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 -


  1. AnonymousMay 17, 2013

    Excellent Sahil,

    Like I said, I will have to go back in there again!


  2. Nirdesh when you do, do let me know. I could not explore these ruins properly since the vegetation cover did not seem to end & I wasn't sure if I should go further in without company!!

    I'll be obliged.

  3. You have an awesome research for posting these blog. I must say to you are delhites........Awesome work dude.