Delhi hasn’t always been India’s capital, but it has played a pivotal part in Indian history as it has always been a gateway city, built on the plains initially near a fording point on the Yamuna River and on the route between western and central Asia and Southeast Asia. It’s also believed to be the site of the fabled city of Indraprastha, which featured in the Mahabharata over 3000 years ago, but historical evidence suggests that the area has been settled for around 2500 years.
At least eight known cities have been founded around modern Delhi, the last of which was the British Raj’s New Delhi. The first four cities of Delhi were to the south, around the area where the Qutb Minar now stands. The fifth Delhi, Firozabad, was at Firoz Shah Kotla in present-day New Delhi, while Emperor Sher Shah created the sixth at Purana Qila, also in New Delhi. The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, constructed the seventh Delhi in the 17th century, thus shifting the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi; his Shahjahanabad roughly corresponds to Old Delhi today and is largely preserved. The Chauhans seized control in the 12th century and made Delhi the most significant Hindu centre in northern India. But when Qutb-ud-din occupied the city in 1193, he ushered in more than six centuries of Islamic rule. In 1803, the British captured Delhi and promptly installed a British administrator. Delhi wasn’t the capital of India at the time, but it was a critical commercial centre.
In 1911, the British announced the shifting of their capital from Kolkata (Calcutta; Bengal was ardently championing independence) and proceeded to build New Delhi as though the sun would never set on the Raj. Construction wasn’t completed, and the city officially inaugurated, until 1931. However, only 16 years after the grand inauguration, the British were booted out of India and Delhi became the capital of an independent India.
Since Independence, Delhi has prospered as the capital of modern India, with its population spiralling upwards due to rapid economic expansion and increased job opportunities. The downside of this boom – apart from growing pressure on the city’s groaning infrastructure – is chronic overcrowding, traffic congestion, ballooning child labour, housing shortages and pollution.