Purana Qila (Old Fort) is one the oldest forts in Delhi. Its current form was built by the Afghan king Sher Shah Suri. Sher Shah raised the citadel of Purana-Qal'a with an extensive city-area sprawling around it. It seems that the Purana-Qal'a was still incomplete at Sher Shah's death in 1545, and was perhaps completed by his son Islam Shah , although it is not certain which parts were built by whom.
Excavations carried out by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at Purana Quila in 1954-55 (trial trenches) and again 1969-1973 by its Director, B B Lal have unearthed Painted Grey Ware dating 1000 B.C., and with a continuous cultural sequence from Mauryan to Mughal through Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, Rajput and Sultanate periods, confirming the antiquity of the site. The site of the Purana Qila was perhaps that of Indraprastha, the legendary capital of the Pandavas.
The fort was the inner citadel of the city of Din Panah during Humayun's rule who renovated it in 1533 and completed five years later. The founder of the Suri Dynasty, Sher Shah Suri, defeated Humayun in 1540, naming the fort Shergarh; he added several more structures in the complex during his five-year reign. Purana Qila and its environs flourished as the "sixth city of Delhi".
When Edwin Lutyens designed the new capital of British India, New Delhi in the 1920s, he aligned the central vista, now Rajpath, with Purana Qila. During the Partition of India, in August 1947 the Purana Qila along with the neighbouring Humayun's Tomb, became the site for refuge camps for Muslims migrating to newly founded Pakistan. This included over 12,000 government employees who had opted for service in Pakistan, and between 150,000–200,000 Muslim refugees, who swarmed inside Purana Qila by September 1947, when Indian government took over the management of the two camps. The Purana Qila camp remained functional till early 1948, as the trains to Pakistan waited till October 1947 to start.
In the 1970s, the ramparts of Purana Qila were first used as a backdrop for theatre, when three productions of the National School of Drama were staged here: Tughlaq, Andha Yug and Sultan Razia, directed by Ebrahim Alkazi. In later decades it has been the venue of various important theatre productions, cultural events, and concerts. Today, it is the venue of a daily sound and light presentation after sunset, on the history of the "Seven Cities of Delhi", from Indraprastha through New Delhi.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) carried out excavations at Purana Qila in 1954–55 and again from 1969 to 1973 by B. B. Lal, and its findings and artefacts are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum, Purana Qila. This includes Painted Grey Ware, dating 1500 BC, and various objects and pottery signifying continuous habitation from Mauryan to Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, Rajput, Delhi Sultanate and Mughal periods.
Delhi is thought by some to be located at the site of the legendary city of Indraprastha founded by the Pandavas from Mahabharata period, which is consequently considered the 'First City of Delhi.' In support of this, until 1913, a village called Indrapat existed within the fort walls.
The walls of the Fort rise to a height of 18 metres, traverse about 1.5 km, and have three arched gateways: the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) facing west, which is still in use today; the south gate, also popularly known as the 'Humayun Gate' (probably so known because it was constructed by Humayun, or perhaps because Humayun's Tomb is visible from there); and lastly, the 'Talaqi Gate', often known as the "forbidden gate". All the gates are double-storeyed sandstone structures flanked by two huge semi-circular bastion towers, decorated with white and coloured-marble inlays and blue tiles. They are replete with detailing, including ornate overhanging balconies, or jharokhas, and are topped by pillared pavilions (chhatris), all features that are reminiscent of Rajasthani architecture as seen in the North and South Gates, and which were amply repeated in future Mughal architecture. Despite the grandeurs of the exterior, few of interior structures have survived except the Qila-i Kuhna Mosque and the Shermandal, both credited to Sher Shah.
The single-domed Qila-i-Kuna Mosque, built by Sher Shah in 1541 is an excellent example of a pre-Mughal design, and an early example of the extensive use of the pointed arch in the region as seen in its five doorways with the 'true' horseshoe-shaped arches. It was designed as a Jami Mosque, or Friday mosque for the Sultan and his courtiers. The prayer hall inside, the single-aisled mosque, measures 51.20m by 14.90m and has five elegant arched prayer niches or mihrabs set in its western wall. Marble in shades of red, white and slate is used for the calligraphic inscriptions on the central iwan, marks a transition from Lodhi to Mughal architecture. At one time, the courtyard had a shallow tank, with a fountain.
A second storey, accessed through staircases from the prayer hall, with a narrow passage running along the rectangular hall, provided space for female courtiers to pray, while the arched doorway on the left wall, framed by ornate jharokas, was reserved for members of the royal family. On a marble slab within the mosque an inscription reads: "As long as there are people on the earth, may this edifice be frequented and people be happy and cheerful in it". Today it is the best preserved building in Purana Qila.
The Sher Mandal named for Farid (Sher Shah) who had tried to finish what was ordered by Babur but had died during the initial phase and so construction was halted until the arrival of Humayun.
This double-storeyed octagonal tower of red sandstone with steep stairs leading up to the roof was intended to be higher than its existing height. Its original builder was Babur who ordered the construction and was used as a personal observatory and library for his son Humayun, finished only after he recaptured the fort. It is also one of the first observatories of Delhi, the first being in Pir Gharib at Hindu Rao at Ridge built in the 14th century by Firoz shah Tughlaq.[clarification needed] The tower is topped by an octagonal chhatri supported by eight pillars and decorated with white marble in typical Mughal style.
Inside there are remnants of the decorative plaster-work and traces of stone-shelving where, presumably, the emperor's books were placed.
This was also the spot where, on 24 January 1556 Humayun fell from the second floor to his death. He slipped while hastening to the evening prayers, following his hobby of astronomical star gazing at the top of this private observatory. He fell headlong down the stairs and died of his injuries two days later. Entry inside the library is now prohibited.
Several other monuments lie around the complex, like Kairul Manzil, mosque built by Maham Anga, Akbar's foster-mother, and which was later used as a madarsa. Sher Shah Suri Gate or Lal Darwaza, which was the southern gate to Shergarh, also lies opposite the Purana Qila complex, across Mathura Road, south-east of the Kairul Manzil.
West Gate, 'Bara Darwaza', present main Entrance, with its bastion
South Gate, as seen from adjacent Delhi Zoo
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