February 08, 2012

Feroz Shah Kotla, New Delhi

I had first heard several years ago and since remembered about Feroz Shah Kotla’s enthralling tales on a television program regarding monuments of Delhi – the myths associated with this beautiful cluster of ruins associate it with two djinns who call it their haunt – one of them is a very benevolent spirit, the other not so. The lore goes that one can jot down their wishes on a sheet of paper and bring it to the chamber where the two djinns are said to abound and attempt to stick a one rupee coin on the rubble walls of the chamber; if the coin sticks, the wish will definitely come fulfilled sooner rather than later. According to ancient legends, djinns live for several centuries and have seen the prophets walk the Earth and dynasties rise and fall, thereby culminating into repositories of ancient, forgotten knowledge and collective human history that they occasionally reveal to the believers. Allah created them out of smokeless fire before he made humans from clay – they are formless invisible beings who, like humans, have emotions and relations – all of them possess the power to grant boons but many are often malevolent spirits who curse, take possession of living beings and property and cause harm out of spite resulting from residual pain from an unintended insult or disgrace. Fascinating, right?

Letters and gifts for djinns!

Incidentally and unexpectedly, the Kotla happened to be my first stop on the HOHO bus tour of Delhi; it had begun to drizzle when I disembarked from the bus opposite the citadel’s ruined gateway that still portends unabated might, especially with the two massive and thick bastions flanking it, despite being in most part run-down and decrepit. The ruins however have been grotesquely transformed into lush gardens and restored monuments and do not anymore bear any resemblance to the fact that they are supposed to be "ruins", this of course takes a big chunk out of the pleasure in photographing medieval monuments and crumbling edifices, but oh well what can be done now! Anyway, I was thoroughly enjoying myself, clicking (with my mobile phone) around ancient ruins and medieval structures and wishing desperately that I possessed a camera – this was my idea of spending a solitary Saturday, when there is little traffic on Delhi’s roads and no important chore on my hand – the air-conditioned bus that takes one round on a whirlwind tour of Delhi’s rich and colorful history is simply a delight for people like me who are just beginning to grasp the truly colossal dimensions of Delhi’s inherently endearing past.

A rainy weekend and Feroz Shah's magnum

Feroz Shah Tughlaq inherited the reign from his cousin Muhammad Tughlaq in AD 1351 and went on to rule till AD 1388, and though his rule saw a decline in the empire’s military ethos and subsidence in territories due to his unaggressive posturing and unwillingness to command armies and wage wars with kingdoms flanking his, it was also a period of architectural blossoming which saw large-scale construction activity in and around Delhi – an accomplished ruler, he is often regarded as one of the few architect–sultans of the country and is credited for the construction or commissioning of several score gardens around Delhi, dozens of towns, numerous mosques, villages, reservoirs and dams, besides hundreds of hospitals, public baths, wells, inns (serais) and bridges – these claims are no doubt exaggerated by the court chroniclers or embellished by later historians, but they nonetheless underscore his interest in architecture and building. Unlike most Asian rulers, he devoted much attention to the repair and rebuilding of earlier structures – he had the upper floors of Qutb Minar reconstructed after they were destroyed by lightning strikes and also renovated the adjacent tombs of Iltutmish and Alauddin Khilji, earlier emperors of Delhi Sultanate; he repaired the Hauz-i-Alai tank, rechristened it Hauz Khas and built a massive, state of art madrasa (Islamic seminary) along its vast periphery; he was also responsible for several additions and adornments made to the tomb (dargah) of Hazrat Nizamuddin, the patron saint of Delhi and one of the most revered spiritual figures in the city’s history. Atoning for the crimes and violent nature of his cousin Muhammad, he also established a gorgeous city named “Jaunpur” (after Muhammad’s real name Muhammad Jauna/Junan Khan) and established several mosques and public facilities in the city. His predecessor Muhammad Tughlaq and his father Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq had respectively built the fortresses of Tughlaqabad and Jahanpanah when they reigned over the country with Delhi as their majestic capital – Feroz inherited these and additional mighty citadels as well as several smaller villages and settlements when he ascended the throne, but he was soon thereafter forced to evacuate all of them since a dire water shortage threatened the entire city – in AD 1354, he commissioned a new and even grand capital that was to become the sixth city of Delhi on the banks of river Yamuna; the new capital was christened “Kotla Feroz Shah” (“Feroz Shah’s citadel”), popularly it was referred to as “Ferozabad” (“Abode of Feroz”) though it remained “Kushk-i-Feroz Shahi” (“Feroz Shah’s imperial palace”) in official decrees.

Plan of Kotla Feroz Shah (Photo courtesy - Archinomy.com; photo edited for ease of distinguishing the individual structures)

It is said that such was the grandeur of Feroz’s building despite their artistic simplicity and lack of ornamentation that when Timur “the lame” besieged Delhi and laid waste the already considerably weakened Tughlaq-empire (1398 AD), he professed to an admiration of Feroz’s construction activity and architectural accomplishments and decided to take the architectural plans of the Kotla’s royal mosque along with several skilled artists and architects so as to replicate these buildings back in his capital Samarkand (more on that later).

The fortress is an irregular polygon in design and in its glorious days it was the pinnacle of architectural beauty and graceful emphasis on function as well as form, especially so since Feroz embarked on a vigorous campaign of construction activity in the entire surrounding area and ornamented it with pleasure pavilions, hunting lodges and baolis (stepped wells) and also commissioned numerous tanks, hospitals and reservoirs for his cityscape – he wanted to look after the welfare of his subjects and did all that he could to add to their material comforts. Though the fortress served the dual purpose of the Tughlaq emperor’s capital and a defensive citadel, it lacked the heavy defensive construction seen in the erstwhile fortresses at Tughlaqabad – Adilabad (refer Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad–Adilabad complex) and that, coupled with filial rivalry and court intrigues, might have proved to be the fall for Feroz’s later successors since the fortress was not equipped to withstand prolonged warfare that the Mongols subjected it to. Timur gladly carried away much of the ornamentation of the buildings after he had laid waste to the citadel; whatever escaped Timur, including the building material and rubble, was fell and utilized in a huge recycle project during the construction of (nearby located) Shahjanabad, the paradisaical capital of Mughals erected amidst glory and glitter by the powerful Shahjahan (ruled AD 1627-57). An argument can be made that Feroz was being paid in his own coin since he too is said to have pillaged the ruins of Lal Kot-Qila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi, for construction material to facilitate his dreams of architectural grandeur.

Flights of glory - The pyramidal structure and Ashoka's pillar. The lower levels are said to be the abode of the djinns and that's where votive offerings are left by the devotees. 

Despite being ruined by successive rulers of Delhi and lying neglected for several decades, the fortress-capital still reveals numerous interesting structures within its premises and portrays a shadow, howsoever minimalistic, of its former glory and splendor – the emperor’s personal quarters and those of his wives and concubines were situated along the river-front (which has since shifted course and replaced by the arterial Ring road), while the rest of the fortress area served to accommodate army barracks and armories, residential quarters for servants and court officials, halls of audience, public and private baths, the aforementioned imposing mosque and the unique palatial baoli (stepped well). The entire scheme was designed by Feroz’s state architects Malik Ghazi Samana and Abdul Haq, and he also had them add a massive pleasure pavilion adjacent to the mosque. Much ruined now and yet widely renown, comprising of several chambers spread over a three-level pyramidal structure and surmounted by a monolithic Ashokan pillar (referred to as “Minar-i-Zarin” (“Column of Gold”) by the Tughlaq sultans), the pavilion is known as “Hawa Mahal” (“Wind palace”) and is said to be the abode of the two djinns – Feroz had specially and carefully brought these ancient pillars from Topra (a village in Ambala, Haryana) and Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) for installation in his citadel and his hunting lodge (now Bara Hindu Rao hospital) in the Delhi ridge forest (also called Northern ridge, near Delhi University’s North campus) respectively – given that the pillars, originally established by Emperor Ashoka somewhere between BC 273-236, could be damaged by such an extensive journey, Feroz had them meticulously wrapped in cotton silk and kept on a bed of reed and silk before being transported part of the journey by means of huge boats and the rest by massive 42–wheeled carriages drawn carefully by 200 men. The pleased emperor ensured that the pillars, 13-meter tall and weighing 27 tons, were grandly installed at their intended locations; he even had a graceful jewel-studded copper cupola (robbed later) with a crescent moon (symbolic of Islam) crowning it raised to the top of the pillar erected in the fortress – but even he wouldn’t have foretold that one of his hunting lodges would, several centuries later, be turned into a hospital, while his pleasure pavilion would be raised to become an object of reverence and veneration by faithful devotees and beseeching visitors. The pillar, though made of sandstone, has been polished so skillfully that even today, over 2300 years later, it appears as if it has been forged out of metal – apart from Ashoka’s edicts in Pali language (Brahmi script), it also bears minor figures and some later inscriptions – once it would have been the tallest structure in its neighborhood, but today it stands dwarfed by incredibly high flood lights and giant chimneys soaring far in the sky and spewing dark, ominous fumes that do not cede to be visible even in torrential downpour. 

Ashokan edicts I-VII inscribed on the pillar. These inscriptions were first deciphered by James Prinsep in 1837, yielding the key to translating the Brahmi script.

Today, the Hawa Mahal remains grilled on all sides on account of being structurally unstable, however visitors are allowed to access it; both Hindu and Muslim devotees come to offer prayers to the powerful djinns, especially on Thursdays which are considered sacred, to beseech them to bestow wishes, forgive sins or facilitate exorcisms through the services of mystic Sufi mendicants; the faithful leave behind reverent offerings of sweets, earthenware vessels full of milk, colorful pieces of cloth, locks, marigold flowers and incense besides letters of request and money in the alcoves of the pavilion – one can notice the sites of prayers even on other days of the week when the devotees aren’t around since the incense and oil lamps have turned these congested chambers into dark, soot-blackened but fragrant corners. Notwithstanding the inscriptions etched by Ashoka’s blacksmiths regarding the pillar’s erection and purpose, people still profess to various supernatural notions regarding its antiquity and history – one legend even attributes it as being the walking stick of the mythological Pandava prince Bhima (who, before reigning over much of north India with his brothers from their mythical grand citadel at Indraprastha (the site of Delhi’s Old Fort, refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort), governed five villages – Indrapat, Tilpat, Baghpat, Panipat and Sonepat – of which Panipat and Baghpat are located close to Ambala and Meerut, the original site of the two pillars) – he would have been a giant to use a 27-ton pillar as a walking stick! The generous djinn too is referred to as “Laat wale Baba” (“Saint of the Pillar”) and it has been argued in print media and elsewhere that the practice of djinn-worship and religious prayer at these ruins began recently, in fact as late as 1975-77 when, during the Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a mendicant named Laddoo Shah was evacuated from his residence near Old Delhi’s Turkman Gate locality and began to live in Kotla Feroz Shah. So much for the claim that worship has been going on here for several generations! I am naturally disappointed since the place that first inspired me to explore the magical, mystical side of Delhi has proved to be just a myth, an urban legend, though even yet I refuse to believe that Delhi ceases to be a residence to mythical creatures, supernatural entities and spiritually-endowed mendicants (if they all exist). For me, the city shall always remain an inspiring, magical abode arising out of a conglomeration of mystical legends and ancient folklore. 

An old photo of the Kotla ruins - Notice that the pyramidal structure has a domed compartment along one of its corners; it doesn't exist at present. Also observe the high platform composed of numerous chambers around the two super-structures - now there is just flat monotonous grass-covered plain running in all directions. (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)

Adjacent to the Hawa Mahal pavilion stands the gigantic friday congregation mosque (“Jami Masjid”) of Feroz Tughlaq – built of dressed rubble and the hard Delhi quartzite stone, the mosque was the largest in the country in its time and could easily accommodate ten thousand faithful; it was this impressive mosque whose duplicate (Bibi Khanum mosque) was commissioned by an overawed Timur in Samarkand for his private use; also this was the only structure left untouched by Shahjahan when he had the entire complex plundered for construction material and debris – sadly, not much of the mosque’s structure remains today, the cloistered walkways along the sides that were once used by the ladies of the court and the royal family have vanished in their entirety, so has the domed octagonal pavilion that stood over the (now filled-up) well in the center of the vast courtyard and was supported by 260 pillars, each 25 feet tall – what remains are the crumbling vaulted chambers on which sits the entire mosque complex and the majestic, though discolored and much exposed, domed gateway that is reached by a flight of wide stairs and is the playground of several cat families. It was in AD 1759 that while coming out of one of these chambers immediately at the base of the mosque’s gateway that the Mughal Emperor Alamgir Sani was murdered by his own Prime Minister Emad-ul-Mulk. The mosque is still used by the locals for the purpose of worship, and becomes especially congested with devotees on important Muslim festivals such as Id and Ramzan. Hearsay is that the chambers beneath the mosque were dug up when Shahjanabad was being built so as to connect the two citadels via deep underground tunnels that still exist, but have been blocked for the purpose of security.

Jama Masjid, supposedly designed by Feroz's Wazir (Prime Minister) Malik Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah Telingani

Apart from the pyramidal pavilion and the enormous mosque, the last structure of architectural interest is the elegant circular baoli that sits squat in the middle of a green patch thickly lined with a carpet of grass – the baoli is unique in that everywhere else steps go down in a rectangular manner to the water shaft and the entire plan is laid adherent to straight lines and perpendiculars, but here shallow chambers exist in a circular fashion around a water tank and steps go down to the water level in a similar manner – the structure was meant only for regal use and continuing with the tradition, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under whose aegis the fortress now falls, has grilled and locked the entire structure to keep visitors out, ostensibly to keep people from committing suicides. Quite a heart-wrenching tale the stories that the fortress holds in its bosom would prove to be – suicides, murders, conquests and killings! The water from the baoli is nowadays pumped up to irrigate the surrounding gardens.

The regal baoli

The chambers of palace guards with their dark pyramidal roofs and lone-standing arches with the rest of the structure enveloping them long gone appear at regular intervals throughout the complex like ghosts from a distant, forgotten past. It is easy to imagine that once these beautiful ruins were covered with a layer of painted plaster and perhaps bore intricate patterns in incised plaster or glazed tiles – the ruins still appear humbly romantic (despite the lack of couples, so unlike Delhi’s other monuments!), what would they have been like when the Emperor and his ladies treaded the ground? The fortress has been conserved fairly well, there is only this much that can be done for a cluster of collapsed palaces and devastated citadels; ASI has remarkably ensured that rows of beautiful flowering plants and lush trees set in well-maintained lawns set the backdrop of medieval ruins and piles of rubble. The mammoth lawns adjacent to the Kotla were established as a cricket ground of the same name in 1883 – it holds the distinction of being the second oldest international cricket stadium still functional in India, the oldest being Eden Gardens of Calcutta.

Location: Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg (Coordinates: 28°38'06.2"N 77°14'34.2"E)
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro Station: New Delhi
How to reach: The Kotla is located on the Ring Road and very close to Daryaganj and one can take a bus/auto plying on Ring Road from Daryaganj. Alternately, buses are available for Daryaganj/Red Fort from different parts of the city. The metro station is approximately 3 km away and one needs to take a auto from there on.
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 5; Foreigners: Rs 100; Free entry for children upto the age of 15 years
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1.5 hrs
Nearby monuments -