Emperor Humayun, son of the first Mughal Babur, ascended the throne of Delhi in 1530. Three years thereafter he laid the foundations of a city he named Dinpanah, or the Refuge of the Faithful. The inner citadel of this city is today known as Purana Qila (Old Fort). Within six years, Humayun was ousted by Sher Shah Sur (1538-45) who promptly renamed the city Shergarh. Sher Shah destroyed Dinpanah and raised a citadel on the same site
The first six years af Humayun’s reign were wrought with continuous strife with provincial governors, not to mention the constant pressure of the Sur sultan. Quite naturally in these circumstances he had no time for artistic or architectural pursuits. So though he laid the foundation of his citadel, it was not known how much building activity had taken place at the site during those years or how much Sher Shah actually destroyed when he took it over. What is known is that there are no extant buildings from Humayun’s first stint as emperor
The family of Sher Shah Sur, born Farid, came from Roh in the Sulaiman Range in modem Afghanistan. His grandfather Ibrahim was a horse trader who switched to soldiering after migrating to India during the reign of Bahlol Lodi and gradually rose to secure himself a jagir near Narnaul.
Ibrahim's son, Hasan, shifted east and got a bigger jagir near Sasaram in southern Bihar. Hasan's son, Farid was a headstrong young man and his frequent clashes with his father led to his moving on to Jaunpur, a great centre of scholarship. He studied diligently there and according to some accounts was even employed in the provincial administration in a minor capacity. His father, seeing his potential, called him back and handed over the administration of his jagir to him.
Farid managed the estate with an efficiency that bordered on the ruthless. Yet he was just, and soon tamed the lawlessness rampant in the area. According to Abbas Khan Sarwani, who chronicled his doings in the Tuzuk-i-Sher Shahi, ‘If any soldier or peasant had a complaint, Farid would examine it in person, and carefully investigate the cause, nor did he ever give way to carelessness or sloth' .
But he was relieved of his duties when his father, giving in to a concubine's pressure, took away the administration of the jagir from him. Farid lobbied with the then sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, for redress but to no avail. It was only on his father's death that Farid was able to secure a firman from the Lodi king making over Sasaram to him.
By now rechristened Sher Khan for having killed a tiger single handed, he also consolidated his personal worth by marrying two rich widows - one brought him the strategically located fort of Chunar and the other, untold riches.
Gradually, Sher Khan rose to became the defacto ruler of Bihar, but continued to read the khutba in the name of the Mughal emperor.
Only when he started extending his influence eastward and overran Bengal - still technically on the emperor's behalf - did Humayun set off to subdue, him in 1537. The two tarried for another two years before open battle ensued at Chausa in 1539, where Humayun was forced to beat an undignified retreat, and was reduced to crossing the Ganga to safety on an inflated water-bag upplied by a bhishti.
Sher Khan then returned to Gaur and was crowned Sher Shah, and assumed the title of Sultan-ul-Adil or the Just Ruler. It was only after this that he began his march on to Agra, the seat of the Mughal empire. Humayun finally sallied forth to meet him and the armies clashed at Kannauj on May 17, 1540, where the Mughals were thoroughly and absolutely routed.
Sher Shah proved to be an extremely competent ruler, forging a cohesive kingdom out of administrative chaos. Beginning with Bengal, he divided a province into sarkars or districts, each under the parallel control of a military administrator and a revenue officer. This structure was repeated in the parganas or subdistricts. Also, all provincial officers were posted out after two years to prevent any of them from developing a stake in the areas under their control. He built roads, caravansarais and dak chaukis, and generally laid the foundations of an administrative system that was later adopted by both the Mughals and the British.
Sher Shah had a burning desire to build monuments ‘with such embellishments that friend and foe might render their tribute of applause and that my name might remain honoured upon earth until the day of resurrection'. This wish, however, remained unfulfilled. All he could accomplish was the rudiments of a city built on Humayun's Dinpanah (Purana Qila) in Delhi, besides, of course, his mausoleum at Sasaram in Bihar.
His lasting regret in this matter has also been recorded, ‘None of these aspirations has God allowed me to carry into effect, and I shall carry my regrets with me to my grave.'
Sher Shah died as he had lived - striving for victory. In 1545, during the siege of Kalinjar, a rocket fired at that fort ricocheted back and exploded in the Sur camp. Sher Shah suffered severe burns. Although, says Badauni, his physicians poured quantities of sandalwood paste and rosewater over him, his body let off a ‘scorching heat, whose intensity increased hour by hour’. Sher Shah held out for several hours, until the fort gave in. Then, giving praise to the Lord for his final victory, he died.
The location of Purana Qila is not new to history, as the earliest reference to this site is made in the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, which states that the Pandavas founded a city called Indraprastha beside the river Yamuna. Recent excavations at Salimgarh in Red Fort and at Purana Qila have yielded Painted Grey Ware pottery which have also been found in other sites associated with the Mahabharata and has been dated to around 1,000 BC. The fact that till 1913 there was a village within the fort walls called Indrapat adds credence to the theory that Purana Qila is built on the remains of Indraprastha.
Purana Qila is irregularly oblong on plan, with bastions on the corners and in the western wall. It has three gates – Humayun Darwaza, Talaqi Darwaza (‘forbidden gate’) and the Bara Darwaza, through which one enters the fort today. The south gate is known as the Humayun Darwaza, not because Humayun built it but probably because Humayun's Tomb is visible through it. Archaeologist Y D Sharma mentions that among the scribblings in ink that existed in a recess at the Talaqi Darwaza there was a mention of Humayun, and it is possible that the gate may either have been constructed by him or at least repaired by him.
Inside Purana Qila is Qala-i-Kuhna Masjid built by Sultan Sher Shah, and certainly one of his finest architectural statements. It is one of the few buildings still extant within Old Fort. The builders must have attempted to complete the central portion in white marble but the scarcity of this material seems to have led them to use deep red sandstone that gives the building a pleasing character.
The inner west wall of the Masjid has five arched openings that are richly ornamented in white and black marble. On a marble slab within the mosque is an inscription which translates as, ‘As long as there are people on this earth, may this edifice be frequented and people be cheerful and happy in it.’
Sher Shah also built the Sher Mandal, a two-storeyed octagonal pavilion in red sandstone relieved by marble, probably as a pleasure resort. The building has acquired historical importance beyond its architectural merits as Humayun tripped on its tortuous staircase and fell to his death in 1556. It is believed that Humayun used it as his library.
The story goes that the emperor was climbing down when he heard the call of the muazzin and seated himself down immediately on the steps. When he got up, his foot caught in his robe and he fell down the steps. His injuries brought about his death soon after.
On the west of Sher Mandal is the hammam or the bath and to the south of the path leading to the Masjid is a 22 metre deep baoli.
It is believed that Sher Shah left the Punana Qila unfinished, and it was completed by Humayun after he recaptured the throne of Delhi.
In front of the Purana Qila, on the opposite side of the road is Khairul Manazil Masjid built in 1561. An inscription over the central arch of the prayer chamber says that it was erected by Maham Anga, during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Maham Anga was a wet nurse of Akbar, and the mother of Adham Khan, whose tomb in Mehrauli is locally called the BhulBhulaiyan.
Next to Khairul Manazil Masjid is the imposing Sher Shah Gate, believed to have been the southern gateway of Sher Shah's city, Shergarh. Built with red sandstone it is also called Lal Darwaza or red gate.
Another gate to Sher Shah's extensive city is said to be Khuni Darwaza, now on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. Believed to be Shergarh's north gate, it was here that two sons and a grandson of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah were put to death by the British after the Uprising of 1857. Their bodies were displayed here and local folklore has it that their blood still drips from the ceiling of the gateway.