December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas !!

Though this year am struck at a physiotherapy clinic, working on my broken arm, I couldn't resist being overcome by the jovial Christmas spirit. Hope the festivities bring cheers to all the readers, after all this is one day when all Indians become Christians - school children dressing up as Santa Clauses, decorating Christmas trees, visiting the local church & feasting on cakes. Next year, I shall do a post with photos about Christmas celebrations in Delhi/Bangalore (assuming I get to go to Bangalore). This year, Pixelated Memories wishes you a Merry Christmas with this photo, one of my favorites. & remember people, its that time of the year when you are supposed to go big on charities & make others feel happy - kindle the Christmas spirit, don't be a Scrooge !!

December 24, 2013

Muhammad Shah Saiyyid's Tomb, Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

"The black, pensive, dense
domes of the mausoleums
suddenly shot birds 
into the unanimous blue"
– Octavio Paz, late Mexican diplomat-poet-writer,
in his poem "In the Lodi Garden"

The year was 1434 AD. The whole country was aware that Wazir Sarwar-ul-Mulk had some nefarious designs in his mind even before he had conspired with rebel nobles to have the Sultan coldly murdered. Sultan Mubarak Shah Saiyyid is dead, long live the Sultan. Mubarak (ruled AD 1421-34) had efficiently safeguarded his domains against dangers both within & without while he lived but he could not foresee his own men conspiring against him, primarily because he had managed to break their influential hold over the kingdom through the newly devised system of frequent transfers to different parts of the country. The most able & resourceful sovereign of the Saiyyid Dynasty died leaving behind no heir to continue his lineage. The unscrupulous Wazir (Prime minister) was now openly involved in court intrigues over the choice of a successor for the deceased Sultan. That the Wazir had accumulated vast power & influence in his hands through his cunning & treachery was no secret – even the Sultan knew of it & had tried to check the same by appointing several nobles over the Wazir leading to open hostilities & eventually resulting in his own grisly murder - and now when one after the other the Sultan’s favored nobles began falling to their death, the power & cold-heartedness of the Wazir was most apparent. Worried, the nobles conceded to allow the Sultan’s nephew Muhammad Shah to succeed his uncle in the hope that he might be able to rein in the deceitful Wazir. Muhammad proved to be a pitiful excuse of a Sultan – he was fully aware of Sarwar-ul-Mulk’s involvement in his uncle’s murder yet failed to take action against him - his loyal nobles kept getting murdered or exiled & he was unable to stop it. Losing his patience over this long drawn out process, Sarwar-ul-Mulk decided to take forward action & made arrangements to murder the Sultan himself; only he did not reckon that the palace guards were still obedient to their real master – they seized the Wazir as soon as he made his intentions clear & finished him off real quick. With the last thorn in his side gone, the Sultan embarked upon a life of luxury & debauchery – displeased with his lax attitude & unconcern over administrative affairs, many of the nobles who once stood by him revolted. Muhammad’s sorry reign – one that saw inefficient governance, his enemies getting stronger, nobles & generals revolting & power accumulating everywhere except in the hands of the Sultan – came to an end in mere 10 years with his natural death. His son Ala-ud-din Alam Shah (ruled AD 1444-51) took the throne & embarked upon the construction of a massive mausoleum for his father.

Muhammad Shah's final resting place

The brief Saiyyid reign (AD 1414-51) saw a relaxation in the architectural austerity measures that were the hallmark of Tughlaq-era (ruled 1325-1414 AD) construction before the Saiyyid’s began their rule – the fusion of Hindu elements in Islamic construction details came in vogue – floral patterns, lotus finials & chattris were motifs drawn from Hindu iconography. But the Saiyyid reign had begun after another phase of Delhi’s fall – the Central Asian plunderer Timur had just invaded India & ravished the northern provinces including Delhi, spreading rape, destruction, death & plunder wherever he lay his eyes (AD 1398). The Tughlaq Empire fragmented into pieces following which Delhi became the battlefield as Tughlaq prince Nasir-ud-din Mahmud & the fearsome noble Mallu Iqbal clashed for control over the remaining wealth & power of Delhi. Khizr Khan (ruled AD 1414-21), Muhammad Shah’s grandfather & Timur’s vassal in-charge of modern-day Punjab capitalized on the situation & advanced to capture Delhi & its war-depleted treasury. Though the Saiyyids claimed direct descent from Prophet Muhammad, they did not fail to admire & adopt Hindu artistic features such as representation of floral designs which till some decades back was a taboo for Muhammadan artists. However, the Saiyyids lacked the capital to commission captivating palaces & splendid fortresses – they stuck to tombs (therefore earning Delhi the reputation of a necropolis during that period), & even here the artistic compositions were muted & the architectural features less flamboyant. 

Mr Saiyyid surrounded by his relatives

One of the finest Saiyyid-era structure in Delhi & the only one in Lodi Gardens, Muhammad Shah Saiyyid’s mausoleum is built in the architectural style favored by the Saiyyid & Lodi dynasties. It consists of a large octagonal chamber surmounted by a high graceful dome & surrounded by a spacious pillared veranda running parallel to each side. Among the features displayed by the tomb are – a continuous eave (“chajja”) along the roof supported by equally spaced brackets, chattris (domes mounted on slender pillars) raised on the parapet above each of its sides, strong tapering pillars dressed with grey Delhi quartzite stone along each corner of the octagon (to afford enhanced structural stability), three-arch entrances on each side along the edge of verandah & inverted lotus finials atop the central dome & the smaller chattri domes. The squat but well-proportioned structure sits on a rubble plinth & can be noticed from afar. The parapet, the sixteen-sided drum (base) of the dome & the eight-sided drums of the smaller dome – each is distinguished by a row of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation). Slender ornamental pillars emerge from each corner of the drum of the central dome – portions of the pillars & the kangura ornamentation have been turned brilliant red, perhaps a result of recent restoration work. Each of these adornments work in tandem to generate a cumulative effect of striking grace & symmetry. The verandah is reached by climbing a flight of stairs & one cannot fail to notice the captivating patterns that adorn the recessed niches that are built into the roof of the verandah – the four-pointed stars were once painted white; the straight lines, arches & embossments complement each other to form solemn symmetrical patterns; in the center of the star & embossed within an octagon is a graceful eight-petal flower pattern bearing in its center an intricate incised plaster design that puts to shame modern artistic compositions. 

Incised plasterwork in the roof niches along the verandah

Originally each side of the chamber bore jaalis (stone filigree screens), however these were lost with time & the western side was filled in to function as a mihrab (enclosure wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering Namaz). With the loss of the lattice screens, each face came to possess an arched doorway leading into the chamber – each doorway is partitioned near the top with a heavy lintel beam so that the entrance becomes rectangular with an arched window slightly above it. The pillars that support the lintel beam curve near the top & flower into curves.

Inside the tomb, the quartzite walls ornamented with white plasters & medallions appear well proportioned. Eight graves – each covered with a layer of somber white plaster – line the chamber in three rows, the central one belongs to Muhammad Shah, the rest are construed to be those of his family members. Towards the top, the corners of the chamber are spanned by stone wedges to convert the eight-sided interior into a sixteen-sided figure in order to better support the weight of the massive dome. The dome & the chamber are separated by a line of arched alcoves set within rectangular niches topped by a span of quartzite stone & a band of calligraphic inscription. 

Dome interiors

The dome is massive (diameter 10 meter) & displays a central medallion set within two concentric four-pointed stars which touch to form an eight-point star at the circumference of the medallion. The sides of the two stars have been extended to touch the periphery of the dome & each of the eight polygonal quadrants formed were once adorned with a smaller medallion motif (with tails emerging radially from the center-facing sides), however only one such medallion exists now. The intricate designs are done in incised plaster painted in vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow & green to generate a mesmerizing picture consisting of floral artwork embossed within a circle of calligraphic inscriptions embossed within a larger circle of bewitching floral designs. The patterns are colossal and gorgeous, sadly though the photographs don’t do it much justice. The dome had suffered extensive deterioration due to water seepage & cracking of the plaster layers; however the same has been rectified recently (along with the fixing of cracks, repainting of discoloured walls & replacement of broken/missing tiles) by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) & Indian National Trust for Conservation of Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in a conservation drive sponsored by Steel Authority of India (SAIL). My favorite part however remains the floral patterns etched in the stone brackets supporting the lintel beams (the pillar bursts I mentioned earlier), here’s a photo of the one decorating the mihrab –

Chiseled perfection

Even though Lodi Gardens is considered one of the most charming landscaped gardens of Delhi, the area around this particular mausoleum has been given a touch of finesse – the grass-blanketed surroundings give the impression of a grand structure standing atop a sloping hill with palm trees forming a large square enclosure around the hill & massive trees looming in the not-so-distant background. Had Alam Shah not been in a hurry to surrender his kingdom to Bahlol Lodi in 1451 AD & shift to Badaun (modern-day Uttar Pradesh), perhaps he too would have thought that his father’s tomb would one day be a picnic spot for couples, a rendezvous point for lovers & a hide-and-seek corner for children (Tombs those days were commissioned as family retreats & were built in gardens complete with walkways, fruit-bearing trees & artificial water bodies). Well-maintained shrubs lead up to the worn-out stone steps that lead to the plinth level; a dog finds refuge next to the Sultan’s grave while its counterparts are being chased away by a gardener as couples sitting on the benches & on the grass look about. Delhi winters, when the city’s inhabitants retreat to their warm blankets & even the monuments wear a blanket of fog around them is perhaps the best time to visit Muhammad Shah’s Tomb – the beauty lies in observing the cream-grey structure in the mist while at the same time drifting into thoughts of one’s beloved & wishing they were here besides you. That’s what I was thinking, drop a comment & let me know what you thought !!

Seen around

Location: Lodi Gardens, Beside India International Centre
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium
How to reach: One can walk/take an auto or a rickshaw from the Metro station
Open: All days, Sunrise - Sunset
Entrance Fee: Free
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30min
Relevant Links -

December 13, 2013

Lodi-era Canopy Tomb, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, New Delhi

Mehrauli, which is the oldest continuously inhabited area in Delhi (it was apparently named “Mihroli” after King Mihr Bhoj who reigned several millennia back), is nowadays famous for the largest archaeological space in the city – the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. More of a necropolis spread over several acres that boasts of tombs, baolis (“step wells”) & wall mosques, the Archaeological Park also houses a lone canopy tomb not unlike many others seen in different parts of the city. Blackish in hue & retaining much of its original ornamentation, the canopy tomb dates back to the reign of the Lodi Dynasty (AD 1451-1526) & consists of a umbrella dome resting on twelve pillars. It stands next to Rajon ki Baoli, one of the finest step-wells that exists in the city; but sadly the local population, possessing but little education & being largely unaware of the heritage spreading over several millennia strewn around them, have condemned both the baoli & the tomb to the fate of a pig sty – filth (black as tar & equally thick), thorny outgrowth dense enough to prove non-negotiable & a large population of four-legged beings comprising equally of dogs & pigs & consisting of a few cows too that call this sewage & polythene filled pit their dear home are what lie in store for a visitor curious enough to brave the curving track of the Archaeological Park to reach this particular point.

Shrouded by foliage

If you still haven’t got the bigger picture, let me assure you that the path leading to the tomb is perfectly fine – a simple mud track cleared of debris & vegetation; in fact even on nearing to a certain extent the scene is pristine – the ruins of the semi-octagonal bastions at the corners of the wall that makes up the perimeter around the plinth on which the tomb stands give the appearance of a miniature fortress, a stone stronghold forgotten in this dense vegetation meant to guard the graves assigned to it for safe keep. The honks of cars & the chatter of humanity is lost on the way to this virgin corner; modernity is left behind; brilliant red birds, big black ants & vividly-colored butterflies are company here. Occasionally one might come across another person who would be as surprised on seeing you as you are on seeing them in this distant corner...
It is the stench that first reaches the visitor - the decay around cannot be ignored, not even if you put all your attention into photographing the structure!! Next comes the sight & sound – pigs grunting at you would not have been so terrifying if they were not so large & not accompanied by dogs that bared their teeth at the slightest pretext!! The pristine, virgin monument turns out to be part of a desolate, forsaken corner. Rubble from collapsed & collapsing structures is strewn around the tomb; the double staircase leading up to the plinth level is surrounded by this downpour of debris - at some places, the only way to reach the plinth is to leap over heaps of rubble collected on/around the stairs.

Protected by bastions

The dome of the tomb rests on an eight-sided drum (base) & is ornamented with leaf motif emerging from the lotus finial. The drum too displays leaf motif though of a different design while the roof of the tomb is marked by a row of kanguras (battlement-like decorative pattern). The pillars that support the dome are simplistic rough, rectangular blocks possessing ornamentation only along their top where they mutate into four-pronged brackets to support the weight of the dome. The inside of the dome reveals floral artwork in incised plaster directly underneath the finial – it appears that once the design must have encompassed most of the dome but it was lost with time & subsequent restoration work limited it to the present state. At each point where the pillars meet the dome, the brackets take a decorative form resembling a lotus bud with more curves sprouting out of it topped by an intricate design; a row of ornamental arched alcoves inlaid within rectangular niches & flanked by floral plasterwork moves around the inside of the dome dividing it into two halves horizontally - but not all the alcoves & lotus brackets are the same - many are simply shorn of all decorative features that their counterparts proudly flaunt, perhaps some conservation artist thought its better to have a plain plaster surface than display remnants of the original artwork.

Adorned by lotus brackets

Several graves are scattered underneath the canopy, more surround it, covering both the plinth & the ground around the tomb with a carpet of dead & their mausoleums – some of these are in perfect conditions with their rounded tops & sharply-defined edges, others are broken & crumbling, some even have grass sprouting through their broken faces. There must be at least a score graves here – the canopy seems to be a favorite burial spot at the time!!

Surrounded by graves

The red-sandstone plaque installed by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) close to the tomb reads –
“The colonnaded tomb stands on a rather large plinth over which are several graves. In a ruinous condition, the staircase to the plinth leads from each side of an arched opening that leads to a flat domed chamber. The corners of the plinth are emphasized by semi-octagonal bastions. Towards the east of the tomb canopy are remnants of another similar building.”

I assume it’s not just me but every heritage enthusiast-photographer who feels a strange thrill, a sudden rush of adrenaline at discovering a hitherto hidden & largely forgotten structure such as this tomb. No matter how debilitating the stench around it is, or how dangerous those big, bad dogs appear, there is a beauty in such structures that defies their surrounding & the condition they have been subjected to. If only the whole of the Archaeological Park is landscaped & beautified (much like the unbelievable conversion by Lady Willingdon of the erstwhile Khairpur Village to the splendid stretch now known as Lodi Gardens) so that more people can behold the architectural gems that the Park houses.

Framed by ruins

Some heaps of debris scattered right & left only adds to the charm of these centuries-old monuments!! Be there to see for yourself! (& while you are at it, you can also spare some time for the other monuments in the park, am adding the links at the end of this post)

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
How to Reach: After getting down at Saket Station, one can walk to Lado Serai bus stop. Buses are available from different parts of the city for Mehrauli & one can alight from the bus at Lado Serai stop itself. The unmarked entrance to the Archaeological Park is through an iron gate opposite Ahinsa Sthal (situated couple of hundred meters away from Lado Serai, refer Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal)
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food & 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 kilometer away.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park -  
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb
  4. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  5. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats
  6. Pixelated Memories - Ruins, Mehrauli Archaeological Park
  7. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb

December 09, 2013

Hetampur Hazarduari Rajbari, Birbhum

Yes I know I haven't written in a long, long time. Cutting a long story short, I was with my friend Kshitish on October 9th travelling from Durgapur (where my college is) to Calcutta to enjoy the Durga Puja festivities when the bus we were in was hit from behind by a speeding truck. Besides breaking my camera, I also ended up with 14 fractures in my left arm when it hit the metal backrest at great velocity. Also my arm muscles got crushed, the skin burst apart because of the impact & the wounds were so severe that I  had to get over 100 sutures, 6 excruciating surgeries & 4 skin grafts. As of now, am recuperating at home - thanks to physiotherapy & medicines, the bones & the muscles are healing gradually, but I still have extensive neural damage that restricts the movement of my joints so I can't open any of my fingers or rotate my elbow & wrist joints. The doctors have advised me not to travel for 3-4 months more atleast. In the meanwhile, I'll complete the articles that I was supposed to write but never got around to researching, starting with this one that I was working on at the time of the accident. I am not guaranteeing that the posts would be regular & numerous like before, but I promise I'll do my best!! Happy reading!!


Next to a wide highway crawling through lush green fields lies a small rural hamlet, more of an agglomerate of mediocre houses, tiny shops & shanties, roadside eateries & unpaved, pockmarked & rain-drenched roads – each of these suitably encapsulated within a little grove of its own by the roadside. Massive trucks & lorries loiter past; migratory birds call their pit stops here; the spread of vegetation soothes the eyes; the water bodies that naturally come to life after every cycle of rains provide spots for the flora of the region to flourish, the fauna to quench their thirst & the kids to escape the tropical sun & the humidity that comes with the rains in this part of the world. Dark, ominous clouds shroud the sky, bringing with them hordes of insects, especially dragonflies, masses of which try to follow every moving body – be it a truck, a person or cattle. The greenery, the highway snaking through it & the gnarled trees – each of these together conspire to present a picture of harmonious bliss, an idyllic setting unimpeded by the rush of modernity engulfing the world round it, undisturbed by the events, big & small, happening near & far. The impression of an Indian village is further completed by the presence of small hutments, still smaller temples & cattle grazing around the fields & the water bodies.

The remains of the impressive palace & the modern school building (right foreground)

But sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of this little green paradise is a huge palace that would perhaps have felt more at home in the plains of Europe. Ill-suited for an Indian setting, it was constructed when the Europeans – the British, Dutch, Portuguese & French – came calling at India’s shores in search of riches & treasures & claimed a position of power & authority to both commission & influence construction activity reminiscent of their native places. The Indian subjects, including the Nawabs & the Zamindars (vassals) - each of them exploited & subjugated in one way or the other - were only too eager to please their European lords in order to avoid further taxation & hardships. The Nawabs, merchants & wealthy govt. officials adopted European cultural & architectural practices – soon, it was Gothic & Victorian architectural that came to define the building scene in India, even in far-flung villages like Hetampur where the British had made their writ established. In 1905, the royal family of Hetampur (a corruption of “Hatempur”, after the then Zamindar Hatem Khan) commissioned a massive Gothic palace, the protagonist of this post, as their privileged residence – the gigantic structure boasts of 999 doors in its plan (one less than the thousand doors of the Murshidabad royal palace as a mark of respect to the most powerful rulers of Bengal), hence christened as “Hazarduari” (“Thousand doors”) “Rajbari” (“Royal residence”) – but one look at the building & one bemoans the fate of the palace that has certainly seen far better days.

Some of the 999 doors - View from an inner courtyard

The Hetampur royal family was established by Radhanath Chakravarty who rose from meager beginnings & subdued the Roys, the then ruling family, to establish a stronghold which he further fortified by buying huge tracts of lands in & around Birbhum & defeating contending rulers & zamindars. He accepted British suzerainty & was granted the title of “Maharaja” (a nominal title, literally “king”, bestowed by the British government; abolished along with the vassal system & hereditary titles when India gained its freedom) by the British Indian government in 1796. His sons & grandsons further expanded the family’s territorial domain & influence & they finally became the most powerful family in the whole of Birbhum, bringing their former masters, the Roys & the Rajnagar family, under their thumb. Maharaja Ram Ranjan Chakravarty (born 1851, died 1912) rendered invaluable help to the government during the disastrous famine of 1874 & was thus granted the title of “Bahadur”. He commissioned the magnificent Rajbari (it was then known as “Ranjan Palace”, christened after the Maharaja) & though he himself did not live long enough to enjoy the pleasures afforded by this Neo-Classical mansion, he left it behind as a souvenir of his rich & fertile reign.

Built to awe - This is just the gateway of the complex!!

A grand red brick gateway, supported by massive Corinthian pillars & interspersed with arched windows & entrances, ushers visitors inside the huge complex that houses the forgotten palace. Marked by slender protruding eaves supported on equally-spaced brackets & topped by several feminine figurines with their arms outstretched, the gateway itself is a commanding structure – the central portion, raised higher than the extremities & supported by tall pillars gives it a militaristic look – on first sight it seems as if there would be armed guards keeping an eye at visitors from the red-painted arched windows on the first floor – but reality often betrays expectations & imaginations – small children no more than 7-8 years of age look at us with wide eyes, giggling & scuttling away as soon as we fish out our cameras. The palace houses a DAV school & a B.Ed college in its premises & hence the young scholars.

The royal quarters

Enter the gateway & one comes against a vast expanse that renders even considering this stretch as part of a palace compound into a struggle. Several trucks were parked shoulder to shoulder, many of them filled with what looked like coal, others revving up & readying to move out; mounds of debris & coal lay hitherto over open, dust-laden ground. Elsewhere, weeds & creepers seemed to have overtaken the entire ground, from the broken wooden doors that lay half-hidden amidst the all-encompassing vegetation to the moss-laden octagonal well that appeared more green than brown – so much so that we could not photograph the twin wings that make up the palace from the front & had to make do with a side shot. Stepping through the desolation, the ruinous state of the once magnificent palace came as no surprise – the thick, yellow pillars had turned brownish-green due to decay; all the features that described the Victorian architecture of the structure, including the ornamental tops of the Corinthian pillars, the plasterwork along the pyramidal roof & other decorative features such as the crenellations along the roof are almost gone, turned into an indecipherable, indistinguishable smudgy mask over the yellow walls & the blue rooftops; most of the original expensive Burma teak doors & windows have since been stolen & were never replaced. That the massive palace was once an impressive example of English architecture in this distant corner of the world is beyond doubt, but today a clothesline & broken furniture strewn around the structure mar the little grandeur & sophistication it is left with. Sadly the interiors are in an even worst state compared to the exteriors – by the means of wooden semi-walls & divisions, the ground floor (painted vivid blue throughout!!) has been partitioned into separate quarters for the several families that now live here. A thick layer of dust covers everything that does not move, from the wooden partitions to the portraits on the walls; in an especially secluded corner marked by thick cobwebs, an old Bajaj scooter stands next to old riff-raff including wooden cupboards, plastic containers, a few clothes & an idol of an old, bespectacled man.

Shabby & ignored - The palace interiors

Through the maze of rooms & their sub-divisions we finally found the stairway leading to the upper floor – a huge trapdoor angled along the incline of the staircase was a surprise to us as this was the first time we were seeing something like this - the heavy steel door could be forced shut at the time of aggression or an enemy siege. The first floor is considerably well maintained compared to the ground floor – the walls retain their original character; the framed photographs hanging on the walls were covered only in a minute layer of dust. The harmony was shattered by a disused, broken wooden palanquin comfortably tacked in the verandah, its musty interiors stuffed with old files & wood shavings, a hay stack lying along one of its sides & submerging the wooden poles that the bearers would have once held to carry the palanquin & the royal personage seated within. In one of the rooms sat the present head of the Hetampur royal family - an old Zamindar bent double with age, whose cough could be heard resounding through the whole floor – one of the attendants tending to him told us that both the "Raja" & his wife are gravely ill, both of them having had a stroke within a quarter year of each other. But the Raja was gracious enough to allow us to photograph his palace provided we did not make much noise (fine, I must have told the attendants about this blog & the other publications I write for along with the sentence “But we have come from Delhi!!” to coax them for permission).

The unique trapdoor

Two of the rooms, now converted into classrooms, still display much of the original paintwork they were embellished with including floral motifs (around the arched doorways & even the light switches!!) & striking frescoes depicting scenes from Indian mythology, splendidly painted & vividly-colored,  executed in arched niches above the many doors that line the room's perimeter. Even the roof overlooking the wide staircase is done in huge, green & pink, four-pointed star motifs inlaid with more floral patterns. From the corridors one can look down to the courtyards enclosed by the palace (& wonder what are those big, black silos doing in the courtyard??). Looking at those numerous doors sprouting out from each wall & guessing which one leads where one indeed feels like “Alice in Wonderland”.

One of the vivid frescoes executed in a large room that now serves as a classroom

The palace building is flanked by an equally large white building which houses the school & college & thankfully possesses considerably lesser number of doors than the palace building. Between the two, a narrow path leads to the roofed shelter where the royal chariot is parked – though the chariot appears as if it could be of service for a few more years, the shelter itself is crumbling apart with the paint flaking off the walls, the pillars caved in at places & the whole area submerged in black muck & hay. One has to get her/his shoes dirty to photograph the chariot. At one time, there must have been elephants roaming the massive grounds of the palace complex & their trainers working on them; Sadly, even the horses are missing at present. Strewn around the shelter lay branches hacked off from trees, perhaps to be used as fuel wood; an upturned & grievously crushed motorcycle stood vertically upturned in the middle of the log pile – hilariously I hoped the inhabitants won't burn the motorcycle when they light the fire!! A large room that can be entered from the door preceding the chariot shelter houses a small police station too. The contribution of the Hetampur royal family towards the police & education system is quite evident – the colleges & schools that exist in this small administrative sub-division have all been founded by the royal family.

Portraits - The one on the top is that of the Chandranath Shiva Temple nearby that is patronized by the royal family

Adjacent to the white building is a flight of stairs that leads to the huge pond teeming with lotuses & flies alike. Sitting on the steps closest to the pond is bliss, especially since my friends Kshitish & Aakash are there to discuss college gossip & girlfriend stuff. It totally turned out to be a boy’s day out for us.

What would it look like in spring!!?

As we stepped out of the small hamlet & started walking along the highway towards our next destination, we fell into a discussion regarding the state of the ruined palace & what would happen to it in coming few years – the Raja & his wife seemed so frail & terribly ill, will their family care for this hereditary possession after they have passed away?? Or will it fall into an even bitter state of neglect & despair?? Interestingly, the Rajbari has featured in several films made by Hindi & Bengali directors, most notable among them being Satyajit Ray!! Regardless of the palace's short & forgotten theatrical association, one is forced to ask why the government should bother with its upkeep & conservation when there are so many more magnificent instances of architecture & heritage lying in equal or worse state of disrepair/disregard. Why would anyone, except for heritage enthusiasts like us, bother about an old, crumbling building that exists in a seldom-visited part of a far-flung state where even basic facilities of residence & safety are non-existent (read my post about the nearby Chandranath Temple here - Pixelated Memories - Chandranath Shiva Temple, we came across a small roadside eatery where even normal-looking bottled beer tasted evil).

I wish I was also taught in a palace :(

Some enlightened souls might argue that some structures are meant to disappear after their lease of life has expired, but they forget that it is us who through our ignorance & selfishness allowed these buildings which form an important link to our colonial past come to a stage where their structure has fallen apart & originality lost. That these should be preserved & restored to their original state even when the monetary/tourism benefits are not foreseeable in the near future is non-negotiable. We can only hope that following this & similar articles the tourists flow in & with them comes awareness & effort before it is too late for this & other splendid architectural specimens.
Our thanks to the Raja for allowing us to photograph his estate to our heart’s delight!!

Location: Hetampur village, Birbhum
How to reach: SBSTC Buses are available from different parts of Bengal to Hetampur. Alternately one can reach Suri, the headquarters of Birbhum & take a bus from there to Hetampur (Approx. 1.5hr away). The Rajbari is known to everyone, ask your way around.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Relevant Links - 

October 07, 2013

Bada Gumbad Complex, Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

"For good reason, the most popular place in the park (Lodi Garden) is the extensive lawn on the southern side of what must have been the main mosque, the Jami Masjid, built in 1494. The reason for its popularity is its dome, which is an exact replica of a young woman's bosom including the areola and the nipple. Most mosques and mausolea have domes but they have metal spires put on top of them which rob them of their feminine charm. Not the Bara Gumbad, the Big Dome. You can gape at it for hours on end and marvel at its likeness to a virgin's breast. You will notice that men sprawled on the lawns have their face towards it; their womenfolk sit facing the other way."

– Khushwant Singh, "The Sunset Club"

Radiating immense strength & magnificence, the imposing Bada Gumbad (“Big, domed tower”) is undoubtedly one of the finest structures ever erected by the Lodis – a dynasty that ruled over North India from 1451-1526 AD & left behind numerous tombs & mosques scattered throughout Delhi & its surroundings. Humongous as it is, on the outside the structure gives the appearance of being a double-storied building & has left scholars & architects baffled as to what its true purpose actually is – some surmise that it is a mausoleum dedicated to one of the Generals in the army of Sultan Nizam Khan Sikandar Lodi II (ruled AD 1489-1517), others contend that it is a gateway leading to the small mosque that exists besides it – either case the structure has its own aura, it calls for a visit on its own since no other structure within the landscaped Lodi Gardens can match it, be it in terms of proportions or grandeur. The entire structure, along with the associated mosque & a third rectangular enclosure (which is either a “mehmaan-khana” (guest house) or a “majlis khana” (assembly hall)), stand on a very high plinth that is reached by a wide flight of stairs & is visible from afar. The mosque & the guesthouse face each other & both are built perpendicular to the Gumbad. A few steps up the stairs, one reaches a landing & from here the stairs diverge in three directions – one headed to the mosque, the other to the guest house & the third to the exceedingly large square mound that is located directly opposite the Gumbad’s entrance (that is, in the center of the whole complex) & shelters grave(s) underneath. In my opinion, this elevated rubble mound is the only thing that reflects the Gumbad’s vast proportions & could therefore be construed as the center point of the complex in its heyday when it too would have been ornamented with marble & stone & would have perhaps been led to be the majestic Gumbad – interestingly, the Gumbad complex hides surprises at places one wouldn’t even expect to look at - the mound/grave was once a large water tank, later filled up to accommodate the grave. Even though all the three structures share the same plinth & have certain stylistic & ornamental similarities, they were not planned as a complex nor built at the same time – the Gumbad & the mosque were built in the year 1494 during the reign of Sikandar Lodi; the guesthouse was added later.

The Bada Gumbad (center) flanked by the Jami Mosque (left) & the guesthouse (right)

Ironically, the first structure I entered in was the guesthouse, an unornamented, rectangular building with a flat roof built with dressed grey quartzite with three arched-entrances on its front. The exteriors display lotus medallions around the entrances & a continuous chajja (“eaves”) supported by equidistant stone brackets along the roof; the interiors possess artwork in stone & medallions – all of them now in a ruinous state. The guesthouse is a remarkably undistinguished structure; the interior is divided into seven chambers separated by means of gray granite walls but interlinked by the arched openings in the walls such that the overall picture is that of symmetry & grace – highly incongruous with the ruinous state that the structure finds itself in now. Hornets & insects (the name of which I do not know) buzz around the entire structure, especially in the dark side chambers – although the patterned artwork on the roof of the side chamber has gone black & rotten with time, it is covered in a layer of white insect silk that looks terrifyingly dirty & teems with threatening-looking insects. Nonetheless the remains of the artwork on the flat roof are impeccable – graceful flowers, astonishingly well-carved geometrical motifs & other simplistic designs.

This modest enclosure is either a "Mehmaan khana" (guesthouse) or a "Majlis Khana" (assembly house). In the foreground is the aforementioned rubble mound.

The rectangular mosque, on the other hand, is a picture in contrast – it is supposedly the Friday congregation mosque of the Sultan which explains the lavish treatment that has been conferred on it during its commissioning & construction. The construction of the mosque introduced many new features that were later adopted in all such structures built during the reign of the Lodis & later the Mughals, including the extended courtyard & the simple but highly ornamented five-arch entrance. Its exteriors are decorated in stunning calligraphy & art work; the walls are etched with inscriptions from the Quran. The interiors are richly ornamented with intricate gold-painted calligraphy; the roof displays profuse paintwork in red, blue & golden. The mosque shares some of the features of the guesthouse, such as a chajja supported by stone brackets & dressed quartzite finish. A line of “kanguras” (arched crenellations/ornamental battlements) marks the roof level. A dome each surmounts the three chambers of the mosque, each dome itself topped by a lotus finial. The central dome is relatively larger than the other two domes. The base of the dome (drum) is ornamented with leaf-motif that was a characteristic of Sikandar Lodi’s reign. Five arches – the central one being the largest & the ones at the extremes the narrowest – lead within the mosque. The central arch is surrounded by a projecting rectangular frame that interrupts the chajja that is otherwise continuous along the roof.

The mosque is elegance personified, even though it looks simple from afar!!

The mihrabs (the Mecca-facing wall faced by Muslims while praying) are ornamented with arched niches bearing striking patterns & exquisite craftwork. Intricate artwork consisting of floral, geometric & calligraphic patterns in incised & painted limestone plaster lends the mosque an aura of brilliance & unmatched dazzle. A jharokha (protruding window) marks the far side of the mosque parallel to the Gumbad; the jharokha’s small curved roof too is decorated with calligraphy & geometrical patterns so arranged to form six concentric circles embedded within a larger hexagon. The backside of the western wall (mihrab) has tapering turrets  protruding through it, an architectural addition reminiscent of the style practiced by the Tughlaq Dynasty (ruled AD 1325-1414). The dressed rubble is flaking at places & boisterously displays the material that the entire structure is built with.

The mosque interiors - Now you believe me??!

The Gumbad is open on all four sides – however it can only be entered via the side facing the elevated mound or from a flight of stairs emanating from the garden level along the side facing the mosque. All entrance openings are set within a large, arched niche which is further set in a rectangular frame. Except for the side facing the elevated mound, the rest of the entrances face the landscaped Lodi Gardens, however only the mosque facing side has a double-staircase adjoining it; all the other entrances end in limbo mid-air. The Gumbad’s massiveness can be gauged by the measurements of its sides – each side is 20 meters wide & reaches a height of 12 meters. The monument is crowned by a hemispherical dome which sits on a 16-sided drum (base) – together the dome & the drum rise a further 14 meters. The entire structure sits on an equally massive plinth slightly more than 3 meters high (My height is only 1.8 meters!!).

Grandeur personified - The Gumbad & the mosque as seen from the lawns towards its rear. Notice the protruding window along the mosque's side.

The monotony of the dressed grey quartzite exteriors is relieved by the use of black stone & red sandstone along with decorative features such as arched niches & kanguras. The two sides facing the mosque & the guesthouse are extended to form a rubble backbone around the three structures. Tapering turrets & jharokhas mark this rubble extension on the mosque & guesthouse side. The sixteen-sided drum on which the dome rests is also decorated with kanguras & relieved by arched niches set in rectangular frames. The Gumbad is considered to be one of the first instances in India (& the first in Delhi) where a complete hemispherical dome (that is, forming an exact semi-circle) was used to crown a building. Turrets exist along the corners of the Gumbad as well as the corners of the rectangular frames in which the arched entrances are set. On the outside, the monument appears double-storied, divided vertically in two equal parts by projecting horizontal bands of stone. Arched niches that give the appearance of windows mark both the floors, however only the two ground-floor niches on either side of the entrance are open; the rest have been filled in with granite masonry. Another smaller window exists above each of the entrance.

Look at all the puny people scurrying around the structure!! - View from Sheesh Gumbad

The Gumbad is dark inside; the narrow windows fail miserably to illuminate the interiors. The ornamentation is sparse & consists of paintwork & plaster dressing. There is no grave within nor any inscription detailing the period & purpose of construction giving credence to the belief that the Gumbad is meant as a doorway to the exceedingly small mosque-guesthouse complex. If that’s the case then I believe the Sultan’s guests were disappointed – walking through the intimidating Gumbad they would have expected a magnificent guesthouse only to come across an unremarkable, monastic building that looks more of a horse stable than a royal guesthouse. Nay, even Thomas Metcalfe’s stables in Mehrauli were bigger than this guesthouse (refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb). But was it too once thickly ornamented with patterns & artwork & covered with cushions & carpets?? I highly doubt it – the thick quartzite walls are as plain as it could get, they never supported any ornamentation on their surface. Moreover the stylistic differences & the different periods in which the three structures were executed do not support the theory that the Gumbad is just a gateway for the mosque. Some scholars also postulate that at one time the Gumbad might have been a gateway to the entire Lodi Gardens. I’d like to believe that the Gumbad was also a tomb, an exceedingly large tomb for a man of superior birth or accomplishment – perhaps a remarkable commander in the retinue of Sikandar Lodi, confidante of the king or a favourite of the people, whose history & legacy have been forgotten but whose tomb survives the onslaught of time & nature.

Intimidatingly huge & yet so serene & inviting!! 

A walk around the plinth gives a visitor the pleasure of exploring the Gumbad from different angles & perspective. The whole structure appears ethereal, inspite of its imposing proportions it appears to be floating among the trees & shrubs that flank it & add to the beauty of the complex. Framed by the walkways, the dense trees with their heavy, overhanging branches & accompanied by its close neighbor, the Sheesh Gumbad (literally “Mirror Dome”, given that its exteriors were once decorated with mirrors), the monument stands testimony to the strength of a man who decided to leave his dignified mark on the world in the form of this majestic structure.

Location: Lodi Gardens, Beside India International Centre
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium
How to reach: One can walk/take an auto or a rickshaw from the Metro station
Open: All days, Sunrise - Sunset
Entrance Fee: Free
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30min
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
Suggested Reading - 
  1. - Bara Gumbad Masjid
  2. - Article "And live to tell the tale!" (dated Jan 22, 2004) by Ajay Chaturvedi & T.N. Behl
  3. - "The Sunset Club (Khushwant Singh)" Review

September 11, 2013

Jahanara Begum's Tomb, New Delhi

"Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, was very handsome, of lively parts and passionately loved by her father. Shah Jahan reposed immense confidence in his favourite child. She watched over his safety and no dish was permitted upon the Royal table, which had not been prepared under her observation." 

- French traveler Francois Bernier

In her marble grave, shrouded by the sky & covered with a layer of grass lies Sahibat-ul-Zamani Shehzadi Fatima Jahanara (1614-81 AD), princess of India, benefactor of the poor, confidante of native Indian chieftains & counselor to two mighty Emperors – her indulgent father Shahjahan (ruled AD 1638-58) & pious brother Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1658-1707). Despite being one of the most powerful women of her time, bestowed with both beauty & intelligence, the humble princess wished that she be buried in a simple enclosure close to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi & the Sufi mystic whose teachings she revered (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). 

She was only 17 when her mother Arjumand Banu Begum aka Mumtaz Mahal (the lady for whom Shahjahan built the magnificent Taj Mahal) passed away during childbirth leaving a terrible vaccum in her life; she took it upon herself to raise her six siblings (Mumtaz had 14 children with Shahjahan but 7 of them predeceased her) & also look after her grief-stricken father & assist him in the affairs of the court so as to enable him to fulfill his obligations to the state. Her younger brother Dara’s marriage to the beautiful Begum Nadira Banu (their cousin; daughter of Shahjahan’s half-brother Prince Pervez) which was planned by their mother but delayed due to her untimely death was conducted by Jahanara with great pomp & fervor. Jahanara became the first woman of the Mughal household, soon surpassing Shahjahan’s other wives – he made her the custodian of the Imperial Seal & gave her the titles of Badshah Begum (“Lady Emperor”) & Begum Sahiba (“Princess of Princesses”). Shahjahan also fixed her an annual stipend of Rs 1 million & granted her the right to revenue from the port of Surat (Gujarat) which she possessed till the time of her death. She received half of Mumtaz Mahal’s total wealth worth over Rs 10 million (the other half was distributed among the rest of Mumtaz’s children) & also received handsome gifts from the native rulers, chieftains & warlords in return for political & administrative favors she bestowed upon them through the Emperor – she was the wealthiest woman of her time, but being of Sufi temperament, she used most of her wealth & accumulated riches for the service of the poor & the orphans.

The tomb of Jahanara Begum (The marble dome on its immediate left belongs to the tomb of Amir Khusro while the red building on the right is the Jamaat Khana mosque, the principal mosque of the Dargah Complex)

A very learned lady, she was well-versed in Persian & Arabic & came to be known as a scholar & a patron of arts & literature, herself being a writer, painter & poet (her younger brother Dara Shukoh too was a fairly good painter & writer, therefore explaining the camaraderie the two felt with each other). Most importantly, it was Jahanara who designed the famed Chandni Chowk (“Moonlight square”) street of Delhi – the chief avenue of Shahjahan’s capital at Shahjanabad with the Red Fort as its pinnacle & flanked by the houses of the “Omrahs” (high-ranking officials) & a canal running through its center that reflected moonlight & made onlookers gasp with astonishment at the fusion of earth & paradise. Of a philanthropic dispossession, she took it upon herself to look after the comfort of the poor & the needy. She was highly influenced by Sufism – at the early age of 10, she (along with Dara) was initiated into the Qadiriyya sect of Sufism under the tutelage of Mullah Shah Badakhshi – she began to call herself a “Fakeera” (female mendicant) & it is said that she became such a formidable champion of Sufism & worship that the Mullah would have named her his spiritual successor had the rules of the sect allowed it. Both Jahanara & Dara also had spiritual contacts with Mian Mir, Mullah Shah’s spiritual predecessor & a very revered saint of his time (It is said that the Sikh Guru Arjan Singh had the foundation stone of the holy Golden Temple, Amritsar, laid by Mian Mir). A religious person (but not dogmatically intolerant of other beliefs & religions like her other brother Aurangzeb), she is credited with having built many mosques, especially the Jama Masjid of Agra, & serais (traveller’s inns). She wrote “Mu’nis al-Arwāḥ”, the biography of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the founder of the Chishtiya sect of Sufism (Khwaja Nizamuddin also belonged to the Chishtiya order) & “Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah” (“The Mistress’ Treatise”), the biography of Mullah Shah, both highly noted for their literary quality & writing style. She was renowned as a patron of Sufi literature & commissioned the translation as well as commentary on several classical works.

In the year 1658, Shahjahan fell terribly ill & was bedridden as a consequence, rumors spread that the Emperor was dead, that he had been murdered by the followers of one of his sons for the purpose of usurping power – when he failed to appear in court for over a week, each of his four sons, Aurangzeb, Dara Shukoh, Murad Baksh & Shah Shuja, prepared their armies & marched upon Delhi to claim sovereignty. Jahanara openly & actively supported Dara, her brother with whom she shared her Sufi beliefs & religious tolerance; she was totally against her cold, rigid & Wahabi brother Aurangzeb whom she referred to as a white serpent in her personal correspondence. However after the initial tussle & warfare, it was Aurangzeb who graced the throne of India & also had Dara executed; soon thereafter Shahjahan recovered from his illness, but Aurangzeb was in no mood to restore surrender his powers & face his father’s terrible wrath for murdering his brothers – he had Shahjahan imprisoned in his fortress at Agra.

The heavy, marble doors that lead to the princess' grave 

Despite his initial resentment Aurangzeb extended courteous treatment towards his sister, Jahanara however was very close to her father & decided to share his captivity – Aurangzeb was spared the opportunity to imprison her (apart from their father, he had also confined his own daughter Zebunissa on the charge of being a poet-composer to the gallows built in Delhi’s Salimgarh fortress, refer Pixelated Memories - Salimgarh Fort). Aurangzeb fixed her a handsome annuity & allowed her to maintain her estates as well as retain the right to revenue from Surat. There were rumors to suggest the reason for her choosing captivity over enjoying her youth & life - she closely resembled her mother in terms of looks & intelligence, prompting her father to make advances towards her & the two had shared sexual relations; French traveler Bernier writes “Begum Sahib, the elder daughter of Shah Jahan, was very beautiful… Rumour has it that his attachment reached a point which it is difficult to believe, the justification of which he rested on the decision of the Mullas, or doctors of their law. According to them it would have been unjust to deny the king the privilege of gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted.” She lived in Agra till her father’s death in 1666 after which she was reconciled with Aurangzeb & retired to Delhi to live in the mansion that once belonged to Ali Mardan Khan, a Persian noble in her father’s court & the viceroy of Punjab. Aurangzeb respected her & sought her counsel in matters of state & public welfare; she never shied from arguing with the Emperor in order to prove her point, especially when it concerned his enforced austerity measures or his practice of religious intolerance. Though he never forgave her for siding with Dara, Aurangzeb trusted her wisdom over the loyalty of their younger sister Roshanara Begum who harbored bitterness & political enmity against Jahanara & had also shared in Aurangzeb’s schemes to usurp the throne when Shahjahan was bedridden. Overlooking Roshanara & Gauharara (the third sister among the seven siblings), Aurangzeb appointed Jahanara as the first lady of the court & raised her annual allowance from Rs 1 million to 1.7 million.

The intricately carved lattice screens of the grave enclosure

Mughal princesses were not allowed to marry, a custom arising out of the consideration that no man was worthy enough to ask the hand of the daughter of the Great Mughal in marriage (the real reason however was the suspicion that the princesses’ husband might accumulate power in his hands & threaten the Emperor) – Jahanara, Roshanara & Gauharara stayed single all their life even though they had many lovers who would come visit them at night in the cover of silence & camouflage of the dark. Roshanara, who was closer to Aurangzeb & had immense power in her hands took on a number of lovers. Soon however she was caught red-handed by the pious Aurangzeb who chastised her for failing to honour her obligations by curtailing many of her powers & had her lover poisoned. Much to the chagrin of Roshanara, Jahanara was given considerable influence in Aurangzeb’s court after this & began acting as an intermediary between the local chieftains/warlords & the Emperor. Though Dara’s sons were executed by Aurangzeb to avoid future complications, the remaining children were looked after by Jahanara like her own. Roshanara decided to retire to a garden-pavilion built for her pleasure at the outskirts of Delhi; Jahanara became the most important woman in the Mughal court. It is not to suggest that Jahanara did not have any vices – both Bernier & Manucci note that she was an alcoholic (besides the usual charges that Aurangzeb disapproved of – dancing, singing, poetry & acting); at times she would be so drunk that she would have difficulty standing up & would often pass out.

Jahanara's grave (& the random stuff strewn around)

Aurangzeb allowed her to design & commission her own simple mausoleum comprising of a magnificent lattice enclosure made of white marble immediately opposite the striking tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin. She passed away on September 6, 1681, at the age of 67 & was buried in a simple grave in the open-roofed enclosure she designed. She was posthumously conferred the title of Sahibat-ul-Zamani (“Mistress of her time”) by the Emperor. The intricately carved filigree screens of her remarkably simple tomb hide the graves of the princess & several others who lie beside her from the eyes of the onlookers, an equally splendidly adorned marble door bars the entrance to the princess’ final resting place. In accordance with her last wishes, she was given a humble funeral & an otherwise unremarkable grave. Except for a simplistic flower carved in marble at the head of the grave, the rest of it is not ornamented in any manner, instead the grave hosts a hollow on the top filled with grass; the sides too bear no ornamentation except calligraphic inscriptions. The Persian inscription next to her grave reads –

“Allah is the Living, the Sustaining.
Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,
For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.
The mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara, 
Disciple of the Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti, 
Daughter of Shah Jahan the Conqueror 
May Allah illuminate his proof. 
1092 [1681 AD]”

Sadly, though Aurangzeb did not subject her to an ill-fated existence, it is actually the treatment that the citizens of 21st-century Delhi (who take pride in their education & awareness) have meted out to the princess’ grave enclosure that seems more like a condemnation. The enclosure is surrounded by varied stuff strewn around – rags, shreds of clothes, metal cupboards; the insides are no different – more cupboards line up against the filigree screens, a broken chair lies in a corner, wooden planks & clothes are thrown around for added charm, pieces of paper & polythene cover the hollow receptacle on top of the grave instead of the grass that was intended to be Jahanara’s shroud. Despite this, the enclosure is bliss; it is quiet & serene, so unlike the Dargah complex outside that is bustling with visitors & booming with their continuous chatter. Once you push open the heavy marble doors that bar entry to the enclosure, you discover a quiet little corner for yourself, free from intruders, free from the beggars who roam about the Dargah complex, free from the noise & disturbance. Sadly, not many know that the princess of India is buried here, even fewer pay a visit to her unadorned grave. Once the richest woman in the country, today she is also the loneliest – perhaps she likes it, she is buried close to the revered Sheikh – like life, like in death she lives alone in her own peaceful, hermetic way. Ironically, despite having an ardent devotee in the form of Jahanara buried in its close vicinity, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb is out-of-bound for female followers of the saint!!

The signboard at the entrance to Nizamuddin's Tomb

Location: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, Nizamuddin,
Open: All days, Sunrise to sunset (All night on Thursday)
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Station
How to reach: Take an auto from the metro/railway station to the Dargah as it is quite a walk from both. 
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil.
Time required for sight seeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro & his Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  3. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Salimgarh Fort Complex & Freedom Fighter Museum
Suggested Reading -
  1. A Sufi Metamorphosis - Jahanara; The Mughal Sufi princess
  2. - The unsung Mughal princess
  3. - Article "Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint" (dated Feb 01, 2013) by Ursula Sims-Williams
  4. - "Janni" the dutiful daughter Jahanara
  5. - Article "Shah Jahan’s wily princess" (dated 27th June 2013) by Anjali Sharma
  6. - Secret history of Delhi
  7. - The invisibility of the Mughal princesses
  8. - Gifts for a princess

September 09, 2013

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!!

"Pixelated Memories" wishes all its readers a very happy Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival of the pot-bellied, elephant-headed Hindu God who is the destroyer of obstacles & the harbinger of auspiciousness besides being the patron of sciences & intellect.

September 03, 2013

Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Birbhum

The simplest of all "Shakti Peetha" ("Centers of spiritual power") that I have come across so far during my sojourns, Kankalitala temple in Birbhum (Bengal) is also by far one of the most unadorned temples that I have ever been to – to sum it, the main shrine consists of just an ordinary colonnaded rectangular hall with a small enclosed sanctum on one end. The square sanctum, surmounted by a typical pyramidal roof, possesses only a nondescript, thoroughly garlanded portrait of Goddess Kali (the Hindu Goddess of death and destruction) that is kept surrounded by adornments and articles of worship. What was more shocking was that this simplicity of the shrine continued even during the holy Hindu month of "Sawan" that is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Goddess Kali's consort and the primordial Hindu God of death and destruction – being an important center of pilgrimage visited by devotees throughout the year and especially during Sawan, one would have assumed the temple to be beautifully decorated, but nothing of that sort! Unaware of the significance of the holy month and its subsequent effect on the temple's daily footfall, we were in for a shock when we visited the shrine complex – there were at least a thousand "Kanwariyas" jostling for space not only within the complex  but also along the streets and in public buses – we literally felt we have landed in the middle of a small, boring and very poorly oganized fair where everyone decided to dress up in saffron! Every Sawan, millions of these men, women and children, collectively referred to as "Kanwariyas" and dressed in saffron for easy identification, throng to the river Ganga armed with slender ornamental poles (imaginatively decorated with miniature plastic tridents, idols of Shiva, snakes and other symbolism associated with Lord Shiva according to Hindu mythology) affixed with water pots on each side. Travelling in large groups on foot/buses, these people embark for the journey from their native places and head to the sacred river where they fill the water pots which they later empty either at the temple they regularly visit or at one of the mythological hallowed sites such as a Shakti Peetha – owing to the belief that completing the journey on foot will avail greater spiritual benefits, especially in the afterlife, most of the Kanwariyas prefer to cover the journey on foot and even children as young as 7-8 years walk several hundred kilometers! Incredible India, isn't it?!

The image of Goddess Kali gracing the sanctum. Notice also that Lord Shiva has been depicted lying under her feet, an iconography derived from another Kali legend that has been previously discussed here – Pixelated Memories - Kali Puja, Durgapur.

The mythological lore governing the existence of each of the 51 legendary Shakti Peethas throughout the Indian subcontinent has been discussed in detail here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Kamakhya Temple happened to be the first such shrine I visited).The Kanwariyas, who look for such indisputably holy spots to empty their quota of the water from Ganga in exchange for spiritual well-being, throng to these Shakti Peethas like bees to honey and Kankalitala temple, where the Goddess’ cleaved waist is said to have fallen, is no exception to this – the thousands of pilgrims jostling to pay respects to the mother Goddess are witness to this and ensured that we could not get clear photos of either the temple or the sanctum. And that's not all, we couldn't even get standing space in the bus we took to reach the temple and had to actually sit on its roof while the skies rained and thundered heavily.

The central temple at Kankalitala

But the temple's simplicity does not mean that it does not hide impressive surprises – the first of these, a huge gateway crafted by local sculptor-artists and decorated with painstakingly executed terracotta panels, greets visitors at the very periphery of the complex itself – the magnificence of the gateway is derived from, but not limited to, its thick cylindrical pillars embossed with panels depicting royal processions, traditional dancers and elephants.

Design motifs on the entrance gateway to the temple complex

As mentioned earlier, the sanctum is a simplistic square sanctuary capped by a pyramidal roof which is further topped by a metallic spire shaped like ceremonial pots of gradually decreasing sizes placed atop each other. The Natmandir, where visitors and devotees sit and pray from (the raised pillared hall already mentioned) is three bays wide and four bays long. Unlike other Shakti Peethas, here Goddess Sati’s organs aren’t reverentially placed in the sanctum but are said to be submerged in a square tank (“Kund”) which is located close to the central temple and lead to by a flight of stairs on each side. Devotees, mostly women, descend down to the level of the venerable tank and take the sacred water in their palm to rub it on the forehead (assuming from what I observed in the short while that we stayed at the temple, here too, like Kamakhya Temple of Assam, drinking the hallowed water and thereby polluting it with saliva is prohibited).

On the other side of the temple is a sacred tree on which are hung numerous marigold wreaths and rounded stones tied via threads – a Bengali tradition to pray for pregnancy and safe childbirth. The Kanwariyas had left their now-emptied poles against the tree and the colors of the ornamental, vibrantly-colored poles contrasting against the bark of the old tree seemed visually attractive, but the incessant rains hampered any chances of clicking photographs, in fact we remained throughout the stay at Birbhum perennially afraid of damaging the cameras!

The sacred crater supposedly formed due to the impact of Goddess Sati's waist hitting the earth. It subsequently got filled with water.

The temple complex is actually very large, however there aren't many permanent structures within the campus – the associated Shiva temple, lined with marble and adorned with vermilion motifs, is located a couple of hundred meters away, close to the entrance gateway. The venerated Shivalinga (symbolic of Shiva’s phallus placed atop the Goddess' vagina) is made of hard black stone and adoringly referred to as "Shambhu Baba" and "Ruru Bhairav". Interestingly, at first sight the thick phallic construction appears to be buried in a deep crater which too, like the rest of the shrine's floor, is faced with spotless white marble on all sides; in fact, the priests who chant invocations while showering the linga with ceremonial water, flowers and condiments stand on a much higher plane compared to the deity they revere. The linga was once complete and protruded from the ground in all its majesty, but was destroyed base upwards by a viciously iconoclast 16th-century Muslim General popularly known as "Kala Pahar" (literally "Black Mountain", perhaps referring to his unparalleled physical strength or his terrible stone-heartedness) when Bengal was ruled by Afghan Pathan warlord Sulaiman Khan Karrani, a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). That such a thick monolith was broken to pieces speaks of the animosity Kala Pahar felt for Hindus and their ancient traditions, though it is said that he himself was a convert from Hinduism and later notoriously excelled in destroying temples and religious sites. Also, the original structure of Assam's Kamakhya temple too was demolished by this ferocious General, as revealed in the earlier article here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam.

The pit where the Shivalinga exists in its broken form

Opposite the Shiva temple is another roofed pavilion where the ornamental chariot used for the “Rath Yatra” (“Chariot journey”) of the deities is housed. The temple complex also boasts of a large cremation ground. As already mentioned, the temple was teeming with pilgrims and Kanwariyas on the day we visited; but, I do not expect the number of devotees to be that strong on other occasions, even though the temple is associated with “Bauls” (traditional mystic singers-composers) – one should properly time their visits, especially to religious sites, to avoid crowds if the purpose is architectural photography. Kankalitala is not part of the usual pilgrim circuit; richer and better located Shakti Peethas such as Kalighat (Calcutta) and Kamakhya steal the spotlight, but the crowds at the temple only prove how revered it is amongst devotees, many of whom come from afar. If only it were more developed and not so desolate!

Location: Birbhum, Bankura, West Bengal
Open: Sunrise to sunset
How to reach: Buses are available for Kankalitala from Siuri, Rajarhat and Bolpur divisions of Bankura district. The shrine can also be accessed by taking train to Bolpur/Rajarhat and from bus there on.
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
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