February 08, 2013

Siri Fort Remains, New Delhi

Continuing with my journey through Delhi in a bid to find the remains of the seven magnificent medieval cities that defined the city, I often come across structures that are remnants of an age of lavish treasures & equally potent pleasures. These relics can mostly be seen standing like oases in the middle of modern, space-starved Delhi that has embarked on the path to become the cement & glass capital of a superpower in making. One such structure I had the pleasure of exploring up close were the remains of the fortress called Siri. Siri was built by Sultan Alauddin Khilji (ruled 1296-1316 AD), one of the most eminent rulers of the Khilji Dynasty. Alauddin was a militaristic ruler, never the one to shy away from wars & almost always victorious in the battlefield. He subjugated most of India & brought parts of Bengal, Deccan & Orissa under the control of Delhi Sultanate. Besides being a competent general, Alauddin was also a confident man whose ambitions knew no bounds – early in his life he wanted to start a religion in his own name & spread it by the strength of his sword, infused with his numerous victories he disregarded Allah, & he proclaimed that his authority to rule superseded the priest’s sermons & the religious command. The period was characterised by regular Mongol invasions & skirmishes along the northern borders of the country. Many historians concede that the Mongol invasions were not necessary a bad thing for the country’s population – the regularity of these attacks kept the king prepared for all possible scenarios & he made attempts to placate the public mood else they side with the invaders. Alauddin, fed up with the necessity of mobilizing his troops at the time of each new invasion, constructed this oval fortress over AD 1297-1307 to house his subjects & offer strong defence against the heavily armed Mongol armies. He was assisted by architects & artists of the Central Asian Seljuqian tribe who had made Delhi their home after being threatened by regular Mongol invasions in their own cities. The fortress (as well as other structures that Alauddin built, such as his own tomb & the magnificent Alai Darwaza, refer Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb Complex & Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza) bears an imprint of the Seljuqian-Turkish architectural traditions. The fortress became the second city of Delhi (Delhi boasts of seven major & one minor medieval city - the first being the Hindu capital of Lal Kot that was also the seat of Muslim sultans who preceded Alauddin). Siri’s given name was “Dar-ul-Khilafat” (Seat of Islamic Caliphate) – indicating the need for Delhi’s medieval sultans, including the agnostic Alauddin, to have their ascension to the throne of an Islamic domain granted by the Caliph.

Remains of Alauddin's Citadel in a public park - Notice the protected passageway between the walls for movement of the soldiers during action. 

When the fortress was being constructed, the Mongols under the leadership of Taraghi besieged the city in AD 1299. The siege was unsuccessful & the Mongols retreated, but Alauddin became a smarter man from his experiences. Next time the Mongols attacked, Alauddin gave them a chase & with the help of his more than able generals Malik Kafur & Ghazi Malik gave a crushing defeat to the fleeing Mongols. 8,000 soldiers, including generals, of the Mongol army were captured – the generals were trampled upon by elephants in the streets of Delhi & the soldiers were beheaded & their heads hung from the walls of the newly completed fortress. The fortress came to be popularly referred to as “Siri” from then on (“Sir” is “head” in Hindi). According to another legend, the heads were actually laid into the fortress’s foundations.

The Mongols again attacked Siri in 1306 AD, but the Governor of Punjab Ghazi Malik annihilated their entire army (Ghazi Malik went on to become the sultan of Delhi in 1320 AD under the title of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq – he built the gigantic fortress called Tughlaqabad paving the way for Siri’s decline, refer Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad Fort). Alauddin ruthlessly took the battle to Mongol territories & attacked their kingdoms in modern-day Afghanistan – the Mongols, beaten & crushed, never attacked India again. Siri established Alauddin as the first emperor of a unified India since it was here from that he repelled the Mongol attacks & spread his rule to the far-flung areas of the country. Even Timur, who invaded India in AD 1398 talks about the invincibility of Siri & writes about the city’s brick & stone fortifications.

Once a soldier's walkway, today a pig sty!!

The fortress boasted of several impressive structures – Alauddin was a skilled builder & has to his name several water tanks, mosques, seminaries & even an unfinished, massive minaret in Qutb Complex. Alauddin also took it upon himself to renovate & expand existing structures within Delhi – the only Sultan other than Feroz Shah Tughlaq to take an active interest in the upkeep of Delhi’s monuments. Among Siri’s marvels, the most widely known was the “Hazar Sutan” – The hall of thousand pillars, profusely decorated with expensive gems & exquisite artwork. The impregnable fortress was built on a massive scale & even today one can see the remains of the walls, unassailable & complete with fire-shaped battlements, niches to fire arrows from & space within the walls for soldiers to pass through during the times of emergencies. The high walls were built of rubble & were several meters thick throughout. Seven huge gates were used for entry & exit purposes. Legend has it that seventy thousand workers were employed by Alauddin to finish the city in record time!!

One of the wall portions preserved by A.S.I in the archaeological complex

Sadly no remains of the structures within the city have ever been found. Later rulers, especially Sher Shah Suri, demolished & plundered the city to forage building material for the construction of their own capitals. The fortress, meant to repel foreign attacks, was brought down by the very people it was built to serve. Today, Siri’s rubble walls & bastions exist, but intermittently, around the Green Park area. One such portion is located near the Siri Fort Sports Complex, just opposite the Siri Children’s Museum. Identifiable by the characteristic red sandstone plaque that Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I) installs detailing the history & architecture of a structure, the wall portions are part of a small sliver of a garden complex. The walls are at most one meter high, the bastions appear as if they have been surgically cut off. One can make out the extent of the wall & its girth, but that’s it – no other remains survive. The garden, though taken over by weed & vegetation, is still well maintained compared to several other monuments in Delhi. Colorful butterflies, big mosquitoes & strange insects buzz around the vibrantly coloured flowers around these wall remains. A few meters away, a wire fence separates these structures from the Sports Complex, where kids run about playing cricket, coaches shout orders & older guys exercise. Nearby also stands the beautiful Mohammad Wala Masjid (refer Pixelated Memories - Mohammad Wala Masjid). The fortress’s walls extend far off, I must have followed it for at least 200 meters, but the picture is the same throughout – walls & bastions demolished as if cut by a razor & the remains existing as a snaking line with bulges for bastions. The complex gate is usually under chain & lock as a protection against vandals, the key can be obtained from the caretaker who stays within the Museum on the opposite side of the road. The grilles that encompass these structures are coming off at places & one can simply squeeze in through the gaping holes.

Surgically cleaved - One of the bastions

Another portion of the wall is located within a park nearby. The park is used for recreation purposes, so unlike the previous one it is very well maintained – there are grassy turfs, flowering plants, shady trees & a gardener to look after it all. The wall portion is complete here – one can see the arrow holes, the battlements & even climb in the double-storied walls & walk in the passages in the walls that were meant for soldiers. Since the portion visible from the park can’t be climbed into that easily, I decided to go around & see the wall from its back side. A parking lot flanks the wall on the opposite side & here it has been reduced to a rather shabby state – the passages are filled with waste – both plastic & excreta, a small pit is full of what looks like sewage, must have been water accumulating since long, pigs laid in the water, basking in the overhead sun. The dilapidated dome of the Thanewala Gumbad (refer Pixelated Memories - Thanewala Gumbad) rises nearby, hemmed around by designer showrooms & apparel stores. The deplorable site & stench, the massive pigs (they were huge, I have never seen such large pigs before), & the garbage-choked passageways made me want to return. But I had to have a look at the passages – they were high at most places, but would then stoop low at points. At some points, even though the outer walls were straight, the passageways would curve. Sadly, even here not much of the wall remains & the passages end after a few metres. Outside into the sun again, I jumped down the walls back into the park & decided to do a recce of the remaining portion. Except for a few in the nearby Shahpur Jat Village, no bastions of the city have survived the later marauder-emperors. The wall in the park too is reduced to a short stone barrier after a few minutes’ walk. At the entrance of the park exists a Khilji-era well, now filled with waste & covered with heavy stones to prevent kids & drunkards from toppling down. From a distance, one can also spot the moat that surrounds the fortress – though now it is largely filled up & exists as lush grassy contours, it is perceivable nonetheless. A small rubble bridge spans the moat at one place, it has been conserved & maintained. Sadly the same can’t be said for another bridge nearby where the moat around is all stuffed up with waste, especially plastic wrappers & polythene bags. Such is the contrast that could be observed over so little a distance when it comes to monument conservation in India.

Small & sturdy - The moat & the bridge

Among all the structures that Alauddin built – his tomb & associated seminary (“madrasa”), his victory tower (“Alai Minar”, refer Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza), Siri, water tanks & palaces – only two survive intact – these being the Alai Darwaza (the striking entrance to the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque within Qutb Complex) & the Hauz Khas (refer Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas Complex; Hauz Khas was originally a huge water tank meant to provide water to Siri’s population, later it was expanded to a retreat & a site for tomb & madrasa building by Sultan Feroz Tughlaq (ruled AD 1351-88)). Alauddin would not have cared less, he left his mark over Delhi’s psyche – one of India’s largest complex housing sports facilities, museums, auditoriums with combined seating capacity of 25,000 people draws its name from Siri. Sadly, the very complex meant to reflect upon Siri’s greatness proved to be its bane – unknowingly, a large part of the city structures were buried deep under cement when the sports complex & the residential village meant to house athletes participating in Asian Games 1982 were being built. Excavations are on, but it is very difficult to say that the structures would be intact. Also buried was the sister tomb of Mohammad Wala Mosque – the Bulbul Wali Mosque (Information courtesy – Vikramjit Singh Rooprai). The Government has also sanctioned the restoration & upkeep of existing portions of Siri, the result is exceedingly inspiring, especially when referring to the wall portions opposite the Children’s Museum. Hopefully, after the Archaeologists & the artists are done with their tasks, people would recognize the beauty of Hauz Khas-Green Park areas other than the swanky showrooms, attractive girls & luxurious cars. Though the last three are themselves worth checking out the area for!!

Surviving (barely!!)

Location: Green Park Area
Nearest Metro Station: Green Park Station
How to reach - 

  1. Wall portion near Shahpur Jat village - From Green Park Metro Station, take a bus for Shahpur Jat village. Opposite the bus stop is the park containing some of the above mentioned ruins.
  2. Wall portion within Siri Archaeological Park - After getting down at Green Park Metro Station walk/take an auto to Siri Fort Sports Complex. Just before the Complex is the Siri Fort Children's Museum. The archaeological area is opposite the Children's Museum.
Both the sites are located close to each other & one can walk from one to another. The ruins near Shahpur are closer to the metro station & can be visited first. One can ask for Siri Sports Complex from there on.
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset (both)
Entrance Fee: Nil (both)
Photography/Video charges: Nil (both)
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min (both)
Relevant Links -

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