A Very Brief History of Delhi

March 9, 2016

India’s capital is a city that began its life shrouded in myth and barrelled its way through history, alternately raised up by wealth, and brought low by invasions and war. The city’s early history has been passed down as legend in ancient literature, most notably in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, where it’s believe to be the basis for the ancient city Indraprastha (or, “City of the God Indra”).

It’s strongly believed today that the Old Fort in Delhi was built over the site of this City of the God, and archaeological finds around the area date human settlement here to between 1,000 – 2,500 BC, making Delhi one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth.

The Seven Cities of Delhi

It’s thought that this strategically significant locality – placed originally on the fording point of the Yamuna River, as well as on a pivotal route between western, central, and south east Asia – has actually been the site of seven different cities between 3,000 BC and the 17th century British occupation.

During this time, Delhi was at the centre of a number of mighty empires and warring, powerful kingdoms. It was repeatedly conquered by invading armies and then rebuilt again and again, when the conquerors realised how perfectly placed it was and raised it up as the seat of their own empires.

The Delhi Sultanate

The 'Might of Islam' today

The ‘Might of Islam’ today

Dating Delhi’s history with records as opposed to legends usually begins in the 12th century at the onset of the Delhi Sultanate. Before this point, thousands of years had seen the Buddhist and Hindu northern India embattled under waves of raids from Muslim armies, who entered the country from across Central Asia and Persia. But these warring factions didn’t gain a foothold or establish the permanent boundaries of their Islamic Kingdoms until the Ghurid Sultan, Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad, began a fully-fledged expansion war into north India in 1173.

Following the successful invasion and the power-shifting assassination of the Ghurid Sultan himself, in 1206, Delhi became the capital of the Delhi Sultanate under the fabled Slave Dynasty. The first true Sultan of Delhi was a slave; one who rose through the ranks to become a general, a governor, and then finally the leader of the ruling dynasty.

The new Sultan, Qutb-ud-din Aybak, famously constructed The Might of Islam, which is now known as the earliest mosque in India. This stunning addition to the city didn’t come without a price though, and it’s estimated that the Slave Sultan destroyed 27 Jain temples, and pillaged them for their exquisitely carved pillars and other building materials during his reign.

The Mughals and the Slaves

The tomb of the second Mughal Emperor

The tomb of the second Mughal Emperor

The end of the Slave Dynasty saw Delhi ruled by successive Central Asian and Afghan Dynasties, all of which built a myriad of forts and townships within the city. But this successive passing down of titles wasn’t to last, either, and in 1398 Timur Lang, a Turco-Mongol conqueror, invaded India claiming that the Muslim Sultans were becoming too tolerant of their Hindu subjects.

After defeating the incumbent armies he entered Delhi on the 18 December 1398, and left the former seat of power in ruins. More than 100,000 prisoners of war were killed and the new ruler violently installed.

It wasn’t to be until 1526 following the First Battle of Panipat, that the former ruler of Fergana (now eastern Uzbekistan), Zahiruddin Babur, defeated the last Afghan Lodi sultan and formed the legendary Mughal dynasty. The Mughals ruled from seats of power in Delhi, Agra, and Lahore, and it’s generally thought that the kingly state of Rajasthan was all that prevented a full Muslim conquest of Hindu India, during the expansion of their powerful Empire.

The Mughal, Maratha, and Persian Wars

Although the Mughals are widely known as one of the most powerful conquering forces in history, in the mid-16th century their rule over India was interrupted. Sher Shah Suri, another member of a Muslim dynasty and founder of the Sur Empire, defeated the Mughal ruler and forced him to flee to Persia. But after the new conqueror’s accidental death five years later in 1545, his son ruled in his stead until the Hindu king Hemu became the Prime Minister, and formed the new Hindu Raj in north India.

The greatest and perhaps the most powerful of all the Mughal rulers, Akbar the Great, took the decision to move the Mughal seat of power to Agra. This shift in rulers resulted in a decline in Delhi’s fortunes as money and prestige were concentrated elsewhere.

The tomb of Akbar the Great

The tomb of Akbar the Great

With the former seat of power weakened, until the 17th century the Mughals consistently warred with Persian dynasties and the rising Hindu warrior clan, the Maratha Empire. As a result of these competing conquerors Delhi was repeatedly invaded, plundered, and rebuilt.

It was during this time, and before the definitive Maratha invasion, that the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan built the seventh city of the capital, now known as the Old City. His constructions during the 17th century include the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, but repeated wars soon saw the newly-rebuilt seat of empire brought low once again.

The British are Coming

After repeated invasions and rebuttals between the Mughals and the Marathas, in 1803 the British East India Company defeated the Maratha Hindu warriors in the Battle of Delhi, and finally ended their rule over the city.

The East India Company’s new spoils passed to the British Crown in 1857 following the Indian Rebellion within the armed forces that swiftly spread across the country. During the subsequent siege, the city once again received significant damage, and the final ruling Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was exiled to Rangoon. The remaining Mughal territories were quickly annexed as part of British India, and Calcutta (now Kolkata), was decreed to be the new capital of British rule.

Yet again though, this move away from the power of Delhi wasn’t to last. In 1911, King George V shifted the power of rule once again, and made clear that Delhi was to be reinstated as the capital of the country. The architect Edwin Lutyens set about redesigning and significantly rebuilding what was later to be known as New Delhi, but the World Wars delayed the ambitious project considerably.

It took until 1949 when New Delhi was officially declared the seat of the new Government of India, for the country to finally gain its independence from colonial rule.

Modern Delhi

The Lotus Temple in Delhi

The Lotus Temple in Delhi

Today, Delhi is a megacity of 25 million people. It’s also a city of other extremes: from affluent buildings to street slums, from Mughal mausoleums to the shining new metro, and from the peaceful Lodi gardens to the bustling markets and relics of the empires it’s lost.

For many people Delhi is both an assault on the senses and a window into India’s past. Visiting Delhi today means visiting a place where noise, commotion, and overcrowding jostle for space with centuries-old architecture, and the remembrance of those warring Emperors that were lost to Time long ago.

Have you been to Delhi? What did you find there?

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