Delhi is believed to have been the site of the fabled city of Indraprastha, which featured in the Mahabharata over 3000 years ago, but archeological evidence suggests that the area has been settled for around 2500 years.
However, for most of Indian history before the Turkic Muslim invasion in 1192 AD, Delhi didn’t really figure as a significant city on India’s map. Other cities such as Pataliputra, Ujjain, Kannauj and Mathura had been the major seats of power. Delhi attained some importance under the Tomar Rajputs from around 1050 AD; but it had never been a place from where the entire subcontinent’s fate would be decided.
That changed after the Turkic invasion.
Delhi was adopted as the formal capital of the new rulers. And since then, it has always been the most important city in India (barring a couple of centuries in between, when Agra, and then Calcutta held that honour). What made this city, which was an obscure hamlet for close to three thousand years, such an enduring choice for the capital of this vast country?
Like most things involving real estate, the answer is: location, location, location.
You can read more about Delhi’s location and it’s importance in this post.
For control over India, it’s important to have control over India’s most populous region. And the location of Delhi is ideal for doing so. It was almost as if India’s rulers experimented with multiple cities and sites before stumbling upon Delhi, and realised ‘Hey, we may be onto something here!’ And that’s how Delhi attained its status as India’s pre-eminent city and has pretty much retained it ever since.
Delhi is a city of cities, built and destroyed several times with at least eight known to have been founded around modern Delhi, the last of which was the British Raj’s New Delhi. Earliest existing ruins date from AD 736, when Tomara ruler Anangpal Tomar II, built Lal Kot, a fortified city in Mehrauli region as the first city of Delhi, to halt raids by Mahmud of Ghazni. After Anangpal’s demise, his maternal grandson Prithviraj Chauhan, then king of Ajmer took control of Lal Kot and renamed it Rai Pithora (remains of the fort walls are visible in Mehrauli around Qutub complex, Kishangarh and Vasant Kunj areas).
In the late twelfth century, Mohammed Ghori a Turk from present-day Afghanistan tried to capture Delhi and was initially defeated. But Ghori attacked for a second time the following year and executed Prithviraj Chauhan in a fierce battle in 1192 AD.
There’s an interesting backstory to that defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan, that is told in an epic poem known as Prithviraj Raso, composed by his court poet.
Here’s how the story goes (Note: this story features in our Qutub Minar Audio Guide . For more such stories, take our audio guides for a spin on your Android or iOS phones.)
Prithviraj was an up-and-coming Rajput King, ruling over Delhi and Ajmer. He’d aroused the envy of his neighbouring ruler, the much older Jaichand of Kannauj. This Jaichand had a daughter called Samyogita.
Prithviraj and Samyogita fell for each other. The worried dad organised a “Swayamvar” for her. A “swayamvar” was a ceremony where the girl got to choose her husband, among many potential suitors; you could think of it as an ancient, feminist twist to the Indian arranged marriage system!) Naturally Prithviraj wasn’t called and what’s more – to add insult to injury, his statue was kept outside the door as a doorman! When it was time for Samyogita to choose, guess what she did: ignored all the other suitors, walked straight outside, and garlanded the statue. Prithviraj, who was hiding nearby, took his cue. He rushed in to take his girl and eloped with her on his horse… no doubt leaving behind a fuming Jaichand!
Why are we narrating this cute (if slightly incredulous) story in the context of Prithviraj’s loss on the battlefield? Well, by following his heart, Prithviraj made an unfortunate mistake – he antagonised the one guy who could’ve supported him, when the Turks came attacking. As it happened, Jaichand famously stayed away from the battle between Prithviraj and Mohammed Ghori. In fact, the Prithviraj Raso claims that Jaichand actively aided Ghori. That view is so popular, that Jaichand’s name became synonymous with treachery in Hindi folklore.
After conquering Delhi, when Mohammed Ghori left for Afghanistan, he left his trusted Turk slave, Qutub-ud-din Aibak in charge here. But hang on, you may ask – what happened to family? What about handing over the throne to your descendants or close family members? In Ghori’s case, he had no children; but a key factor that drove the preference for slaves by royals was their distrust of family. A saying in Persian captures the thought succinctly:
‘One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons; for the former desires his master’s glory; the latter, their father’s death.’
Qutub-ud-din Aibak built the Qutub Complex, which remains one of the most interesting sights in the city. Aibak took over the Indian spoils of war after Ghori’s assassination in 1206, founding the Delhi Sultanate, which was to rule Delhi and the surrounding region for almost 2 centuries.
In 1303, the Delhi Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji built the second city, Siri, near present-day Hauz Khas to defend the Delhi Sultanate against the Mongols.
Then the Tughluqs built Tughlaqabad, 8km (5 miles) east of the Qutub Complex, but this was deserted in 1321 and little remains of this city. After a brief sojourn in latter-day Maharashtra, the Tughluqs moved the city again in 1327, this time between Lal Kot and Siri, and named this fourth city Jahanpanah. These cities of Delhi were to the south, around the area where the Qutub Minar now stands.
A mere 27 years later the capital was moved again, this time some distance north to an eminently sensible position on the Yamuna River. Named Ferozabad, at Firoz Shah Kotla in present-day New Delhi, this sprawling fifth city was, according to legend, one of the richest in the world.
The Tughlaq dynasty received its final blow, when Timur invaded India in 1398. For eight days Delhi was plundered, enough to destroy what little was left of the Tughlaq foundations. Starting out as vassals of Timur, the Sayyids and from them the Lodis, did not build brand-new cities and their tombs are found scattered in the Lodi Gardens. Babur, king of Kabul, and native of Ferghana, dislodged the Lodi dynasty after defeating Ibrahim Lodi in the historic first battle of Panipat in 1526. Though Babur had a smaller army than that of the Lodis’, the cannons brought by him, and superior tactics balanced out the deficit in numbers. It was the first time that cannons were used in India, and unprepared for such a kind of onslaught, Lodis were defeated. Their defeat by the Mughal Babur signaled the end of Sultanate rule and the start of the Mughal empire, one of the world’s greatest medieval dynasties, which ruled the region for over 200 years.
It was Babur who first moved the capital to nearby Agra, but his son Humayun chose to return to Delhi in 1534, only to be forced into exile by the advancing army of the Afghan Sher Shah, who took possession of Purana Qila (literally “old fort”) in 1540, rebuilt this sixth city, and renamed the citadel Shergarh. In a brief span of 5 years (1540-1545), he made drastic reforms in civil and military administration. The currency of Rupiya was first issued in those times.
The Grand Trunk Road was built from Chittagong in Bangladesh to Kabul in Afghanistan, improving the transportation and postal services. Tragedy struck the Suris when an explosion of gunpowder took the king’s life in 1545. Islam Shah, his son succeeded him, but he too died in a short span in 1554. A series of weak rulers followed Islam Shah, thus creating an opportunity for the Mughals to return.
Fifteen years later, Humayun took back his throne, only to die an ignominious death a year later, falling down his library steps — his tomb, which can be seen from the southern gate of Purana Qila, remains one of Delhi’s top attractions. Under the guidance of Bairam Khan, Humayun’s son, Akbar, became one of the most able rulers in the history of India. Generally revered for his religious tolerance and diplomacy, he also instituted reforms in taxation and judiciary. He chose to move the capital back to Agra from Delhi. Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, constructed the seventh Delhi in 1639, thus shifting the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi; his Shahjahanabad roughly corresponds to Old Delhi today and is largely preserved. After the death of Aurangzeb, revolts had increased, and the Mughal empire started to disintegrate. Following the invasion by Nadir Shah in 1739, the foundations of Mughal dynasty were fatally weakened. In 1803, the British captured Delhi and promptly installed a British administrator. Delhi wasn’t the capital of India at the time, but it was a critical commercial centre. After the revolt of 1857, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma by the British and in 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed the empress of India.
The last of Delhi’s cities to be built, New Delhi took shape between 1911 and 1933. Designed by the British imperialist architects Lutyens and Baker, New Delhi’s major buildings are considered some of the finest artefacts of the British Empire.