A millennium of building, 50 years of destruction


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DELHI, on account of its built heritage, is often referred to as the Rome of the East. The Delhi Chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), with financial assistance from Delhi Tourism, is presently engaged in negotiating World Heritage City status for Delhi on account of a millennium of urban development. Yet, the question whether we have ‘killed the goose that lays the golden egg’, remains unanswered.

Archaeologists have determined that while humans have inhabited the Delhi region for over 100,000 years, Delhi has served as a capital city only since AD 1060 when the Tomar Rajputs built the first city of Lal Kot in the present day Mehrauli area. The Chauhan dynasty expanded Lal Kot to create a larger city for the growing population and renamed it Qila Rai Pithora.

Alauddin Khalji built the city of Siri, the second capital of Delhi in AD 1303 and thus shifted the capital northwards. The Tughlaqs were great builders and Ghiyas ud din Tughlaq, tired of repeated raids from the Mongols, built Tughlaqabad in AD 1321-22 within a record time, with battered stone walls reaching 90 feet in height and enclosing an area of over two square miles. Tughlaqabad contained the imperial palace, residential quarters and the city. It was protected by the ridge and a large man-made lake, making it impossible to invade in the pre-gunpowder era.

Ghiyas ud din’s successor, Muhammed bin Tughlaq decided first to build the fortification of Adilabad close to Tughlaqabad and then shift the capital to Daulatabad in southern India before returning to Delhi, along with the city’s population, to build the fourth city of Delhi. Jahanpanah, as he named his city, bridged the land between Qila Rai Pithora and Siri to create a larger capital while utilizing the buildings built by earlier dynasties.


Feroz Shah Tughlaq, another Tughlaq ruler, built the largest medieval city of Delhi and named it Ferozabad with Feroz Shah Kotla serving as its palace and citadel. This was the first city to have been built on the banks of the mighty river Yamuna. Feroz Shah also built thousands of orchard gardens, several hunting lodges, took great pride in repairing buildings of earlier kings, such as the Qutub Minar where he built the top two floors, and the Hauz Khas where he added the madrasa on the water tank that was built earlier to serve the population of Siri.

Besides Ferozabad, Feroz Shah also built the fortification of Qila Qadam Sharief, with towering walls and bastions topped with canopies. Only traces of the walls can now be seen with the fort, standing in close proximity to New Delhi railway station, having been engulfed by construction over the last three decades. A priceless 14th century fortification that could have been an asset to Delhi was thus lost to human greed and ineffective governance.

Lal Kot, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Ferozabad – all had attached fields, gardens, serais and water tanks or baolis. They attracted scholars from all over the world as Delhi was a wealthy hub of culture, knowledge, medicine and trade.

The Sayyid and Lodhi dynasties who ruled Delhi for almost a century from AD 1433 built no new city, yet transformed the urban-scape of present Delhi with the profusion of tomb and mosque building during their reign – buildings of the Lodhi’s can be seen from the northern edge of present day Delhi to the southern edge, now dotted with farmhouses. Some of the Sayyid-Lodhi structures have been preserved in garden settings such as the famed Lodhi Gardens and within the government housing complex of Ram Krishna Puram; others such as Mubarak Shah Sayyid’s enclosed garden tomb in Kotla Mubarakpur or Do Sirihya Gumbad standing on Lodhi Road, but engulfed with modern illegal construction in recent years, have not been so fortunate.


Babur successfully invaded India in AD 1526 and amongst his first actions was a pilgrimage to the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and a tour of the gardens and other sites of Delhi such as Hauz Khas. With Babur started the Mughal empire and though it was his son Humayun who built Dinpanah, the sixth city of Delhi, the Mughals changed the built landscape of Delhi over the next three centuries.

Mughal buildings during the reigns of Babur, Humayun and Akbar were concentrated in the Nizamuddin region where several serais, garden-tombs and mosques were built, making the area the densest ensemble of medieval Islamic buildings anywhere in the country. Besides Emperor Humayun’s garden tomb, the enclosed tombs of Nila Gumbad, Sabz Burj, Chausath Khambha, Sunderwala complex, Batashewala complex, Afsarwala complex, Khan-i-Khanan and several others were built in close proximity to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and of Purana Qila, the citadel of Dinpanah, making the Nizamuddin area pre-Shahja-hanabad Mughal Delhi.

The laying of a railway line in the 19th century destroyed the Nizamuddin area’s relationship with the river Yamuna. This, along with a segregation of plots in post-independence India amongst various government agencies, and the building of the neighbourhoods of Nizamuddin East, Nizamuddin West and Sunder Nagar with scant regard to the presence of the built heritage, led to the destruction of an urban landscape of world heritage value. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture led urban renewal project in the Nizamuddin area, in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India, Central Public Works Department and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, now aims to integrate these presently segregated sites into an urban conservation district of international significance, with an emphasis on improving the quality of life for local communities.


Shahjahan, in the 17th century, shifted the capital back to Delhi from Agra with the building of a new city, the garden city of Shahjahanabad with the palatial Red Fort, thus becoming the seventh city of Delhi. The city walls of Ferozabad were built with material cannibalized from the earlier city walls and the city walls of Ferozabad themselves seem to have been quarried to build the enclosure walls of Shahjahan’s city. The Mughal Empire was at its zenith when Shahjahanabad was built and served as a capital for over two centuries. 18th century travellers to the city were struck by the ruins that dotted the landscape around Shahjahanabad, especially to the South, thereby drawing comparisons to Rome.

Shahjahanabad was well planned under the direct, creative influence of Emperor Shahjahan who moved reputable and successful craftsmen to Delhi to oversee the building of his new city. Access and circulation for the royal household, the ministers, the officers and the general public determined the layout of the city, the palace-fort and the mohallas.

The principal built elements of the city, enclosed within the stone masonry walls interspersed with gateways, were the luxurious palace-fort, the lofty Jama Masjid and several other grand mosques – mostly situated at the culmination of important axis, the north-south axes and the east-west axes, the elaborate system of aqueducts/water channels, significant gardens that extended beyond the surrounding city walls. The rest of the city was built by in-fill, with the mohallas developed as mini cities and replicating the processional segregation of spaces of the palace-fort. Red Fort was the principal foci and the first complex of buildings to be constructed and the monumental Jama Masjid, erected on a hilly outcrop south west of the fort, provided the second foci of the new city as it was being built.


With the loss to the British forces of the first war of independence in AD 1857, the Mughal empire came to an end and the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, arrested at Humayun’s Tomb, was exiled from India. The victorious British forces demolished more than half the buildings within the Red Fort and replaced these with military barracks and similarly cleared tracts of land around the Jama Masjid and other parts of Shahjahanabad. Not only were hundreds of residential havelis demolished, but also Shahjahani era mosques, such as the Akbarabadi mosque, reduced to rubble. Soon after, railway lines were introduced to Delhi and the gardens along Chandni Chowk built by Shahjahan’s daughter, Jahanara Begum, were built upon, thus altering the architectural and urban character of Shahjahanabad forever.

At the turn of the 20th century the British government in India decided to restore Delhi’s status as the capital city and a new temporary capital was created in the Kashmiri Gate area of Shahjahanabad and on the ridge to its North. Together with the Viceroy’s Lodge, now Delhi University offices, hospitals, educational institutes, memorials, courts and police headquarters amongst others, British Civil Lines could be referred to as the eighth capital city within present-day Delhi.

Fortunately, the British anger and animosity that followed the first war of independence, and which had led to widespread destruction, had been forgotten by the time the planning for a new capital of British India commenced in AD 1911. The site first chosen at the northern edge of Delhi was later abandoned in favour of Raisina Hill, South of Shahjahanabad. Before starting on the ambitious building project for British New Delhi, a survey of all earlier monumental buildings – Hindu and Muslim – was commissioned to ensure that the building of a new capital did not result in the destruction of important buildings from earlier eras.


The garden city of New Delhi with its axis aligned to important monuments, such as Jama Masjid, Safdarjung’s Tomb, Humayun’s Tomb and Purana Qila, remains the capital city of independent India. Planned as a garden city, even the residential bungalows were placed in large garden plots and despite over two million people travelling through New Delhi every day, this part of the city remains a few degrees cooler than other parts of the city. Sadly, in a reflection of our myopic vision, though it occupies less that two per cent of Delhi’s total land area, there are repeated demands for densification of New Delhi, ostensibly to house ‘the poor’, but clearly meant to feed the greed of the official-politician-builder nexus that has ruined other parts of the city.

The British clearly did not believe that India was ever going to be independent of British rule. Thus, the buildings of New Delhi were built on a truly imperial scale using local sandstone and architectural elements seen in earlier Indian buildings from the Buddhist stupas to Mughal palaces. As a reminder of British thinking while building a new city, an arched gateway of North Block retains the inscription stating, ‘Freedom does not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty, it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed’!


Almost a hundred years following the defeat at the first war of independence, India achieved Independence but at the cost of Partition, leading to one of the largest movement of humans from across borders. Delhi, as the nation’s capital, provided greater infrastructure and facilities and thus attracted more people than anywhere else. Several refugee colonies were set up inside monuments such as Feroz Shah Kotla, Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb, amongst others. Though most sites were eventually restored, some such as the southern half of Feroz Shah Kotla have remained, to this day, neighbourhoods for the refugees.

Partition changed the profile of Delhi’s citizens. The refugees had no emotional attachment to the remnants of Delhi’s glorious past and its memorials, and expectedly were not desirous of preserving Delhi’s Islamic heritage. The doors at Humayun’s Tomb were used as firewood, while the Archaeological Survey of India created a protective brick masonry cover for all graves/cenotaphs at the site to prevent vandalism by the refugees camped there.

Delhi’s population continued to grow unabated and at unsustainable rates. Though historically, habitation was always within the triangle formed by the river on the East and the ridge on the West and South, urban Delhi soon grew much beyond and engulfed not only the nine historic capital cities, but also the historic ‘villages’ that had mostly grown around important monuments or within enclosure walls of monuments such as Kotla Mubarakpur, Nizamuddin Basti, Chirag Delhi, Hauz Khas, Shahpurjat, Mehram Nagar, amongst dozens of others.


The villages and the settlements of Mehrauli and Shahjahanabad were never governed by modern building bye-laws or regulations. In 1908, while freezing the settlement/abadi areas of villages, the British government decided to allow organic development to retain the character. Yet, while most buildings in villages were mud and thatch till the 1960s, with urbanization came tall building blocks, built with no regard to the historic setting and to factors such as light, ventilation or privacy of the inhabitants. This, coupled with many polluting industries being set up here, led to an exodus of the original inhabitants.

In the last three decades, Shahjahan’s Minar, inspired by the Qutub in village Hastasal near Janakpuri, has become inaccessible; a six-storied tenement towers over the 15th century Mubarak Shah Sayyid’s Tomb in Kotla Mubarakpur; the enclosure walls of Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti have disappeared; the famed and unique Khirki Masjid is today hemmed in on all sides with multistorey buildings, while a glass façade distracts from the serenity of Moth ki Masjid – the list of horrors is endless and heart breaking.

The destruction of Delhi’s historic urbanized villages could be the single biggest failure of planners and architects of independent India. Yet, it is only one of the several failures; the destruction of our historic city in the hands of officials-politicians-builders has been ceaseless and without any concern whatsoever.

Modern development has not spared any of our historic cities, several of whom have been wiped out. The township of Mehrauli expanded into the ridge, reduced the Hauz Shamsi to a fragment of its original expanse, and the enclosure walls of Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithora that stood proud till the 1980s are no longer visible, except in the protected areas of the ridge.

Just as the recent Commonwealth Games led to widespread abuse and destruction of the river Yamuna, the 1982 Asian Games were instrumental in destroying the remains of the 13th century city of Siri, by placing the Games Village within the historic city; where once flourished a city, only a single bastion and some fragments of walls remain now.


Just as the protected Atgah Khan’s Tomb in Nizamuddin continues to be inhabited by the family of an ASI guard, Tughlaqabad, Delhi’s third city, was meticulously ‘developed’ by the ASI chowkidar posted here in the 1980s. Plots were cut and sold within the fortification and the chowkidar soon became an MLA. The lake setting remained, but with scant regard to the setting of a magnificent 14th century fortification, as the air force built officers’ flats here in the late 1990s, abutting the fort. Where there was once a sheet of water, offering a natural hindrance against enemy attacks, now stand poorly designed flats of the air force, and I am sure, offering poor living spaces despite the view!

There is now talk of the 60,000 strong village being removed from within the fort walls of Tughlaqabad, but I am afraid it is too little too late; the village should never have been allowed to come up on government land, on significant archaeology, but India is yet to find a cure for corruption across the spectrum.

Vijay Mandal, the palace of Jahanpanah, today stands within the nondescript neighbourhood of Sarva Priya Vihar in South Delhi. What would have been visible from afar is barely accessible today and in a state of disrepair. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes! The traveller Ibn Batuta, vividly records this palace of Muhammed bin Tughlaq and his descriptions are all that we have left of the fourth city.


In fact, Lal Mahal, in Nizamuddin basti, built by Ghiyas ud din Balban in the 12th century, making it the earliest Islamic palace building in India, and where Ibn Batuta is said to have spent a part of his stay, was partly demolished in 2009 to make way for a modern building for the Tablighi Jamaat.

Besides the historic cities, several isolated yet grand monument complexes have also been destroyed/demolished/disfigured since independence. The building of the IIT required a protected tomb building to be demolished (could the tomb not have been incorporated within the green space?). Similarly, the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) operates from within the enclosure of the Arab Serai within the Humayun’s Tomb World Heritage Complex. Delhi Public School, Mathura Road, demolished a once protected monument of Nili Chattri, exquisitely covered with ceramic tiles, in the 1980s for a badminton court! When educational institutes of such repute are at the forefront of destruction, where is that ray of hope to be found?

Portions of Sunder Nagar are situated on the remains of a private palace built in the 16th century by the Kokaltash family; Chaumachi Khan’s Tomb was saved by the Conservation Society of Delhi who chanced upon it while it was being demolished by the builder to whom the plot was sold by the Delhi Development Authority.


What the small builders spared of Delhi has been destroyed by mega projects. An elevated road linking the Commonwealth Games Village to Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium disfigures the setting of Rahim Khan-i-Khanan’s Tomb and is built over the Jahangiri era bridge known as Barapullah. However, even this is an improvement over the original intention of the Delhi government, which had proposed building the road through Sunder Nursery, along Humayun’s Tomb, linking Lodhi Road, thereby not only cutting over 3000 trees but also destroying the zoo, demolishing five monuments and bringing 12,000 cars to Lodhi Road and thus surely creating the need for more roads through Lodhi Gardens in the future!

The Delhi metro, with its elevated corridors has disfigured the character of Delhi permanently. In a Detailed Project Report on the proposed elevated line to the Qutub Minar from Safdarjung’s Tomb, the metro referred to Balban’s Tomb as a ‘roadside monument in ruins’ and proposed a line right above the monument. Thankfully, protests by conservation groups led the line to be abandoned overnight by the Delhi Metro. New lines are now being proposed under other monuments, with scant regard to any concerns other than of engineering. If we will follow the example of the West, within a few decades these elevated lines will be dismantled at great cost, as has happened in San Francisco and Boston in recent years.

Ostensibly built to save costs, the elevated lines only save a few months of time and with the builders of the metro not having age on their side, time is all that seems to matter. Underground lines can connect two stations within the shortest distance as they don’t need to follow winding roads and a per kilometre rate is simply not a basis of comparison. Not content with destroying the city, the metro also built housing upon the riverbed, illegally, abetted by reputed yet unscrupulous architects.

Though not much remains of the millennium of building this city has seen, permitting extra development on residential plots by altering building regulations each election year, Delhi has systematically destroyed the neighbourhoods built soon after independence. With an alarming rate of construction seen there, Defence Colony, Greater Kailash and Green Park will soon be the congested slums of the 21st century with no access to parking and other basic urban services.


If whatever remains of our past is to be preserved for the future generations, combined and urgent action needs to be taken in a collective and participatory manner with agencies such as the Archaeological Survey of India, State Department of Archaeology, Delhi Development Authority and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. Preservation efforts needs to be coupled with sensitive and urgent development of our historic villages and conservation areas ensuring a better quality of life for local communities. Only if conservation benefits people can we hope for a mass movement; for this our leaders need to take a visionary approach, as did the builders of New Delhi, a hundred years ago.