Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

The search for Delhi's lost city of Indraprastha

At a 16th-century fort in India’s capital city, renewed efforts are being made to uncover an ancient kingdom

Purana Qila fort, thought to be the site of the lost Indraprastha
Purana Qila fort, thought to be the site of the lost Indraprastha

It could be right here, somewhere beneath my feet. A long-lost treasure sought by so many people for so many years. It has supposedly been found many times. Except, on each occasion, these discoveries by excited researchers have turned out to be false alarms. As I walk around an area long suspected to be its hiding place, in New Delhi’s southern suburbs, I wonder how it is possible that something so massive could remain hidden in a metropolis this densely populated.

I am not talking about a lost jewel, manuscript or artwork. Instead, what has gone missing is an entire city. More than 3,000 years ago, northern India was home to a magnificent city called Indraprastha, the capital of a powerful kingdom. Then it disappeared. For centuries, archaeologists have been trying to locate the fabled city, having narrowed their search to the areas in and around the Indian capital.

The trail had been cold for so long, then, suddenly it heated up. Hype is now building and all eyes are focused on the place where I’m standing – Purana Qila fort. This historic 16th-century fortress has for generations been rumoured to conceal the remains of Indraprastha. It is even flanked by a green space that has been named Indraprastha Park.

The endless conjecture could soon be confirmed or denied, with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) about to conduct a second major excavation of the site in two years. If Indraprastha is finally found, the Indian Government plans to turn the site into a major tourist attraction. All this rests on the efforts of a dedicated group of Indian archaeologists.

Both inside and outside the fort’s lofty walls, which are about 1.5 kilometres long, I come across signs of upturned earth. As I push this dirt around with my foot, in a quiet area on the fort’s perimeter, a bemused security guard walks up to me. “Indraprastha?” I ask him, pointing at the disturbed ground. “No good, no good,” he replies, shaking his head. This, I assume, is in reference to last year’s excavation, which proved fruitless, with the ASI reporting no breakthroughs.

Yet so certain are some archaeologists that Indraprastha is buried beneath Purana Qila that the ASI is about to start again. Excavations in search of the lost city have been carried out on this site since the 1950s. Those first searches were prompted when researchers found a link between Purana Qila and one of India’s most important texts, the Mahabharata.

This epic poem, about 100,000 verses long, is believed to have been written more than 2,400 years ago. It is hotly debated which parts of the text are based on fact and which elements are fictional. But it is considered to offer many reliable insights into this period of Indian history, including details on the city of Indraprastha and clues to its possible location.

A depiction from the ‘Mahabharata’, the ancient text that links Purana Qila to the lost city. 
A depiction from the ‘Mahabharata’, the ancient text that links Purana Qila to the lost city. 

Mahabharata is about the Kauravas and the Pandavas, two groups of relatives engaged in a long conflict with each other. It refers to Indraprastha as a major city that was the capital of the Pandava Kingdom from about 1400 BC. Indraprastha is considered to have been the first significant settlement in the Delhi area, which has since hosted a succession of kingdoms and giant civilisations. At some point, Indraprastha fell from grace, either conquered or abandoned. The ASI believes that Purana Qila may have been built on top of these ruins.

The mystery surrounding the lost city makes my visit to Purana Qila even more engrossing. It is already, at surface level, an extraordinary place. While New Delhi’s Red Fort gets all the attention, and is swarmed by tourists, the comparatively overlooked Purana Qila is equally interesting. Built in the 1540s as the hub of a burgeoning city created by the Mughal Emperor Humayun, it was the site of a sequence of battles in the 16th century.

Fortunately this red sandstone complex remains in fine condition, decorated by three enormous and magnificent gates, called Humayun Darwaza, Bara Darwaza and Talaqi Darwaza. Inside the fort are several intact lookout towers, ceremonial halls and the Qila-I-Kuhna Masjid, a large mosque embellished by a sequence of curved arches.

Yet, even as I admire these ancient structures, it is the folklore about Indraprastha that dominates my mind. While I walk the grounds of Purana Qila, past small crowds of mostly Indian visitors, I find myself transposing on to this historic site my visions of a grand, prehistoric city. Then I come across something I didn’t know was here, which brings some of my imaginations to life – the Purana Qila Archaeological Museum.

The fort’s Talaqi Darwaza gate.
The fort’s Talaqi Darwaza gate.

One of two museums at the fort, with a third and larger museum set to open in the coming months, this facility displays items found during ASI excavations here in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a small gallery but I quickly become fascinated by its excavated materials and what they reveal about the history of the Purana Qila site.

I narrow my focus on some remains of grey ware, a style of kiln-fired pottery common on the Indian subcontinent during the Iron Age. This discovery here in the 1960s provided evidence the site was likely to have been inhabited by humans more than 3,000 years ago. That timeline happens to match with the supposed reign of Indraprastha. These findings added credence to the long-rumoured links between Purana Qila and the lost city.

But they weren’t conclusive evidence. Neither were the further grey ware remains archaeologists found during last year’s excavation. The reason why is quite technical. The deposits of crumbled grey ware unearthed at Purana Qila over recent decades were not what is called a stratified layer. This type of layer, also known as a habitational deposit, is similar to the rings in the trunk of a tree in that they help researchers to track the age of the deposit. The lower into the ground each layer is located, then, typically, the longer ago the remains detected within that deposit existed.

The ASI is determined to find a stratified layer. It wants to, once and for all, determine if Purana Qila is really the hiding place of the lost city. If successful, it will have established the oldest link between the modern-day capital and prehistoric India. Combined with other ancient sites already uncovered in and around the city, it would create an unbroken chain of evidence of civiisation in northern India stretching back more than 3,000 years.

Such a discovery would be a monumental moment in Indian history. It would put both Indraprastha and Purana Qila on the map, quite literally. For now, this mysterious city remains missing, even after I spend an afternoon wandering Purana Qila trying to make my own improbable archaeological breakthroughs. You, too, are free to search the site. Soon, though, it could be transformed from a little-visited fort into one of India’s biggest tourist attractions. It all depends on whether Indraprastha stays lost.

Updated: February 11, 2020 06:48 PM

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