Purana Quila, Urdu for Old Fort also formerly called Shergarh & Sher Fort is one of the oldest forts in Delhi, India. The site has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years and remains dating from the pre-Mauryan period have been found. The present citadel was begun in the time of Humayun and its construction continued under Sher Shah Suri. The site is often identified with the site of Indraprastha, the capital of the kingdoms of the Pandavas from the Mahabharata.
Excavations point to traces from the 3rd century BC, the pre-Mauryan period. The first two rounds of excavations – in 1954–55 and 1969–72 – by BB Lal, then director of the Archaeological Survey of India(ASI), had unearthed traces of Painted Grey Ware culture (PGW) under the mound. At the time, Lal had embarked on a mission to excavate various sites mentioned in the Mahabharata text and had found such traces as a common feature at all those sites.On the basis of traces of the PGW, Lal concluded that it was the site of the Pandava kingdom of Indraprastha, estimating 900 BCE as the period of the Kurukshetra war. Later on, excavation conducted by Dr. Vasant Kumar Swarnkar, Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India during 2013-14 and 2017-18 confirms that the site of Purana Qila has a continuous habitation from Pre-Maurya era to British era. Swarnkar has stated that they have not found the PGW in a stratified layer which will attest to the presence of its culture.Alexander Cunningham identified the fort with that of Indraprastha, though he referred to the present structure as built by Muslims.
The origins of the Purana Qila lie in the walls of Dinpanah, the new city of Delhi being constructed by Mughal emperor Humayun. Abul Fazl states that he built the fort in the place of that of ancient Indraprastha.The founder of the Suri Dynasty, Sher Shah Suri, defeated Humayun and made changes to the fort, strengthening its fortifications and completing its walls. He also had another fort built there called Shergarh, where the governor resided. His project, however, was a continuation of Humayun’s construction of a citadel for a royal city. He also built many structures inside the fort. Additions to the fort have been believed to have been made even after his rule. The extent of his contribution to the fort’s construction is disputed. The historical attribution of its construction is also uncertain judging from primary sources. Muhammad Khwandamir said that Humayun laid the foundation of the city on a mound near Yamuna. The construction of the walls and fortifications were almost finished by Humayun’s time. Tarikh-i-Da’udi states that Sher Shah Suri’s royal city remained incomplete upon his death and he had named his fort Shergarh. Abbas Sarwani states the two forts being constructed by him were incomplete when he died. Tarikh-i-Khan-Jahan states that Salim Shah Suri had constructed a wall defending Dinpanah of Humayun.
Purana Qila and its environs flourished as the “sixth city of Delhi”. In the year 1556, on 7th October Hindu king Hem Chandra Vikramaditya was crowned in Purana Quila, who had defeated Akbar’s forces decisively at Battle of Delhi (1556). Edwin Lutyenswho designed the new capital of British India, New Delhi, in the 1920s, had aligned the central vista, now Rajpath, with Purana Qila. During the Partition of India, in August 1947 the Purana Qila along with the neighbouring Humayun’s Tomb, became the site for refuge camps for Muslims migrating to newly founded Pakistan. This included over 12,000 government employees who had opted for service in Pakistan, and between 150,000–200,000 Muslim refugees, who swarmed inside Purana Qila by September 1947, when Indian government took over the management of the two camps. The Purana Qila camp remained functional until early 1948, as the trains to Pakistan waited until October 1947 to start.
In the 1970s, the ramparts of Purana Qila were first used as a backdrop for theatre, when three productions of the National School of Drama were staged here: Tughlaq, Andha Yug and Sultan Razia, directed by Ebrahim Alkazi. In later decades it has been the venue of various important theatre productions, cultural events, and concerts. Today, it is the venue of a daily sound and light presentation after sunset, on the history of the “Seven Cities of Delhi”, from Indraprastha through New Delhi.
Delhi is thought by some to be located at the site of the legendary city of Indraprastha founded by the Pandavas from Mahabharata period, which is consequently considered the ‘First City of Delhi’. In support of this, until 1913, a village called Indrapatexisted within the fort walls.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) carried out excavations at Purana Qila in 1954–55 and again from 1969 to 1973 by B. B. Lal, and in 2013-14 & 2017-18 by Vasant Kumar Swarnkar. its findings and artefacts are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum, Purana Qila. This includes Painted Grey Ware, dating 1000 BC, and various objects and pottery signifying continuous habitation from Mauryan to Shunga, Kushana, Gupta, Rajput, Delhi Sultanate and Mughal periods. The homes built during the Rajput era were built of bricks used in other structures and also mud bricks. A fortification wall about 30 metre long was also found. During the Delhi Suntanate, structures were made from re-used bricks and over the ruins of earlier structures. The Mughal era structures were characterized by a deep pit dug over those of the preceding eras.
The walls of the Fort rise to a height of 18 metres, traverse about 1.5 km, and have three arched gateways: the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) facing west, which is still in use today; the south gate, also popularly known as the ‘Humayun Gate’ (probably so known because it was constructed by Humayun, or perhaps because Humayun’s Tomb is visible from there); and lastly, the ‘Talaqi Gate’, often known as the “forbidden gate”. All the gates are double-storeyed sandstone structures flanked by two huge semi-circular bastion towers, decorated with white and coloured-marble inlays and blue tiles. They are replete with detailing, including ornate overhanging balconies, or jharokhas, and are topped by pillared pavilions (chhatris), all features that are reminiscent of Rajasthani architecture as seen in the North and South Gates, and which were amply repeated in future Mughal architecture. Despite the grandeurs of the exterior, few of interior structures have survived except the Qila-i Kuhna Mosque and the Shermandal, both credited to Sher Shah.
The single-domed Qila-i-Kuna Mosque, built by Sher Shah in 1541 is an excellent example of a pre-Mughal design, and an early example of the extensive use of the pointed arch in the region as seen in its five doorways with the ‘true’ horseshoe-shaped arches. It was designed as a Jami Mosque, or Friday mosque for the Sultan and his courtiers. The prayer hall inside, the single-aisled mosque, measures 51.20m by 14.90m and has five elegant arched prayer niches or mihrabs set in its western wall. Marble in shades of red, white and slate is used for the calligraphic inscriptions on the central iwan, marks a transition from Lodhi to Mughal architecture. At one time, the courtyard had a shallow tank, with a fountain.
A second storey, accessed through staircases from the prayer hall, with a narrow passage running along the rectangular hall, provided space for female courtiers to pray, while the arched doorway on the left wall, framed by ornate jharokas, was reserved for members of the royal family. On a marble slab within the mosque an inscription reads: “As long as there are people on the earth, may this edifice be frequented and people be happy and cheerful in it”.Today it is the best preserved building in Purana Qila.