December 24, 2011

Old Fort, New Delhi

Before I commence this post, some thanks are due to Delhi-based photography club “Strobe Wizards” for teaching me a lot about photography and composition (so, no criticizing my photography anymore!) and recently organizing a photo walk to the majestic Old Fort where I clicked most of the photos displayed here. Though I’ve been to the enchanting fortress complex numerous times in the past, including twice in the last year itself, this was a particularly unique experience where we discussed photography and explored the immaculately kept lawns and magnificent monuments for stunning visual compositions. And although the photo walk was held two months back, only recently did I get the time to sort through the photos and restructure this old post with new (and hopefully better) descriptions and commentaries. So here goes!

In the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, the five Pandava brothers raised an imposing capital city christened as “Indraprastha” (‘City of Indra” (the Hindu God of thunderstorms and wars, also the lord of the elemental deities)) that was universally acclaimed (according to scriptures) as an epitome of elegant public building and a citadel worthy of Gods themselves. Several millennia later, Mughal emperor Nasiruddin Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56) decided to construct a mighty fortress at the same site where Pandava’s Indraprastha was said to be located and named it “Dinpanah” (“Asylum of Faithful”) since he, being a scholar par excellence, wanted his city to be the graceful abode of learned scholars, unparalleled theologians, skilled craftsmen and unmatched artists. The site, deemed to be one of the oldest known settlements in the city, possesses immense historic and cultural significance and has been the seat of administration for several successive emperors. Sadly, over the course of time and history and through the ravages of human encroachment and immitigable disasters, the city of Emperor Humayun has nearly disappeared and only the fortress survives in the form of gigantic gateways, colossal bastions, surrounding walls and few endearingly beautiful structures scattered about that testimony the fascinating artwork and architectural accomplishments of that age.

Old Fort aka Purana Qila aka Dinpanah aka Qila-i-Kuhna - Humayun's colossal citadel

Now referred to as “Purana Qila” or “Qila-i-Kuhna” (both meaning “Old Fort”), the fortress was constructed over AD 1530-38 soon after Humayun ascended the throne of Delhi, and was the sixth of the nine cities of Delhi (in chronological order – Indraprastha, Qila Lal Kot, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah, Kotla Feroz Shah, Dinpanah, Shahjanabad, New Delhi – refer to links at the end of this article for posts about the cities documented on this blog). However, couple of years after building his capital, Humayun lost the empire to the Afghan warlord Sher Shah Suri (ruled AD 1540-45) who chased him out of the country and brought about a short break in Mughal supremacy in the subcontinent that otherwise continued unchallenged for over 300 years. Sher Shah overtook Humayun’s enormous fortress, had most of the splendid palaces and public buildings razed to the ground or stripped of their glimmering ornamentation and had them constructed anew according to his own administrative/religious requirements and boastful fancies. He also ordered substantial defensive additions for the prized citadel and expanded its periphery walls to incorporate within several new structures he had had built – the new, significantly enlarged capital, arrogantly christened “Shergarh” (“Sher Shah’s stronghold”), displayed a combination of Mughal and Afghan architectural and artistic influences in its design and continues to do so despite Sher Shah’s wholehearted attempts at obliterating any resemblance to Mughal culture or architecture – in fact, it has become nearly impossible to academically decide which feature of the fortress has been influenced by Afghan architecture and which is a remnant from Humayun’s capital-building endeavor. Following Sher Shah’s demise in 1545, Humayun was able to recapture Delhi, Agra and Punjab from the former’s weak successors in 1555 and continued to live in his cherished fortress-palace till his own sudden demise the very next year which prompted the Mughals to regard the fortress as cursed and immediately abandon it.

Bada Darwaza - The present entrance to Old Fort complex

Not many people are aware of the historic existence of Hem Chandra (Hemu) who rose from being a simple merchant-accountant to become a trusted economic-administrative adviser to the Sur Dynasty sultans who succeeded Sher Shah. After Humayun’s death, Hemu consolidated Sur armies and valiantly led them against the imperial forces of Humayun's young son and successor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). One after the other, the provincial Governors fled in the face of Hemu's fearsome armies and he was able to capture Delhi in October 1556. Even fewer people are aware of Old Fort’s association with Hemu’s victorious campaigns – as the last Hindu ruler of India, he was crowned in a Hindu ceremony at Old Fort and ascended the throne with the title “Vikramaditya”. He was able to rule less than a month before being defeated, captured and executed by Emperor Akbar's armies in the battle of Panipat. Emperor Akbar soon ordered the capital to be shifted to Agra and consequentially Old Fort was entirely abandoned and fell upon extremely bad times. The most grandiose effect of Hemu’s attack upon Delhi’s landscape culminated in the form of an ethereal mausoleum complex for the mortal remains of Emperor Humayun which had originally been simply interred within the Old Fort but had to be exhumed and carried to Punjab before being returned to Delhi later on account of the threat of being unearthed and scattered insolently by the invading Hindu armies (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex). Though much later, Emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) retransferred the Mughal capital back to Delhi, he proceeded to build the new city of Shahjahanabad for himself and the Old Fort continued to remain neglected as a shadow of its erstwhile glory close to the new capital. Shortly thereafter, the enormous expanse within it came to be occupied by a rural settlement “Indarpat” that recalled, if only in nomenclature, the ancient imposing capital of Mahabharata.

Fascinatingly detailed! - Masjid Qila-i-Kuhna

Though the fort's irregular walls are pierced by three gigantic gateways located in three cardinal directions, its only entry point today is through the arterial Mathura Road via Bada Darwaza (literally “Large Gate”) where the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) ticket counter is located. Tucked between two massive, curving bastions built of rubble masonry, the imposing triple-storied gate is somberly dressed with red sandstone and white and black marble panels. The arches are flanked by skillfully crafted floral medallions and six-pointed star symbols which were often employed in construction by Mughal artists and architects as cosmic symbols. Elegantly decorated with blue and yellow-green tiles, two projecting windows (“jharokhas”) exist along the top of the gate on either side of a central arched window which possesses a short balcony balanced upon ornamental brackets. The central window is said to have been used in battles to drop missiles and boiling water on attacking armies. Entry to the upper floors is prohibited, of course. The top of the gate as well as the two colossal bastions flanking it display vertical rectangular piercings from which once archers would have shot at invading enemy soldiers, many of whom would have been intimidated and frozen motionless at the very sight of such an enormous gateway!

Rosette medallions, Bada Darwaza's adornments

Once inside, one is forced to move along the gently curving periphery walls of the fort in search of any significant structure since almost the entire area within the huge perimeter is now nearly devoid of any human construction, and where it is not claimed back by thick, thorny vegetation arising from the ruins of palaces and settlements, ASI has laid lush lawns carpeted with vibrant green grass and lined with flowering trees and bushes. Having been to the fort complex several times since childhood, sometimes I wonder if it always contained so few structures (which seems rather unlikely) or if they were allowed to crumble during later periods. The inner side of the Bada Darwaza has been excellently maintained and appears as good as new except for the ruined upper floors and facade. An archaeological museum, displaying relics and fragments of civilizational existence discovered from within the fort complex, functions from the rows of interconnected chambers immediately adjoining the gateway. The fort’s periphery walls are lined with small, arched chambers numbering several scores as far as the eye can see and judging from their regular construction and placement, they might have been envisaged to house guards on duty around the complex.

Bada Darwaza, inner side - The portion on the left has been converted to an Archaeological Museum

Heading straight from the Bada Darwaza, one comes to a crossroad straight ahead of which is the fort’s mosque and on either side are the other two gateways. I decide to explore first the mosque – surmounted by a single dome and officially known as Qila-i-Kuhna Masjid – which also happens to be the complex’s most well-preserved remnant – a gigantic rectangular structure whose facade is thickly ornamented with multi-hued stone inlay work, unbelievably ornate calligraphy panels, red sandstone carvings and intricately sculpted slender pillars executed so dexterously that it immediately leaves onlookers spellbound. Said to have been constructed by Sher Shah Suri when he occupied the fortress, the mosque, artistically influenced by Lodi (AD 1451-1526), Afghan (AD 1530-40) and early Mughal (AD 1526-1657) artistic sensibilities, is architecturally clearly evolved from the similar but less adorned and chronologically earlier Jamali-Kamali mosque (refer Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali complex). It would have possibly functioned as the royal Jami mosque, exclusively used by the Sultan and his courtiers and dignitaries for Friday congregation prayers. Walking from the Bada Darwaza, a visitor fist glances at the mosque’s backside which with its gorgeous protruding windows, ornamental band of inlaid recurring motifs, octagonal corner towers and decorative tapering pillars framing the slight projection marking the portion of the wall face immediately behind the central mihrab (alcoves within a mosque along its western wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers) guarantees to blow one away with its fine features and proportionate layout. Especially endearing are the exquisitely designed octagonal corner towers, composed of hard grey quartzite stone and red sandstone, which feature a handsome smattering of delicate carvings sculpted so mind-numbingly competently around the windows and brackets supporting the eaves (“chajja”) that it appears that the craftsmen were working on malleable wax instead of hard stone!

First impressions - Masjid Qila-i-Kuhna

Moving towards the mosque’s front, one automatically gapes with amazement even if they have been to the fort complex numerous times before – in my opinion, very few people actually stop and stare at the mosque’s enchanting patterns and inlay motifs – there are simply so many fascinating designs and patterns adorning the walls, appearing beneath arches and complementing the exquisite bands of Quranic inscriptions that one cannot take them all in a single go even if one attempts to! Moreover each pattern, each piece of the overall inlaid jigsaw fixes in such an inconceivably proper manner that, if it weren’t for the occasional missing pieces, one would rather believe that the entire facade, with its five horse-shoe shaped arched entrances, is a single monolith gorgeously painted over to generate patterns similar to inlay! The cavernous interiors are even more magnificently, though in a significantly subdued manner, ornamented – the five concave roofs, each corresponding one of the arched entrances, have been painted with pendants and six-pointed stars and chiseled in layers resembling blooming flowers; the deep-set mihrabs are proficiently sculpted into numerous patterns and surrounded by layers upon layers of marble white and black and inlaid with bands of colorful stone in several mesmerizing geometric patterns, the slender marble pillars, though ornamental in nature, exist in continuation with the thick walls and are punctuated by hexagonal panels embossed with Arabic carvings; the central concave roof is supported on honeycomb brackets while the side ones rest on well-endowed squinches (diagonals spanning the upper corners of a n-sided chamber to convert it to a 2n-sided structure to support the roof/dome’s mass) adorned with multiple arches fashioned from quartzite panels; not to be outdone, even the walls, serrated that they are, boast of expansive floral flourishes and circular motifs as moldings adjacent the floor. Opposite the mosque exists a small courtyard with a shallow tank in its center that might have been used by the devotees for ritualistic ablution purposes (“wazu”) before offering prayers. Also interesting is the fusion of Hindu elements, such as flowers and tendrils blossoming from the ends of calligraphy flourishes, protruding windows (“jharokhas”) and eaves supported on ornamental brackets, with Islamic architectural elements like domes, arches and concave roofs (five of them, whereas only the central one supports a dome!).

Gargantuan! - The mosque's interiors

Adjacent to the mosque’s courtyard is a wide staircase with large, uneven stairs, leading down to a series of semi-ruined, decrepit underground chambers in different stages of decay placed around a central opening. Another set of stairs, opposite the one you just descended lead up to the roof (or whatever remains of it) of these recurring chambers from where one can have a very specific and very complete visual of the mosque’s firmly-set rectangular structure. A deep cliff flanks the fort on this side – it was here that the river Yamuna’s frothing waters lapped the fortress’ foundations, but the entire valley has been overtaken by forests since the river diverted its course a long time ago – it cannot be stressed enough that it is highly imperative that one be extremely careful around these chambers, especially when stepping on the staircases or walking along the roof, since there are no protective barriers to prevent one from slipping and tumbling down to meet a fate similar to that of Humayun (more of that later in this post).

The mosque, as seen from the ruined chambers overlooking the deep cliff

Visible behind hedges and trees on the other side near the mosque is a squat, octagonal, two-storied red sandstone building topped by a uniquely dwarfish dome. This is Sher Mandal, a controversial but fairly popular structure whose history seems to be unclear – one theory is that it was intended as a tall astronomical observatory whose construction was begun by Sher Shah in AD 1541 but left incomplete at only two floors because of his untimely death. The same derives from a passage from a medieval book titled “Tarikh-i-Daudi” penned by a certain Abdullah in AD 1575-76 –

“After the conquest of Multan by Haibat Khan, Sher Shah went from Agra to Delhi in the year 947 Hijri (AD 1540); and actuated by unworthy feelings, he destroyed the fort of Alauddin, which stood in Siri, conspicuous for its strength and loftiness, and built on the bank of the Yamuna, between Ferozabad and Kilokheri, in the village of Indrapat, a new city, about two or three kilometers distant from the old one (Dinpanah/Old Fort).. He also laid the foundation of a magnificent masjid which was rapidly completed. The name of the fort he called “Sher-garh” and the walls of it were of great breadth and height; but on account of the shortness of his reign he did not live to complete it. Within the fort was a small palace, also left incomplete, which he called “Sher-mandal”.”

Sher Mandal - Poor Humayun's bane

But some scholars disagree citing that there is no reason to equate Sher Shah’s building with those of the Old Fort, nor is there any historic record that Sher Shah actually destroyed Humayun’s citadel which might have been allowed to coexist with his own whereas it has been amply noted throughout history that he destroyed Alauddin Khilji’s (ruled AD 1296-1316) fortress “Siri” and pillaged it for construction material for his own capital (refer Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort remains). Also the so-called Sher Mandal, whose architecture is reminiscent of Mughal pavilions and not Afghan construction, is a complete building surmounted by the singular umbrella dome mounted on slender pillars as opposed to the one left incomplete as a consequence of Sher Shah’s sudden demise. On the outside, the rubble-built structure is faced with red sandstone panels and each of the eight sides has a recessed arch decorated sparingly with panels of white marble interspersed with grey stone inlay work depicting geometric patterns and very fine outlines of six-pointed stars and arches. It is contended that the building functioned as Humayun’s library, and either it was always so or he converted it into one soon after he re-conquered Delhi. In either case, just a year later he fell to his death from the building’s stairs, ostensibly having tripped on his own robes while rushing to the mosque adjacent upon hearing the muezzin call the faithful for prayers. Unarguably, it is rather disappointing and darkly humorous for an emperor of Humayun’s stature to have died in such a silly manner and the renowned historian Laine-Poole quipped about the same by noting that Humayun “stumbled through life and stumbled out of it”. Entrance to the interiors of the stubby structure is now prohibited and its wooden doors remain perennially locked.

Veiled by vegetation

Between the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque and the Sher Mandal is a low rectangular brick structure, mostly in ruins with occasional rectangular openings along the corners and long rectangular projections emerging from the side facing the mosque – this structure functioned as a “hammam” (bath house) and possessed multiple chambers, each equipped with terracotta pipes, drainage holes and water chutes, facilitating provisions for hot and cold water as well as steam baths. It is strange to note that a bath house could be built in such close vicinity to a public mosque, but then affluent bath houses and provisions for flowing water streams did play an important role in the lavish life of the unimaginably prosperous Mughal royals. The hammam was forgotten and built over when the village of Indarpat came to exist at this site; it was discovered, cleared of vegetation and encroachment and conserved to its present state by the ASI in 1913-14 when the village was displaced from the fort premises.

Also located nearby is the fortress complex’s baoli (step-well), an extremely narrow and steep staircase leading down to an underground source of water – unlike other baolis in Delhi, this one doesn’t seem to have been envisaged for pleasure purposes and would have only fulfilled functional necessities. The narrow staircase is sheltered by a roof consisting of vertically receding arches which seem to have been overtaken by parrots at present – there does appear to be some murky black water at the bottom which begets a question about the roof’s effectiveness since it exists to ensure the water remains clean and unpolluted. Given the fortress’ height, it is obvious that the baoli’s staircase as well as the shaft to reach the water level would have to be dug deep (22 meters) and I highly doubt if anyone would have walked down the narrow staircase to enjoy the relatively cooler ambiance like one does at other, more open and more ornamented baolis.

Forgotten - The narrow baoli. In the background behind the treeline stands the mosque.

Past the open plain where Sher Mandal stands, one notices that the area has totally lapsed into a dense shroud of thorny shrubbery and wild vegetation and has become nearly impassable for humans. Wide craters, now gradually filling up with garbage, rubble waste and foliage, span the space where archaeological excavations have been carried on in the past few decades to determine the antiquity of the settlements that existed here and to prove, or disprove if that might be the case, whether it is indeed the site of the ancient Indraprastha or not. Besides sculptures, currency coins and weapons, diggings have yielded Painted Grey Ware pottery (PGW) which has been dated to 1000 BC and has also been found at other sites associated with the Mahabharata epic. This, along with the erstwhile existence of village Indarpat, gives credence to the theory that this was indeed Indraprastha fortress-palace, but most archaeologists concede that the said fortress/settlement was neither as physically vast nor as financially and sculpturally affluent as the mythological legends and fables state, but these latter were excesses that can be explained by taking into account the simple concept of poetic license. Tread the grassy lawns near Sher Mandal or walk through the dense shrubbery along the pathways around the craters and you come face to face with several couples making out and getting intimate in the midst of all the foliage and the few run down chambers and palace ruins that occasionally peep from beneath it. Such public display of affection looks out of place around this historic spot and often it gets fairly awkward (that’s an understatement!) when somebody walks through the well-trodden pathways for the purpose of photography and the couples, like animals spotted on wildlife safaris, either turn around and disappear in even denser foliage or glare back assuming one is photographing them (Delhi has no dearth of such voyeurs!).

Crumbling remains of a ruined chamber located in an extremity of the fortress complex past the excavation zone. The windows of this chamber would have once overlooked the river valley but today open to a deep cliff with the arterial Ring Road and large industrial plants in the far background.

The fort's second gate, the towering Humayun Darwaza (literally “Humayun’s Gate”) is visible opposite the aforementioned excavated valleys. Although the majestic structure, overlooking the ecologically-rich National Zoological Park (refer Pixelated Memories - Delhi Zoo) which is also now included in the fort property, was constructed by Sher Shah Suri, it somehow overtime came to be associated with Humayun – possibly he played an undocumented role in fortifying or decorating the mega-structure when he returned victorious to Delhi. Like the Bada Darwaza, this gate too is surmounted by ornamental “chattris” (domes mounted on slender pillars) but is more vertically pronounced than the wide set Bada Darwaza. On the side facing the fortress complex’s interiors, several separate staircases lead to different levels which are lined with numerous chambers and guardrooms, each ruble-built and layered with grey quartzite slabs, though several of these have ceased to exist now and only survive as skeleton frameworks or stubby remains. There are two separate arched entrances leading within/out of the gate and while the first would have been accessible by boats at the level of the surrounding moat, the second would have opened to the drawbridge spanning the said moat and facilitated movement of royal convoys, soldiers and general public desiring audience with the Emperor or his courtiers. The side facing the Zoo, visible only slightly above the dense tree line, is more strikingly ornamented and has been faced with red sandstone interspersed by rosette medallions, overhanging windows (“jharokhas”), white marble elephant embossments, red sandstone lion carvings, decorative battlement patterns and vibrant blue tile work adorning the chattris. It is along the excellently maintained and beautified inner side of the Humayun Darwaza that the remarkable light and sound show “Ishq-e-Dilli” is organized every evening (refer Pixelated Memories - "Ishq-e-Dilli" Light and Sound show). Responsibly, so very unlike Delhi, the authorities do pack up the electronic equipment and the stacks of chairs that surround the gateway in the evening so as not to create an eyesore for the daytime visitors.

Subdued glory - Humayun Darwaza

The fortress’s third gateway, the sinisterly christened Talaaqi Darwaza (“Forbidden Gateway”), is the last major structure within the complex and is located immediately opposite Humayun Darwaza across the entire vast span of the complex. There is no particular reason as to why it has been named thus, or if it was forbidden to enter the complex from this particular gate – one legend, of course unsubstantiated, is that Adil Shah Suri (ruled for the early few months of AD 1555), the last Emperor of Sur Dynasty whom Humayun eventually vanquished, ordered his commanders while leaving from this gate for his final battle to only open its doors if he returned triumphant and the gate has been sealed since as he was killed in the ensuing fight. Notwithstanding its diabolical historic overtones and the complete disregard with which the authorities have maintained it, the gateway is an impressive structure and leaner and more vertically pronounced than its more meticulously maintained siblings. Despite the overall chaos ensuing around it – there are stacks of cement, rubble and construction material strewn around, heaps of hacked branches and foliage wastes rot opposite it and the interiors of the numerous chambers and entrances of the gate have been overtaken by spider webs and mud nests of hornets – the gateway continues to display signs of erstwhile glory, including exquisitely sculpted stucco medallions outlined by brilliant blue tile work, thin narrow eaves supported on a row of brackets, incised plasterwork patterns carved within and around the ornamental wall alcoves, three chattris (one octagonal and two square in dimensions) adorned with tile work and surmounted on minimally carved red sandstone pillars and lastly, stucco patterns and outlines marking the roof and the corners along the interiors of the entranceway. Stucco medallions also grace the spandrels of the chambers lining the periphery walls on either side of the gate and one is left wondering if such also adorned the rest of the chambers along the fortress' entire circumference.

Heritage ignored - Talaaqi Darwaza

On the inner side, the gateway is accessible by a short flight of semicircular stairs circumscribing it, while along the exteriors it overlooks the impressive Old Fort Lake, exceedingly renowned for boating and zorbing facilities in the shadow of the towering walls and bastions, which is accessible from a small gate located close to the ticket counter. One has to tread nearly a kilometer on foot from the ticket counter along the lake to reach the corner where the boats are tied and tickets can be purchased. A further five minute walk along a paved pathway slithering through a gap in the gradually closing walls of vegetation leads to the outer side of the soaring gateway where it is flanked by a very thin bastion and decorated with overhanging windows, rosette medallions, black, white and red stone inlay work generating geometric patterns, traces of vivacious blue tile work and the much adored white marble embossments of armed men battling fierce lions. On the outside, one realizes that this lofty gateway too is equipped with tall dual entrances, the first of which would have opened at the moat level and the second along the drawbridge connecting it to land on the other side of the moat.

Mortal combat - One of the marble embossments ornamenting Talaaqi Darwaza's exterior face

The impressive fortress, presently rendered abnormally unique by its overall lack of grand palaces, recreational pavilions and notable administrative buildings within the circuitous 2-kilometer long perimeter conferred by the dressed rubble walls that themselves are over 20 meters high and approximately 4 meters thick in places, must have once occupied an imposing and strategically invincible position in Delhi’s medieval landscape and afforded, via its exceptionally high ramparts and uncountable arrow holes, unmatched protection to its regal inhabitants. The fort’s unparalleled walls introduced the concept of spy holes for the first time in Indian subcontinent and the same was afterwards replicated in every fort and garrison throughout the country. It is another matter that these openings in the walls now exclusively function as comfortable abodes for the numerous migratory birds flocking to the remarkable lake underneath the fort’s towering walls. There are also tunnels within the complex but these have been sealed with bricks and grilles to prevent unchecked entry of vandals as well as to stop people from venturing within since these might get infested with poisonous snakes and gases when not accessed for extended periods.

The imprints of Humayun, Sher Shah and Hemu - Remains of chambers near Humayun Darwaza

If the desire to explore some more monuments still doesn’t let go, there are the two ignored gems – Sher Shah Suri’s colossal Lal Darwaza and Maham Anga’s bewitchingly adorned Masjid Khair-ul-Manazil – located across the Mathura Road immediately opposite Old Fort complex’s entrance (refer Pixelated Memories - Masjid Khair-ul-Manazil). The Zoo adjacent the premises is a nature lover’s delight and houses the big fauna like lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes and jaguars in vast, densely forested enclosures and artificial caves. The “Ishq-e-Dilli” light and sound show organized every evening too is highly recommended and recounts the fascinating history of Delhi, its numerous megalomaniac and often crazy Emperors and its magnificent constituent cities. But if you already feel tired by walking around the enormous premises, take a break from the sightseeing and head to the nearby located Nizamuddin Basti for the sumptuous biryanis, delectable kebabs and otherworldly beef nihari served by the numerous eateries there. There is of course the newly opened branch of Karim’s for those who just wish to feast on chicken and meat preparations in exceptionally hygienic environment. The National Crafts Museum too is located a brisk walk from the fortress and offers an informative and very informal take on the country’s handicrafts and decorative accessories (plus, their CafĂ© Lota restaurant, though considerably expensive, is said to be one of the best in the city! Subject of a future article someday perhaps!)

Spotted near the crescent of the majestic lake - Blue Pansy butterfly (Junonia orithya)

Nearest Metro Station: Pragati Maidan, though it is some considerable distance away.
How to reach: Autos, buses and taxis are available from different parts of the city. One can walk/avail an auto from the Metro station.
Open: Everyday, 8 am - 6 pm
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100
Photography charges: Nil (Rs 25 for video filming)
Facilities available: Drinking water, wheelchair access
Boating ride timings: Summers: 12 pm - 7 pm; Winters: 11 am - 6 pm
For details about the light and sound show, follow link Pixelated Memories - "Ishq-e-Dilli" Light and Sound show
Other monuments/landmarks located in the neighborhood -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah complex
  2. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Masjid Khair-ul-Manazil (immediately opposite Old Fort complex)
  4. Pixelated Memories - National Zoological Park (adjacent Old Fort complex)
Other cities of Delhi documented on this blog (chronological according of their existence) -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort remains
  2. Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai ka Kot fortress complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  4. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort/Shahjanabad
  5. Pixelated Memories - New Delhi
Suggested reading - 

December 21, 2011

Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque, New Delhi

Literally translating to “the most auspicious of edifices”, the ruined yet splendid Khair-ul-Manazil was established by Maham Anga, Emperor Akbar’s (ruled AD 1556-1605) wet nurse, to serve as a madrasa (Islamic seminary) with an associated majestic mosque. It is hard to believe that in those days a wet nurse could accumulate this much social and financial power and commission such magnificent public works – but then Maham Anga was no ordinary lady – assertive and ambitious, she strived to establish control over the Emperor’s psyche and the affairs of the country and for many years reduced the young and inexperienced Emperor to a mere puppet enforcing all her commands. The madrasa complex would have been conceived to exist, both physically and structurally, in continuation with the massive citadel “Dinpanah” (“Refuge of the faithful”, now simply referred to as Delhi’s Old Fort, documented here – Pixelated Memories - Old Fort complex) that Maham Anga’s employer and Emperor Akbar’s father Emperor Nasiruddin Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56) had constructed as his capital – now however, urbanization and construction of highways have metamorphosed the entire area and the two are separated by the arterial Mathura Road which bears such a heavy flow of traffic that very few visitors and tourists ever venture from the Old Fort–Delhi zoo combine to visit this poor, decrepit, rubble-built structure – of course, many of them do wonder if this too is part of the Old Fort complex or is an individual structure, but rarely does anyone bother to know its name or history, and its massive, well maintained exterior walls and red sandstone gateway are forgotten sooner than it took to drive past them or glimpse them from Old Fort’s gateways. And that’s a pity because the structure is in reality an inconceivably beautiful jewel disguising itself as a mere pauper! But as the Hindi adage goes – only the jeweler can distinguish jewels from stones – in this case too, only the few who venture within are rewarded with spellbinding sights and unparalleled artworks (sadly, very nearly lost now due to the vagaries of time and nature and the pitiable ignorance offered by conservation and maintenance authorities).

Remains of grandeur - Masjid Khair-ul-Manazil

Entered via an imposing, double-storied red sandstone gateway that is very minimally decorated with floral medallions and skillfully carved, slender, ornamental pillars and yet appears very elegant, the structure was commissioned in AD 1561-62, shortly before Maham Anga’s demise – interestingly enough, by this time Emperor Akbar had decided to transfer his administration from Delhi to the province of Agra and the only major activity undergoing in the city was the construction of the unparalleled mausoleum of Emperor Humayun nearby. Nonetheless, several administrators, nobles and military generals – including Maham Anga’s two sons Adham Khan and Quli Khan, the Emperor’s other foster-mother Jiji Anga, her powerful husband Shamshuddin Atgah Khan and their valiant son Mirza Aziz Kokaltash and the mighty and learned generals Azim Khan and Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan – decided to continue calling Delhi their home and commission outstanding mosques and mausoleums here. Standing opposite Khair-ul-Manazil’s majestic gateway, one doesn’t really feel thrilled or overawed by its size and grandeur, but once one stands immediately in front of it and repeatedly fails to photograph its vertical expanse (this has more to do with the limited area available to photograph the facade – the heavy traffic curtails freedom of movement and anyway the iron gate and boundary walls surrounding the structure renders stepping too far useless!) and observes the polished nature of the sandstone and the exquisiteness of the ornamentation, one feels struck by wide-eyed amazement and an uninhibited urge to venture in and explore this gorgeous architectural specimen further. The interiors, sadly, do not live up to the expectations – the enormous mosque, at the end of the vast rectangular courtyard, appears dejectedly ruined while the double-storied chambers that line the two longer sides of the courtyard have fallen apart in their entirety and can only be distinguished by the remains of their walls. The madrasa was designed according to traditional Islamic architecture that is fairly uniform in India as well as Central Asia – there are a total of nine fairly-sized chambers on each of the two floors on either side of the courtyard while smaller boarding rooms punched within larger arched cavities flank each side of the handsome gateway; along the corners on either side of the towering gateway, where the rows of chambers emanating along the longer sides of the courtyard should have overlapped with the chambers along the shorter side in which the gateway is embedded, the extremities of the rectangular courtyard are provided with small, irregularly-shaped, enclosed extensions.

First impressions - The neatly cut red sandstone gateway of the madrasa-mosque complex

In the center of the courtyard exists a deep octagonal tank where, since the mosque’s construction, the devotees perform “wazu” (ritualistic ablutions before offering prayers at a mosque). A large well, still functioning, is also located, slightly offset from the center towards the right, near the entrance gateway. Before heading towards the decrepit mosque, turn around and observe the intricate stucco patterns and medallions etched on the surface of the side of the gateway facing the mosque – it is rare to witness such excellent plasterwork patterns adorning a mere gateway and certainly testimony the immense influence and economic means that Maham Anga must have possessed. A set of semi-destroyed staircases on either side of the gateway which must have once lead to the upper levels now ends midway which is still high enough to yield a panoramic view (and photographs) of the expansive complex, but the bearded caretaker, who must at least be an octogenarian, gets inexplicably worked up when one climbs upstairs and furiously orders the descent (Edit November, 2014: The staircases do not exist anymore! I cannot fathom what happened to them – were they dismantled in their entirety (seems highly unlikely) or incorporated as part of one of the restored and grilled small chambers along the sides of the gateway? The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guard on duty has not the slightest clue but territorially (and idiotically!) informs me that photography is not allowed and I shouldn’t disturb the men offering the prayers, only to hear the retort inquiry if he was even aware that the mosque still is under the aegis and protection of ASI for whom he works or have they given him along with the mosque to the Waqf board (in-charge of maintenance of active mosques and burial grounds in the country)? I again encountered the self-appointed caretaker dressed in white kurta-pyjama, the same old man with a short, irregular tuft for beard – strangely, he once again mistook me for an Afghan and began lamenting the poor condition of the mosque and the lack of sensitivity on the part of Government authorities and affluent Muslims, eventually winding the long monologue with a demand for ten rupees so he could light the oil lamps within since the mosque lacks electricity – imagine that, unconcealed woe at the denial of electricity connection to an over 450-year old heritage structure!).

Nearly lost - The colossal gateway and ruins of chambers on either side, as seen from the mosque

The rectangular mosque, slightly better preserved than the madrasa that has very nearly disappeared, is said to have been built without a foundation, a rarity in such massive constructions even today. Internally possessing five interconnected prayer chambers (bays), it has only three arched entrances while the portion where the corner-most of the five entrances would have been had they existed has been subsumed within the last of the madrasa rooms – except for this minor difference in the number of entrances and the existence of the large madrasa adjacent, it is structurally identical to the inconceivably exemplary Qila-i-Kuhna mosque (built either by Emperor Humayun or his vanquisher, the Afghan warlord Sher Shah Suri (ruled AD 1540-45)) gracing the Old Fort complex opposite. The central of the three arched entrances is slightly larger than the other two and embedded within a rectangular embossment that protrudes from the mosque’s front face both vertically and spatially; surmounting the central prayer chamber is an enormous hemispherical dome, slightly flattened towards the top and itself crowned by a perfectly well-formed lotus finial. An inscription set above the central entrance reads –

“In the time of Jalal-ud-din Muhammad who is the greatest (Akbar) of just kings, when Maham Beg, the protection of chastity, erected this building for the virtuous, 
Shihabuddin Ahmad Khan, the generous, assisted in the erection of this good house. How blessed is this good building that its chronogram is “best of houses”. 
Its construction was accomplished by Niyaz Baksh under the supervision of Darwesh Hussain.” 

Shihabuddin Khan was a relative of Maham Anga and also a powerful, though very arrogant and cunning, courtier. The name “Khair-ul-Manazil” when written in Persian script yields the number 969 Hijri (AD 1561-62), the year of its construction, and thus is a chronogram.

Exemplar! - Tile work patterns adorning the mosque exteriors

Flanked on either side by a tapering octagonal pillar that culminates into a rounded conical turret slightly above the roof level, the aforementioned rectangular embossment retains signs of unsurpassable embellishment in the form of vibrantly colorful, enameled tile work and plasterwork bands of Quranic inscriptions. The rich, multi-hued tile work, exceedingly fine and extraordinarily spectacular, proves to be a spellbinding visual treat although much of it has deteriorated and disappeared against the unremitting onslaught of time and vagaries of nature. The gorgeous facade, ignored and forgotten, thus bears a blackened appearance further aggravated by the loss of its architectural features and artistic decoration – the medallions, except for those adorning the flanks of the side entrances, have disappeared in their entirety and so has the row of wide eaves (“chajja”) that would have once run along the entire front face of the mosque except along the protruding rectangular projection; thankfully the skillfully sculpted brackets which would once have supported the eave still survive. The very decorative “kanguras” (battlement-like ornamentation) adorning the roof are also still intact in their ornate existence, albeit in a considerably blackened state. It isn’t difficult to imagine that originally the enviable mosque would have been the treat of the eyes of the locals and would have offered stiff competition to the equally embellished Qila-i-Kuhna mosque which has been adorned not with vividly flamboyant tile work but expensive and graceful tessellation (stone inlay work). And not surprisingly, it is said that the resourceful Maham Anga, leaving no stone unturned in the ornamentation of her magnum, ensured that no two tiles adorning the facade were of the same design – a pattern that also finds resonance in the commendably variegated stucco artwork along the inner surface of the complex’s regal gateway. Each stucco medallion, be they on the mosque’s surface or on the gateway’s, reads the Islamic motto –

“La Allah illah Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah”
(“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”)

"The most auspicious of edifices" - Mosque interiors

Stepping within the mosque one comes face to face with a picture of erstwhile grandeur clashed against present-day deplorable conditions – the mihrab (alcoves in the western wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca; faced by Muslims while offering prayers) retain remnants of very fine and vibrantly painted enameled tile work arranged in numerous geometric and floral patterns in several colors – red, violet, yellow, green, orange and cream, but the rest of the structure is unadorned and exceedingly simplistic. The shorter sides of the rectangular prayer chamber boast of arched side entrances and windows but the same have been grilled and locked to prevent visitors/vandals from entering from these sides. The restoration work which began in anticipation of the Commonwealth Games 2010 (CWG XIX) that Delhi hosted seems to never have been completed and the walls continue to bear the numerous flourishes left behind by painters and masons employed for the conservation-restoration work. The plain interiors, mirroring the limited nature of decoration on the exteriors, appear like the poorer cousin of the better preserved Qila-i-Kuhna mosque whose interiors too unabashedly display excellent tessellation, honeycomb brackets and brilliant paint work in the form of medallions and alcove decoration. But then, unlike the latter, this mosque is still alive, especially on Fridays, with devotees and faithful, though negligible in numbers, who come to offer prayers, clean and sweep the premises and leave behind corn and rice to feed the hundreds of pigeon who call the structure their home. ASI tried to prohibit the practice in 1992 after considering the ruined condition of the structure which was deemed dangerously vulnerable to subsidence, but this step brought it in conflict with the “Masjid Basao Committee” which endeavors for a revival of monumental and abandoned mosques, usually under the aegis of conservation authorities like ASI, for the purposes of prayers and religious ceremonies – the case still continues in the court, but meanwhile prayers are allowed in the premises. The status quo is, in my humble opinion, an ideal solution involving all parties concerned – devotees can be allowed to offer prayers provided they keep vandals out and maintain the structure and its religious sanctity without altering its appearance or constitution in any way (say, paint jobs or modern construction/obstruction), while the restoration-conservation work and hiring/training of guards for the overall protection can be undertaken by ASI – in any case, ASI has already failed for this many years to properly conserve the gorgeous facade and prevent the collapse of some of the chambers.

Such multi-hued vibrancy! - Tile and paint patterns, central of the five mihrabs within the mosque

Along the rubble-built back of the prayer chamber runs a row of alcoves whose high roof is accessible by means of a staircase on either side. A projection in the immediate center of the back wall marks where the rectangular embossment exists along the front face and two tapering pillars in continuation with it reflect the pillars along the latter. The corners culminate into double-storied octagonal towers, the lower levels of which mirror, by means of deep set niches, the long arched windows of the upper levels; four ornamental brackets, identical to those along the front facade that supported the eaves, exist along each side of the towers.

A popular legend associated with the mosque states that once Emperor Akbar, while returning from a hunting expedition, decided to visit and offer prayers at the dargah (mausoleum) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya located nearby. A disenchanted slave let loose an arrow within the mosque precincts to kill the Emperor while he halted for a short rest here, but it missed him on account of his short height and injured a royal guard instead. I doubt we need delve into what must have happened afterwards to that slave! The structure’s dilapidated octagonal wazu tank is said to have been repaired by Amir Habibullah, the Shah of Afghanistan, in the first decade of 20th century when he visited India for a meeting with the Viceroy. Given the historicity of the structure and its association with such notable personalities, it is highly imperative that it be conserved and the excellent artwork it boasts of, currently threatened nearly to the verge of extinction, both by environmental effects and the lacunae that plagues the heritage authorities, be restored and preserved for future generations. At present, it is only because of the hundreds of pigeons who call this dilapidated structure their haunt that this largely unnoticed and forgotten mosque-seminary located at such a busy traffic intersection opposite one of the most visited tourist sites of Delhi displays signs of life. One can only hope that perhaps someday tourists and history enthusiasts too will visit it in hundreds to bask in its erstwhile grandeur and marvel at the unsurpassed skill of the artists and architects whose efforts went into its construction. Then the courtyard that once reverberated with the sounds of students reciting Islamic scriptures and learning geometry, algebra and jurisprudence would once again resound with human voices, only this time they'll be the sounds of children’s laughter and visitor’s exclamations of adoring amazement. Amen.

The other side - The mosque, as seen from the expansive lawns surrounding the ruined Lal Darwaza adjacent

Location: Immediately opposite Old Fort (Purana Qila) (Coordinates: 28°36'27.1"N 77°14'23.7"E)
Open: Everyday, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: Pragati Maidan
How to reach: Buses and autos are available from different parts of the city for Old Fort complex. The metro station is exactly 2 kilometers away and one can walk or avail a bus/auto from there.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Suggestion: It is advisable, especially for women, to be dressed modestly since the mosque is a place of worship. Also one has to remove the footwear before entering the prayer chamber.
Other monuments in the neighborhood - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  2. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Old Fort complex
Quli Khan, one of Maham Anga's sons, is buried in a beautiful mausoleum in Mehrauli Archaeological Park in another part of Delhi. Refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb.

Suggested reading - 

India Gate, New Delhi

"An axis so spacious as the King's Way, leading to an architectural complex of such size and splendour as the Viceroy's House (President's House/Rashtrapati Bhavan) and the Secretariats, demands an ostentatious beginning. The height of the arch is 138 feet; but this is increased optically by the system of steps on the roof and the utter flatness of the surrounding plain. Its chief characteristic derives from the fact that the arch of the main opening, although 75 ft. high, springs from a point less than half way up the whole building; so that the arch, as an arch, has something to support, and is therefore invested with a kind of life, a quality which the Arc de Triomphe, for example, lacks. Close above the key-stone of the archway runs a decorative bands of rayed suns, carved flat, but with sufficient emphasis to break the hard line of shadow from the cornice above. The cornice is thin and prominent – unusually so for a monument of this kind. But it is precisely this shelf-like quality which brings it into harmonious relation with the mass of masonry, 40 ft. above it. This mass takes the form of three irregular steps, the topmost and deepest of which has its narrow ends interrupted by heavy, concave recesses. On top of this rests a small flat dome, finished with a convex eye, slightly moulded...its eventual function will be to emit a huge panache of memorial smoke, which the Public Works Department, slightly despairing, hopes to achieve by means of gas and electric fans...The whole arch stands on a low red base. The sides are pierced by two lesser openings, each 54 ft. high, and decorated with stone pineapples above the doorways at the bottom."
– Robert Byron, The Architectural Review "New Delhi"

Our second stop on the HOHO tour of Delhi, the majestic India Gate, originally known as All India War Memorial and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, stands 42 meters high and is inspired by the Arc-de-Triomphe in Paris. The memorial, bearing the names of 13,516 British and Indian soldiers killed in the Northwestern Frontier in the Afghan war of 1919, commemorates 90,000 brave Indian soldiers who lost their lives in the period 1914-19 fighting for the British Army during World War I and Third Anglo-Afghan War. The foundation stone of the monument was laid by His Royal Highness, the Duke of Connaught in 1921 and it was dedicated to the nation 10 years later by then Viceroy Lord Irwin.

The colossal, eye-catching memorial stands on a base composed of red Bharatpur stone and rises in stages to a massive moulding which has both its faces inscribed with the legend INDIA, flanked by the Roman numerals MCMXIV (1914, left) and MCMXIX (1919, right). The shallow bowl surmounting the structure was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries but this is not done now.

Memorial to the Unknown Soldier

Located reverentially as a shrine under the arch of India Gate since the Indo-Pak War of December 1971 is a graceful black marble cenotaph surmounted by a rifle propped on its barrel and crested by a soldier's helmet. Serving as the "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" with each of its face inscribed in gold with the words "Amar Jawan" ("Immortal Soldier"), the cenotaph itself is placed on an edifice which has an eternal torch perpetually kept alive on each of its four corners. To remind the nation of soldiers who laid down their lives in the war, this "Amar Jawan Jyoti" ("Flame of the Immortal Soldier") burns perennially day and night.

The towering flags represent the three arms of Indian military (Army, Navy and Air Force) and soldiers drawn from one of the forces guard the shrine on a rotating daily basis in coordination with the usual retinue of policemen and armed personnel thereby contributing to the consideration that the area is one of the safest and most militarized in the city. In a solemn ceremony observed every Republic Day, the Prime Minister along with the three Chiefs of the armed forces pays homage to the fallen soldiers before joining the annual parade at Rajpath.

The "Amar Jawan Jyoti", "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier" (Photo courtesy -

Not surprisingly, not many people are aware that before the British took over the area and had it landscaped, a dilapidated tomb known as "Hijre ka Gumbad" ("Tomb of the Hermaphrodite") existed in the immediate vicinity of the location of India Gate! The tomb was destroyed in its entirety and no trace of it survives today except for the entry made by Archaeological Survey surveyor Maulvi Zafar Hasan when he documented Delhi's architectural heritage in his remarkable tome "Monuments of Delhi" (1919). The same goes –

"The dome and the arches are brick built. A portion of the dome has fallen, but the building still presents a picturesque appearance. There is no trace of any grave now."

One wonders what Delhi's landscape and cartographic existence would have appeared like if the tomb belonged to a deceased Emperor or was an architecturally/artistically splendid monument. Would the axis of British capital New Delhi, that is defined by the India Gate at one extremity, have spatially or angularly existed elsewhere? What then of nearby located Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament House that exist in relationship with it? Fascinating that a single, non-existent structure could throw up so many fantastical questions!

Its emptiness symbolic of British retreat from India, a vacant canopy made of sandstone is located immediately behind the India Gate memorial – also designed by Lutyens, it is inspired by a 6th-century Mahabalipuram (Tamil Nadu) pavilion and originally housed a realistic sculpture of King George V (later removed to Coronation Park with other statues).

King George's umbrella

Vehicles are prevented from coming near the memorial arch by means of police barricades and venturing close to the structure is prohibited even for pedestrians. Surrounding the imposing structure is an immense expanse of lush green lawns which, despite these severe restrictions and the commemorative nature of the monument, prove to be a popular picnic spot. Hardly any tourist to Delhi gives the structure a miss. Numerous vendors gather to sell their wares and one can purchase fruit chaat, bhel puri (puffed rice tossed with onions, fried gram flour noodles, sweet tamarind chutney and coriander leaves), potato chips, ice cream, candy floss and aerated drinks. There are photographers for hire too who would click and quickly develop one's photo with the memorial in the background at a nominal charge of Rs 30-40 (of course, they badger one more by repeatedly prompting to have several photos printed). If the sheer numbers of cars, auto rickshaws and two-wheelers lining the boulevard leading up to the monument are any proof, the best time to visit is after sunset when the majestic structure is floodlit and the fountains located nearby are also illuminated with colored lights to add further resplendence to the ambiance.

Location: Secretariat area
Open: All days, round the clock
Nearest Metro Station: Central Secretariat
How to reach: Walk from the metro station. Autos and buses are also available from different parts of the city.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Suggestions: The area is notorious for pickpockets and child kidnappers. It is advisable to be prepared against such eventualities.
Other monuments/landmarks located in the neighborhood -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Connaught Place
  2. Pixelated Memories - National Museum
  3. Pixelated Memories - Parliament House
  4. Pixelated Memories - Presidential House
  5. Pixelated Memories - Secretariat Blocks
Suggested reading - 

December 16, 2011

Akshardham Temple Complex, New Delhi

For a long, long time I had wanted to visit the Delhi Akshardham temple, I had seen its pictures, heard people rave about its structure & knew several families that visited the temple very frequently. I had been to the Gujarat Akshardham several years back when I was a small kid & one of my uncles used to live in Ahmedabad. I still remember glimpses & flashes of that temple, but not much, I must have been 11-12 years old then & did not possess a camera back then. However my parents remember it vividly & tell me it is better than the Delhi Akshardham. So for a long, long time I kept hoping that in my next vacations I would visit the Delhi Akshardham & other nearby places. But one way or the other, the plan kept getting modified or cancelled, till a few days back. I finally visited the temple & this time around it wasn’t me who planned the trip. It was my childhood friend Shubhad – when I returned to Delhi from Calcutta this time around & we decided to meet, she gave me two options about our get together – either we could have gone shopping or to the temple which she wanted to see. So you see, I hate shopping & I hate visiting temples too, but comparatively less, since most of the temples are old & you can take pictures & ask about the place’s history (despite being somewhat boring & preachy-type places). But not the Delhi Akshardham – the temple is brand-new, huge, mesmerizing & not boring at all. In fact one requires almost a day to see all that it has to offer.

Akshardham Temple (Photo courtesy

Since it was December, the chilly December of Delhi comes with another dreaded problem – the fog. A blanket of heavy white mist surrounds the entire city, hiding almost everything & hindering visibility. Such were the conditions when we visited the temple that early morning & its high dome rose above the surrounding mist to create an ethereal experience. At the entrance, to our dismay we encountered several long lines – one for buying tickets, another for depositing your bags, purses, mobile phones & cameras & for security checks (Yes, Photography is prohibited here, to prevent repeat of the Gujarat Akshardham attack, where several terrorists entered the premises with weapons & killed several people – those terrorists had a blueprint of the temple created from several previous visits & photographs). Finally after spending slightly more than an hour in these lines, we finally got to enter the premises & reached the center of the ground after a long walk, admiring the beautified gardens & flowering trees around ourselves, & saw the temple complex spread across from us, more gorgeous than we had ever expected, larger than it seems in the photos, & more crowded than we had assumed it would be.

Also referred to as Swaminarayan Akshardham, the temple was opened to public on November 6, 2005 & has since become a hub of tourists & displays traditional Hindu culture and architecture. 7,000 artists, assisted by over 3,000 volunteers constructed this mighty temple complex on the banks of river Yamuna with such labour & creativity, that it now stands as a testimony to their skill & craft. The temple was built according to the Vastru Shastra (an ancient Indian architectural knowledge, supposed to increase the positive energy & bring good luck). The structure, built entirely with Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble without the use of steel or concrete supports, features a blend of architectural styles from across India.

The temple is built as a several-layered structure, & the first layer one notices is the (aptly named) Gajender Pith (Gajender means “Lord of the elephants” in Hindi, Pith is “Base”). It is the lowest tier & built to pay tribute to the elephant for its importance in Hindu culture. The layer features more than 300 pink stone sculptures of elephants, lions, humans, cows, trees & palaces, but primarily elephants. The entire layer is so ornately carved & covers such a large area that it took us more than two hours to complete a round of it. Of course we stood before almost each & every sculpture to admire them, & some of them were so stunning that we stopped to observe the designs for an exceptionally long time. It is said that the sculptures are large enough to resemble actual elephants. Baby elephants perhaps, but certainly not the real large ones!!

Portion of the Gajender Pith (Photo courtesy

Atop the elephant tier sits the main temple itself. Its external walls have been designed so skilfully that they force you to stop & ask yourself if staying outside would be a much better idea. The walls are intricately carved with more than 200 stone figures of Indian devotees, mendicants, hermits & Godly incarnations. This layer is divided into several sub-layers divided horizontally – there are even representations of lions, dragons etc. What I liked the most was the layer representing the elephant God Ganesh in various positions – dancing, playing musical instruments, meditating.

The entrance doors in the center were flanked by a big vertical layer of peacock sculptures. The large sculptures were stunning, & I felt so sad for being deprived of my camera. Me & Shubhad kept pointing the different sculptures to each other, to the agony of Kaustav who doesn’t have an interest in monuments & architecture as we do (but he pretends he does, hehe!!). Inside we were welcomed by an entire chamber filled with more sculptures, this time built with stone & marble, most of them had the name of what they represented inscribed underneath. Several were easily recognisable as the Hindu deities & incarnations. However the chamber was so high that we could not even see the topmost idols properly, leave alone identifying them. Even the roof was covered with carvings & patterns & designs. The entire hall was beautiful beyond description. Soon a line formed, moving slowly in a snake-like manner towards the central chamber, every other person breaking the line to adore some idol they noticed in another corner, then coming back to join it. Nobody pushed, nobody shouted, there were just hushed voices & expressions of surprise & amazement all around us.

Peacock.. (Photo courtesy

In the central chamber lay an 11-feet (3.4m) high statue of Swaminarayana, the chief priest of the sect. The central statue is surrounded by similar statues of the gurus (spiritual teachers) of the sect. All these statues are made with paanch dhaatu (an amalgam of the five major metals) according to Hindu tradition of idol-making. There are statues of several Hindu Gods here too. It took us close to two hours to go through the chambers & we were able to see most of the statues & paintings inside. Plus we spent an hour extra gazing at the statues of the outer walls of the temple. After so many hours of gazing at all these gracefully sculpted statues, our senses were almost numbed to beauty & pangs of hunger struck us. Moving out of the temple, we started searching for the complex restaurant. Enroute, we did a circuit of the other attractions too, but couldn’t see most of them since we were on a tight schedule.

The central hall of Akshardham Temple (Photo courtesy

The temple complex also boasts of a hall where 3-D presentations & robotics is employed in combination with light & sound effects to propagate the basic messages of Indian culture and value system. A six-floor high film screen displays the life & pilgrimages of the child hermit Neelkanth Varni (there is even a large bronze statue of the same towards one corner of the complex, diagonal to the entrance to the central chamber). The film has been shot at several locations from the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas to the greens of Kerala. A boat ride takes visitor through an artificial tunnel & shows the heritage of India in terms of its ancient medicinal, educational & commercial systems. All these are ticketed facilities (tickets are expensive) & we gave them a miss since the idea of enjoying a temple after paying for it seemed, if it is the right word, unfair to us. & we were hungry too, remember!!

The arena where the musical fountain shows are held. The statue in the center background is of the hermit Neelkanth Varni (Photo courtesy

Finally we found what is called the Premvati Aahargrah (so the board at the entrance proclaimed), which is a large restaurant serving vegetarian food. I guess it must have been large enough to accommodate several hundred people, & was very very crowded when we visited. But the service was quick, food delicious, & the staff friendly. It wasn’t expensive either.

What we did see was the Garden of India which is basically a lush garden lined with bronze sculptures of several famous personalities of India – some of them, like the warriors & freedom fighters from recent past, others might be considered mythological by many.

One of the statues in the Garden of India (photo courtesy

Then there was another garden connecting the restaurant with the main temple – this one was sunken & it is said that when seen from a higher point it looks like a lotus. Called the Yogi Hraday Kamal (Lotus of sage’s heart), it features large stones engraved with quotes from Shakespeare, Martin Luther King & Swami Vivekananda among others.

The Lotus Garden (Photo courtesy

An artificially built small lake called the Narayana Sarovar surrounds the main monument. The lake contains water from 151 rivers and lakes that are considered holy by Hindus. The lake is surrounded by faucets that resemble cow heads (“gaumukhs” in Hindi), since cow is one of the very sacred creatures in Hinduism.

The Cow heads (Photo courtesy

The temple has also been included in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007 owing to its size. It is considered one of the largest Hindu temples in the world. Reader’s Digest has also included it in the list of "Seven Wonders of the 21st Century".

Open : All days, except Monday
Nearest Metro Station : Akshardham Metro Station. The complex is only 5 minutes’ walk away from the station. Ask any vendor/passer by for directions.
Timings :
Complex : 9 AM to 7 PM (April to September) & 9 AM to 6 PM (October to March)
Exhibitions : 9 AM to 6:30 PM (April to September) & 9 AM to 5:30 PM (October to March)
Musical Fountain : 9 AM to 7PM (April to September) & 9 AM to 6:45PM (October to March)
Night Lighting only on Saturdays and Sundays
Restaurant Premvati : 11 AM to 8 PM
Souvenir Shop : 9 AM to 8 PM.
Entrance fee : Nil for the main shrine. However the light & film shows are ticketed. Tickets cost Rs 170 for the film shows & Rs 30 for the musical fountains.
Photography/Video Charges : Strictly prohibited
Time required for sight seeing : 1 day