Satpula – Delhi’s Oldest Surviving Dam

Located close to the present day suburb of Saket, Satpula is an interesting structure that lies in relative obscurity and seemingly rarely visited.

Muhammad bin Tughluq

Construction is credited to Sultan Muhammad Shah Tughlaq (Muhammad bin Tughluq, 1325–1351) of the Tughlaq Dynasty, with the aim of achieving two objectives.

Firstly, it was an integral part of the original southern Jahanpanah wall and connected four principal cities namely, the Qila Rai Pithora (the first city of Delhi – Lal Kot or Qutub complex), Siri (with the Siri Fort forming the second city of Delhi), Tughlaqabad (the third city of Delhi) and Jahanpanah (the fourth city of Delhi, the boundary limits of which encompassed the other earlier built three cities).

The second objective of building Satpula is perhaps a little more interesting. Between the years 1334 and 1344, repeated droughts had caused famines in North India that were further compounded by the Black Plague. These two natural calamities had added significant suffering of the people in the region. Urgent solutions had to be found to remedy the distressing conditions, one of the viable options being the building the Satpula. In Hindi, Satpula means ‘seven bridges’, the structure consists of seven arches that acted as gates to control the flow of a stream under the city wall before it joined the Yamuna river. By managing the flow of this stream, large areas of flat land in the vicinity benefited from controlled irrigated agriculture to grow food crops to stem the famine conditions.

The stream that once flowed through Satpula was diverted further east long ago, leaving a site that can now be safely explored on foot. The seven arches are flanked by two further sets of arches at a higher level, each of which leads to a long vaulted passageway. At either end are fortified bastions containing octagonal rooms which once functioned as a madrasa (Islamic school of learning), with passageways and stairs allowing access to all the levels.

From the lowest platform sluice gates would have been lowered into position, to either further defend the wall during the dry season, or to act as a dam, effctively creating a reliable water storage resivoir in this arid region of Delhi. It is locally believed that the waters stored by the weir had healing powers, primarily because the sufi saint Nasiru’d-Din Mahmud is reported to have used the waters of the reservoir for daily oblations.

Although the original wooden vertical sluice gates have long since rotted away, the grooves to allow their movement up and down does tell is a bit about their construction. These heavy boards were approx 16cm thick, 3m wide, and more than 3m in height. I assume they were operated by the use of a rope and pully system.

The area that once acted as a managed reservoir has significantly silted up, and now acts as an unofficial park for locals to play games and hang out. Although there is no signage to be seen anywhere to help inform the visitor about the site, it was significantly renovated by the ASI in 2010 as part of the overall effort to support the Commonwealth Games that were held in the city. The estimated cost of these renovations was Rs 20 lakhs ($28,000). It’s a great shame that so much money was spent on these efforts and yet there is nothing to help a visitor understand the nature of this interesting structure.

Delhi has a such a rich architectural heritage, in excess of 1,200 monuments are apparently listed within the city. Everywhere you walk there seems to be echoes of the past nestled quietly among the urban sprawl, almost trying not to be noticed. Satpula is a classic example of this, but with a little prior research it is possible to tease out the history of these places that can add so much colour to the visiting experience.

If you’re in the area, don’t miss out on seeing Khirki Masjid, just a stones throw away and an astonishing monument.

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Categories: Delhi, India, Satpula

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