down memory lane History & Culture

The history behind Delhi’s name

Iron Pilllar (left) seen along with Qutub Minar, in New Delhi.   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

The controversy over the name of the Capital has erupted again with BJP leader Vijay Goel making the demand that it should be renamed Dilli. He has a point, because in local parlance it has always been Dilli.

When Lord Hardings as Viceroy presided over the building of New Delhi on RaisinaHill he went through several names and eventually decided on Delhi. For Mirza Ghalib it was Dilli, that which allures the heart. But he lived at a time when there was no name-changing spree.

According to the book Delhi and Its Neighbourhood, brought out by the Archaeological Survey of India, historian Y.D. Sharma says, “The first medieval city of Delhi founded by the Tomars was called Dhilli or Dhillika, although among the known records the name Dhillika occurs for the first time in the inscription of 1170 from Bijolia, District Udaipur, which mentions the capture of Delhi by the Chahamanas. The Palam Baolli inscription of 1276 written in the time of Balban calls it Dhilli and the country in which it lies as Hariyanaka. But an inscription of the reign of Mohd Thuglak (1328) refers to the city as Dhillika… It is also called Dhilli, Dihli and Dhilli in old records, some of which refer to it as Dehali, meaning threshold of the country, though other prefer Dilli, the heart of Hindustan.”

The Gazetteer of the Delhi District of 1883-84 says that “tradition” attributes the foundation of the city to Raja Dillipa, the ancestor of the Pandava brothers. During the 3rd or 4th century A.D. the famous iron pillar of Raja Dhava was erected. The Gazetteer says, “Other traditions, concur in connecting the erection of the pillar with Bilan Deo, or Anang Pal, founder of the Tomara (Tunwar) dynasty, who flourished in the eighth century.”

He is said to have been assured by a learned Brahman that as the foot of the pillar had been driven so deep into the ground that it rested on the head of Vasuki, King of the Serpents, who supports the earth, it was now immovable, and that dominion would remain in his family as long as the pillar stood. The Raja, doubting the truth of the Brahman’s statement, ordered the pillar to be dug up. The foot of it was found wet with blood, said to be that of the Serpent King. The iron pillar was again raised; but owing to the King’s former incredulity, every plan now failed in fixing it firmly, and in spite of all his efforts it still remained loose (dhila) in the ground, and this, according to these traditions, is said to have been the origin of the name of Dhhili.

During the course of its long history the city has undoubtedly been known by various names. In one place Gen Cunningham, the renowned archaeologist, found it written as Dillipur. Delhi has been compared to the eternal city of Athens of Pericles but nobody has ever suggested that it be renamed after that famous icon of Greece’s golden age. So the old name stays.

Delhi’s twin city, Agra, was founded by Akbar so demands were made to rename it as Akbarabad, the old name for it. But other records say that the city was founded by Nizam Khan Sikandar Lodhi.

The story goes that while looking for the site of a new city in preference to Delhi, the Sultan went by boat over the Jamuna with his Vazir, who pointed out a spot to him as the likely site, but the ruler remarked, “No that which is Agar or ahead”. So the city was named Agra.

Other names changes in the NCR include Gurgaon (known for its gur) being renamed Gurugram, while the place given as “dakhshina” or offering has been changed to Dronacharya, the guru of the Pandavas and Kaurvas. Mughal Sarai’s name too has been changed and old Bumbai has become Mumbai – the dubious gifts of a new dispensation.

Delhi College was renamed Zakir Husain College but on second thoughts it was considered prudent to amend the name to Zakir Husain Delhi College. So let Delhi be known as such and Dilli colloquially.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi


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Printable version | Oct 9, 2021 3:10:27 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-history-behind-delhis-name/article28819754.ece

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