Indraprastha: Between Myth and History

Indraprastha is believed to be the very first evidence of power politics in Delhi. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, in his magnum opus Asar-al-Sanadid, believed that Yudhishtira founded the city on the banks of River Yamuna in 1450 BCE. [ref; End of ‘Adi Parva’, Mahabharata (400BCE-400CE)]. The Mahabharata describes Indraprastha as a city as beautiful as heaven blessed by the presence of a fort surrounded by an ocean-like moat. Festooned by massive walls, the city’s architectural splendor is raised with huge double-hung gates with imposing towers, festooned with spears and javelins. Magnificent white buildings find their place at the sides of the well-planned streets and the city is further embellished by pavilions, pleasure hillocks, ponds, lakes and tanks and beautiful gardens with peacocks and cuckoos. According to the Mahabharata, the city was built after the episode of Khandavadahana, the burning of Khandava forest. This episode finds its place at the end of Adi Parva. The forest was burnt with the help of Agni, the God of fire; Arjuna and Lord Krishna. And this episode is venerated as the first evidence of mass deforestation- clearing forest land for settlement with deadly conflagrations engulfing the entire forest and systematic destruction of all animals, birds and fish. Lord Indra attempted to end the massacre. And finally, six creatures survived the fire: Ashvasena (The son of the serpent king Takshaka), Maya (A demon, the architect of Indraprastha) and four Sharngaka birds. Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata continues with the subsequent melee where Maya wants to thank Arjuna for helping him escape the fire. Maya was a talented architect and Krishna suggested him to build a magnificent assembly hall in Indraprastha, A golden pillared hall and a lotus pond inside the royal hall filled with lotus, turtle, fish and aquatic fowl. 

B.B. Lal conducted a trial excavation in Purana Qila, the contested site of Indraprastha to identify the age of the site and whether it could be related with the Mahabharata or not. The oldest piece of the artefact unearthed was a Painted Grey Ware dating around 1,000 BCE. The 1969-70 excavations revealed Northern Black Polished Ware dating 4th/3rd century BCE. However, no structural remains of the Mahabharata, in sync with the description of Indraprastha, were unearthed. 

One can find a series of literary evidence pertaining to the existence of this Mythical city. Firstly, the celebrated Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazl suggests that Delhi was first known by the name, ‘Indrapat’. He further suggests that Humayun restored the citadel of Indrapat and renamed it as ‘Din Panah. Secondly, Shams Siraj Afif in Tarikh-i-Firuz-Shahi suggests that Indraprastha was a Head Quarters of a Pargana. Thirdly, a 14th Century inscription recovered from Naraina village in West Delhi speaks of the village being situated at the West of Indraprastha. Fourthly, Nigambodh, a site situated at the Yamuna banks is identified as the site where Yudhishtira poured the oblations into the sacrificial fire after performing the Asvamedha. Fifthly, Nili Chattri Temple in Delhi is identified to have been commissioned by Yudhishtira. Sixthly, Indraprastha is mentioned in Buddhist Jataka tales as belonging to Yudhishtira Gotra, the Gotra or clan of Yudhishtira. Seventhly, Small scale excavations by B.B. Lal in Tilpat, one of the five villages demanded by the Pandavas, reported the discovery of PGW and NBPW levels confirming the antiquity of the site. And finally, Alexander Cunningham identified Indraprastha with ‘Indrapat’ mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography. 

Two assertions (1847-1950’s) regarding the origin of Delhi turned the myth of Indraprastha into History. The very first assertion was made by experts, historians and archaeologists and by non-experts, authors and tour-guides. Both of these groups suggested that Delhi’s origin was based on Indraprastha. The second assertion was that the 16th-century fort of Purana Qila was constructed over the ancient but invisible Indraprastha. The claims by a plethora of biographies of Humayun’s contemporaries that Humayun knowingly built his fort over the ruins of Indraprastha gained considerable momentum in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The earliest evidence of the same comes from the celebrated Ain-i-Akbari, the magnum opus of Abul Fazl. Their points were backed by Indologists such as William Jones. 18th Century presentation made by William Jones in the Asiatic Society of Bengal insinuated that Iran has a powerful Hindu monarchy who migrated to India and they established the ancient cities of Ayodhya and Indraprastha. It’s worth noting that he just mentioned the cities but he skips the identification of their location. 

Asar-us-Sanadid (The Legacy of Heroes, 1854) by Syed Ahmed Khan confirms the existence of Indraprastha within the frontiers of present-day Delhi. He suggests that Yudhishtira established Indraprastha in 1450 BCE but he preferred to rule from Hastinapura. He further adds that the capital of Kurus was shifted from Hastinapur to Indraprastha on 1212 BCE by Dushtavana owing to the rising water level in the Ganges. He further identifies Lalkot, built by Anangpala Tomara to be the site of Indraprastha. Syed Ahmed Khan claims that his findings are based on the shreds of evidence mustered from the Mahabharata, Shahjahannama, Ain-i-Akbari, the Old Testament, inter alia. He further claims to have recovered a brick from Pandu Age from Hastinapura and remarked that similar blocks were identified from different sites in and around Delhi. The most unbelievable and out of the blue fact is that he dated the recovered block as belonging to 2,607 BCE but the technology available at that time was not in sync with such precise dating. However, in the following days, it was identified that 2,607 BCE falls in the time-frame attributed to the Harappan civilization and not the epic period. The claims of Syed Ahmed Khan, therefore, can be considered as an attempt to impress the European audience with his scholarship and knowledge about the Indian texts. Also, he must have aspired to find a position in the archaeological society and wanted to come to the public eye. However, the claims of Syed Ahmed Khan was the first step in bringing the rhetoric of Indraprastha into a quasi-historical, quasi-scientific realm. Syed Ahmed Khan lent further clearance to the division of Indian History into Hindu and Buddhist age for the Ancient past, the age of Muslim intervention for the Medieval past and the arrival of British as the beginning of modernity.

In toto, the urban cock-a-doodle-doo of Indraprastha being ancient Delhi is being introduced to the historical arena by a series of textual repetitions. Mention in bureaucratic spaces like history books, archaeological reports and museums conferred a specific gravitas to the existence of Indraprastha. Being backed by a series of literary and inscriptional evidence and being brought up by celebrated historians, authors, tour guides, bloggers and even the common folk, Indraprastha maintains its status as Ancient Delhi even without proper archaeological backing. Series of repetitions facilitated the translocation of this myth and chain of affective longings into the arena of history and archival truths. As it is said, a lie often repeated, becomes a truth. The myth of Indraprastha is the most plausible example of this illusion of truth.