In the heart of Delhi, there’s a beautiful citadel, on Mathura Road, between the Zoo and Pragati Maidan called the Old Fort, better known as Purana Qila. The site has been relevant from time immemorial it seems- starting from the Mahabharat period, to the Mughal Period and even in the The Modern Era. From the beginning there is evidence of a continuous chain of settlement, that can be found here, though the builder of the fort itself, is contested. Humayun ( 1530-40) started to build his city the Deenpanah, after his conquest of Chunnar and Kalinjar and some say part of Deenpanah, is what is now, known as the Old Fort. On the other hand, Sher Shah Suri’s son’s chronicler, mentions that Sher Shah ( 1540-1545), ordered walls around the ‘fort of Humayun’, after he forced the original out. Whereas, some historians argue, that the victor destroyed all the previous buildings before beginning construction.
The only thing that’s certain is that the Purana Qila, was built in the 16th century. Though Sher Shah, was only in power for five years, this citadel is one of his most prestigious projects, yet it is said that before its completion Sher Shah died and eventually the citadel was completed by Humayun. The mile long, stone wall completes an entire circuit and the three gates- The Bada Darwaza, the Talaaqi Darwaza and Humanyun Darwaza are truly impressive. Till about 1913, the fort was actually occupied by villagers, who were made to move out and then it came under the ASI. During the partition it was turned into a refugee camp.
Delhi Karavan, organised a heritage walk last weekend, at the Purana Qila. This was the second walk I attended and the third time I met the founder- Asif Khan Dehlvi, who looks like the rock star of the heritage walk circuit. A tall Pathan man, who gave up his corporate job to conduct heritage walks in the language of love-Urdu. He co founded a heritage walk startup, left that and then in November 2013, he conducted his first walk for his new venture-Delhi Karavan.
Our first encounter, was on a cold winter evening, last November. Asif’s love for Delhi and his spiritual inclination were both quite evident and they left a lasting impression. He’d wanted to read Rumi and Shamz in Urdu, so I got him some books from Kashmir and that’s how we ended up meeting one another, for the first time. He is amicable and an obvious charmer. My opinion was reaffirmed when I attended one of his walks – he has a special way with women, after all if your greatest inspiration is your mother and you only have female siblings, you do learn how to say all the right things . The men seem to be quite taken by him, too. Of all the heritage walks I’ve been on, nowhere have I seen, so many people photographing the leader. He does make a great muse but he is thronged by photographers, so the novelty is missing. It’s the ease and charm with which he takes you around the sites, that make the walks look like performances and makes up for him being a storyteller and not a history buff. Check out the pics to see what I mean.
The Purana Qila, is also believed, by many historians, to be the site of the oldest settlement in Delhi, the capital of the Pandavas- Indraprashtha. Various excavations that have been carried out, prove that there was human settlement in this area a 1000 years before Christ. Ever since, I’ve begun work on my new series- Delhi through their eyes and mine, I’ve noticed how, we the privileged may have started ignoring, these archeological wonders, as we spend our weekends at malls and multiplexes but for the less fortunate, this is what family time, still comprises off, which is a beautiful sight to see. Families basking in the sun, children giggling and fighting, the way only children can! As I walked towards Asif and a couple of people who had gathered at the gate at ten, a family sitting on the pavement stopped me . ‘Please book our tickets, online, we don’t have Paytm!’. I promised to return after informing the group about my whereabouts and I did.
The Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India, have made online bookings mandatory for all the ticketed heritage sites ( though Sunder Nursery is not on that list. Today, I could purchase the ticket from the counter). Due to COVID, even the parking is closed at the venue and till the 26th the venue itself is shut. When you go to the ASI site, it asks you to give the details of your id like an Aadhar No, a Passport No etc and of course your mobile no. It also requires for you to be able to comprehend English. As I bought my e ticket as well as the family’s , another family approached me and then all hell broke loose. Suddenly, one was surrounded by young boys who wanted to learn how to use the site, three older gentlemen from (what I jokingly call my pind) Kashmir, who wanted me to book their tickets as well, as they couldn’t figure out how to. While I was doing that, my phone’s battery was running low, the guards started arguing with the people surrounding me, to leave me alone, while the Kashmiri gentlemen started insisting I take the money…in between all the chaos, when I looked up, the group had already gone in. The ASI, should reconsider this move, at least provide an alternative to people, who are there to soak up the sun, in this harsh weather…in these terrible times and spend a couple of hours with their families. Everyone is not technologically savvy and some people don’t carry their ids around. Paperless entries are fab but a helping hand would be nice.
Though, Asif will tell you about Sher Shah Suri and Humayun he will not discuss the intricate details of the architecture with you. He’ll take you through history, on flights of fantasy, meandering from one fable to the other. To be honest, I spent more time photographing the walk leader than listening to him, on this particular outing. But the general vibe that one gets, about Delhi Karavan, is that it’s a very cordial environment, full of fun and frolic- a group of old friends who like to hang out with each other and explore facets of Delhi, led by Asif, of course, whose been doing this for a long time. Like my distant relative, who is a frequent attendee, vouched for the other day, ‘ and that too, very well!’
Check out their page on FB to know about their walks, which are a bit irregular till March, due to the pandemic. Henceforth, they’ll be back on track.