Indraprastha ("Plain of Indra" or "City of Indra") is mentioned in ancient Indian literature as a city of the Kuru Kingdom. It was the capital of the kingdom led by the Pandavas in the Mahabharata epic. Under the Pali form of its name, Indapatta, it is also mentioned in Buddhist texts as the capital of the Kuru mahajanapada. It is often thought to have been located in the region of present-day New Delhi, particularly the Old Fort (Purana Qila), although this has not been conclusively confirmed. The city is sometimes also known as Khandavaprastha, the name of a forest region on the banks of Yamuna river which (according to the Mahabharata) had been cleared to build the city.
Indraprastha is referenced in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit Indian text compiled over a period approximately between 400 BCE and 400 CE. The Mahabharata records Indraprastha as being home to the Pandavas, whose wars with the Kauravas it describes. The location of Indraprastha is uncertain but Purana Qila in present-day New Delhi is frequently cited and has been noted as such in texts as old as the 14th-century CE. The modern form of the name, Inderpat or Indrapat, continued to be applied to the Purana Qila area into the early 20th century; in a study of ancient Indian place-names, Michael Witzel considers this to be one of many places from the Sanskrit Epics whose names have been retained into modern times, such as Kaushambi/Kosam.
Purana Qila is certainly an ancient settlement but archaeological studies performed there since the 1950s have failed to reveal structures and artefacts that would confirm the architectural grandeur and rich lives in the period that the Mahabharata describes. The historian Upinder Singh notes that despite academic debate, "Ultimately, there is no way of conclusively proving or disproving whether the Pandavas or Kauravas ever lived ...". However, it is possible that the main part of the ancient city has not been reached by excavations so far, but rather falls under the unexcavated area extending directly to the south of Purana Qila.
Indraprastha is not only known from the Mahabharata. It is also mentioned as "Indapatta" or "Indapattana" in Pali-language Buddhist texts, where it is described as the capital of the Kuru Kingdom, situated on the Yamuna River. The Buddhist literature also mentions Hatthinipura (Hastinapura) and several smaller towns and villages of the Kuru kingdom. Indraprastha may have been known to the Greco-Roman world as well: it is thought to be mentioned in Ptolemy's Geography dating from the 2nd century CE as the city "Indabara", possibly derived from the Prakrit form "Indabatta", and which was probably in the vicinity of Delhi. Indraprastha is also named as a pratigana (district) of the Delhi region in a Sanskrit inscription dated to 1327 CE, discovered in Raisina area of New Delhi.
D. C. Sircar, an epigraphist, believed Indraprastha was a significant city in the Mauryan period, based on analysis of a stone carving found in the Delhi area at Sriniwaspuri which records the reign of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Singh has cast doubt on this interpretation because the inscription does not actually refer to Indraprastha and although "... a place of importance must certainly have been located in the vicinity of the rock edict, exactly which one it was and what it was known as, is uncertain." Similarly, remains, such as an iron pillar, that have been associated with Ashoka are not indubitably so: their composition is atypical and the inscriptions are vague.
As of 2014, the Archaeological Survey of India is continuing excavation in Purana Qila.
- For instance, Indologist J. A. B. van Buitenen, who translated the Mahabharata, wrote in 1973 that "there can be no reasonable doubt about the locations of Hastinapura, of Indraprastha (Delhi's Purana Qila [...]), and of Mathura.
- Archaeological surveys were carried out in 1954-1955 and between 1969 and 1973.
- The 1954-1955 sessions revealed pottery of the Painted Grey Ware (before c.600 BCE), Northern Black Polished Ware (c.600-200 BCE), Shunga, and Kushan Empire periods. The 1969-1973 sessions failed to reach the PGW levels, but found continuous occupation from the NBPW period to the 19th century: the Maurya-period settlement yielded mud-brick and wattle-and-daub houses, brick drains, wells, figurines of terracotta, a stone carving, a stamp seal impression, and a copper coin.
- Historian William Dalrymple quotes archaeologist B. B. Lal's suggestion, "the main part of the city must probably have been to the south – through the Humayun Gate towards Humayun's Tomb [...] where the Zoo and Sundernagar are now.
- Upinder Singh Political Violence in Ancient India, p.401
- J. A. B. van Buitenen (trans.), The Mahabharata, Volume 1: Book 1: The Book of the Beginning (University of Chicago Press, 1973), Introduction, p.12
- Singh, Upinder, ed. (2006). Delhi: Ancient History. Berghahn Books. pp. xvii–xxi, 53–56. ISBN 9788187358299.
- A. Ghosh (ed.), An Encyclopedia of Indian Archaeology, 1990, vol. 2, p.353
- Michael Witzel, "Aryan and non-Aryan Names in Vedic India. Data for the linguistic situation, c. 1900-500 B.C.", in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, ed. J. Bronkhorst and M. Deshpande (Harvard University Press: 1999), pp.337-404 (p.25 of PDF)
- Singh, Upinder, ed. (2006). Delhi: Ancient History. Berghahn Books. p. 187. ISBN 9788187358299.
- Ghosh (1990), pp.353-354
- William Dalrymple (1993), City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, p.330
- H.C. Raychaudhuri (1950), Political History of Ancient India, pp.41,133
- Moti Chandra (1977), Trade Routes in Ancient India pp.17
- Raychaudhuri (1950), pp.133-134
- J.W. McCrindle (1885), Ancient India As Described By Ptolemy, p. 128
- Upinder Singh (2004) describes this equation of Indabara with Indraprastha as "plausible", in The discovery of ancient India: early archaeologists and the beginnings of archaeology (p.67)
- Singh (ed., 2006), p.186
- Tankha, Madhur (11 March 2014). "The discovery of Indraprastha". The HIndu. Retrieved 14 March 2014.