October 19, 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 - 

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