May 13, 2015

Begumpur Masjid, Delhi

“A doom-laden place, implacable in its hostility, foreboding, menacing, redolent of death.”
– Alistair Maclean, “Caravan to Vaccares”

The colossal, long abandoned Begumpur Masjid, lying miserably neglected and uncared for in the urban village (an oxymoron of course, but Begumpur cannot possibly be described otherwise!) that lends its name to it, can undeniably be cited as a prominent example of Tughlaq-era’s (AD 1320-98) fortified architecture which inherently favored functional characteristics, including defensive capabilities and fortress-like features, over artistic aesthetics in religious, royal and even funerary structures. Of course, the Tughlaqs were more concerned with commissioning defensive structures which could offer additional protection against pillaging hordes of Mongol invaders from Central Asia, and thus their preferred choice of construction material, the grey Delhi quartzite stone, on account of being extremely capable of withstanding repetitive blows, rendered the same possible but was definitely not an ideal choice for sculptural artwork.

180° panoramic view of Begumpur mosque depicting the primary (eastern) gateway (right) and the thickset pishtaq (left)

The medieval mosque, primarily inspired by Uzbek influence, is exceedingly massive, the second largest in the city after Shahjahan’s graceful Jama Masjid (refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid), and possesses a huge domed gateway, accessible via large ziggurat-like staircases, along the center of each of its northern, southern and eastern sides. Considerably blackened at present owing to the decay of organic materials such as lentils and jaggery that were employed, in accompaniment to plaster, as an external coating for the structure to enable it to easily withstand extreme weather conditions, the gateways and the walls retain occasional remnants of minimal sober ornamentation such as floral medallions conceived of red sandstone and painted blue plasterwork. There are two equally plausible theories under contention amongst historians regarding the construction of the epic mosque. The first states that it was commissioned by Muhammad Juna Tughlaq (reign AD 1325-51) as the “Jami Masjid” (royal congregational mosque) contiguous with his unusual thousand-pillared palace complex “Hazar Sutan” located couple of hundred meters away – this finds collaboration from the fact that the mosque also possesses, adjoining a corner, a distinct smaller square “Mallu Khana” (zenana mosque) that would have been used by the royal ladies for personal private prayers and would have been connected via a passageway to the palace complex so that the ladies could come and go as they pleased without being spotted by outsiders (its outline although can unquestionably be determined from outside where, unlike the rest of the mosque, this spatial square projection displays “jali” (stone filigree screens) set into the wall openings). The second theory, more widely accepted by scholars on account of there being an absence of literary records of the mosque chronicled by Muhammad Tughlaq's contemporaneous historic sources, approximately dates its construction to AD 1375 and credits it to Khan-i-Jahan Juna Shah Telengani, the Wazir (Prime Minister) of Feroz Shah Tughlaq (reign AD 1351-88), who also built several other considerably enormous mosques in Delhi’s then settlement conglomerations, including the interesting Khirki Masjid which I documented here – Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid.

Grandeur personified - One of the gateways of the colossal mosque

Incidentally, given that the mosques are built as miniature fortresses, the local population of the surrounding settlements moved into them in AD 1739 to escape rape and execution when the ruthless Iranian Sultan Nadir Shah overran and plundered the city subsequent to the gradual weakening of the Mughal dynasty (reign AD 1526-1857) following court intrigues, filial rivalries, administrative and territorial blunders and power struggles. Afterwards, the people (and their cattle, poultry and donkeys!) never moved out but built living quarters, complete with kitchens and toilets, within the mosques themselves! The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), soon after it was constituted, managed in 1921 to convince the occupants to move out and establish villages around the heritage structures but already extensive damage, including miserable blackening of walls and ceilings by soot residues deposited from fires, had been heaped. But the story did not end here – centuries later, many of the desperate refugee families from Pakistan who reached Delhi following the horrendous partition of the subcontinent in 1947 amicably resettled in the mosque and continued to live there till as late as a few years back!

A different perspective - The mosque, as spotted from one of the neighborhood buildings

Irrespective of how many times one has read about the mosque or spotted its photographs (which anyway prove to be incapable of conveying the grand magnitude or subdued magnificence of the monument), nothing prepares one for the first visual onslaught that its majestic proportions prove to be as soon as one steps within the gateway – one can never be accused of resorting to hyperbole in stating that the words “gigantic”, “enormous” and “immense” quite simply fail to convey the sense of grandeur under consideration here. The mammoth expanse of the “sehan”, the cobbled stone courtyard (91 X 93 square meters!), further accentuates the distant tapering gateways and the domed passageways that the sides culminate into and outlines the vertical protrusion of the lofty “pishtaq”, the towering structure that serves as an entrance to the mihrab (western wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of Mecca and is faced by the faithful while offering Namaz) and is flanked by two huge tapering pillars that frame it in a fairly masculine and well-proportioned manner. While the skyline is totally dominated by the humongous off-white pishtaq and the gateways, the numerous smaller domes punctuate the otherwise overall uninspiring monotony of the straight lines of the colonnades.

Dominating - The mosque, hemmed in by ramshackle multi-floor apartment buildings

The inner surface of each dome would have originally blossomed into a colorful flourish of floral medallion from whose center would have hung lamps but only traces of the erstwhile decoration survive now underneath a few of the domes; most of the simplistic rectangular stone pillars too have now been carved with names, love letters and uniformly distasteful etchings by vandals and local children who presently utilize the humongous courtyard and the passageways respectively as a cricket pitch and a hangout zone for gossiping, playing cards and alcohol parties. Of all the colonnades, the spellbindingly symmetrical western one, triple-rowed and composed of a line of double pillars facing the courtyard side and two lines of single pillars behind in contrast with the rest of the colonnades which are single-rowed, leads to the mihrabs of which the central is minimally ornamented with just a touch, not very distinguished or striking but not unnoticed either in the otherwise continuous regularity, of red sandstone and white marble, very meticulously but simplistically sculpted. The overall artistic austerity, in addition to the unpunctuated silence and measured intimidating aloofness, multiplies manifolds the bewildering influence endowed to the structure by its gargantuan proportions. One literally feels dwarfed, inconsequential and even slightly scared and disoriented in the face of such unparalleled enormity.

Grace and symmetry - The western colonnade

Helical staircases built into the flanking tapering pillars of the pishtaq lead first to the upper floor where one can walk into a claustrophobia-inducing extremely narrow passageway and witness, quite nerve-rackingly in deed, the courtyard’s immensity, unyielding cobblestone surface and the building’s vertical projection, necessarily in that particular order followed immediately by navigation for asylum back to the staircase’s little safety and later by an obdurate desire to climb even further and check the view from the very roof of the structure – thankfully, the latter is promising and renders the terrifying climb this high worth – besides the village’s chessboard skyline of box-like multicolored buildings occasionally interrupted by a few trees, there is Qutb Minar majestically looming like a beacon in the far distance (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar) and Muhammad Tughlaq’s “Hazar Sutan” nearby (more on that on a later date). Some of the alcoves and the area around the staircases leading to the gateways and within the courtyard are littered with stone slabs, rubble, plaster and other material to be utilized for the structure’s restoration-conservation, which it undoubtedly direly requires, but except for a few dogs snoozing around and a few locals drinking beer and playing cards in the colonnades, there is not a soul in sight, no laborers at least. Wonder when the restoration begins, if it does at all.

Precious remnants

Location: Begumpur Village, Malviya Nagar
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: Hauz Khas
Nearest Bus stop: Laxman Public School, Hauz Khas
How to reach: From Laxman Public School/Hauz Khas Metro station Gate 2, proceed for Begumpur village immediately across the arterial Outer Ring Road/Gamal Abdel Nasser Marg. A straight track one kilometer long takes one to Begumpur Masjid past Hazar Sutan/Bijay Mandal ruins.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Some of the other Tughlaq-era constructions in the city - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  2. Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid
  5. Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai-ka-Kot Fortress complex
Suggested reading - 
  1. - Article "The Khirki and the Begumpur Mosques" (dated Sep 17, 2009) by Sohail Hashmi
  2. - Article "Preserving “our heritage”" (dated Feb 13, 2013) by Sohail Hashmi

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