October 25, 2011

Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

Warning & Advice : Before you read any further, I would like to inform you that the monuments shown here are much more beautiful & awe-inspiring than they appear in the photographs. Be there & see for yourself...

It was a rather clear day, though slightly hot & sunny, & I believe the perfect kind of day for going out & taking photographs, which is rather opposite to the philosophy of staying indoors to avoid the Delhi summer (On a sunny day, you get beautiful well-defined shadows to photograph). So I along with two of my friends - Divya & Rashmi decided to visit the Jantar Mantar & the (not exactly) nearby Agrasen ki Baoli.

The observatory grounds

To begin with let me give you a primer as to what exactly is the Jantar Mantar –

Located around the corner from the ever so busy Connaught Place market, the Jantar Mantar is one of those places that everyone in India knows about & yet ignores. The structures inside its grounds have become symbolic as representing Delhi, along with the Lotus temple, Qutub Minar etc. Buy any book about Delhi & you will definitely notice the pictures of Jantar Mantar on the cover page along with the other famous monuments. & the structure grounds have become famous for another reason altogether. They are now used for anti-Government protests, by various groups with entirely different means & ends, more recently by the Farmer lobbies & Anti-corruption groups. The grounds are large enough to accommodate at least a thousand people (& maybe more!!), though I doubt that the people who come to protest here buy a ticket for entrance from the A.S.I. counter at the gate. Sadly, most of the tourists give this brilliant monument a miss, I don’t know what might be the reason for this, perhaps because the red sandstone-built monuments get extremely heated-up during the summer days (as we realized the hard way), & tourists already hate Delhi heat.

The Jantar Mantar was constructed by Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur in 1724 & consists of several architectural and astronomical instruments. Several rulers & monarchs have ruled India since the past millennia, some were architects, other warlords, yet others were one time slaves, Sawai Man Singh II has the distinction of being the only scientist-astrologer ruler in India. Given the task of revising the outdated calendar and astronomical tables by Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah, he set about building five such observatories in North India. Some of them still survive, prominent among them being the Jantar Mantars at Delhi & Jaipur.

As one enters the observatory grounds, one feels a strange anticipation to see such a beautiful scene unfold – large red-coloured, strange-looking structures, set amidst lush green grounds & flanked by flowering trees & bushes. The next to empty grounds have the added benefit that you don’t have to wait for the tourists to move from between you & the structure. Moving along, you notice that all the structures are set on a slightly lower ground than the rest of the area, sort of in a pit, & it is only on closing up that you do realize that the structures are much larger than you anticipated. That these mammoth buildings, built of stone & marbles, were once used by Indian Kings to predict the motions of sun, moon & planets, certainly proves beyond doubt their megalomaniac nature & the costs they incurred on each & every task they undertook.

The first structure you come across is the heart-shaped Misra Yantra, one of the most recurring symbols when photographically/artistically portraying Delhi. Several sets of stairs crisscross along the face of the structure, most prominent among them being the central one, giving the monument the resemblance of a Peepal tree leaf (Sacred fig - Ficus religiosa). This is the only structure that was not established by Man Singh II & the only structure set on level ground above all the other structures, & by climbing up the stairs to the top you can see the entire grounds spread across from you. It was used to predict when it was noon in different cities all over the world. 

Dwarfed by buildings - The Misra Yantra

Heading to the pit, you notice a very large structure resembling a right-angled triangle. This is called the Samrat Yantra (“Supreme Instrument”) & was more of a large & highly accurate sundial. The structure, 70 feet high, is now out of bounds for visitors & a large iron gate bars entry to the staircase leading to the top. But if you are athletic enough, you would be able to climb across the wall on either side of the staircase & gain yourself enough time to sprint to the top before the caretakers come shouting at you to get down immediately. I assume many people must have fallen to their deaths from here & that is why the authorities have now locked it for good. A plaque installed on the Samrat Yantra wrongly mentions the year of construction to be 1710, & several other lines of text are now crossed & scribbled over too (with paint of course). 

Dwarfing the buildings too - The Samrat Yantra

Hollowed-out hemispheres with uniquely crafted designs, large enough to accommodate several persons, are situated close to the Samrat Yantra & form an instrument called the Jai Prakash Yantra. We made a good play of running in & out of all the crevices & corners of the structure. The hemispheres have markings on their rims for measurements. 

Part of Jai Prakash Yantra

Collinear with the Samrat Yantra are two large cylindrical structures, each with a pillar in the centre & several radial lines emanating from the circumference to the pillar. Known as the Ram Yantra, the cylinders were such that three floors exist above the ground level & one below (that is, in the pit). One can climb in & out of the windows along these floors & run along the radial lines. These windows were used by the observer (called "Ram") to sit in & note the measurements marked along the edge of the window. But since it was summer noon by now, the hot structures were torturous & pain spiked up as soon as our uncovered arms or legs touched these.

Looking into the Ram Yantra - View from a window

The Jantar Mantar got the status of a national monument in 1948 & has attracted architects, historians and scientists from all over the world. But as far as I am concerned, it is a spot in Delhi where extreme fun can be had with friends as well as family, & makes for an oasis far removed from all the chaos & noise of the city despite being in the middle of it. Though most people portray it to be a dull & uninviting place with nothing except the structures to rave about, the structures themselves are so much fun, with all the stairs & nooks & crevices. One can simply play a long stretched-out game of Hide & Seek inside these grounds. The striking red colour of the buildings sparkles in the sun & contrast beautifully with the gleaming modern buildings that circle the ground. Soon running around the huge structures, climbing the huge stairs & jumping around seem the very natural thing to do. As the time passes & it becomes warm enough, sitting on the grass, under the shade of the trees soothes one's senses. Soon enough it's time to move ahead & it feels rather stupid leaving all the quiet that the place can afford you, & going back to the hustle of Connaught Place. Another time, one thinks...

Looking into Ram Yantra - View from an entrance

Location: Connaught Place
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Rajiv Chowk
How to reach: After deboarding from the Metro Station, take an auto to the monument. It will charge Rs 30-50.
Entrance fee: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100
Photography Charges: Nil
Video Charges: Rs 25/hr
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Agrasen ki Baoli
  2. Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place

Humayun's Tomb Complex, New Delhi

A teaser - How did the court attendant announcing the arrival of Emperor Humayun remember his full name and titles?? Why exactly did Humayun need so many titles??

Al-Sultan al-Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Jam-i-Sultanat-i-haqiqi wa Majazi, Saiyyid al-Salatin, Abdul Muzaffar Nasir ud-din Muhammad Humayun Padshah Ghazi, Zil-i-Ilahi 

Describing “the fortunate” Emperor, historian Lane Poole wrote that he “tumbled through life and tumbled out of it”, in reference to the former’s defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri in AD 1530 following which he lost the entire subcontinent along with the loyalty of his own brothers, then regained the kingdom in AD 1555 with the help of Shah Tahmasp (then Sultan of Persia), lorded from the fortress “Dinpanah” (“Asylum of the faithful”, now known as Old Fort/Purana Qila) that he had once so lovingly built but which was smitten to dust & re-commissioned by Sher Shah, and finally met his end the next year after rolling down the staircase of his library. Before his death, Humayun had become obsessed with a mystical verse that he claimed to have heard from a supernatural voice & used to repeat with great fervor –

“O Lord, of Thine infinite goodness make me thine own;
Make me a partner of the knowledge of Thy attributes;
O call to Thee The poor Madman; O grant me my release.”

The Emperor's mausoleum

According to traditional belief, the tomb of a saint (“Dargah”) confers sanctity on the surrounding areas, and therefore several Mughal princes & nobles opted to be buried in the vicinity of the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi. In fact, around the dargah, within a radius of about a kilometre, are literally hundreds of graves. Guided by this belief, Humayun’s senior-most widow, Bega Begum (aka Haji Begum) commissioned the late Emperor’s massive sepulcher complex at its present location. Interestingly, following his death in January of 1556, Humayun was first buried within his fortress at Old Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort); the body was exhumed and carried to Kalainur (Punjab) in order to safeguard it from the forces led by Hemu Vikramaditya who took advantage of Humayun’s sudden demise to capture much of the Northern territories – it was 13 years after the victory achieved by Humayun’s fourteen year old son Jalal-ud-din Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) and his general Bairam Khan in the Battle of Panipat (AD 1556) that the construction of Humayun’s tomb began in earnest in AD 1569; till then the body was reburied in Old Fort. The tomb was modeled after Gur-i-Amir, the tomb complex of Humayun’s ancestor Timur located in Samarkand, Uzbekistan and was constructed over a span of eight years at a cost of 1.5 million rupees by the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas (Ghiyas, however, passed away after completing the designs and the actual construction was supervised by his son Saiyyid Muhammad ibn Mirak Ghiyas-ud-din).

Assimilating within its larger periphery some earlier structures too which have their own history & architectural significance, Humayun’s tomb complex is the most well-kept & splendid of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites that exist in Delhi (the other two being Red Fort Complex & Qutb Complex, see links in the footer). Every single time that I've visited this magnificent garden complex, I’ve found something that I hadn't noticed in the past to admire & photograph – the huge complex is so vast that despite being there over 4 times in the past 2 years, am still not sure if I have seen everything that there is to be seen – interestingly, Humayun’s tomb, despite being the centerpiece and the first proper example of the Mughal architectural style & grandeur, is only a very small part of this massive funerary zone! I shall try to limit the photographs & description of the structures about which I have already written individualized posts in order to keep this article concise – please refer to the links given alongside each of the structures mentioned.

Close to nature, close to peace

Stepping into the lush, superbly maintained & handsomely tended gardens that define this striking complex, a visitor is left spellbound right at the ticket counter – Amaltas (Indian laburnum) trees laden with golden-yellow flowers flank the walkways; peeping through the traffic & framed by the golden floral burst is the brilliant blue dome of the beautiful little Sabz Burj tomb that exists majestically on a roundabout right outside the tomb-garden complex near the side perpendicular to the entrance (refer Pixelated Memories - Sabz Burj); thick & conical grow the Ashoka trees that adorn the gardens with their slender, green outgrowth; flowerbeds & trimmed hedges complement the symmetry of the structures & compete with them to draw a visitor’s attention. Though Sabz Burj too has been accepted & restored as part of the complex, the separation between the tomb & the larger complex because of the road passing in between means very few people actually stop to observe the former. They ought to, because it boasts an incredibly unique history of its own. 

Vibrance personified - Sabz Burj, as seen from within Humayun's tomb complex

Through the ticket counter and to the other side (tickets cost Rs 10 for citizens of India & some neighboring nations & Rs 250 for the rest), on the right side one notices a long stretch of rubble wall flanked with circular bastions, topped by thick kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) and punctuated by a massive gateway with a glittering white dome visible in the background – welcome to Isa Khan Niazi’s tomb-mosque complex – a pre-existing tomb garden that was later incorporated into the scheme of Humayun’s resting ground. Isa Khan was a very influential warlord in the court of Sher Shah Suri (ruled AD 1530-45) & his son Islam Shah Suri (ruled AD 1545-54) – he had built his tomb & the associated raised mosque in 1547-48 while he was still alive. The graceful octagonal tomb displays fine examples of artistic workmanship –captivating floral and geometrical patterns in incised plasterwork, exquisite stone work & a finish of plaster and grey Delhi quartzite stone to flaunt a subdued flamboyance. The tomb garden also boasts of the earliest example of sunken gardens – an architectural style later copied by both Humayun’s Tomb & the famed Taj Mahal. More details & photographs of Isa Khan’s complex can be accessed here – Pixelated Memories - Isa Khan's Tomb Complex

The last of its kind - Isa Khan's mausoleum

If instead of turning towards Isa Khan’s complex, one had walked straight, one would come to Bi Halima’s enclosure – it is not known who Bi Halima was though general belief is that she was a lady in the harem of Zahir-ud-din Babur (Humayun’s father, ruled AD 1525-30) – the garden had existed way before Humayun’s Tomb was conceived – it was incorporated into the larger complex in such a way that today visitor’s exit the grand, cream-colored gateway of the complex to proceed towards Humayun’s Tomb instead of entering it to reach Bi Halima’s complex (that is, the gateway is entered in reverse). The mausoleum is a simple, squat rectangular structure built out of rubble & located towards a corner of the enclosure – entrances built next to the edges along each face of the tomb permit entry to the passageways built around the central portion of the tomb where the grave(s) must be located. Refer Pixelated Memories - Bi Halima's complex

Modest - Bi Halima's unique sepulchre

Exploring further along the enclosure, slender chattris (domes mounted on pillars) dominate the rubble periphery that marks the limits of the expansive complex – ornamented with brilliant blue tiles & reached by a flight of stairs, the chattris were perhaps once meant to station guards (Humayun’s tomb once had fine Oriental rugs, expensive tapestries, exquisite chandeliers & other treasures including the Emperor’s sword and turban – an invitation for thieves, especially in times of trouble & turmoil). There is a small chamber too underneath each chattri – now threadbare with even the rubble showing from underneath the plasterwork on the inside. 

Rarely noticed!

Through Bi Halima’s entrance, one has the option of either walking straight to the square complex that makes up Humayun’s tomb gardens or turning right to reach what is known as Arab Serai – I decided to go towards the latter first, keeping the best for the last! The Arab Serai (“Persian inn”, refer Pixelated Memories - Arab Serai), as the name suggests, was a large inn built for some 300 Persian artisans & craftsmen (some believe it was 300 reciters of the holy Quran) that Bega Begum had brought with her to work on her husband’s (& later her too) mausoleum – though now mostly in ruins, the inn still retains its massive grey quartzite gateway that displays medallions, jharokhas (overhanging windows), mesmerizing artwork in enameled tiles & red sandstone finish. Some of the cells that were built into the periphery walls can also be deciphered. 

Arab Serai - If the gateway is this massive, imagine the scale of the inn!!

Next to Arab Serai’s grounds is located another tomb-mosque complex – this one belongs to some unknown officer in the army of Emperor Akbar & is simply referred to as Afsarwala Tomb & Mosque – both structures stand on a high plinth & complement each other (See photographs here - Pixelated Memories - Afsarwala Mosque & Tomb Complex). The mosque has lost almost all of its original plasterwork and stands rubble-faced, while the tomb was layered with reddish-orange sandstone slabs. The interior decorations too now exist in patches in both these structures; however they still present a picture of striking grace despite their enchanting modesty. The serai also accommodated travelers enroute from eastern frontiers of the subcontinent to Delhi & the western frontiers along the Grand Trunk road (about which you can read in detail here - Pixelated Memories - Kos Minar, Faridabad

The gardens and the tomb-mosque duo at Afsarwala complex

Close to Afsarwala is another walled-in complex referred to as Mihr Banu’s bazaar (market). Though visitor entry to this part of the complex is prohibited and guards stand duty at all hours, I was able to sneak in the complex & photograph the structures within. The market had existed alongside Arab Serai and was a flourishing center of trade catering to the needs of the craftsmen residing there but the gateway was built by Mihr Banu, the chief eunuch at the court of Emperor Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-27), around the year 1620. A baoli (step-well) was the primary source of drinking water to the traders in this bazaar – today, the baoli exists along an extremity of the tomb complex with the rubble periphery walls marking its one end & high rise apartments of the posh Nizamuddin (West) colony overlooking it. 

Forgotten corner - Mihr Banu's gateway

Rows of arcade cells (punctuated by gaps that were either originally intended or came into being due to the collapse of some of the cells) can also be observed. What cannot be seen are the visitors – the area is in total lockdown, nobody comes here anymore & there are only swarms of pigeons for company. An important facet of this bazaar’s history is that once it was a bustling center of commerce & livelihood but the residents were moved out by a Colonel Young of the British Army in early 20th century for unknown reasons – the inhabitants established a new colony nearby christened “Youngpura” which still exists, though with a corrupted version of its original name – “Jangpura”. 

The original Jangpura??

Done with all these auxiliary structures, I headed down to the Emperor’s magnificent tomb; it would take me 4 visits to photograph all the structures completely & an additional visit to just explore the tomb in its full glory & detail. The square garden in which sits Humayun’s tomb is entered through a lofty double-storey gateway referred to as “Western Gate”. An identical gate exists along the south side of the garden too & made the original entryway to the tomb complex; however it was closed down after residential quarters and a railway line came up alongside and since then the western gateway has functioned as the primary entrance. Both gates are around 16 meters high with rooms on either side of the passage and small courtyards on the upper floors. The gateways are faced with grey quartzite & dressed with red sandstone; six-sided stars, used as ornamental cosmic symbols, form the adornments. The stairs to the upper floors are locked & visitors are watched over by guards seated on the balconies. A small exhibit inside the Western Gate details the aspects of Humayun's Tomb complex, nearby tombs & short history of Humayun's rule. From beyond the gate, a wide path with a water channel flowing down its center leads to the tomb. 

The Western Gateway

First, a word about the vastness of Humayun’s tomb. The captivating tomb sits on a plinth about 21 feet (7 meters) high; such is its grandeur that every first-time visitor stops to admire the grand mausoleum with their breath struck in their throat. The scale of the tomb can be imagined from the fact that the plinth level itself is made up of large cells (locked for visitor entry) – the beautiful wooden doorways of these cells were burnt for warmth by the refugees who had holed up in the complex during the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. The top of the humongous dome reaches 140 feet from the ground. The dome is double-layered; the outer layer supports the white marble exteriors, while the inner defines the ample interiors. The red sandstone clad square tomb is ornamented with white marble that offers stark color contrast but still presents a picture of harmony & symbiosis. The unique brass finial over the dome is 6 meters high, almost 3 times my height!! The imposing red-white structure acts as a magnet to pull awestruck visitors towards itself. 

Formal and magnificent

The tomb chamber is inspired by Persian style of architecture and can only be entered from the southern side, aligned to the southern gateway of the garden enclosure (the original entrance). The anteroom displays highly detailed and exquisite patterns along the roof – these patterns were all but lost with time till the Aga Khan Trust for Culture decided to step in and restore the tomb complex along with the nearby Nizamuddin Basti and Sunder Nursery area (more on that later). The central chamber is huge & so high that I could not squeeze it into a single photograph. It contains only the cenotaph of the Emperor (the real grave, however, lies in a basement chamber directly underneath the cenotaph). Black & white star patterns in marble adorn the ground around the sarcophagus while intricately carved stone jalis (lattice work) acts as windows. 

Here rests Humayun "the fortunate"

The central chamber is flanked by rooms along its diagonals which are comparatively smaller & led to by low passages. These chambers contain more than one grave – one of the rooms houses the mortal remains of Humayun’s wives while another houses those of his sons (so I was told by a man who claimed to be an ASI caretaker). These graves were added later, though the tomb was always intended to have these rooms for future burials – in fact, so many of the later Mughals decided to be buried here that the complex came to be known as the royal burial ground – even the plinth level outside the main tomb is dotted by scores of graves, some of them near ruined, others in an enviable pristine condition – prominent among those buried here are Bega Begum, Hamida Banu Begum (Humayun’s favorite wife), Dara Shukoh (eldest son of Shahjahan (ruled AD 1627-58) and the great-great-grandson of Humayun) and Emperors Jahandar Shah (ruled AD 1712-13), Farrukhsiyar (ruled AD 1713-19), Rafi Ul-Darjat (ruled AD 1719), Shahjahan II (ruled AD 1719) and Alamgir II (ruled AD 1754-59). None of these graves possess any inscription for the identification of the personage interred & hence most of them remain unknown – a majority of the cenotaphs are only marked with symbols to mark the sex of the occupant – a wedge indicates male, a writing slate indicates female. 

Strikingly graceful - One of the side chambers adjacent to the central burial chamber

The tomb is set in the center of a garden in the classical Mughal charbagh pattern with waterways and walkways dividing the larger square garden into smaller squares – the charbagh is supposed to be an architectural imitation of the Islamic rendition of paradise, thereby conferring a next-to-God status to the Emperor (as is apparent from the title “Zil-i-Ilahi”, “Shadow of God”). The charbagh pattern was later adopted in Taj Mahal of Agra, commissioned by Humayun’s great-grandson Shahjahan and considered to be the pinnacle of Mughal architectural and artistic sensibilities – in fact, most of Taj Mahal’s plan is based on Humayun’s tomb and it’s easy to imagine the tomb as a red Taj Mahal, sans the corner minarets of course. The river Yamuna used to flow along one of the sides of the complex and if one heads back to the periphery walls behind the tomb, one can gaze down to see the high rubble walls that must have once acted as an embankment against the terrific drift of the river. Nearby (but outside the complex) stands Nila Gumbad, a beautiful tomb about which you can read here - Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad. Walking along this back side, one can notice large wells & staircases (now grilled) leading to subterranean chambers (Are there tunnels here?? Leading where??). The pristine white Yamuna pavilion exists along this wall too – at one time this pavilion employed Persian wheels to lift the water from the river to feed the water channels in the charbagh – with the Yamuna having changed its course a long time back and the pavilion non-functional, even its walls with their red paintwork designs and arches appears parched. Though the absence of an associated mosque next to Humayun’s tomb is often talked about, most historians & photographers seem to forget or do not notice the large wall mosque (Qibla) that rests on a raised platform near the South gateway – the Qibla even has chambers underneath the platform, though sadly these too have been grilled & locked. 

Parched and desolate - The Yamuna pavilion

Located very close to Humayun’s tomb is the Barber's Tomb (“Nai ka Gumbad”, refer Pixelated Memories - Barber's Tomb) datable to 1590-91 AD. It is not known who is buried in this tomb – there are two graves inside, both inscribed with verses from The Quran. This is the only structure that was built so close to the Emperor’s mausoleum, indicating some highly esteemed personage is buried here, however the name “Barber’s Tomb” gives no indication of the same. 

Sleek and graceful - A barber's tomb??

If one makes the effort of circumambulating the entire complex, one will discover several forgotten gems – for instance, there is the Chilgah pavilion, the oldest structure in the entire complex, that connects the tomb complex with Chila-Khanqah Nizamuddin, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s spiritual residence – I had not even imagined that these two far flung structures could be connected physically since the Chila-Khanqah is right next to the Nizamuddin Railway Station and the tomb complex some 2-3 kilometers away! And yet here we are, though the pavilion itself is in ruins and stripped to the rubble skeleton, it still retains the original stone jaalis as well as a colonnaded verandah from where one would have looked down to the Chila-Khanqah as well as the fast-flowing Yamuna next to it (now the pearly glistening Gurudwara Damdama Sahib stands in its place). A grilled doorway leads right to Nizamuddin’s living quarters which you can see in this separate post Pixelated Memories - Chila-Khanqah Nizamuddin

Ruined and isolated - The Chilgah pavilion

Not very far from the Chilgah pavilion is another pavilion (often confused with a “hammam”/royal bath house) referred to as “North pavilion” since its built in the northern wall, painted white throughout with red paintwork designs relieving the monotony, that lifts water from a well outside the complex periphery. The water runs down an incline layered with stone in horizontal zigzag patterns to fall into a crystal clear hexagonal tank before snaking its way into the channels – the sunlight reflecting in the tank is caught to shine into numerous surrealistic patterns that gladden the heart & moisten the area around. 

The North pavilion, view from outside the tomb complex walls (I was able to convince the guard to open the gate adjacent for a few moments - this pavilion can also be seen from the service road leading from Nizamuddin Railway Station to the complex entry)

The gardens encapsulating the numerous structures within their folds have been maintained very well by the authorities and give us a glimpse of what the complex would have looked like in the distant past. Interestingly, hearsay is that the tomb complex is haunted by spirits that can be heard laughing and shrieking at dusk – why do the ghosts of Delhi hate me? Why can’t I ever experience paranormal activities? I intend to carry an Ouija board next time I visit the complex grounds!

Enshrined in the UNESCO World Heritage list, Humayun’s tomb complex was also the site where the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II had taken refuge and was captured from along with his sons and grandson following the failed First War of Independence (Sepoy Mutiny, 1857). 

Captivating symmetry - One of the high arches ("Iwan") of the tomb

The ethereal tomb complex comes out as a zone of unhindered splendor and unabashed flamboyance, an oasis of peace and tranquility, something that is increasingly becoming difficult to find in the noisy and fume-choked national capital. The complex warrants a visit for the sake of its artistic and architectural merit, if not for its historical background - the whole place is literally strewn with history & stories of Mughal kings, princes, generals and even barbers!

About Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and their Humayun’s Tomb Complex – Nizamuddin Basti – Sunderwala Nursery Project – AKTC has done commendable work in restoring the monuments and developing the area around the complex. In the first ever public-private partnership funded by the Aga Khan Trust (AKT), Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Oberoi Group of Hotels, World Monuments Fund and Ford Foundation and monitored both by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Indian National Trust for Conservation of Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the AKTC, led by its relentless team and foremost conservation architect Ratish Nanda, has brought about sweeping changes in the way heritage structures are restored and maintained in the country – rather than focusing on structural/artistic additions to recreate the lost aura, the AKTC artists instead focused on restoring the patterns that were still visible and conserving them for future generations to admire. The conservation work saw digging of Isa Khan’s sunken garden along with the restoration of the tomb and mosque, the replacement of concrete and cement that was added in previous restoration efforts with traditional limestone plaster, addition of wooden doors in place of the ones burnt by 1947 partition refugees at the plinth level of Humayun’s tomb, replacement of broken tiles and sandstone slabs, replanting of the garden beds, precise restoration of the waterways, night time illumination of the structures and recreating original patterns that adorned the interiors of Humayun’s tomb as well as the other monuments. In fact, a chandelier was specially ordered to be handcrafted and flown in from Egypt (the art of making such chandeliers has been lost in India) to hang over the Emperor’s cenotaph where once hung the original chandelier (stolen in 1857 turmoil along with the other valuables). 

Best for the last - Intricate artwork on the roof of the ante chamber leading to Humayun's cenotaph, recently restored by AKTC

AKTC also ensured that local artists and craftsmen from different parts of the country were trained in Mughal and Persian techniques for making glazed tiles, sandstone jaalis and such – training workshops were conducted; also run are schools for children and classes to train youngsters as guides in the adjacent Nizamuddin Basti area. AKTC is currently working on Sunder Nursery opposite Humayun’s tomb complex entrance (Sunderwala Mahal and Gumbad), Nila Gumbad next to Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station, Bada and Chota Batashewala Mahals near Chila-Khanqah Nizamuddin and Nizamuddin Dargah baoli. Now it is for agencies like ASI & INTACH to carry AKTC’s legacy forward – a monumental task indeed, but accomplishable.

Open: All days, 8 am - 6 pm
Nearest Metro Station: Jangpura
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Station
How to reach: Take an auto from either the metro station or the railway station. The young can prefer to walk, the distance being roughly 2km in either case.
Entrance Fee: (Children up to 15 years free)
Citizens of India and visitors from Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Afghanistan Thailand and Myanmar - Rs 10; Others - US $5 or Indian Rs 250
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 4 hrs+
Structures within Humayun's Tomb complex - 
Other monuments mentioned in this article - 
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Archnet.org - Humayun's Tomb
  2. Archnet.org - (pdf download) "A tomb brought to life" by Ratish Nanda
  3. Archnet.org - (pdf download) AKTC Programme Brief - The revitalisation of the gardens of Emperor Humayun's tomb (2003)
  4. Blog.lindsaywashere.com - Mihr Banu's market and gate
  5. Books.google.co.in - Excerpt "Arab Serai" from "The Splendour of Lodi Road: My brush with heritage" by Ravi Batra
  6. Dnaindia.com - Article "Humayun's Tomb redone with Mughal techniques" (dated Sep 17, 2013)
  7. Hindu.com - Article "Mausoleum that Humayun never built" (dated Apr 28, 2003)
  8. Hindu.com - Article "Paradise comes calling!" (dated Jan 29, 2004) by Firoz Bakht Ahmed
  9. Facebook.com - Humayun's Tomb - Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative
  10. Nytimes.com - Article "On the verge; A Mughal Splendor Regained" (dated September 29, 2002) by Celia W. Dugger
  11. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "At Humayun's tomb, weight is off" (dated July 09, 2009) by Richi Verma
  12. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Grand makeover for Humayun’s Tomb" (dated Sep 15, 2013) by Richi Verma
  13. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Like Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb gets Egyptian lamps" (dated Sep 8, 2013) by Richi Verma
  14. Wikipedia.org - Humayun
  15. Wikipedia.org - Humayun's Tomb
Re-edit - November 2013

October 24, 2011

Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've a many curious things to shew when you are there.”
– Mary Howitt, "The Spider and the Fly"

Even though located in the immediate vicinity of the perennially crowded Connaught Place (refer Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place), the commercial and cultural heart of Delhi, the magnificent Agrasen ki Baoli (aka Ugrasen ki Baoli) happened to be a rather difficult find – none of the people, including auto-rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers, traversing the busy streets or manning the glittering shops seemed to know about its forgotten existence, leave alone directions to its enthralling presence, nor did Google maps prove to be of any help either – the last indicated the presence of the beautiful step-well on Hailey Road, off the Consulate General of Malta, but heck! Nobody even knew where the Consulate General was located and Hailey Road is too long a stretch to explore! My persistence only fueled the anger of Divya, Rashmi and Bhavna who had agreed to accompany me to see the majestic Jantar Mantar complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Jantar Mantar) and the baoli, under the misguided assumption that I knew both their locations (I knew neither actually, as they later discovered!) After being shouted upon by the three for over an hour while we navigated near-deserted streets, I eventually succeeded in flagging down an old Sardar ji driving an auto-rickshaw, who agreed to give us a ride till we discovered the evasive Baoli, although, much to our undisguised dismay, despite plying in Connaught Place and adjoining regions for over half a century, he had never even heard of Agrasen or his baoli. Unbelievably, another hour and Rs 90 later, on the verge of despair, our perseverance did finally pay off and we spotted a miniscule sign, painted blood red, indicating the presence of the Baoli within a narrow by-lane – bewildered, one wonders if the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) couldn’t have installed a bigger board? Thankfully, at least the three ladies, impatient as always, were smiling. Phew!!

Agrasen ki Baoli - The camouflaged lover's haunt

On the outside, the baoli, or rather the periphery walls that flank its ethereal existence, appears mediocre – an unkempt, cobweb-shrouded set of small alcoves and chambers, composed from rubble masonry and surrounded by a stone courtyard delineated by sharp steel fences – not one’s picture of a bewitching ruin that holds in its bosom the secret promise of transforming into a lover’s haunt. But wonders of wonders, the interiors are an altogether different world and the massive underground superstructure, so cleverly hidden amongst its surroundings that the millions of occupants of the huge skyscrapers looming in the distant background, to which it compliments strikingly, have not the slightest clue of its existence. The pristine, undisturbed environments and the unparalleled silence and sense of tranquility that the place offers makes one feel suddenly, implausibly transported back to the past when the megalith was constructed and the locals had begun to converge here for social obligations, gossip and as an escape from the sweltering summer heat.

Sadly though, the historical step-well, deemed protected by ASI under the Ancient Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act (1958), lies forgotten, unvisited and ignored. And although there are no historical records to prove when or by whom it was commissioned, in popular imagination it is said to have been originally built over 5000-years ago by the legendary Mahabharata-era king Agrasen (the benevolent father of the evil Lord Kansa of Mathura and therefore the brother of the maternal grandfather of Lord Krishna, the supposedly divine, exemplar cowherd-statesman-diplomat-warrior-charioteer-philosopher) and rebuilt in 14th-century by the Agrawal community which traces its origin to Maharaja Agrasen. The structure does find mention in the 12th-century Sanskrit work “Pasanahacariu”, penned by an Agrawal poet Vibudh Shridhar who resided in Delhi during the reign of the Tomar king Anangpal III (ruled AD 1151-80). The same poet also does give one of the first references regarding the historicity and christening of Delhi in his verses –

“Hariyanaye dese asankhgaam, gaamiyan jani anvarath kaam
Parchakk vihtanu sirisanghtanu, jo surav inna pariganiyan 
Riu ruhiravtanu biulu pavtanu, Dhilli naamen ji bhaniyan”

“In the country of Haryana exist several villages where the people toil hard.
They do not accept domination by others and are experts in shedding their enemies' blood.
Even Indra, the God of Thunder, praises their valor. The capital of this country is Dhilli.”

Ruins of an era long gone - The Tughlaq-era mosque

Architectural historians however contend that the structure was in all possibility constructed, or at least refurbished, during the Tughlaq Dynasty reign (AD 1320-98), which does explain the relatively straightforward, unornamented nature of the structure, true to Tughlaq aesthetic simplicity and emphasis on function rather than form. It might also explain the presence near the step-well’s entrance of the diminutively-proportioned, minimally adorned and nearly collapsed rectangular mosque that possesses besides the unusual curved sloping roof, three arched entrances and medallions inscribed with calligraphy. Over time, hidden from prying eyes and forgotten even by the most thoughtful of minds, the baoli remained stuck in a time eons past in history while the city around it mushroomed, modernized and transformed into the highly metropolitan entity that it is today.

The outstanding, evocative 60 meters X 15 meters rectangular structure, consisting of a single flight of 103 steps that culminate in a (now dry) water tank, is flanked by stone walls that are stark and yet striking. Walkways interrupt the walls at three levels, allowing a visitor to explore the various alcoves and chambers that mark the peripheries and would once have been used as shaded retreats. Presently however, the more hazardous of these rooms, considered structurally unsafe, are secured with iron gates, and of course, one must at all costs avoid the overly territorially possessive pigeons who now claim them as their own private roosts. The domed roof surmounting the water tank on the far side appears thoroughly darkened and nightmarishly appears heaving to and fro – hundreds of bats who come to nest in the baoli converge along the concave surface where they hang upside-down throughout the day before taking off during night. Spooky, to say the least! Especially considering that one literally feels naked and vulnerable to the threat exposed by these feral creatures while walking on the narrow ledges that define the arched openings on the different levels against the colossal water tank.


Heading down the stairs, to the innermost recesses of the earth from where the sky, framed by the baoli’s ominously dark walls, appears like a sliver of glorious blue light and where the stink of pigeon feathers and droppings nearly become unbearable, past heaps of rubble walls long collapsed and layers of sand that once might have formed the waterbed, one can step into the dry water tank after squirming around (almost) on all fours and come face-to-face with one of the city’s most intimate secrets – here, standing in the well, looking at the far off brilliant disc of light that is the opening against the sky, one can feel what it must be like to have fallen in a well without actually doing so – claustrophobic in my opinion. The cobweb-layered walls, stuck with rotting, foul-smelling pigeon feathers and the disorienting desolation of the place are reason enough for one to become silent and subdued, but the ghastly figures that the rotten, semi-decomposed pigeon and bat carcasses portray visually do force one to beat a hasty retreat. Thankfully, the splendid visual composition emerging from the upside-down view looking at the handsome arched openings sheltered by the rows of eaves (“chajja”) supported on ornamental sculpted brackets does render the walk down (and back up) the ever-narrowing staircase worthwhile.

Interestingly enough, the remarkable architectural specimen is not without its fair share of myths, superstition and folklore – local legend is that the place, when it used to be filled with groundwater and monsoon showers, was haunted by spirits and entities of the malevolent kind which manifested as ghastly voices and exercised an extreme degree of compulsion upon stressed and depressed minds, mercilessly urging them to drown into the water and raise its level, thereby leading to numerous suicides. It is hard to imagine the place to be anything but a splendid, majestically noteworthy monument in the heart of the city, but then who knows what kind of depression and loneliness creeps up on some folks when they are solo in some such desolate and long forgotten corner. The Government has therefore, by official order, prohibited visitor entry to the monument after sunset.

Colors of Delhi

The baoli has been condemned to a state of perpetual disregard by the ASI and the public in general. Although there is a guard on duty (sitting on a broken plastic chair) during daytime within the premises, no caretaker has been assigned and the place is neither cleaned regularly, nor redeemed of the pigeon feathers and droppings that carpet its staircases and alcoves. The ignorance is perhaps a good thing – the place survives as one of the most beautiful and soothing spots in the entire city, untouched by tourists and unruly crowds. Thankfully, even the lovers who haunt it do not scribble their names on the walls.

Edit (November 2014): I did visit the baoli again – this time on a photowalk with my photography club Delhi Instagramers Guild, whereby we also did cover the Sunday morning Raahgiri event in nearby Connaught Place (CP). I seemed to remember some of the routes despite the passage of several years and thus the place did not seem so far-off nor so isolated, although in all honesty, the Raahgiri event which encompasses the streets to be necessarily free of vehicular traffic and available for pedestrians, cyclists and people for dances, acrobatics, yoga and stunts, did render the outer areas of CP appear isolated and uninhabited, as if one was walking in a movie-like post-apocalyptic/holocaust Delhi. The event itself, lasting every Sunday for the short duration of two hours (7-9 am), is an interesting concept, and apart from numerous pretty ladies walking and jogging about whom the photographers in tow never failed to click, there were stretching classes structured by Reebok, dance and band performances organized in collaboration with Times of India (a partner to the event along with Delhi Police and Municipal Corporation of Delhi), musical sermonizing by the "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" group (custodians of the nearby ISKCON Temple, refer Pixelated Memories - ISKCON Temple, Delhi), nearly thousands of participants of all age groups walking, jogging, cycling, skating, dancing, flying kites or simply strolling about and lastly, numerous stunt performers and daredevil dancers. Besides several smaller, relatively inconsequential graffiti artworks that dot the streets adjoining Kasturba Marg and Hailey Road, we also did spot the massive, vibrantly colorful, albeit now crumbling graffiti designs portraying demons, nuns and Lord Ganesha, the pot-bellied, elephant-headed Hindu deity of auspiciousness and luck, that have been present opposite the baoli for quite a long time now but one way or the other I kept missing visiting the area. Finally! And I’m impressed I must admit.

The city's newest fad - Raahgiri Sunday

Location: Hailey Road, near Connaught Place (Coordinates: 28°37'33.4"N 77°13'30.0"E)
Nearest Metro station: Rajiv Chowk
Nearest Bus stop: Connaught Place
How to reach: Walk/avail an auto from CP.
Timings: 9 am - 5 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Other places of interest located nearby -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jantar Mantar
  3. Pixelated Memories - India Gate
  4. Pixelated Memories - National Museum
  5. Pixelated Memories -  Parliament House
  6. Pixelated Memories - Presidential House
Suggested reading - Archdaily.com - Article "India's Forgotten Stepwells" (dated June 28, 2013) by Victoria Lautman