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Monday, June 18, 2012

India – A Walk through Time – The Purana Qila

By Diana Russler and Bill Gent

Gateway to the Purana Qila, Delhi
Humayun's Gate
            The Purana Qila (literally The Old Fort) stands on an ancient, 3,000 year-old site in Delhi. Visitors often bypass it in favor of a visit to The Red Fort, built several hundred years later. However, the Purana Qila is where the destinies of two leaders – Humayun and Sher Shah Suri -- intertwine, and it is a crucial part of the progression of the Mughal Empire through the centuries.
            When we last left you on our walk through time in Delhi, the Mughal Emperor Humayun had just succeeded his father, Babur, to reign over parts of northern India. The construction of Dinpanah (Asylum of Faith), his new capital city, was a priority. He chose to build on top of the ancient site, starting with a fort to protect himself and his family. Allegedly, Humayun was a dreamer, and he probably did not pay enough attention to what was happening in his empire.
His initial reign was brief – only ten years – from 1530 to 1540, before an Afghan warrior, Sher Shah Suri (also known as Sher Khan, the Lion King) rebelled against him and took control of the budding Mughal Empire.
            While Humayun and his court became homeless wanderers, eventually ending up in the Court of the Persian Shah, Sher Khan took over the Purana Qila, renaming it Shergarh and adding to it. According to our guide, he was a determined and valiant leader, allegedly having once killed a tiger with his bare hands.
Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque
            Enter the 25-foot high, thick, outer walls of the citadel through the western gate, the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate). Two others, Humayun’s Gate to the south and the Talaqi Gate, also known as The Forbidden Gate, punctuate the walls of the citadel.  Look closely at the double storied sandstone Bara Darwaza and its two huge circular bastion towers, and you can still see remnants of the white marble and blue tiles that once decorated the towers. At intervals, overhanging balconies and domed pavilions (chhatris) accent the ramparts. These eventually become characteristics of Mughal architecture.
            Apart from the gates, be sure to spend some time visiting the single-domed Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque. Built by Sher Khan in 1541, its five elegant, arched, doorways (mihrabs) were the first of their kind and subsequently became the norm in Mughal construction. Marble and slate decorated with calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran adorn the walls.
Sher Mandal, Purana Qila
            Just south of the mosque, standing alone on a manicured lawn, is the Sher Mandal. Arched niches decorate the outside of the two-story red sandstone tower. On the top, a chhatri crowns the structure. History does not tell us who actually built the tower -- Sher Khan or Humayun.
            Sher Khan’s rule lasted only five years and, after his death, his successors were unable to hold on to his conquests. This opened the door for Humayun, with help from the Shah of Persia, to return to India and regain his throne. Poor Humayun! He was not destined to rule for long this time either.
            Having turned the Sher Mandal into his library and astronomical observatory, legend relates how, as he was rushing to prayer, he tripped on his robes and fell down the steps, dying a few days later, less than a year after his return.
Exiting the Purana Qila
Although the Purana Qila is a remnant of Humayun’s early rule, his tomb is his legacy. Commissioned by his wife Hamida Banu Begum, it is the first example of a Mughal garden-tomb and inspiration for the future Taj Mahal. Join us on our next walk through time in Delhi as we explore Humayun’s Tomb. Copyright 2012 Diana Russler All rights reserved.
The Old Fort is near India Gate and Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi (Mathura Road).  It is open from sunrise to sunset; a small entrance fee is required. The Purana Qila is closed to visitors on Friday.
For additional images of the Purana Qila, visit

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