The Older Delhi

The Older Delhi
Illustration Photo Credit: Illustration By Manjula Padmanabhan

Delhi has been building for centuries and centuries, and it isn't finished yet

Lucy Peck
March 27 , 2014
06 Min Read

The visitor to Delhi might be lucky enough to get his first glimpse of the city’s architectural heritage out of the window of a plane or train. The rugged outline of Tughlakabad fort (built 1320-24) can sometimes be seen from the air, as can Firoz Shah’s madrasa at Hauz Khas, built a few decades later, the domes of which can be seen nestling among the greenery of the Hauz Khas park. Even more exciting is a glimpse of the strange profile of the late 12th-century Qutb Minar as the plane comes in to land.

If a traveller arrives by train from the south, they will get an excellent view of the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb as the train rumbles the last few kilometres into New Delhi station. Trains carrying passengers from the east actually go over a corner of Shah Jahan’s 17th-century Red Fort and anyone driving around New Delhi is bound to cross Rajpath, with the wonderful colonial complex of the Rashtrapati Bhavan and North and South blocks silhouetted on the skyline away to the west, with India Gate to the east.


These buildings are just a fraction of Delhi’s varied and fascinating architectural heritage, some of which is closely linked to the most charismatic of India’s rulers. Rock-carved edicts of the great Ashoka date from the third century BCE, while archaeology at the Purana Qila has revealed a settlement from even earlier times. Crumbling city walls remain from pre-Islamic Delhi while nearby, around the Qutb Minar, there are several other buildings from the 13th century.

Not far away, hidden in and around the old village of Mehrauli, a wide range of monuments survive from every subsequent century. South Delhi was built over the fields of a number of villages that grew up around the mosques and tombs of the Sultans of Delhi and their noblemen. The two most striking mosques in this area are the vast Begumpur Mosque and the unusual, because mostly covered, mosque at Khirki. In the beautiful Lodhi Garden are four wonderful tombs from the last century of the Sultanate, before the Mughals took over.

Firoz Shah Tughlak, who reigned at the end of the 14th century, was a great builder and the remains of his buildings can be found all over the city, from a baoli (stepwell) and putative observatory near the Hindu Rao hospital in North Delhi, to a hunting lodge in the grounds of Teen Murti (where Nehru lived as prime minister). Larger projects were his tomb and madrasa at Hauz Khas and a fort that once stood beside the river, now known as Firoz Shah Kotla. Firoz Shah could be regarded as patron saint of conservationists: his interest in historic artefacts caused him to make repairs to many earlier structures and to preserve the Ashokan pillar edicts.

Perhaps the single most impressive building in Delhi is Humayun’s great mausoleum, with its perfect white dome, one of the first Mughal structures in India and built while Humayun’s son Akbar was still busy consolidating his empire in the mid-16th century. It was constructed near the Sufi Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia’s shrine. To cross the busy Mathura Road and to walk through the village of Nizamuddin and into the shrine enclosure itself is to step into another world — here, there is a 14th-century baoli, a very early mosque, and tombs and graves of diverse style and date. Humayun was exiled from India for 15 years in the mid-16th century, vanquished by Sher Shah Sur, who built the Purana Qila, perhaps based on an early structure of Humayun’s, the looming walls of which are impossible to miss when driving in the Pragati Maidan area. Inside the fort, there is the most spectacularly decorated mosque in Delhi, dating from the same period.

The Mughal emperor who had most impact on Delhi was Humayun’s great-grandson Shah Jahan who, in 1638, started to build a new walled city, Shahjahanabad. The walls, the Jama Masjid and some of his palace buildings survived the retribution that followed the Great Uprising of 1857.

The city itself has developed over the centuries and although most of the existing buildings date from the end of the 19th century onwards, a few more ancient ones can be found, some pre-dating the city that was built around them. The street pattern has evolved organically over time and one can get thoroughly lost wandering the narrow lanes—well worth doing for the frequent sightings of finely carved stone doorways and glimpses of haveli courtyards, as well as witnessing the hurly-burly of the fascinating specialist markets.

Colonial Delhi is best represented by the ‘Lutyens Bungalow Zone’. Although perceived as seriously under threat, there are many streets of fine white bungalows south of Rajpath and, of course, the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex is beautifully preserved. Less well known is the old Civil Lines area north of the walled city, where there are a number of older colonial buildings. Finally, not to be ignored are the buildings going up now, some of which will one day be regarded as architectural heritage themselves. The Asian Games Village in Siri Fort is a likely candidate and no doubt some of the buildings created for this year’s Commonwealth Games might gain such status too.

The appeal of historic cities is generally more than the sum of the great sights. It is the bustling inner cities and quiet residential neighbourhoods, the melding of buildings and townscapes of different periods, and the gradual adaptation of old structures to new uses. The recently constructed and rapidly growing Metro system will give the traveller to Delhi much easier access to little-known buildings and areas of the city as well as to the famous sites that are on all tourist itineraries.

Urban Villages
Of the 14 million-odd Dilliwalas accounted for by the 2001 census, one million were ‘villagers’. Their villages connect Delhi to its distant and near pasts, and provide refuge to many Delhizens that gentrified Delhi cold-shoulders, single women and Northeasterners, for instance. And now we begin to see the transformation of some of these villages into cosmopolitan hubs, with an interesting cultural mix, or even (as in the case of Shahpur Jat or Hauz Khas Village) into posh commercial areas.

Happily, lovely old Mehrauli remains undisturbed by touristy commerce. It’s reminiscent of Old Delhi in many ways—the specialised bazaars, the baolis and the food are all here. Ask for directions to Gandhak Ki Baoli, Shamsi Talao and the dargah of Qutb Sahib, patron saint of the village. Speaking of patron saints, none is bigger in Delhi than Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. His village, Nizamuddin, lives comfortably with the curiosity of strangers. Local youth will even walk you around and introduce you to its history, as part of a Hope Project initiative (011-24357081). Chirag Dilli too gets its name from that of a saint, the 14th-century sufi Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmood, aka Roshan Chirag-e-Dilli, the spiritual successor to Nizamuddin. His tomb is a quiet, leafy oasis of peace here.

Worth a visit too is Kotla Mubarakpur, just off genteel Defence Colony and busy South Extension. Look for the neglected 15th-century tomb of Mu’izz’d-Din Abul Fateh Mubarak Shah Sayyid. Almost next door is village Masjid Moth, behind South Extension-II. Find your way to the eponymous masjid, built apparently from the proceeds of a lentil (moth) plantation. Further south, near the swank Saket malls is Khirki village, home to the magnificent Khirki mosque. Built by Khan Jahan Junan Shah in the 1370s, it is something of a rarity: a mosque with a covered courtyard.

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