Bridging myth and reality

Much of Delhi’s history passes through its bridges

March 11, 2013 10:50 am | Updated November 17, 2021 12:24 pm IST - NEW DELHI:

The extinct and existing bridges in the Capital, however, are a historical reality since the time of Anangpal, who began to rule in Delhi in 1060. Photo: Tony Smith

The extinct and existing bridges in the Capital, however, are a historical reality since the time of Anangpal, who began to rule in Delhi in 1060. Photo: Tony Smith

The fairy bridge built by Yuddhisthira in his pre-historic citadel Indraprastha, of the Pandavas, may be regarded as the pioneer one in Delhi, though aeons earlier (even before the Ram Sethu), believe it or not, sage Bhagirath erected the first ever one in the country over the then untamed Ganga, whose image is said to be reflected in the Milky Way or Akash Ganga, the heavenly bridge. The extinct and existing bridges in the Capital, however, are a historical reality since the time of Anangpal, who began to rule in Delhi in 1060, after the death of Mahmud of Ghazni. While his construction has disappeared along with the bridges built by Vigrahraja IV and his successor Prithviraj Chauhan in the 12th Century, the bridge dating back to Alauddin Khilji’s reign (1296-1316) is still there near the Siri Fort complex.

Mohammad bin Tughlak and Ferozeshah Tughlak (14th Century), Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan (16th and 17th centuries) also built bridges, big or small, though the last named couldn’t build a golden bridge to connect the Taj Mahal with the Black Taj he had planned on the other side of the Yamuna. Aurangzeb was not much of a builder despite the Bibi-ka-Rauza he constructed at Aurangabad and a garden bridge (no longer in existence) in Shalimar Bagh, where he was crowned. His grandson, Muizuddin Jahandar Shah (1712) fancied building a bridge of Kharboozas (muskmelons) for his concubine-turned queen, Lal Kanwar’s chief maid Zohra, who earlier sold melons on the streets— described as the sweetest in Delhi by her lovers. Shah Alam’s reign saw the building of Kauria bridge (of cowrie shells) by his 18th Century courtier Shad Khan which is still there in its renovated form. Bahadur Shah Zafar rebuilt the old pontoon bridge of Jahangir on the Yamuna and also built a smaller one leading to his Baradari in the Red Fort.

Some 100 years ago the British built the Mansa bridge between Salimgarh and the Red Fort that served as a connection to their railway bridge, which actually came up in 1867. Then came the Lothian bridge at the entrance of Daryaganj. The Mansa bridge is said to be a latter-day version of Jahangir’s bridge, though some think Farid Khan was the one who constructed the Salimgarh bridge during the Sur dynasty whose Salim Shah built Salimgarh. In 1913 the railway bridge on the Yamuna was enlarged and 17 years later came up the ones near Kemal Ataturk Marg and Kotla Mubarakpur. To go back in history, according to Dr. Amita Sen, surgeon-turned-historian for the bilingual Hindol , “In Delhi there are several bridges of historical and archaeological interest, most of which are in disuse, some in a state of disrepair and some even partly or fully ruined or demolished.” She goes on to enumerate them as follows:

“Satpullah— This exquisite three-storied bridge of seven piers, once formed part of the original Jahanpanah walls of the fourth city of Delhi founded by Mohammed Shah Tughlak in 1326-27. It is a very interesting structure built to allow a stream to pass beneath the wall and provide security to the ramparts at the same time. The stream is now diverted and runs further east.

Athpullah— Built during the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), it has eight piers and seven arches. It still functions as a bridge, albeit over an ornamental pool in Lodi Gardens and not over a Yamuna tributary as it used to.

Barapullah— Built by Mihir Banu Agha, Jahangir’s chief eunuch. It has ten piers or arches but 12 towers or pallahs. It is now amidst the fruit and vegetable market behind the Nizamuddin railway station. In 1628 the road between the bridge and Humayun’s Tomb was a wide tree-lined path and this was the handsomest bridge of Delhi.

Wazirabad— This Feroz Shah Tughlak (1351-88) period bridge over a Yamuna tributary (now a drain) consists of nine pier arches and alcoves with nine bays (five fully visible) built of random rubble masonry and lime plaster with a dressed-stone facing, now restored with cement.

Pontoon Bridge (Bridge of Boats) — The pontoons 1-7 are all present but not on the river. They lie hidden in the undergrowth behind the Indraprastha Metro Station. It must have been quite strong at one time as it bore the weight of the Meerut sepoys pouring into the city on horseback on the morning of May 11, 1857 and then the thousands of the Delhi residents fleeing the city from the September 17 to 19, the same year. On October 7, 1858, Bahadur Shah Zafar left Delhi over this bridge in a bullock cart on a journey that was to take him to banishment in Rangoon.”

The War-fame bridges at Toko-Ri and the one on the River Kwai came up long after Zafar’s death in Myanmar in 1862. On Valentine’s Day a bridge of sighs comes up suddenly and vanishes just as soon in hearts as forlorn as Zafar’s. But the one in the sky stays on, so powerful that even dung-beetles are guided by its light in the dark. What is known as the Milky Way is the celebrated Anjum of Urdu poetry, which seems to merge with the Nordic belief of the fleecy one woven every night by Frigga (wife of the chief god, Odin) on her spinning wheel, symbolized by the three stars in a row of the Belt of Orion. To return to modern-day reality, besides its old iron bridge, Delhi now has eight more bridges over the Yamuna. The Minto bridge, however, near Connaught Circus becomes a bridge of sorrows during the monsoons.

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