Located in India is one of the largest cities in the world, Delhi.
Delhi has a history that dates back over 2,000 years, and it has been the seat of power for multiple emperors and kings.
However, in addition to being an ancient city, Delhi is also a modern city that serves as the capital of the Republic of India.
Learn more about Delhi and the difference between Delhi and New Delhi on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I get into the history of Delhi and the differences between Delhi and New Delhi, I should provide a bit of background on the city.
Delhi actually can mean a few different things, which are all closely related. Delhi is both a city and a Union Territory in India. The difference between a state and a Union Territory in India is that a Union Territory is controlled by the Federal government. So, to this extent, it is sort of like Washington DC in the United States, Brasilia in Brazil, or Canberra in Australia. However, there are differences in how they are managed and organized.
The city of Delhi has the same boundaries as the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the name of the Union Territory, again, similar to how the city of Washington has the exact boundaries as the District of Columbia in the US.
The actual city of Delhi has a current estimated population of approximately 16.7 million people. This would make it the fourth largest city in the world based on population living within the actual city limits.
However, the Delhi metropolitan area extends well beyond the borders of the National Capital Territory. It has a population of 33 million, which makes it the second-largest metropolitan area in the world, behind only Tokyo.
Delhi has three primary divisions. The largest, which covers most of the city, is the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. This is basically the part of the city that contains most of the homes and businesses in the city.
The other parts are the Delhi Cantonment, which is a small area run by the Indian military, and New Delhi, which is the district that contains most of the government buildings.
While Delhi is similar to other capital cities, as I mentioned earlier, it differs from them in one important respect. All of those capitals I just mentioned were built rather recently for the purpose of being a capital city.
Delhi, on the other hand, has an origin that goes back over 2,000 years.
The first mention of what would become Delhi dates back to the Mahabharata, one of the great Sanskrit epics. The city at the time was known as Indraprastha. According to the Mahabharata, the city was established by the Pandavas, who were the five brothers at the heart of the epic story.
These writings are mostly considered to be mythology, but there has been evidence of pottery fragments dating back about 4,000 years, which have been found in the area where the Old Fort currently stands.
The area of Delhi had human settlements for centuries, but it wasn’t until the medieval period that the place we know today as Delhi came to be.
The founding of Delhi is believed to have occurred in the year 1052 by Anangpal Tomar, ruler of the Tomar Dynasty. The Tomar Dynasty existed from the 8th to 12th centuries in northern India.
Angapal Tomar called the new city Dhilli or Dhillika, which is the origin of the modern name Delhi. There is debate about where it came from, but it might have been a corruption of the Hindustani word for “threshold” or “gateway,” as the city served as the gateway to the plains of the Ganges River. The city itself sits on the Yamuna River, which is a tributary of the Ganges.
Angapal Tomar brought what is today known as the Iron Pillar of Delhi to the city, which was originally commissioned by Emperor Chandragupta II, ruler of the Gupta Empire, around the year 400. You can still see the Iron Pillar of Delhi today, and it is in remarkable condition, not having rusted or corroded in 1600 years.
With the establishment of Delhi as an imperial capital, as other empires, kingdoms, and sultanates came and went, many of them used Delhi as their capital.
The next major empire that used Delhi was the Delhi Sultanate. The Delhi Sultanate, as the name would suggest, was an Islamic empire that had its capital in Delhi. It ruled over much of the Indian subcontinent for a period of 320 years, from 1206 to 1526.
The Delhi Sultanate ushered in a period of building and expansion of the city, which included Qutb Minar, one of the tallest minarets of the period and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1526, the Delhi Sultanate was conquered by Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamarlane, who swept down from what is today Uzbekistan.
Babur founded the Mughal Empire, which had its capital in Delhi.
The Mughal Empire covered a large area, including almost all of India and extending northwest into what is today Pakistan, Afghanistan, and much of Central Asia.
The Mughals were great builders, constructing such architectural treasures as Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal.
In Delhi, they left a lasting mark that still can be felt today. The Red Fort was the royal palace for most of the Mughal Emperors and can still be visited in the old city of Delhi today. The Red Fort was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan, who was the same man who built the Taj Mahal.
Emperor Humayun’s Tomb was built in Delhi in the 16th century. It was considered a precursor to the Taj Mahal, and it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today.
The early 18th century saw the decline of the Mughal Empire. In 1737, Delhi was sacked by forces of the Hindu Maratha Empire.
In 1739, the city was sacked again, this time by a Persian army under the command of ??Nader Shah.
In 1752, the Maratha Empire signed a treaty with the Mughals that put Delhi under a Maratha protectorate, but in 1757, the city was sacked yet again by Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Afghan Empire, although he didn’t annex the city into his empire.
The city nominally remained under Mughal control throughout the rest of the 18th century, save for an invasion by the Sikh Empire. However, Europeans, primarily the British, had been slowly gaining control throughout India.
In 1803, the British East India Company defeated the forces of the Maratha Empire at the Battle of Delhi.
Despite de facto control by the British East India Company, Delhi was still controlled nominally by the Mughul Empire.
Delhi was the center of a failed rebellion against British rule known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857. However, it was quashed by the British East India Company, which was also the final nail in the coffin of the Mughul Empire. As a result, Delhi came under the direct rule of the British government in 1858.
The next big change for Delhi took place in 1911 when the British moved the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi. Being inland and not on the coasts, it provided a more central location for the capital. It also saw the return to Delhi as a capital city, something which it hadn’t been for several decades at this point.
The Red Fort and other administrative buildings that were used by the Mughals in Old Delhi weren’t modern enough for British administrators. So, they began construction of a new government district on land that was acquired in 1894, which was named New Delhi.
Most of the buildings in New Delhi were built after the end of the First World War and were completed in 1931. Most of the buildings that housed the British Raj were designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Lutyens designed the India Arch, the central monument in the district, as well as the Viceroy’s Palace and the Secretariat Building.
When India achieved independence on August 15, 1947, they took over all of the buildings used by the British and declared New Delhi to be the new capital of the Republic of India.
It was in Delhi on that day that Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, gave his famous Tryst with Destiny speech, which is considered one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.
Independence and partition with Pakistan saw dramatic changes to the population of the city. Soon after independence, a flood of refugees descended on Delhi. Half a million Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab in Pakistan came to Delhi, and 300,000 Muslims left Delhi for Pakistan.
In 1956, the ??States Reorganisation Act created the new Union Territory of Delhi. The act eliminated local rule in Delhi and put it under direct federal control. However, local control was returned in 1993, along with an elected legislative assembly and an elected chief minister.
Since independence and the creation of Delhi as the national capital, the importance of the city has only increased, and the population of the city has grown dramatically as people have been drawn to the city from all over India.
In 1950, the population of Delhi was approximately 1.3 million people. By 1970, it had grown to 3.5 million people. By 1990, it had 9.3 million people, and by 2010, it had 22 million people. The estimated population today is around 33 million, including the urban population, which extends outside the political boundaries of the city.
It is believed that Delhi will surpass 40 million people around 2032.
Given current demographic trends, Delhi will become the largest city in the world sometime in the next two decades. However, it might not remain the largest city in the world for very long. Some demographers put the population of Delhi in 2100 at 57 million, which would actually put it behind the Indian city of Mumbai, which is projected to have a population 67 million.
As you can imagine, with such rapid growth in population, Delhi has had challenges keeping up with the growing population of the city. Delhi has been ranked as one of the top thirty cities in the world for worst air quality.
This growth has also led to new construction projects in the city. In 2002, the first line in the Delhi metro system was opened. With ten lines now open, the system is one of the busiest in the world, with over 1.7 billion passenger rides per day.
It probably could handle even more riders, but it is much more expensive than buses in the city.
In 2023, a new Indian parliament building was opened, which gave the Indian government a new, modern building.
Delhi is truly unlike any other capital city in the world. It is a large, bustling city that blends the modern alongside the historic. It is a city that has a mix of people from all over India, with a diverse collection of religions and ethnic groups.
I personally spent several days in Delhi visiting the various monuments and attractions, and it really wasn’t close to enough time to see everything. In addition to the many historical sites I’ve mentioned in this episode, I managed to visit and eat at a Sikh temple, watch kids playing cricket in the street, and visit some of India’s most important monuments in New Delhi.
With India now the most populous country in the world and the country’s economy continuing to grow, Delhi will probably only increase in importance as a global city in the years to come.