
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