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

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