One of the world's oldest continually inhabited major settlements, Delhi is a city of layers; built, destroyed and rebuilt several times. It has had numerous incarnations, some easier to distinguish than others, but it is commonly agreed that there are eight historical cities of Delhi, most of which have left their indelible mark in the city's fascinating array of archaeological remains.
Delhi is said, by Hindus, to be the site of ancient Indraprastha, home of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. Excavations near the Purana Qila have revealed evidence of human habitation dating back 3000 years. The name Delhi is linked to the Maurya king Dhilu, who ruled the region in the 1st century BC, but for most of its existence, the city has been known by the multiple different names given to it by its conquerors.
The first city for which clear archaeological evidence remains was Lal Kot, or Qila Rai Pithora, founded by the Hindu king Prithviraj Chauhan in the 12th century. The city fell to Afghan invaders in 1191, and for the next 600 years, Delhi was ruled by a succession of Muslim sultans and emperors. The first, Qutub-ud-din Aibak, razed the Hindu city and used its stones to construct Mehrauli and the towering Qutab Minar.
Qutub-ud-din Aibak’s ‘Mamluk’ (Slave) dynasty was quickly replaced by the Khilji dynasty, following a coup. The Khiljis constructed a new capital at Siri, northeast of Mehrauli, supplied with water from the royal tank at Hauz Khas. Following another coup, the Tughlaq sultans seized the reins, creating a new fortified capital at Tughlaqabad, and two more cities – Jahanpurah and Firozabad – for good measure.
The Tughlaq dynasty fell after Tamerlane stormed through town in 1398, opening the door for the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties, the last of the Delhi sultanates, whose tombs are scattered around the Lodi Garden. The scene was set for the arrival of the Mughals.
Babur, the first Mughal emperor, seized Delhi in 1526, and a new capital rose at Shergarh (the present-day Purana Qila), presided over by his son, Humayun.
Frantic city building continued throughout the Mughal period. Shah Jahan gained the Peacock Throne in 1627 and raised a new city, Shahjahanabad, centred on the Red Fort. The Mughal city fell in 1739 to the Persian Nadir Shah, and the dynasty went into steep decline. The last Mughal emperor, Badahur Shah Zafar, was exiled to Burma (Myanmar) by the British for his role in the 1857 First War of Independence; there were some new rulers in town.
Initially Calcutta had been declared the capital of British India but at the Delhi Durbar of 1911, held at the Coronation Park, King George V announced the shifting of the capital back to Delhi. It was time for another bout of construction.
The architect Edwin Lutyens drew up plans for a new city of wide boulevards and stately administrative buildings to accommodate the colonial government – New Delhi was born. Its centrepiece was Rajpath, a vast boulevard leading from Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President's Palace) all the way to India Gate, Delhi's iconic 42m-tall war-memorial arch.
Partition – the devastating division of British India in 1947 which eventually led to the creation of the three independent dominions of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – saw Delhi ripped apart as hundreds of thousands of Muslim inhabitants fled north while Sikh and Hindu refugees flooded inwards, a trauma from which some say the city has never recovered. The modern metropolis certainly faces other challenges too – traffic, pollution, over-population, crime and the deepening chasm between rich and poor. However, the city continues to flourish, with its new, modern satellite cities spreading Delhi further and further outwards.
There have been at least eight cities founded around modern-day Delhi. The old saying that whoever establishes a new city in Delhi will soon lose it has come true every time, most recently for the British, who lasted just 16 years. The good news for tourists is that these ever-changing dynasties have left Delhi with a multitude of ruins and monuments, waiting to be explored.
Exploring the ruins of Delhi's former incarnations will have history buffs salivating. Highlights include the magnificent 73m-tall tower Qutab Minar, and the monuments and tombs of nearby Mehrauli Archaeological Park, all of which remain from Delhi's first city, Lal Kot. The immense ramparts of Tughlaqabad's huge fort are fascinating to hike across, and Purana Qila (the 'Old Fort' of Delhi's sixth city) is still in good nick, with towering walls surrounding pleasant, tree-shaded grounds. The Mughal City of Shajahanabad (now called Old Delhi), meanwhile, gave us Delhi's best-known sight; the gargantuan Red Fort.
Fascinatingly, some of Delhi's historical remains still play an active role in their local communities. The Sufi shrine at Nizamuddin, for example, is located at the centre of a Muslim basti (slum), and is reached through of a network of frenetic bazaars; qawwali (Islamic devotional singing) can sometimes be heard from the visiting throngs. Meanwhile, every Thursday crowds gather at the ruins of Feroz Shah Kotla to light candles and leave bowls of milk to appease Delhi’s djinns (invisible spirits), who are said to occupy its underground chambers.