Down memory lane History & Culture

The mystique of Purana Qila

The old fort has preserved an atmosphere that defies time and age

The Purana Qila in Delhi never ceases to confound the visitor. Take its northern gate which is known as the Talaqi Darwaza. Some say it means Forbidden Gate; others think it is the gate of special entry. Built by Sher Shah Suri, it has a panel showing a man fighting a lion, considered unusual in a Moghul-era monument. Perhaps the panel commemorates the fight Sher Shah had when, as a young man he killed a ‘Sher’. Since then Farid Khan came to be known as Sher Afghan.

Emperor plays

But why was this scene carved on the Forbidden Gate? It was Humayun who built his capital Dinpanah here over the ruins of an old fort, below which lay the legendary city of Indraprastha. When Sher Shah ousted Humayun and built his own fort, he probably retained the gate marked ‘Forbidden’ by Humayun; forbidden because only the emperor, his children and the ladies of the harem could enter or leave through the gate.

Another reason could be that it led to the heritage of the Pandavas, with its haunted palaces and ‘Magic Casements’ opening, not to the ‘Perilous Seas’ but to the swift currents of the Jamuna which flowed so close by that it filled the moat.

Humayun and Sher Shah were not iconoclasts like Mahmud of Ghazni. They were enlightened emperors who had great curiosity about the past. Could it be that they were carrying on excavations of their own and discovering the mysteries of the Mahabharat era? The Forbidden Gate hence was open only to the chosen few?

The marble panels are more than the tale of Sher Shah and his fight with the king of beasts. Such depictions were a common feature in ancient Babylon. The lion, besides man, is among the four living creatures (one ‘full of eyes in front and behind’) that are believed to surround the highest seat of heaven. This is part of the Semitic story of creation and the panel of the Talaqi Darwaza may well have been inspired by it, though Sher Shah killed a tiger, not a lion.

Experiencing the Qila

When the Purana Qila is lit up at night you ‘see’ the ghosts of history parading themselves in all their splendour. Drive past it and feel the impact of the centuries. The Kurus, Guptas, Arabs, Pathans, Moghuls and many more held sway there. The crumbling walls have been built and rebuilt, the trees that glow near them perhaps germinated from earlier ones.

Lingering before those hallowed walls one could see the stones and crevices highlighted by the strong lights that illuminate them. An owl flew in circles till it found a perch on the ruined citadel of mighty empires which once drew awe and wonder because of the superpowers who ruled them.

Night imparts its own strange hues to buildings old and new. At the Purana Qila it seems to merge with hoary time and you begin to hear the sound of trumpets, the battle-cry of the warriors, the clash of swords, the whiz of a thousand arrows, the neighing of horses, the thunderous trumpeting of elephants and the piteous moans of the fallen being trampled upon by man and beast.

Here, history is unfolded before the eyes. You see emperor and clown for what they really were, and you hear the perennial song of humanity — of wars and conflicts, peace and tranquillity, power and glory, and then neglect and decay.

The writer is a veteran chronicler of Delhi

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 10:21:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-mystique-of-purana-qila/article29267629.ece

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