Delhi is a city like no other. The capital of India had seen more warlords, conquerors, and emperors than most cities in the world. Each ruler constructed a new capital on, or near, the ruins of his predecessor, leaving today Delhi a mega city that is dotted with ancient monuments, gardens, and forts.
Delhi’s story is one of glory undermined by rivalries and foreign interference. Throughout its history, the city was destroyed and rebuilt several times, as invaders who successfully reached the Indian Subcontinent would plunder the “gateway” first. Those who stayed would be fascinated by Delhi’s strategic location. They made it their capital and reshaped the city in their own way.
The final result is a metropolis that is associated with at least seven historical cities. Their ruins stand in mute testimony to the splendor of various rulers, from Hindu kings, Muslim sultans, and Mughal emperors, to the British crown. Ironically, these constant shifts in power led to the merging of different cultures and traditions in Delhi, creating a new cultural identity for its citizens.
1. Delhi Sultanate
The earliest record of Delhi is at the beginning of the Tomara dynasty in the 8th century. It was succeeded by the Chauhans who captured the city in the 10th century. From 1206, the reign of Delhi changed from Hindu kings to Muslim sultans, starting with the Mamluk dynasty (of Afghanistan). It is the first among five unrelated dynasties that dominated a large path of South Asia for nearly three centuries. They are given the name Delhi Sultanate.
During this period, Delhi grew into a center of Islamic culture and architecture, reflected through a series of forts, tombs, and townships. Most prominent is the UNESCO-inscribed Qutb Minar built by the first Delhi Sultan, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. After the attack of Timur in 1398 and the crushing defeat against Babur in 1526, the Delhi Sultanate ended, giving way to a new empire – the Mughal.
1.1 Qutb Minar
Reaching a dizzy height of 72.5 meters, Qutb Minar is an ancient minaret and a victory column located at the city’s southern fringe. The first Sultan of Delhi, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, reportedly erected this tower in 1199 to proclaim his triumph over the vanquished Hindu rulers and to signify the rise of Islam in India. It was projected to have five distinct stories, complete with ornated balconies, but the sultan could only see the first stage before his sudden demise in a polo game. His successor, Iltutmish, finished the job by 1220.
The red sandstone structure features alternating angular and rounded flutings. It is adorned with intricately carved bands bearing verses from the holy Quran. In the 14th century, Qutb Minar was struck by lightning twice, resulting in the top floors being repaired with marble. An Indo-Islamic cupola was also added at the time, but it collapsed due to a severe earthquake in 1803. The British attempted to replace the cupola with a new design, but it turned out to be a fiasco and was later removed.
1.2 Qutb Complex
Surrounding Qutb Minar is an ensemble of funerary structures built by subsequent rulers, notably the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque (or Qutb Mosque), the tomb of Iltutmish, and the magnificent arches of Alai Darwaza. All are profusely carved with inscriptions, and geometrical and arabesque patterns that are associated with Islamic art.
Curiously, elements with sacred Hindu or Jain motifs are also incorporated into these buildings, such as the cloister pillars of the Quwwat ul-Islam Mosque. It is said that the sultan recuperated these ornated columns from some twenty demolished Brahman temples and transferred them here. In other cases, Jain artisans cleverly engraved their iconography, without letting their Muslim masters realize it.
A fine example of early Indo-Islamic design.
Standing in the mosque’s courtyard is a mysterious iron pillar sporting an Indian aesthetic. No one truly knows why it’s there and since when. The only thing we know is that the pillar hasn’t rusted or damaged after all these years due to a unique iron-making technique. These monuments, together with Qutb Minar, form an outstanding collection of early Indo–Islamic architecture.
2. Mughal Empire
Following the demise of the Delhi Sultanate, Babur, the erstwhile ruler of Fergana, founded the Mughal dynasty in 1526. It was not long before a vast empire sprawled outwards, stretching from Gujarat to the Bay of Bengal, and from Lahore to central India. Yet the early Mughal rulers favored Agra and Fatehpur Sikri as their capital. Delhi only became the permanent royal seat under the reign of the fifth emperor Shah Jahan. This period is considered the golden age of the Mughal Empire, with cities brimming with merchants, architects, artisans, and poets. New ideas, tastes, and styles are brought with them, resulting in exquisite artworks and spectacular monuments.
After the death of the sixth emperor Aurangzeb in 1707, the Mughal empire declined drastically. A series of revolts led to territorial losses to the Hindu Marathas, the Sikhs, and many governors of former Mughal provinces. The invasion of Persian emperor Nader Shah in the mid-18th century further shattered the once powerful state. By 1760, the Mughal Empire was formally dissolved by the British Raj, marking the onset of foreign domination in India.
2.1 Humayun’s Tomb
One of the best-preserved Mughal monuments in Delhi, Humayun’s Tomb reflects the innovation in India’s architecture and garden design. It was the first garden-tomb on the entire subcontinent, with a scale grander than any predecessor in the Islamic world. This is also the first time a char-bagh – a garden layout inspired by the descriptions of paradise in the Holy Quran – was integrated into a mausoleum.
The monument was completed in 1572, under the patronage of Empress Bega Begum, to honor her husband Humayun, the second emperor of the Mughal empire. It was built of stones clad in red sandstone, with white and black inlaid marble borders. A magnificent double dome of white marble is placed atop the central chamber where the emperor was laid to rest. Aside from the main tomb, there are approximately 150 graves located within this compound, including that of the empress.
Innovation in India’s architecture and garden design.
The last refuge of Humayun stands in Delhi not only as a masterpiece of Timurid design, constructed by architects trained in Herat and Bukhara but also as a testimony of Indian craftsmanship. For example, the octagonal floor plans, the chattris (domed pavilions) flanking the central dome, and the glazed ceramic roof tiles were all derived from tombs built during the Delhi Sultanate. This kind of amalgamation later became the characteristic of many Mughal imperial projects, with the zenith being the epic Taj Mahal.
3. British Empire
Though Delhi had been brought under British rule since the early 19th century, it only became the national capital in 1911. At that time, Calcutta had turned into a hotbed for anti-colonial movements, and the British government felt that it would be logistically easier to administer India from Delhi. Henceforth, a new city was created in the 1920s, with Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker as chief architects. They laid out a cityscape with leafy avenues, neoclassical fountains, and garden-ringed bungalows. But Lutyen’s Delhi only served the British Empire for several years.
After a long struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, India gained independence on 15 August 1947. The British were ousted, leaving behind a series of architectures that fuses traditional Indian and Mughal elements with European ones. The central piece is, however, a Champs Élysées-like boulevard called Rajpath. It connects the stately Rashtrapati Bhawan with the iconic memorial arch of India Gate. The path is currently undergoing renovation, with huge lawns, canals, and rows of trees added on both sides. After climbing the hill, Rajpath is flanked by the Secretariat Building which houses various ministries, including the office of the Prime Minister.