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A walk down Dilli’s lanes: The city can boast of a long and rich past

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Ibn Battuta stated that Delhi was not only the biggest city of India, but also the biggest Muslim city in the eastIbn Battuta stated that Delhi was not only the biggest city of India, but also the biggest Muslim city in the eastIbn Battuta stated that Delhi was not only the biggest city of India, but also the biggest Muslim city in the east

By Ravindra Singh

Delhi occupies a unique place in the annals of history. It finds mention even in the Mahabharata as Indraprastha, the city of the Pandavas. It is believed that Vishwakarma built the city at the behest of Lord Krishna and named it Indraprastha—the city of Indra. However, there is no evidence to back this. But what can’t be disputed is the fact that Delhi, like Rome and Istanbul, is one of the few cities in the world that can boast of a long and rich past. It has witnessed the rise and fall of many empires over generations, as well as the merging of different cultures over time.

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The rulers of north Indian states established their capitals in the Delhi area. The Delhi triangle—a 60-square-mile area bounded by the Aravali hills on the west and south, and the Yamuna river on the east—occupied a strategic position in northern India. Historians trace ‘seven older cities of Delhi’, which developed around the fortresses of each dynasty that ruled the city from 1100 AD till 1947 AD. The seven cities generally mentioned from north to south are Shahjahanabad, Firuzabad, Dinpanah, Siri, Jahanpanah, Dihli-i-Kuhna and Tughluqabad. Some cities like Dihli-i-Kuhna, Kilokhri, Siri and Firuzabad were the capitals of successive sultans—sometimes serially, at other times after a gap of years. Others like Tughluqabad or Jahanpanah remained settled, but were the capitals of only one sultan. There was also Adilabad, inhabited very briefly, more of a citadel than a city. Chroniclers like Minhaj-us Siraj, in his book Tabaqat-i-Nasiri, provide the historical sketch of the political history of 13th-century Delhi.

The city was constructed with four neighbouring cities. Delhi was earlier an old Hindu city occupied by Muslims. The second city was Siri called Dar-ul-khalifa. The third was Tughluqabad and the fourth was Jahanpanah.

Ibn Battuta considered Delhi the metropolis of India, a magnificent city. He reached Delhi from Hansi and stated that, surrounded by a wall, Delhi was not only the biggest city of India, but also the biggest Muslim city in the east.

When it comes to the city’s present name, there are many stories. It is assumed that ‘Delhi’ has come from either Dhilli or Dhillika. The word has been found in the Biholia inscription of Udaipur district of AD 1170, which speaks of the capture of Delhi by the Chauhan King Vighararaja IV or Bisal Deo (c 1153-64). It was referred to as the capital of the whole Kingdom of Hindustan or the domains of Hindustan, and also as the capital of the entire kingdom of Hind Hama Mulk-I-Hind. Hindustan, as distinct from Hind, was sometimes an appellation reserved for the regions of Awadh and Delhi, in short for the provinces immediately east of Punjab. The spatial meaning of Dhilli kept shifting and changing. Dhilli, in reference to the Qutb complex, became ‘Old Dhilli’ by the time of Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji and Khalji city became Shahr-i-Nau or the ‘New City’.

In the absence of any written records, we have to rely on what has been found during several excavations in and nearby Mehrauli area. People had been living here since the early stone-age period, but because of the language limitations, no name of the area is traceable before the name of Yoginipura. In later periods, several records of inhabitation in Mehrauli are found. In the 14th century, an Arab account of India informs that Delhi was composed of many towns (integrated into one), each known by its own name. Delhi, being one of them, gave its name to all of them.

Ravindra Singh is assistant professor, department of history, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi

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