Down Memory Lane Society

Delhi by another name

Down Memory Lane. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: 05dmc RV SMITH

The controversy on Delhi, following some loud thinking by the Union Minister for Urban Development, M. Venkaiah Naidu, that it could be renamed Indraprastha or Hastinapur has created an animated debate among historians and cultural experts, besides of course Hindutva activists. This is not the first time that the controversy has erupted. At the time of Independence also there was a debate on the Capital’s name. It was finally decided to retain it as Delhi in preference to New Delhi because of historical associations. The old Delhi Gazetteer, quoting various sources, stated that the city of Indraprastha was built (by Yudhisthira) upon the banks of the Yamuna, between the “more modern Kotila of Firoz Shah and Humayun’s Tomb, about two miles south of the present site of Delhi”. The river then flowed past Indraprastha but shifted its course a mile upwards. “The Nigammbodh Ghat, near the old Calcutta Gate of the present city, is believed to have formed part of the ancient capital, but with this exception not a stone of it remains standing. Its name however is preserved as that of Indrapat”.

Yudhisthira is believed to have been succeeded by 30 generations of his brother Arjun’s descendants until the last of the line was dethroned by the latter’s minister Visarwa, whose family reigned for 50 years until it was ousted by the Gotamavanas dynasty, whose 15 Gautama descendants were ousted by the Mayuras in the first Century B.C., when the name Delhi first finds mention. According to Gen Cunningham, the new city owes its inception to Raja Dilu, hence the name. The Raja was the last ruler of his dynasty, identified by Ptolemy as Daidalar. The city was also known as Dilli and Dillipur. Tradition, however, says it was founded by Raja Dillipa, who according to Cunningham, was the ancestor of the fifth generation of the Pandava brothers. The historian Ferishta says the city was actually named after Dilu or Dhilu, overthrown by the Scythians, who came to be known as the Sakas, headed by Sukwanti. The latter was ousted by Vikramaditya the First, the king remembered for many a legend, including that of his constant struggle with the betal, the hanging corpse in the wilderness of a cremation ground.

The Samvat era started with this ruler’s accession in BCE 57. Some sources say after Vikramaditya (also associated with Ujjain) the city lay deserted for 792 years. This is improbable, according to the gazetteer, as the iron pillar near the Qutub Minar was built by Raja Dhava in the 3rd or 4th Century CE. It signifies that the city was definitely inhabited during that period. Raja Dhava was a ruler of repute exercising control over a large area. “The pillar is a solid shaft of wrought iron, 23 ft-8 inches long, of which 18 and a half ft is above ground. The inscription on it bears out the prowess of Raja Dhavs since it states, as per James Prince, that it was the arm of fame (kirti bhuja). But Ferguson disputed Prince’s finding and stated: “My own conviction is that the pillar belongs to one of the Chandra rajas of the Gupta dynasty, consequently either to CE 363 or 400.”

The history of Delhi may be said to begin with Bilan Deo or Anang Pal, who founded the Tomar dynasty. It was during his reign that a learned Brahmin disclosed that the foot of the pillar was driven so deep that it rested on the head of Vasuki, king of the serpents, who holds the earth on his hood. The king to verify the Brahmin’s claim, attempted to dig out the pillar and, finding it wet with blood, tried to refix it but it remained loose (dhilla) which gave the city the name Dhili.

From 736 CE Delhi has changed many names that is, since Anang Pal’s reign, whose descendant Anang Pal II built Lal Kot. The Kot was later acquired by Prithviraj Chauhan, who united the Tomars and Chauhan clans. From Lal Kot Delhi became the Sultanate of Qutubuddin, and then Siri of Alauddin Khilji. It was Tughlakabad and then Jahanabad of the first two Tughlak rulers, then Firozabad after Firoz Shah, their successor. It then became Mubarakpur of the Sayyids. Came the Lodhis and the Mughals, when the name Dilli was finally established and so it remained till the time of the British, who anglicized it to Delhi, which was retained after Independence. Say what you like, but Dilli, Dilipur, Dhilli or Dholika were all transitional names pointing to the same root. If any change is really required then the best name is Dilli, as it is pronounced by most people. Venkaiah may well be having the last laugh for setting the cat (not the Billi brought from Dilli by the fabled raja) among the pigeons or confused Delhiwallahs.

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Printable version | Oct 4, 2021 3:33:48 PM |

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