Feroze Shah Kotla : Delhi’s Forgotten City

The recent decision to rename Delhi’s famous cricket stadium, the ‘Feroze Shah Kotla Stadium’ to ‘Arun Jaitley Cricket Stadium’ has thrown a spotlight on the least-known of the seven historic cities that make up Delhi – Firuzabad. Built by the Delhi Sultan, Firuz Shah Tughlaq in 1354 CE, the only remnant of it is its ‘kotla’ or ‘inner fortress’, which gives the stadium its name.

Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1309 – 1388 CE) was the third Sultan of the Tughlaq dynasty and a cousin of the eccentric Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq. He ascended the Delhi throne in 1351 CE at the age of 45. The empire was in chaos due to the policies of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, and Firuz Shah spent the next 37 years on the throne, establishing order and leaving behind a wealthy and prosperous empire.

A view of Firuzabad by William Hodges (1787)
A view of Firuzabad by William Hodges (1787)|British Library

Firuz Shah was a sound administrator, who built a number of canals and tanks to encourage agriculture. He also built roads and caravanserais to facilitate trade across the empire. One of his great projects was a great canal that he built, extending from the Yamuna river to the city of Hissar in Haryana. It was the longest canal built in India, in its time. He also banned torture, instituted a large number public welfare programmes, and built colleges and schools. During his reign, the Tughlaq Empire peaked in wealth and prosperity.

However, there was also a dark side to his reign. Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq was completely in the control of the orthodox ulema, a body of Muslim scholars who are custodians of Muslim law. Under the Sultan, there was ruthless implementation of the Sharia law. He re-imposed the Jizya tax on Hindus, destroyed temples and prosecuted a number of Muslim sects as well.

Remains of an Ancient Building near Firoz Shah’s Cotilla, Thomas Daniell (1795)
Remains of an Ancient Building near Firoz Shah’s Cotilla, Thomas Daniell (1795)|British Library

Firuz Shah was one of the greatest builders in medieval India and is estimated to have built as many as 845 buildings, tombs, sarais, bridges and other public utilities during his reign. He is said to have founded the cities of Ferozepur (Punjab), Hissar and Fatehabad (Haryana) and Jaunpur (Uttar Pradesh). He also built his own capital city near Delhi, which he named ‘Firuzabad’.

Of the seven cities of Delhi, three of them were built by the Tughlaq dynasty – Tughlaqabad by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (1320 CE), Jahanpanah by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq (1325 CE) and Firuzabad by Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1354 CE). According to the Delhi Gazetteer, Firuzabad was a large city that extended from the right bank of the Yamuna river, right up to Hauz Khas. It included eight mosques, three palaces and a number of caravanserais.

Contemporary historian Shams Siraj Afif, in his chronicle Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi, writes about how "people used to go from Delhi (Mehrauli) to Firuzabad and from Firuzabad to Delhi in such large numbers that every kos of the five kos distance between the two cities swarmed with people. To accommodate this great traffic, there were public carriers who kept conveyances, camels and horses who were ready for hire at a settled rate”.

The Kotla with the Ashokan Pillar at the top
The Kotla with the Ashokan Pillar at the top|British Library

In the heart of the city was the ‘Kotla Firuz Shah’ or the inner citadel. To beautify his city, Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq transported two Ashokan Pillars from Kopra (near Ambala) and Meerut, to the city. One of these pillars was installed on top of the kotla and a golden dome placed on top of it. This pillar can be seen within the ruins of the kotla even today. The remains of the second pillar can be seen in the Ridge area of Delhi. Next to the kotla was a large Jama Masjid praised by a number of contemporary writers like Ziauddin Barani, as well as subsequent invaders like the great conqueror Timur from Central Asia.

Western Gate of Feroze Shah’s Cotillah, William Orme (1802)
Western Gate of Feroze Shah’s Cotillah, William Orme (1802)|British Library

It is hard to imagine now, but the kotla was situated near the banks of the Yamuna. According to Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi, the grandest among the palaces was Mahal-i-Angoor or the Palace of the Grapes. The name should not come as a surprise, as Firuz Shah is said to have established around 1,200 grape farms around Delhi, which brought huge income to the treasury.

Another interesting feature mentioned in Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi are three large, underground passages from the kotla, which allowed the Sultan and his family to travel unnoticed. One led to the Yamuna river, another to a hunting lodge on the Ridge and the third went all the way to Mehrauli.

Firuz Shah Tughlaq died in 1388 CE, and was buried in a tomb next to the madarssa he had built at Hauz Khas. His weak successors shifted the capital back to Mehrauli. Around a decade after Firuz Shah’s death, Firuzabad was sacked by Timur, in 1398 CE, who interesting had camped right next to the Sultan’s tomb at Hauz Khas.

Ruins of Jama Masjid at Feroze Shah Kotla
Ruins of Jama Masjid at Feroze Shah Kotla|Wiki Commons image by Anupamg

Timur was especially impressed by Firuz Shah’s Jama Masjid and in his memoir mentions how “I ordered that all the artisans and clever mechanics, who were masters of their respective crafts, should be picked out from the prisoners and set aside… I had determined to build a Masjid-i-Jami in Samarkand, which should be without a rival in any country”.

Firuzabad never recovered from this blow. For the Tughlaqs, the seat of power continued to remain at Mehrauli and then Agra. In 1533, Mughal Emperor Humayun began building a new city called ‘Dinpanah’ near what is today’s Purana Qila. A large number of Firuzabad’s buildings were demolished and their material reused to build this city. The final death knell for Firuzabad was when Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan decided to build a new city called ‘Shajahanabad’ in 1639. Most of the remaining buildings of Firuzabad were demolished on his orders and materials reused for his new city. Only the kotla, a few mosques and tombs survived.

Feroze Shah Kotla Today
Feroze Shah Kotla Today|Wiki Commons image by Anupamg

In the 20th century, Feroze Shah Kotla left its mark on Indian history again, when on 8th-9th September 1928, it hosted a secret meeting for revolutionaries from across India, including Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Batukeshwar Dutt. It was here that the HSRA (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association was set up to fight for India’s freedom through revolutionary means. Chandrashekhar Azad was elected as their commander-in-chief.

Interestingly, the open ground near Firuz Shah Tughlaq’s palace was used by the British to play cricket from 1883. It soon became known as the ‘Firoze Shah Kotla Stadium’ and is considered to be the second-oldest cricket stadium in India after Eden Garden in Kolkata.

Now as the stadium is renamed, the kotla is the only remnant of Sultan Firuz Shah’s city.

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