September 15, 2014

Mughal tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi

"'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'  Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away."
– Percy B. Shelley, "Ozymandias"

Since I began delving into the world of monuments and architectural heritage, I have come to realize that it is actually the smaller forgotten structures, often reduced to ruins, taken over by dense foliage and emerging from inconsequential locations and ignobly mundane settings, ignored by conservation authorities and untouched by the garish application of plaster and paint that goes about in the name of restoration in our country, that are the most warm and beckoning, throbbing with a plethora of tales regarding their long forgotten past and holding in their decrepit bosoms multitudes of stories and lore regarding the city’s existence and development and their own commissioning and construction. Nowhere is this bizarre anomaly more apparent than in the vast, forested and forgotten Mehrauli Archaeological Park where the trees seem to inch closer as one heads deeper underneath their canopy and the perennially dry air buzzes with an ominous silence disturbed only by the whistle of wind and occasional footfall of fellow visitors. It isn’t like the entire archaeological complex is bereft of visitors – the local residents come hither in the late afternoon and evening to graze their goats, guards and the rare tourists can often be spotted near the more famous medieval structures like Jamali Kamali complex and Rajon ki Baoli (see links at the end of this post), schoolboys come to play cricket and practice drama plays in the vast, landscaped area around Quli Khan’s beautiful tomb – but except for these, the only company are dogs and birds of several species.


Moving straight within the archaeological complex from the entrance located near Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban’s tomb is a nameless yet bewitching set of ruins, though most will simply look at it as that only – ruins. The semi-buried row of neatly stacked chambers, conjectured to be horse stables, surrounded by a low enclosure wall has always surprised me and made me wonder if it would bear the same charm once it has been dug out of the earth and the piles of heavy stones spread around it removed. I doubt that. I guess once these ruins are subjected to a beautification drive, they would simply become a set of very old rooms, not captivating chambers/stables, much like Balban's tomb complex that now appears as far from original as it could possibly be (refer Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb).

Further ahead nearby, in a corner not tread by many, stand two of my favorite tombs – dated to the Mughal-era by the distinctive ornamental features they display, the two stand couple of meters from each other flanked by numerous ruins of undated antiquity on one side and a deep sewage channel (“naala”) on the other. Yes the beautiful oasis has been hijacked by sewer lines and a flood of plastic and polythene; rest assured I do not like the two resilient structures for their surrounding ambiance, (which is poor when most respectably referred to as), but it is the graceful charm, even at being semi-submerged underground, that they exude that attracts me every time I’m at the archaeological park.


The larger of the two has lost most of its decorative adornment, it is this one that is half-buried in earth and located immediately next to the sewage channel – the only features it displays now are remains of calligraphy inscriptions and medallions, two large jharokhas (protruding windows) and kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) on the exteriors and a fairly well-preserved, though moss layered, roof medallion inside – but seldom does anyone venture within since one is forced to bend pretty low to enter the blocked entrances, moreover piles of garage surround it on every side and thick cobwebs bar entry within.

Post overcoming the the darkness and the strong stench of damp and rot, one can observe that most of the wall and roof surface seems to be draped by layers of moss-like vegetation – the dark is intense and I was forced to switch on the camera flash to click the medallion, though I avoid using flash in monuments since the pigments in natural colors used in such old structures are said to get damaged. The jharokhas are a surprise – though common in palaces, gateways and mosques, they are seldom seen in tombs, in fact this is perhaps the first time am seeing them used thus. Across the sewage channel is Waqf land, belonging to the Muslim administrative body involved with burial land, and a madrasa (Islamic seminary) is run there – it is nobody’s guess how the students manage to fixate their attention on the subjects and the sermons despite the stench they are subjected to. Soon, several students would peep out to observe the stranger with the camera photographing the neighborhood monuments, some would wave, others would point, but none ventures close. Anyway, a metal wire mesh separates the onlookers from the archaeological complex.


The second, considerably prettier tomb has been recently restored, its walls that were cleaved in two, perhaps by earthquakes, have been sewn together with mortar but left untouched by the plasterwork and paint job – did the conservation authorities want to emphasize the work they undertook? The perfectly square structure possesses stucco medallions, glittering red paintwork on the wall portions above the arched entrances, minarets along the corners of the roof and a well-defined dome seated on a high drum (base); the interiors too display remains of exquisite stucco work, but the entrances have been barred by grilles and locked, the space within being used as a storeroom, a very miserable reflection on the way centuries-old monuments are treated in our country, even by the authorities tasked with conservation and restoration – this is the worst way to conserve a structure, I reckon!

Adjacent to the tomb is the associated wall mosque (“qibla”) that has been recently encroached upon, painted dazzling white and modified to add chambers alongside – now a madrasa is run from within the premises with scant respect for the heritage value of the structure and the exquisite surface ornamentation of the mosque have been assimilated in the madrasa and lost due to excessive plastering over. Peeping from behind the walls are the slender turrets of the mosque and painted in English and Arabic are the name and phone number of the religious instructor and the legend “Choti Masjid Bagh Wali” (“Small mosque in the lawn”), the name with which the structure has now been christened.

A storehouse!

The students there, middle-aged, bearded men, each dressed from head to toe in white, were aggressive regarding the photography prohibition being effected there and refused to allow even a single click. Thankfully, after I reiterated that it is Government land and I am entitled to click and write about the structures here, the person delivering the sermons quickly turned his face away from the camera and left; most of the students though decided it to be an excellent opportunity to pose next to the mosque and get clicked! Perhaps the adamant behavior was caused by the fact that the news about encroachment of the structure and its repainting has splashed in most major newspapers in the city, though there seemed to be no pressure on them of any sort to cease the modification work and vacate the land. I was not allowed to enter the narrow chambers. Given the presence of numerous Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) officials in the park overseeing the restoration-conservation work at nearby monuments, I find it scarcely believable that a monument was hijacked and they did not even have a whiff of it till after rooms were erected next to it!

A wall mosque? Now incorporated within this narrow seminary!

One doesn’t have an option to sit back next to these structures and adore them longingly – at last count there were atleast a hundred monuments (and more being excavated daily) in the complex spread over some 80 acres! With so much to see and click, who has the time to stop and stare – the same archaeological complex, stuffed with scores of structures representing over a millennium of civilization and construction, that magnifies the beauty of the structures hidden in its deep green bosom also makes more apparent the observation that the monuments here are but a transient glimpse in the eyes of the visitor, much like they were drops in the flow of this one millennium.

Once upon a time! (Photo courtesy -

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Entrance Fees: Nil
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
Nearest Metro Station: Qutb Minar
How to Reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. Walk/avail an auto from Qutb Minar metro station or avail a bus from Saket metro station. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri 
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats 
  8. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli 
  9. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins 
  10. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
Suggested reading - - Article "Mughal-era monument painted white" (dated March 9, 2010) by Richi Verma

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sahil,

    You have captured the spirit of the Mehrauli Arch Park so well. I wish this time they actually do a good job of the latest conservation announcement here. I also love these two tombs even though they are practically submerged in the dirt and sewage. You dont use flash lest you damage the pigment?! I wish we all as society could love our heritage as you do.