Built around 1354 by the Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq, the remains of Firoz Shah Kotla today reside in a peacefully green open area containing a number of interesting structures. This was the Sultan’s own version of Delhi city which was called Ferozabad.
Firoz Shah Kotla is often referred to as a fortress, although there is little evidence to suggest it has any great defensive qualities. Despite the high walls there is no trace of a walkway from where soldiers could have defended the walls, and that also renders the arrow slits totally unusable.
So whilst these walls are quite impressive, they may have been purely for decorative purposes rather than being functional, and of course to give the right impression to any visitor or potential attacker. So perhaps Firoz Shah Kotla should be look upon as a walled palace rather than a defended small city.
Jami Masjid Mosque
Although today the mosque goes by the name Jami Masjid, this may not be correct. The name comes from a documented visit by Sultan Timur in 1398 to say his prayers, although from his own description it would seem that he spent all his time in other cities of Delhi; Jahanpanah, Lal Kot and Siri.
Raised above ground level, the mosque has a series of vaulted chambers below that are frequently visited by people performing rituals to pacify the djinns. Djinns are thought of as supernatural beings, demons that are credited with the misfortunes in life.
At the Mina in Mecca the Djinns are represented by pillars that are stoned by thousands of people during the Haj, although the idea derives from pre-Islamic beliefs.
The chambers are incredibly atmospheric, often with a lit candle at the far end of the cave-live rooms.
Pyramid of Cells
The Pyramid of Cells is the most well-known and visible structure at Firoz Shah Kotla, with multiple levels of linked small rooms very similar to the chambers below the Jami Masjid. This may have once been another place where djinns were pacified, and today many of the cells are used to perform pujas.
Conversely, these chambers may not have served any practical purpose at all, other than being part of the Sultan’s route up to the top. Now in quite a ruinous state, the Pyramid of Cells has only recently being properly reopened to the public so they can climb to the top of the structure to get a closer look at the main attraction of Firoz Shah Kotla, the Ashokan pillar.
At 13m high with over 1m sunk below the rooftop platform, this Ashokan Pillar was originally erected by the Emperor Ashoka (circa 272 – 232 BC) at Topra Kalan, a Mauryan empire era village in the Yamunanagar district of Haryana state.
This is one of two Ashokan pillars that can be seen in Delhi, the other is located near the Hindu Rao Hospital. When Firoz Shah first saw them they were both in their original locations, and are two of the seven stunningly carved and highly polished monolithic stone pillars erected by the 3rd century BC by the emperor Ashoka to communicate his new found faith in Buddhism. As well as these pillars, Ashoka had edicts carved on to prominent rocks in strategic locations throughout India, and there’s a great example of one of his rock edicts also in Delhi.
Over the many centuries the Brahmi script fell out of use, to the extent that eventually nobody could read it nor understand what these pillars actually were. Many local people would come to believe that they were the walking sticks of Bhim, one of the Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata and left as memorials to him when he died.
Sultan Firoz Shah clearly recognised them as something special, and was desperate the translate the Brahmi script. So he arranged for both pillars to be carefully lowered on to a pile of silk cotton and transported on a 42 wheeled carriage to the river bank, from where they were moved onto rafts and sailed down to Delhi.
If the act of transporting them wasn’t impressive enough, we have to think about how this pillar ended up right at the top of the Pyramid of Cells. I can only guess that as each floor of the building was constructed, the pillar was raised at the same time.
Sultan Firoz Shah failed in his attempts to get the script translated, and it wasn’t until 1837 that James Prinsep famously deciphered them. He was the first person to have access to a number of the inscriptions on various tablets and pillars that had been found throughout South Asia, and by looking for common patterns in the text he was able to decipher the long lost Brahmi script.
As for what is actually written on this pillar, it describes policies and an appeal to the people and future generations of the kingdom in matters of dharma (just, virtuous life), moral precepts and freedoms. Here is some of the translation :
“Among high roads, I have caused fig trees to be planted that they may be for shade to animals and men…”
“…And let these and others the most skillful in the sacred offices discreetly and respectfully use their most persuasive efforts, acting on the heart and eyes of the children, for the purposes of imparting enthusiasm and instruction in dharma (religion).”
“… And whatsoever benevolent acts have been done by me, the same shall be prescribed as duties to the people who follow after me, and in this manner shall their influence and increase be manifest – by service to father and mother, by service to spiritual pastors, by respectful demeanor to the aged and full of years, by kindness to learned, to the orphan and destitute and servants and minstrel tribe.”
“… And religion increaseth among men by two separate processes – by performance of religious offices, and by security against persecution. (…) And that religion may be free from the persecution of men, that it may increase through the absolute prohibition to put to death (any) living beings or sacrifice aught that draweth breath. For such an object is all this done, that it may endure to my sons and sons’ sons – as long the sun and the moon shall last. “
“Let stone pillars be prepared and let this edict of dharma (religion) be engraven thereon, that it may endure unto the remotest ages.”
This is the best and most complete Ashokan pillar is have so far seen in India, although it’s capital (probably a lion) is now missing. The smoothness of the pillar surface is incredible, and the inscription is so crisp and clear it could have been carved just yesterday.
In front of the Pyramid of Cells is a round step-well. On my visit this was locked so you might better appreciate it from the ariel advantage by the Ashokan pillar.
The baoli is three storeys deep with a staircase descending down to the water level on the western end. This step-well obviously still holds water as it seems to be used to irrigate the gardens of Firoz Shah Kotla.
There are many other ruined buildings, in particular near the entrance to the complex. They are all solidly built, but we don’t know what they were or what purpose they served.
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