The Purana Qila is more mysterious than the Red Fort for the simple reason that it is not only older but built upon an ancient site, presumed to be of the Mahabharata times. So whenever excavations take place, interesting finds are sure to surface. Recently relics of the 1st Century AD, of the Kushan period, the Gupta era and the Rajput times have been unearthed. A 12th Century Vishnu sculpture and a seal of Gupta times are the prized finds by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The round face of Vishnu is in accordance with the ancient artistic conception of a noble face. This changed during the course of the centuries, with the oval face becoming popular and then the elongated one. In the Sultanate and Mughal times the round face was the high mark of beauty in women. No wonder medieval paintings depict moon-faced begums; but as perceptions changed the round face came to be associated with obesity. Present-day models tend to have leaner faces in keeping with the slim look.
Besides the Vishnu sculpture, pottery of the Kushan and Gupta periods, undeciphered copper coins, terracotta figurines, micro-beads of semi-precious stones and glass, ear-studs and charred wheat and rice grains have also been found. According to Vasant K. Swarankar, Superintendent Archaeologist of Delhi, the pottery products unearthed include knife-edged rimmed bowls, sprinklers and fragments of stamped pottery from the Gupta period. Also discovered are structures of the Kushan and Rajput periods. It all goes to show that the Kushans, imperial Guptas and Rajputs also occupied the site at different times.
This is the third excavation in the Old Fort after the ones in the 1950s and 1970s. The area being explored is the south-eastern side of the Sher Mandal of Sher Shah. The Afghan ruler was not intolerant towards Hindus and did not interfere much with their religious practices, something that Emperor Akbar inherited and which led to his more secular policies. The Emperor’s Hindu wives also influenced his thinking but he had to be cautious because of the powerful ulema lobby in the court. Nevertheless the story of Akbar having got some idols transported from the fort to the Bhairon temple close by is not improbable. He did not stay long enough to probe the mysteries of the Purana Qila as it was to Sikandar Lodi’s Agra that he turned to build his own fort. His attraction to that town, associated with both Babar and Humayun, was natural.
The Talaqi Darwaza in the Purana Qila was regarded as a forbidden gate through which everybody could not pass. It has a panel showing a man fighting a lion, something unusual in a monument of that period. It however makes one wonder why the gate was regarded as forbidden, through which only royal family members, including women of the harem and children could pass. Paradoxically enough, Talaqi Darwaza means meeting gate. It is conjectured by some that the gate led to the heritage of the Pandavas and their Indraprastha. After Humayun’s ouster, Sher Shah added his own constructions to the Dinpanah of his adversary. The man-fighting-lion panel is said to have been his creation. Both Humayun and Sher Shah were not iconoclasts like Mahmud of Ghazni but rulers curious about the past. Could it be that they had found evidence of a ruined ancient fort and were carrying out excavations of their own and discovering the mysteries of the Mahabharata period? May be a far-fetched conjecture!
Incidentally, to pass through the nearby Sher Shah Gate is like passing through the portals of time. In front is the Purana Qila and beside it the zoo. Also known as the Lal Darwaza, it is one of the many gates built by Sher Shah during his short reign. Like Shah Jahan, he also adorned Delhi with impressive buildings. By the side of the Sher Shah Gate stands the Khairul Manazil Masjid, with a prayer hall, dome and double-storied corridors. The masjid was constructed by Maham Anga, Akbar’s wet-nurse, with the help of her son Adam Khan and kinsman Shahabuddin Khan. So the Purana Qila, the Sher Shah Gate and the masjid make up a spectrum of history that echoes with the past. The excavations merge their own echo with it. If the site of the 3000-year-old Troy can be traced, why not that of Indraprastha? But for this the excavations (now to a depth of 1.5 metres) will probably have to be deeper than 12 metres to solve a long suspended mystery.