The ‘Cursed City’ of Tughlaqabad

Ghiyas ud-Din Tughlaq, the founder of the Tughlaq Dynasty, built what is popularly known as the Fort of Tughlaqabad today. On the Badarpur-Mehrauli Road...

Ghiyas ud-Din Tughlaq, the founder of the Tughlaq Dynasty, built what is popularly known as the Fort of Tughlaqabad today. On the Badarpur-Mehrauli Road in Southern Delhi, you can see the ruins rise as you turn your eyes east from the shooting-ranges located in the proximity. Famous today for its tours as a result of being one of the ‘eight ancient or historical cities of Delhi’, it is also an architectural marvel relatively well-preserved since the medieval era, mostly by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is marked by its lush greenery and vegetation, as it is flanked by the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.

The premises are surrounded by tall, slightly slanting walls made of sandstone, quartzite rubble, and limestone mortar, which run along the perimeter. 15 metres in height, these walls are also crowned with 2-metre high bastions, ramparts, and battle parapets. This fort-city of Tughlaqabad was also believed to have fifty two grand gates, out of which only thirteen remain today. 

Built on a local high ground, the structure had a stream, which may or may not have ran the entire year, passing from west to east towards the southern end, which made movement headed to the north difficult. The geographical features were, however, favourable for the construction of a dam which could convert this into a lake. This obstacle presented an excellent form of defence against the South, where the Mongol raiders were, which is what caught Tughlaq’s interest. Thus, it was made with the intention of serving a dual-purpose – a defensive structure as well as the main imperial city.

It is also built along the banks of Yamuna, which served as a medium for the transportation of the Emperor’s vast armies.

Besides the many towers, audience halls, and mosques, the structure also houses the royal mausoleum, probably built during Ghiyas ud-Din’s lifetime itself, which was made of red sandstone, slate, and slabs of marble. The tomb of Tughlaq lies fortified within a courtyard sporting the characteristic marks of Indo-Islamic architectural design. It is accessible via a 600ft long bridge which stands over a now defunct reservoir. It is not just the royal family but according to the wall inscriptions there is also the grave of a commoner named Zafar Khan which was already present there before the fort was built.

Constructed in 1321 AD after the defeat of the erstwhile Khilji ruler, and later Khusro Shah, the fort was abandoned six years later in 1327 AD. 

Legend has it that the usually benevolent and lenient Tughlaq ordered for every labourer to drop all of their work and solely dedicate their time and efforts to the building of this fort. This incurred the wrath of the Sufi Saint Nizam al-Din or Nizamuddin Auliya who was trying to build a baoli (stepwell) for his khanqah, a space for Sufi gatherings. Finding out the truth behind the absence of labourers to work on this baoli, he cursed the fort with the words – Ya rahe hissar, ya bassey gujjar. This curse roughly translates to, “May this fort remain unoccupied/infertile, or only be inhabited by herdsmen”; a historic confrontation which still resonates through the pages of history.

Many believe that the few labourers who could be spared worked on the fort during the day and burned the midnight oil by working on the stepwell. Although a myth, it does fall in line with the hypothesis of the labour crisis at that time. 

There was also a second curse – Hunuz Dilli dur ast (Delhi is still far away), which was believed to have caused the king’s death when on his way from Bengal his shamiana (tent) fell and crushed him.

Some scholars debate that this is one of the prime reasons why the empire could not flourish and prosper, and therefore, the fort-city had to be abandoned eventually. Even his son Muhammad bin Tughlaq who shifted the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad, and then back to Delhi, never returned to this lost city believing in its cursed status. He set up his own in Jahanpanah, located between Mehrauli and Siri. The Indo-Islamic structures of this era were centred on the importance of water for their ancestors hailed from the old Arabic desert regions. This is reflected in their architecture, leading to the birth of a new style which can now be seen in other ruins such as Chirag-i-Dilli’s Dargah, Bari Manzil, Khirkee Mosque, and the likes.

To be a part of this walk organised by Karvaan India, register and pay here.

Walk through the cursed fort of Tughlaqabad

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Author: Sai Mytheli

Sai Mytheli is a staff writer at Karvaan India.
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