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 - 

1 comment:

  1. The mosque certainly appears a serene place, & your photos & description make it appear more so. Hope I get to visit Delhi in general, & this particular mosque in particular soon..