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The Prophecy of Delhi

Krishnan Agarwal | July 22, 2021
The Prophecy of Delhi

Whoever built new cities in Delhi has always lost it.” –  An old Persian saying

While the actual context and implication of the above Persian prophecy is debatable, a larger interpretation of it could be that whoever has destroyed Delhi and rebuilt it, has always seen their reign cut short. Some misfortune, or societal changes, have always forced the dispensation to change hands and bid adieu to its builder.

Present day Delhi is said to have been a culmination of seven great capital cities. These ultimately led to the inauguration of New Delhi as the Imperial Capital of the British Indian Empire, in 1931. Delhi’s rulers, during their reign, decorated the city with monumental architectural elements. These represented both a statement of power and fulfilled the strategic need for fortification of the new capital city they’d established.

Delhi’s first city

The remains of the magnificent ancient and medieval architecture speak volumes of the lost glory of those times. But ironically enough, while cities were built and their remnants have survived the ravages of time, the reign of the rulers who built them were, inevitably, short-lived.

Quila Rai Pithora, Delhi’s first city and the capital of Prithviraj Chauhan (c. 1180 AD), was built by fortifying the walls of his grandfather’s fort. He erected massive stone walls around it and extended its original boundaries. The date of completion for Delhi’s first city is unclear, as most historians put it as sometime during the late 12th century. Unfortunately, his eventual defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ghori—in the second battle of Tarain in 1192—ended the Chauhan rule in Delhi. The great king had reigned for only 12 years.

The Tughlaq dynasty’s tryst with Delhi

Ya base gujar, ya rahe ujar (May this be inhabited by herdsmen or remain unoccupied). This famous foreboding was made by the revered Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya to Ghiyassudin Tughlaq — the Tughlaq dynasty’s founder. Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq established his new capital in Delhi and called it Tughlaqabad. It took four years to build the city and just 15 years later, it was abandoned.

Historians say a water shortage in the area caused the abandonment. A more interesting alternative offered suggests Tughlaqabad was doomed because of Ghiyasuddin’s picking a silly feud with Nizamuddin Auliya. Now, whether it was the water, the saint or the prophecy of Delhi, Tuglaqabad remained abandoned and Ghiyassudin ruled for a total of only four years.

Sher Shah Suri met with a similar fate

The second Mughal emperor, Humayun, established the city of Dinpanah (shelter of the devout) in the year 1533 AD. In Swapna Liddle’s book, Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, the foundation laying ceremony was described as follows: “All the great mushaikh (religious men), the respectable saiyids (descendants of Muḥammad through his daughter Fatima), the learned persons, and all the elders of the city Delhi accompanied the king to the spot. His majesty with holy hand put a brick on the earth, and then each person from that concourse of great men put a stone on the ground.” However, the opulent king was forced into exile after being defeated by Sher Shah Suri in the Battle of Kannauj in 1540.

Shēr Shah Suri rose from the Mughal army’s lower ranks to become emperor. He efficiently administered the army, looked after tax collections, built roads, rest houses, and wells for his people. After routing Humayun in the battle of Kannauj in 1540, Sher Shah Suri decided to construct another city in Delhi.

At the time, building a city was considered the ultimate sign of victory. Sher Shah razed Dinpanah to the ground and started building his own capital introducing ornate elements in architecture. He called his new city Shergarh. However, yet again, his reign was cut short when he died in a gunpowder explosion in 1545 — only five years into his reign

Shahjahanabad was its namesake’s undoing

Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast (if there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this). These lines are inscribed on the walls of the Diwan-i-Khas at the Red Fort in Delhi. Its builder—Emperor Shah Jahan—had built the last ancient city of Delhi when he decided to move his capital from Agra to Delhi.

Shah Jahan had a passion for architecture and from the outset, Shahjahanabad was a planned urban centre. The city, and its grand fort, were completed in 1648. Shah Jahan was 47 when he decided to move his court from Agra to Delhi. He’d just lost his wife, and his children were then grown up. The building of a new city was the middle-aged emperor’s bid for immortality (City of Djinns)

His empire was prosperous and its borders secure. His new capital was flourishing and the old adage of Pax Mughala was writ large all over the empire. As fate would have it, he could not rule for more than 10 years from his new capital. His own son, Aurangzeb, was the cause of his undoing. He was confined in the Agra fort for the remainder of his natural life.

The relatively recent past

Nearly two and a half centuries later, India was the crown jewel in the British Empire. An empire needed grandeur, and New Delhi was the chosen place. Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker would be the chief architects. They would go on to execute the creation of one of the world’s greatest urban establishments.

One London based newspaper headline would eventually read, “The New Delhi: A City to Rival Paris and Washington.” And thus began a two-decade long construction spree led by Lutyens and Baker. They built the Parliament House, North and South Blocks, Rajpath, Rashtrapati Bhawan and the India Gate. New Delhi was unveiled in 1931.

This was the British, heady in power and glory. Following World War 1, the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen, surpassing that of Genghis Khan ­— the great Mongol ruler. It was said the “sun never set over the British Empire”. And New Delhi was testament to British glory and their ever-increasing power.

The prophecy of Delhi, cruel and unforgiving, would play out yet again. In just 15 years, they lost India and the empire with it.

Is the foreboding going to play out yet again?

Nearly a century later, India’s central government announced the redevelopment project to give a new identity to the country’s ‘power corridor’. The plan includes the construction of a new parliament, prime minister and vice-president’s residences along with 10 building blocks that will accommodate all government ministries and departments.

The Central Vista revamp envisages a new triangular ‘temple of democracy,’ with seating capacity for 900 to 1,200 members of parliament. The target completion date for construction is August 2022. It will coincide with India’s 75th Independence Day celebrations.

Architecture has always been a ruling dispensation’s preferred means of expressing power and authority. Monuments, buildings and statues are often built to leave a government’s or a leading figure’s legacy for future generations.

Destroying and remaking of a space is an instrument of power statement by a particular dispensation. Hitler and Albert Speer’s design for the remaking of Berlin, as an ideal capital for the Thousand Year Reich, is one of the many examples from the recent past. Interestingly, art and architecture were deliberately used by Mughal emperors to communicate ideas central to their rule. They used them symbolically, to represent the source and legitimacy of their rule, as well as to assert presence, power and authority in all areas of their expansive empire.

Meanwhile, whether the current regime—through its architectural statement of power—meets the same fate as imperial Delhi’s former rulers, remains to be seen. But powers articulated through monumental architectural pursuits have not survived long in this city’s history.

Krishnan Agarwal

Krishnan practices law before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi. His other interests lie in trekking, and development with community participation. Krishnan is an avid social worker and believes in empowerment of the local community for the country’s overall development.

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2 years ago

Good write up. Interesting facts about our capital much in detail. Much better than what we studied in history books. You scratched it well. Must read for all history buffs.

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