29 October 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 - 

25 October 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
Relevant Links - 

19 October 2014

Nili/Neeli Masjid, Delhi


A year and a half ago, exploring on foot the lavishly affluent Hauz Khas village area, that has become symbolic of ultra-rich fashion and fine dining with its many lounge bars, designer showrooms and merchandise outlets and yet retains a hemmed in, “village-like” feel in part because of its secluded existence isolated from all the real villages that flank it on every side, was when I first came across the enchanting Nili/Neeli Masjid (“Blue Mosque”). Dead camera batteries bounced in the bag, nodding affirmation to the subdued magnificence and beckoning grandeur of the Hauz Khas ruin cluster (refer Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex), leaving me with no option except making a mental note of the directions to access the beautiful mosque in order to return at a later date and photograph its humble glory.


The Blue Mosque - What's in a name?


But as time would have it, few months later I met with an accident in Calcutta that left me with 14 fractures, a shattered left arm and numerous other wounds – and where would my family take me for orthopaedic consultation upon the much anticipated return to Delhi – you guessed it right – Hauz Khas and then too in the immediate vicinity of the mosque! In fact, my orthopaedician-surgeon Dr Rajnish Gupta maintained his residential clinic so near the medieval mosque that I passed it nearly every day on my way to and from for severely excruciating surgeries, monotonous physiotherapy sessions and often incapacitating painful consultations – but the sorest agony remained my inability to even lift a camera and click the 500-year old mosque despite passing by it every day and the festering urge that had grown out of a deep nurtured wish to return to the structure and document and photograph it to my heart’s desire! Finally, almost a year later, following the declaration of fitness by the jovial doctor, I joyously returned to the mosque and clicked it despite the fact that it was raining and thundering relentlessly and my vehement insistence on heading to the mosque was also accompanied by brutal naggings from my cousin who accompanied me that I’ll wet the camera and damage it perennially. But there was a sensation of completion, of fulfillment – a year later, life had come full circle!


A sketch of the mosque depicting the architectural features and artistic motifs (Photo courtesy - Ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp). It is sad that there are no Indian sites/studies generating the architectural layouts of the monuments.


According to an inscription plaque above its central arched entrance, the graceful mosque, surrounded by an ornamental enclosure along its front face that itself is flanked on the corners by enormously thick decorated bastions, was commissioned in AD 1505-06 by Kasumbhil, wet nurse of Fatah Khan, son of Khan-i-Azam (“The Greatest Lord”) Masnad-i-Ali ("Seat of the Faith") Khawas Khan, Governor of Delhi during the reign of Emperor Sikandar Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517). Kasumbhil is thus regarded amongst the line of several distinguished women who patronized massive architecture and transformed Delhi’s landscape though their additions, most notable among them being Hamida Banu Begum who commissioned Humayun’s tomb complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex), Maham Anga who had Khair-ul-Manazil mosque built (refer Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque) and Qudsia Begum who constructed the Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Dargah Shah-e-Mardan Complex). Apart from its unique ornamental bastions and the tapering conical supporting towers along its back (western) wall, there aren’t many other distinctive features distinguishing the mosque from several other medieval structures. The single dome surmounting the rectangular structure springs from an octagonal drum (base) whose each corner is marked by slender turrets; the central of the three equally proportioned arched entrances allowing access to the mosque interiors is set in a protruding rectangular embossment; slender turrets also emerge from the corners of the roof and the said central rectangular embossment. Along the roof runs an especially intricate line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) inset with vibrant blue tiles, thus generating the nomenclature – Nili Masjid or Blue Mosque, however it appears that the ornamentation was only limited to the portion above the central facade; where the tiles should have been along the rest of the front face runs a wide “chajja” (overhanging eave) supported on rather thick simplistically carved brackets.


Blue tiles, calligraphy and exquisite artwork


The overall image is of opulence, indulgence indeed but not flamboyance – instead by limiting the adornment to the roof features and the small alcoves that flank the entrances, an aura of simplistic elegance has been thoughtfully imparted. There is also a well within the fenced, ambiently-vegetated enclosure around the mosque – but I do not recall seeing the fence the first time I was here, then the mosque's surrounding green square simply opened to the road along an entire side and a characteristic red Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) sign identified it. The mosque seems to have been plastered very recently as part of regular conservation-restoration regime, though the roof and its ornamental features remain untouched. It is still used for offering prayers by devotees and expectedly the interiors have been considerably altered – a long prayer mat covers the entire floor and another is rolled up and stacked in the corner; a religious instructor was preaching and calling the faithful for prayers and his voice resounded through the loudspeaker installed on the roof – clicking seemed a precarious option considering that there were already several devotees inside not inclined to be disturbed by a unbelievably cheerful photographer less than a third of their age. The mosque is one of the few that are under control of the ASI and still used to offer prayers – the encroachments can be distinguished rather easily, apart from the prayer mats and the obvious pressures exerted on the 500-year old structure, there are coolers fixed into the arched openings in the shorter sides of the mosque, fans and loudspeakers along the roof and tube lights nailed to the front facade.


View from the threshold of the foliage-covered open patch. In the right foreground is the well.


Despite the obvious contravention of rules regarding monuments and heritage sites and the affixing of modern fixtures to the its vintage walls, the mosque retains a certain grandeur, at least when viewed from the lush, tree-lined square it possesses around it, if not from the road which physically and abruptly cuts through its limited realm of forgotten existence. It is from here that one can click numerous compositions and perspectives of the little mosque, its unique architectural and ornamental features and the masculine bastions flanking it. Happy clicking!


Side profile of the mosque. The second picture illustrates the architectural layout and the interior features vis-a-vis external structure. (Photo courtesy - Ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp)


Location: H-Block, off Aurobindo Road, Hauz Khas market (Coordinates: 28°33'12.9"N 77°12'25.3"E)
Nearest Metro station: Green Park
Nearest Bus stop: Hauz Khas
How to reach: Walk from the metro station (850 meters) or the bus stop (250 meters). If coming from the metro station, walk towards Hauz Khas bus stop. A massive white marble-lined mosque with towering minarets (Highway Masjid) exists on the Aurobindo Road near the bus stop and the road immediately opposite leads within to H-Block residential areas and the Nili Masjid.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Delhi's other monuments also commissioned by women - 
Suggested reading - 

16 October 2014

Dargah Shah-e-Mardan Complex, Delhi


“Just as I am the lord and guardian of all the Muslims and I have full authority on them, so is Ali the lord and guardian of every one.”
– Prophet Muhammad at Ghadeer-e-Khum 

Continuing with the thread of heritage sites in the Shia majority Aliganj–Karbala area, after the mausoleums of the renowned statesman-governor Mirza Muqim Safdarjung and the forgotten general Mirza Najaf Khan Safvi, we come to the reason for their existence in this specific area within Delhi’s territories – the presence of the largely unknown and uncared for Shia shrine Dargah Shah-e-Mardan, also otherwise known as Qadam Mubarak (“Exalted footprint”) – dedicated to Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and first caliph of the adherents of Shia faith (fourth for the Sunnis), the shrine commemorates his memory by housing an imprint of his foot on a small piece of stone and is not a "dargah" (“tomb of a holy man”) per se. The shrine is unfamiliar to the citizens of the city and it isn’t hard to fathom for the reasons – the relatively fewer numbers of the Shia community and their avoidance of public display of their faith to avoid clashes with the majority Sunni Muslim community, also the general obscurity in which most of the later Mughal heritage structures find themselves to be (given the antiquity of several shrines in the city and the age of some monuments, the shrine is really a newborn!) – such is the obscurity of the dargah complex that the guidebook “Safdarjung’s tomb and its surroundings” issued by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in collaboration with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) confuses it with another Qadam Sharif located in the Paharganj locality near New Delhi railway station and even depicts a line drawing of the latter’s massive gateway! I have already discussed the Shia-Sunni conflict in detail here – Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb complex and in this article we shall try and throw some light on the life and history of Hazrat Ali and his wife Bibi Fatima.


Dargah Shah-e-Mardan - Bibi ka Rauza (right) and Qadam Mubarak (left). The associated building in left background is a "Majlis Khana" (congregation hall).


In AD 610, when Prophet Muhammad first received divine wisdom and tried to explain to his family and social contacts the message of God and his theory of creation and existence, Hazrat Ali, a young boy ten years of age then, was the first person after Hazrat Muhammad’s wife to believe in the religious uttering and therefore the first convert to Islam outside the Prophet’s immediate family – however, the Prophet’s beliefs and his interpretation of the divine encounters gained him a number of enemies and ill-wishers amongst the surrounding Jewish, polytheistic and idolater population and religious scholars whom he opposed besides territorially dominant and financially affluent regal and military authorities belonging to Roman Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires who had begun to feel threatened by the new religion and its increasing clout, therefore prompting Abu Talib, Hazrat Ali’s father, who was the guardian of the Prophet, to ensure that the latter’s life was safeguarded against all threats, even while he slept. Fearing assassination attempts, Abu Talib ordered his own sons to sleep in the Prophet’s place and sacrifice their lives to save him from imminent danger – Hazrat Ali famously rose to the occasion and never once relented from risking his own life and well-being in favor of the Prophet, especially when the latter fled with his family from Mecca to Medina in the face of grave opposition and severely violent repercussions to his beliefs. Hazrat Ali too soon followed him to Medina with several other faithful and the Prophet displayed his love and gratitude by marrying the beautiful and religious Fatima Zahra, his favorite daughter from his first wife Khadija, to the charismatic Hazrat Ali and also bestowing upon him the political and military command of the increasing number of devotees and converts to Islam. Following this delegation of authority, Hazrat Ali led a number of skirmishes and caravan raids and also participated with distinction in numerous battles as the commander and standard-bearer of Islamic forces to establish territorial domination of the nascent Muslim community; he was regarded as an extremely pious, humbly austere and benevolent individual rigorously observing religious duties, besides being a favorite and a loyal devotee of the Prophet; in the battlefield he was known for his unwavering valor, insurmountable steadfastness and a deep dedication towards the safety and service of the Prophet; off the battlefield, he was considered throughout his life an unparalleled and meritorious authority on Islamic jurisprudence, religious legislation and Quranic interpretation.


Spic - Shah-e-Mardan shrine interiors


The Prophet himself designated Hazrat Ali with the titles “Asadullah” (“Lion of Allah”) and “Nafs-e-Rasul” (“The Prophet’s own self”) and ordained him as a scribe penning the holy text of Quran which had been revealed by divine intervention in the previous two decades – yet such was the humility of Hazrat Ali that he did not shy away from tasks others would have considered unworthy – he nourished his family by working as a water-carrier tending the gardens of the rich Jews living in the vicinity and would often be found joyously taking up chores like repairing the Prophet’s slippers. Following the Prophet's demise, Muslims became galvanized in two factions, the former referred to as “Shi’a Ali” (Shias or “Proponents of Ali”) claimed that Hazrat Ali possessed the right to lead the Muslim community and be regarded as the first caliph of Islam (“Khalifa” – supreme political, religious and military authority) since he was the Prophet’s immediate family and his sons were the descendants of the Prophet; the other faction, known as “Sunni”, professed to faith in the capabilities of Abu Bakr, the father of the Prophet’s other wife Aisha. Abu Bakr was historically declared the first caliph and Hazrat Ali continued to be a counsellor to him, but  the divisions had begun to reflect bitterly – Hazrat Ali’s venerable wife Fatima fervently and fiercely guarded her husband against the enemies and some Shias hold that her and her unborn child’s premature death in AD 632 was a result of being violently struck by Umar, one of Abu Bakr’s supporters and later caliphs, when the latter tried to force entry into her house to physically persuade Hazrat Ali to promise allegiance to Abu Bakr, a charge rejected by Sunnis and some Shia sub-sects; the hostilities between the two groups took a fierce turn following the murder of the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan and subsequent exaltation of Hazrat Ali to caliphate (deservingly and through vigorous support, though despite his wish to remain a mere counselor), leading to the first Muslim civil war (“Fitna”) and extremely violent repercussions for Shias that continue to this date. Shias do not believe in the authority of the three caliphs before Hazrat Ali and assert that the caliphate only begins with him.


Bibi ka Rauza sanctum - The chakki of the noble lady and other objects of reverence


Faced with vociferous opposition from numerous channels, Hazrat Ali was forced to participate in a number of battles, especially against the ferociously vicious and terrorist Kharijite sect, where he demonstrated his combat and administration abilities through his double-tipped sword “Zulfiqar” – however, barely three years later, while prostrating during prayers at the Masjid al-Azam (Kufa, Iraq) he was attacked and hit on the head with a poisoned sword by a Kharijite assassin and died shortly afterwards. The year was AD 661 and he was sixty years of age then. Fearing desecration of his grave, he wished, like Bibi Fatima before him, to be buried secretly and the actual location of his burial is still debated – he was either buried at Masjid-i-Ali (“Mosque of Ali”) in the city of Najaf (Iraq) or at Rawze-i-Sharif (“Holy Blue Mosque”) in the Afghan city of “Mazar-i-Sharif” (“Venerable mausoleum”) – both the sites are considered exceedingly holy, though the former has the confidence of later caliphs and a majority of Muslim population as the actual site of the grave.

His death concentrated the political and religious powers of the caliphate in the exceedingly beneficent reign of his eldest son Hazrat Hasan, considered by Shias to be the second caliph, with all the provincial governors of the caliphate pledging allegiance to him, except Muawiyah I (a relative of Prophet Muhammad and the cousin brother of murdered caliph Uthman Affan), renegade governor of a vast territory extending from Levant to Egypt and the commander of the largest military force in the Muslim empire, who had also (with initial support from Bibi Aisha) vehemently opposed Hazrat Ali and cheated him on the pretext of preventing bloodshed of pious Muslims into stepping down from the caliphate. Nefariously, Muawiyah bought off all of Hazrat Hasan’s generals through bribes, promises and threats and forced the latter, precariously seated as he was, to negotiate and yield the caliphate to him – the manipulative Muawiyah, who once staunchly opposed Hazrat Muhammad, the foremost of Muslims, and chased him from his native land, came to become the caliph, the most influential authority over all Muslims! However soon, Muawiyah’s Ummayad caliphate, though it expanded the frontiers of Muslim territorial domination to hitherto undreamt of lands, by virtue of its divisive governance, repressive administration, vindictive retribution and biased nepotism began to irk even those who had supported him against Hazrat Ali and his descendants.


Dargah Shah-e-Mardan sanctum - The hexagonal basin houses the Qadam Sharif


Compared to the repressive later caliphs, the freedom and generosity afforded by Hazrat Ali’s reign came to be seen as a golden age and Hazrat Ali was posthumously garlanded with the titles “Commander of the Faithful” and “King amongst Men” (“Shah-e-Mardan”). Muawiyah had Hazrat Hasan poisoned; the latter’s younger brother Hazrat Hussain, who had risen in revolt against Muawiyah’s repulsive policies including persecution of the Prophet’s relatives, challenged him in the Battle of Karbala (Iraq) but was killed along with several of his relatives and all of Hazrat Ali’s sons (AD 680). The Ummayad caliphate instituted the practice of abusing Hazrat Ali in their daily prayers though it was later abolished from most parts of the Muslim empire; the tenth day of Muharram is considered a day of mourning by both Shias and Sunnis since the Prophet’s grandsons were murdered on this day – the Shias refer to this day as “Ashura” and publically remember and mourn the martyrdom by taking out processions and indulging in self-flagellation and mutilations (practices that Sunni Muslims consider, as has been pointed to me by them several times during discussions, as against the spirit of Islam); persecution of Shias still continues in most Muslim societies, including to an extent in India too, and most Shias practice “taqiyah” (hiding one’s religious views against aggressors to ensure personal safety).

Hazrat Muhammad’s lineage survives through the descendants of Bibi Fatima who survived the massacre of Karbala – these descendants are referred to as “Saiyyids” (“Lord”), a distinguished religious honorific they suffix in their names – the most notable of them in Delhi’s history being the legendary Sufi saints Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Saiyyid Kaki and Hazrat Nizamuddin Muhammad Saiyyid Auliya (see links at the end). Hazrat Ali is immortalized in Sufi traditions which mourn him as a true gentleman unmatched in knowledge and devotion and an able administrator who was generous in forgiving his fallen enemies.


Inside the small shrine opposite the dargah


The Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex, as mentioned before, is not a tomb but a memorial commemorating the existence and sanctity of Hazrat Ali and the martyrdom of his family – the complex, much like the other dargah complexes in the city, consists of several individual structures built at different times in the dargah’s not so distant history – the oldest structure is the central shrine built in AD 1724 by Empress Qudsia Begum, wife of Emperor Mohammad Shah “Rangila” (ruled AD 1719-48), who besides being a major patron of architecture, especially mosques and garden complexes, was one of the most prominent Shias in Delhi’s history and also a contemporary of the other two Shia warlords buried nearby – Nawab Mirza Safdarjung and Mirza Najaf Khan (refer Pixelated Memories - Najaf Khan and his tomb and Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb complex). Entitled “Sahibat-al-Zamani” (“Mistress of her age”), Qudsia Begum had risen from being a mere dancer to become the Empress of India and was considered a genuinely generous and kindhearted lady even by her detractors. It was during her influential reign as the Empress and later during her son Ahmed Shah’s reign (AD 1748-54) that Shias began to gain considerable power in the royal court and military circles, and events such as Muharram became lavishly sponsored ceremonies. It is believed that she had the Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex built to accommodate the sacred relics given to her by Shia religious dignitaries in the court of her husband. However recent research estimates the existence of the dargah complex as far back as AD 1543-44 (Suri Dynasty), thereby conferring on it the status of the oldest Shia shrine in the city – it is hard to explain how it came to be associated with Begum Qudsia Mahal if it was built around two hundred years before her time, in all probability, she must have been responsible for commissioning exorbitant reconstruction or ornamentation of the complex and the structures within, besides of course building the white mosque that still bears her name (more on that later). 

The dargah complex is reached to after traversing a large grass-covered tract of land and via a massive double-storied gateway (“Naqqar Khana”). Topped by a black miniature onion dome, the gateway, commissioned by Sadiq Ali Khan in AD 1821, was where the royal musicians would sit and announce the arrival of dignitaries and ambassadors.


"Naqqar Khana" - The entrance gateway


The central shrine consists of two adjacent identical chambers – the first, open to men only, is dedicated to Hazrat Ali and the object of veneration here is the foot impression (“Qadam Mubarak”) of the revered Ali depressed on a piece of stone that, on account of being cracked and broken, doesn’t really appear like a footprint; the second, where entry is only permitted to women, is referred to as “Bibi ka Rauza” since it is dedicated to Bibi Fatima Zahra and the object of reverence displayed here is her “chakki” (flat circular flour grinder) wrapped in a crimson red cloth embroidered with inscriptions from Quran – both the Qadam Mubarak and the chakki are placed in small hexagonal basins built of and in the same black marble that is used in the construction of the two sanctums so that the basins can be filled with sweetened milk whenever a devotee’s wishes come fulfilled for distribution among the faithful present. The chambers are large, covered with red and green carpets throughout and boasting of extremely exquisite plasterwork along the walls and the roof; the sanctum are composed of black marble as mentioned and lined with numerous gilded and intricately sculpted replicas and artworks of Hazrat Ali’s mausoleum (Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq) and Hazrat Hussain's mausoleum (Imam Hussain Masjid, Karbala, Iraq) and framed photographs and fragments of paper/cloth imprinted with verses and calligraphy. Though male entry is prohibited to Bibi ka Rauza, the humble and very well-spoken caretakers allowed me to go within and photograph, they even filled me with basic details about the complex and explained the poor condition of the soot-covered graves and simplistic structures to the lack of funds from religious donors within the community and the ignorance and uncaring attitude of the government – surprisingly and admirably though, despite the glaring absence of visitors and the shocking silence the complex affords, the dargah is amongst the most well-kept and clean religious shrines I have ever been to, there wasn’t a corner that appeared old or unkempt, nor were there any signs of littering or incineration of daily wastes. The interiors of Bibi ka Rauza are ornamented with painted stucco depicting the black stone of Kabba (Mecca), the shrines of Hazrat Ali and his sons and a dense foliage with numerous flowers each inscribed with a single word (perhaps the names of Allah or the titles of Hazrat Ali – I cannot read Arabic), however no artwork can match the single line of plasterwork consisting of floral and geometrical patterns that runs along the intersection of the roof and walls in the two adjacent shrines.


Strikingly exquisite!  - Stucco artwork ornamenting the walls and roof of the double shrine


The two shrines, though part of a larger enclosure, are separated from each other by means of a white marble partition that runs through the center. A white "tazia" (miniature mausoleum used in ritualistic mournful funerary processions and burial) is placed close to the sanctum of Hazrat Ali’s shrine; stacked in the opposite corner are numerous standards too – these tall panels of black cloth are hoisted on tall poles and embroidered with calligraphy and pictorial representations of Karbala, Hazrat Hussain’s mausoleum and his horse, are used on the day of Ashura when Hazrat Hussain’s martyrdom is mourned and processions taken throughout the city – the processions from all the neighborhood areas gather at Dargah Shah-e-Mardan and from here proceed to the nearby Shia graveyard (“Karbala”) where the tazias are buried in remembrance of Hazrat Hussain (more on the graveyard later). Following independence and partition of the country into India and Pakistan and the subsequent massive migration of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to either of the country, the Qadam Mubarak and Bibi Fatima’s Chakki were removed for a short period from the dargah to another Shia shrine known as Panja Sahib near Kashmere Gate for safekeeping since the incoming deluge of Punjabi Hindu refugees had taken up residence near and around the dargah complex and its associated graveyard and heavily damaged the subsidiary structures and shrines. A trust by the name of Anjuman-e-Haideri was instituted in the immediate aftermath of the partition for the maintenance and protection of the Dargah complex and the associated graveyard and mausoleums besides conduction of the annual Ashura processions. In its initial years, the trust functioned under the leadership of the architect-engineer Nawab Zain Yar Jung of Hyderabad who was also responsible for the reconstruction of Mirza Ghalib’s tomb near Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, refer Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb.

Adjacent to the central shrine is a large congregation chamber (“Majlis Khana”) commissioned in AD 1808 by Ishrat Ali Khan – externally decorated with stained glass windows above the wooden doorways and gold-painted fluted pillars with floral capitals and bases, the chamber’s real magnificence is in the interiors where dark red and green carpets cover every inch of the floor and the dark chamber is made more handsome by rays of light streaming through the stained glass windows and lightning up the rows of gold and pale-yellow pillars; numerous soft bolsters grace the carpets while huge frames inset with sheets of Arabic calligraphy rest inclined along the walls. The Majlis Khana, in the capacity of “Ashurkhana” (or “Imambargah”), plays host to the faithful who gather on the days of Ashura and Arba’ean (formal mourning observed forty days after Ashura) and sermons are preached to seated devotees from the center of the chamber where microphones have been installed alternating with the bolsters.


Affably luxurious - Majlis Khana interiors


Opposite the central shrine is another small shrine, a white-painted rectangular chamber topped by two miniature onion domes and a single slender minaret (each covered with vibrant blue tiles); along its bottom, this shrine boasts of a molding of a row each of white and black marble and a layer of arches painted light green above it, but the attention is immediately drawn to the posters that adorn the exterior walls and mention the Congress leader Ahmed Patel in harshest terms, accusing him of destroying graves and structures within and around the Karbala graveyard and illegally occupying Shia religious land – similar posters and newspaper clippings are affixed in bulletin boards nailed on the walls of the Majlis Khana. The interiors of the small shrine are very similar to those of the dargah – on the walls are hung several of the black standards adorned in golden embroidery with inscriptions and representations of Hazrat Hussain’s battle horse, the floor is draped in a large and elaborate red carpet while a brass replica of Hazrat Hussain’s tomb is placed on a pedestal in a corner – devotees, beseeching the Prophet's family for fulfillment of their wishes, have placed steel locks on the thin pillars of the mausoleum’s replica – traditionally, a pilgrim has to return and remove the lock/colored threads upon the occasion of the fulfillment of their desires and thank God by feeding the poor or leaving behind donations for the shrine (in this case, filling the hexagonal basin housing the footprint with milk and distributing it among the faithful). A wide courtyard laid with white marble separates the dargah and the small shrine, one side of the courtyard is flanked with couple of graves around which devotees leave incense and earthen oil lamps (“diyas”), a water cooler stands nearby and its chilled water proved to be a much desired relief in the scorching summer heat of the month of June when I visited the dargah complex – the courtyard is raised slightly higher around the dargah and one is required to remove footwear, including socks, before stepping on this raised portion and walking into the dargah and it is highly advisable to visit the dargah complex either early morning or when the weather is pleasant since walking on the fiery marble is an agonizing torment in itself!


The small double-domed shrine opposite the dargah. In the left background can be observed a dome of the red mosque.


Next to Bibi ka Rauza is a narrow strip of marble-covered courtyard that leads to the aforementioned Qudsia Begum’s mosque – a simplistic yet graceful white structure surmounted by three plump ribbed domes that add a certain serene countenance to its otherwise resigned existence – the courtyard immediately in front of the mosque has been covered with fiber-glass sheets mounted on iron pillars so that the effective area the mosque encompasses is several times much larger than what it was originally supposed to harbor, the downside is that the mosque, preserved otherwise in its original state, cannot be clicked in its entirety from any side or angle and the only photograph of the three domes can be achieved from the grassy patch outside the Naqqar Khana gateway from where nothing of the mosque’s three semi-circular arched entrances is observable.


Onions! - Qudsia Begum's flawless white mosque, as seen from the road leading to the dargah complex


The interiors of the mosque are exceedingly straightforward – triangular arches demarcating the three interconnected chambers outlined by plain plaster embossment shaped in semi-circles with a few floral bouquets for company at the corners; the concave surface of the central dome and the qibla (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers) too are decorated in a similar fashion, except that the plaster embossment along the dome’s interior is thicker and throughout composed of floral motifs; only these plaster embossments, colored slightly cream-brown, break the overall monotony of the white surface. Originally the mosque also had a large tank with a fountain in its courtyard but it doesn’t exist anymore.


Sigh! No fountain? Drastically modernized or irrevocably altered?


The dargah complex has been built on a stretch of land just encompassing the complex and raised high with respect to the surrounding residences and subsidiary structures. The wide courtyard between the dargah building and the small shrine opposite is at level with the base of the apex of the arched entrance of the tomb of Hazrat Arif Ali Shah Saiyyid who is said to have achieved sainthood at a very tender age and also passed away when he was around twelve years old. The square tomb is led to by a path that branches off from the route connecting the Naqqar Khana gateway to the dargah complex and has been demarcated by numerous markers and direction boards – seated in a small compound of its own surrounded by small residential quarters of the surrounding population, the tomb has been grotesquely covered with blue and white tiles that would have been more suitably used in toilets! The arched entrance to the tomb is set in a similar arched depression flanked on its periphery by floral-patterned tiles, a few have also been inscribed with Arabic inscriptions and representations of Kaaba and other holy shrines. The dome is surmounted by a fully-developed inverted floral finial while octagonal minarets crowned by miniature onion domes top three corners of the tomb’s roof (the fourth minaret lies broken in the tomb compound). Also present in the tomb’s small compound are two other structures – the first, located immediately besides the entrance, is a typical Mughal-era construction consisting of a cuboidal structure topped by a shallow ribbed roof, it was perhaps a mosque once, but is now being used as a storehouse-cum-residence; the other is a canopy tomb possessing a very strange curvy roof mounted on four rectangular pillars and a single grave underneath.


Grotesque tiles! - Hazrat Arif Ali's tomb


Stepping within the child saint’s mausoleum, one realizes that the employment of those horrific tiles does not just limit to the exteriors but continues inside too – a single grave wrapped in grass green cloth rests in the middle of a funerary zone designated by a black marble enclosure, the most curious, and also dazzling, of all the articles within the tomb is a line stretching over the grave that is hung with numerous vibrantly colored and sparkling “pankhas” (cloth fans) inscribed with Arabic texts and floral motifs in glittering gold and silver artwork. A “pagdi” (headgear for a bridegroom), complete with white beaded strands interspersed with alluring tinted ornamental beads, has been placed on the considerably raised portion of the marble enclosure that is contiguous with the head of the grave.


Unique? - I doubt if I have earlier witnessed brilliantly colored cloth fans as a mark of respect and devotion in any tomb/dargah


Past Hazrat Arif Ali Shah’s mausoleum and through an extremely narrow and dark space between the residential apartments, one comes to a small opening between the houses from where a dwarfish mosque with three bulbous red onion domes can be spotted – a locked gate bars the entry to the mosque’s small courtyard but the residents of the adjacent house or the children playing nearby will arrange for the keys if asked for. In contrast to the subdued white and red exteriors, the interiors are flamboyantly painted in glistening green and white colors which appear garish in combination with the striking symmetry of the arches demarcating the three bays of the prayer chamber that was a hallmark of Mughal architectural tradition. The congestion of the densely populated locality makes clicking the mosque, unimaginatively referred to as “Lal Masjid” (“Red Mosque”), difficult – I had to climb the stairs of the house opposite to photograph it, but was ordered to descend by the neighbors and subjected to severe inquiry – in short, it isn’t advisable to climb any staircase, notwithstanding the inability to get a proper click from anywhere else! 


The "thoughtfully named" Red Mosque - It is cherubic cute in reality given its round proportions, but the surrounding residential quarters make photographic compositions complicated. 


Also located couple of hundred meters from the dargah complex is the Karbala graveyard built during the time of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (ruled AD 1759-1806) – quite sparse and plain compared to the Christian cemeteries of Delhi and the Chinese graveyards of Calcutta that I have been to, the Karbala graveyard is largely an open, dry grass and weed infested tract of land with notices and information boards all along its periphery warning trespassers of legal action under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Given the distance of the Indian subcontinent from the Karbala battleground and the shrines of Hazrat Hussain and his brothers in Iraq and the financial inability of most adherents of Shia faith to make a pilgrimage to Iraq, throughout the subcontinent wherever Shia Muslims have settled they have built graveyards christened “Karbala” where soil from the Iraqi Karbala is scattered and miniature replicas of Hazrat Hussain’s mausoleum (“tazia”) are buried annually on Ashura in a symbolic ritual religiously significant as a gesture of making pilgrimage to the actual Karbala. To the regular chants of “Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain” and the beats of numerous mourners beating their chests forcefully as a mark of remorse over Hazrat Hussain’s suffering and killing, the tazias are bought in a winding procession by the faithful heralded by numerous standard bearers and buried – bigger tazias are commissioned by larger Shia organizations and shrines, while private individuals might bring their own smaller versions for burial; occasionally the mourners could also be seen weeping in remembrance of the Prophet's family and their martyrdom.

Near the entrance of the graveyard is a crumbling medieval wall mosque (“qibla”) of unremembered antiquity and a rather ostentatious appearance given that it has been painted pale yellow throughout with vibrant blue highlights for the five shallow arched indentations that mark the prayer niches and the small alcoves between them. Notwithstanding the nearly 400 year old history of the mosque and any other name it might have possessed in the long years that it has been standing on this location, it is at present referred to as Qanaati Masjid, a name originating from the cloth canopies/awnings (“qanaat”) that emanate from the mosque wall and are stretched and supported on iron pillars to shelter devotees from the sweltering summer heat. The structure is said to possess basement chambers but I highly doubt it – given its decrepit condition, it would have been inevitable that the chambers cave in or be exposed and I could see no signs of such chambers or the entrance thereof.


Meager - Qanaati Masjid


The only structure within the vast graveyard area is a medieval-era tomb belonging to a certain Mah Khanum (“Noble Lady”) – it isn’t known who the lady was nor why was she honored with the ultimate title of Mughal/Persian aristocracy, but she must have been influential in her time to command a mausoleum, notwithstanding how simplistic, in the middle of a revered graveyard – the Persian inscription on her grave compares her to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (the Muslim faith considers Christ as one of the several venerable prophets sent by God to guide humans), and one might conclude that the lady was a virgin and held a position of political or religious power. The tomb, built in AD 1726, is a simple rectangular structure seated on a plinth and possessing a doorway along the two smaller and one larger side; the ornamentation is minimalist, consisting of a curved roof and a line of arched embossments running along the roof of the three sides that possess entrances, a wide chajja (eave) supported on brackets and limited only to the larger side with the entrance, and a shallow alcove on either side of the entranceway on the same side. Entering in the meager tomb, one notices that the fourth side, which doesn’t have a doorway built in it, possesses a staircase that leads underground to the crypt level – in fact, the outline of the crypt can also be made out on the ground since staircases on either short side of the mausoleum lead to a considerably raised platform where a plain cemented square marks the position of the crypt underneath and is punched by small square vents and surrounded by patches of well-tended grassy lawns.


Mah Khanum's tomb - View from the enclosed raised area that demarcates the location of the crypt underground


Prior to my visit to Sultangarhi tomb complex in another part of Delhi, I believed that the crypt of Mah Khanum’s tomb is the spookiest place in Delhi – though it is lighted up by a tubelight, the underground chamber remains extremely dark, especially so since the walls and alcoves have become entirely blackish-gray with the passage of time and bear dark soot deposits on most of their surface from the burning of incense and oil lamps; the marble-lined grave in the center remains wrapped in a red embroidered cloth sheet (“chaddar”), but even the chandelier above it appears haunted, never lightning up but forever remaining dark and antique; a lone earthenware oil lamp sat secluded in the dark black wall alcove, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen in the graveyard who would have perhaps lighted it, nor did any individual appear in the nearly half hour that I was there. Undeniably I was out of the crypt and away from the mausoleum as soon as my terrified legs could carry me! Interspersed by thorny weeds or hidden behind tall dry grass, only a few crumbling graves exist here and there in the graveyard; the only other prominent structure is a grave located in a small enclosure close to the mausoleum that seems to be a recent structure and has been lined with white tiles and draped with a green embroidered chaddar that is usually reserved for Sufi saints.


Spooky! Wait, why is that chandelier here in this medieval tomb? - The dark crypt underneath Mah Khanum's tomb


The graveyard and the Qanaati Masjid on its periphery have become the bone of contention in an unarguably ugly dispute between the Anjuman-e-Haideri trust and Congress politician Ahmed Patel – the trust has accused men backed by Ahmed Patel, specifically nursery owners and gardeners to whom the trust itself leased the Karbala land, of illegally occupying the land, utilizing it for commercial purposes, desecrating the graves and the religious sanctity and refusing to vacate it despite court orders while land sharks led by politicians have been taking advantage of the feud to take over the area gradually and transforming it from religious space to commercial and residential quarters and at the same time fuelling Hindu-Muslim and Shia-Sunni divide leaving the largely Hindu population of the neighborhood up in arms against illegal land occupation by Muslims and the trust’s counter-accusations against Hindu residents of adjoining houses of also illegally occupying the Karbala land. The issue has taken a malicious communal tone with the involvement of Congress and several Hindu militant outfits like Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Vishva Hindu Parishad – in fact, immediately opposite the Naqqar Khana gateway, police have erected a small makeshift post where several policemen are always on duty and keep an eye for untoward communal incidents and sloganeering on part of either Hindus or Muslims. It is hoped that the disputes, which have so far seen several violent clashes between the police and the protestors, would be resolved at the earliest – it is in no one’s interest, least of all the government’s or politicians', to see heritage structures like the dargah complex and its subsidiary graveyards and mosques embroiled in such disgusting controversies instead of providing solace and relief to the faithful in times of their need.

Location: B.K. Dutt Colony, Jorbagh
Coordinates: Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex: (28°34'58.9"N 77°12'59.7"E); Karbala ground: (28°35'05.3"N 77°12'56.6"E)
Nearest Metro station: Jorbagh
Nearest Bus stop: Safdarjung Madrasa/Safdarjung's Tomb
How to reach: Walk from the metro station (450 meters)/bus stop (600 meters). Ask locals for directions to the dargah/Karbala graveyard – they are aware of shortcuts through parks and streets.
Timings: 6.00 am – 11.30 pm, prayers on the first Thursday every month
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Advice – Since the dargah complex is a religious zone, it is advisable to dress moderately and avoid shorts and sleeveless dress. Entrance for men is prohibited in Bibi ka Rauza and and women can't enter Qadam Mubarak – it is better to ask permission before flouting the rules.
Monuments also located nearby - 
  1. Hardnewsmedia.com - Article "Walled in the Mind" (dated April 15, 2013) by Akash Bisht
  2. Indianexpress.com - Article "High Court restrains Anjuman trust from protesting near disputed Jor Bagh karbala" (dated March 29, 2014) by Aneesha Mathur
  3. Livemint.com - Article "Thousands of Indian Muslims volunteer to protect holy shrines in Iraq" (dated July 15, 2014) by Elizabeth Roche
  4. Tehelka.com - Article "Are Kashmiri Shias The Next Pandits?" (dated Nov 14, 2013) by Saba Firdous
  5. Thehindu.com - Article "Buried in history" (dated Sep 14, 2013) by R.V. Smith
  6. Thehindu.com - Article "From the city of tombs" (dated May 30, 2011) by R.V. Smith
  7. Thehindubusinessline.com - Article "Mission Karbala" (dated July 11, 2014) by Sibi Arasu
  8. Twocircles.net - Article "Qanati Masjid: Another victim of state actors in Delhi" (dated Jan 21, 2011) by Manzar Bilal
  9. Shahemardan.org - Official website of Dargah Shah-e-Mardan
  10. Sunday-guardian.com - Article "Delhi yet to comply with order on dargah" (dated Dec 7, 2013) by Navtan Kumar
  11. Wikipedia.org - Fatimah
  12. Wikipedia.org - Hazrat Ali
  13. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq
  14. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq (Image)
  15. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Imam Hussain
  16. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Imam Hussain (Image)
  17. Wikipedia.org - Prophet Muhammad
  18. Wikipedia.org - Shia Islam in India
  19. Wikipedia.org - Shrine of Ali, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
  20. Wikipedia.org - Taziya in Indian Subcontinent