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India: Purana Qila

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Purana Qila | India | Asia

[Visited: February 2014]

After buying my entrance ticket, I resist the temptation to go directly to the impressive gate, and walk through an open fence to where I see a small pond. Rising above it, I see the ancient walls of the 16th century fort. The unattractive pond is what remains of what used to be a moat surrounding the fort on three sides; the eastern side was protected by the river Yamuna, which also fed the moat itself. However, the Yamuna river has changed its course, and moved further east, leaving the moat all but dry. Considered to be the oldest fort of Delhi, Purana Qila was built on the location where the oldest settlement of Delhi, Indraprastha, was, around 400 BCE. In 1533, Mughal Emperor Humayun decided that Purana Qila would be the citadel of his empire. The citadel was conquered by Afghan king Sher Shah Sur, who added more buildings, and recaptured by Humayun in 1555.

Picture of Purana Qila (India): Sher Mandal, the tower where Mughal Emperor Humayun had his observatory and library, and where he accidentally fell to his death in 1556

When I arrive at the western gate, Bada Darwaza, the sun manages to burn through the layer of clouds and smog, making the decorated and sturdy towers and entrance gate look even more impressive. The walls around Purana Qila are four metres thick which, together with the moat that once was here, provided a formidable defence against unfriendly forces. Once inside, I am surprised about the vast open space of where there once was a citadel. Most of the buildings have been razed and disappeared; there are lawns and gardens where I see many Indian couples giggling and looking at each other with lovely gazes. I walk to the baoli, a stepped well where the inhabitants of the citadel took their water, but which has been closed: I can only look down the steep staircase. Close by is the Sher Mandal, an octagonal red-brick tower that was built as a private observatory and library. On January 27, 1556, just a few months after recapturing the citadel from Sher Shah Sur, which extended his Mughal empire to almost one million square kilometres, Humayun was walking with a pile of books in his hands when he heard the call to prayer of the nearby Qila-i-Kuhna mosque. In a rush to heed the call - some say he was pushed - he fell head-first, and died a few days later. The library is now closed.

Picture of Purana Qila (India): Marble mihrab of the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque

Just next to Sher Mandal, I find the ruins of a hammam, walk down to where people once took baths; what surely once was a finely decorated room, now looks worn; and even worse with the littered plastic. I walk the palm-tree lined lane leading to the southern Humayun gate. It largely lies in ruins, too, but with some effort, you can still see some nice details carved into its walls. Much of the gate is closed, too, but sitting in one of the openings in the thick walls gives a nice view of the zoo lying beneath where colourful birds fly the skies. Keeping the best for last, I now visit the Qila-i-Kuhna (old fort) mosque with a new-found friend. Built by Sher Shah, this single-domed building is built of natural stone and marble, and its five doorways are therefore red and white. Coming closer, the finely decorated walls stand out, while inside, the five mihrabs, or prayer niches, are calling for our attention. Each one is different from the others, the central one being the biggest, but they are all beautiful. Looking up the central dome, I see tiled decorated window openings, and remains of what once must have been a richly decorated ceiling. Much of Purana Qila may have been destroyed by man and time, but what remains, testifies of its refined beauty. It only makes you wonder what the citadel must have looked like once upon a time...

Picture of Purana Qila (India): Decoration on the wall of the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): The main entrance of Purana Qila is Bada Darwaza, the western gate
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Mihrab with decorations in the 16th century Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Marbled calligraphy: detail of one of the five mihrabs in the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Humayun Gate at the end of a lane lined with palm trees
Picture of Purana Qila (India): The central dome is decorated with tiled windows
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Ruins of Humayun Gate, on the southern side of Purana Qila
Picture of Purana Qila (India): The most prominent landmark of Purana Qila is without doubt the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Exterior view of Purana Qila
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Calligraphy in marble on the walls of Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): The red brick arches of Qila-i-Kuhna mosque
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Access to the Baoli, or stepped well, providing Purana Qila with water
Picture of Purana Qila (India): Slender minaret on the wall of the backside of the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque

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