“Few maps of modern Delhi bother to mark Begampur. It lies engulfed amid the new colonies that have recently sprung up along the way to Mehrauli, a small enclave of mud-walled, flat-roofed village life besieged by a ring of high-rise apartments. The smart metalled road which links the new colonies in Aurobindo Marg gives out a few hundred feet before you got to the village. Bouncing along the rubble track, you arrive in the midst of a dust storm of your own creation.”
– William Dalrymple, “The City of Djinns”
Sultan Alauddin Khilji (reign AD 1296-1316) was one of the most formidable Emperors of the city of Delhi – an ambitious ruler, fierce general, ruthless administrator, efficient dispenser of justice, master of diplomacy and a pronounced agnostic with a taste for fine sculptural arts and captivating architecture – his mighty armies stemmed the flow of Central Asian Mongol invader-plunderers and themselves ravaged the entire Indian subcontinent from Bengal in east and Gujarat in west to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the south. He vigorously consolidated the mighty empire by violently crushing rebellions from nobles and smaller kingdoms throughout his vast territories, strengthened the frontiers by having constructed fearsome garrisons and military centers and eradicated robbery and criminal activities by having his subjects disdainfully beheaded for even the minutest of transgressions. The Emperors who chronologically followed him throughout the medieval history of the subcontinent strived to emulate his glorious example of administration and display of the untrammeled might of the state – and architecture, imposing and bewildering, was to be one of the most often employed means to portray the same.
|Forgotten glory? - Jahanpanah - "The Refuge of the World"|
The Tughlaq Sultans Muhammad Juna Khan (reign AD 1325-51) and Feroz Shah ibn Rajab (reign AD 1351-88), individually perennially endeavoring for posterity throughout their long eventful lives, decided to attempt something architecturally similar to Alauddin – so while the latter had his enormous community water tank “Hauz-i-Alai” restored and expanded into a massive, ethereally beautiful madrasa complex (Islamic seminary) that would over the years become a leading center for the study of Islamic jurisprudence, languages, mathematics, algebra and calligraphy (refer Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex), the former was even more vigorous in his undertakings – in AD 1326-27, instead of overtaking and retrofitting Alauddin’s long-abandoned fortress citadel and acknowledging it as his own, he commissioned an enormous fortification – the fourth medieval city of Delhi – that would engulf within its own being Alauddin’s capital Siri as well as several other preceding cities. The new mammoth capital, determinedly christened “Jahanpanah” (“Refuge of the World”), possessed as its centerpiece an immensely grand, thousand-pillared wooden palace that was to outrival Alauddin’s architecturally similar residence and was also to be referred to by identical nomenclature as “Qasr-i-Hazar Sutan” ("Thousand-pillared fortress"). Jahanpanah has since been obliterated off the face of Delhi, disintegrated by the vagaries of time and nature – an eventuality that it shared with Siri, the elliptical enormity that it attempted to emulate and surpass – the magnificent wooden palace has long crumbled to dust, the imposing audience halls Diwan-i-Khas and Diwan-i-Aam have disappeared in their entirety and only a couple of the more colossal of the Sultan’s edifices remain, ruined and collapsing, marooned in several of the city’s urban villages and posh colonies as run-down fortified mosques and remnants of palaces and fortresses (even a huge medieval water reservoir in one case! Refer Pixelated Memories - Satpula) – the terminology “Jahanpanah” however lives on as one of the city’s better preserved and protected forests near Jamia Hamdard College. British travel writer Jan Morris could have been summing up Jahanpanah’s present existence when she sharply described Delhi thus –
“Tombs of Emperors stand beside traffic junctions, forgotten fortresses command suburbs, the titles of lost dynasties are woven into the vernacular, if only as street names."
|Fall from grace - Sultan Muhammad's personal palace|
The remains of Qasr-i-Hazar Sutan can be spotted in the village of Begumpur best accessible from the nearby located Hauz Khas metro station – across the road immediately opposite gate 2 of the station, walk a couple of hundred meters down the unpaved dirt path leading into the village proper and the ruined, foliage-reclaimed walls of the palace appear in all their splendor on the right – mere skeletons of their original glory, the carcasses of the edifices rise through grass and weeds that have grown well past higher than me in certain places and pierce the village’s ragged colorful skyline in a protrusion of sheer rubble masonry and fortification redundant of all forms of artistic ornamentation and sculptural art. One can literally feel the trademark Tughlaq disdain for bewitching ornamentation and graceful plasterwork. The deep red rubble buildings, emerging from the vast patch of dry grass and foliage that twirls and unfurls with every undulation in wind, are redolent of ignorance and desolation and a ruinous, long forgotten existence that steadfastly refuses to be snuffed out. Mongooses quickly scurry around and with alarming frequency buzz tiny insects and mosquitoes probably breeding in the murky puddles around the corners where locals dump their everyday domestic waste and excreta. Several of the dry weeds rattle incoherently and hoarsely against the onslaught of the aggressive wind, prompting one to wonder whether there might be rattle snakes (or just about any kind of snakes) here.
|Obliterated lavishness and destroyed grandeur|
As the wind liberally drifts around, time seems to have slowed down to a near halt in this little patch of wilderness in the heart of the city. An uninterrupted hush surrounds the ruins, disturbed only occasionally by the movement of several fat, odorous cows grazing on the dry grass and the crash of another polythene bag, stuffed with vegetable wastes, plastic wrappers and in numerous cases, glass bulbs, flung across the high grilles into this ignored wilderness by the residents of the nearby box-like, equally ruined and creaky residential quarters. The heat made matters worse – Delhi's sweltering weather anyway makes one toss and turn and debate whether lying still is hotter or moving about, it worsens the tempers and makes one launch into acts of aggression on the slightest of pretexts – the dogs in this miniature “Heart of Darkness” were faced with a similar dilemma of having to decide whether to continue pretending to snooze or take turns barking and chasing me or the cows around – the cows, of course, were not be perturbed while they munched in utter abandoned tranquility, so the dogs went back to pretending to have dozed off while occasionally cocking a wary eye at me, the foolish stranger with the camera hopping around the crashed stones and devastated walls.
|Glimpses of color!|
Qasr-i-Hazar Sutan happens to be the city’s most perplexing monument – while it is known that it originally functioned as the idiosyncratic Sultan’s residential palace and was originally surrounded by numerous fortified gateways, beautiful audience halls and vast tree-lined gardens, historians and architectural scholars today have a hard time explaining the set of disjointed, confusing ruins that survive as the Sultan’s stronghold. The first structure visible even from a distance is the “Bijay Mandal” (“Pavilion of Triumph”), a tapering octagonal protrusion that projects from the palace’s roof and has been invariably conjectured as a military watchtower, the Sultan’s penthouse apartment, an abnormally designed defensive bastion at the junction of fortification walls and even a relic from Alauddin’s original, vertically dominant palace complex. Stepping through the mere iron gateway that now defines Qasr-i-Hazar Sutan’s peripheries, one is struck by the unrelenting onslaught of wilderness and weeds that even shroud the larger buildings and unbelievably even appear to be thriving on stone faces. Whitewashed and heralded by a few furiously fluttering green flags, in the shadow of the better conserved ruins of interconnected chambers in a corner near the gate is the modest grave of Sufi saint Sheikh Hasan Tahir who lived sometime during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (reign AD 1489-1517) and about whose existence nothing is remembered or documented in contemporaneous historical records. From here on begins the short walk over sloping land to reach the palace’s remains – it is a wonder how the locals manage to fashion an almost straight and uniformly wide pathway by incinerating a narrow strip through the grass whose selfless sacrifice marks the entire length of the path in the form of a layer of grey-speckled black that immediately comes into view against the brilliant green of the all-encompassing foliage and the merciless glare of the scorching sun.
|Sufism - Seeping into even the most miserable of edifices in the city|
The ruins of the Sultan’s private residential quarters, including the deep pits which one led to the treasuries and where pearls, diamonds, gold and emeralds were discovered till as late as last century, are stuffed to the seams with garbage in the form of polythene bags, plastic wrappers, beer bottles and cans, empty packs of cigarettes and rotten, foul-smelling vegetable waste and excreta from man and animal alike. The tell-tale Tughlaq roughly carved rectangular pillars stand like wasted sentinels supporting amongst themselves roofs that, if not collapsed and reduced to rubble fragments projecting in free space, are blackened by the numerous fires that have been lit under their sanctuaries for several centuries past by vandals and encroachers. The coats of sparkling white plaster that must have once covered the walls and the arches is long gone and only layers of rubble and rough-hewn stone garishly compose the ruined walls at present – there are neither exquisitely sculpted stone lattice screens nor intricate stucco patterns in plaster, consequentially neither artistic distractions nor regal grandeur or architectural harmony – the age was prohibitively ascetic, disdainful of ornamentation and elaborate artwork. In the distance, engulfed by vegetation and layers of accumulated earth, can be spotted the occasional grey-glistening fragment of stone in which were once pegged the thousand delicately gilded and painted wooden pillars that supported the colossal gorgeous palace building. Adjacent this roughly rectangular edifice is an impressive yet puzzling square structure that confoundingly possesses 12-feet thick walls and is surmounted by a strange ribbed dome thoroughly overgrown with dry grass – the purpose that this building served is not known, however most historians concede it to be a later Lodi-era (AD 1451-1526) addition to the complex. Could it have been an attached mosque or a funerary structure given that its western wall is entirely walled in and might have functioned as a “mihrab” (western wall of a mosque/religious structure indicating the direction of Mecca and faced by the faithful while offering prayers)? One can be forgiven for believing that these monuments have been long abandoned. As Sam Miller notes in his poignantly humorous journal “A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign eyes” –
“Bijay Mandal has its uses. It is frequented by drug addicts, card players, young lovers and goats – and is popular with latrine-less locals who use it as a urinal and a shithouse – but I’ve never, ever, in my half-dozen trips there seen anyone else ‘visiting’ it; not a single tourist, Indian or foreign.”
|Desolate remnants from an interesting past|
On the other side of this humongous entity, fragments of unconnected staircases, beginning here, terminating in another corner, following the thread through another side, lead upstairs to the unusually designed roof – entire Begumpur can be observed in detail from the Bijay Mandal and in the distance, veiled by the lines of buildings and commercial spaces, can be spotted the slender outline of the towering Qutb Minar (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar). Historians conjecture that Bijay Mandal was the “Badf Manzil” (“Wonderful Mansion”) rooftop pavilion, described in his memoirs by the 14th-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, from where the Sultan would administer his colossal kingdom and appear before his supplicant subjects. The octagonal building with alternate shorter and wider edges is a culmination of essentially unaesthetic Tughlaq architecture juxtaposing militaristic, defensive battered sloping walls against fringe highlights of color introduced by the utilization of thick, minimally carved slabs of grey quartzite and red sandstone – also noteworthy is the introduction of trabeate arches composed of flat lintels stacked spanning the space over one of the doorways and proper horseshoe-shaped arches endowed with keystones on other sides. Beer bottles in their hands and potato crisps strewn around them on newspapers, half a dozen teenage youngsters, three guys and three girls, sit gossiping, giggling and cozying up in the shade afforded by the pavilion. Once the Sultan must have stood here and inspected the vast expanse of his sovereign territories, monitored his troop formations and gazed fondly at monuments from ages prior to his, including Alauddin’s massive “Hauz-i-Alai” near which once he and his father Ghiyasuddin Ghazi Malik Tughlaq (reign AD 1320-25) had stationed their combined forces to challenge the might of the armies of Khilji Dynasty (reign AD 1290-1320) assembled under the command of the usurper Khusro Khan. Noticing the near-total disappearance of his unassailable fortress and the deplorable condition of his beloved palace, his anguished soul must be wretchedly writhing in his mausoleum – of course, his miserable plight would not have been this heartrending and dark-humored ironic had the inhabitants of his kingdom at least remembered where he was interred!
|Unusual! - The Sultan's penthouse pavilion|
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
Relevant Links -
Some of the other Tughlaq-era constructions in the city -
- Pixelated Memories - Begumpur Masjid
- Pixelated Memories - Dargah Dhaula Peer
- Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
- Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex
- Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
- Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid
- Pixelated Memories - Satpula
- Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai-ka-Kot Fortress complex