December 12, 2014

South Ex. Trail, Delhi

Refuge of religion! Refuge and paradise of justice!
Long may it endure!
Since it is a heavenly paradise in every essential quality,
may God keep it from calamity!"
– Amir Khusro, "Qiran al-sa'dain", 14th century

Surprisingly, if there is an area in Delhi which renews one's faith in humanity's obstinate permanence and repetitive resurgence despite recurrent cataclysms and mortality-induced banalities, it would be South Ex., the commercial heart of the city, that is intriguingly strewn with ornate monuments over half a millennium old that have weathered centuries of oppressively sweltering summers and bone-chilling winters and yet, with its fascinating hodgepodge of designer showrooms, multi-storied coaching centers, glimmering neon signs and glitzy restaurants, appears as new as a fresh idea. Amidst the serpentine, perennially crowded, maze of ubiquitous glass and cement mega-structures are scattered a few miniature, painstakingly adorned early Lodi-era (AD 1451-1526) mausoleums that each stands within a small landscaped grassy lawn of its own and are in such close vicinity to each other that one necessarily feels that they were originally intended as a cluster existential within a larger garden complex but have since become drastically estranged from each other as a result of burgeoning urbanization and commercialization of land space. Needless to say, the disproportionately minimal space around each of these structures renders photography and visual composition exceedingly difficult, but does indeed propel one to imagine what these might have appeared like in their erstwhile majesty when surrounded by vast open grassy plains as far as the eye could see.

Desolation! - Kale Khan ka Gumbad

Kale Khan ka Gumbad –

Coordinates: 28°34'12.5"N 77°13'08.2"E
Literally translating to "Tomb of the Black Khan", the decrepit (yet ruggedly elegant) square mausoleum, the first that a solitary visitor wandering into the back lanes of South Ex's otherwise glittering expanse encounters, encapsulates in itself the mortal remains of Mubarak Khan Lohani who was a nobleman during the reign of Bahlol Lodi (ruled AD 1451-89) and whom many historians consider to be the father of Darya Khan Lohani (more on him later). The crumbling yet evocative edifice, built in AD 1481 and royally seated upon a high sloping mound of its own, dominates the area around itself despite the circumstances it finds itself in presently – the small lawn that surrounds it, though landscaped with a shroud of green grass and rows of palm trees, has become an oasis for couples shopping/feasting nearby, students attending coaching classes and smokers wishing for a respite from the sweltering sun and a corner to sit around and gossip.

Externally, the tomb's walls are conceived to present a double-storied appearance wherein narrow alcoves are set on either side of the larger central arch which is itself set within an even larger arched depression which in turn is set within a projecting rectangular facade. The roof, before culminating into the perfectly executed semi-circular dome, translates into a row of "kanguras" (battlement-like ornamentation) lining also the drum (base) of the dome.

Spotted on the trail

Entrances mark three of the sides while the fourth (western), that lacks any opening, functions in the capacity of mihrab (western wall of a mosque/tomb that indicates the direction of Mecca and is faced by Muslims while offering namaz); the interiors, even more dilapidated than the exteriors which at least display some semblance of having been plastered as part of a restoration effort in the past, retain remnants of plasterwork medallions and a eight-cornered star pattern adorning the dome that might have been vibrantly painted and decorated once but at present offers not the slightest clue to its original glorious existence; there are two graves within, possibly those of Mubarak Khan and his wife. Why the tomb is referred to as that of the Black Khan is a matter of conjecture, but some suspect it might be because of Mubarak Khan's dark complexion, even though no historic records specifically refer to it. Interestingly, of all the Lodi-era monuments, it has been dated to be the earliest and represents a crucial step from pre-Lodi mausoleums (that were predominantly octagonal or otherwise built like a small forceful structure complete with buttresses and thick walls) to the innovation of highly symmetrical square structures – all the more reason for its restoration and conservation for future generations to observe, research and understand.

Hemmed in - Bhure Khan ka Gumbad

Bhure Khan ka Gumbad –

Coordinates: 28°34'20.4"N 77°13'14.9"E
Another distinctive tomb whose nomenclature perhaps invokes a reference to the complexion of the person interred even though the actual identity remains unknown, "Tomb of the Fair Khan" is similar to Kale Khan ka Gumbad in almost all aspects with the only exception that is slightly perceptibly better embellished with a smattering of decorative plasterwork patterns, tapering fluted pillars and brilliant blue tile work along its front facade, inverted lotus finial surmounting the dome and pendant-shaped medallions marking the space in the dome interiors where the larger painted star-pattern is extended so that its vertexes project to intersect the row of ornamental alcoves that adorn the base of the large dome. A large grave occupies most of the interior space and even the squinches (diagonal added between two arms of a corner so as to span space and convert a square structure successively into a octagon and then a polygon/circle to support the heavy dome) are better defined and decorated. Thoroughly filled with cobwebs and foul-smelling refuse, a narrow staircase next to the entrance leads upstairs to the roof level, however the panoramic view around is entirely impeded by the surrounding whitewashed buildings and treeline. The tiny tomb exists in a deplorable condition, wedged between towering houses that overshadow it on two sides, a parking lot turned into a dump yard-cum-cow shed on the third and barbed fences demarcating the extent of the meager confine of land surrounding the tomb on the fourth. The only possible way of entering this fenced-in space if one wishes to observe the monument close and personal is by jumping over the fence along the dump yard side at the cost of spoiling one's shoes with muck and cow shit, or worse, tearing one's trousers on the barbed wires!

Silence and serenity - Bade Khan (left) and Chote Khan (right) ka Gumbad

Bade Khan – Chote Khan Tomb complex –

Coordinates: 28°34'23.7"N 77°13'11.6"E
The only facet of the identities of Bade Khan ("Big Khan") and Chote Khan ("Small Khan") apparent today is that they were eminent noblemen in Lodi regime and possibly shared a relationship amongst themselves such as that of father-son or teacher-pupil. It is contended that originally the three architecturally and artistically similar tombs of Bhure Khan, Bade Khan and Chote Khan were included within the same larger complex but have since become partitioned into two different complexes as a consequence of glaring blunders that Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) committed in an overzealous attempt at monument conservation whereby without any prior notification they demolished buildings constructed by a certain Nahata Group of Traders and Builders who had overtime come to own the crucial land between the tombs. Following this, the Nahata Group pressed legal charges against ASI demanding financial compensation for illegal demolition and the entire area has since been fenced in with barbed wires with notices put up threatening action against trespassers. Thankfully, the remaining plot has been beautifully maintained as a garden by the ASI and there are towering trees flanking the circumference, green grass carpeting the lawns and flowering shrubbery demarcating the walkways. Young children from nearby slums and construction sites run around playing games of their own making, a few walkers stroll around the walkways and the tombs function as majestic bedrooms for a few laborers and gardeners.

Exquisiteness personified - Stucco patterns, Chote Khan ka Gumbad

Though the better preserved Chote Khan ka Gumbad is kept grilled and locked most of the time, the friendly caretaker will instantaneously open it up if requested. Lavishly embellished with an extravagant layer of incised plasterwork patterns crafted into rows upon rows of intricate Quranic inscriptions and floral motifs, the cream-pink exquisite tomb is unarguably architecturally and artistically the most delightful of the lot traversed in this particular trail. The use of vibrant blue tiles along the facades, tapering turrets projecting along the tops of the rectangular embossments that frame the arched entrances, stone latticework ("jalis") to mark the two openings which do not function as entrance gateways (the fourth side functions in the capacity of a mihrab) and hexagonal "chattris" (umbrella domes surmounted on slender pillars) mounted on the corners of the roof contrasted against the massive perfectly designed dome lend further credence to the ornamental conception of the mesmerizing structure. Where mankind failed, further charm is added by nature in the form of colorful parakeets that flutter around the tomb's chattris and sides and sleepy-eyed owls that occasionally peep through their nest holes in the walls.

Inside, the arches engulfing the squinches, the curve of the entrances and the smaller decorative alcoves that fringe the base of the dome too are layered with stucco inscriptions. The sober red sandstone mihrab is exceedingly simplistic and yet undeniably touching while the impressive star pattern adorning the roof couldn't have been envisaged more gracefully. I'll let the photographs do the talking since words fail to convey the eminence of the alluring structure.

"Hey, look! What's that bespectacled guy with the camera trying to do?!"

Bade Khan's spectacularly prominent tomb, though irresistibly simplistic and covered only with red-brown stone rubble, is literally gigantic and has been externally conceived to appear triple-storied through the assistance of narrow arched alcoves and windows on different levels. The massive tomb packs numerous intriguing surprises such as the occasional blocks of singular sculpted stones bearing calligraphic inscriptions embedded within the walls relieving the continuous monotony, corbelled doorways crafted out of red sandstone lintels artistically carved to generate the appearance of arches, small chattris surrounding the colossal dominant dome, the use of detailed stone latticework to close off two of the entrances and most interestingly, ornamental semi-octagonal pillars ("pilasters") built within the walls along the corners – a feature that is unique to this particular tomb amongst all medieval structures in Delhi. The shallow dome rises from a sixteen-sided drum (base) whose each corner is marked by a slender tapering turret. The grand interiors are relatively better preserved and the plasterwork medallions, cobblestone floor, red sandstone mihrab, star pattern adorning the roof and the five large sarcophagi are all intact. The incised plaster medallion inside the star pattern, displaying collinear bands of inscriptions and floral and geometric motifs, is amazingly well preserved and fascinatingly intricate.

Notice the unique corner towers! - Bade Khan ka Gumbad

Darya Khan Lohani's Tomb –

Coordinates: 28°34'20.1"N 77°13'00.3"E
The contrast between the tombs of Mubarak Khan and Darya Khan couldn't have been more glaring. Constructed in a three-tiered setting, one of the most unusual, although grievously neglected, tombs in the city belongs to Darya Khan Lohani, the "Mir Adil" (Chief Justice) during the reigns of Sultan Bahlol Lodi (ruled AD 1451-89) and Sikandar Nizam Khan Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517). It today functions as a forgotten and ignored traffic roundabout in Kidwai Nagar where it delineates the urban village setting of Kotla Mubarakpur from the exceedingly posh South Extension I. What can be said to constitute the tomb proper is raised from the surroundings by an immensely high square platform which possesses remains of circular bastions along the corners – rubble slopes continue to hinge the platform to the ground around on all sides, however it is deduced that along one of the sides originally existed a regal gateway which has since been reduced to rubble by nature's fury. One wonders how much of the irrevocable damage was heaved to the fragile monument by the enormous heat, noise and material pressure exerted by the annual Dussehra festivities that saw effigies of the demon lord Ravana being burnt in its immediate vicinity till a few years back!

Unusual and beckoning - Darya Khan Lohani's tomb

Upon this pedestal and exactly symmetrical with it is another comparatively smaller pedestal accessible via staircases on three sides and crowned on each corner by a domed twelve-pillared stone pavilion (chattri/barakhamba). In the center of this second pedestal lies a moderately high circular edifice (which presently acts as a site for the locals to sprinkle grain and sweets for the birds and insects which flock to it in hundreds every day) on which in an excessively simplistic grave enclosed in white marble sleeps Darya Khan in eternal slumber. Only one of the four square chattris survives in its entirety while the rest exist miserably in different stages of ruin – the interior surfaces of the domes were inscribed with floral medallions and handsome bands of calligraphy, possibly Quranic, but that couldn't save them from destruction, the pillars are thick, perfectly carved and thoroughly unblemished, the use of squinches to successively convert the square configuration to circular is immediately notable, kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) decorate the proportionately high octagonal bases of the domes.

Amongst ruins, here lies Darya Khan, a powerful Afghan noble

Pigeons find resting space upon the large domes and underneath meet doting couples looking for a quiet cozy corner, laymen coveting some space to doze around or play cards and locals congregating to gossip. There have been attempts to landscape the upper platform with rows of palm trees extending alongside the sides and shrouds of grass carpeting the entire area. Ashoka trees reach out from the lowermost surface and, much to the pleasure of squirrels who like nothing more than hopping around, spread their wide, crinkled branches over the domed pavilions.

In view of full disclosure, I find these ruins more fascinating than the splendid whole.

It would be fitting to end this article with words drawn from R.V. Smith, my favorite chronicler of Delhi's history and monuments, reflecting upon the neglect and ignorance faced by these tombs in particular and almost all monuments in the country in general in terms of restoration-conservation and historic appreciation –

"The gumbads (domes) of Delhi are also repositories of history which, however, are not given the attention they deserve. Domes came into prominence during the Muslim period, though there certainly were domed buildings before that time, but Hindu temples and other edifices, by and large, lacked the finesse and excellence of the domes that came up later."

Symmetry, stars and medallions - Inside Chote Khan's mausoleum

Nearest Bus stop: South Ex. I
Nearest Metro station: AIIMS
How to reach: From the Ring Road, take the street beginning immediately besides Nalli Sarees or the Louis Philippe store and you will come across Kale Khan ka Gumbad after walking less than half a kilometer. Afterwards walk straight with your back to Ring Road and ask directions for Bade/Chote Khan ka Gumbad and the locals will direct you. Darya Khan Lohani's tomb is located in the middle of a roundabout known as Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Chowk near Kidwai Nagar market/post office.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20-25 minutes per monument
Other trails in the city - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Road - Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium Trail 
  2. Pixelated Memories - R.K. Puram Trail 
Suggested reading -
  1. - Article "Heritage bylaw delay hits locals" (dated Mar 9, 2014) by Richi Verma
  2. - Article "Lodi Tombs in South Extension stand divided" (dated June 29, 2012) by Richi Verma

November 15, 2014

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi

Regarded as one of the holiest Sikh shrines in the city and one of the prettiest Gurudwara (Sikh temple) in the country, Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, lined with tons of evocative pearlesque-white marble and surmounted by striking gold domes, was originally the regal mansion of Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, the Rajput king of Jaipur (then known as Amber). In fact, it derives its name too from the word “Bangla”, the Hindi/Punjabi translation of “mansion”, even though it has been transformed into a magnificent shrine and today draws thousands of visitors, including hundreds of foreign tourists, from the city and outside everyday. Dedicated to the memory of Guru Harkrishan, the eighth of ten Sikh spiritual leaders, who, upon being summoned to Delhi by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1657-1707) and following the invitation of Raja Jai Singh I, briefly stayed in this mansion before his untimely demise at the age of eight caused from getting inflicted with smallpox while serving patients of the disease who flocked to his assembly everyday in the hope of solace and treatment.

In Guru's memory - Gurudwara Bangla Sahib

Much to the unabated chagrin of his elder brother Ram Rai who had him summoned to the royal court, Guru Harkrishan was reasonably declared the Sikh spiritual leader by their father Guru Har Rai at the tender age of five and proved his religious understanding and spiritual and mystical capabilities through several inconceivable episodes that occurred during his short lifetime before succumbing to the disease. Ram Rai himself was disowned by their father on account of his hobnobbing to the Mughal Emperor who was a declared political and religious enemy of the Sikhs. It is said that when the Guru first arrived at Raja Jai Singh’s mansion, the latter’s queen, intent on ascertaining the Guru’s mystical powers dressed herself as a handmaid and hid amongst her servants whom she had lavishly attired and adorned with jewelry, but was astonished when the Guru immediately recognized her as queen and thanked her for the hospitality extended by her household. The gorgeous mansion was converted into the prominent Gurudwara following the Sikh warlord Banda Bahadur’s invasion of Delhi (AD 1783) and was one of the nine mesmerizing Gurudwaras he raised; it was renovated and given this present magnificent appearance few years post-1947 when India achieved independence from British colonial rule. It is extremely difficult to believe that such a massive and unbelievably gorgeous structure was once a mere mansion, that too of a vassal sovereign of a small territory!

The Gurudwara is entered via a tall arched gateway surmounted by five onion chattris (domes raised on pillars) and faced with painstakingly polished, glistening white marble inset with colorful stones embedded in numerous floral patterns and Sikh religious motifs. The area around the Gurudwara bears a rushed, crowded look throughout the day since the shrine is extremely popular, especially amongst locals who come from near and far to pay their respects and also to marvel at the majestic regal architecture. The first thing that catches one’s eye, even before the long streaming queues of devotees waiting to enter, are the stunning pointed domes of the structure – the three gold-plated onions surmounting the building and the single superbly crafted marble onion on either side of the entrance. Other prominent architectural features include chattris, pavilions with curved tops lining the roof and exquisitely crafted, multi-arched hanging windows (“jharokhas”). The courtyard surrounding the central building, accessible from the road level by a flight of stairs, is vast and afterwards most devotees prefer to sit along the sides, especially if the purpose for visiting is photography.

A touch of gold!

The interiors are spellbinding – immediately upon stepping within, one is exposed to a large, mesmerizing shrine built entirely from gold and ornamented with a plethora of floral and religious motifs embossed into the gold work; especially intricate are the peacock figurines and the rounded vases from which emerge numerous convoluting, blossoming vines rising vertically upwards; Sikh symbolism, in the form of the recognizable motif of a vertical spear crossed over a pair of curved swords, lines the marble walls and decorates the patterns in gold; the thick rectangular pillars, each covered in layers of gold and also ornamented with the endearing vases overflowing with a vertical expansion of vines and floral blossoms, are especially admirable; lastly, the golden roof, polished to mirror-like perfection and bathed in a orange-gold glow by a large chandelier, reflects all the visitors, but proves frustratingly difficult to photograph. At the end of the elongated area on either side of which sit devotees, underneath an immensely intricately sculpted curved gold shrine is placed a copy of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy scripture; elderly musicians seated next to the canopied shrine sing melodious sermons and invocations referring to God and the Gurus while a priest continuously fans the hallowed text. The affluent, orange-hued gold extravaganza, rows of flower vases, expensive carpets and the rich canopy overhanging the shrine impart an unbelievably fascinating visual existence that is hard to replicate in photographs and even harder to contemplate in words – it is a sight and an experience that can only be registered on an emotional and visual level – of course, the irrepressible pushing and shoving by other devotees striving unnecessarily urgently to reach the shrine spoils the experience to an extent, but it is nonetheless worth being there.

Music for exhausted souls

A large “langar khana” (“food hall”) behind the Gurudwara accommodates visitors on the floor irrespective of any distinction of economic, social or religious status and daily serves 10,000 meals of simple vegetarian fare free of cost to everyone. Enormous quantities of food, including roti (Indian bread), lentils and vegetables is voluntarily prepared by several devotees themselves as a philanthropic measure from the raw materials charitably contributed by more affluent devotees – the entire idea is that of a large community kitchen where everyone can mingle together with dignity and companionship and partake food free of cost irrespective of any distinction, differences or bitterness. The “karha prasad” (a thick pudding cooked from wheat flour, clarified butter and sugar) served at the gateway of the shrine is blissfully delicious (though my personal favorite remains that served at Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib, Chandni Chowk, refer Pixelated Memories - Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib). Across the expansive courtyard extra servings of the savory prasad can also be purchased from a counter near the entrance gateway – a receipt will be generated at the counter which, upon being produced before the person serving the prasad, will be exchanged for a quantity of it – interestingly, after filling up a disposable bowl for a visitor and handing it over, the person serving will retract a small quantity of it and mix it back in the larger vessel as symbolic of a person sharing from his own plate – this, surprising for me since I had seen it for the first time, made me get a second helping since the first proved less than what I desired to have; I also had some packed separately to take home for my cousins with whom I was staying then. From one side of the courtyard, stairs lead downstairs to another courtyard flanked on all sides by Gurudwara managing committee offices and hostels – here, a massive well, canopied by a wide octagonal roof and an onion dome, is especially revered. Legend is that Guru Harkrishan dipped his feet in its water and ordered his followers to give the water to the diseased and pox-inflicted as a cure for their troubles. He earned the title of “Baal Peer” (“Child saint”) due to his ability to cure the sick and the destitute. Even today, the well is manned by numerous devotees who draw the water into large bowls and offer it to hundreds of faithfuls who believe in Guru Harkrishan’s magical and spiritual sanctity and come to the Gurudwara for a sip of the hallowed water. The only difference between then and now being today water is drawn through taps and not pails! The Gurudwara’s charitable acts do not end here – a hospital, a library and a girl’s school are also run in the buildings adjacent which also house a museum and an art gallery.

Sacred water - The canopied well associated with Guru Harkrishan's healing powers

It is the other side of the Gurudwara that is the most famous – a massive “Sarovar” (water tank) with clear blue water and large, colorful fishes exists on this side and reflects a perfect reflection of the Gurudwara building and its golden domes and colonnades. This frame is perhaps the most famous visual composition when photographing the Gurudwara despite the fact that photography from here is prohibited and requires special permission. The caretakers and cleaners of the Gurudwara keep patrolling around the tank, stopping people from clicking and asking swimmers to step out if they have been in too long. A small rectangular changing room for women exists along one of the corners of the tank too. Colonnades surround the courtyard around the water tank and the corners are domed to appear externally like diminutive towers (“burj”).

It is best to visit the Gurudwara at night when it is lit up beautifully and the lights reflect in the black waters of the tank to generate a mesmerizing image imprinted on the overall darkness of the surroundings. The place also wears a festive look on Guru purab, Diwali and Guru Harkrishan’s birth anniversary.

Advisory – Men and women are required to leave their footwear at the shoe counter located outside the Gurudwara complex before entering within and also cover their heads with handkerchiefs or dupattas (long scarves). Being a religious shrine, it is advisable to dress modestly.

Nighttime beauty!

Location: Jaisinghpura, Connaught Place
Nearest metro station: Patel Chowk (1.1 km away)
How to reach: Walk/avail an auto/e-rickshaw from the metro station to the Gurudwara
Open: All days, sunrise to midnight
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography charges: Nil (Permission has to be solicited for clicking around the tank level, but everybody clicks anyway). Videos prohibited.
Relevant Link - 
Suggested reading - 

November 07, 2014

The Gandhi mural and Abdul Nabi's mosque, ITO Crossing, Delhi

Invisible to the steady stream of pedestrians and motorists alike who whirl around it in uncoordinated patterns, an almost unheard of little gem that retains inappreciably little of its original characteristics to reveal its enviable antiquity and modest beauty to the undiscerning is tucked in at the intersection of two of the busiest roads in Delhi and close to one of the most important landmarks in the city’s geography. Ignored by heritage and history enthusiasts who seem to have irrevocably forgotten of its modest existence, Sheikh Abdul Nabi’s mosque, located at the indisputably well-known ITO intersection and shadowed by the towering buildings that house the headquarters of Delhi Police, Income Tax Department and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), was commissioned and christened as his namesake in AD 1575-76 by the "Diwan" (“Supervisor of Accounts”) in the court of Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). The gorgeous mosque, seated with its back to the traffic intersection that is famed for its traffic jams as well as for being a geographical link between different medieval cities of Delhi, has been transformed into one of the prettiest oases that could ever exist in such close vicinity to the bustling intersection indescribably dominated by pollution, noise and an unabated deluge of humanity by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind ("Organization of Indian Islamic scholars"), one of the oldest and most peaceful Muslim organizations in the country, headquartered in the splendid structure.

Courtyard view, Abdul Nabi's mosque

In the history of Indian freedom struggle, the Jamiat, established in 1919 by some of the most influential Islamic scholars of the subcontinent, was the only Muslim organization that did not align itself with the Muslim League and its unrelenting demand for a separate nation for the Muslim population of the country (later recognized as Pakistan) – following independence too, the Jamiat propounded the theory that by signing the Constitution of India, Muslim elected representatives have entered an agreement (“mu’ahadah”) with the majority Hindu population of the country to establish a secular state and it is the responsibility of all Muslims in the country to honor the agreement. The simplistic, rubble-built mosque of Abdul Nabi, consisting of a large rectangular structure surmounted by a single, plastered over, unproportionally large dome rising from a sixteen-sided drum (base), has been expanded into a massive structure by the Jamiat who have added three wings of triple-floor hostel-like accommodations in front of the mosque creating an enclosed courtyard space in the center. The courtyard, superbly landscaped into a small garden area complete with numerous potted plants, grass-lined cobblestone walkways and fountains brimming with clear water, can be accessed by a flight of stairs emanating from the mosque’s huge front edifice. A gigantic, strikingly handsome screen, composed of stone lattice work (“jaali”) and vibrantly colorful tiles, with three huge arched openings mirroring the considerably smaller arched entrances of the mosque, exists in front of the latter as a modern extension; two sets of thick, towering pillars exist near the older structure supporting the immensely high roof that encompasses the area between the older mosque’s exterior walls and the majestic screens; seminary offices exist along the ground floor.

Unbelievable tranquility in the throbbing heart of the city

The numerous rooms in the wings around the courtyard are sparse and accommodate bespectacled religious scholars with flowing white beards and cataract-veiled eyes – eager to welcome in visitors, they must be at least in their sixties and yet retain jovial smiles, generous talkative attitudes and twinkling eyes. The interiors of the mosque are exceedingly simplistic compared to the modernized exteriors and, except for the marble wall claddings along the base, are close to what Abdul Nabi would have envisioned them as – the large prayer chamber, painted white throughout, has been partitioned into three interconnected sections by means of walls pierced by large arched openings; the central chamber displays squinches along the roof (architectural bridging elements spanning a square chamber’s top corners so as to convert it into an octagonal entity capable of supporting the mass of a giant dome) while the side chambers still retain small, meager floral medallions composed of colorful glazed tiles which, despite their brilliance, appear to be half-hearted attempts at beautification of an otherwise bare structure; a bare line of ornamental arched niches each embedded in shallow individualized rectangular depressions also runs just below the squinches in the central chamber while the squinches themselves are adorned with meager arched patterns and small six-pointed star embossments crafted from stucco.

Clash of eras - The mosque and (background) the headquarters of Delhi Police and CPWD

Abdul Nabi enjoyed Emperor Akbar’s confidence and was sent by him to Mecca in AD 1584-85 to distribute the Emperor’s charity among the poor there, but upon his return he failed to account for the money properly and was imprisoned and executed on charges of corruption and embezzlement of state funds. It struck me interesting that in an unanticipated and unintended artistic decision which would perhaps have been darkly humorous had the correlation between Mahatma Gandhi, the “Messiah of Truthfulness”, and a medieval administrative officer executed for corruption not been subjected to the collective amnesia suffered by citizens of a city that has altogether relegated its intricate history and unsurpassable architectural heritage to a forgotten corner, the recently concluded 2014 Street Art Delhi Festival saw the Delhi Police Headquarters, located immediately opposite and overshadowing the mosque, etched with an impressive, realistic mural of Gandhi, the icon of truth, honesty, non-violence and peaceful coexistence between peoples of different nationalities, religions, creeds, genders and economic realities.

Impressive, right?! All I could say was "Wow"!

The 150 feet high X 38 feet wide imposing mural, dedicated to the city by Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung who inaugurated it, was completed in mere 5 days by Indian graffiti artist Anpu Varkey and German artist ECB Hendrik Beikirch and has since been lauded as a remarkable exemplar of art and a brilliant addition to the city’s streetscape which saw numerous vibrantly-colored and creatively-conceived graffiti patterns and textual messages being painted and splattered in numerous locations, most notably the urban villages of Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas and Khirki (see links in the end), besides the inconceivably poignant notes blossoming on the walls of the dreaded Tihar jail!

For me, the day wasn’t really going well – a dear friend I just met revealed her plans to shift to Russia permanently and besides the disappointment I did not have a plan on how to spend the rest of the day except roam around in the streets and look at people, buildings and monuments without very much photographing anything in particular – the mosque, with its joyous old men, and the colossal mural opposite, does help uplift the spirits once one decides to just sit down on the stairs and let all worries go and simply adore the artwork and the efforts that must have gone into completing it. For a change, the juxtaposition of the modern and the medieval and the intermingling of the two doesn’t appall me but makes me love this beautiful city just a little more, if that is even possible.


Location: ITO Crossing
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: Pragati Maidan
Nearest Bus stop: ITO Crossing/Lala R.C. Agarwal Chowk
Nearest Railway station: Tilak Bridge 
How to reach: Buses and trains are available from different parts of the city – the bus and train stations are just a stone's throw away from the mosque and Delhi Police headquarters. If coming by metro, one can avail a bus/auto plying towards ITO.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil. It is advisable to take permission first before photographing the mosque interiors since it is a seminary's headquarters.
Other graffitis in the city - 

October 29, 2014

Lodi Road - Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium Trail, Delhi

This is the second installment of the city's several heritage trails that might have once existed as part of certain larger historic tomb/monument clusters, in this case the hallowed Nizamuddin Dargah area and the landscaped Lodi Gardens, but are at present separated from these larger heritage zones by geographical separations morphing into unregulated colonies or major arterial roads and highways. This separation often introduces an element of being overboard and therefore being neglected by authorities and history enthusiasts alike – consequentially, some of these monuments have been encroached upon or being used as makeshift residences/night shelters by slum populations and beggars. Most however have been recently restored as part of the conservation drive necessitated by Commonwealth Games 2010 that Delhi hosted, an event that brought about propitious tidings for heritage enthusiasts besides sports lovers. The trail begins from Nizamuddin area from where, after visiting the Dargah and its associated structures or Humayun's tomb complex opposite, one can walk towards Lodi Gardens located approximately 3 kilometers away along a straight road, enroute covering four less known architectural gems beginning with Barakhamba monument and terminating the sojourn at Jawahar Lal Nehru (JLN) Stadium,

Links to the articles about the larger complexes flanking the trail –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  2. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Gardens (Bada Gumbad Complex)
  4. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Gardens (Muhammad Shah Saiyyid's Tomb)
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Gardens (Sheesh Gumbad)

Barakhamba monument –

Location: Mirza Ghalib Park, corner of Nizamuddin Basti at the intersection of Mathura road and Lodi road
Coordinates: (28.592487, 77.242499)

Barakhamba on a rainy day - Five domes, twelve pillars and an assortment of homeless and slum dwellers as residents!

Immediately abutting Nizamuddin Basti (officially Mirza Ghalib colony) is the irregularly-shaped Mirza Ghalib park with the Barakhamba as its centerpiece. In architectural lexicon “Barakhamba” translates to “twelve-pillared tomb”, however the solid structure present here is an innovative advancement over the simplistic twelve-pillared constructions – the large central domed square is surrounded by wide passages with identical arched entrances corresponding the central square’s entrances so that the resulting structure is a massive leviathan very different from the other Barakhambas scattered throughout the city. The unornamented structure conveys uninhibited strength, made more apparent by its almost 500-year existence (it is dated to Lodi-era (AD 1451-1526)), and stands rather purposefully on its location. The passages, when they intersect at the corners, are transformed into small square chambers demarcated by arched curtain walls and surmounted by smaller domes – the overall image being that of a fruit basket – a massive pomegranate-like dome surrounded on four sides by lemons, all of them edged in by the structure’s tall kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation). The entire structure stands on a high pedestal; wide eaves (“chajja”), supported on a continuous line of heavy stone brackets, run along the roof; the smaller arched entrances of the corner chambers, inset in rectangular depressions, complement the three taller entrances leading to the central square. There are no historical records indicating who the person buried underneath is, nor is there any grave inside. The interiors too are unadorned except for a huge monochromatic and very pretty medallion on the interior of the central dome.

Plastered perfection gone spoiled!

The structure has undergone restoration recently – the domes have been plastered over and appear perfectly outlined against the low skyline of the basti in the background, an effect not expected in a five century old structure; the walls nonetheless display the rough stone and rubble exterior and continue to exude an unquenchable masculinity, which must have been the original intention of the craftsmen, notwithstanding the feminine, flawless touch imparted to the domes. The pathways running around the tomb and the surrounding lawn were being dug and re-laid at alternate spots when I visited (August 2014), but I couldn’t fathom any reasonable explanation from the workers doing the digging work or the old men supervising them for this seemingly wanton destruction, especially after considering that the archaeological and municipal authorities otherwise cite lack of financial resources when it comes to the maintenance and conservation of monuments and their surroundings. Squatters and encroachments have been removed from the lawn and the structure cured of hideous graffiti and betel stains by chemical treatment and plastering over. But the tomb and the lush grassy lawns outside have been retaken by beggars and homeless who go seeking alms at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin in the evenings; homeless children of varying age groups can be seen running around and flying kites in the tree-covered lawn, while the elders stroll around or lie on the cool ground; several more sleep in the tomb or sit idly with little to do to spend the ample time on their hands.

Symmetry and light play - Barakhamba interiors

One result of the entire situation is that the lawn remains inundated with plastic waste and polythene garbage. In a city where, despite it lending its name to a major arterial road, another Barakhamba monument (Barakhamba, Connaught Place – tomb and road) was mercilessly destroyed, it can only be hoped that this Barakhamba and its associated green space survives heartily and does not, at least in near future, revert to its pre-restoration state when it was shockingly drenched with garbage. 

Do Siriya Gumbad –

Location: Couple of meters from Barakhamba
Coordinates: (28.592534, 77.241421)
Engulfed and overshadowed by tall buildings on all sides, the Do Siriya Gumbad (“Double-headed tomb” – I have no idea why it is referred to as such, there is only a single dome surmounting it), located in an extreme corner of Nizamuddin Basti, has been encroached upon to such a heart-wrenching extent that now the only portion of it visible from Lodi Road immediately besides it is its massive, rounded dome that peeps from behind the high rise apartments and a palm tree adjacent that could have been an original entity in the garden that existed around the tomb. The palm tree, thankfully, still towers above the buildings! It was only by a fluke of chance that I noticed the 500-year old tomb, dated to Lodi-reign and possibly the least known monument in the city (a Google search won’t offer more than half a dozen links (then too duplicated) despite traversing 20 search result pages!), following the visit to Barakhamba monument and lighting a cigarette across the road – more inquiries drew a blank, but one of the hotel owners, whose property immediately abuts the tomb walls, did confess that occasionally writers/photographers request them to allow climbing up their roofs and observe the dome’s features but they almost unequivocally deny permission.

Peeping over buildings - Do Siriya Gumbad, Delhi's forgotten monument

I was directed to the Capital Guesthouse, located opposite the municipal park-turned-dumpsite (near the intersection of Lodi Road and Lal Bahadur Shastri Road), immediately besides which ran an unbelievably narrow lane that ends in a cul-de-sac just a few meters ahead. The lane (not unlike others in the Nizamuddin Basti area – with goats tethered outside the houses and thronged by bearded, skull cap wearing men) takes one past the tomb’s facade – the walls are dilapidated and almost the entire coat of plaster has flaked off revealing the rubble construction underneath; one side of the wall probably collapsed or was destroyed since here modern brickwork features prominently; the arched entrance is trabeate in nature with immensely thick stone lintels placed atop each other to span space and afford the semblance of an arch; equally thick pillars with plainly sculpted capitals support the stone lintels. A plastic water tank graces the dome now and electrical wires snake in and out of the entrance and the arched window above it. The lady living within the tomb with her family was shocked to see me photographing “her” doorway and soon subjected me to a slew of inquiries regarding the same – nonetheless she appeared unperturbed and merely shrugged when asked about living in a tomb. Sometimes this country’s horrifying levels of poverty and desperation appall me – what severe conditions could a family succumb to so as to be forced to reside in a tomb?!

A case of monumental neglect (pun intended) 

Gol Gumbad –

Location: Adjacent Centenary Methodist Church, Lodi Road
Coordinates: (28.592409, 77.238860)
Seated squat at the intersection of Lodi Road and Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, Gol Gumbad (“tomb with circular dome”), a beautiful small square tomb, fits so snugly in its surrounding environment that it appears as if it’s a Lego block unquestionably meant to fill the very position that it is located in. Situated prominently on the intersection and overshadowed by the looming church adjacent, the structure is another of the several tombs of unknown historicity that came up in and around the Nizamuddin area under influence of the sanctity accorded by the legendary saint’s hallowed tomb complex – the single verifiable antecedent of the tomb is that it was raised during the reign of Lodi Dynasty, confirmed by the distinctive architectural features it displays. 

Gol Gumbad - Diminutive Lego block in the heart of the city

Constructed of random rubble masonry faced with a fine layer of plaster, the tomb doesn’t display any prominent ornamentation on its exteriors – the monotony of the plain cream-green walls is shattered by the exquisitely-sculpted red sandstone lattice screens (“jaalis”) that mark the recessed arches on three sides of the tomb. The intricate stone screens appear to have been carved recently, probably older screens have been replaced as part of a recent restoration-conservation effort. The fourth side, facing the church, possesses an entrance instead of the sandstone screen and a narrow staircase adjacent leading upstairs to the roof (both now barred with thick iron grille gates). Both the roof and the octagonal drum (base) of dome are decorated with thick kangura patterns (battlement-like ornamentation) and that is the sole adornment of the entire exterior surface. The walls are battered and slightly thicker around the base, an architectural addition necessitated by the need to support the heavy rubble structure.

The other side

On the whole, the tomb appears adorable on account of its precise dimensions and simplicity – the square plan is approximately 13.5 X 13.5 meter square and the entire structure, including the round dome and the inverted lotus finial surmounting it, also rises to a height of 13.5 meters – compared to the massive thickly adorned tombs and mosques that the Lodi Dynasty specialized in, this structure is only a dwarf, and yet undoubtedly succeeds in making visitors and passer-bys grace it with second glances. Though the entrance remains locked to keep vandals from entering, the guard on duty promptly unlocks it if asked to. There are no signs of any graves inside nor any identification mark indicating the presence of the same underneath. The interiors are extremely dark and the little light that streams in comes from the lattice screens and the small arched windows in the dome’s base – photographing the structure is an issue and I had to later process the photos in order to bring out the finer details of the painted medallion that adorns the dome’s concave surface.

Another medallion on this trail

The simplicity continues inside – except for the elaborate roof medallion, the only other features are long narrow alcoves along the corners and small alcoves on either side of the entrance/arched screens; in the corners are squinch arches (diagonal added between two arms of a corner so as to span space and convert a square structure successively into a polygon/circle to support the heavy dome) and a band of decorative alcoves runs along the drum interiors. An impressive view of the tomb can be had from the church side where lush green grass rolls all around the structure and soaring palm trees flank it on all sides. Though the signs of wear, in the form of flaking plasterwork and blackened walls, are all too apparent on this side, yet there is an indescribable beauty too brought about by the interface of nature and monument. The tomb also presents a magnificent picture at night when it is lit up with a brilliant golden-orange glow.

I don't understand what materials do the conservation authorities employ for restoration work. Why does the new plaster and paintwork begin flaking off in less than 5 years, even though the older coats survived over 500 years? 

Unknown Tomb, Pragati Vihar –

Location: Couple of hundred meters past the JLN Stadium metro station while walking from the left off-road slightly before Dayal Singh College.
Coordinates: (28.58618, 77.23470)
Walking from Lodi Road towards Jawahar Lal Nehru stadium, beyond high boundaries composed of white-painted iron grilles and similar gates that define the massive spread of the stadium, a lone red structure appears to be mounting a silent, solitary vigil across vast acres of deep green grass and white buildings. The structure, a Mughal tomb in all probability – only the Mughals (AD 1526-1857) used to experiment with the architectural styles and artistic visions of their mosques and mausoleums – is as unique a tomb as one can hope to come across in Delhi. Comprising of a square chamber surmounted by an octagonal chattri (dome mounted on numerous pillars, in this case eight), the entire structure is composed of random rubble and layered with vibrant red plaster which further adds to its singularity. Perhaps the individuals who commissioned it intended to attain red sandstone like effect but did not possess the means to use the actual material and decided to utilize plaster layering hoping for the same.

A red monument on a carpet of green grass - The tomb at Pragati Vihar, much smaller in reality than it appears in photographs.

The tomb, like the rest of the stadium, remains out of bounds for visitors – the head of the security of the complex is a real douche, but tries to portray a cooperative face even though anyone can look through it – end of story, it is better to have a written permission and photostat copies of all one’s credentials before hopping to the stadium to photograph the three tombs within. I will the next time I head there, still have to click the other two.

If not heading back to the metro station, the trail can be ended at JLN Stadium, an immensely colossal, multi-purpose stadium with a seating capacity of 60,000 spectators, that was built to accommodate the events of Asian Games IX (1983) that Delhi hosted and has been recently structurally modified to also provide arenas for Commonwealth Games XIX (2010). At present, the stadium also houses headquarters of Delhi Secretariat, Sports Authority of India (SAI), Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India. The most impressive view of the stadium can only be had from a metro station or a flyover from where its massive girth can be observed majestically towering above Delhi's skyline. But one realizes its giant proportions only from immediate vicinity when it occupies the entire frame of view and nullifies all efforts to click it in a single photograph!

JLN Stadium rising above the city horizon. Photo clicked from Kailash Colony metro station.

Nearest Bus stop: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Nearest Railway station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Nearest Metro station: JLN Stadium
How to reach: The trail begins from where Lodi Road connects with Humayun's tomb complex/Nizamuddin Dargah complex, a point located just a couple of meters from the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah bus stop (If coming by train, take a bus/auto to the bus stop. If coming by metro, reverse the order of monuments and end the trail at the bus stop).
Entrance fees: Nil. Entry prohibited within JLN Stadium complex.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Barakhamba monument: 30 minutes; Do Siriya Gumbad: 20 minutes; Gol Gumbad: 20 minutes; Pragati Vihar tomb: 10 minutes
Suggested reading - 

October 25, 2014

Sultan Garhi, Vasant Kunj, Delhi

“This blessed building was commanded to be erected by the great Sultan, the most exalted emperor, the lord of the necks of the people, the shadow of God in the world, the bestower of safety on the believers, the heir of the kingdom of Sulaiman, the master of the seal in the kingdom of the world, the helper of the chief of the faithful, the sultan of sultans who is specially favored by the Lord of the worlds, Shamshuddin Waddin Abul Muzaffar Iltutmish the sultan, may God perpetuate his rule, as a mausoleum for the king of kings of the east Abul Fath Mahmud, may God forgive him with his indulgence and make him dwell in the center of the paradise, in the year 629.” 
– Translation of the inscription carved on the entrance to Sultangarhi 

As a child, Shamshuddin Iltutmish was intelligent, handsome, hardworking and displayed signs of understanding wisdom and a gifted intellect that often provoked the jealousy and a misplaced sense of inferiority in the neighborhood kids and even his own brothers. Such was the chagrin his inconsiderate and devious brothers experienced when faced with his piety and fine knowledge that they eventually decided to deprive him of paternal love and the noble upbringing his affluent family could afford and had him sold as one of the many slave boys to a merchant from Bukhara (Uzbekistan). The man, a dealer in slaves and fine merchandise, further sold the boy to Qutbuddin Aibak, the meritorious lieutenant and the foremost of slaves of Muizuddin Muhammad ibn Sam, the Sultan of Afghanistan (also otherwise known as Muhammad Ghuri), who later went on to become the Sultan of Hindustan. Following the death of his master in AD 1210 and the subsequent incompetent rule of his successor Aram Shah, Iltutmish decided to capitalize upon the disgruntled nobility and the disenchanted armed forces and with their aid ascended the enviable throne of Delhi. He who once was an undesired but forever grateful child, now ruled over the massive Indian subcontinent and wielded considerable influence as the “Sultan-i-Azam”, the great emperor; a formidable military commander and an unparalleled administrator, he boasted of fearsome fighting capabilities and a fiercely loyal backing of powerful armies and slaves; yet he remained a tender-hearted father when it came to his children upon whom he doted and lavished immense affection while attempting to fulfill all their demands and wishes as best as he could. Had he been able to foresee the future, he would have been shocked and appalled at how his progeny would butcher each other after his death, but we shall connect the various threads of Delhi’s often horrific and rotten history later in this article.

Sultan-i-Garhi - Seated in a forest

Iltutmish delegated the administration of the eastern territories of the subcontinent to his eldest and favorite son Nasiruddin Mahmud, entitled him “Malik-us-Sharq” (“Lord of the East”) and appointed him the Governor of the fertile and affluent land of Bengal (Lakhnauti). He always knew that among all his children only his daughter Razia was capable of inheriting and governing the colossal kingdom over which he reigned supreme, but he continued to groom Nasiruddin Mahmud as an efficient administrator-general and his heir-apparent. But it was not meant to be – following ill health brought about as a result of Bengal’s climate, Nasiruddin passed away in the year 1229, leaving behind him a distraught father, grieving siblings and mournful subjects. Considering himself to be a sinner and an inconsiderate creation of God, he decreed that his body should be thrown down in a dark underground cave and not subjected to a royal funeral and burial in magnificent mausoleum. The inconsolable Sultan did bury him in a cave, but this cave was especially custom-built above the ground for the purpose – thus came into existence Sultan-i-Garhi, “Emperor of the Caves”, an octagonal crypt enclosed within a miniature square fortress with massive walls and gigantic bastions (“burj”) that lend it an undeniably masculine, militaristic appearance. One of the least known major monuments in Delhi, the mausoleum, built in AD 1231-32, has the fantastic reputation of being the oldest existential monumental tomb in the city (and in the entire country since the only earlier royal mausoleum of the subcontinent – Qutbuddin Aibak’s tomb in Lahore – is in Pakistan) and it is so different from the later tombs and religious shrines that it superbly succeeds too in living visually the role of grand old monument. Seated, unarguably with an indisputable sense of conviction and steadfastness, upon a raised plinth (3 meters high) in the thoroughly vegetated southern ridge forests where thorny bushes and stunted trees compete for space with blasted rocks and infertile outcrops, the 800-year old tomb is enclosed by thick, high walls and built almost entirely out of golden-brown Delhi quartzite stone.

Up on the plinth and inside the enclosure - The octagonal crypt and the pyramid-surmounted mosque

The characteristic unyielding nature of the quartzite renders it highly unsuitable for sculptural and inscriptional purposes, thereby necessitating the use of an alternate construction material in combination with the former – in this case, the requirement is fulfilled most notably by white marble highlights which has been utilized in constructing the massive projecting entrance of the mausoleum as well as the interiors. In fact, after one does overcome the initial gasps of shock and awe at witnessing the inimitable majestic fortress-tomb rise from the ground in the middle of the unrelenting forest, it is the splendid beauty of the gigantic rectangular entrance, neatly carved into strips of straight lines ultimately culminating into graceful strips of calligraphy that renders visitors speechless. In an instance of unbelievable irony, shared sacred culture and peaceful cohabitation, the local population, both Hindu and Muslim, over the ages began considering Nasiruddin Mahmud a saint and venerate him despite his everlasting conviction of his status as an eternal sinner – the telltale signs of people visiting the tomb complex and offering prayers begin right at the entrance (they are observable in the ridge forest too in the form of rusted and poorly painted signboards indicating the direction to “Peer Baba” (“Revered Sufi saint”), as Nasiruddin is now reverentially referred to as) – climb up the high staircase and either side, near the bottom, the calligraphy characters have turned black as a consequence of regular lighting of oil lamps and incense. Continuing since decades, in a tradition unaffected by any political or religious attempts at introducing chasms between members of different religions and belief systems, and as a sign of heartwarming coexistence between these people of varying faiths and their mutual admiration and acceptance of each other, the mausoleum is especially visited by reverential locals in large numbers every Thursday when prayers are allowed and free food (“langar”) is distributed to everyone irrespective of any differences of faith, creed or gender. Newly-wed brides from the surrounding villages are also brought to the mausoleum by their relatives to seek blessings of marital happiness from the saint. The locals also regularly clean and take care of the shrine, without in any way making any modifications to the original structure – and this, the involvement of the locals, in my opinion, is possibly the best possible manner in which a monument can be conserved for future generations compared to either totally blocking the locals out or giving them such a free hand that they encroach upon the monument and its associated structures.

Stunning! - Details of the inscription carved into the entrance frame

The interiors are exceedingly straightforward – sheltered colonnades, composed of unadorned, simplistic rectangular pillars plundered from Hindu temples destroyed by Emperor Iltutmish, exist along the eastern (entrance) and western sides of the square enclosure, while the other two sides have arched windows built in the walls and looking down upon the vast spread of dense green forest and ancient sets of ruins surrounding the mausoleum (more on that later). Windows also pierce the eastern and western sides, but here the more dominant visual factor is the white marble entrance and the serene mihrab (western wall of a funerary zone/mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, to be faced by Muslims while offering prayers) composed of the same material – interestingly, if one observes carefully, the windows are arched only visually, but not architecturally – the unique corbelled arch technique has been employed here where stone blocks forming a wall are merely carved to resemble curved arches – the style originated immediately following the invasion of the Indian subcontinent by Turkish Muslim armies and the incessant insistence of the new commissioners of buildings and tombs for them to possess arched entrances and openings, a concept alien to the incorrigible native Hindu artists and sculptors who were only capable of constructing trabeates (where stone ledges of gradually increasing sizes are placed atop each other to span space). The splendid mosque/mihrab, surmounted by an enormous pyramidal roof that boasts of an intricate circular floral sculpture along its spellbinding interior side, is a bewitching artistic entity – the white marble has been dexterously and immensely patiently sculpted into detailed bands of floral and geometric motifs and Quranic calligraphy inscriptions. The fluted pillars, supporting the immensely heavy roof on equally heavy brackets, are constructed out of equally flawless white marble for use around the mihrab, but are composed of the same luster less quartzite in the rest of the colonnaded section. Immediately next to the mihrab’s wall is a shallow concave depression hollowed in the marble floor where devotes leave sugar balls, marigold flowers and incense sticks as a mark of faith towards the sanctity of Nasiruddin Mahmud and his boon-bestowing capabilities, but the sugar balls especially attract an enormous number of big ants and flies, the result being the entire floor area is crawling with these creepy, large insects!

Exquisitely detailed - The tomb's associated funerary mosque

The corner bastions and the towering pyramidal roof rise way above the canopy of the surrounding forest and can be seen even afar from the Mehrauli- Mahipalpur road that runs on considerably higher ground skirting the forest territory. Quell the excitement to explore the octagonal crypt just a few minutes more and head to the prominent corner bastions gracing the fortress-tomb – these too possess rather ordinary, but simplistically beautiful, carved floral medallions along the undersurface of their shallow conical domes – the distinctive domes themselves are raised from corbelled stonework and are no insurmountable feats of architectural excellence, but the view from the arched windows in these corner towers is scarily fascinating – one is so high above the ground that it is spellbindingly thrilling and shuddering at the exact same moment!

At last, one heads to the crypt, raised further almost a meter above the ground (that is, the 3 meter high plinth level) in the form of an octagon faced with white marble and possessing stairs along one side leading upstairs and along another heading downstairs – part of the octagon seems to have been constructed from the remains of desecrated Hindu/Jain temples and the same is observable from the lengthy spans of exquisitely sculpted stone fragments that compose the top edges of the octagon just inside of the marble periphery and concentric with it. There isn’t any purpose to step up the stairs to reach the crypt’s roof unless one wishes to observe the numerous pigeons that flock and flutter to feed on the grains and water left for them by the devotees and the guards (yes, the premises are ticketed, though there wasn’t another visitor except me the entire day and am sure the revenues must be disappointing to an extreme degree) – pointing to the stairs that lead nowhere, some historians contend that the tomb was never completed and a dome or roof was meant to cover the octagonal crypt later, but then the obvious question is if the entire fortress-tomb could be raised in two years, why not a small domed chamber in the next few months while the Emperor was still settled in Delhi?

Spookiest tomb I have actually been to in Delhi. This photo of the crypt has been brightened to an extent - it is several shades darker in actuality.

Stepping down into the uncomfortably dark and damp cave chamber is perhaps the scariest dreadful experience I have ever encountered in my short life – supported on extremely plain, unadorned rectangular pillars is the heavy roof of the cave under which rest three graves, each of them draped in a length of light green cloth as is suitable for the sarcophagus of any saint and garlanded with marigold flowers. The largest grave, situated along the western face of the dark cave and ensconced between two of the pillars is said to be that of Nasiruddin Mahmud, though there is neither any sign of ornamentation nor recognition – the faithful have tied numerous letters, deep red threads, pieces of cloth and silver foil, in order to beseech the prince and his family to grant their wishes and fulfill their dreams (“mannat”) upon which they shall return to express their grateful respects and remove the symbolic application (“arzi”), that is the thread/cloth/letter, from the pillars. As I already confessed, I was scared witless on stepping into the deep chamber, more so since I was the only one there and it had suddenly begun to rain and howl furiously, slamming the wooden door of the crypt against the walls – I have no qualms in expressing the fact that I did not step down the last high stair but instead went back upstairs, hoping that the door wouldn’t now slam in the other direction and leave me stranded in a pool of utter darkness and dread! The tomb complex is considered haunted and very few venture here after dark – legend goes that a saint meditating here was burned alive and his ashes scattered around much before the construction of the mausoleum (though it isn’t remembered why this violent and horrifying act was perpetrated), the saint is often spotted at night as a glowing apparition flitting between the trees and traversing the tomb, especially in and around the crypt. Spooky!

My heart thumping through my chest I stepped out of the crypt and spent a considerable few moments regaining my composure before finally deciding that a sojourn up the staircase leading to the roof of the entrance is regrettably necessary if I wish to click the standard photograph that every visitor to the mausoleum clicks – the one depicting the octagonal chamber with the colonnaded pavilion and the pyramidal roof of the mihrab in the background. Here it is –

A view from upstairs. Notice the ridge forest stretch far in the background.

An extremely jovial dog, a resident of the mausoleum, ran upstairs on spotting me there and decided that he was in the mood for a brush and a jog – it was extraordinarily hard to make him run back even after playing and patting for over twenty minutes, but probably I shouldn’t have since the guard’s companions forcefully chased him out of the tomb complex and into the forest when he ventured to sit close to them. Sad.

Adjacent to the mausoleum and towards its left is a single pavilion tomb – a rather elongated, egg-like dome surmounted on pillars – but there is no grave underneath. The dome rises from an octagonal drum (base) adorned with a row of tall kanguras (leaf motif battlement-like ornamentation) and there exist sixteen pillars in total (three to each of the eight sides) arranged in an alternating fashion such that eight are carved out of quartzite slabs and the other eight are built from dressed rubble; just below the roof along some of the sides, the tomb also features remains of wide projecting, slanting eaves (“chajja”). The unique dome, so unlike the ones that surmount the corner bastions of the mausoleum, is said to have been a replacement ordered by the architect-emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq (ruled AD 1351-88) against the original, damaged one (it is contended that the marble mihrab inside the mausoleum is also a handiwork of the formidably skilled artists and sculptors employed by Feroz, but the design patterns and inscriptions resemble those at the entrance to such an extent that they appear almost identical). Though only one exists now, there were originally two identical pavilion tombs – the first built in AD 1236 commemorated Ruknuddin Firuz Shah (ruled AD 1236) while the second raised in AD 1242 housed the remains of Muizuddin Bahram Shah (ruled AD 1240-42), the other brothers of Nasiruddin Mahmud. Their father considered them incapable of executing governmental decisions or conceiving public works and symbolic actions, therefore disregarded them when it came to governance and administration and instead decided to appoint his magnanimous daughter Razia as his successor. But soon following Iltutmish’s death (he is buried in the Qutb complex, refer Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb), Ruknuddin, then the Governor of Badaun (Uttar Pradesh) and Lahore (Pakistan), conspired with the conniving nobility to deny Razia her claim and ascended the throne of Delhi, but as Iltutmish had projected, he proved to be a worthless ruler who spent most of his time in the company of buffoons and fiddlers and in satisfying his sexual urges. The governance was left to his ambitious mother Shah Turkan who decided to punish all the nobles and Governors who had offended her when she was just a slave handmaid – she had many of them killed, others rose in rebellion against her authority and refused to acknowledge Ruknuddin’s ascension to the throne – the final thread snapped when she had Iltutmish’s younger son Qutbuddin killed and the conspiracy to murder Razia too leaked out. The rebellious, disgruntled nobles arrested her and Ruknuddin and had them both murdered in prison. Ruknuddin was the Emperor of India for six months, seven days. It was then that, in a decision that is considered extraordinarily progressive for the age in which it was agreed upon, the Turkish nobility and armed forces accepted the ascension of Razia Sultan, Ruknuddin and Nasiruddin’s sister and the most efficient child of Sultan Shamshuddin Iltutmish, to the throne of Delhi. I have already recounted Razia’s brief reign and life here – Pixelated Memories - Razia Sultan's Grave. It is a pity that while her brothers got such magnificent mausoleums, she was constricted to remain in eternal sleep in an unmarked, unadorned sarcophagus besides the other sister Shazia. Bahram Shah, Razia’s third brother and her murderer, became Sultan after her execution but remained sovereign only in name while the real powers were appropriated by the nobility, especially the Naib-i-Mamlikat (“Commissioner”) Ikhtiyaruddin Acitigin and Wazir (“Prime Minister”) Muhazabuddin. When he began to consolidate his powers and had some of the more powerful officials executed on the pretext of ignorance and non-execution of his orders, the other nobles came together and had him murdered too. Ruknuddin’s son, Alauddin Masud Shah (ruled AD 1242-46) was placed on the throne afterwards to act the symbolic pretense of there being a sovereign.

Buffaloes for company! Who'd have thought a Sultan is buried here?!

Scattered around the mausoleum in very close vicinity to it are numerous other ruins too, most prominently residential quarters but also Tughlaq-era (AD 1320-1414) mosques. There is a small mosque immediately opposite the entrance too, just across the wide open space that separates the tomb from the forest facing it; another set of residential ruins is located further away from the tomb along the unpaved pathway leading to it from the Mehrauli-Mahipalpur road, sadly though these ruins are totally enclosed by means of walls and pointed wires in order to keep vandals/encroachments from accessing them. The other set of residential quarters, situated immediately besides the tomb and spread over a vast area but entirely enveloped by vegetation, are fascinating in terms of their historic antiquity as well as the confusing incomprehension they impart to the impartial rigidity otherwise accorded to the entire area by the militaristic mausoleum. The individualized residential units seem to indicate that several nuclear families occupied these; in certain places there are stairs too leading to upstairs apartments, these however have ceased to exist and any signs of there remains or scattered rubble have been totally obliterated by nature as if they did not even exist. Vibrantly-colored yellow, green and black butterflies flitter around while Wren’s warblers jump querulously from branch to branch even though Red-vented Bulbuls refuse to leave the secrecy of the undergrowth and only confirm their presence by intermittent chirps and quick flights in and out. Stepping through thorny bushes and interminable dense undergrowth that proves unbelievably non-negotiable at times, one has to explore the structures and their ordinary features – I was trying hard to find a pillar that bears a Sanskrit inscription commemorating the digging of a well on the occasion of a wedding in AD 1361, but could not locate it in the utterly chaotic ruins and vegetation.

Faith - Letters and threads tied by devotees beseeching the saint to grant their wishes

Behind the mausoleum and past the pavilion tomb is a immensely gigantic well – the largest I have ever seen at 7 meters diameter – dated to Tughlaq-era, the well is considered amongst the oldest in Delhi but now remains shrouded by convoluted vines threading their way in and out. Coming up near it are modern structures – a grave on a rubble platform has been recently raised to more enlarged proportions and covered with white tiles, cement pillars have already been built on each corner of the platform and are being heightened even further, possibly with the purpose of erecting a roof over the central grave and the less distinguished ones near it – am not sure what the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) people and the guard are doing, but the constructions are in complete disregard of the Monuments Act 1958 which prohibits any construction in a 300 meter radius around a monument or heritage structure. The constructions might even be a euphemism for land encroachment in the form of a religious structure and need to be restricted with an immediate effect – let’s hope the ASI takes adequate and befitting action, though they have so far failed to even acknowledge my mail (accompanied by photographs) in this regard. The tomb otherwise has been superbly maintained by the authorities, very clean and unharmed by vandals and graffiti, and I suppose they can’t either be faulted for the shrubbery overtaking the settlement ruins because it will continue to grow and turn into the thick undergrowth it was when I visited soon after every time they clip it.

This brings us to an end in the sojourn connecting the threads of essentially some of the most important and renowned Emperors and Empresses of Slave Dynasty of Delhi – another instance where numerous far flung and often relatively little known and forgotten monuments are connected to each other through strands of history and filial relationships. One has only to open one’s eyes and see all these dots connect to each other and form a vast pattern that is Delhi’s amazingly fascinating history in itself, and then even the ghastly wars and bloodthirsty massacres seem to fall in place with generous Emperors and inconsiderate military commanders. This is Delhi, the city of cities, my beloved.

Panoramic view depicting the crypt, mosque (left) and the entrance colonnade (right)

Location: Southern Ridge forest, opposite Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8 and Ryan International School, just off the Mehrauli-Mahipalpur road
Nearest Metro station: Chattarpur
Nearest Bus stop: Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8
How to reach: Buses are available from different parts of the city for Vasant Kunj and Chattarpur. If coming by metro, take a bus from the metro station to Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8 – the branching unpaved pathway leading to the ridge forest and mausoleum (rusted signboards indicate the directions to “Peer Baba”) is about a hundred meters or so prior to the bus stop on the road from Chattarpur. If unsure, ask locals for directions to “Peer Baba ki Mazaar” or “Rangpur-Malikpur pahari” (Hill ridges of Rangpur-Malikpur) since that’s how the locals identify the complex.
Entrance fees: Citizens of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Maldives and Afghanistan: Rs. 5/person; others: Rs 100/person. Free entry to children up to the age of 15 years.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
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