Rohit Priyadarshi Sanatani


22 Jan
Jahanpanah: A City Forgotten

The ghosts of a fallen city lie amidst the stones of its ruined buildings. 

Delhi, as we know, is often referred to as the 'City of Cities'. Over the last thousand years, this unlikely piece of land between the northern tip of the Aravallis and the river Yamuna has seen several successive citadels rise and fall. It has witnessed powerful dynasties rise to fame and then fade into oblivion. From the citadel of the Rajputs of the 12th century and the cities of the Tughlaqs of the 14th century, to the living lanes of Shahjahanabad of the 17th century, Delhi has seen it all. Today, if one looks closely, one can trace the remains of a millennium of building activity, as if playing hide and seek from amidst the modern metropolis. 

Lost amidst the busy concrete jungle of the modern-day upscale localities of South Delhi lie the remains of one such magnificent city built almost 700 years ago. Jahanpanah, or the ‘Refuge of the World’, was founded by Sultan Mohammad bin Tughlaq in the early 1300s. For the first few decades of Sultanate rule in Delhi, the seat of power had remained the old Rajput citadel of Qila Raipithora (the area around modern-day Mehrauli and Lado Sarai). Towards the end of the 13th century, faced with the continuing threat of Mongol invasions, Sultan Allauddin Khilji established a second citadel in the north named Siri (now popularised by the Siri Fort Sports Complex). In the 1320s, Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq built the towering citadel of Tughlaqabad, that continues to dominate the city skyline as one travels down the Mehrauli Badarpur Road.

It was around 1327 that Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq commenced the construction of Jahanpanah - the fourth 'city' of Delhi. It was an ambitious endeavour. He planned to link the walls of Qila Raipithora with that of Siri, thus encompassing a large tract of land for his new seat of power. He succeeded, and Jahanpanah rapidly rose to prominence as the capital city of much of North India. The city soon became popular among travellers and historians from around the world who wrote vivid descriptions of its grandeur and magnificent architecture. Ibn Battuta, the famous Moroccan traveller, arrived in Jahanpanah in 1334, and spent a considerable amount of time in the court of the Sultan. His extensive accounts of court life paint us a brilliant picture of what life may have been like at the time in this young city. As in the case of any medieval urban settlement anywhere in the world, Jahanpanah held together a seat of political power - the Sultan's palace - and a seat of religion - the magnificent Jama Masjid. The palace of Mohammed bin Tughlaq comprised the famed 'hall of a thousand columns', which Ibn Battuta so vividly describes. The palace has fallen almost entirely into ruin, and the gateways which once adorned ornamented guards and elephants have now given way to wild shrubs and scattered stones.

The Ruins of the Palace of Muhammad bin Tughlaq
The ruins of the palace of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq

The main mosque of Jahanpanah survives intact, and is now known as the Begampur Masjid. The imposing mosque is a magnificent example of Tughlaq architecture, and its massive courtyard and towering 'pishtaq' give us an idea of the importance it must have enjoyed in its day. The walls of Jahanpanah comprised a number of gates, sadly none of which have survived. In the words of Battuta, "(Delhi)... is surrounded by a wall that has no equal in the world, and is the largest city in the entire Muslim Orient". A part of the walls of Jahanpanah, including its junction with the older walls of Qila Raipithora can be seen at the DDA Park near the Malviya Nagar Metro Station. In fact, much of what is Press Enclave Marg today, was earlier occupied by the southern walls of the medieval city. A few other notable structures that have survived the ravages of time include the Lal Gumbad, a quiet little 'baradari' a little way down, a number of dilapidated tombs, and most importantly, the magical Khirki Masjid - undoubtedly one of the most beautiful medieval mosques in Delhi.

The towering 'pishtaq' of the Begampur Masjid
The towering 'pishtaq' of the Begampur Masjid


Old and New: The Begampur Masjid peeks through the modern urbanscape
Old and New: The Begampur Masjid peeks through the modern urbanscape

The glory of Jahanpanah was short lived. Barely a decade after establishing his magnificent new city, Muhammad bin Tughlaq rather hastily ordered the shifting of his capital along with its residents to Daulatabad in the Deccan. Even though he reversed his decision a few years down the line, the entire population of Jahanpanah never returned. After Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq established the city of Firozabad on the banks of the Yamuna in 1354, the seat of power moved north. Jahapanah had already begun to lose its position of political prominence. A devastating blow came in 1397, in the form of the infamous invasion of the Mongol ruler Timur. Death and destruction ravaged large parts of Jahanpanah, and the city never recovered from this setback. By the time the Mughal emperor Humayun established the citadel of Dinpanah (now known as the Purana Qila) in the 1530s, the glory of Jahanpanah was a mere shadow of what it once was. A century later, when emperor Shah Jahan established Shahjahanabad, much of the plains of South Delhi, Jahanpanah included, had already been reduced to a necropolis of scattered ruins. As a matter of fact, in the early 1900s, the Archaeological Survey of India had to clear out a village that had sprung up within the courtyard of the Begampur Masjid.

The deserted colonnades of the Khirki mosque
The deserted colonnades of the Khirki Mosque


The sun sets over the Lal Gumbad
The sun sets over the Lal Gumbad

Today, scattered amidst the modern upscale localities of Sarvapriya Vihar, Malviya Nagar, and Panchsheel Park, lie the ghosts of Jahapanah. While the city had died centuries ago, its buildings have remained - relics of a forgotten era. The crumbling columns of the Sultan's palace, and the deserted bays of the Khirki Masjid lie still, almost smirking at the fun and frolic of the ever so busy Saket Mall a few hundred metres away, as if reminding us that even the greatest of cities cannot escape the ravages of time.

The Ghosts of a Fallen City
The ghosts of a fallen city

"Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,

I arise and unbuild it again." - PB Shelley; "The Cloud"