December 28, 2012

Rectangular Canopy, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi

Seated ungracefully and asymmetrically adjacent the monumental mausoleum of Prince Muhammad “Khan Shahid” (refer Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb) which unarguably overshadows its mere presence, a rectangular pavilion structure, an unusual kind of “Barakhamba” (“twelve-pillared construction”), composed thoroughly of unmalleable grey Delhi quartzite stone and surmounted by a pyramidal roof, exists within the beautifully desolate Mehrauli Archaeological Park which overlooks the massive Qutb complex where are located some of the foremost specimens of early Indo-Islamic architectural and artistic heritage (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex). Perennially ignored and subjected to a state of forgotten existence underneath a canopy of enormous trees with gnarled branches and lush foliage, the structure, itself not very different from a canopy, could have originally functioned as a mausoleum or a guardhouse or a resting pavilion – it is no longer known why it was constructed nor who commissioned it or when – while some historians classify it as Mughal-era (AD 1526-1857), others conjecture it to be the tomb of Maulana Majduddin Haji (died AD 1233), a 13th-century Islamic cleric who was a disciple of the famed Sufi mendicant-saint Sheikh Shihabuddin Suharwardy and held religious discourses and imparted judicial instructions during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (ruled AD 1211-36).

The Heart of Darkness

Impressed by the Maulana's command over jurisprudence and religious decrees, the Sultan conferred upon him the position of "Wazir" (Prime Minister) from which however he subsequently requested to be relieved of following two diligent years in office. He was renowned far and wide for the several pilgrimages he undertook to Mecca (believed to be no less than a dozen in number!), but is said to have stayed aloof from his contemporary Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (regarded as the foremost in line of the Chishti sect of Sufi saints who graced Delhi with their hallowed presence, refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Kaki's Dargah) since he possessed little regard for musical assemblies and congregations as a mean of divine reverence which the latter however was extremely passionate about.

The structure must have indeed been evocatively spellbinding in its former elegant state when it still possessed in its entirety the considerably beautiful calligraphy inscriptions and geometric patterned artwork painted on the undersurface of its diminutive roof. In stark contrast to the unornamented, unchiseled pillars, the obstinately well-preserved patterns, envisaged within plasterwork framework embossments, are some of the most astonishingly splendid that exist in Delhi and yet few visitors, if any, stop by to explore and observe them. The sad state of affairs is that even the archaeological authorities have come to accept that when a city is literally littered with over a thousand monuments and relics from its ancient civilizational history, why bother with a single, inconsequential structure, and thus while the larger, historically important monuments nearby are being restored and chemically treated, it has been forgotten once more. One can only hope the status quo won’t be for long.

Delhi's best kept secret

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Nearest Metro station: Qutb Minar
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
How to reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. Walk/avail an auto from Qutb Minar metro station or avail a bus from Saket metro station. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 20 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb 
  7. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb 
  8. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri  
  9. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats 
  10. Pixelated Memories - Mughal Tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali  
  11. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli  
  12. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins  
  13. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
Other monuments/landmarks located nearby - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Kaki's Dargah
  4. Pixelated Memories - Moti Masjid
  5. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  6. Pixelated Memories - Unmarked Ruins

December 22, 2012

Ghiyasuddin Balban's Tomb, New Delhi

"There is nothing more innocent than the still-unformed creature I find beneath soil,
neither of us knowing what it will become in the abundance of the planet..
This same growing must be myself, not aware yet
of what I will become in my own fullness inside this simple flesh."
– Linda Hogan, "Innocence" 

Bahauddin was one of the most successful and intimidating Sultans who ruled over medieval India and yet his story is an evocatively inspirational one – a formidable, industrious, far-sighted and energetic Turk, he had meager beginnings, being a mere water-carrier boy who was captured from his hometown by ravaging hordes of Mongol invaders and sold in the bazaars of Ghazni (Afghanistan). His master, Khwaja Jamaluddin Basra was a pious man who had him educated and imparted military training with his own sons – interestingly, in those days such training was considered an investment by slave traders since an educated slave fetched more money than an uneducated one and the word "slave" itself was a misnomer since many of them, especially those owned by Sultans, eventually rose to the enviable positions of generals and governors and consolidated immense power and material riches in their hands. Also, it was a particular honor to be a Sultan's slave since the latter was thus privy to confidential court intrigues and warfare instructions – the same honor befell the wide-eyed Bahauddin's way after he was purchased by the Sultan of Delhi Shamshuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-36 AD) and consigned to his slave bands. Impressed by his resourcefulness and enterprise, the Sultan later manumitted him but continued to retain him as an army officer, following which, by dint of his hard work and shrewdness, he rose from one position to another; following the Sultan’s demise, by assisting his successors in military campaigns and covert alliances and along the way getting conferred upon his own relatives dominant court positions and the offices of governors of important provinces and fiefs, he accumulated unchallengeable authority in his hands, before eventually being appointed "Amir-i-Hajib" ("Lord Chamberlain") in the court of Masud Shah (reign AD 1242-46) whom he later treacherously helped depose in favor of the unscrupulous usurper Nasiruddin Mahmud (reign AD 1246-66) to whom he later married his daughter in an undisguised attempt to further accentuate his own political, military and social standing. Soon, the entire court’s and military's influential might rested in his own capable hands and he systematically checked and eliminated all opposition to his supremacy, including the Sultan’s own mother whom he viciously had banished from the kingdom.

Remnants of an age long gone - Balban's mausoleum

After the death of Mahmud in AD 1266 under unexplained circumstances, Bahauddin ascended the throne of Delhi with the title "Ghiyasuddin Balban" – for 20 years, Mahmud had reigned but never ruled and after his demise began the iron-rule of his 66-year old father-in-law. In an unparalleled show of self-patronization and despotism, Balban began to claim descent from the mythical Turkish hero Afrasiyab, and in order to drill his divine right to rule in the minds of his subjects added the title "Zil-i-Ilahi" (“Shadow of God”) to his official title, promoted the concept of "Niyabat-i-Khudai" (Kingship as vice-regency of the Divine) and introduced the practices of "Sijda" (prostration) and "Paibos" (kissing the Emperor's feet) as the normal salutation to the King. Known for his swift action, ruthlessness and the practice of never forgetting nor forgiving, he ruled with an iron hand, crushing rebellions offered by Hindu kingdoms to his governance and revenue collection, himself marching with the entire army to punish and burn cities, slaughter whole adult male populations of the areas he was annoyed with and converting the entire woman and child populations to his slaves – such heavy-handedness was unseen before and his army left in its wake heaps upon heaps of corpses and cut-off limbs!

Besides ordering the construction and presence of several well-equipped garrisons in the important fiefs and fortresses, he also had commissioned a series of forts and watch-posts along the kingdom’s frontiers to safeguard it from Mongol invasions as well as the Hindu forces commanded by the Khokhars of Sindh – these garrisons, manned by ferocious Afghan troops feared by one and all, served as the first line of defense against any invasion and helped him rule unchallenged for two decades. He also created an unbelievably efficient espionage system and stationed spies in every district and every government department – he kept an eye on all the court nobles and was spontaneously informed of each of their actions by spies reporting directly to him – these spies were paid handsomely to ensure they do not go rogue and they were also free from control or influence of any kind exerted by the provincial governors. Nobles and officers were severely punished for their inactions and malpractices in order to keep their command in check – point in case, Malik Baqbaq, the Governor of Badaun (Uttar Pradesh), was publicly flogged for having a servant beaten to death and the spy operating in the province was taken to task for not reporting Baqbaq’s conduct to the Sultan and was hanged till death at the city gate and his body left to rot and be eaten by vultures and crows as a warning to future delinquents. As Sultan, Balban took supreme pride in his army and its might and did not believe in the principle of self-defense, but instead preferred taking the battle right to the enemy.

A saga of disintegration and decay

Sadly, it was this pride that ultimately became the cause of Balban’s demise. On the north-western frontier, he placed the distinguished and fierce General Sher Khan Sanqar as his army warden to ward off ravaging attacks by the Mongols and the Hindu Khokhars – the war-like Sher Khan was so ghastly feared by enemy forces that his mere presence at the frontier was reason enough to guarantee security and for several years the enemy attacks stopped and a period of peace and servitude kicked in. The Sultan however grew jealous of his ascending clout and fame and had him secretly poisoned. With Sher Khan’s death, another period of enemy warfare and plundering raids began which started taking a toll on the kingdom’s military and financial resources. As last resort, Balban was forced to post his favorite son Muhammad at the frontier of Multan (now in Pakistan) against the Mongols, but the Prince was killed in 1286 in a skirmish – the Sultan never fully recovered from this tragedy and wasted away in grief and pining before expiring a few months later. Such was his terror that his other son Bughra Khan, the Governor of Bengal, refused to come see him on his deathbed! Heart-broken and enraged, he declared his grandson Kai-Khusrau (Muhammad’s son) as his heir, but upon his death the “Kotwal” (police chief) of Delhi went ahead to place his 17-year old grandson from Bughra Khan, Muiz-ud-din Kaiqabad, on the throne. As Sultan, Kaiqabad wasted his time feeding his love for liquor and lust for women – merely three years later, Jalaluddin Feroz Khilji, his Commander-in-chief, murdered him and established the reign of the Khilji Dynasty (ruled 1290-1320 AD) over the vast swathe of Delhi Empire. What is more fascinating is that Jalaluddin was the brother of the Kotwal and his ascension to the throne of Delhi Sultanate is widely seen as the historic advent of the domination of India by native Indian Muslims and the end of the Turkish Muslim rule. Bughra Khan and his other descendants continued to rule Bengal till 1339 AD.

In death as in life, Balban commanded the ingenious architectural skills and indomitable financial resources of his subjects in building his mausoleum in the middle of what must have then been a flourishing settlement with bazaars, residential quarters and mosques (a subject of another post) – presently, however, the mammoth tomb and the surrounding extensive cityscape lie in miserable ruins in the wilderness-reclaimed Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Nearby stretch the desolate remains of several long-forgotten fortresses, half-remembered mosques, enchanting tombs and magnificent step-wells, all visible in various stages of excavation and restoration – in fact, the archaeological complex juxtaposes upon one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the city and boasts of buildings, religious, funerary or otherwise, built by nearly every dynasty that has ruled the region in the past millennium or so – thus the architectural heritage scattered around begins with Balban’s late 13th-century mausoleum and ends with the mid-19th century “chattris” (umbrella domes surmounted upon slender pillars) and “ziggurats” (stepped pyramids) commissioned as ornamental landscaping additions by Thomas Metcalfe, a British official in the court of the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II – a period spanning nearly 600 years! The entire area was however grudgingly abandoned and forgotten by humans and ravenously overtaken by nature after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence.

Abandon all hope (of witnessing beauty) ye who enter!

The remains of the tomb complex, rediscovered as late as mid-20th century, a skeleton of its erstwhile majesty, now bereft of all ornamentation and artistic value, still display signs of their lost grandness and immeasurable authority that he once exerted over the minds and lives of the citizens of the ruthless city he lorded over. Built at a considerably lower terrain than the surrounding city (or alternately, the rest of the ruins circumscribing the tomb complex haven’t been excavated in their entirety), the decrepit tomb complex now exists crumbling, singular and abandoned within what must have then been a beautiful garden or, at the very least, an immense green grass-shrouded plain that further accentuated its enormity and buttressed defensive features.

The entrance is through a square gateway, surmounted by a black pyramidal roof, which still displays its embellishments such as the simplistically chiseled ornamental pillars and thick lintels that span the narrow entrances. Across a vast span of barren land bursting with thorny shrubbery, disintegrating rubble and numerous ant hills, the square tomb, embedded with large arched openings on each of its sides, survives only in the form of the rubble walls which once enclosed it – the dome collapsed centuries ago and the sarcophagus too has disappeared. The walls themselves are in tumble-down condition – collapsed here, ravaged there; the plasterwork which once layered them is nonexistent and all that remains as evidence of the ornamentation are a few slender decorative pillars sculpted from sandstone of varying, although complimentary, shades of red; one of the side chambers too could not bear the fury of time and nature and has simply ceased to exist, while the other remains in a stubbornly dilapidated condition. Intriguingly, in the center of the extinct side-chamber exists a large solitary rectangular grave layered with red sandstone panels inscribed with calligraphic inscriptions – it is said to be the grave of Prince Muhammad, since then referred by the sobriquet of “Khan Shahid” (“Martyred Prince”) – for whose burial a separate sober funerary complex was envisaged and constructed only a few hundred meters away (refer Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb), but the sudden death of his doting father prompted the internment of both of them in this new larger complex built especially for Balban. Interestingly, the superstitious local population, innocent in their beliefs and ignorant of historical correctness, have come to believe the Prince to be an especially benevolent, boon-bestowing dervish whom they refer to as “Peer Baba” (“Aged Mystic”) and on whose grave they leave behind offerings of incense, currency notes, fragrant oils, sweets and marigold flowers, thereby explaining the hideously greasy layer of soot enveloping the calligraphy letters. What is even more exciting is that here Balban’s eldest son is revered as a mystic saint while in another part of the city, his master’s eldest son too is venerated as a “Peer Baba” despite his fortress-like mausoleum’s undisguised militaristic posturing and steadfast fortifications (refer Pixelated Memories – Sultan Ghari).

Glimpses of faith in wilderness - Khan Shahid's sarcophagus

The mausoleum is one of the most important architectural landmarks in the country’s – and by extension the subcontinent’s – history. It is here, in this decrepit ruined structure that the Roman arch and the “true” dome were used for the first time in the subcontinent. Prior to the introduction of these novel architectural features, the Indian Hindu craftsmen faced several difficulties while constructing buildings according to the complicated specifications desired by their Muslim overlords – and ingenious builders that they were – indigenously came up with squinch and corbelled arches to replace the native system of spanning spaces using stone/wood lintels – at the end of this article, I have appended additional links dealing with the monuments located within the magnificent Qutb Complex which can be referred to so as to deal with the progressive architectural and artistic developments and experimentation and the issues involved therein. As is apparent from its nomenclature, the Roman arch had its origins in Rome and was later adopted by Arabs and replicated throughout the Muslim kingdoms of central Asia and Europe. Hindus had never used arches or domes and consequentially the buildings constructed in the Indian subcontinent were either flat-roofed or surmounted by pyramidal projections (for instance, temple steeples) which were fairly easy to accomplish by placing stone lintel(s) panning the gap between the pillars and further mounting upon them more stones according to whichever spatial shape/vertical projection one wanted to impart the structure. The Hindus thus never understood arches and upon establishment of the Turkish Muslim rule in the subcontinent, the Sultans were compelled to bring artists, painters, masons and architects from central Asia to construct buildings according to their requirements, thereby enriching Indian architecture and design scene with their foreign, essentially contrasting and singular craft. This was also how the Roman arch, whose circular/ogee-shape is composed of two radiating arms comprising rectangular pieces of stone flanking a central inverted triangular fragment (“keystone”) which is wedged at the apex, reached Indian shores. The keystone, while itself bearing zero weight, helps support the entire arch by distributing the load more efficiently throughout the surrounding rectangular stone slabs. Remarkably however, the structure also features squinch arches along the interiors to support the weight of the massive dome that once surmounted it – one can observe how the square plan transforms, midway vertically along its length, into an octagon through the means of projections spanning diagonally between adjacent corners, although quite interestingly, the squinches too feature key-stones in their composition – contrast this with the nearby located mausoleum of Balban’s master, Sultan Iltutmish (refer Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb), where the squinches are literally red sandstone lintels projecting between the corners to span space.

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay"

Although largely ruined with its walls shorn of all adornments and the plasterwork flaking off in its entirety to reveal the layers of rubble masonry underneath, the tomb does retain the occasional remains of its original subdued ornamentation – slender decorative pillars marking the entrances, patches of calligraphy and fragments of vibrant blue tiles – it is nonetheless near impossible to imagine the structure in its regal glory complete with a colossal dome surmounting its being. That his tomb was once adorned with such fine and exclusive artworks and ornamentation is a testimonial both to Balban’s social and financial prowess as well as the availability of skilled, possibly foreign, artist-craftsmen capable of manufacturing brilliantly hued glazed tiles that could survive for centuries. History books note that the grievously anguished citizens of Delhi tore their clothes and rubbed dust in their hair as a mark of grief upon Balban’s demise – it is therefore perhaps fitting that his mausoleum now exists in unmanageable wilderness seldom tread by many – the Sultan can confer with only a select few of his subjects and does not interact with everyone who chances his way.

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Nearest Metro station: Qutb Minar
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
How to reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. Walk/avail an auto from Qutb Minar metro station or avail a bus from Saket metro station. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb  
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb  
  6. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb  
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri  
  8. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats  
  9. Pixelated Memories - Mughal Tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali  
  10. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli 
  11. Pixelated Memories - Rectangular Canopy 
  12. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins  
  13. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb 
Other monuments/landmarks located nearby -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Kaki's Dargah 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Moti Masjid 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Unmarked Ruins
A study of Qutb Complex monuments to understand architectural evolution -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Mihrab Screens, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex

December 21, 2012

Metcalfe's Chattri, Delhi

As recounted some posts back, there lived a British officer who went by the name of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe who was absolutely in love with Delhi and its numerous magnificent ruins. The entire Metcalfe family was employed by the British East India Company – Sir Thomas was posted as the British Agent (Negotiator) at the courts of Mughal Emperors Akbar Shah II (reign AD 1806-37) and Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reign AD 1837-57); his father started as a soldier in the Company Army and eventually became the Company Director before retiring with considerable personal fortune to a life of politics and entitlement; his elder brother Sir Charles was the assistant to then Resident (Ambassador) Sir David Ochterlony and later also served as the Governor-General of India, Governor of Jamaica and Governor-General of Canada; lastly his son Sir Theophilus John officiated as the Chief Judge of Delhi. As a consequence of the Mughal Emperor’s waning political and military control over the immense subcontinent and the occupation by Company forces of the political and territorial space vacated by the Emperor’s nominal sovereignty, considerable power came to be placed in the hands of prominent Company officials like the Metcalfes. Sir Thomas used his power and influence to purchase the tomb of Mirza Muhammad Quli Khan, a foster brother of Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) and a valiant military General, and converted it into a suburban country house (refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb) by adding annexes and servant quarters around it. As already mentioned, Sir Thomas loved ruins – he talked and wrote about them and had their sketches painted and sent to his daughter Emily – the only thing left to do was create more ruins. Now that’s not a very easy thing to do. But his heart was set on doing so – he filled the area around his country house with all sorts of unique structures – Ziggurats (stepped pyramids), guardhouses, small bridges spanning artificial canals, chattris (umbrella domes surmounted on rectangular pillars), stables and circular dovecots. I had seen the ziggurats while visiting the renowned Qutb complex adjacent, the same have been documented here – Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats and Guardhouses and Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex. I came across the smaller of his chattris a few weeks back – it is one of the relatively popular monuments within the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, an area designated as possessing considerable heritage interest (the other, larger but less well-known chattri is located opposite Metcalfe’s country house/Quli Khan's Tomb, see photographs in the link mentioned). The sprawling archaeological complex, situated in the immediate vicinity of Qutb Complex, contains monuments and ruins from virtually every dynasty that ever ruled over Delhi in the last millennium and yet is one of the least visited and heard about places in the city. So when I say Metcalfe’s chattri is relatively popular, I simply imply that most history seekers and Delhi-lovers have heard about it, a few have seen it and it is part of the itinerary whenever some photography/history club does a photowalk in this area.

Comfy on a gentle slope

The Chattri is now referred to as Metcalfe’s Folly – according to Encyclopedia Britannica, a folly is “a costly, non-functional building erected to enhance a natural landscape”. Now one might ask who builds a chattri in the middle of nowhere?! But actually, chattris were fairly famous architectural additions in those days – Hindu architects had invented them and the royalty, especially Rajputs, had them constructed to commemorate their dead kings and queens; Muslim rulers and aristocracy who came afterwards adopted these as ornamental additions to grace their magnificent gateways and majestic tombs. Thus we see chattris affixed over Humayun’s tomb and the gateways of Old Fort in Delhi, in Taj Mahal in Agra and as freestanding monumental sepulchers in Rajasthan and Haryana (I’m yet to visit any monument located in any part of the country except Delhi and Calcutta, my two hometowns – sometimes I feel disturbingly sad for missing out so much heritage and travel!). But without diverting from the topic – Sir Thomas took an instant liking to the concept of a freestanding chattri, but he did not know where to fix it – his country house was a renovated old tomb and a chattri would have actually spoiled it, his town house (near Red Fort, in present day Old Delhi) was built in a colonial fashion with colonnades and porticos – perplexed, he eventually decided to build chattris close to his country house. So he selected a corner of his impossibly large estate from where he could get an unhindered view of the gigantic Qutb Minar looming in the background and atop a lofty hill he placed his chattri. It’s a fairly simple structure – six pillars emerging from the corners of a hexagonal rubble base and supporting amongst themselves a small, now blackened, umbrella dome. The geometrical patterns etched on the rough, simplistic pillars resemble those that adorn some of the most unornamented pillars that Qutbuddin Aibak pillaged from the Jain and Hindu temples that he had razed to construct his magnum Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque (“Might of Islam”/Qutb Mosque) over their ruins. It seems that city Romeos have attempted to seek vengeance from Mr. Metcalfe for the ruin East India Co. brought to the subcontinent by carving their initials and love letters on the unornamented dome of the chattri – in fact even when I was photographing the structure and the sloping hill it sits on, one couple lay embracing each other on the gentle, concealed slope behind the folly while another sat nearby deeply engrossed in conversation. Oblivious to it all, a middle-aged lady strolled around with her son. Dishearteningly, except for these six people and a few craftsmen-masons restoring the more famous edifices located opposite (see links at the end of this article), there wasn’t a single soul to be seen in the vast complex. Am sure you would have understood how very popular the park and the chattri are!

Come closer

Many people consider the chattri an ugly or unremarkable addition to Delhi’s landscape and contend that it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I might be an exception, but to my eyes it almost blends in with its environment and in fact makes the area more picturesque. Sir Metcalfe ought to be given some credit – he had the guts to live in a tomb and attempted, in his own resolved way, to beautify an area that is dotted with splendid, centuries-old tombs, mosques and ruined structures whose identity has been long lost in the leaves of history! And what’s more, he almost did succeed!

Sadly, after his death in 1853 and the battle for control of India in 1857, the area around the chattri and his country house fell into disuse and was soon reclaimed by vegetation. The Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) is presently excavating the entire complex and restoring the structures within. Since tourists seldom visit this part of Delhi, there are no shops or facilities in the immediate vicinity – no food and drinking water, no toilets. A good pair of shoes might come in handy, given that the thorny bushes and stones that carpet many of the unpaved paths are yet to be removed.

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Qutb Minar
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai Crossing
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
How to Reach: If coming by metro, start walking from Qutb Minar station towards Lado Serai crossing. The archaeological complex's entrance is located on Mehrauli-Gurgaon road and there are sandstone markers along the periphery wall to indicate its existence. Car entry is also from the same entrance and the parking area is immediately opposite the small hill on which the chattri stands. Alternately one can deboard at Saket metro station and take a bus from there to Lado Serai crossing. The informal, unmarked entrance (a gap in the boundary wall) to the complex is located opposite the crossing behind the makeshift shops of flower sellers along Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. This entrance too leads straight to the chattri. 
Time required for sightseeing: About 15 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food, drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While snacks, fritters and bottled water/cold drinks can be purchased at shops located at Lado Serai or opposite Qutb complex, toilet facilities are only available within the latter or at one of the many shopping malls at Saket, over 2.5 kilometers away. It is better to be prepared. Also female travelers are advised to avoid the complex post-evening because of the unsafe, secluded nature of the place and absence of visitors.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises - 

December 16, 2012

Qutb Complex, New Delhi

When the turbulent forces of Islam swept into the Indo-Gangetic plains at the end of the 12th century, its encounter with the flourishing Hinduism was that of non-alikes. The clash over-awed those who witnessed it, & left behind its markings – in stone – to surprise the coming generations with its might & scale. The man leading this clash, Muizzudin bin Sam, more popularly known as Muhammad, the Sultan of the kingdom of Ghur in modern Afghanistan, led an army into India with the mission of plundering the incredible wealth of the Indian kingdoms & to convert them into his fiefs. Having accomplished it in AD 1192 after defeating the army of Prithviraj Chauhan, he retired back to his kingdom, leaving his favorite slave, who was also the commander of his powerful army, Qutbuddin Aibak, in-charge of this newly conquered land. Holding sway over this land of a foreign religion, Qutbuddin decided to leave an imprint of his religion here. Being a fanatic Muslim, he ordered destruction of Hindu & Jain temples that already existed in the country & selected a site in the then capital “Dhillipura” (Delhi’s medieval name!!) where he would build his dream project - a massive mosque & an equally massive victory tower to display the might of his faith. The site of Qutbuddin’s choice coincided with the fortress of Lal Kot, the stronghold of the Tomar-Chauhan dynasty, the last Hindu rulers of Delhi & the clan to which Prithviraj belonged. Over time, successive rulers of Delhi took it upon themselves to complete, or expand, as might be the case, this project of Qutbuddin. & almost a millennia later, the ruins that remain of these structures fall into what is now known as the Qutb Complex, one of the World Heritage Sites located in the barren lands of Mehrauli, Delhi.

The Qutb Complex is perhaps one of those places that I have longed to visit for an incredible span of time – I am perhaps one of those rare Delhi inhabitants who had not seen the Qutb Complex till late in their lives (I am only 20 though, but its late considering that the complex is one of the first places parents/relatives take kids to in Delhi!! Sadly, my parents did not take me for a visit to Qutb, or any other monument/heritage structure for that matter, despite it being only one & a half hour drive away from my home). But not anymore, I visited the complex sometime back & to my utter surprise, it turned out to be a sheer delight!! More incredible than what the photographs show, & much larger & pristine than what the articles/blogs tell. I have always been fascinated with history & heritage, read a lot about the monuments & cities of India. Delhi, my home state, has been built several times, it always rises like a phoenix every time a new marauding army or some other catastrophe puts an end to one of its ruling dynasties/kingships. The forts & ruins of Mehrauli were one of the earliest cities of Delhi & have been inhabited ever since, thus making the region the longest continuously inhabited settlement in Delhi. I had read so much about the Qutb Complex & its neighboring monuments/ruins that I knew almost everything about these structures even before going there. But being there & standing under these majestic structures is an incredible experience in itself – the construction here is at such a gigantic scale that it takes one’s breathe away!! However, since there is so much to see in the complex, so many ruins, new & old, scattered across that I decided to break this one long post into several smaller ones (links at the bottom!!) since this way I can easily share a lot of details & the plethora of photos I took (seriously I took almost 400 photos in the complex itself!!).

The Qutb Minar

The most stupid thing about the complex is perhaps its ticket counter – it is situated across the road, opposite the complex - & I could see many tourists going behind the ticket counter to look for the entrance to the complex, but only to find a parking lot filled with buses & taxis. A.S.I. could at least have put signboards here outside indicating directions. The best thing perhaps would be the availability of “audio guides” – you can rent these from the ticket counter itself. All the monuments within the complex are numbered, & you can simply skip to the numbered audio clip in order to know more about its history & construction. The tickets themselves are electronically numbered & at the gatepost outside the complex, guards with electronic readers swipe your tickets to mark your entry into the complex. So far I haven’t seen a similar system in any other complex/world heritage site in India – at all other protected monuments you are simply handed a paper ticket that a guard tears into two at the entrance. Even though this electronic ticket system works without any glitches, I still don’t understand why it was implemented in the first place - the paper ticket seemed to be working just fine. I, like several others who observed this new system, sincerely hope that this system helps curb malpractices in manual ticket sale & revenue collection. Every year, the Qutb Complex receives more number of visitors than even the Taj Mahal, & generates approximately Rs. 100 million in ticket sales. (Reference - "Times of India" article)

Once inside the complex gates, the first structure one notices are the arches under which one has to pass through. These two arches were added to the complex much later by Mughal emperors & formed part of what was once a Serai (inn for travelers & state guests). The Serai exists only in parts now – remnants of walls here & there, some semi-collapsed rooms & several chattris (small dome-like structures supported on thin pillars). However the mosque adjoining this Serai, called the Mughal mosque still exists & is located next to the Complex’s in-house publication shop. The Mughal mosque, though appearing to be dilapidated, has been maintained in a rather unusual manner – its insides have been painted with bright colors – orange, pink & white – giving it a rather funky touch.

The Mughal Mosque

The Qutb Minar stands in the background, a sentinel made of red sandstone, looking over all the proceedings that take place under its (high) watch. Qutbuddin, whose own name means the “Staff of God”, wanted this tall minaret to symbolise his eternal faith & act as an axis for Islam, hence he named this minaret Qutb Minar or “Axis of God”. However Qutbuddin himself was able to complete only the first floor of the minaret, the latter floors were added by other rulers of Delhi, including Qutbuddin’s son-in-law Shamsuddin Iltutmish (1211-36 AD). Feroz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88 AD), the guy who constructed the fortress of Kotla Feroz Shah, also added two floors made of white marble to the minaret after one of the floors built by Iltutmish was destroyed by a lightning strike. Qutbuddin had perhaps wanted his minaret to stand next to his mosque as a victory tower commemorating the establishment of Islamic rule over India. However several contradicting & at times absurd (although interesting) theories also exist about the construction of the Minar, do refer the long post about the minaret for the same. The Qutb Minar is the tallest brick minaret in the world, surpassing by several meters the Minaret at Jam, Afghanistan, that inspired Qutbuddin to embark upon his minaret-building project.

One enters the huge rectangular mosque built by Qutbuddin inside which Qutb Minar stands – his real intentions behind building this mosque were to overawe his new subjects & provide a symbol of faith to his war-fatigued soldiers. 27 temples – some of Hindu religion, other belonging to Jain faith – were fell & local artisans were employed to use the building material from these temples to construct this mosque in order to show the “Quwwat” or might of Islam. Hence the mosque came to be called Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque. In Qutbuddin’s time, Qutb Minar used to stand outside the mosque, but when Iltutmish ascended the throne of Delhi after murdering Qutbuddin’s son Aram Shah, he decided to enlarge the existing mosque & even included the mighty Qutb Minar within its four walls.

The symmetrical cloisters of Quwwat Mosque

One can notice large arches that once formed part of the mihrab (the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, to be faced by Muslims when offering prayers). These arches form part of the screen constructed by Qutbuddin in AD 1199 & were extended by both Iltutmish & Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316 AD). However, only the original arches & the additions by Iltutmish exist today. The Hindu craftsmen employed to build this arch screen had never seen calligraphy on any structure & when ordered to weave Quranic inscriptions in the screen of the mosque, the artisans found themselves at a loss. They left their individualistic marks in the screen in the form of floral carvings & tendrils at the end of these calligraphic strokes. The mosque & its screen arches display a fusion of Hindu & Islamic art forms unlike any other in the world.

In front of this arched screen stands the famous “Iron Pillar”. It is said that the pillar predates the complex by several centuries & formed part of a Vishnu temple. Known globally for its non-rusting properties, this pillar too has its fair share of stories & myths. Many claim that if you are able to grasp the pillar in your arms with your back towards it, your dreams would come true. Being superstitious, the people of the country (& some foreigners too) had started trying the task, their sweat causing corrosive damage to the pillar. Hence in order to protect the pillar, the A.S.I. decided to encircle it with an iron grille – of course this one does get rusted with time.

The mosque has several small arched entrances & windows (many covered by jaalis (stone fretwork), others open), one amongst these is called Alai Darwaza (“Alauddin’s Doorway”). As the name suggests it was built by Alauddin Khilji, & standing on a very high pedestal, this doorway is actually more of a small room, itself pierced on four sides by large arched doors. The Darwaza is very beautifully decorated with designs & geometrical patterns on both inside & outside surfaces. The symmetry in these patterns is simply mind-numbing, the artists went so far as to even cut the designs so as to form locking patterns with the stairs leading down the pedestal.

Down the Darwaza’s pedestal & up another pedestal in front of it, one reaches the tomb of Imam Zamin. A saint from Turkestan who decided to settle in India during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi in 16th century, Zamin was perhaps some important official in Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, which explains the location of his tomb bang next to the mosque. However historians date its construction to the time of Mughal emperor Humayun. The small tomb houses a marble sarcophagus, a well-chiselled mihrab & some very symmetric fretwork in the carved stone walls.

A small doorway breaks the continuity of the low courtyard walls of the pedestal on which stands Zamin’s Tomb. In the surrounding grounds, one can spot the ruins of several room-like structures, an extremely small wall mosque standing atop another high pedestal & a sundial affixed atop a circular piece of stone. Standing neaby is the cupola constructed by Major Smith of British Royal Engineers, now referred to as Smith’s Folly. At one time this cupola surmounted the Qutb Minar, but it was subsequently brought down, & now lies ignored in a desolate corner of the complex, with some brooms & squirrels for company. 

The ruined Wall Mosque

Moving along the periphery of the Quwwat mosque, towards the back of the arched screens are ruins of massive rooms & chambers – these formed part of Alauddin’s Madrasa – a religious school he added to the mosque. Within a part of the Madrasa, Alauddin himself lies buried, but the dome of his tomb fell away a long time back. The Madrasa & Tomb sub-complex runs almost parallel to the shorter sides of the rectangular Quwwat mosque.

Situated some metres ahead of the madrasa is the tomb of Iltutmish. It is interesting to note that after having made so many additions & contributions to the complex, both Iltutmish & Alauddin decided to be interred here, Built of red sandstone, Iltutmish’s tomb appears a simple structure from the outside – striking calligraphy & patterns embellish one of its sides, the other three are plain. But on the inside, the tomb is lavishly carved with so many intricate designs, it is simply a treat to look at, & one simply gets confounded thinking about all those designs & wondering what to photograph & what not to. One excellent thing about the complex is that it is very disabled-friendly, & ramps exist along almost every structure, including Iltutmish’s & Alauddin’s tombs, for ease of wheelchair access.

Having run around & photographed to my satisfaction almost all the built monuments within the complex, I next headed to the Alai Minar, a large rubble-dressed tower built by Alauddin which was intended to be twice the size of Qutb Minar, but could not be completed due to the untimely death of Alauddin. 

Smith's Folly (Background - Qutb Minar, Alai Darwaza & Zamin's Tomb)

The Qutb Complex, despite once being the capital of the Muslim Sultans, fell out gradually from map after Alauddin Khilji built his nearby fortress of Siri & abandoned the existing capital of Lal Kot with most of his population. The Complex was soon reclaimed by wilderness & turned into the ruins that we see today. Magnanimously, these ruins still betray their once stunning grandeur.

Studded with sophisticated calligraphy, ornate designs & patterns, & replete with exemplar craftsmanship, Qutb is one of the most fascinating monuments in Delhi. Hopefully I shall be returning to Mehrauli sometime soon to visit other nearby heritage structures. The place has certainly found a way to my heart. Returning back, I even spotted one of Metcalfe’s Ziggurats peeping out of a grilled complex besides Qutb Complex. Anxious to return & explore more of the area!!

Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee: Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250 (Free for children upto the age of 15).
Photography charges: Nil
Video charges: Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station: Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach: Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing: 3 hrs
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Alai Minar
  3. Pixelated Memories - Alauddin's Tomb & Madrasa Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Iron Pillar
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats
  8. Pixelated Memories - Mihrab Screens, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  9. Pixelated Memories - Mughal Serai
  10. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  11. Pixelated Memories - Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  12. Pixelated Memories - Sanderson's Sundial
  13. Pixelated Memories - Smith's Folly
  14. Pixelated Memories - Tarikh-ul-Islam Mosque

December 13, 2012

Mughal Serai, New Delhi

This post is part of series about Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, Delhi. The integrated post about the complex and the structures within can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex.


Beginning with the victorious invasion led by Zahiruddin Babur in AD 1526 to AD 1857 when they were vanquished and exiled by British East India Company colonialists, the Mughal Empire had been reigning over the vast subcontinent for more than 300 years. During this immense period, the empire reached its zenith under the reign of Emperors Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) and Shahjahan (ruled AD 1605-27), but began collapsing under its own unmanageable enormity following the demise of Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir in AD 1707. Successive rulers after Aurangzeb proved to be weak administrators, squabbling with their own siblings and nobility, often administering the disintegrating empire under fear of the rapidly amassing uncontrollable regional/religious forces (Marathas of Maharashtra, Sikhs of Punjab, Rohillas of western Uttar Pradesh, Jats of Haryana-Rajasthan, Nawabs of Hyderabad and several other fringe enemies), unapologetic bandits, corrupt bureaucracy and unruffled European colonialists and mercenaries. Nonetheless, each of them continued with the tradition of commissioning comfortable inns, consisting of several chambers, gardens and wells, for travelers along arterial highways throughout the country – these buildings, usually reserved for foreign dignitaries, ambassadors, travelling retinues of nobles, military commanders, skilled artists and poets who could afford to shell out some cash, were funded directly by the Emperor or one of his high officials and were equipped with all the material comforts that a person could ask for in medieval India. Travelers who happened to fall in lower economic strata had to make do with accommodations provided by local merchants and headmen.

Entirely forgotten - The late Mughal-era Serai within Qutb complex

The word “Serai”, Hindi for “inn”, is known throughout the country, though not used as often now since the advent of English language to the country’s shores has ensured that travelers, both foreigners and local, request accommodation by referring to it as “guesthouse” or “hotel”. Most of the larger inns which catered to high-ranking diplomats and military officers have totally disappeared and only the smaller ones, either catering to people traveling on shoestring budgets or belonging to a particular community, remain now. When even the ordinary folk of the country go by the saying “Atithi Devo Bhava” ("Guest is God"), keeping the contentment of foreigners and guests above their own, how could the Mughals, mighty and tenacious rulers that they were, have stayed behind??

Peeping through - One of the chattris accessible from a small grassy square towards the back of the decrepit Mughal mosque adjacent the Serai garden

Thus we find several Mughal-era serais scattered throughout the northern part of the country, especially in unheard of villages and townships that once lined the arterial routes and trade highways. A few that still exist in Delhi and are relatively well known are Arab Serai (Built by Emperor Humayun’s widow Hamida Banu Begum in a corner of his sprawling tomb-garden complex to house hundreds of artists she brought with her from Persia to work on the magnificent tomb), Badarpur Serai (once a massive inn on one of the arterial routes connecting Delhi and Central Asia, now only a cluster of ruined chambers and huge gateways survive) and Serai Shahji (a small inn turned into a massive graveyard, famed for its distinctive towers). Many of these, especially the historical ones or those associated with royalty and high aristocracy, were destroyed in their entirety following the 1857 War of Independence in which Indian soldiers, warlords, provincial kings and commonfolk clashed with the organized armies of the East India Co.

The same chattri, as seen from the other side of the enclosure wall

It is sad that even after independence several more have totally disappeared physically as a consequence of direct effects of urbanization and rapidly multiplying population and now exist only as the names that they have lend to colonies, landmarks, bus stops and urban villages – thus there are Neb Serai, Kalu Serai, Katwaria Serai, Sheikh Serai, Serai Kale Khan, Yussuf Serai, Begu Serai, Serai Khwaja etc. The later Mughals too, though distressed by their waning glory and emptying coffers, did not leave a stone upturned to appease state visitors. Perhaps inspired to impress guests by showing off the architectural marvels that previous Sultans and Emperors had commissioned, a serai-garden complex was constructed immediately next to the renowned Qutb complex along a medieval highway that connected Delhi and Gurgaon. No match for the spectacles offered by the Qutb complex, the serai, now reduced only to its enclosure walls interspersed on the bends by a few majestic chattris (domes surmounted on pillars), is a miserable corner set towards the right of the complex’s entrance – in fact, visitors enter Qutb complex via two collinear arched gateways of the Serai that are mirror images of each other and composed of random rubble masonry ornamented with brickwork and plaster patterns conforming to decorative pillars and flourishes. Completing the C-shape and complementing the L-shaped structure of the serai is an equally pathetic and ignored mosque, formally christened as Masjid Tarikh-ul-Islam, but officially known within the administration circles as Mughal Mosque (refer Pixelated Memories - Tarikh-ul-Islam Mosque (Mughal Mosque)).

Notice the unique designs! - The second gateway, conjectured to be an organ of the larger Serai complex

No visitors grace the garden, nor does the serai retain any alluring structure that might tempt a visitor to explore further – sensing this, the authorities have locked away the enclosure’s iron gate (accessible past the mosque) and shamelessly decided to utilize the arched alcoves and the corners culminating in chattris as storerooms for iron grilles, cement and other construction material. The square garden hemmed in by these dilapidated walls is still not forsaken though – verdant green grass gives it the appearance of an upmarket lawn; caretakers and gardeners ensure it is swept regularly for leaves and waste left behind by tourists ignorant of its antiquity visiting the rest of the complex. Adjacent to the second of the arched gateways (notice the cusped arches that have been plastered over recently and the tell-tale signs of erstwhile ornamental stucco work that still is visible in some sections) exists a high rectangular platform graced on its western side by a simplistic Bengali-style pavilion possessing three arched entrances and a curved roof very reminiscent of the highly decorated temples that I witness in unheard of villages and suburban areas of Bengal on a regular basis. The platform is dominated by four graves and could have perhaps once functioned as a small mosque – given its proximity to the serai, I wonder if any of the graves belong to the person who commissioned the serai or perhaps its caretaker or his/her family – did they hail from Bengal? What business brought them to Delhi? Though in an unbearably decrepit condition, the Mughal mosque, standing detached from the hordes of astonished visitors and overlooking these minor graves and later structures, has persisted in its will to neither get reduced to a skeleton, nor disappear altogether from the face of earth. A will that the serai seems to have lost a long time ago!

A touch of Bengali architecture

Location: Qutb Complex, Mehrauli, New Delhi
Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket and Qutb Minar stations are equidistant.
How to reach: Taxis, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city. Avail a bus/auto from the metro station (approx. 2 km either).
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 10; Foreigners: Rs 250; Free for children up to 15 years of age.
Photography charges: Nil
Video charges: Rs 25
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Facilities available: Wheelchair access, Audio guides.
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  2. Pixelated Memories - Tarikh-ul-Islam Mosque (Mughal Mosque)
Another Serai in Delhi - Pixelated Memories - Arab serai, Humayun's Tomb complex

Metcalfe's Ziggurats and Guardhouses, New Delhi

Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe (lived AD 1795-1853) was an eccentric man. Officiating in Delhi as the Agent (Negotiator) of the British East India Company in the court of Mughal Emperor before the First War of Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny, depending on which side of the divide you belong to, AD 1857), when British traders, mercenaries and administrators mixed with mercantile and warrior people originating from Afghanistan, Persia, Central Asia, China and the Indian subcontinent itself to trade in valuables such as silk, spices, tea and opium, he possessed a life of lavish opulence and extravagance. But more than anything else, he was in love with the city – its ruins, its greens, its riches, its celebrations and its customs – in fact, everything about the city, except perhaps the people to whom he never took fancy to, appealed to this warm gentleman. He so desperately wanted to blend in with the city that despite building a colonial-style mansion for himself near the Emperor’s fortress-palace, he went ahead to purchase from the Emperor the tomb of Quli Khan (a foster brother of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605), refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb) in suburban Mehrauli (South-West Delhi) and convert it into an English country house by retrofitting it with annexes, stables and servant quarters and landscaping the surrounding area (the other mansion, near Red Fort, at present houses divisions of Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and is out of bounds for ordinary visitors). He christened this country house “Dilkhush” (“Delighter of the heart”) and even commissioned unique, otherworldly rubble masonry structures around it in order to complete the rustic and fairy-tale like appearance. One wonders why he felt the urge to do the latter – after all, Quli Khan’s tomb is situated in the corner of Mehrauli Archaeological Park immediately abutting the renowned Qutb Complex and in those days neither modern buildings nor ghastly iron railings would have crisscrossed either the Archaeological complex or the periphery of Qutb complex thereby facilitating a 360° visual experience of being surrounded by hundreds of ruins culminating from over a millennium of habitation and construction as far as one could see. Nor would there have been any invasive Vilayati Kikar (Prosopis juliflora) trees, which were later introduced by British landscapers and today hideously envelope many prominent monuments in the Archaeological Park, impeding the view. In fact, come to think of it, around his residence, ruins of over one hundred monuments would have been visible to Sir Thomas in their pristine condition since most of the destruction and degradation of these medieval edifices took place following the 1857 battering of Delhi.

Unlike his Indianized contemporaries and despite his love for Delhi where he spent 40 years of his life, Sir Thomas preferred to maintain a dignified distance from the locals, employing them only as servants and caretakers. Others were different – for instance, his Scottish boss Sir David Ochterlony, British Resident (Ambassador) to India, would every day parade the retinue of his 13 wives, each seated atop a beautifully-ornamented elephant, through the Red Fort complex. Even his elder brother Sir Charles Metcalfe, also a very high-ranking official in the Company and later the Governor-General of Agra and Bengal provinces, dressed up in native attires, spoke the vernacular and even sired children with a Sikh woman!

The first of Sir Metcalfe's "Gharganjs"

But irrespective of his contempt for the locals, such was Thomas’s attachment to his adopted home and majestic country-house (which he filled with an enormous number of books) that he spent most of his time in Mehrauli and even assigned a room for his daughter Emily, whom he wished would come stay with him in India. His ornamental “ruins” too proliferated – he had a fairly massive ornamental “chattri” (dome surmounted on pillars) built opposite Quli Khan’s ornate tomb in what would have been his landscaped lawns and had another smaller one built on a gentle slope overlooking the vast confines of the archaeological complex, besides adding decorative crumbling lamp posts along designated walkways and even perhaps incorporating the 11th-century Chaumukha Darwaza gateway in the same. The straight line connecting these two chattris was lined with ornamental bridges and diminutive English hut-like guardhouses (each possessing a small arched entrance along one face and rows of decorative alcoves and windows along the rest). But he wasn’t satisfied with just these additions – he also commissioned near his estate’s periphery two huge Ziggurats, which he adoringly referred to as “Gharganjs” but which are now wretchedly categorized, with the rest of his architectural additions, as follies (meaning not “mistake”, but “architectural specimens, built to look old”). Ziggurats were stepped pyramids that the ancient Mesopotamians built by placing stone slabs of successively receding size atop each other. Sir Thomas perhaps felt obliged to venture the city these structures since there weren’t any that it could boast of – one of his Ziggurats is built in a circular manner while the other appears as if fashioned out of square stone blocks with stairs cut into the faces. The square Ziggurat is distinctive in that it is fitted with colossal semicircular protrusions at the center of each face (sadly, the one facing the Qutb complex has fallen apart in its entirety) which are accessible by gently sloping inclines. It is disheartening to note that the side accessible from the colossal Qutb complex, which happens to be one of the three World Heritage Sites that Delhi possesses, is subjected to the retinue of being utilized as a dumpsite to chuck organic wastes, food wrappers, plastic bottles and rubble discard! Enclosed in small confined pens hedged in by high grilles, the Ziggurats exist in a straight line in close vicinity to the entrance of Qutb complex – the square one is in fact accessible from within Qutb Complex by passing through an ajar gate immediately on the left of the entrance archway. There is no way to reach the circular one since it is totally hemmed in by the grilles and there are no openings leading within.

An ornamental guardhouse and a small bridge, now incorporated in Mehrauli Archaeological Complex - Unbelievably, Sir Thomas had artificial slithering waterways and canals developed around his estate and would indulge in boating in what is one of the driest corners of the city!

Sir Thomas lived and died in his country house. It is alleged that Empress Zeenat Mahal, one of the queens of Bahadur Shah Zafar II (ruled AD 1837-57), the then Mughal emperor, had him poisoned through his servants in 1853. He died while staying at Quli Khan’s tomb; had he perhaps shown a little respect for the people of his beloved city, it wouldn't have come to such a pass – he was after all planning an overthrow of the Mughal regime in favor of an administration managed by Company Governors and military officers. He might be gone but his house and the follies that surrounded it still survive, many of them in different stages of ruin and/or overtaken by all-consuming vegetation. In his own words, he could not be indifferent to his cherished city since “the ruins of grandeur that extend for miles on every side fill it with serious reflection”. He commissioned the renowned Mughal artist Mazhar Ali Khan to sketch 120 beautiful scenes from Delhi’s enviable cultural and architectural heritage, monuments and palaces, Qutb complex and Quli Khan’s tomb, in an album he titled “Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi” (later referred to as “Dehlie/Delhi Book”), one of the finest exemplars of the fusion of delicate Mughal artwork with sensible English descriptions and notes that he himself added. He had the book sent to Emily to persuade her to visit India – though all records pertaining to his life and times were gutted in a fire, the book still remains the centerpiece of a collection of British Library for future generations and Delhi-lovers to remember the man who turned Delhi on its head and chose tombs to doze in.

Fast forward to AD 1857 – Only 4 years after his death, Delhi was gripped by horrific murder and arson as East India Co.’s enraged Indian soldiers (“Sepoys”) revolted on the prospect of being supplied rifle cartridges lined with fat of pigs and cows, that Muslims and Hindus hold untouchable due to religious reasons. Hundreds of British men, women and children were butchered in cold blood and their houses looted, vandalized and incinerated. Metcalfe’s house too was plundered and several of his follies destroyed or damaged. The British retaliation resulted in one of the longest and most cold-hearted sieges that Delhi had ever seen, at the end of which they bombarded the city, executed thousands of citizens, destroyed medieval heritage structures and pretty buildings, plundered the treasury and the houses of rich native merchants and court officers, took control of all the civil facilities of the city, converted magnificent mosques into stables and toilets, imprisoned Emperor Zafar and shot dead all his sons and grandsons. Had Sir Thomas been alive then, more than the ravaging of his beloved city, he would have been hurt to know that his own son, the then magistrate of Delhi, Sir Theophilus John Metcalfe, vengefully led the battle in several stages and relentlessly went about killing Indians. Though a general atmosphere of death and wretchedness pervaded all around and most Englishmen involved in the battles were eager to avenge their fallen compatriots by barbarically massacring as many Indians as they could, Sir Theophilus Metcalfe was considered one of the most pitiless men around and his pining for blood far exceeded the inexcusable cruelties he administered to the citizens of Delhi – inevitably, his own fellow Englishmen were so disgusted by his unbelievably horrid craving for vengeance and murder that they soon had him removed from the war front. The “Delhi Book” survives as one of the few specimens that record Delhi’s magnificence before the war shook it and the British vandalized its imposing palaces and burnt down the majestic mansions and gardens.

A slice of ancient Mesopotamia in a corner of Delhi

Location: Next to Qutb Complex entrance, Mehrauli
Open: Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Stations: Qutb Minar/Saket
How to reach: Taxis, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city. One can walk/take a bus/auto from the metro stations (approx 2 kilometers each). The Ziggurats are incorporated within the Archaeological Park but can be accessed from Qutb complex and the narrow street leading to Qutb restaurant besides it.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza
  2. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Mughal tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali
  7. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli
  8. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins
Suggested reading -