Become a fan of h2g2
Delhi is seven cities
Some historians put that number at 11. According to the most widely accepted version of Delhi's history it is a 'series of cities created one after the other, stretching some 3,000 years back in time'. Then again, some say it might even be 5,000 years old.
When did Delhi Begin to be Delhi?
Nobody knows for sure when Delhi began. For the record, there are archaeological excavations very near the city that have unearthed ruins that are 5,000 years old. These ruins belong to the Indus Valley culture, one of the four centres for the origin of human civilization (the others were China, Mesopotamia and Egypt). It would nevertheless be very adventurous to say that Delhi began right up with the Indus valley. It is probably safest to stick to the view that nobody really knows when Delhi first came into being.
For the uninitiated, Delhi, or more precisely New Delhi, is the capital city of India. It is situated in the north-central part of India and is a city of some 12 - 15 million people. It is in the shape of a 30km radius circle and it sits like a huge blob of black and grey at the edge of the Indo Gangetic plain, one of the flattest, most fertile and most densely populated regions in the world. On the east and north of Delhi are the lush green fields of the plains, on the west is the Thar Desert and on the south is the river Yamuna. Some 300km north of Delhi are the Himalayan Mountains. There is a lot that present day Delhi has to offer, but this Entry seeks to focus more on the history of the city.
One of the earliest mentions of Delhi is in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic. According to this epic, Delhi began as a jungle inhabited by small tribes. The conquering heroes of the Mahabharata razed the jungle and killed all its inhabitants to build their new capital, Indraprastha - 'abode of the king of the gods'. This was the first city of Delhi, and the violence that marked its creation was to be a recurring theme throughout its history. Interestingly, the ruins of ancient Indraprastha are there in modern day Delhi and the name Indraprastha is given to one of the modern day suburbs. This story of the origin of Delhi would make the city about 3,000 - 3,500 years old and the first war for the throne of Delhi would be that which is accounted in the epic Mahabharata.
The next mention of Delhi is around 600 AD. Delhi was then the Capital city of a certain King Dhilu. Dhilu was a fairly unremarkable king, as were most of the others who ruled Delhi in the early part of the Indian Middle Ages. The only importance Dhilu has is giving Delhi its name.
Delhi started to rise in importance again in the 12th Century AD. This was the time when raids by the Afghans on the north-western borders of India began. Delhi was the city that faced the brunt of these raids. It was at that time a puny kingdom in the hands of a clan of princes called the Chauhans. After a series of battles, the Chauhans finally lost Delhi in 1198 AD. The control of Delhi was passed on to Mohammed Ghauri, an Afghan raider and in 1200 AD Delhi was left as booty to Ghauri's slave.
This new slave king, Qutabuddin Aibak, created the third Delhi in a present-day suburb called Mehrauli. Qutabuddin gave Delhi its most famous landmark - The Qutab Minar, a tall limestone mortar tower that still stands today. These were strange times, extremely turbulent and yet marked by remarkable progress and intermittent periods of great prosperity. What can't be denied is that the slave kings of Delhi were a restless lot. Constant tussles for power led to a downward spiral of court intrigues, assassinations, poisoning and plundering. On the other hand, because of this restlessness, the slave kings started to expand their empire and the pre-eminence of Delhi as the capital city rose.
The Plundering of Delhi
This pre-eminence came at a heavy price as Delhi became a prime target for plunderers. In the absence of a strong and stable ruler to defend it, Delhi fell and the plunderers had a field day. It was razed and plundered by Timor the Lame and also by Genghis Khan, perhaps two of the fiercest raiders known to history1. After these plunderers, Delhi faced its worst days, those under Mohammed bin Tughlaq, ironically a strong and wily ruler . Often ridiculed as Mad Mohammed, he was an extraordinary scholar. Indeed, he was at once brilliant and yet, strangely, a spectacular failure2. It was Tughlaq who ordered the evacuation of Delhi in a fit of rage. 'There shall not be a single kitchen fire left burning in Delhi', the emperor thundered, and in response thousands of funeral pyres lit up as people died like flies on the road from Delhi to the new capital 1,000 miles away3.
Delhi's spirit survived; each time Delhi was destroyed it regenerated right next to its older incarnate. There still stands to this day Tughlaq's Tughlaqabad and Allauddin Khalji's Siri fort and there also remains the Hauz Khas, a remnant from the slave dynasties, as do numerous other products from this time. Not only did Delhi survive, it flourished as a centre for religion and for art.
In 1526 AD, Ghiasuddin Babar captured Delhi. Using just 25,000 men, cavalry and artillery, he routed an army four times the size of his own and put to death the last slave king - Ibrahim Lodhi. The reason for the rout was that Babar introduced artillery to India.
The Mighty Moguls
With Ghiasuddin Babar came the Moguls and the Golden Era for Delhi. Over the next few centuries the Moguls became perhaps the richest and the most powerful kings in the world. Delhi prospered, this time as Shahjahanabad with its red fort and its walled city. These were 200 years of great calm and progress for the city. The Moguls had declared at the gates of Shahjahanabad that the city was a heaven on Earth. It very nearly was. Unsurpassed in arts, in trade, in religion and in riches, it boasted an undefeated army.
This prosperity lasted until the Moguls disappeared and Aurangzeb was the last great Mogul leader. Coming to power as he did, after leading a revolt to kill his brothers, he is widely regarded as a brutal and bigoted man. Aurangzeb was nevertheless a very strange person. He is worth knowing about because after his death Delhi plunged inexorably towards destruction giving the impression that it was him that stood between Delhi and ruin. A spartan, simple and extremely religious man, it is said that he stitched caps to pay for his living. Aurangzeb's empire was progressively weakened by his desire to expand into the south of India. He faced the Marathas under one of India's most respected politico-military leaders, Shivaji.
When Aurangzeb died the Moguls were a mere shadow of their former selves. A little before his death Aurangzeb wrote to his son that he had been duped by his advisors, that he had been told that India had all the knowledge and all the riches he would ever need. He wrote further that there was a world beyond the Mogul court and that this world beyond needed to be seen and explored if the Moguls were to prosper. It was a noble thought, but it came too late. Aurangzeb died and anarchy broke loose. None of the new Mogul emperors had time to work outside the court, and this, coupled with the fact of there being many intrigues inside the court, was a formidable problem.
The Fall of the Mogul Empire
Rich but weak, Delhi braced itself again to be ruined and plundered first by Nadir Shah and then by his General Ahmad Shah Abdali. By the time Abdali left in 1762 AD, all the glory amassed in 200 years was destroyed. By 1856 AD the Mogul empire was dead, fallen prey to British advances in India. The once great Mogul spread that ruled India was reduced to an influence extending a stone's throw in radius. The Mogul empire was dead; it just remained for it to be buried. This happened in 1857 AD when a revolt was organized against the British and after a few months of bloody fighting the Moguls lost Delhi forever. The last emperor was exiled to Burma where he died lamenting the lack of a few yards of land in Delhi for his burial. The last Mogul princes were beheaded - the headless bodies hung on one of the gates of the city - and the heads sent as presents from the British to the mogul Emperor.
Blood on British Hands
The British fell on Delhi with a vengeance, brutally killing anyone associated with the revolt. Accounts of that time graphically describe mass public hangings and death by firing a cannonball through a person tied to the mouth of a cannon. The retribution ended in 1858 AD and Delhi was then placed under British sovereignty. The British kept Calcutta as their Indian capital for some time, but then in 1911 AD Delhi was declared the capital of India once more, and a new city, Lutyen's Delhi, was born. This, the most modern of the many Delhis, was built as the administrative centre of the British. It is the place where the present day Indian government has its offices.
Lutyen's Delhi is also known as New Delhi. Most people regard it as the last Delhi. But the truth is there have been many Delhi's built since. In 1947, an extended South Delhi was built for the many refugees of the Indian Partition. In the 1980s and 1990s a big industrial Delhi was built in the north of the city that prospered under the economic and industrial anarchy of the 80s and the 90s. These were all ill-conceived plans that failed miserably. Such 'solutions' are constantly offered for the problem of managing a population of 12 - 15 million people in today's Delhi. The simple truth is that a nation like India never had the resources or administrative framework to handle such a monstrously large city. Now Delhi is a huge impersonal soulless metropolis, a far cry from the elegant and tragic city it has been throughout its history. Sometimes (and thankfully only sometimes) Delhi bares its fangs to remind its residents of its terrible past.