Almost two millennia have passed as Gurgaon lingered in forgettable rusticity as a hamlet, undocumented and ignored by chroniclers. It appears not to have a “history”, a record of important events or changes, as it lay in the shadow of the dynasties that ruled from Delhi.

Even the punctilious gazetteers of Gurgaon district, who compiled the gazette periodically from 1872 onwards, dismiss it with a shrug: “During the flourishing times of the Mughal Empire Gurgaon may be said to be without a history...” they repeatedly state. I would strongly argue against such condescension because its fate was irrevocably bound to Delhi’s fortunes, and was reckoned, to use an anachronistic term, as an integral part of the “national capital region” under successive rulers from the earliest times.

Gurgaon was an indirectly involved party at historic moments that often occurred in the region of Punjab where Haryanvi was spoken (the official state of Haryana came into being only in 1966), such as wars and regime changes, when its male inhabitants were recruited as fighters. In the sanguinary engagements of the Mughals (who introduced deadly gunpowder) with firearms, matchlocks, and cannon that changed the nature of combat on the battlefields of the subcontinent, Gurgaonwallahs were chiefly cannon fodder. Those who returned from battle were welcomed as heroes and given the honorific of “fauji”.

Gurgaon lived, as it were, in the churn. Constituting the immediate southern verge of Delhi, beyond the Qutab Minar and Mehrauli outposts, some of the action for the coveted north Indian empire inevitably spilled into it.

Major historic battles that decided the fate of the northern part of the subcontinent were fought not too far away, in Panipat, some 96 kilometres north of Delhi. It was where Babur founded the Mughal Empire after his triumph over the Delhi sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, in 1526, and Gurgaon was swept into its embrace.

Babur’s son and heir, Humayun the Hapless, added to the empire during 1530-40, and then lost it all to the intrepid Afghans, led by the soldier of fortune, Sher Shah of Sur, who ruled Delhi for fifteen years, strengthening and reorganising its administration. Humayun fled from pillar to post, from Sindh to Punjab and on to Kabul, where even his brother, Kamran, refused him shelter. He eventually sought refuge in Safavid Persia (now Iran) in 1544.

The Safavid emperor’s crucial aid came at a price: Humayun, a Timurid Sunni, became a Shia convert and personalised Turk, when he returned to reclaim the thrones of Kabul and finally, in 1555, of Delhi, slaughtering all those who opposed him, including his own brothers. His triumph was short-lived because Humayun was accidentally killed in a fall from the steps of the library in the Purana Qila (built on a mound that may well be, in its lowest levels, Indraprastha) on a wintery morning in January 1556. Countless Haryanvis perished as soldiers and civilians under Afghan and Mughal rule; Gurgaon’s sons made this history—but remained nameless outside the annals of the time – whose authors did not include the lowly but brave soldiers in their narratives.

It was in Akbar’s reign in the second half of the sixteenth century that Gurgaon garnered some notice.

Barely had Akbar and his regent, Bairam Khan, taken charge when they were attacked by a powerful Hindu foe, King Hemu, who hailed from Gurgaon pargana, born in the village of Rewari. By this time Hemu had become the dominant force in northern India and defeated the Mughal forces in Kannauj and in the Battle of Delhi in 1556, and came within a hair of wresting the Mughal Empire in the next battle. But, as luck would have it, he was stuck by an arrow in his eye, and was quickly taken prisoner and beheaded. The cream of his army, drafted from the plains of the Gurgaon region that formed a horseshoe around Delhi, was mercilessly decimated.

Hemu was arguably Gurgaon’s greatest native son and a memorial to him was built soon thereafter by his surviving followers at Shodapur village, where Akbar had camped near the battlefield in Panipat. The samadhi sthal was erected on the spot to commemorate Hemu’s bravery. Its ten acres of grounds are now encroached upon; Gurgaon has not been able to save this.

The early Mughals perfected the tented, mobile city, more an elaborate camp, so that the capital would move with them. Besides, it was their presence that defined where the capital was. Their huge retinue of non-combatants, including musicians, dancers, boon companions, cooks, cleaners, barbers and coolies, all were camp followers and created a capital wherever they travelled.

The exquisite walled citadels of Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, and Shahjahanabad (today’s Old Delhi) were the serial capital cities of the Mughal Empire. Emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan built grandiose red sandstone and marble forts, the finest mosques, palaces, tombs and shrines with pierced marble screens, and gardens laid out in four squares on the template of Paradise, embellished with fountains and water channels.

These cities, surrounded by the vast countryside, remained the few unrivalled built environments of the pre-modern world. City building was a celebrated art form – something that, some would say, eludes several private commercial builders who tried their hand at Gurgaon, for example. Subahs, provinces, of the empire, like Awadh and Hyderabad, also had spectacular regional capital cities with a medley of places of worship, palaces, specialised markets, gardens and orchards.

Lucknow, with its special Persianate flavour and the wealth of a spectacularly fertile hinterland, epitomised the court city of its time. The common urban feature was a cluster of mohallas, neighbourhoods that were established by prominent nobles who built and lived in fine town houses.

The mohalla was the pre-modern form of the gated community: quite self-contained, a gate and a chowkidar armed with a lathi, a long stick, guarded its entrance.

He kept out the unfamiliar and the undesirable, especially at night, and kept crime rates low. Thousands of artisans, tradesmen and servicemen dwelt within in three-storied buildings along meandering streets in mixed-use neighbourhoods.

Residential quarters occupied the floors above the shops, and the clutter of hawkers lining both sides of the street, making traffic, that comprised a variety of manual and animal-drawn vehicles, pedestrians and animals, move slowly. Streets were narrow and labyrinthine, often the destination rather than the route to it, where people went to shop at the hawkers by the roadside, or to mill around, meeting and greeting friends, or just enjoy the evening crowds. Many alleys ended in cul de sacs, the buildings on either side keeping them shaded and cool.

Kasbahs, small towns, replicated these features on a modest scale. Throughout this period when trade grew and kasbahs speckled the map, Gurgaon village had too few inhabitants to qualify even as a kasbah, unlike Faridabad, Rajokri and Nuh. At best Gurgaon had a piau, where drinking water was available, where Emperor Akbar’s entourage is supposed to have customarily stopped for refreshment en route to Amber, and a large grain and vegetable mandi, a wholesale market, for farmers from the hinterland to sell their produce. This small brick pavilion, with classic Mughal arches, existed until recently, when it was thoughtlessly demolished without trace in the construction of Guru Dronacharya Metro Station in 2009.

Although there were small traders and artisans who contributed to the economy of the area, agriculture was the chief occupation of Gurgaon’s small farmers and co-sharers, who eked out a frugal living growing chiefly millets, such as jowar and bajra, oil seeds such as mustard and castor, during the rabi (winter) season and pulses, vegetables, and small amounts of sugar cane as their kharif (monsoon) crop.

Nearby, Sohna supplied a brownish salt harvested from the briny water drawn from its wells and evaporated in large salt pans. The population comprised several village castes, the dominant being the Jats, followed by Gujars and Ahirs and a small sprinkling of Meos. The Jat men, tall and muscular on average (as the British were quick to recognise the “martial races”), cleared the forests, ploughed the fields, dug the wells and maintained irrigation channels, while the women performed all the other tasks, from sowing, weeding, harvesting, garnering, grinding the grain and pulses, cooking three meals a day and reproducing the next generation of soldiers and peasants. They also managed their cattle for domestic consumption of milk, yogurt, butter, buttermilk and ghee, and turned the dung into cakes for fuel and for plastering their mud huts.

Animal husbandry was a common occupation for villagers, particularly the Ahirs and Gujars, who kept a spectacular species of large black goats, water buffaloes and large horned cows that supplied both milk and meat, not only to Gurgaon but also for the insatiable appetite of nearby Delhi. They also joined the armies of chieftains in the region and enlisted in large numbers in the regiments of the East India Company to have a steady cash income and gain land and become agriculturalists and soldiers. They used their brawn to decimate forests and were rewarded with the arable land they created and came within the fold of revenue-paying subjects.

At the bottom of the pile were the once pastoral Meo, whom the British had dismissed as “proverbially thriftless”, “slovenly,” and “lazy”. They had arrived on the scene from Sindh after the Arab invasions, and settled mainly in Mewat, and in Ferozepur and Nuh tehsils of Gurgaon district.

They were once a ruling group, but were marginalised over time. They converted to Islam, and made their living herding animals and also making regular raids into Delhi and Punjab as feared bandits. Gurgaon tehsil was the poorest of the five in the district, where very few Meos lived, in small and poor hamlets, with dwellings of mud and thatch rather than of stone and brick, like those of the Jats.

Excerpted with permission from Gurgaon: From Mythic Village To Millennium City, Veena Talwar Oldenburg, HarperCollins India.