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Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Mystery of Purana Qila - History and Mythology

Recent excavations at the historic Purana Qila(March 2014) unearthed relics of different periods, making the author wonder if a deeper probe could lead to tracing of Indraprastha, the city of the Pandavas.....

The Purana Qila is more mysterious than the Red Fort for the simple reason that it is not only older but built upon an ancient site, presumed to be of the Mahabharata times. So whenever excavations take place, interesting finds are sure to surface. Recently relics of the 1st Century AD, of the Kushan period, the Gupta era and the Rajput times have been unearthed. A 12th Century Vishnu sculpture and a seal of Gupta times are the prized finds by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The round face of Vishnu is in accordance with the ancient artistic conception of a noble face. This changed during the course of the centuries, with the oval face becoming popular and then the elongated one. In the Sultanate and Mughal times the round face was the high mark of beauty in women. No wonder medieval paintings depict moon-faced begums; but as perceptions changed the round face came to be associated with obesity. Present-day models tend to have leaner faces in keeping with the slim look.

Besides the Vishnu sculpture, pottery of the Kushan and Gupta periods, undeciphered copper coins, terracotta figurines, micro-beads of semi-precious stones and glass, ear-studs and charred wheat and rice grains have also been found. According to Vasant K. Swarankar, Superintendent Archaeologist of Delhi, the pottery products unearthed include knife-edged rimmed bowls, sprinklers and fragments of stamped pottery from the Gupta period. Also discovered are structures of the Kushan and Rajput periods. It all goes to show that the Kushans, imperial Guptas and Rajputs also occupied the site at different times

This is the third excavation in the Old Fort after the ones in the 1950s and 1970s. The area being explored is the south-eastern side of the Sher Mandal of Sher Shah. The Afghan ruler was not intolerant towards Hindus and did not interfere much with their religious practices, something that Emperor Akbar inherited and which led to his more secular policies. The Emperor’s Hindu wives also influenced his thinking but he had to be cautious because of the powerful ulema lobby in the court. Nevertheless the story of Akbar having got some idols transported from the fort to the Bhairon temple close by is not improbable. He did not stay long enough to probe the mysteries of the Purana Qila as it was to Sikandar Lodi’s Agra that he turned to build his own fort. His attraction to that town, associated with both Babar and Humayun, was natural.

The Talaqi Darwaza in the Purana Qila was regarded as a forbidden gate through which everybody could not pass. It has a panel showing a man fighting a lion, something unusual in a monument of that period. It however makes one wonder why the gate was regarded as forbidden, through which only royal family members, including women of the harem and children could pass. Paradoxically enough, Talaqi Darwaza means meeting gate. It is conjectured by some that the gate led to the heritage of the Pandavas and their Indraprastha. After Humayun’s ouster, Sher Shah added his own constructions to the Dinpanah of his adversary. The man-fighting-lion panel is said to have been his creation. Both Humayun and Sher Shah were not iconoclasts like Mahmud of Ghazni but rulers curious about the past. Could it be that they had found evidence of a ruined ancient fort and were carrying out excavations of their own and discovering the mysteries of the Mahabharata period? May be a far-fetched conjecture! 

Incidentally, to pass through the nearby Sher Shah Gate is like passing through the portals of time. In front is the Purana Qila and beside it the zoo. Also known as the Lal Darwaza, it is one of the many gates built by Sher Shah during his short reign. Like Shah Jahan, he also adorned Delhi with impressive buildings. By the side of the Sher Shah Gate stands the Khairul Manazil Masjid, with a prayer hall, dome and double-storied corridors. The masjid was constructed by Maham Anga, Akbar’s wet-nurse, with the help of her son Adham Khan and kinsman Shahabuddin Khan. So the Purana Qila, the Sher Shah Gate and the masjid make up a spectrum of history that echoes with the past. The excavations merge their own echo with it. If the site of the 3000-year-old Troy can be traced, why not that of Indraprastha? But for this the excavations (now to a depth of 1.5 metres) will probably have to be deeper than 12 metres to solve a long suspended mystery.

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  1. Delhi is such an interesting city. It has always been valuable to anyone who has wanted to rule over India. Delhi - literally the dahleez to India. : )

    The best part about this city is that it has kept rebuilding itself over time. Why only Indraprastha? There are so many cities lying buried under our feet, just waiting to be explored and rediscovered.

    Lal Kot





    Dinapanah / Purana QIlla


    New Delhi.

    1. Radhika,

      Interesting comment, as this brought back an article to my mind, which i have kept somewhere. I will post it soon. :)

    2. Abhay,

      Is the Sher Shah gate same as Humayun darwaza? I read that this gate has an inscription in ink mentioning Sher Shah and the date as 950 A.H. (1543-44).

  2. Interesting Research on Purana Quilla Abhay...

    India is a country of wonder and mystery... With every layer of soil this country has some past buried. With it.

    1. Surochita,

      I have taken the article from researches of veteran chroniclers. Indeed, India has a chequered past, with every dimension having multiple layers.

  3. Abhay, is it true that a wide moat, connected with the Yamuna, existed on the northern and western sides of the fortress? And that a causeway joined the fortress with the main land?

    1. Yes, i have also read the same. The moat was very much present, and even now a part of that moat is used for boating and recreational purpose. :)

  4. Some scholars rely on Painted Grey Ware relics to represent the Mahabharata age. Some of these relics have been found in the debris of later settlements. But archaeologists are hopeful that they will be able to search for a distinct settlement of the Painted Grey Ware people in Delhi, notably around the Purana Qila area.

  5. Evidence of the Mauryan Period (300 B.C.) is provided by the existence of Northern Black Polished Ware. This is fine, hard earthern pottery with a glossy surface. Other evidence includes punch-marked coins, human and animal terracotta figurines, inscribed terracotta seals.

    Soak wells lined with terracotta rings and burnt bricks have been found. Most dwellings were made of mud bricks, sometimes reinforced with wooden posts.

  6. Radhika, Thanks for sharing these interesting nuggets..

  7. The Northern Black Polished Ware continued during the Sunga period (200-100 B.C.) along with plain red pottery. The houses were largely built of local rubble or mud bricks. The characteristic art of this period includes small terracotta plaques modeling yakshas and yakshis. Uninscribed cast coins of the Mathura kings and terracotta sealings were also found.

  8. Stamped decoration marks the red earthenware of Saka-Kushan Period (100 B.C.-300 A.D.). Copper currency of the Yaudheyas and Kushans was found. The increasing use of burnt bricks shows urbanisation.

  9. Gupta Period (400 - 600 A.D.) Houses were built of brickbats. A gold-plated coin with the figure of an archer on the obverse side and Sri-Vikram on the reverse was found, which was definitely of the Gupta kings' time.Inscribed sealings and beautifully modeled human figurines are characteristic art of this period.

  10. Post-Gupta period (700 A.D. - 800 A.D.). Coarse red earthenware, terracotta figurines, pieces of stone sculpture found.

  11. Rajput Period (900 - 1200 A.D.) A massive rubble wall was raised to enclose perhaps part of the town. Though houses continued to be made of rubble, mud bricks and brickbats. Little change in pottery. Coins of bull and horseman type, including those of Samanta Deva found.

  12. Sultanat Period (1206-1526) Rubble and brickbats used for ordinary houses. Introduction of glazed ware from both Central Asia and local manufacture. Coins of Balban and Muhammad Bin Tughlaq's time found.

  13. Early Mughal Period (1526-1556) represented rule of Babur, Surs and Humayun. Typical and fascinating objects were found from a refuse dump of discarded broken household objects. These include jars of eggshell-thin grey ware, glazed ware dishes, painted Chinese porcelain, a piece of which bears the Chinese inscription "Made in the great Ming Dynasty of the Cheng Hua era" (1465-87).

    Another piece is inscribed with a fairytalk in Chinese verse. Other interesting objects include glass wine bottles, a gold ear-ring inlaid with emeralds and pearls, and a coin of Adil Shah Sur (1552-1553).

  14. Qal'a-i-kuhna Masjid (Mosque of the old fort) - Built by Sher Shah in 1541.

    This is one of the few buildings still extant in Purana Qila. The prayer hall has 5 openings in the front with horse-shoe shaped arches. The central arch is higher than the others and is beautifully decorated using marble and stones and contains a small oriole window at the apex. The courtyard originally had a tank with a fountain.

    This mosque marks the transition from Lodi to Mughal style. The facade of 5 arches, oriole windows and corner towers at the rear have developed from earlier mosques such as the Bara Gumbad Masjid, Moth Masjid and Jamali-Kamali Masjid.

  15. Sher Mandal

    It lies to the south of the Qal'a-i-Kuhna Masjid. It is a double-storeyed octagonal tower of red sandstone and marble. Surmounted by an octagonal chhatri. There is a recessed arch at the centre of each side. The central chamber on the second floor is cruciform with recesses on its 4 sides.

    It may have been built as a pleasure resort by Sher Shah. It is believed to have been used as a library by Humayun, from whose steps he fell down and died.

  16. Radhika,

    Thanks for sharing these interesting details.
    These bits about Delhi are really fascinating. :)