21 December 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 - 

2 comments:

  1. I'm learning a fair bit about Delhi's heritage from your blog. Thanks and keep it up :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. This blog is, of course, about Delhi, but in this year, the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we should also remind ourselves of the great sacrifices made by the people of India, whose efforts are commemorated by the Brighton Chattri in England.

    See http://www.chattri.org and http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__10030_path__0p224p1841p1850p.aspx

    ReplyDelete