Tughlakabad Fort – Delhi

Built over a period of just two years during the short reign of Ghiyasuddin Tughlak (1320 – 1324), Tughlakabad is believed to be the third city of Delhi after Lal Kot and Siri. With an outer perimeter wall over 6km in length and with a further two walled enclosures (for the palace and citadel) within the fort, it’s astonishing to think that all of this was built over such a short period of time.

The sense of scale becomes immediately obvious even before you enter the fort entrance, despite the conditions doing its very best to obscure my view. I visited Tughlakabad Fort on an early February morning, with dense fog and smog looming over the city that took most of the day to clear. As a result, it was an awful day for photography. For anyone interested in why Delhi has this pollution problem, there’s an excellent podcast that explains some of the contributing factors that you can listen to here.

The entrance to Tughlakabad fort is by the causeway that links the fort to
Ghiyasuddin’s Tomb. The gate here served as a private entrance so will not seem quite as impressive as some of the entrances to other forts you may have visited. Once you’ve entered the fort you need a strategy for exploring it as the complex is huge. Most of the main buildings that still survive are ahead of you and to the right, but it’s well worth turning left and seeing some of the peripheral structures before visiting the palace, and then the main citadel.

It’s worth noting that everything to see here resides in just 25% of the entire fort footprint. Most of the land to the north and east is still somewhat forested and used for grazing cattle, and there even people inside within fort walls. So it’s probably best not to stray too far from the buildings that still survive and are clearly visible.

Heading west along the southern fort wall, there’s a great opportunity to look a little more closely at the wall construction itself. The facing cut stones contain a core of rubble, but the base of the walls have an additional outer wall at a greater angle. This served a multitude of purposes; to act as a buttress for the higher walls, to help prevent stone robbing from the base of the wall, but also to make it more difficult for attackers to lay their ladders against it. The fort wall has arrow slots at regular intervals and would have had a covered walkway.

The main structure in this direction is the hugely impressive water tank that has recently been excavated. It’s staggeringly big, with steps along two sides down to the bottom (I assume the bottom, perhaps there is more yet to be excavated!). This tank served the palace area of the fort, there’s a further tank in the citadel that has yet to be excavated, so this is the only one you can properly see.

From the tank I walked further into the fort, heading north-east on a clear path to see what remains of the palace structures. The palace would have certainly been the most impressive building in the fort, but sadly not that much remains of it today. Actually getting close to some of the ruins is difficult as well with the ground vegetation that seemed to mostly consist of thorn bushes.

What does remain are the ruins of some open courtyards which probably overlooked a body of water. There is some evidence to suggest that these buildings are post-Tughlak, which means occupation on this site was for a little longer than was originally thought. Although what remains now doesn’t appear very impressive, the archaeology tells a different story with fine carved plasterwork, a tank, and plastered floors being previously discovered. We also have the documentary evidence, with Ibn Battuta describing the palace at Tughlakabad in 1332 :

“In [Tughlaqabad] was the great palace whose tiles he had gilded, so that when the sun rose they shone with brilliant light and a blinding glow. He deposited in this town vast stores of wealth and it is told that he constructed a tank and poured into it molten gold so it became a single block.”

Whether this claim is true or not we will never know, I suspect there is perhaps a little bit of exaggeration going on with his colourful description. It’s also worth noting that by the time Ibn Battuta visited Tughlakabad the city has already been abandoned.

From the palace remains it’s a short walk south-east to reach the start of the citadel complex. In front of the citadel gates, the only way in and out of the enclosure, is a freestanding defensive wall with two massive bastions and a covered walkway underneath.

The ruins of the citadel are hard to interpret, in part because a late Mughal settlement was once here, but also because much of the area is now overgrown. Just below the Burj Mandal (main mound) is an interesting underground structure that has been interpreted as basement storerooms.

The passage with its chambers either side is very well preserved, research here has discovered that the dividing walls of the chambers are a later addition, and that originally there was just a single long room either side of the corridor.

This area has also been interpreted as either a dungeon or a marketplace, although having an underground market with such restricted space would perhaps seem unlikely.

The Burj Mandal would have once stood on top of the highest mound in Turghlakabad, but all that remains today are the foundations. This gives you the best viewpoint across the entire fort, overlooking the palace complex, the citadel remains just below, and the forested area beyond.

Even with visibility hindered by the foggy/smog conditions, it’s still hugely impressive. Remember that everything you see here was broadly constructed in just two years.

So how was the construction of the fort, and in particular the fort walls, completed in just two years ? The theory is that each army commander was assigned a length of wall to construct, with a gap left for the gates to be built later. Any slight misalignment of the wall could be rectified by the gates, which seem to have been built at a later time as they are constructed of different stone. With a gap left for the gates, the internal street plan could be laid out and construction of the interior buildings could happen in parallel to the walls and gates being completed.

Directly south of the Burj Mandal and close to the southern fort wall is a small unassuming entrance with steps leading underground. This is quite hard to locate, so you may need to ask a guard to show you (tips will be expected!).

This is a secret passage which was excavated in the 1990s and revealed an elaborate passageway with storage chambers and a concealed entrance and exit. The passageway leads to a small opening on the outer face of the fort wall, which just looks like a drain from the outside. I tried to find this hole from outside the fort but wasn’t successful.

At every fort I’ve visited in India there is talk (mostly from enthusiastic guides) of secret passages that extend for sometimes many miles linking a fort with another fort, palace or city. In every case I’ve yet to find any concrete evidence for such tunnels, you would have thought that even if they are closed to the public there would be some reliable confirmed evidence by way of reports or photographs. It is thought that this passage at Tughlakabad is in fact the only proven evidence of a secret passage of this nature, not just in India but throughout the whole of central India.

On leaving the citadel make sure you have a quick look at a large fenced off area not far from the path leading down to the entrance/exit. This is the citadel tank, a much larger version of the palace tank seen earlier but unexcavated and now overgrown.

With all the vegetation and debris that must be at the bottom of this tank, it’s scale is mind-blowing. I hope one day efforts are made to excavate this tank, make it stable, and reopen it to the public. In some respects it’s the most impressive “structure” at Turghlakabad fort, and yet most visitors won’t even appreciate exactly what it is.

To see everything at Tughlakabad Fort you need to set aside at least two hours. As to the best time to visit, that is difficult to say. Early morning will almost guarantee you have the fort to yourself, but visibility will often be limited depending on the conditions. I think avoiding weekends if possible would be a smart idea.

Visiting the fort should be combined with a visit to Ghiyasuddin’s Tomb which is accessed via a causeway (truncated by the road) immediately outside the fort ticket office. That monument will be the subject of my next blog 🙂

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Categories: Delhi, India, Tughlakabad Fort

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