January 27, 2013

Thanewala Gumbad, New Delhi

While reading about Delhi’s monuments & heritage structures, I often come across details about structures taken over by the city’s population, often demolished, at times occupied in its original state & at times renovated & turned into living quarters/shops/hospitals by changing the way the structure looked. The Red Fort was occupied by the British Army after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/War of Independence & several structures within the complex were razed to ground to make way for their barracks. But that was in 1857, & except for the Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort), I myself never saw any structure razed/renovated. Until a few days ago that is. Some days ago, I visited the Thanewala Gumbad in South Delhi. The condition of the structure made me realize that this is what happens when the ever progressive tide of urbanization comes face to face with a structure struck somewhere in the medieval ages.

Thanewala Gumbad - First impressions

Taken over on all sides by residential areas & shops, the structure lies surrounded by the spirit of commercialization in the middle of Shahpur Jat. A suburban village, Shahpur Jat, has suddenly found its way into the books of city’s nouveau rich – once a village home to Jats (an ethnic group more common to nearby Haryana), today the new lifestyle hub boasts of designer boutiques & shops selling everything from expensive collectibles, clothes, & furniture. & of course, there was also a Bikanerwala close to the gumbad (I have observed that you can find a Bikanerwala in almost every neighborhood in Delhi. They specialize mostly in sweets, but you can gobble up their pakoras (deep-fried bread filled with potatoes & cottage cheese, coated in a layer of corn flour & again deep fried) with a bottle of coke if you feel hungry after running around the numerous heritage structures that Delhi boasts of. The food is hygienic too!!). The Thanewala Gumbad today survives in the form of a large, domed chamber with its back against the shorter side of the large rectangular courtyard that encloses it.

"Aerial View"

The walls of the gumbad slightly slope towards the outside & are exceedingly unadorned. Nobody knows who built the structure, though it is accepted that the architecture is reminiscent of construction undertaken during the reign of the Khilji Dynasty (ruled 1290-1320 AD). The gumbad lacks ornamentation of any sort, a characteristic of Khilji & later Tughlaq-era buildings – both its interiors & exteriors are thread bare & the only concession to its simplicity are niches that line the bottom of the dome on the inside & the recessed, arched corners. Outside, the dome rests on an octagonal base (drum) decorated with a line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation work). The mihrab (the wall inside a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while praying) is very simple, consisting of three arched recesses, the central one slightly larger than the ones flanking it.

Too simple!!

The side opposite the mihrab has three arched entrances, while the other two sides have two small arched entrances each & a blocked arched recess in the place of the central entrance. A small arched window is provided high in the centre of each side to let in sunlight. The courtyard also bears indications that there were several other structures within the complex. Only the foundations remain of what must once have been pillars on either side of the existing domed chamber, indicating the presence of cloisters. It is now accepted that the gumbad was once a mosque. A gumbad is basically a tall, domed chamber with solid walls. Cloistered chambers on either side of the said “gumbad” would fit very well with the mosque theory. Also there is no grave inside the chamber which is further proof that this is not a tomb (as most gumbads are). I don’t understand why isn’t it referred to as a mosque instead of a gumbad if that might be the case. Perhaps some later historian bungled up when compiling a list of structures in Delhi.

Cloister remains to the left of the central chamber

The courtyard also shows signs of arched recesses along one of the longer sides. Perhaps these alcoves were used for lightning earthen lamps, though these appear pretty large. I am tempted to believe that these were part of rooms for the priests of the mosque, or perhaps there once existed a small Islamic seminary. If that would have been the case, the mosque might have been very similar to the Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque in another part of Delhi, but in a similar run-down condition (refer Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque). The courtyard itself was filled with all sorts of rubbish & even construction material the day I visited the gumbad/mosque. A large family picnicked in the courtyard, complete with food & even a hookah!! A washer man dried clothes nearby. Thorny bushes grew around garbage heaps. More than the interior, it is the exterior of the enclosing walls that is in dire need of protection. Along the shorter sides of the courtyard ran parallel streets. A small slum house made with bricks & corrugated iron sheets (next to the main road flanking the gumbad towards its back) used the wall as one of its sides. Towards one of the larger sides, an alley lead to a cluster of houses & showrooms. It was one of these houses that I climbed on to get an “aerial” view of the gumbad/mosque & its surroundings. The walls of these houses maintained their distance from the gumbad’s enclosure, though it seemed almost hopeless, given that Shahpur Jat is a hotchpotch of buildings jutting out of nowhere & giving way only to narrow streets & almost none vegetation. Not wishing to spare any space available in this urban jungle, a buzzing generator set sat next to the courtyard wall in this alley.

Eating into the structure - A shanty & a row of houses alongside the boundary wall

Buildings on the other side were even worse, literally fusing together with the enclosure walls. One had to walk past those buildings into a side street (this one has the Bikanerwala!!) & then make a detour to reach the entrance of the gumbad/mosque. It is a pretty precarious situation that the gumbad/mosque finds itself in, surrounded by all these houses & shops, whatever happened to the Monument Notification Act (1958) that bans construction within 100 metres of a protected monument?? Perhaps the gumbad/mosque isn’t a protected monument, I did not see the characteristic blue board that Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) places near protected monuments. The only worthwhile thing here was that more than encroachments, the place was taken over by kids running around, playing tag here. Many of them clambered around me in a bid to get photographed along with the ruins. They jumped within the gumbad & around it too, unmindful of the pillar stubs sticking out in an ordered progression. The huge chamber boomed with their laughter & echoed back their shouts.

These cloisters exist on the right side of the structure. Visible in the background are the remains of Siri Fort wall

I would rather suggest that this surrounding courtyard be converted to a small park, similar to the park across the parking lot across the road that boasts of bastions & walls of the Siri Fort (another fortress city within Delhi, subject of another post). A gardener could be assigned here, at least this way the place would not give way to encroachments & hawkers, & even the kids would find a new spot within the congested city to run around. But then, is anyone listening??

Location: Shahpur Jat village
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Green Park Station
How to Reach: From Green Park Metro Station, take a bus for Shahpur Jat village. Opposite the bus stop is a large park, beyond which lies a parking lot. Walk through the park & the parking lot & you will spot the dome of Thanewala Gumbad rising in the midst of shops. Navigate to find the entrance.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Relevant Links -

January 17, 2013

Unmarked Ruins, Mehrauli, New Delhi

In a city as old as time itself, it isn’t very difficult to come across remains of a world struck in a different time frame, one that is several centuries, if not millennia, behind. Delhi – “a city of cities” – was destroyed 7 times in the near medieval history & each time it was rebuilt, rising up like a phoenix from its own ashes. It has been claimed that Delhi is the city of djinns – the djinns do not like to see their city destroyed & therefore ensure that the city is revitalized after each bout of destruction. Yet unlike other places across the globe, Delhi never totally evolved into a modern mega-habitat, instead it lives on with its past – at times nurturing it to claim large swathes of land as well as popular perception. In almost every corner of the city one notices relics of the past – cultures practised as they were in the ancient past, trade taking place as it would have occurred in the court of some maharaja or sultan, & most importantly the ruins that seem to grow out of anywhere & everywhere in the city. While some parts of the city mutate into glass & cement megaliths, several still retain their medieval look & character.

This is what I spotted..

However the concept of a “City of cities” needs a bit of explanation here – as a new fortress was built by a new dynasty/ruler, the older fortress was abandoned but the city around it continued to live on. The court & the whos-who shifted with the ruler to his new abode, but the traders, merchants, artisans & craftsmen, peasants etc stayed back. The new city was referred to as “Delhi”, while the older ones came to be known as “Old Delhi” (till the British formalized this system to name their Indian capital “New Delhi”). This way several separate fortress-citadel complexes continued to mushroom side by side, & today we have seven major citadels (Lal Kot, Siri, Tughlaqabad-Adilabad, Kotla Feroz Shah, Dinpanah, Shahjanabad, New Delhi) & a small capital (Kilokheri) still in existence. These constitute Delhi’s history starting from somewhere even before 1000 BC when it was still ruled by Rajput Hindus, & the last is still the seat of power of Indian democracy.

Told ya, these ruins come out of nowhere!!

The oldest of these settlements – the Lal Kot in modern-day Mehrauli – was the bastion of Tomar Rajputs who ruled from the fertile plains of Punjab to the arid regions of Rajasthan & Central India. Prithviraj Chauhan aka Rai Pithor, the hero celebrated in bard songs & popular lore, expanded Lal Kot to a mega-citadel & renamed it as Qila Rai Pithor (“Rai Pithor’s Fortress”). Soon afterwards, in AD 1192 India was invaded by the Islamic armies of Muizuddin Muhammad bin Sam aka Muhammad Ghuri. Several generations down the line, Mehrauli was abandoned & Siri became the capital of “New” Delhi. Mehrauli was relegated to the status of “Old” Delhi, even though the city was abandoned, people from all streams of life kept settling in Mehrauli. Its abandonment did not stamp out its existence, it only lost its status of being the royal fortress. Till as late as late 19th century, Mehrauli buzzed with life – its inhabitants included not only peasants & merchants, but also courtiers, princes & army generals. The later Mughal rulers established their palaces & pleasure gardens & built their tombs in Mehrauli.

Blossoming amidst ignorance 

It was the war of 1857 that changed it all – the Indian sepoys in service of the British East India Company clashed with their superiors, great bloodshed accompanied by loss of life & livelihood on both sides followed. The British ran down the country, Delhi was laid to waste – after about a thousand years of its existence, Mehrauli was finally abandoned!! The palaces were ruined, the gardens destroyed, tombs & mosques were brought down &/or taken over. People stopped settling in Mehrauli, residents left out in droves – the first city of Delhi soon turned into a graveyard of ruins, a mish-mash of temples, tombs & step-wells.

The Qibla Wall

It is no wonder that even though Mehrauli was abandoned 150 years back, it soon started repopulating after the British departed from the country & the heart-curdling partition of India to carve out Pakistan & Bangladesh brought in a new wave of refugees from the other side of the border. As Mehrauli grew again with the rest of Delhi, it still retained its ruins in its bosom, often hiding them behind thick vegetation, at times covering them over & over with a blanket of earth. Across the service lane that connects the precariously constructed tomb of Azim Khan (Refer Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb) to the Gurgaon-Badarpur highway, exist several ruins that are yet to be excavated. There is perhaps no record of these ruins in Government documents, they are exposed eternally to the wrath of nature & the (at times greedy, at times needy) encroachment of man. The ruins make their presence known by appearing before seekers just like Delhi’s resident djinns – I noticed them as I departed from Azim Khan’s Tomb. Across a wire fence that itself was torn & discontinuous, rose a pillar that resembled a Kos Minar to some extent. The Kos Minar were milestones – tall conical structures topped by a roundish knob, some even 30 metres high – placed by the emperor Sher Shah Suri across the Grand Trunk Road that he built to connect Bengal to Peshawar (Pakistan). Around the pillar existed wall portions & chambers – broken, run-down & desolate.

What fruit is this??

As I wandered into what looked like a dense forest in the middle of Delhi, I could clearly make out a Qibla wall that stretched from this pillar. A Qibla wall is an open structure, sort of like a wall existing independently, that indicates the direction of Mecca (West for Indians). The Muslims face the Qibla wall while offering their prayers. Thick trees rose like giants around the short wall & spread their arms to block out the sky, creepers hung down the branches to curtain the ruins, thorny bushes jutted out of the ground making passage extremely difficult. With birds, butterflies & huge mosquitoes for company I progressed to take in the entire scene – the Qibla wall & the said pillar, a few graves resting on the ground & a whole lot of vegetation hiding the rest of the view. Despite having stood ignored for centuries, the Qibla wall looked beautiful – its decorative indentations & alcoves preserved unnaturally. It must be centuries old, its architecture & ornamentation was simplistic (reminiscent of late-Tughlaq - early-Mughal architecture, but I am not qualified to date it) – a huge tree almost a 100 year old rose near its centre. The graves however were in a bad condition – their history forgotten, portions crumbling & tall grass growing out of them – they presented a sorry state of affairs.

In a "grave" situation

A strange, in fact dreadful, howling woke me out of my photography bout. The source of the sound seemed so near, yet it was not visible. Was it a djinn warning me to return to the modern world?? Awake from my revelry, I decided to at least inquire about the source of the sound. Across swathes of thickly vegetated land & over a thin track that meandered deeper into the forest still, I came across a row of chambers, almost in their original condition, except of course for their blackened walls & spider silk-filled alcoves. Further still was a deep gorge – a dog reared to its puppies in a corner of the chasm. It was the dog growling, its barks muffled by the long distance & echoed by its underground residence. It ran away on noticing me – further inspection revealed that it was rearing its offspring in a chamber that had caved in & turned into a pit. The surroundings of the pit were high mounds of soil & I assume that there existed adjoining chambers too but they got buried over time. More such chambers were visible around, a few could be distinguished because the soil around them had eroded to reveal buried arches that formed part of the chamber’s entrance. A few chambers could only be distinguished because parts of them had collapsed along with the debris & vegetation that covered them & the holes thus formed revealed their interiors.

One of the chambers, now buried under earth & vegetation

All of a sudden I felt I had been transported to a different era altogether – this was my discovery, my Harappa. & then it was time to leave behind my Harappa – it was uncharted territory & I was afraid to go further deep into the vegetation for fear that I might lose my way. Of course now I realize I was being stupid, I just had to trace the track & follow it to the end, but since I diverted away from the track so many times in order to photograph the structures & the vegetation, I felt I won't find it again. As I returned, I noticed the spider silk & the creepers that enveloped the trees & the surrounding chambers, & they assured me that they will hide my treasure from man’s greed till the next time I could return to take full stock of their existence. I now wait for the next time..

Hiding a treasure

Location: Mehrauli
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
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 Lado Serai stop is situated at a crossroad & Azim Khan’s Tomb is visible behind the trees & the traffic.Enter the service lane leading to Azim Khan's Tomb, the ruins are situated just a few metres before the tomb on the other side of the road.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Relevant Links -

January 10, 2013

Jamali Kamali Complex, New Delhi

“Qabr mein aa ke neend aayi hai, Na uthaaye khuda kare koi”
(“A blissful sleep I finally get in the grave, For God’s sake, I hope no one wakes me from this”)
– A verse penned by Sheikh Jamali and inscribed within the tomb

Poetry in stone - Jamali-Kamali mosque

It is a universal fact that Sufis, followers of a very tolerant branch of Islam, are one of the most unprejudiced and compassionate people. They are known to open their hearts and hearths to people of all faiths, religions, gender and identity. One fine afternoon, I sat down to talk to two kind Sufi mendicants at the Chilla of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi and one of the most renowned Sufi saints in the country (refer Pixelated Memories - Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin). The two mendicants prayed for my well-being without any expectation of profit – monetary or otherwise – and one of them even contentedly offered me his meager share of lunch (which he carried in a small polythene bag) when he heard that I have been going around exploring monuments in Delhi since morning and did not eat or drink all day. So, given my attachment to Sufis, it is only natural that I am disheartened and inclined to disagree with the stories that have been doing the rounds about Jamali-Kamali complex, one of the foremost Sufi shrines in the city – that it is the residence of malicious, evil-natured djinns who have taken to terrifying disrespectful visitors. According to Islamic mythology, when Allah created the world, he fashioned humans out of clay and a similar species called djinns out of fire and smoke. These latter, invisible to all humans except those who have performed penances and are blessed with the power to talk to and at times control them, are powerful spirits – if benevolent, they could turn paupers to princes, bestow all boons and bring fertility to men and women; however, if malevolent, they are known to cause loss of property and at times even life too! We are all, of course, aware of one djinn – Aladdin’s shape-shifting friend Genie in Arabian Nights. According to popular perception, the djinns at Jamali-Kamali are not so ferocious as to go to the extent of killing someone (it is accepted that they are malevolent spirits), but they have been known to appear as glowing apparitions, slap people, produce savage growling sounds, foul-smelling odours, sounds of laughter and make their presence known through the use of odd lights and/or a combination of all of these; it is also claimed that these djinns’ hands are pretty small and the marks of the slaps that they administer remain for several days. But the local villagers who are well aware of the complex’s history never said a word about the resident djinns, even though many of them are regular visitors to the complex to implore the Sufi to intercede with Allah to grant their wishes. What is out of my grasp is that the people who believe in djinns and spirits keep on forgetting God and his/her messiahs (I am an atheist yet I am repeatedly forced to invoke God! Oh India!) – after all, how can wicked spirits reside alongside kind-hearted Sufis? Unless of course hidden motives are at work here – several travel companies and paranormal societies have started offering night tours to the complex on the pretext of ghost-trails and are charging hefty fees from the patrons (Refer Hindustan Times article (dated Sep 10, 2012)). Smell something fishy?

Preserved - Jamali-Kamali's mausoleum and the graves of high officials of Lodi and Mughal empires around it

Derwesh Jamali was the pseudonym of Sheikh Jamal-ud-din Hamid bin Fazlu’llah Kamboh Dehlawi aka Sheikh Jalal Khan, a Sufi mystic poet-philosopher-scholar-traveller who came to India during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517) and settled in Delhi. Why did he need a pen-name if he already had such an extensive name is something beyond my comprehension. The word “Jamali” has its roots in the Urdu word “Jamal” meaning beauty/elegance, while Jalal Khan means “the fiery one”. He belonged to an affluent Sunni merchant family and was the disciple and son-in-law of the Suhrawardiyya Sufi Sheikh Samauddin. Prior to settling in Delhi where he lived and preached for the rest of his life, he had travelled extensively through Middle East and Central Asia. The courtyard in what is today Jamali-Kamali’s complex used to be his chilla once where he practiced severe penances and preached spirituality and universal brotherhood. His story is very similar to that of his contemporary Imam Zamin, another travelling priest, who too arrived in Delhi in the reign of Sikandar Lodi and lived to see the vanquishing and collapse of Lodi Dynasty and the reigns of Mughal Emperors Zahiruddin Babur (ruled AD 1526-30) and Nasiruddin Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56). But while Zamin accumulated enough wealth for himself as the officiating priest of the majestic mosque in the colossal Qutb Complex to build himself a graceful tomb adjacent it (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex and Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb), Sheikh Jamali became the darling of the citizens of Delhi and was soon appointed as a court poet and tutor of Persian mysticism for Sikandar’s son and successor, Ibrahim. It is said that Emperor Sikandar, himself a renowned poet, often had his works corrected by him. Sheikh Jamali is also credited with writing several important works about mysticism and religion and was unanimously bestowed with the title “Khusro-e-Sani” (“Equal to Khusro”). One of his finest works was “Siyar-i-Arifin” (“The Mirror of Meanings”), a classical hagiographic account of the notable Indian Sufis of the Chishti and Suhrawardy sects and the metaphysical symbolism used by them in divine poetry. Given his unparalleled credentials, he was retained in the royal court when Babur conquered India (AD 1556) and later he became one of the favorite poets of Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, who possibly was the major financial contributor to the construction of this complex since the architecture, except for minor artistic differences, is exactly identical to that of Humayun’s graceful magnum Qila-i-Kuhna Jami Masjid in his majestic citadel Dinpanah/Old Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). It is interesting to note that while the mosque was built following the advent of Mughal rule in Delhi, the architecture largely follows the Lodi-style of construction since the Mughal rulers and administrators were still busy consolidating the empire instead of focusing on artistic-architectural and cultural developments.

"Jewel box" - One of the highly ornamented squinches within the gorgeously bedecked tomb

Kamali’s identity, however, remains shrouded in mystery. The word “Kamali” itself is derived from the Urdu word “Kamal” meaning “miracle/excellent” which could apply to both male and female names and it has often been pointed that Kamali was possibly a contemporary Sufi of Jamali and they both were inseparable companions. Hearsay is that he/she was Sheikh Jamali’s wife/friend/servant – a recently published fictional book (“Jamali-Kamali, A Tale of Passion in Mughal India” by Karen Chase) also claims that Jamali and Kamali were homosexual partners in a very orthodox and unremitting age and country. Perhaps that would explain why Kamali chose to be referred by this name – it perfectly rhymes with Jamali and sort of completes it. Or maybe Jamali adopted the new name, he already had so many pen-names, perhaps he took up a new one to show his association with Kamali. Nobody knows. Another theory is that the person buried alongside Sheikh Jamali is his son Sheikh Abdur Rehman Gadai Kamboh (even though his name nowhere comes close to being shortened to Kamali, but then Jamali-Kamali could well be a later, easily remembered/pronounced nomenclature. There are several similar examples scattered all over the city.), a prominent theologian and the “Sadr-i-Sadur” (“Administrative General/Lord Chief Justice”) in the court of Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). Sheikh Gadai wielded immense power during Emperor Akbar’s reign and was exempted from paying homage and courtesies to the latter; he also excelled in poetic compositions, Persian mysticism and organizing musical congregations.

Stepping within the vast Mehrauli Archaeological complex, one comes face to face with the beautifully decorated but very poorly maintained enclosure walls of Jamali-Kamali complex – these are being restored as part of a massive restoration-conservation project undertaken by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in collaboration with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Gazing at the endearing floral and geometric patterns gracing the numerous skillfully carved alcoves lining the enclosure walls, one is forced to ponder if earthen lamps (“diyas”) were once lit in these and how splendid such an ethereal scene would have been. Once visitors used a small octagonal water tank located in the center of the courtyard for purposes of ritualistic ablutions before offering praying in the mosque – the tank presently is parched and a black plastic water tank stands within it from which emerge several pipes to supply water to different parts of the large courtyard. Guards employed by ASI strolled around and inside the mosque, one had even parked his motorcycle within the courtyard.

More jewels!

The massive, soothingly serene mosque was constructed in AD 1528-29 by Sheikh Jamali himself and is composed of red sandstone sparsely, but very delicately, ornamented with white marble and grey quartzite highlights. The proportional, blackened single dome, hidden behind veils of foliage offered by the numerous ancient trees gracing the compound in front of the mosque, rests on an octagonal drum (base) and is surmounted by an inverted lotus finial. As mentioned earlier, the mosque is chronologically the earliest of this architectural layout and the same was improved upon and adopted in several mosques before finally culminating in the grandly unmatched Qila-i-Kuhna mosque in Humayun’s capital (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). The facade of the mosque is adorned with dexterously sculpted rosette medallions and rows of decorative alcoves while the central of the five arched entrances, each punched within arched niches, is set within a rectangular projection that is flanked by highly ornamental pillars (pilasters) on either side. These fluted pilasters possess alternate triangular and circular flutes and the individual levels are demarcated by exquisite floral bands. The utilization of impossibly hard grey quartzite for ornamentation, especially as panels focusing the exceptional symmetry of the structure, is exceedingly praiseworthy. A “jharokha” (ornamental protruding balcony) projects from above the central entrance – legend is that once lamps were lighted every evening in this window to act as a beacon to guide weary travellers to the mosque where they could rest from their fatiguing travails – alas, today the entire area has become so thickly forested and so hopelessly ignored that a lamp would not even be seen by passing visitors. But ancient Mehrauli then was a small settlement on the highway connecting Delhi to Central Asia. The jharokha, built in traditional Rajasthani style of architecture, along with the floral medallions, which are integral to Hindu artistic expression, are some of the common Hindu motifs that were later assimilated within Islamic constructions, such as mosques and tombs, and the Jamali-Kamali mosque is said to be the first to display a fusion of these distinctive architectural and artistic characteristics (the same are absent in other constructions predating the mosque). It is interesting to note that this integration occurred in a mosque commissioned by a prominent Sufi, a proponent of unity and co-habitation irrespective of fundamental religious differences. 

Haunted? I doubt

The gargantuan interiors of the mosque, visually appearing even more colossal because of the numerous arches and the play of shadows and light creeping in through the windows and entrances, possesses five intricately carved mihrabs (alcoves in the western wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers), each uniquely sculpted, bordered by bands of calligraphy inscriptions and existing in symmetric combination with one of the entrances and therefore decreasing in size from the central (largest) to the extremes (smallest). Deftly carved and beautifully ornamented, these have at present become ideal spots for fearsome hornets, who tend to get dangerously irritated if one ventures close enough, to build nests and breed. On the inside, the dome rests on squinches (another architectural tradition that later become integral to Indo-Islamic constructions – beams extending across upper corners to convert a square structure into an octagonal one) supported by honeycomb brackets which are of course fairly commonplace in Islamic architecture. The central chamber of the mosque thus becomes octagonal towards its upper reaches and more squinches are further employed to convert this eight-sided figure into sixteen-sided figure and so on to form almost a complete circle towards the very top on which the massive dome finally rests. Octagonal corner towers exist along the backside of the mosque and a narrow gallery runs along the upper floor connecting the two, but entry to the upper floors of the towers is now prohibited. One can access the towers from narrow passages built in the corners adjacent the mihrabs and gaze at the small garden towards the back or at the exterior walls on the other side. I do not understand why entry to the garden is now prohibited – a locked iron gate keeps visitors from entering from the alternate entrance way that opens to the garden. The same also prevents me from understanding why from the tower windows located level with the mosque it appears as if the garden is set at a considerably lower topography compared to the rest of the complex. I failed to find an opening within the mosque or the towers themselves from where I could descend to the garden level. But for someone who is afraid of heights and even more of openings from where one can simply topple down if careless – it is better to avoid these towers!

Lines, arches and striking symmetry - Inside the colossal mosque

The vast courtyard in front of the mosque is divided in two by a wall with an opening. The second courtyard functions as the funerary zone – the small square-shaped mausoleum of Jamali-Kamali stands close to the further wall and there are several more unmarked and unadorned graves around it – Muslims believe that the tomb of a saint sanctifies the area around it and assures ascension to heaven to the people buried in its vicinity. Not that its presence makes much difference, a rectangular “chattri” (pavilion surmounted on slender pillars) located opposite the tomb shields a lone grave from the elements. Another entrance to the tomb courtyard exists near the chattri, but even it is gated and locked now. The walls surrounding the courtyard exhibit more ornately carved alcoves, much more intricate than the ones adorning the outer walls. The refined but small tomb, only 7.6 meter square in area and so unlike other magnificent mausoleums dotting the rest of the city, was also built in AD 1529 and Sheikh Jamali himself was its architect. Bands of brilliant blue designs mark the space between the brackets that support its eaves (“chajja”); a band resembling ornamental “kanguras” (battlement-like ornamentation) marks the roof of the tomb while the walls are carved with several small niches and arches. I am dismayed to note that the wooden gate leading within the simplistic small structure is locked as a precaution against vandals. Artists and workers struggle to restore the structure to its original state and I decide to ask them if there is any way to get within the tomb. The lady in-charge of the restoration work sat nearby listening to FM radio on her mobile phone and a quick chat revealed that she had read this blog (flattered!!) and quickly sent for the caretaker to bring the keys to the tomb. If anything, the presence of so many people here in early evening was further proof of the absence of the djinns. Just on the safe side, I did take off my shoes before entering the tomb. I had always heard of how handsome the tomb is from inside and was eager to see it with my own eyes, but as soon as I stepped within, I realized that it is not just stunning but exceptionally striking, perhaps the most gorgeously decorated tomb in entire Delhi!! Rightly has it been described as a “jewel box”.

Photos do the handsome interiors no justice!

Unbelievably beautiful stucco work (incised and painted plasterwork patterns) in blue, yellow and orange covers the arches and the alcoves while lattice work in marble (“jaalis”) on two of the sides lets in shards of light. The western wall doesn’t bear any openings but functions as a mihrab. Like the central chamber of the mosque, the tomb too makes use of squinches and the square chamber progressively becomes eight, sixteen and finally thirty-two sided towards the top. However no dome rests on the roof which is flat and decorated with copious amount of stucco and glazed tiles of numerous colors (red, several shades of blue, yellow, orange) and patterns. The tomb is the only example in Delhi where stucco and tiles are used in combination with each other rather than exclusive of each other as seen elsewhere. Again, as with the mosque, the tomb too became the inspiration for the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque which features an exceedingly marvelous use of stone inlay work instead of painted stucco/tiles to generate an equally flamboyant and vivacious exterior facade. It is interesting to note that the tomb has survived almost 500 years against the ravages of time, nature and marauders exceptionally well. Since I know I would fail to describe the ornamentation if I tried, I’ll rather let photographs do the talking. Further still, a thousand words might fall short of admiring these divine patterns hence I’m posting several photos here! The walls are inscribed with two of Jamali’s own verses, perhaps he was immensely enamored with his own work to have it inscribed on his final resting place while he had it constructed. The first of the two verses has been revealed in the beginning of this article and the second, the more heart rendering, goes –

“Rang hi rang, khushbu hi khushbu
Gardish-e-sagar-e-khayal hain hum"

(“Colour everywhere, scent all pervasive
A movement of thought, an imagination, I am”)

Of the two marble-layered graves within that occupy most of the floor area of the delicate tomb, the one in the center is that of Sheikh Jamali who passed away in AD 1536 while accompanying Emperor Humayun in an expedition to Gujarat. The second grave, a later addition since it has been just about accommodated in the space between the central grave and the wall, should belong to Kamali who is said to have expired much later. Given the excessive ornamentation of the tomb’s walls, the unparalleled explosion of multihued rococo patterns on the roof and the numerous visual compositions that can be generated as a combination of the two along with the streams of light creating patterns through the openings of the marble latticework, the narrow space that one is afforded within the small tomb proves to be a photographer’s paradise and after a point one begins to feel that the graves are hampering one’s movement and the ability to photograph/observe these fascinating patterns! I could hear myself cursing for not coming here before!

Light and colors

As with several of the mosques I wrote about in the past few days, the mosque of Jamali-Kamali too is being threatened by religious zealots – Muslims want the mosque to be thrown open for regular prayers (Notification of Monuments Act (1958) states that if a religious place of any denomination was abandoned by the local population for prayers at the time of Govt. takeover and subsequent designation as a national/state-protected structure, no prayers would be allowed to be offered there any time in future) and have been staging impromptu and forced prayers in the premises. Hindus claim that Sheikh Jamali and Sheikh Gadai were extremely vitriolic and rabidly intolerant preacher-administrators and the mosque is actually built on their religious site and hence, as a means to correcting the injustices committed by then rulers, the area should be handed over to them (I do not know if it was actually a Hindu site or not, not that I care either). But the important fact is that it is a protected monument – where were these groups when the entire region had been forgotten and surrendered to an ignominious fate, taken over by vegetation and wildlife, and reduced to ruins? Now that the Government is restoring and renovating the place everyone wants a piece of it! Utter disrespect to the Sufis who blended the practices of the two religions to create one of the first architectural amalgams in the country – I wish the djinns would appear and slap these misguided souls out of their dreadful slumber and ignorance. On a calmer note, perhaps these verses penned by Karen in her book about Jamali-Kamali would aptly apply to these individuals who somehow conclude that religion is above the country and are content to raise issues against the secular nature of the new India we ought to build –

“…our hope is that you will pity our weeping.
How could your pardon be known, had we not shown ourselves guilty!”

Delicate - One of the mihrabs within the mosque

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park, just off Lado Serai crossing
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Qutb Minar and Saket stations are both equidistant.
How to reach: Cross the road from Qutb Minar metro station and start walking towards Lado Serai – the official entrance of the archaeological complex is located midway between the two and can be identified through the slender red sandstone markers lining the periphery walls. Alternately, take a bus/auto from Saket metro station to Lado Serai and access the complex through a small opening in the periphery walls along Mehrauli-Gurgaon road just a couple of meters after Lado Serai crossing.  Parking facilities are available adjacent Jamali-Kamali complex if coming through the entrance near Qutb Minar metro station.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food and drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While food and refreshments can be availed at one of the roadside eateries/shops at Lado Serai opposite, you can only find toilets at Saket metro station, over two kilometers away, or the malls beyond it. It is better to be prepared.
Other monuments within the archaeological complex -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats and Guardhouses
  8. Pixelated Memories - Mughal tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali
  9. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
  10. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli
  11. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins
Suggested reading - 

January 07, 2013

Ruins, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, New Delhi

As I mentioned in the post about Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban’s Tomb (Refer Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb), a large settlement, now in ruins, surrounds the Sultan’s Tomb. Built around 16th-17th century, the settlement boasts of a large central courtyard with surrounding houses & quarters. I wonder who used to live here. Soldiers maybe. Or general public, if they were allowed next to the tomb of one of the most powerful rulers in Indian history. Balban actually ruled from AD 1266-86, but most of the power was concentrated in his hands even 20 years before that, when his son-in-law Mahmud ruled over the vast swathes of the Sultanate. In these houses, one notices walls with alcoves for lighting diyas (earthen lamps lighted with cotton wicks dipped in oil), pillars & portions perhaps used for keeping small knick-knack. The rooms mostly survive as only the foundations, the walls have collapsed at most of the places. In a few portions, stairs too could be seen, however whatsoever used to be around these stairs is now gone & only the alcove below it survives.

These are the ruins.. (What were you thinking, eh??) 

After the mutiny of 1857, this area subsequently fell into disuse & was reclaimed by vegetation. While the rest of Mehrauli proper (part of Delhi where this settlement exists) grew at exponential phase & took rapid strides towards urbanization, this pocket was left behind & forgotten. This region is part of one of the oldest continuously inhabited region in the history of Delhi – only to be abandoned in recent past. It was as late as mid-20th century that this area was re-discovered & since India was in a turmoil then, with newly achieved independence & wars with Pakistan & China, it was left as it is, but with the tag of a heritage property under the aegis of the newly established Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.). It was only in the year 2001-02 that the excavation of these ruins & other structures nearby was started. The restoration work of some of the more famous & the better preserved monuments started only recently. Even now, most of these structures are in different stages of excavation.

More of the same.. (Visible in background on the left side are the remains of Balban's tomb) 

The Archaeological Park actually resembles a tamed forest bereft of any wildlife, but with a trail running through it. The trail is very well marked though, there are red sandstone posts indicating clear directions to various monuments. These ruins cover a pretty extensive area, starting a few meters from the famous chattri that Thomas Metcalfe built to beautify the surrounding expanse, & are bound on one side by Balban’s Tomb Complex & are cut off from the rest of the Park by the trail. Across the ruins stand the magnificent Tomb-Mosque complex of Jamali-Kamali.

It is quite easy to walk past these ruins, no proper road encompasses them, one has to get past thorny bushes & unlevelled, stony ground to view these properly. The Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) which is overseeing the excavation & upkeep of these fallen structures is yet to properly study them & convert this area & the park as a whole into a maintained tourist spot. But this is unquestionably one of those places where sitting down & observing things becomes the most natural thing to do. The lines of huge ants marching from here to there, & even climbing up the tumble-down stairs. The plants & creepers slowly, but gradually, overtaking the built structures. The thrill of discovering a beautiful flower. It all seems so natural here. Plastic bags, polythenes & other waste lies spread around, accumulated in this area as a result of general neglect & the gross misuse we Indians subject our heritage & forests to. This modern litter in stark contrast to this otherworldly litter of ruins that has been spread around here for so many centuries. One wonders what to photograph & what to leave. One wonders what is mighty – the rulers who left behind these colossal structures – now a mound of stones. Or the ants who simply overtook these & drilled their own palaces into these. 

Amidst desolation, springs beauty..

One is reminded of the ways covered with "leaves no step had trodden black" from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket Station
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 Lado Serai stop is situated at a crossroad & at one side, one can see a large domed-structure seated on a high hill (Azim Khan’s Tomb) rising high behind the trees & the traffic. Walking towards this structure, one comes to a recreational park called Ahinsa Sthal (“Abode of Non-Violence”), marked with a large signboard (or simply ask for Ahinsa Sthal from the locals & shopkeepers, check if they are aware of its location - they weren’t when I visited the area in December 2012). The unmarked entrance to Mehrauli Archaeological Park is through an iron gate opposite the Ahinsa Sthal.
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 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 kilometre away.
Relevant Links - 

January 02, 2013

Azim Khan's Tomb, New Delhi

Though no one is exactly sure who Azim Khan was, most historians conjecture that he was a general in the army of Mughal emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). Historical accounts state that when Akbar’s valiant generals were leading his mighty armies to annex small kingdoms along the fringes of the great Mughal empire in order to further his expansionist policies, his foster brother & powerful general Adham Khan was busy satiating his own blood lust & carnal desires - he would enslave the women in the lands he captured for the Emperor & add them to his harem. His terrifying reputation preceded him - women in the conquered kingdoms preferred to commit suicide rather than face him. The kingdom of Malwa (Central India) had gained independence during the reign of Akbar's father, Emperor Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 & 55-56). In 1561 AD, Akbar decided Malwa had enjoyed sovereignty for too long & decided to subdue it. He sent a large army led jointly by Adham Khan & General Pir Muhammad - Adham Khan invaded the kingdom under Akbar's banner but sullied the victory by refusing to send the spoils of the war to the emperor. He fell in love with Queen Roopmati, the wife of Baz Bahadur (literally “Brave Hawk”), the defeated king of Malwa. Baz Bahadur was defeated & fled the battle scene, but before Adham Khan could touch the queen, she committed suicide by jumping into a pyre (“Jauhar”). Adham Khan, in all his fury & in mood for vengeance, unleashed a pogrom - the historian Badauni who had accompanied the army to Malwa noted that the undisciplined soldiers displayed ruthlessness of an extreme order by killing captive enemy soldiers along with their wives & children - not even the Saiyyids (claiming descent from Prophet Muhammad) who had welcomed the Muslim armies were spared but burnt alive along with their holy books. Enraged, emperor Akbar himself decided to proceed to Malwa to subdue Adham Khan. This is where the lines between history & conjecture begin to blur - belief is that the emperor's massive force was led by none other than Azim Khan, the protagonist of our story. Adham was defeated, his powers curtailed for a period of time & he was ordered not to lead any military campaigns in the near future. However, strangely, most historical records & contemporary accounts are silent about the valour & the feats of Azim Khan. Following the victory, Azim was crowned with the title of “Akbar” (meaning magnificent) & rewarded by the emperor. Interestingly enough, Azim also means “the magnificent one”, & I am not sure how he prefixed his name with this new title. “The magnificent among magnificent, most magnificent one”??

The Tomb of the "Most Magnificent One"

It is said that the Sufi Saint Salim Chishti met Emperor Akbar at a hill in the city of Agra & told him that if he prayed with true faith, the saint himself would come & stand next to him to ask God to grant the Emperor's wishes. Akbar's wives were finding it difficult to conceive & when a son was born to him, he considered it a blessing by the saint & named his newborn Salim after him. Touched by the saint’s religious tolerance & policy of benevolence, the emperor went on to build the former's tomb (Fatehpur Sikri) near his newly envisaged capital at Agra. After Akbar’s death, Azim was retained as a nobleman in Akbar’s son & the new Emperor Jahangir Salim’s court. Azim became a follower of Hazrat Nizamuddin who he said appeared in his dreams & urged him to give up his life of war & violence. Hazrat Nizamuddin resided in Delhi in early 14th century & belonged to the Chishtiyya order of Sufism (to which also belonged saint Salim Chishti). Following Nizamuddin's teachings, Azim started on the path of broad-minded religiosity & forbearance, giving up his earlier life as a soldier & starting in the direction of spirituality as a mendicant. After a course of some years, Azim came to be known far & wide for his penances & people started to revere him & came to him to ask for guidance as well as solutions to their problems. To prevent people from flocking to him & disturbing his peace of mind, somewhere in early 17th century Azim decided to build a residence-cum-tomb for himself atop a summit of a hill surrounded by pointed rocks & barren land. His decision to reside on the chosen hill was guided by the fact that it was accessible only to a select few because of its height & almost unscalable vertical walls, & also because it reminded him of the story of Akbar meeting Salim Chishti atop a similarly unscalable hill (the lore doesn't tell us how did Azim, Akbar & the Sufi used to climb these hills in the first place if they were so high & dangerous).

History's Mysteries - Shrine of a General??

Centuries later, when Britain converted India into one of her colonies & let its men amok on the face of the country, the British soldiers converted this tomb into a hill-top resort meant for late night partying. They would come here in groups, often with mistresses, bring along booze & servants, & make merry. Most of these parties were held at the end of the winters, before the Brits departed from Delhi to their summer capital in nearby hill city of Shimla. They took pride in displaying their climbing & physical skills to their friends & considered scaling the hill’s sheer walls a mark of their strength & manhood.

After the British departed from the country, along came the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.), the agency entrusted with the upkeep, protection & beautification of monuments within the country, who after initially ignoring the tomb for decades, recently decided to build a staircase leading up the hill to reach the tomb. The staircase is complete now, its wide steps have been set so as to match with the surrounding hill sides & present a picture of harmony. But still the tomb lies deserted, ignored by passer-bys as well as tourists arriving at the nearby World Heritage Site of Qutb Complex. Perhaps people still find the steep climb daunting. Whatever might be the reason, Azim Khan’s Tomb would have made even Count Dracula envious were he to visit Delhi. The Count’s fortress in Transylvania, covered by a thick pal of fog & chill, invites no visitor. Azim’s Tomb on the other hand lies unvisited despite being in open view & visible from a very busy highway on one side (the Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road).

Inside Azim's Tomb - Too meager for Dracula??

The square tomb is pierced by entrances along its three sides, however these entrances lie perennially locked by grilles in a bid to keep out vandals/scribblers who are so numerous throughout the city. The dome, topped by an inverted-lotus finial, rests on an octagonal base (drum). The tomb walls, as well as the drum, feature kanguras – ornamentations that resemble battlements, protruding vertically. Squirrels run around the tomb, feeding at rice & nuts left for them by the caretakers/locals. An earthen bowl filled with water was kept nearby. Wild yet beautiful flowers grew on the hill side, often in tandem with thorny bushes & desert plants that inhabit such rocky & barren lands. When I visited the structure, I found the caretaker assigned by the A.S.I. asleep on one of the benches placed there for the tourists. Were he awake too, he wouldn’t have been able to open the tomb for me since A.S.I. sealed off the iron-grilles barring its entrances with nuts & bolts - perhaps they felt that locks can be easily broken into. Clever chaps!! The tomb, plastered & cream-ish in colour, is now blackened because of the rains & vegetation, despite being restored just some time back by the A.S.I. The fear of the precipice surrounding the tomb ensures that not many people wander off to its rear sides, I did, & what I saw again put to shame the deeds of fellow Delhites. The walls of the tomb were defaced with graffiti & the love letters that wandering Romeos saw fit to emblazon here. I must have been there for only about 30 minutes, taking in the charm of the place, adoring the sights visible in the distance - the Qutb Minar, the tomb of Adham Khan, Mahavira statue atop Ahinsa Sthal etc, when there arrived a group of college kids with a bottle of alcohol & disposable glasses, & no marks for guessing where they decided to hang out – at the rear of the tomb!!

I feel sorry for Kishor, a worthless bastard!!

The fourth wall of the tomb, the one overseeing the most dizzying cliff-face, does not have an opening & instead its interior functions as a mihrab (wall faced by Muslims while praying, indicating the direction of Mecca). Inside, beautiful patterns cover the ornamental arches, the dome rests on a layer of small, arched alcoves meant for decoration. While there is no sarcophagus inside the tomb, two graves lie outside - the larger of these two has calligraphic inscriptions along its sides - both of them however are in a run-down condition, broken, crumbling & exposed to the fury of nature. It has been claimed that the grave inside is buried deep within the hill right underneath the chamber, though this also remains mere speculation. Strategically placed stone benches flank the graves outside.

Look what I found!!

Even today, a lot of monuments that aren’t so well known, or are not deemed that high in terms of heritage &/or architectural value, are looked after by families & caretakers who live nearby (not on Govt.’s payroll). These people either consider themselves the blood family of the occupant/builder of these tombs/structures, or are religious followers & part-time priests. In the absence of Govt. funds & upkeep, these people often protect these structures from hoodlums & demolition. One such family looked after the tomb of Azim Khan but they were forced to migrate to Pakistan at the time of India’s independence from British rule in 1947 & subsequent partition to create Muslim-dominated Pakistan & Bangladesh. Gone with them are all the records & the history of the inhabitant of the tomb, & no one is left to care for it & defend it from inebriated fellas & rowdy vandals. Perhaps they could have shed some light on the mysterious occupants & their lives. The tomb should have qualified as a religious spot since Azim too became a man of God later in his life, but even that is contested since the officials have not yet been able to ascertain if it is actually the tomb of Azim Khan or someone else. Perhaps it never will be found out for sure. No documentation exists for the tomb, & all the stories are actually passed down from elders to the subsequent generations in the nearby villages, & of course distortions & fantasies encapsulate the kernel of truth that these stories possess. Such is the sad state of affairs that so many heritage structures & buildings find themselves in the national capital!!

PS: If time permits, do visit the nearby Ahinsa Sthal ("Abode of Non-Violence", refer Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal). The view of Azim Khan's Tomb from the heights of Ahinsa Sthal is simply breathtaking.

The view from Ahinsa Sthal

Location: Lado Serai, Mehrauli
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
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 Lado Serai stop is situated at a crossroad & Azim Khan’s Tomb is visible behind the trees & the traffic.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Relevant Links -

January 01, 2013

Ahinsa Sthal, New Delhi

Some 800 years ago, when Islamic armies led by Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Muizuddin bin Sam (Muhammad Ghuri) first appeared at Indian borders threatening to conquer the country, the Hindu Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan assembled a huge army to face this new challenge. Valiant & indefatigable, he defeated Muhammad’s forces, administering them a crushing blow in the First Battle of Tarain (1191 AD) & even capturing Muhammad himself. Magnanimous in his victory, Prithviraj treated Muhammad with all respect due to a king, & against the advice of his foreseeing ministers freed him & gave him safe passage to return to his kingdom in Afghanistan. A year later, Muhammad again amassed an even mightier army & marched once again against Prithviraj. This time around, he vanquished & chased the army of Prithviraj & his 150 brethren Rajput rulers. Prithviraj himself was captured & later killed. One by one, all the provinces in India including Tibet, Bengal, Bihar & Deccan (Central India) fell to Muhammad’s marauding army looking for loot & treasure. The entire country was ravaged, its wealth & women carried away by the Afghans, a large part of the population either killed or converted to slaves, its foundations demolished & rulers humiliated. Prithviraj himself was immortalized & lionized in folklore & bardic tradition. But the country he left behind bore the brunt of the war. After converting India into his fief, Muhammad retired to his kingdom leaving his favourite slave & army commander Qutbuddin Aibak in-charge of the unruly lands of India. A fanatic Muslim & a loyal slave, Qutbuddin decided to forward the name of his master & his religion in this new land by constructing mosques & felling temples that already existed here. He fell 27 Hindu & Jain temples in Mehrauli in South Delhi & established the gigantic mosque Quwwat-ul-Islam (“the Might of Islam”). 800 years later, though the scars of this temple destruction & religious bickering are yet to heal completely, most of the citizens of this holy land have accepted, although uneasily, a life of mutual understanding & co-existence. The Jains, believers in peace & non-violence, instead of demanding that the Quwwat mosque be fell to make way for a temple of their denomination like some Hindus did, built a temple for themselves nearby. The Ahinsa Sthal (“Abode of Non-Violence”) was established in 1980 close to the Qutb Complex (where the Quwwat Mosque is situated).

To peace & tolerance..

Boasting of a large statue of Mahavira (599-27 BC), the last Tirthankar (spiritual guide) of the Jain faith, seated atop a high hill & surrounded by landscaped gardens, Ahinsa Sthal comes as close to a peaceful & uninterrupted spot in Delhi as possible. The stone statue, 14 feet tall, seated on a lotus placed on a pedestal & flanked by statues of lions & ornaments-clad attendants, presents a glorious picture. Glimmering in the bright sunshine, Mahavira sits meditating about the human life & preaches a lesson of religious tolerance & universal brotherhood (Ironic after Qutbuddin’s actions, right??). As one enters the compound, the guards motion one to take off their shoes & place them underneath any of the several benches placed within the garden complex. Though a notice board proclaimed that “Photography is prohibited”, the guards said one can take photos as long as they do not disturb anyone else in the park. I wasn’t there to disturb anyone!! Perambulating the lawns of this not-so-large garden, I noticed statues of apsaras (divine maidens) placed underneath trees & among bushes, many of them holding musical instruments, others offering tributes to Mahavira. Large painted boards, arranged alongside the larger trees along the walkways, threw light on Mahavira’s life & teachings, & also the tenets & ethics of the Jain faith. I also noticed a few couples engrossed in talking to their partners seated close to the edge of the park, of course maintain their distance from each other. It is the first time I saw couples flocking to a religious spot in search of isolation & privacy. A few families, apparently in picnic mood, sat sprawled in the lawns, chatting & sharing light snacks. Eating & running about the lawns is prohibited. In the centre is the hill, visible from some distance outside the complex, but more or less hidden behind the surroundings. Of course, I saw the statue already from the heights of the adjacent tomb of Azim Khan. I climbed up the stone stairs, again marveling at the clever placement of the apsara statues (& a small, white marble cow too!!) to blend them with the flora.

Goddess amongst the bushes

The green cover is very well maintained here – ancient Indians believed that the presence of holy men could induce fertility to everything around them & make even barren land & rocky plateaus lush with plants, many people still believe that it was the Mahavira statue that actually made the hill sides go green. On the first level of the hill, one faces a clearing, stairs projecting upwards on either side & the Jain flags visible fluttering towards the top. The portion towards the opposite side of the hill (behind the stairs) is forbidden for tourists. A large bell hung from a blue nylon rope in front of a cavity in the opposite wall where a huge stone monolith & a photograph of some man were placed. The man gazes sideways as people kept coming to ring the bell. Its loud sound actually hurts the ears if one stands as close as I did!!

Level 1

The monolith was sculpted to show a lioness & a cow drinking from the same vessel, while the lioness fed its milk to a calf & the cow fed a lion cub. It must have been representing justice (the weak & the strong existing together & partaking the same resources) & equality (both feeding each other’s kids) - again an irony in the country. Lions were also part of the insignia of the royal family to which Mahavira belonged. He took the pledge of a solitary existence & gave up his kingdom & all his comforts when he began on the path to seek enlightenment  I climbed up the stairs to reach the summit where the Mahavira statue was kept. There wasn’t much to do here – a few families sat on the mats placed near the statue, again chewing chips & snacks, a few Jain pilgrims prayed near the statue, a few lighted incense sticks. More lions in the form of stone statues, & a lion head carved out into the plinth over which the Mahavira idol rested. The plinth itself is carved with certain couplets describing Mahavira’s ideology. The thing that certainly put me off were the names of the patrons who contributed financially for the erection of this statue inscribed on Mahavira's seat. Seriously, why do you have to be such a show-off??

Stunning, right??

A guard looked bored sitting in the small compartment built near the rear of the level. I spent some time around, thinking what to do, photographing the statues, the people, the environs & of course standing near the railing & gazing down at the visitors coming & going. Nah, there wasn’t anything much to do. I left, sort of bored & disappointed. This is a charming place no doubt, perfect for contemplation. The Jains were successful in creating a place, silent, tranquil & sacred, where meditation is possible despite the noise & fumes from the highway that passes next to it. But if you are not one up for meditation or sitting around idly, this isn’t the place for you. It is more like a normal park where people go in the evenings for walk, except that there is a huge idol instead of the swings & the merry go-rounds. Off I go somewhere else then..

In service of the Lord..

Location: Mehrauli
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
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 Lado Serai stop is situated at a crossroad & at one side, one can see a large domed-structure seated on a high hill (Azim Khan’s Tomb) rising high behind the trees & the traffic. Walk towards the tomb. Ahinsa Sthal is enroute & marked with large signboards & a huge gate.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Relevant Links -