Shortly after the construction of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who reigned from 1628 to 1658, shifted the geographical center of his kingdom’s power from Agra up the Yamuna River. This new location was called Shahjananabad, or what we now know as Old Delhi. In establishing the new capital, the emperor commissioned two surviving masterpieces of architecture: a fortified palace complex known as the Red Fort, and a still-functional mosque known as the Jama Masjid.
Shah Jahan, which translates to “King of the World,” was 47 when he moved the capital to Delhi. He had been an accomplished military commander of the finest cavalry in the Mughal Army and the pride of his father, the Emperor Jahangir. The following six years of his life would be spent in rebellion, culminating in the overthrow of his father and execution of political opposition, including his two brothers, their two children, and two cousins. Yet even for his barbarity, Shah Jahan had remarkably refined taste in architecture.
The Red Fort
In the 17th century, Shahjahanabad became the richest city in the world with unimaginable resources at the disposal of Emperor Shah Jahan, who spent lavishly on its construction. The Red Fort, his physical center of power, is an imposing citadel mounted atop a hill overlooking the Yamuna River Valley to the east and the teeming city to the west. From here, Shah Jahan reigned from a solid gold throne of two-and-a-half thousand pounds with the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond mounted upon its intricate façade. While the throne was looted in the 18th century and its fate remains unclear, the buildings within the Red Fort complex remain surprisingly intact.
The view of the inner campus of the Red Fort is entirely obstructed from outside by the massive, octagonal walls of red sandstone up to more than 100 feet tall. They seem to radiate light in the mornings and evenings. Within the walls, there is an extensive network of white marble structures spaced throughout what would have been a sprawling garden, of which the water features still exist. While the grand scale of the structure is striking, the intricate details are even more extraordinary. Like the Taj Mahal, buildings in the Red Fort complex are adorned with inlaid gemstones in delicate floral motifs.
Within sight of the Red Fort and perched atop its own hill, you can find the architectural jewel known as the Jama Masjid. Sunrise is a special time to visit since the sandstone and marble glow in the early light. This would have been Shah Jahan’s morning view from the Red Fort. The structure is composed of three dramatic red sandstone gates at the top of sandstone staircases facing north, east, and south. Inside, there is a massive open-air square with the prayer hall located on the west side. Three massive, white marble domes with vertical red sandstone stripes rise above the hall while managing to appear surprisingly natural in form. The inner sanctum of the prayer hall filled with the striking contrast of black and white marble. The Jama Masjid was nearly destroyed by the British after the Rebellion of 1857, which would have been an unimaginable cultural loss to the travelers who frequent this spot.
When Shah Jahan moved the Mughal capital to Delhi, it was actually the re-establishment of Delhi as a historic center of power in North India. Originally, it was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Two remarkable sites in South Delhi remain from the Delhi Sultanate: Tughlagabad Fort and the area known as the Mehrauli Archeological Park, containing the Qutab Minar. Both sites are easy to visit and well-worth making the trip.
Tughlaqabad Fort was the 14th-century center of power for the Tuglaq dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate and attracts surprisingly few visitors. It was from the Tughlaqabad Fort that the inhabitants of the city were able to resist Mongol invasion in the early 1300s. In an astonishing achievement of hydraulic engineering, the Tuglaqs were able to incapacitate Mongol horses by flooding the area below the fort with rainwater collected in reservoirs. Remarkably, it is still possible to climb among the remnants of the fort and to find a hidden chamber that provides a moment of rest from the heat.
Located a few neighborhoods to the west of Tughlaqabad is Mehrauli, site of the Qutab Minar and a striking example of Sultanate architecture. The Qutab Minar is a five-story, 240-foot tall minaret of red sandstone and white marble built by successive generations of Delhi Sultanate rulers. The area around the Qutab Minar can get crowded, but sites within the surrounding Mehrauli Archeological Park get shockingly little traffic. It is even possible to clamber about the multiple levels of the medieval stepwells, called baolis, often without anyone else present.
A short distance away and also located in South Delhi, is the Hauz Khaz Village. It’s become something of the center of nightlife within Delhi. Behind the trendy restaurants, bars, and nightclubs (themselves worth visiting), is a formidable 13th-century complex built around a massive water reservoir. The site is not actively managed by the Archaeological Survey of India, so it is possible to climb around the ruins with a surprising amount of freedom. The surrounding grounds called Deer Park are a nice place to take a walk if it’s not too hot (wild peacock sightings are common). The adventurous eater might also be inclined to try the delicious street food outside the park gates.
Delhi is often the starting point for foreign tourists visiting India, but quickly vacated for other destinations within the country. However, the city itself is well worth exploring, particularly for its innumerable architectural treasures.
Where is your favorite city for archeological sites?
Header photo by Hans Vivek.