March 15, 2014

Baoli, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, New Delhi

This article is part of the series about Nizamuddin Dargah Complex, New Delhi. The composite post about the Dargah can be accessed here - Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah.


It is unimaginable that the beautiful Dargah complex of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, awash with flocks of people, can harbor any secrets in its bosom. Thronged by thousands of devotees every day who have come to pay their respects to the famous saint or beseech him to grant their desires, the massive complex has as its centerpiece the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin, one of the most revered personalities of medieval India who is adored with equal measures of fascination and attachment even today. Narrow alleys lined with small window shops emerge like veins from the heart that the dargah has become for this teeming, throbbing locality that is christened after the gentle saint as Nizamuddin Basti – most of these traders sell flower petals woven together and colorful cloth sheets for offering at the graves within the complex; many also stock prayer material, skullcaps and rosary beads; a few shops are dedicated solely to exquisite artworks and brilliantly conceived pieces of pottery and stonework, the expensive kind that must have been only available for the use of the rich and high in the saint’s time – the alleys emerge into relatively wider streets, these only different in the sense that the shops mostly are small eateries offering traditional Muslim non-vegetarian fare of minced meat, khameer roti (traditional bread softened by yeast fermentation and tandoor (Indian oven) baked), sheermal (saffron-flavored traditional bread), beef and sweet tea with a thick dollop of cream to sweeten it further, that make up the web of interlinked, interwoven pathways that the devout have to traverse to reach the Dargah. It’s a wonder that despite the heavy footfall, the dargah packs a few secrets – a story here, a belief there, a structure hiding somewhere – while the stories of Jahanara Begum and Muhammad Shah, whose marble enclosure tombs are located in the courtyard of the saint’s tomb, exist only in history books now; the intricately composed and skillfully executed tomb of Atgah Khan peeps from behind intervening buildings that condemn it to isolation; but the biggest treasure that the complex has relegated to obscurity is the huge baoli (“step-well”) that the saint had commissioned in his life time.

Hazrat Nizamuddin's Baoli

Physically, the baoli is large, perhaps the largest in Delhi; its rectangular catchment area filled with dark green, murky water that belies the belief (for me, not for the faithful devotees who drink it in the hope of longevity and disease cure) that the water is pure and has miraculous healing capacity on account of it being blessed by the saint himself. Historically, the myths and stories associated with the baoli are even more interesting than the structure itself – it was this step-well that provoked a verbal and political duel between the saint and the then Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq (ruled AD 1320-25) that ultimately culminated in the latter’s death. At the time when Ghiyas-ud-din had commissioned work on his massive fortress-citadel that was to be known as Tughlaqabad after his dynasty’s nomenclature (refer Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad fortress), laborers and masons were already absorbed in the construction of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s baoli. The sultan, already involved in a bitter monetary feud with the saint over non-return of hefty religious grants that the latter was given under the previous regime, decreed that all workers would henceforth work only on the construction of his fortress and not take any other projects till it was completed. Out of respect & adoration for the saint, the devout workers began working on the fortress during the day and on the baoli during the night. Enraged, Ghiyas-ud-din banned the sale of oil for lighting the lamps – Sheikh Nizamuddin overcame this obstacle by blessing the baoli’s water and asking his workers to light their lamps with it – miraculously, the lamps lit up with ordinary water! Such was the offence that the Sheikh took over Ghiyas-ud-din’s actions that he cursed the under-construction fortress city thus –

“Ya rahe usar, ya base Gujjar”
(“Either it remains barren or be inhabited by nomads”)

Ghiyas-ud-din was then on a military campaign in Bengal; fumed at hearing the Sufi’s words, he decided to punish him when he returned to Delhi. Word of it reached Hazrat Nizamuddin’s ears and he issued another prophecy, this one pertaining to the Sultan himself –

"Hunuz Dilli dur ast”
(“Delhi is yet far away”)

Both these prophecies proved true – on his way back from Bengal, Ghiyas-ud-din was killed at Kara (Uttar Pradesh) when a wooden canopy collapsed over him during the reception arranged by his son Muhammad Juna Khan. On succeeding to the throne, Muhammad Tughlaq decided to abandon Tughlaqabad on account of it being cursed & chose to build his own citadel opposite it. Tughlaqabad still remains deserted and isolated from the surrounding semi-urban population. 


The only step-well in Delhi that has never dried up in about 700 years (it was constructed in AD 1321-22), the baoli is fed by seven underground springs that keep it recharged perennially. The faithful believe that these springs formed a secret, underground fountain whose wooden base was built by “Ballishtiyas” (pygmies the size of a man’s palm) on the orders of the saint. Recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) restored much of the baoli to its original state – a process that involved emptying the tank of its water in order to pump out the sewage & toxic sludge to improve the water quality, relaying leaking sewage lines, rebuilding the collapsed portions, restoration of the arched windows and addition of jaalis (stone lattice screens) on the windows, clearing of the passageways connecting the Dargah and the baoli and facing the same with white plaster over the walls and marble along the floor. A forgotten passage has also been discovered – it supposedly connects Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb with the baoli and was used exclusively by the saint and his close associates. The underground fountain has also been discovered and it has been sufficiently proved that humans, and not “Ballishtiyas”, were responsible for the construction of the baoli’s fountain. The results of the project are dramatic if compared to old photos – the rectangular tank is lined with grey Delhi quartzite stone (each stone fragment was X-rayed from multiple directions to spot any voids behind the wall); the gaps where portions of the walls had collapsed or caved in have been filled; passageways connecting the baoli to the Dargah are no longer unkempt, but faced with white plaster and marble that add luster and a certain degree of respect to the once-dilapidated structures (though they are still brimming with beggars who sit/lie against the walls or roam around asking for alms and food); but few visitors venture here and only locals can be seen sitting or bathing on the steps leading to the baoli; work is underway on the tombs that sit atop the terrace facing the passageway. Two of these tombs – Chini-ka-Burj (named thus because of the use of colorful glazed tiles as ornamentation on its interiors) and Bai Kodal dai’s tomb (the history and identification of its occupant are no longer known) – are in pretty desperate need of repairs as can be observed from the photographs here (though I couldn't make out which is which because of the lack of sufficient reading material and information). 

In dire straits..

As part of the conservation-restoration project, both these tombs are out of bounds for visitors and photographers, the guards on duty at the baoli informed me that even photographing the baoli at present is out-of-question but thankfully they let me after I told them that I’m supposed to do an article on it. There is no stopping the kids who climb into these ancient tombs and structures and jump straight into the water tank; many of them obliged the photographer in me by climbing even higher, to the roofs of the structures, and jumping from there. Splash, splash they went; shrieks and laughter resounding in the entire compound, mixed with the shouts of those who were out of the water already and getting sprinkled at by the jumpers only to be retorted at for having got out of the tank so soon. The area has been closed to visitor entry by means of a large iron gate with another small gate built into it; the presence of bamboo poles along the small gate to support the weight of the entire gate further compound the entry by acting as barbicans. Along came a devotee through this prohibitive entrance, a hoity-toity lady with a DSLR slung in her neck and a designer bag on her shoulder, who dipped her hand in the tank and gulped down the water (completely aware of the kids bathing around her and the mingling of soap and wastes with the spring water). The new and modern meets the old and traditional here, but I couldn’t bring myself to get the water to touch my lips.

High flyer!

The tombs and the rest of the remaining terrace portion have been severely encroached upon and badly need attention – the plaster has mostly disappeared from the walls and the bricks and rubble present a picture of gross neglect and ignorance, air conditioners protrude from the walls of the dwellings that have come up on the terrace portion between different medieval structures and drip water into the tank, the ornamentation work has also been lost, arches have been filled in with bricks to close them off and make rooms out of tombs – as part of the conservation work, the AKTC has born relocation costs for shifting several families to alternate housing sites (being provided by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi) and is even paying for their upkeep – the efforts are no doubt commendable, but why pay encroachers and vandals is something I can’t grasp – they were aware that what they are doing is wrong, both legally and morally, weren’t they? The encroachment is so pervasive that it prevents the penetration of sunlight into the water tank (penetration of light upto 50 feet is a prerequisite to keep the water free from biologically harmful algae and bacteria)

Circles and octagons - Cleaning up the tank (Photo courtesy -'s Tomb - Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative)

One has to walk gingerly on the steps of the baoli since they are slippery from all the water that dripped off the bodies of the swimmers returning from the tank; the debris and bricks of one of the walls that filled up one of the arched entrance and has now been taken down are stacked in a corner and further lend soil and sand to create sludge on the steps. Eyeing the medieval structures, one wonders what they might have looked like originally and how they will look like once the restoration work is complete; the reverie is only broken by the splash of another high jumper; one begins to hope the kids are allowed here even after the place is open to tourists in its gleaming-shining avatar. Me?? Heading back, I was engrossed in thoughts in total disregard to my own atheism and even against the tenet of Islam that prohibits endearing the dead to grant wishes; I hoped Hazrat Nizamuddin would bless this structure again like he earlier did and it will bloom into a beautiful oasis where people from all walks of life and every economic strata would converge like they used to when the saint walked the earth.

Utopia revisited (Photo courtesy - Visual Pilgrim/Nizamuddin Shrine)

Location: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Open: All days, sunrise - sunset.
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh (however it is some distance away & one needs to take an auto)
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station
How to reach: Walk/take an auto from the metro station/railway station to the Dargah. The baoli can be accessed from the narrow shop-lined alleys behind the dargah. Ask the vendors/locals for directions.
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil.
Time required for sight seeing: 30 min
Relevant Links -

March 04, 2014

Sheesh Gumbad, Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

In the heart of Lodi Gardens which themselves are located in the heart of Delhi, seated on a gentle man-made hill is an impressive tomb christened as Sheesh Gumbad (“Glass Dome”) on account of the vivid blue tiles that adorn its fa├žade. A magnificent example of Lodi architecture the tomb is and bears all the features that characterize buildings of that particular period – a high dome resting on a high drum (base), well-preserved lotus finial atop the dome, exterior semblance of a multi-storied structure achieved by the use of arched niches on two levels along its faces, trabeated entrances which employ lintel beams to span the distance to form a rudimentary arch despite the availability of architectural knowledge to build true arches as reflected from the construction of the arched niches along the windows and the larger double niche in which the entrances are set, slender turrets projecting out of each corner of the square structure as well as the rectangular projection in which each entrance and their arched niche are respectively set, a row of arched alcoves ornamenting the dome’s drum and the most glaring feature – the use of leaf motif decoration along the roof and the drum instead of the kanguras (militaristic battlement-like ornamentation that evolved from the use of battlements in all structures of earlier vintage to afford protection against recurrent Mongol raids) – there is indeed not a single feature which we haven’t observed in a majority of structures of that age and yet the tomb exudes a certain magnificence, a charm that magnetically attracts all visitors to it. It isn’t just the use of the glossy blue tiles which are rare in medieval structures (must have been difficult to produce and hence expensive back then, conjecture is that once the whole top surface of the tomb were covered with such tiles. Incredible, right?? Shiny blue!); it isn’t even the majestic dome that, except for a long crack running along its side, retains its grandeur; it isn’t even the mystery associated with this particular tomb, after all there are hundreds of tombs scattered throughout Delhi (India as a whole in fact) the identity of whose occupants is not known; neither is it the extraordinarily well preserved exteriors or the masochistic style in which this massive tomb built out of hard grey quartzite towers above its surroundings – is it the combination of all these factors that makes this tomb so mesmerizing?? Enchanting enough for the historian Simon Digby to propose that this must be the tomb of Sultan Bahlol Lodi, the first of his dynasty who reigned from AD 1451-89! It is generally accepted that Bahlol Lodi is buried in a modest tomb in another part of Delhi, but what if this was his tomb and the Bada Gumbad that stands facing it actually its enchanting gateway? Enrapturing, isn’t it? How history of actual human beings, Sultans and generals, intertwine with the stories these structures hide to create this web of fables, of mysteries indecipherable, of lores forgotten, of stories untold!!


On the inside it’s pretty dark; several unmarked and unornamented graves lie in rows along the rough floor; squinches span the corners to support the giant dome; the walls are unadorned except for white plaster which has mostly disappeared now; the dome’s concave surface is decorated with a huge medallion composed of floral and calligraphy patterns in incised and painted plaster – the medallion is further enveloped by an eight-pointed star whose vertices are extended to touch the band of calligraphy at the circumference of the dome; the calligraphy is exquisite, intricate, the band further rests on a row of ornamental arched niches which display miniature medallions along their curved parts – though the whole roof surface is layered with orange plaster, it’s difficult to decipher the designs and patterns since most of it is covered in what appears to be white bird droppings, though looking at the way in which it covers the surface it looks as if somebody took a paint gun and began shooting white color on the roof!!

Light and dark

As dusk comes calling, the area surrounding the tomb become the haunt of hundreds of birds – eagles swoop around in gigantic circles around the tomb, pigeons and mynas come calling to the thick trees where they nest, crows raise a cacophony on the leafless trees where they come to rest – the din is terrible, but it is also easily ignorable; no wonder people can be seen jogging, exercising or just sitting around the tomb at the time. After all, it’s Lodhi Garden – a hub for fitness enthusiasts, a Mecca for city-bred couples, a pilgrimage for photographers and heritage enthusiasts and a picnic spot for families!

A leisurely romantic evening anyone?

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