February 08, 2014

Sunehri Masjid (near Red Fort), New Delhi

Dusk was setting in and I was still walking along the periphery of the magnificent fortress that is Shahjahan’s legacy in the city of cities, unsure whether to head home or explore the old city some more, I let my feet guide me. The last vestiges of daylight were slowly giving way to creeping darkness; birds had returned to their nests in the trees and the lofty electricity towers that span this city like sentinels possessed with the sole aim of supporting a veil of thick black cables, the chirping soon grew to proportions that could drive anyone paying attention insane – it’s another thing that no one was paying any attention to the screeching and cawing birds – it was the night bazaar that had everyone’s eyes, as the morning traders collected their wares and folded their makeshift shops, their places were taken by evening traders – the aromas of rich, mouth-watering foods wafted through the smog-filled air, cars and autorickshaws competed in bouts of mad honking against each other, halogen bulbs threw yellow light that seemed inviting in the darkness of dusk but were soon overshadowed by the high beams of passing cars, a police patrol sirened its way through the flood of humanity that had littered on the streets like ants gathering around sugar. The ruckus, the din, the lights and the noise – each conspired to create an environment meant to overawe and trap visitors, to amaze them with new sights, to bind them with delicious smells.

Golden Mosque

It was under these circumstances that I found my way to Sunehri Masjid (“Golden Mosque”) located near the Delhi Gate of the Red Fort – a small mosque with big dreams, Sunehri Masjid is a child’s replica of the gigantic Jama Masjid that Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) had commissioned at the height of Mughal supremacy (refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid). But that’s where the similarities stop – while Jama Masjid’s towering minarets loom above the cityscape, this little mosque is overshadowed by the trees that populate its courtyard; massive gateways mark the entry to Jama Masjid, a small entrance is all that the Sunehri Masjid can boast of. One last similarity between the two mosques is that no priest climbs up either’s twin minarets to call the faithful to prayer – he won’t be heard from the height of Jama Masjid’s towers, he won’t be able to fit in Sunehri Masjid’s towers.

The entrance is decorated in patterns and artwork and is perhaps the most interesting feature of the mosque – embedded within the rubble periphery of the courtyard, the gateway possesses the flowing curves and arches that were a trademark of Mughal architecture, though like the rest of the artwork these too appear understated. The gateway opens to a wide staircase that leads up to the mosque’s courtyard; a peep back reveals stairs leading from the courtyard to the gateway’s roof level – one wonders how far one can see after climbing atop this small structure – not very far if you ask me. 

Entrance gateway - Modest

The mosque’s bulbous domes and slender minarets are hidden from view by a curtain of canopy – trees that decided to outgrow the structure they were supposed to beautify. It’s prayer time, about a dozen or so men are gathered in the mosque’s interiors listening to the sermons being delivered by an Imam (priest) – darkness covers every face, there is not a light in the mosque though one can make out the cheerfully painted interiors in the light of the setting sun. I would have loved to see some more but the Imam asked me (rather roughly) to step out of the mosque even though I wasn't inconveniencing the devotees in any way - how was I to know that it would be prayer time and you would take offense even if someone comes and stands in the end just so s/he can admire the mosque?? The interior artwork has disappeared, long buried under thick coats of paint; a cobwebbed fan looks desolately from behind the central arch, perhaps a beautiful handcrafted lamp hung in its place once. Rolled up prayer mats stand against each arch wall; one notices that the courtyard floor has flower-shaped depressions meant as ornamentation along its entire surface. A plaque above the central arched entrance is inscribed with details of the mosque’s construction – it was commissioned by Mumtaz Mahal Sahiba Qudsia Begum and its building was overseen by Nawab Bahadur Javed Khan, the mother and head eunuch respectively of Badshah Ghazi Ahmed Shah Bahadur (reigned AD 1748-54). Qudsia Begum (aka Udham Bai) was once a dancer – she must have been pretty good at her art because the Emperor Muhammad Shah (ruled AD 1719-48) decided to marry her and placed in her tender hands a contingent of 50,000 armed soldiers. The Queen slowly became so influential that she began to dictate the affairs of the state; she became one of the royal administrators when her son succeeded her husband – apparently Ahmed Shah was illiterate in the arts and learning and untaught in military and martial training (illiterate, a prince? Surprising, right?). 

Close up - The only view unimpeded by the tree line

The mosque, completed in the year 1750-51 towards the fag end of the once mighty empire, adds to the list of buildings the Begum patronized (another is the Qudsia Bagh mosque-garden complex in Kashmere Gate area), though am yet to learn why she is considered a patron of arts and architecture if she commissioned only two buildings and her own son was never educated in arts and learning – a clear example of overstated royalty, and of course, poor parenting!! The mosque’s onion domes were once gilded with copper and that gave it its glistening golden tint and hence the name – the copper was replaced with red sandstone facing when the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II had the mosque repaired in the year 1852. Not that his devotion helped him – he was the Emperor of a finished empire, wisp of an already extinguished fire, lording from a fortress that had become a skeleton of its former glory over a territory that was his only in name – he was removed from even the nominal position merely five years after he had the mosque repaired, tried for war crimes perpetrated against the British during the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and exiled to Rangoon (Burma/Myanmar). Strange is the tide of life – a dancer becomes an Empress, an Emperor becomes a prisoner!! 

For details and photographs of the Sunehri Masjid on Chandni Chowk street, refer - Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid

Location: Near Delhi Gate of Red Fort
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
How to reach: Buses plying from different parts of the city for Red Fort/Delhi Gate (of Shahjanabad)/Mori Gate will drop you opposite Red Fort. Walk towards the Delhi Gate of Red Fort; Sunehri Masjid is near the parking lot.
Open: Sunrise to sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  3. Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid (Chandni Chowk street)

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