June 12, 2015

Sheikh Yusuf Qattal's Tomb, Saket, Delhi

"Tha woh to rashke hoor-e-behesti hameen mein Mir!
Samjhe na hum to fahm ka apne qasoor tha"

("That hoor from paradise was part of my being, Mir.
I did not understand and blame my utter lack of comprehension of the ultimate truth.")
– Mir Taqi Mir, Urdu poet (lived AD 1723-1810)

Past the narrow streets of Khirki Village – sewage and sludge-drenched, garbage-shrouded, perennially crowded and recently touched up with vibrant, brilliantly multi-hued graffiti artwork – exists a small expanse of land, minimally layered with dry, withering grass and near continuously peopled with marijuana and smack addicts and teenagers playing extremely boisterous games, that seems to have got estranged in time eons far-off in history, where even the loud noises of the teenagers and the perpetual flow of traffic, physically so close, feel immensely distant and passer-bys appear like shadows traversing the same geographical reality and yet mere fragments of imagination and visual illusion. In a corner of this open space exists a diminutive, extremely handsome structure, built in AD 1527, whose very existence, albeit meager and nearly unknown to outsiders, is radiant with the beautiful secret it holds in its miniscule bosom – this is the mausoleum of Sufi saint Sheikh Yusuf Qattal, a prominent mendicant who amicably resided in the area during the reigns of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi (ruled AD 1517-26) and Badshah Zahiruddin Muhammad “Babur” (ruled AD 1526-30).

A touch of flamboyance

I had returned to my beloved Delhi for a mere fortnight after almost six months in Bangalore and Delhi Instagramers Guild, my photography club, had organized a walk at Khirki Masjid nearby (refer Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid) when we spotted the structure – for me, it was symbolic of what I really adore about the city – an epitome of the unequaled architectural, cultural and spiritual heritage that it possesses, a repository of knowledge and visual composition dating back centuries and yet dominating the monotonous landscape, a promise that while the entire cityscape and its surroundings were rapidly mutating (I’m still surprised by how much the city has changed in just 6 months!), it essentially remained the same.

Externally, the vermillion red, square structure is exquisitely detailed with patterns in red sandstone and plasterwork, including “chajja” (eaves) and unbelievably intricate “kangura” patterns (battlement-like ornamentation, here highly stylized). The roof still displays remnants of magnificent blue tile work and is surmounted by a large dome. The twelve pillars that support the structure are spanned by delicate stone lattice screens (“jalis”) sculpted in multiple fine geometric patterns that throw up a kaleidoscope of light and shadows in the interiors where local devotees, of all faiths and religions, leave behind reverential votive offerings of sweets, incense sticks, marigold flowers and bowls of “halwa” (extremely sweetened semi-solid confectionary conceived from clarified butter, sugar and flour) to appease the saint, whom they locally refer to as “Peer Baba” (“Old Dervish”), so he might implore God to grant their wishes (though stories of the mausoleum being eerily haunted also abound!).

Light and shadows

The western wall of the mausoleum, again elaborately sculpted from stone but recently outrageously painted ghastly green-white against the vivaciously flamboyant red of the building, functions in the capacity of a “mihrab” (western wall of a religious/funerary structure that indicates the direction of Mecca and is faced by the faithful while offering Namaz prayers) and bears the Islamic Kalima legend –

“La Allah illah Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah”
(“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.”)

The mausoleum is recorded to have been commissioned by Sheikh Alauddin, the grandson of the unparalleled Sufi saint Sheikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar (“Baba Farid”, the spiritual mentor of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi), and is architecturally regarded as a relatively unpretentious cousin of the magnificent tomb of Imam Zamin located within Qutb Complex in nearby Mehrauli (refer Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb). Besides the mausoleum exist equally modest remains of a congregational chamber and a low rectangular mosque, the latter bestowed with three arched openings and remains of intricate plasterwork adorning the interior surfaces, the unwelcoming exteriors however presently thoroughly drenched with miserable whitewash – the state of monumental conservation-restoration efforts in the country can at best be described as paradoxical, occasionally as regressive – red sandstone plaques affixed near the ground entrance affirm that the structures have been recently restored by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and National Culture Fund (NCF) with financial collaboration from PEC Ltd (a public sector undertaking of the Delhi Government’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry), and yet the mosque has been immediately, retrospectively overtaken by the local population and tragically repainted as a mark of their unbenevolent acquisition of it. Recent restoration work however also involved the removal of centuries of accumulated soil and debris from around the structures and it has been revealed that they originally stood upon a really high plinth which was submerged underground over time and now has been intermittently exposed.

Spot the blues

Throughout its expanse, the open ground surrounding the mausoleum is pockmarked with a smattering of smaller wall mosques and graves of long forgotten personalities who saw their burial in the vicinity of the saint’s sacred sarcophagus as a means of reaching paradise. The only other ruin that can verily be described as comparatively significant is a set of six pillars arranged in a hexagonal pattern and flanking a single tombstone – quite possibly the remains of a “chattri” mausoleum (umbrella-dome surmounted upon simplistic pillars), the dome of which has long since ceased to exist, but the pillars remain to present an uniquely unusual appearance. But the population possesses only as much consideration for these such ruins as the people interred within have need – in the immediate vicinity has come up a majestic, ethereally beautiful five-floor high graffiti mural portraying a physically and sartorially pre-Columbian feminine figure whose weightless heart is prevented from flying off by being bound to a staff! – I couldn’t really understand the symbolism, but the scene is nonetheless gratifying, especially considering that it does momentarily distract one from the heaps of cow dung, garbage and broken automobile parts surrounding it. Oh Delhi!

Blossoming amidst ruins

Location: Khirki Main Road, Khirki Village. Close to Select Citywalk, Saket (Coordinates: 28°32'02.2"N 77°13'08.7"E)
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Nearest Metro station: Malviya Nagar
Nearest Bus stop: Khirki Village
How to reach: Enter Khirki Village from the narrow uneven lanes projecting immediately opposite Select Citywalk Mall on the Press Enclave Road side. The massive Khirki Masjid (locally referred to as "Qila", refer Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid) is visible immediately upon entering the village. The mausoleum is located towards its rear side and can be accessed by following the road running beside it for a few hundred meters.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 minutes