December 13, 2012

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 - 

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