Delhi-The Capital from many millennia

On 12th December 1911, George V, the then Emperor of India, along with Queen Mary, his consort announced that Delhi would replace Calcutta as the capital of India.

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Delhi Durbar For Coronation of King George V as Emperor of India, 1911

Twenty years later, India’s capital was shifted to Delhi from Calcutta, and was inaugurated on 13th February 1931. The city continues to be the capital of the Republic of India, after independence.

From ancient to modern times, Delhi has been the capital of many kingdoms. The history of Delhi is traceable atleast upto the Mahabharata period. There are seven prominent cities that existed during earlier periods, in the region where Delhi stands today.

  • Indraprastha of Mahabharata period built by Pandava
  • Dilli capital of the Tomar dynasty
  • Prithviraj Chauhan’s Dilli
  • Lodhi’s Dehli
  • Humayun’s Dehli – present South Delhi
  • Shah Jahan’s Dehli – present North or Old Delhi
  • Lutyens Delhi – The New Delhi


Pandava built their capital and called it Indraprastha after Indra, the leader of divinities. Indra also denotes senses. Indraprastha was a city which delighted the senses. Prastha means clearing. Indraprastha was constructed, by clearing the thickly forested region, Khandavaprastha.

This city was built by a descendant of Mayasura whose life Arjuna had saved earlier. This was an act of gratitude from the Mayasura clan with their timeless skills of architecture.

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Mayasura Speaking to Arjuna and Krishna

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Hence the best hall in this city of Indraprastha was commemoratively called as Maya Sabha after the Mayasura.

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The Maya Sabha


Khandavaprastha has been traced to the areas around present day Delhi. The word Khandava means plains. Khandava also means sugar candy or products that come out of sugar.

It is interesting to note that the region from Meerut in Western Uttar Pradesh to Kurukshetra and beyond in Haryana is a sugarcane belt indeed. The erstwhile Khandavaprastha falls within this belt.

When one travels through this region by land and air, we see endless sugarcane fields, molasses factories and the smoke that arises from their chimneys. An intermediary product between jaggery and sugar is called khandsari.

In 1350 CE, about 700 years ago too, when Ibn Batuta, the Persian traveller visited these regions, he found this region abounding in sugarcane fields, which he has mentioned in his chronicles.

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Ibn Batuta amidst sugarcane fields

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An aerial view of sugarcane fields

Going by the name “Khandavaprastha” used for this region during the Mahabharata period, this perhaps must have been a feature, a produce of this land from 5100 years ago during the Mahabharata period too.

Indraprastha to Delhi

Indraprastha became Delhi after King Dhilu and finally the Tomars were the last to rule Delhi. They ruled for over 500 years until 12th century CE. The last of these kings was Prithviraj Chauhan.

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Raja Prithviraj Chauhan

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CITM Lake in Asola (Faridabad), next to Arangpur, which was the first town established by Tomars

The ruins of the palaces and forts of all these kings, form the area known as Purana Khila of Delhi today. Purana means old. A destroyed fort is called Khila.

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Qutub Minar

Delhi becomes Sultanate

After Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated by Muhamad of Ghori, successive Islamic dynasties ruled from Delhi such as the Mamluk or Slave dynasty, Khilji, Tughlaq, Lodhi and Mughals. Delhi became a Sultanate.

During those times this fort was called “Shergarh” after Emperor Sher Shah Suri who had taken it over from Humayun. Ain-i-Akbari refers to this fort as “Kaurav-Pandav ka Qila” meaning the fort of the Kaurava and Pandava.

Purana Khila area or Indraprastha, had thus been a continuous capital from 3100 BCE, when it was built by the Pandava, to 1192 CE, when it was ransacked by Muhammad of Ghori. So, for a period of 4000 years, it had been the capital city of the local kingdom. It therefore has enough scope for offering archaeological finds.

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Purana Khila – an early photograph

This area is not far away in some wilderness but right in the heart of the present day capital city of India, Delhi.

Excavation at Purana Khila

Dr. Upinder Singh, the noted historian has remarked that the Purana Khila was excavated in the 1950s by the Archaeological Survey of India, but its report has not been published so far.

Dr. Singh further states in her works, that the area around Purana Khila and different parts around Delhi regularly keep throwing up artifacts which keep on pushing the historical backgrounds of Delhi further and further, back in time.

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Illustration of the City of Delhi during the times of Shahjahan – Shahjahanabad 

Ruins of ancient Delhi are in the circled area, top left

More on Delhi and Indraprastha in our book “Historical Krishna”.

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This Delhi region was much prosperous, which attracted many plunderers.

1737 – Battle of Delhi

On 28th March 1737, the Battle of Delhi was fought between the Mughals and the Marathas. Though the Mughal army consisted of 2,50,000 men, Peshwa Baji Rao I, at the head of a mere 70,000 soldiers, defeated them with his brilliant strategy.

An image of the battle from Amar Chitra Katha

1739 – Plunder by Nadir Shah

In 1739 CE, Nadir Shah, an invader who came from north west, ransacked Delhi. His troops unleashed a 57 day, general massacre on Delhi, then probably the most prosperous city of the world and took back as spoils of war, treasures assessed at Rupees 70 Crores of those days’ value, along with priceless artefacts such as the Peacock throne and the Kohinoor Diamond, currently on exhibit at the Tower of London.

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Nadir Shah

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                                                     The Peacock throne                     The Kohinoor Diamond

More on this in our book “You Turn India”.

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Nehru on Delhi

Delhi is an epitome and symbol of India’s historical continuity and prosperity. It will be apt to end here with a quote from our first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru convocation address, at Delhi University in 1958.

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Jawahar Lal Nehru

“Here we stand in Delhi city, symbol of old India and the new. It is not the narrow lanes and houses of old Delhi nor the wide spaces and rather pretentious buildings of New Delhi that count, but the spirit of this ancient city. Delhi has been an epitome of India’s history with its succession of glory and disaster and with its great capacity to absorb many cultures and yet remain itself. It is a gem with many facets, some bright and some darkened by age, presenting the course of ‘India’s life and thought during the ages.”

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