Ancient and Modern Delhi

A thousand years of history are to be found in Delhi, capital of India and its third largest city. Located in the north where the country narrows between Pakistan in the west and China and Tibet in the east, Delhi was the capital of Moslem India from the 12th to the 19th century. It has historically been the hub of vital trade routes and held a strategic position at the gateway to the fertile plain of the Ganges — the social, religious and cultural lifeline of India.

There are two Delhi cities now, the New and the Old. There have been at least eight recorded cities on and around the site, the oldest being Indraprastha, in existence since the third or fourth century B.C. There are many legends regarding the founding of the city and some archaeological dates as to its age. The Tomar Rajputs founded and fortified the walls of Dhillika, the first of the medieval cities, in the 9th century A.D. and were overthrown in the 12th century by the Cauhans of Jaipur who built a second defensive wall. Turkish invaders in 1193 ended Hindu rule and began the new Islamic era of the city. Subsequent cities were added adjacent to the more ancient ones. Shah Jahan, famous creator of the Taj Mahal, was responsible for the seventh Delhi, which he named Shahjahanabad. It was the Mughal capital until 1857. As the Mughal power waned to be replaced by that of the British East India Company, so Delhi lost its prestige and became just another provincial city.

In 1911 the British chose Delhi as their capital, transferring the viceregal headquarters from Calcutta. Plans were soon underway to build New Delhi to the south of Shahjahanabad and Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, two British architects, were brought in to design it. The center of the plan consisted of the Rashtrapati Bhavan or Viceregal Lodge (which is now the Presidential Residence), Parliament House, the Secretariats, Memorial Arch and Connaught Circus. The city was designed in a mixture of European Renaissance and Oriental styles to provide a gracious garden setting for the colonial rulers, but after Independence in 1947, the city began a surge of both horizontal and vertical growth and now incorporates all the older cities, continuing to expand as the population increases.

Thanks to its long history, its many rulers and religions, Delhi is a paradoxical city. It has within its limits many of India’s most ancient and revered buildings and monuments, illustrating all the stages of its development, and is also a bustling modern metropolis of almost six million people.

The Red Fort

On the west bank of the Yaumana River, on the eastern perimeter of Delhi’s walled city, stands the Red Fort. Residence and administrative center, it was built from 1639 to 1648 under the supervision of two architects. It is a formidable war-like structure with octagonal and round bastions and two symmetrical watchtowers overlooking its red sandstone walls which surround an irregular octagon 3,200 by 1,600 feet and reach 100 feet high. It is surrounded by a deep moat fed from the river to the east. Only two great gates, the Lahori Gate (the main entrance) in the west wall and the Delhi Gate in the south wall, remain of the original five.

Inside the Lahori Gate is an arcade of shops, called Chata Chauk, which was originally housing for Shah Jahan’s court. Beyond this is the Drum House, or Hathipol, a parking place for the elephants of visitors. Intricate carvings in the sandstone are typical late Mughal design and were originally painted in gold and bright colors. Much of the original structure of the inner fort has been destroyed, especially during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, and lawns and gardens now replace the galleries which were built inside the walls.

The Hall of Public Audience, located between the inner court and the royal palaces, was the administrative center of the capital, but it was an overwhelming showplace too. Much of its sumptuousness must now be imagined, but the marble canopied throne with its backdrop of marble inlaid in the classical style still remain. Six miniature palaces stood along the eastern wall of the fort and contained apartments for the royal household, including the harem. They were connected by the Stream of Paradise, a small canal of scented waters, the Nahri-Bahisht. Five of these gem-like buildings remain intact. Also situated along the east wall but secluded behind a sandstone wall are the royal baths, which face the Pearl Mosque built by Aurangzeb. The outer walls are aligned with the walls of the fort, but the inner walls are at an angle so that they are correctly aligned facing Mecca.

The Life Bestowing Gardens, originally to the north of the mosque, were designed to imitate the gardens of paradise and contained pavilions, fountains and plants in a formal arrangement. Silver swings were hung on silk cords inside pavilions for the ladies of the court to sit and watch the rains during the Hindu festival of Teej, which celebrates the onset of the monsoon.


Taj Mahal — “The Crowned Palace”

Probably the most recognized structure in the world and also one of the most beautiful, the graceful lines of the Taj Mahal are among the many architectural splendors attributable to Shan Jahan, which have brought him worldwide recognition.

Built in memory of and to enshrine his first wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the building was begun on her death in 1631. An influential and beloved companion and advisor, Mumtaz Mahal was always consulted on affairs of state and was in fact the one to affix the royal seal on official documents. She died during the birth of their fourteenth child and was sadly mourned by her husband who, as a widower, radically altered his lifestyle. He handed over much of the responsibility for state functions and military endeavors to his sons and devoted his energies to his life-long interest in architecture.

From his teen years when he had remodeled his apartments at Kabul with great skill and taste, Shah Jahan had always actively participated in the impressive building projects of his reign. He designed the structures and decorations, made scale working models and supervised the building. Experience had well prepared him for what was to be his crowning achievement, the Taj Mahal. There has been much speculation as to who could have been the architect and various people have been suggested, from a Venetian goldsmith to a Turk named Usted Isa Afandi (onetime pupil of Sinan, the best known Turkish architect), and an Indian from Lahore named Usted Ahmad. It is quite probable, though, that while many architects, artisans and craftsmen contributed to the construction and modification, the concept and controlling hand was that of Shah Jahan. The style is a synthesis of existing traits of Mughal architecture. The use of gardens and stone water courses is reminiscent of the style prevalent in Kabul which had been utilized by Babur. The slender minarets and inlays in marble are seen on other tombs such as that of Akbar, while the swelling dome and arched alcoves are Persian in style. The Taj Mahal is felt to be the epitome of Mughal architecture.

Work on the project had progressed so well that by 1643 the annual memorial service to Mumtaz Mahal was held within its walls, though it would be a further ten years before the complex was complete. The builders and designers of the Taj Mahal were conversant with the rules of perspective and successfully incorporated many features which heightened the symmetry and grace of the structure by optical illusion. Although the height and width of the building are equal, the appearance is one of towering height. Reflections in the water add to this illusion while rows of cypress and evergreens accentuate the perspective.

Constructed of white marble, the outer facing of the main octagonal structure is decorated with Koranic verse carved into the stone. Designed and executed by a Persian, Amat Khan Shirazi, the most talented calligrapher in the empire, the decorative writings are further enhanced by panels of floral patterns in a realistic style, geometric designs and graceful arabesques. The base is also white marble 300 feet square and inside are mosaics inset with semi-precious stones. The central chamber stands above the burial vaults and houses two cenotaphs surrounded by openwork alabaster screens, also decorated with semi-precious stones. The interior is illuminated in the daytime by diffused light filtered through the translucent alabaster dome and the intricately perforated window screens of the same material.

A terrace surrounds the main structure and is guarded at each corner by a slim, exquisitely proportioned minaret, each 133 feet tall, which give balance and grace to the massive central edifice. A rectangular lake in the foreground acts as a reflecting surface and adds to the perspective. The Taj Mahal is reminiscent of the exquisite two-dimensional Persian and Mughal miniatures depicting ethereal fairy tale palaces, while its size, architectural complexity and scientific accuracy of perspective and symmetry have caused it to fascinate and delight all who visit it.

Jaipur, “The Pink City”

The Pink City of Jaipur in Rajasthan was built in 1728 by Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II. It was not pink at its inception. It was painted the traditional color of welcome in honor of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, who visited in 1883. The city is an eclectic mixture of Hindu, Mughal, Persian and Jain styles. It replaced the old capital of Amber which was more vulnerable to attack. It was arranged on a grid of eight squares around a central square which contained the palace and administration buildings. North of the central block was the Brahmapuri (the City of God), home of the priests and scholars which was protected by gardens and lakes. The northwest quadrant was actually a hill from which the Nahargarh, or Tiger Fort, overlooked and protected the city. From this vantage point the layout of the city may be clearly seen. The streets are laid out in perfect proportion, the main thoroughfares are 108 feet wide (a Hindu holy number) and decrease in size according to use. Standardization of shop sizes, wide even sidewalks, houses of an even height (half the width of the street) all give the city a gracious, elegant appearance. Deep stone awnings protect the shop fronts from the merciless sun and create a pleasant atmosphere in which to browse.

A bustling commercial center, Jaipur is reminiscent of the ancient Middle East, the people straight out of the “Arabian Nights.” The women’s abundant jewelry represents the wealth of the family and can be quite overwhelming. This is one of the last strongholds of the practice of sati, the custom of Indian wives immolating themselves on the funeral pyre of their husband. Though this has been illegal since 1829, a recent recorded case was in 1980 and received much support from local women.

Fatehpur Sikri, “Victory City”

For four hundred years pilgrims, both Hindu and Muslim, have visited the tomb of Shaikh Salim Chrishti at Fatehpur Sikri. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar to honor a Muslim mystic who, having assured him that his lack of heirs was not permanent, promised not one but three sons to the emperor. When the first of these sons was born the next year, a great mosque and a new capital were built at Sikri to honor the occasion, and when the shaikh died in 1572 his mausoleum was added to the site.

Akbar’s fortunes had changed for the better and in the next year he succeeded in conquering the immense kingdom of Gujarat in the west. To commemorate this achievement he built the biggest gateway in India, 176 feet high, to grace his new City of Victory. This city became a focal point and home to artists, artisans, soldiers and priests — a huge population all working directly or indirectly for the comfort and splendor of the emperor.

During the year of 1584, just fourteen years after the inauguration of the new capital, Akbar left on one of his campaigns to the north and never returned to stay. The reason for this abandonment is not known, though theories have been put forward — lack of water and the ingrained nomadic instincts of the people are two, but the mysterious abandoned city keeps its own secrets. The battlements are crumbling, farm animals graze and peck in the ruins. All signs of human habitation are gone; the rooms give no clue as to the people who lived there, the courtiers, the five thousand wives, the noblemen, all are gone without trace.

A thousand elephants and an immense army were based here and were led on numerous invasions, often not as bloody as those of the emperor’s ancestors, and the lot of the conquered was often much improved after conquest. Akbar was an able administrator, innovative and well before his time — his postal system of runners was capable of delivering a letter 78 miles in a day. His justice was swift and punishment was designed to fit the crime. Torture was believed to ensure truth in evidence while executions were held only after a few days of consideration. Meals were sumptuous, the main one each day boasted forty courses served on Chinese porcelain (legend had it that this fine ware would break in the presence of poison). Water from the Ganges, sent in sealed jars, was the only beverage the emperor drank.


Madhya Pradesh, the geographical heartland of India, is primarily high plateau country. In a remote corner of this state, far off the beaten track, lie the state’s most extraordinary attractions – the temples of Khajuraho. Superb examples of Indo-Aryan architecture, these structures are embellished with beautifully wrought stone carvings, primarily celebrating the pleasures of sex. This Kama Sutra carved in stone commemorates the beauty of the “celestial maidens,” of gods and goddesses, and real and mythological animals.

Built during the Chandala Period, the temples date from a century-long burst of creativity which lasted from AD 950 to 1050. It is still a mystery why these immense structures were built in this isolated spot which, as far as can be determined, never was a population center and is not a comfortable place to live, due to its long, hot, dry season. It is also a subject of intense speculation as to where the work force came from to accomplish such a monumental building project in just one hundred years. One advantage of the site choice emerged years later when, due to its remoteness, the Khajuraho Temple escaped the ravages of the Muslim invaders in their zeal to destroy all the “idolatrous” temples in India.

The temples of Khajuraho are built in three groups, the largest and most important being in the western enclosure, which is also the best-kept. Following a plan that shows little variation, each temple is approached through an entrance porch, ardhamandapa, behind which is the hall or mandapa. A main hall, mahamandapa, follows, which is surrounded by a corridor supported by pillars. A vestibule, antaraloa, leads into the inner sanctum garbagriha, where the image of the dedicatory god is found.

The exterior of each building is impressive as wave after wave of towers culminate in a soaring sikhara, which tops the inner sanctum. The baroque line of the vertical is offset by ornate horizontal friezes of sculpture, which form a carefully integrated element of the entire building.

Most of the temples are aligned east-west and are made of granite and sandstone. They lack the enclosing walls of contemporary structures in other locations, but often had four smaller shrines at the corners, many of which have not survived. One of the best preserved of all the structures is the Lakshmana Temple, in the western group. This temple was dedicated to Vishnu and is one of the earliest built on the site (between AD 930 and 950).


One of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of India, Varanasi, the “Eternal City,” has been a center of learning and civilization for some 2000 years. Nearby, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, the Buddha first preached his message of enlightenment 25 centuries ago. The city was sacked frequently by Muslim invaders from the 11th century on, and later became a center for Muslim worship also. Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the majority of the temples in existence or converted them into mosques.

Varanasi has, over its history, been called “Kashi” and “Benares,” with the present name translating as the “City between two rivers.” Situated in the middle of a poor, backward, agrarian, and overpopulated area, it is a shining jewel of learning and literature for Hindus and Sanskrit scholars, and one of the most preferred and auspicious places in all of India for the devout to go to die. The many ghats that line the riverbanks are always crowded with pilgrims who bathe in the murky waters of the Ganges in religious purification ceremonies.