23 August 2014

Najaf Khan and his tomb, Delhi


"Hukumat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam"
"The rule of Shah Alam exists only from Dilli (Red Fort) to Palam (a suburban village then)"
– Popular saying deriding Shah Alam I's weak administration

Prince of an ousted dynasty, related to the ex-Emperor through a distant relationship, he was fleeing persecution and imprisonment in his native land and being given a terrible chase over dense forests and numerous plains by bloodthirsty soldiers and officers of his nemesis; accompanied by his close family and a few still loyal, travelling throughout the day and enforcing forced marches by night, he pressed on. The threat and fear of being tortured, and in all possibility executed, if caught permeated their thoughts and dreams, becoming a recurrent horrific nightmare and pervading their senses till they could think of nothing except escape from the sadist, cruel wolves in human form who were filled with unspeakable joy at the thought of punishing and killing them. Having long lost any understanding of what was happening, and with leaden feet and a terrible dread in their hearts, they ran for their lives – only to be caught.

Just when he had lost all hope and was giving himself to despair, Mirza Najaf Khan Baloch, the Safavid prince, was rescued from the prisons of Shah Nadir of Persia (Iran) by another of his distant relatives Saadat Khan, the Nawab of Awadh, who, on account of being the governor of one of the richest provinces in Mughal India, wielded considerable influence throughout the Indian subcontinent and also among several distant territories with whom the Mughals professed to trade and friendly relationship. The year was AD 1736 and three years later, the prince decided, inexplicably so, to shift residence to Awadh where his sister was married to a relation of the Nawab. In much detail have I recounted the entire tale of Saadat’s rapid rise and meteoric fall and his succession by his farsighted nephew and son-in-law Mirza Muqim Ali “Safdarjung” in an earlier blogpost that can be accessed here – Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb Complex. Safdarjung, on ascending to a position of eminence in the court, immediately proceeded to strengthen himself – his influence was further enhanced by addition of numerous titles and command positions to his name by the grace of the fledgling emperor Muhammad Shah I (reigned AD 1719-48), but unsatisfied with the sluggish proceedings, he began on a policy of formidable military posturing by recruiting lethal soldiers and annexing the territories of smaller provinces flanking his own – the feeble emperor soon granted him the enviable position of “Wazir” (Prime Minister) and had Najaf Khan too employed in the Mughal army. But, Najaf had ambitions of his own, in his heart he knew that political intrigue was not his cup of tea and instead dreamt only of achieving an unparalleled skill in arms and a position of unmatched martial superiority further fortified by a massive standing army at his command. Before being hunted down in his own homeland, he had attained formidable training in horsemanship and developed an unmatched skill in the use of arms – now, given the reigns of a contingent of the Mughal forces, he diligently began to train soldiers into becoming lean fighting machines – it is claimed by historians that the toughened force that he trained was the supreme army of the land, equaled perhaps only by the European mercenaries – equipping his soldiers with modern weaponry and infusing them with determination and combat readiness through a backing of efficient organizational management and a superlative cavalry force, he embarked on creating a massive army that could withstand the rigors of prolonged battle as well the monotony of peace – at a time when the once almighty Mughal empire was falling apart and often in arrears with respect to its payments as a consequence of untamable governors expressing rebellion and an internal decay set in by a highly corrupt bureaucracy, he ensured that the soldiers were paid regularly and their training and upkeep of arms, armor and cavalry never suffered. The Mirza (*Mirza being a Mughal title, equivalent of a high-class gentleman) received his first setback in conflict not because of military unpreparedness, but political interference and lack of coordination between ally nobles and governors, resulting in a colossal defeat at the hands of the British East India “trading” Company at the Battle of Buxar (1764 AD) where his forces were irredeemably routed and his Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned AD 1759-1806) chased by the extremely advanced British forces, yet he sustained himself and his forces and continued to strengthen his hand in the background. The pathetic emperor, though able to retrieve the throne of Delhi for the Mughals once again with the help of the Hindu Marathas of central India, was reduced to a wretched supplicant cowering in terror and pleading for the lives of his family and subjects time and again by forces intent on raiding Delhi and its surroundings and plundering the riches and revenues of the land; filial royal rivalry, inexperienced generalship and scheming nobles continued to keep the army on its toes, rushing from one province to another to tackle the threat posed by overarching governors and terribly cruel warlords – appalling were the conditions and the empire seemed to be on the brink of collapse, when Mirza Najaf was decreed the Commander-in-Chief of all forces of Hindustan in 1772. Still hurting from the overwhelming defeat at Buxar, but by now possessing an immensely resolute infantry armed with artillery that was colossal in terms of the damage it inflicted and a reformed cavalry regarded with fear and despair by the enemy, Najaf Khan began the seemingly impossible task of setting the crumbling house in order despite the fact that large segments of the empire were breaking apart with an irrepressible regularity and new foes, in the form of extremely well-trained and unwavering European colonists and mercenaries, were making headway into the subcontinent.


Pristine - Mirza Najaf Khan's simplistic mausoleum


The first task that the valiant Mirza undertook on becoming the Commander-in-Chief was to expel the Rohilla Afghans of western Uttar Pradesh, who had become the regents of the feeble Mughal emperor Shah Alam, from Delhi – he was able to fulfill his mission in 1773 and from then on the emperor placed a blind conviction in his qualifications and administrative capabilities; even the hardliners were won to his side through his courteous manners and conciliatory tone, and he immediately began to grant his unremitting attention to the business of warfare and territorial preservation of the Mughal sovereignty. The revenue of several districts to the north and west of Delhi was assigned to him for raising the cost to assemble an excellent and gallant army which he built by availing the services of tenacious Persian and Turkish Muslim cavalry officers (“Mughalia”) and also by raising a contingent of extraordinarily skilled and fearless European mercenaries for his own personal guard; besides he stationed some of his trusted lieutenants – Mirza Najaf Quli Khan, Niyaz Beg, Muhammad Beg Hamadani and Afrasiyab Khan (the first and the last adoringly referred to by him as his adopted sons) – to develop into strongholds the territories granted by the emperor.

Shortly following the consolidation of his forces, Najaf Khan and his men were called to defend the capital against the Marathas, once allies in the war against Rohillas but since antagonized by supposed betrayal on the part of the emperor over the non-payment of war damages and grant of territories and revenues to their supreme leaders (“Sardars”); the emperor on his part felt that the Marathas had cornered the entire treasure, including cash, gold, elephants and horses, plundered from the Rohilla fortresses, and though Najaf Khan’s armies were still unprepared and untrained for decisive battle, he agreed to go to war rather than capitulate to the Marathas’ exorbitant conditions – the untrained soldiers proved highly ignorant and unmanageable, and wavered in the face of a colossal enemy that outnumbered them one to five, the consequence was large-scale butchering and maiming; but more than the enemy’s merciless and menacing advance, Najaf suffered on account of miserable carelessness on the part of Mughal artillery leading to explosion of huge powder chests and death of over four hundred soldiers and also because of backstabbing by other Mughal high officials, including the Wazir (“Prime Minister”) Husam-ud-Daulah who instead of supporting Najaf’s rear guard indulged in pillage and arson of their own camps with the Maratha soldiers! Najaf Khan’s nephew Mirza Ahsan was mortally wounded by cannon fire and died shortly. After plunder and pillage, the Marathas, numerically superior but lacking foresighted generalship, retreated with chest loads of treasure besides elephants, horses and other spoils. The hopeless emperor failed to punish the turncoat officials and immediately sued for peace with the Marathas, consenting to grant all their excessive demands along with crippling war levies – Husam-ud-Daulah bribed the Marathas, who were already terrified by Najaf Khan’s fighting ability and solid generalship, to demand the disbanding of his army and his dismissal and banishment from the capital, however, portending threat to their lord-commander, the Mughalia mercenaries immediately took up defensive positions outside Najaf Khan’s house – feeling betrayed, Najaf Khan audaciously defied the combined Mughal-Maratha authority and challenged them to expel him from the city; but sensing perilous conflict for his steadfast men and considering that he had no support except for his armed contingents nor allies and territories to financially support him in case of a gory war, he decided to surrender and accepted pension from the government and further agreed to the condition that he shall lead the forces in future conflicts as and when required by the administration – but he had no intention of doing so and had his soldiers abandon Maratha battalions in the thick of the soon convened war against Shuja-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Awadh and his kinsman – after the Marathas irreparably failed against the Awadh artillery backed by English commanders, Najaf Khan was dismissed along with his soldiers, though, to the dismay of Maratha command, after being paid in entirety and with much honor. His position was vindicated by the Maratha loss and he was asked to report to Delhi by the Mughal emperor, whereas Husam-ud-Daulah and the Marathas were chastised and disgraced for their abject failures on both the battle and diplomatic fronts – Najaf Khan had his own men deployed in the court, including his follower “Bahram Jang” Nawab Majid-ud-Daulah Abdul Ahad Khan as Wazir in place of Husam-ud-Daulah who was imprisoned and released only after rendering an account of state spending under his administration and forfeiting all his property and revenues to the emperor and Najaf Khan (his followers were not so lucky and were executed by various terrible methods after being imprisoned and subjected to horrific tortures for several months). 


The ruins of the gateway, as seen from within. Thankfully, the ASI has maintained the area remarkably well and there was a guard and numerous gardeners on duty.


Najaf Khan soon raised anew an army of excellent and devoted soldiers exceeding twenty thousand in number, and the next course of action where he proved himself to be foremost in valor and strategizing was subduing the Jats of Bharatpur (Haryana) through a protracted war – the latter had defeated Mughal governors at the gates of Delhi several times and even forced entire garrisons out of captured areas; their recently deceased leader Surajmal had, in supreme defiance of imperial authority, built a mud fort at Maidangarhi (near Mehrauli, Delhi's south-eastern frontier), only thirteen miles from the Mughal citadel at Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort); they had even proceeded to capture, plunder and reduce to only a skeleton of its original glory the province of Agra, erstwhile capital and an important garrison town, which according to an assurance issued by the emperor was to be added to Najaf’s fiefs once he re-conquered it from the Jats. Resisting further territorial occupation by them and suppressing the inefficient smaller chieftains of Gurgaon, Rewari and Jhajjar through his vastly superior army equipped with copious supply of canons, artillery, rockets and muskets, before proceeding further to Ballabhgarh and Narnaul, Najaf Khan took to subjugation of the rebel state through terrorizing them by plundering their fields, butchering men and animals alike and levying heavy tributes – such was the terror of his forces and the unmitigated demoralization of the Jat soldiers that entire contingents of the latter abandoned camp and fled in panic when they noticed dust storms on the horizon, lest they be the his advancing columns. Mirza Najaf Quli Khan, the battle-hardened lieutenant, led a series of assaults and raids while Mirza Najaf Khan kept turning on the heat of battle on the Jats, till in the end they were pushed back to their frontiers and he established a weak regency kingdom that dared not come out against the empire while he lived (though he himself was mortally wounded by a spear thrust in the last of the major battles). The poor general however had such an everlasting dearth when it came to friendship and loyality that when he was away defeating the emperor’s enemies in Jat territories, Abdul Ahad Khan, whom he had raised from the rank of a mere courtier to the position of Wazir, began poisoning the emperor’s mind against his beneficiary, invoking the bogey of Najaf Khan’s religious practices arising from his Shia faith (for a primer, refer Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb Complex), and also his camaraderie with his kinsman Shuja-ud-Daulah and their combined fomenting of a Shia uprising against the emperor. The Emperor ordered Najaf Khan to reduce his army’s strength so that he couldn’t pose a threat to the imperial guard, and also to surrender the spoils of the war including the fortress of Agra, but apart from this there wasn’t much that Abdul Ahad could have enforced on the invincible general, despite being authorized by the Emperor to do so, since no official or commander was a match for Najaf Khan’s ruthless strategizing in battle or his highly advanced war machinery. Abdul Ahad had to be content with fomenting occasional Sikh and Rohilla skirmishes to harass the undeterred Mirza, who simply brushed them aside with contempt as if they posed no more threat to him than a cluster of flies. Though now sick and often bedridden, the Mirza gathered his armies and mercenary forces and travelled once more to the Jat territories to conquer those territories that had resolutely remained independent and refractory during his last march – he conducted himself with admirable composure and gallantry, capturing Jat territories and most importantly, the well-fortified and nobly defended fortress of Dig, despite often being subdued by sickness and news of political vendetta against him by opposition nobles at the court – the soldiers adored him and found it difficult to believe that the boy once chased out of his native place by his enemies could rise so high to become the scourge of such powerful and affluent kingdoms. By enforcing overwhelming sieges and crippling blockades, Najaf Khan reduced the entire Jat country to subjugation, but before he could proceed any further he received news of the wretched Ahad Khan’s nefarious planning – the Wazir had vengefully turned on the Rohilla leader Zabita Khan, who was once in connivance with him against Najaf Khan, and war was declared again on the confused and terror-stricken Rohillas in AD 1776, for the purpose of which Najaf Khan was ordered to return to Delhi and take command of the army besides the office of paymaster (“Mir-Bakshi”) which he anyway executed, even though so far Zabita Khan held the coveted position nominally. 


A Mughal cavalryman, the likes of whom Mirza Najaf would have trained (Oil painting by Edwin Lord Weeks, Photo courtesy - Columbia.edu)


Emboldened by the presence of Sikh mercenaries in their midst, the difficulties faced by Mughal army struck in trenches and surrounded by marshes in the rainy season and the absolutely worthless command of Ahad Khan who harshly condemned and opposed every strategy devised by Mirza Najaf Khan, the Rohillas gave strong opposition to the invading forces till in the end Najaf Khan set the ball rolling their way by assembling his forces and calling all the lieutenants from their territories and declaring war on his own initiative against the Rohiilas. Much delayed by the rains, harassed by the incessant Sikh raids and tired of constant bickering of the court officials and the Wazir, Najaf Khan decided to himself enter the battlefield and at the very outset bought off undisciplined Rohilla allies or terrorized them away be threat of annexation of their kingdoms – he wreaked havoc in the desperate enemy lines and proceeded to punish and scatter them, regardless of his own losses, till in the end, the treasonous Rohilla resistance was crushed (1777) and, Zabita Khan’s family arrested and escorted to Delhi under armed guard; in fact, under duress, Zabita Khan was forced to marry his sister and daughter to Najaf Khan and Najaf Quli Khan respectively before being ejected from Delhi and its political affairs. More about the fate of the Rohillas can be read here – Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial, Calcutta. While the Mirza was busy defending the empire against potential adversaries, his own enemies held sway in the court and continued to plot and prepare for his downfall; however following the ascension of Sikhs and their increased clout in Haryana, Najaf Khan swiftly moved in to consolidate his power by restoring the Sikh territories back to Mughal administration (thereby gaining further trust and the position of “Wakil-i-Mutlaq” (Vicegerent) from the emperor) and arresting Wazir Abdul Ahad Khan, his primary enemy, on the charges of colluding with the enemy, corruption and securing garrison command positions for his undeserving relatives throughout Haryana and Punjab instead of checking the perilous rise of the Sikh warlords. Coveting further victory, Mirza Najaf continued to bring Sikh kingdoms under Mughal governance one after the other, either through sieges and negotiations, or through a chastising policy of punishment, assassinations and plunder; in an instance of brilliant statesmanship, he had Zabita Khan pardoned and his family and estates restored in order to set a Rohilla buffer state against the Sikhs.


The decorated protrusion along the mausoleum's front face. Notice the graceful use of minimalistic ornamentation.


Ironically, when Mirza Najaf Khan, the most influential commander of the later Mughals and a doggedly incorruptible officer, passed away in 1782 AD after a brief illness, he was buried in one of the simplest tombs that Delhi had ever seen – it isn’t known who commissioned the tomb, but it is considerately located close to the Karbala area (present-day Jorbagh) that has been venerated by the Shia population of the city as hallowed by the presence of Qadam Sharif, the shrine holding as sacred relic a footprint of Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad; also constructed in close vicinity a few years before Mirza Najaf’s death was the magnificent tomb of his brother-in-law Safdarjung while in 1820 AD the Mirza’s daughter Fatima too was laid to rest next to him. The Mughal army, pressurized by rebel governors and made hollow by corrupt commanders, collapsed soon after the Mirza’s unfortunate demise, especially after the Emperor restored Abdul Ahad to his position of Wazir and the latter reduced the army’s dimensions from 20,000 to 5,000 – Sikhs overran Delhi the very next year following Mirza Najaf’s death and the emperor himself became a worthless and nominal monarch whose writ did not extend much beyond his fortress’ frontiers – the royal family was tortured and executed, and the emperor blinded by the Rohilla warlord Ghulam Qadir Khan, following which the Mughal administration came under purview of Maratha dominance (AD 1788). In the face of extreme opposition from enemy nobles in the Mughal court as well as an exceedingly brainwashed Emperor, and repeated skirmishes from the Maratha infantry, Mirza Najaf Quli Khan rebelled and continued, till his demise in 1791, to hold the territories in Haryana that were established into a stronghold by Mirza Najaf Khan during the Jat subjugation; the territories were further sustained by Mirza Najaf Quli’s widow till her demise in 1792 AD following which they lapsed into the Maratha confederacy’s territories. 


The splendor of the Mughal court greatly decreased from 18th century onwards as a consequence of numerous defeats administered by invading forces and court rivalries and intrigues. Oil painting by Edwin Lord Weeks. On the right side is the beautiful Jama Masjid that Shahjahan built. (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)


Consisting of a squat and extremely simplistic square enclosure boasting of octagonal bastions at the corners, the mighty general’s mausoleum is more of a memorial than a grand structure – the red sandstone walls are unadorned except for a set of ornamental stone panels, each bearing minimalistic floral motifs and flowing arches, affixed to the projected embossment that runs along the front face of the tomb – the embossment itself is flanked on the corners by decorative pillars and staircases leading to the low roof where a raised projection marks the position of graves underneath. The two entrances leading within the tomb to the actual graves, along the side facing the gateway and its opposite, yawn dark and deep but remain barred by means of grilles installed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Apart from these minor details, the tomb bears no other adornment except an extremely thin strip of sandstone molding (more prominently detailed over the bastions than on the sides) along the roof and shallow alcoves, identical in form and configuration of the entrances, on the sides not possessing an entrance. The gateway to the tomb complex, a slender double-storied structure with wide kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation), is desolately ruined – only a small end portion of it survives now and it is difficult to ascertain whether the space it enclosed was square or arched in nature. A dilapidated staircase that would have led up to the enclosure (“kotla”) walls can still be seen along the gateway's side facing the tomb gardens, while parallel to it on the opposite side only the thick rubble base  now remains of an identical staircase. The remains of the gateway have long ceased to display the plasterwork that once would have draped them and exhibit their bare rubble and Mughal-era Lakhori brick framework – nonetheless, they are better-off than the tomb complex’s enclosure walls which are, if not ruined, then defaced with graffiti or lined with heaps of garbage and construction debris – it is said that originally there was a gateway on each side of the square enclosure but now only the one survives. The lawns around the tomb are remarkably well-maintained – designed according to Mughal charbagh style of garden plantation where a square lawn is divided into smaller quadrants by walkways/waterways (only the former here), the lawns are planted with lush trees and rows upon rows of plants bearing colorful and fragrant flowers – to the credit of the cool, beautiful grass-carpeted lawns, the tomb complex has become the playground for local children and a public park for the aged desiring a brisk walk or school kids of the surrounding areas wishing for a short stopover before heading home at the end of the day – ASI recently identified the complex, on account of it drawing numerous visitors on a daily basis, for addition of a ticketing facility – I wonder how many of these visitors would come to visit Najaf Khan then. Of course, even now, those who visit seldom know anything about this forgotten officer whose tumultuous life could have been the theme for a dramatic Bollywood flick if only it was well known, researched or remembered. 


The adornment panels affixed on the front face embossment. It has been contended that the tomb was to be built further and could never be completed, perhaps due to the collapse of Mughal administration and the spread of anarchy soon after the Najaf's death.


Location: Jorbagh (Coordinates: 28°34'51.4"N 77°12'48.9"E)
Open: Sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh
Nearest Bus stop: Safdarjung Airport
How to reach: Walk from the metro station/bus stop - the distance is less than a kilometer in either case.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant Links - 

13 August 2014

Chaumukh Darwaza, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi


In an isolated corner of Mehrauli Archaeological Park, forgotten by the residents of the ancient city of cities that is Delhi, ignored by archaeological-conservation authorities and tourists alike, reclaimed by vegetation and foliage and veiled by a blanket of dense trees and brilliant sunshine, come face-to-face remnants of several centuries of human existence that culminated into a highly advanced yet culturally sublime civilization whose roots stretch back to several eons in history. Standing testimony to the residence of skilled builder-craftsmen and exceptionally talented artists in this part of the world, these monuments, that have long since passed from the collective memory of those who still inhabit the surrounding country, represent a fusion of several architectural and artistic cultures, a coming together of traditions that had made journeys worth several thousand miles and an equal number of years in time, a flowering of new forms of art and construction from the stalks of existing knowledge and traditional practices. Of all the structures in the vast open plain here, the most frequently overlooked and seldom written about is probably the oldest, and yet it doesn’t play the part of the elderly. In the shadow of the renowned Qutb Minar and Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, respectively the oldest Islamic structures in the magnificent city and amongst the oldest in the country, enclosed by a curtain of trees and consigned to a sorry existence by layers upon layers of rotting, stench-emitting garbage that seem to grow exponentially, the Chaumukh Darwaza (“four-faced gateway”) happens to be the earliest construction in the region – one of the few surviving gateways of the majestic Lal Kot, the erstwhile gigantic “red fortress” of the Tomar and Chauhan Hindu Rajputs (AD 736-1192) who reigned over immense territories stretching all the way from modern Rajasthan and Haryana to the frontiers of Punjab. Of the thirteen gateways of Lal Kot, Chaumukh Darwaza happens to be the most easily accessible and yet it is rare for a tourist to venture in and explore this section of Mehrauli Archaeological Park despite its proximity to the handsome tomb of Quli Khan (refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb) – it might have something to do with the huge number of monuments, in different stages of excavation, that are being restored and made visually palatable throughout the massive archaeological park and especially enroute to the gateway, or with the notion that after numerous exquisitely adorned and intricately carved tombs and mosques, a simplistic rubble masonry wall running division between modern residential quarters and medieval heritage structures holds little artistic and architectural value – and yet, it is this long stretch of thick curtain wall, intermittently interspersed with bastions and slight turns, that once demarcated the ancient Hindu citadel from the surrounding countryside.


Delhi's original gateway!


The defensive gateway doesn’t appear eight centuries old, it has been repaired time and again by the numerous dynasties that reigned over the country with Delhi as their seat of strength – the immensely thick sloping walls and the squat, low appearance, made more prominent by the thick base, conveys unparalleled strength and obstinate steadfastness, and is reminiscent of the architecturally-rich Tughlaq-era (AD 1325-1414) construction which was known for its lack of ornamentation and emphasis on function over form. The gateway is said to be one of the principle entrances to the city – it isn’t hard to drift into a world of imagination and fantasy and visualize it as being flanked by low makeshift bazaars composed of tents and small wooden pedestals where traders and merchants stock fruits, vegetables, flour and spices, along the paved tracks are brought bundles of cloth and stocks of firewood by means of horse and bullock carts and a steady stream of people – merchants, travelers, pilgrims, soldiers and criminals – traverse in and out all the time while sentries posted on either side inspect people and their wares in the midst of continuous hum of the chatter of people, jovial cries of children, barks of domesticated dogs, and shouts and music of conjurers, snake charmers and acrobats.


One of the bastions along this stretch of the wall; the gateway peeps from behind the vegetation in the background. The corners have fallen apart where the wall makes extreme turns and one can cross to the residential colony opposite Quli Khan's tomb from there. 

Alas, today heaps of garbage and construction debris being dumped right upto the raised, paved pathway leading to the gateway turn a hopeful visit into a futile excursion since the way to the gateway is blocked and one has to traverse through a flood of food packets, polythene and vegetable waste beside glass shreds and piles of stone and cement, in the company of groaning dump trucks and waste-filled trolley tractors – one begins to wonder if this is actually the backyard of the Qutb Complex, a World Heritage Site, and the magnificently restored monuments stand just around the corner. Oh Delhi, what have you done!

Location: Near Quli Khan's tomb, Mehrauli Archaeological Park (Coordinates: 28°31'24.6"N 77°11'14.8"E)
How to reach: One can walk from Quli Khan's tomb (red sandstone markers within the park indicate the way to the tomb); alternately one can access the gateway from Qutb complex.
Open: Sunrise to sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
Suggested reading - 

11 August 2014

Metropolitan Building, Calcutta


“That magician whom I brought from Rangoon is a clever fellow. He has toured all over India as a circus conjurer. The bullet-proof jackets were bought at Whiteaway & Laidlaw’s stores, one rupee eight annas each. They are costing me a pretty penny, I can tell you.” 
– U Po Kyin, a Burmese character in George Orwell's "Burmese Days"

The graceful but poverty-stricken existence and existential conditions of the massive, palatial Metropolitan Building, architecturally and artistically one of the most prominent and underrated of Calcutta’s iconic landmarks, at the corner of Esplanade Square has for the past few years become a concurrent theme for the city’s heritage enthusiasts’ unwavering devoted adoration and unequivocal criticism over lamentable governmental neglect and unsound conservation and maintenance principles – recently given a bright coat of dazzling white paint with glittering golden highlights for its numerous Victorian features, the handsome building that started out as one of the most well-renowned of colonial-era structures in the subcontinent couldn’t have seen worse days – portions of it, including the stained glass atrium, have collapsed and the striking structure has been declared unfit for human occupation while simultaneously being subjected to ever-deteriorating standards of maintenance with the removal of its original exorbitant Italian marble, damage due to water seeping to the expensively replaced woodwork and modifications in the interior layout – the only aspect that has probably remained unchanged in its history thereof is that the majestic structure has always housed a departmental store except for a brief interlude in recent past – it is a little known fact that the building began as Asia’s biggest departmental store in the form of headquarters of the famed Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co., dealers in the latest in English fashion apparel and renowned among the European community of the entire subcontinent (and the Anglicized native population who professed to an unabashed attraction towards European-style fine dressing), today it houses on its huge ground floor the Big Bazaar store, a retail outlet with branches in almost every Indian city promising to inundate the domestic lives of customers with cheap daily-use accessories as well as hundreds of thousands of billboard and print promotional advertisements. 

Regally spread over two massive floors and custom-built by Calcutta-based contractors Mackintosh Burn Ltd. for their clients Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co., the building’s stately Victorian appearance is completed by the presence of three domed cupolas at the corners with clocks embedded in them, tall Corinthian pillars and impressive triangular facades mounted in the center of each face – at present the majestic domes, the ornamental urns that define the rooftop and the Acanthus leaves surmounting the pillar capitals have been drenched in a coat of glistening golden paint that contrasts with the dazzle of the rest of the building’s understated white to create a flamboyant appearance that in no way appears to be unharmonious to my untrained eyes – yet great hue and cry was raised, to no effect, when the visual modification was first perpetrated over the erstwhile all-white color scheme of the structure. Just as it might seem difficult to imagine the Esplanade square without the building majestically seated at its present prominent location, it has become equally difficult to imagine the building now without its glittering highlights. Having glossed over old photographs of the building, I find the present color scheme more heartwarming than the original grey-white monotonous appearance. I just earned several enemies in Calcutta’s heritage circle by confessing so! Nonetheless, as Mr. Ratish Nanda who heads the Aga Khan Trust's much-appreciated conservation-restoration work at Delhi's Humayun's Tomb complex once pointed to me – the purpose of restoration is not to enforce a color scheme or add features that you see fit, but to return to the original design and artwork after removal of such modifications and additions to go back to the artist/architect's original conception. Though I adore the new appearance and find it in general more attractive and eye-catching than the original, I cannot, in any case, support this highlighting on a heritage building since it goes against all laid-down principles of restoration and might well be equivalent to opening a Pandora's box with conservation and landscape architects giving free rein to their own wills of fantasy and beliefs regarding the monument/structure's appearance and layout.


Calcutta's pride


Jocularly christened as “Right-away, Paid-for and Co.” over its principle of not lending credit, Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co. derives its name from the two enterprising Scotsmen who started it in 1882 and ran an impressive business conglomerate with merchandise outlets at Calcutta, Shimla, Madras, Lahore, Burma and Shanghai; the much glossed over Calcutta outlet was the most popular one stop shopping center for British soldiers and administrative officers posted anywhere in south-east Asian colonies and was considered uber-posh and classiest amongst all the centers; the Co. was one of the first pioneers of the concept of "sale days" and introduced "Rupee Friday" in its Indian branches were customers could purchase several items each for one rupee; the accounts however began to dry up after India gained independence following the long and tenuous freedom struggle and the Co. was forced to shut shop and sell the beautiful building to Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. which explains the present nomenclature. At present, the building is owned by the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and the Big Bazaar operates out of the ground floor and the upper floors, referred to as Victoria Chambers when they housed Whiteway, Laidlaw and Co.’s administrative and official staff, have been quartered and given over to numerous tenants. Imagine my surprise when I first arrived at Calcutta by bus and deboarded at Esplanade (which happens to be one of the largest state bus terminals and an important metro station) and came face-to-face with this striking architectural specimen that most Calcutta residents have come to take for granted – never having read about it since it isn’t generally included in the list of important colonial-era landmarks and not understanding what such a princely structure is doing in the midst of the city, I ended up asking the passer-bys about it, most of whom themselves knew little or nothing! My eyes might have almost popped out of my head due to utter astonishment and surprise on learning that the handsome Victorian building is “just” another Big Bazaar store – thankfully my friends brought me out of my contemplation and we explored the entire area in much detail and observed all the happenings almost all day long. Since then, I have been to Calcutta numerous times and almost every single time end up clicking the building – usually the same shot over and over again – somehow the building, because of its antiquity, gracefulness and immaculately magnificent appearance despite all the loathsome modifications it has been subjected to and the irreverent maintenance conditions that have been heaped on it, attracts me to itself – in its miserably forgotten and ignored state full of gloominess and dejection over its future existence, and yet possessing an air of unparalleled stately splendor and unmatched glamour, the building represents Calcutta – antiquated, much modified from its original pristine state and struggling against its existence in a world that has galloped far ahead in times and yet claiming its fair share of admirers and enthusiasts who are forever willing to wage battles if their beloved is subjected to a single modification – be it the addition of the golden highlights to the building, or the enforcement of the white-blue color scheme for the city. 

Though there isn’t much info available about Mr. Whiteaway, I did chance upon some interesting trivia about Mr. Robert Laidlaw who happened to be a philanthropist and a Member of the British Parliament and donated profusely to charitable establishments and schools throughout the country. He funded and helped maintain numerous World War I relief operations being run by Red Cross and several other charities.

Location: Esplanade (Coordinates: 22°33'48.8"N 88°21'05.9"E)
How to reach: The building is immediately opposite Esplanade bus stop and at a stone's throw from the metro station. Buses and taxis can be availed from different parts of the city.
Timings: Sunrise - 9 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Other landmarks located nearby - 

05 August 2014

Deer Park, Delhi


Teeming with a much admired variety of flora and fauna , one of Delhi’s largest green lungs and a delight for nature enthusiasts and joggers alike, the aptly named Deer Park in Hauz Khas has endeared itself amongst heritage lovers for another reason – the thickly forested, almost pristine grounds present to visitors a feast of monuments that remains hidden behind multiple layers of foliage and is reached by following a labyrinthine trail convoluting and turning over itself throughout the massive park – in fact, it is the sheer frustration at being repeatedly brought back to the same point by the slithering, sneaking maze-like pathway and the mind-boggling confusion about finding the correct way in the vast, unmanageable park that might prove a hindrance (if you do consider these one) to locating all three medieval tombs within the complex – but then it is the thrill of discovering these forgotten beautiful structures through veils of vegetation and a complexity of trails that drives the enthusiasts and the curious to explore this hidden magical nook in the heart of the city. The park promises to present to visitors the momentary surreal feeling of awestruck surprise at the sight of a marvelous centuries-old structure that just might peep out all of a sudden through thick layers of vegetation and a tangle of branches and vines or behind vibrantly colorful swings or even amidst unbelievably large mounds of dead and dry gnarled wood! For couples, the park is a heaven, one of the last remaining bastions where young lovers can meet without being judged, disturbed or subjected to moral policing by the older generations and right-wing brigades, though of course, there might be a few lonely, frustrated guys lurking behind a tomb or a tree and sneaking up on couples and clicking them while they get physical.


At Deer Park


It was a particularly sunny summer afternoon when I visited the park and the adjacent Hauz Khas complex (check Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas Complex) – the trees seemed parched, the concrete felt as if it would melt under the fiery onslaught and the air itself struggled to escape the scorching clutch of the sun – the park’s huge trees, with their wide spread of branches and dense foliage, conspired to keep the sun from showing its dreaded face to those who were seeking asylum under their wild expanse, thereby providing much appreciated relief to humanity and wildlife. But as evidenced by the presence of scores of couples who throng to the park at all times of the day irrespective of blistering sun or drenching rain, love knows no bounds! It has been often observed that all medieval structures – be they tombs, mosques, pavilions or palaces – tend to be considerably cooler than the surrounding environments as a result of location-specific architectural practices, honed over centuries of construction, employed in their building – it is therefore no surprise that the tombs within the park become a refuge during the daytime for dreary visitors, tired couples, heat-struck rodents and hassled birds. Though at all times the park remains threatened by vandals and deranged lovers who take to monuments to vent their emotions, be it love or anger or frustration, and often leave behind irritatingly disgusting love letters or abuses, such elements are more active during the day when the crowd is relatively less and thoroughly dispersed and there is little suspicion that anyone can go about such anti-social, anti-heritage activities diurnally – the few guards on duty have it real rough, having to patrol such vast space and managing undisciplined, and in all probability uneducated, louts and vandals who are adept at badmouthing and harassing at the slightest pretext – despite my rants against the poor state that the government has subjected the monuments to, I do feel bad for the guards. 


Nothing stimulates an adrenaline rush like a friendly fight!


True to its name, the park has enclosures that house rabbits and deer and there are ponds where duck and geese waddle about in enjoyment. The deer are a real delight (probably apparent from the large number of photos I clicked), there are so many of them, and a few look suberbly majestic with their striking horns and chiseled bodies. Incidentally, it was much later that I found out about the monuments in the park, it was the deer I first read about it in a newspaper article, that’s what piqued my interest – who would have thought there are deer roaming about in a public park in Delhi! One can also spot rare avian visitors if one is observant enough – there are lapwings, peacocks, parrots, pigeons, mynas and occasional terns.

Of the three tombs within the park premises, the largest is Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad (“Tomb within the garden of the world”), a beautifully adorned, medium-sized tomb that seems to be a favorite with visitors, enchanting them with its modest blue tile work and exquisite multicolored medallion art on the interiors, and also attracting couples to its deep recessed alcoves where one can hope to shut out the world while embracing one’s beloved. Along the tomb is a beautiful rubble masonry wall mosque with thick turrets and a leaf-covered and bird dropping-drenched cemetery – look out for more couples in the hollow turrets, I found it amazing how people can clamber into such narrow spaces! Nearby stand the Tohfewala Gumbad (“Gifted tomb”), an unidentified tomb whose interiors are exceptionally well maintained even though the exteriors appear all run-down and crumbling, and Kali Gumti (“Little black domed structure”), another unidentified structure whose purpose for construction is unclear but whose nomenclature is arrived at after considering the organic mortar finish applied to its round dome that has taken a blackish hue over time. You can look up these structures here – Pixelated Memories - Bagh-i-Alam ka GumbadPixelated Memories - Kali Gumti and Pixelated Memories - Tohfewala Gumbad.


Majestic - Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad


The park has been modeled by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) into creating a space to keep the local residents physically fit through the utilization of several simple exercise regimes along a fitness trail and the employment of info boards to guide and explain exercises to the visitors – the exercises are numerous and jocularly interesting, thanks in part to their naming and also to the strange set of accompanying instructions, take for instance “Jumping Jack”, “Balancing Beam”, “Straddle Walk”, “Spinal Exercise”, “Knee Bend” – it is another matter that rarely do people follow these instructions, nor are there many visitors, except couples, to the park except during early morning and evening.

Over the past few years, the park has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – official apathy, poor conservation-restoration of monuments, poor horticultural maintenance, lack of control over vandals and unruly elements, unclean animal enclosures straddled with garbage and polybags, maintenance-related issues and garbage dumping – at least the park was actually clean the day I was there – there weren’t any heaps of garbage, nor any disturbing elements, though yes, the issue of defacement and spoiling of public property, monuments especially, is glaringly rampant in the park premises; the park trails were being relaid with brick red soil and the guards were actually going about and looking after the property. Public facilities are another issue – though there are water coolers near the entrance gate, they seemed to be in a disgusting state of maintenance (the basin hasn’t been cleaned in ages, the taps do not close properly and are forever dripping thereby leading to moss deposits along the basin walls and overspill along the tiled walkways, the perennially filled basins have been taken over by hornets and one has to hope for their mercy while edging closer for a sip). It would take some time for Delhi to get its act together, the city is after all aiming for a UNESCO World Heritage City status, but at least it’s a start – in a city where parks, wetlands and forest covers are rapidly diminishing and children have to come out to play on streets for lack of proper parks and sporting facilities, such a vast green space is truly an unexpected delight! 


Look at those horns!


Location: Hauz Khas
Nearest Metro station: Green Park
How to reach: Walk/take an auto from the metro station to the park.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
Relevant Links -