When I was new to the art of reporting, and had just started my fledgling career with The Times of India in Delhi, I explored the nooks and crannies of the city in an attempt to report on its crumbling pieces of history. On one of these jaunts, I was privy to wisps of the past through the ancient doors of Delhi.
It is hardly known that once upon a time Delhi was referred to as the city of the seven castles and 52 gates. A European merchant, William Finch, recorded the fact in his travelogue, way back in 1611. The gates, built by the Tomars, Chauhans, Mughals and the Tughlaqs, roughly between the 8th century and 20th century, have borne witness to the city’s resplendent past for decades.
The tale of the seven cities can be traced back to the Lal Kot or Qila Rai Pithora that was the first city of Delhi. It was followed by the second city of Siri Fort, the third city of Tughlaqabad, the fourth city of Jahapanah’s, the fifth city of Feruzabad, the sixth city of Shergarh and the seventh city of Shahjahanabad.
Only 13 of the darwazas (gates) survived the onslaughts of time. I was fixated on the gates that can be traced back to the first city of Delhi — the 11th century citadel of Lal Kot that was later extended by the Chauhans into the Qila Rai Pithora (in Mehrauli). The Chaumukha, Sohan, Ranjit, Fateh, Hauz Rani, Barka, Badaun and Budayuni darwazas are exclusive to Qila Rai Pithora.
The only gates to be identified on the INTACH map, however, are the Chaumukha, Ranjit, Sohan and Fateh darwazas. For the uninitiated, the INTACH or the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage is a non-profit organization that was set up in 1984 to protect and conserve India’s vast natural, built and cultural heritage.
The Chaumukha Darwaza near the Qutb complex which was the gateway of Lal Kot with “horned” outwork had been graded by INTACH to be of archaeological value B. At the time I was there, in the year 2004, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had just concluded its effort of conserving the structure and the mortar was still fresh. While the walls belonged to an earlier period, the architectural style of the gateway seemed to be from the Tughlaq era. Paved with stone in an engraved grid pattern, the entrance seemed to have been designed for security.
On the northern ramparts of Lal Kot, stood the remains of what was once the grandest but the weakest gate of them all – Ranjit Gate. The Turks had entered the city through this gate and had it immediately re-strengthened to prevent a recurrence of any invasion.
Only one side of the gate was intact when I saw it, while vegetation threatened to swamp the rest. It was an unexplored territory.
“We are yet to list this area. Ranjit Gate leads to a moat which at present is dry. Beyond that are bastions,” said the INTACH source who had taken me on the walk. All you saw then was the miscellaneous visitor to the Idgah nearby, walking up the narrow forest trail with the buzz of cicadas in his ear. And maybe a couple of local boys running around, giving into the frenzy of youth.
Once you reach the Fateh Gate, a complex horned outwork makes you turn around the Fateh Burj, almost 24 metres in diameter. Further ahead the Sohan Gate was supposed to have a sun temple. It’s guarded by a large bastion called the Sohan Burj.
Hauz Rani and Budayuni Gates were the two prominent gates. History has it that at the Budayuni Gate, Alauddin Khilji had ordered his wine caskets to be emptied and his fabulous China dashed to the ground, to cease the consumption of alcohol. Here the guilty were tortured and beheaded in public view. The gate was under constant watch fearing of Mongol invasions.
Ibn Batuta, the famous Moroccan and Berber explorer, who visited India in the 14th century, who visited India in the 14th century, mentions the Badaun Gate as being the “principal gate of the city reached by a populous street occupied by the cloth merchants of Old Delhi.”
Most of these gates have survived only as giant gaps in the long stretches of the wall of Lal Kot. The superintending engineer, Delhi Circle, of the ASI, A K Sinha, had been working on a proposal for presentation to the D-G at the time.
“We expect to protect the remaining portion of Lal Kot within a month. For the features to be revealed, the gates need to be excavated from the debris, underneath which they are often buried,” said Singh.
Of all the Khilji darwazas, Alai Darwaza stood at the southern end of the Qutab complex. Built in 1311, it was part of Alauddin Khilji’s grandiose plans of building four gateways; the other three could not be completed because of his death. Verses from Koran and Hadis can still be seen carved on the windows which are enclosed by rectangular bands made of red sandstone and marble.
The historian Fanshawe extolled the gate: “The Alai Darwaza is not only the most beautiful structure at the Kutub, but it is one of the most striking specimens of external polychromatic decoration not merely in India, but in the whole world.”
(A version of this story was published on June 26, 2004, in The Times of India)