Letter from Another Delhi — A Walk in Daulatabad, the Tughlaqs’ Other Capital
A journey into another Delhi.
[Text and photos by Adrien Thomson]
“It was almost a desert,” wrote the great voyager Ibn Battuta in his memoirs, referring to Delhi in 1333. “The greatest city in the world had the fewest inhabitants.”
A few years before, in 1327, Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq had decided to destroy the capital and move it to Daulatabad, in today’s Maharashtra. Delhi’s entire population was ordered to pack up and depart for what was to be their new home, seven hundred miles to the south. It was a long journey. Exhaustion, heat, thirst – thousands died on the way. The ones who did reach settled as best they could. Then, merely two years later, with terrible irony, Daulatabad’s lack of water forced them to abandon the place and the capital was moved back to Delhi, killing more people in the process. The population came back to its city as one recovers from a purge – wounded, amputated. Ibn Battuta turned up not long after.
Today, the voyager’s centuries-old quote still applies – but to Daulatabad this time, not Delhi (obviously). Daulatabad’s fort is indeed a desert of its own kind. Many of its monuments are in ruins and wild grass has invaded every corner. What was once the capital of the sultanate is scorned even by tourists (my guidebook mentions the place with only one line) who’d rather visit the nearby Ajanta and Ellora caves.
I decided to go there at the end of the monsoon season, on a hot, misty morning. Before reaching the fort I had to cross the adjacent village and get a ticket from a bored vendor at the counter. Once inside, I deliberately got lost in what seemed like a jungle of monuments, archways, trees, bushes, outside stairs, inside stairs, and dark corridors inhabited by bats. The local “Qutub Minar” (here called Chand Minar) and “Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque” (here called Jama Masjid) reminded me that Daulatabad was built with the vivid memory of Delhi in mind, and probably as a sort of replica of it. For several hours I walked on and off the beaten tracks. My exploration ended at the highest point of the enclosure, a craggy rock visible from a distance, where I sat in the pavilion, overlooking the surrounding plains and hills.
I met very few people. Some women were sitting in circle on a plinth without a building, singing and waving incense sticks, and a few men were leaning against the Jama Masjid’s pillars, silent. I also spotted a group of eight or nine-year-old kids in green school uniforms, hysterical with the Indiana Jones thrill, and a handful of couples strolling aimlessly, embracing each other when out of sight and otherwise looking awkwardly detached. Daulatabad was a city of great ambitions once – the capital of Hindustan! What it has become might not be as much, but it is something. It is a place for songs, prayers and meditation. It is a place for aspiring adventurers and drifting, secretive lovers.