November 07, 2014

The Gandhi mural and Abdul Nabi's mosque, ITO Crossing, Delhi

Invisible to the steady stream of pedestrians and motorists alike who whirl around it in uncoordinated patterns, an almost unheard of little gem that retains inappreciably little of its original characteristics to reveal its enviable antiquity and modest beauty to the undiscerning is tucked in at the intersection of two of the busiest roads in Delhi and close to one of the most important landmarks in the city’s geography. Ignored by heritage and history enthusiasts who seem to have irrevocably forgotten of its modest existence, Sheikh Abdul Nabi’s mosque, located at the indisputably well-known ITO intersection and shadowed by the towering buildings that house the headquarters of Delhi Police, Income Tax Department and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), was commissioned and christened as his namesake in AD 1575-76 by the "Diwan" (“Supervisor of Accounts”) in the court of Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). The gorgeous mosque, seated with its back to the traffic intersection that is famed for its traffic jams as well as for being a geographical link between different medieval cities of Delhi, has been transformed into one of the prettiest oases that could ever exist in such close vicinity to the bustling intersection indescribably dominated by pollution, noise and an unabated deluge of humanity by Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind ("Organization of Indian Islamic scholars"), one of the oldest and most peaceful Muslim organizations in the country, headquartered in the splendid structure.

Courtyard view, Abdul Nabi's mosque

In the history of Indian freedom struggle, the Jamiat, established in 1919 by some of the most influential Islamic scholars of the subcontinent, was the only Muslim organization that did not align itself with the Muslim League and its unrelenting demand for a separate nation for the Muslim population of the country (later recognized as Pakistan) – following independence too, the Jamiat propounded the theory that by signing the Constitution of India, Muslim elected representatives have entered an agreement (“mu’ahadah”) with the majority Hindu population of the country to establish a secular state and it is the responsibility of all Muslims in the country to honor the agreement. The simplistic, rubble-built mosque of Abdul Nabi, consisting of a large rectangular structure surmounted by a single, plastered over, unproportionally large dome rising from a sixteen-sided drum (base), has been expanded into a massive structure by the Jamiat who have added three wings of triple-floor hostel-like accommodations in front of the mosque creating an enclosed courtyard space in the center. The courtyard, superbly landscaped into a small garden area complete with numerous potted plants, grass-lined cobblestone walkways and fountains brimming with clear water, can be accessed by a flight of stairs emanating from the mosque’s huge front edifice. A gigantic, strikingly handsome screen, composed of stone lattice work (“jaali”) and vibrantly colorful tiles, with three huge arched openings mirroring the considerably smaller arched entrances of the mosque, exists in front of the latter as a modern extension; two sets of thick, towering pillars exist near the older structure supporting the immensely high roof that encompasses the area between the older mosque’s exterior walls and the majestic screens; seminary offices exist along the ground floor.

Unbelievable tranquility in the throbbing heart of the city

The numerous rooms in the wings around the courtyard are sparse and accommodate bespectacled religious scholars with flowing white beards and cataract-veiled eyes – eager to welcome in visitors, they must be at least in their sixties and yet retain jovial smiles, generous talkative attitudes and twinkling eyes. The interiors of the mosque are exceedingly simplistic compared to the modernized exteriors and, except for the marble wall claddings along the base, are close to what Abdul Nabi would have envisioned them as – the large prayer chamber, painted white throughout, has been partitioned into three interconnected sections by means of walls pierced by large arched openings; the central chamber displays squinches along the roof (architectural bridging elements spanning a square chamber’s top corners so as to convert it into an octagonal entity capable of supporting the mass of a giant dome) while the side chambers still retain small, meager floral medallions composed of colorful glazed tiles which, despite their brilliance, appear to be half-hearted attempts at beautification of an otherwise bare structure; a bare line of ornamental arched niches each embedded in shallow individualized rectangular depressions also runs just below the squinches in the central chamber while the squinches themselves are adorned with meager arched patterns and small six-pointed star embossments crafted from stucco.

Clash of eras - The mosque and (background) the headquarters of Delhi Police and CPWD

Abdul Nabi enjoyed Emperor Akbar’s confidence and was sent by him to Mecca in AD 1584-85 to distribute the Emperor’s charity among the poor there, but upon his return he failed to account for the money properly and was imprisoned and executed on charges of corruption and embezzlement of state funds. It struck me interesting that in an unanticipated and unintended artistic decision which would perhaps have been darkly humorous had the correlation between Mahatma Gandhi, the “Messiah of Truthfulness”, and a medieval administrative officer executed for corruption not been subjected to the collective amnesia suffered by citizens of a city that has altogether relegated its intricate history and unsurpassable architectural heritage to a forgotten corner, the recently concluded 2014 Street Art Delhi Festival saw the Delhi Police Headquarters, located immediately opposite and overshadowing the mosque, etched with an impressive, realistic mural of Gandhi, the icon of truth, honesty, non-violence and peaceful coexistence between peoples of different nationalities, religions, creeds, genders and economic realities.

Impressive, right?! All I could say was "Wow"!

The 150 feet high X 38 feet wide imposing mural, dedicated to the city by Lieutenant-Governor Najeeb Jung who inaugurated it, was completed in mere 5 days by Indian graffiti artist Anpu Varkey and German artist ECB Hendrik Beikirch and has since been lauded as a remarkable exemplar of art and a brilliant addition to the city’s streetscape which saw numerous vibrantly-colored and creatively-conceived graffiti patterns and textual messages being painted and splattered in numerous locations, most notably the urban villages of Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas and Khirki (see links in the end), besides the inconceivably poignant notes blossoming on the walls of the dreaded Tihar jail!

For me, the day wasn’t really going well – a dear friend I just met revealed her plans to shift to Russia permanently and besides the disappointment I did not have a plan on how to spend the rest of the day except roam around in the streets and look at people, buildings and monuments without very much photographing anything in particular – the mosque, with its joyous old men, and the colossal mural opposite, does help uplift the spirits once one decides to just sit down on the stairs and let all worries go and simply adore the artwork and the efforts that must have gone into completing it. For a change, the juxtaposition of the modern and the medieval and the intermingling of the two doesn’t appall me but makes me love this beautiful city just a little more, if that is even possible.


Location: ITO Crossing
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: Pragati Maidan
Nearest Bus stop: ITO Crossing/Lala R.C. Agarwal Chowk
Nearest Railway station: Tilak Bridge 
How to reach: Buses and trains are available from different parts of the city – the bus and train stations are just a stone's throw away from the mosque and Delhi Police headquarters. If coming by metro, one can avail a bus/auto plying towards ITO.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil. It is advisable to take permission first before photographing the mosque interiors since it is a seminary's headquarters.
Other graffitis in the city - 

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful place. I love visiting mosque, gurudwara, temples and so on. Religion doesnt actually matters to me what matters is the faith....thank u for the post.