Purana Qila in the heart of Delhi is a unique monument. Standing on the banks of Yamuna, it contains within it the mythology and the stories of medieval era and an excavation that is giving us insights into our past. Today, it has also become the favorite place for events and performances with the scattered monuments providing the romantic backdrop, vast size providing the required space for large gatherings and central location providing the much-needed convenience.
The beginnings of Purana Qila lie in the mythology or the most ancient history known, as you would like to believe. This was the legendry city called Indraprasth founded by Pandavas in pre-historic times. This is where the famous assembly hall of Mahabharata created by Maya was, though there is no archeological evidence that supports this today. The only oral evidence is the fact that till recent past there was a village by the same name that used to inhabit this area.
The better-known part of the history of this fort is its construction by mughal emperor Humayun as a citadel for the city founded by him Din-a-panah in 1538 CE. It was soon captured by Sher Shah Suri of Sur dynasty and was renamed Shergarh. He also added some buildings to the fort during his short reign of 5 years from here. After Sher Shah this fort remained neglected for some years before being re-captured by Humayun, who died within a year of capturing it. Last Hindu King Hemu ruled for about a month from this fort. If you look at the pattern, no one actually ruled very long from this mighty fort. Anyone who captured this was killed very soon. This complex also served as a refugee camp for people displaced during the partition of the nation. Interestingly the British designed New Delhi is aligned along Purana Qila.
There are 3 gates to this fort and a huge moat surrounds it, which is now used for boating. The Bara Darwaza, facing west and flanked by two huge bastions is the main entrance for the fort. The southern gate facing Humayun’s tomb is called by the same name Humayun Darwaza. The third gate facing North is interestingly called Talaqi Darwaza and is closed permanently owing to a story. Story says that a king went out from this gate and this gate was to be opened only when he returned victorious, since he did not return this gate remains closed to this date. No one knows who the king was, but the only king who it could have been is Sher Shah. All these gateways are an example of Indo-Islamic architecture, adorned with beautiful Rajputana style Chhatris that are decorated with blue inlayed tiles.
Qila-e-Kohna mosque and Sher mandal are two monuments that are well preserved within the Puran Qila complex. Qila-e-Kohna mosque designed as a Jami or Friday mosque is a beautiful example of Indo-Islamic architecture style. Built by Sher Shah Suri, this mosque with one dome and 5 gateways has extensive ornamentation especially on its mihrabs. Walls have geometrical designs in red, black and white marble done skillfully through inlay work. The inside of the dome has a nice play of bright blue and yellow color through glazed tiles. The pointed arches are horseshoe shaped. The corner pillars at the back of the mosque if looked in isolation would give a feeling of a Rajputana building in red sandstone with well defined Chhajjas and beam and lintel arches. A staircase from within the hall leads to the upper storey that was meant for the females of the royal family. There is an interesting water body in the courtyard outside the mosque, which would have been used for Wuzu purpose when the mosque was practicing.
Shermandal is an independently standing double storeyed octagonal structure in red sandstone with a Chhatri on its top. This structure was built as a pleasure resort by Sher Shah to enjoy the weather and a good view. It is said that it was intended to be higher than this and was planned as an observatory, but could not be completed because of Sher Shah’s death. Later when Humayun took over, he converted it into library and one fine January morning he died on the stairs of this building as he tried rushing to the call of prayer from the mosque.
All the above is more or less commonly known about Purana Qila. The not so well known things are the ASI museum, which traces the history of Delhi through the articles discovered through various excavations in different parts of Delhi region including the Purana Qila. Here you can see the ornate doorways of ancient Jain temples from Mehrauli area, along with potteries of various eras discovered from the different layers of Yanuna riverbed. Then there are two small but interesting excavated sites within the complex. One is a step well, which has many storeys and is in an elongated rectangular form, with arches on one side. The steps seem to have been recently restored. The other is a Hamam or a bathing place, which seems like a complex structure and has various places where water can flow from one place to another. I tried but could not make out the exact functioning of this Hamam.
Another interesting thing to see is Kunti Devi temple, right in the middle of the complex. It is a small temple dedicated to Shiva. It is said that this is a temple from the time of Pandavas and probably belonged to their mother Kunti as it is still known by her name. It is a small temple with nothing much to note about except its historical reference. There are two Bhairon temples just outside the Qila complex, adjoining its back wall. Both these temples are said to be have been setup by Pandavas when they had made their capital here. In fact one of the temples has an idol of Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers who is said to have carried Bhairon on his shoulders to this place, before building the temple. Interestingly alcohol is the preferred prasad or offering for this deity. All the beggars gather around to receive the prasad for obvious reasons and government has a tough time controlling the crowd here, especially on Sundays.
You can walk around the Qila along it thick and seemingly impregnable walls. The walls also served as the quarters for the soldiers and guards and today these are home to ASI offices and ASI museum. Most walls are in dilapidated state and those that are standing erect, have been restored by ASI not so long ago. The same is true for the two unused gateways. If possible, try and walk on the walls of the Qila to get a view from the top and from here Delhi does seem a beautiful city.
Bang opposite Purana Qila, across the Mathura road is Khair-ul-Manzil mosque. The name literally means the best or most auspicious of the houses. The name is also a chronogram that means the letters when written in Persian refer to the year of its construction. Built in 1561 CE, this mosque belonged to Maham anga, the wet nurse of Akbar and Adham Khan’s mother. It is a relatively plain mosque when compared to Qila-i-Kohna mosque but has an impressive gateway and is fairly large in size. The glazed tile ornamentation on arches has more or less worn out. It also houses a madarsa or a school.
Just ahead of Khair-ul-Manzil mosque is the Sher Darwaza more often known as Lal Darwaza, built by Sher Shah Suri. This is an impressive gateway in red sandstone, quartzite and marble with remains of a massive wall behind it. There are ruined shops on both sides of the pathway leading to the gateway. This was one of the gates to Delhi Sher Shahi. Its northern gate is near Feroze Shah Kotla known as Khuni Darwaza.
To complete this walk you can also visit the Zoo that is in the area that was inherently a part of Purana Qila and take a boat ride in the small lake outside Qila Walls. On a good weather day you can enjoy the extensive gardens of Purana Qila.
There is something for everyone in this walk.