25 January 2016

Lodi-era Tombs, Zamrudpur village, Delhi


“For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet – mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me they have presented little but horror – to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace – some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat”


Tomb II  - The odd man out


On the rare occasion when her memory would not fail her, my octogenarian grandmother, unbelievably obese and ceaselessly censorious, would instantaneously and quite pompously invite the grandchildren to her boisterous court and burst forth into a flurry of meandering half-remembered mythological folklore and historical fiction, primarily concerned with opulently extravagant pre-partition life, but also occasionally transforming into perplexingly convoluted yet seamlessly interconnected bedside stories composed of myriads of mythological deities, mythical creatures and anthropomorphic entities perennially endeavoring to caution simpleminded folk against the intolerable sin of avariciousness, represented most often as an inverted, putrefying and obnoxious human skull which can apparently never be filled with enough gold.

Were she alive today, I could have similarly recounted to her about the shockingly obscene conditions of the small urban village of Zamrudpur immediately adjoining the posh Greater Kailash (GK-1) area where existential, in the form of an all-encompassing malignant mushrooming agglomeration of box-like multistoried, multicolored residential apartments acquisitively festering with not the slightest regard for civic planning, physical hygiene or heritage conservation, is a repugnant exemplification of the vicious malevolent evil she repeatedly warned us kids about. As the unbelievably strong stench threatens to overpower casual passer-bys and the decrepit, gaudily-painted buildings huddle close together to render roads narrow stinking pathways thoroughly drenched with garbage, putrid slime and detergent-laced water runoff, crystal-clear rays of sunshine beat an unsolicited hasty retreat, restricting themselves to infrequently transgress only as an intermittent obscure patch here and another brilliant streak there, until eventually the ground surface and several floors succeeding it above are utterly drenched in an unnatural darkness which further vindictively aggravates the threatening spiral down into unhygienic filthy living conditions.


Hide-and-seek - Tombs I (left) and II


Existential in terribly inhumane conditions within this small warren hole of immeasurably appalling living conditions, exceedingly narrow slithering streets and foul-smelling grimy cul-de-sacs, the whole entirely submerged in a deluge of decaying domestic wastes, fetid animal excreta, irritatingly dense spider-webs and unspeakably filthy water runoff, is a cluster of five solemn mausoleums where repose in eternal slumber the immediate family and the closest associates of Zamrud Khan, an Afghan noble in the court of Sikandar Lodi (reign AD 1489-1517) who was provided the bountiful estate (“jagir”) of Kanchan Sarai (thereafter christened “Zamrudpur”).

Crowned by thick clumps of vegetation sprouting from, and branching around, the very pinnacles of their enormous domes, the two greatest of these mausoleums can be perceived as perfectly plump flashes of textured dirty brown peeping inconspicuously from amongst this impermeable maze of multi-hued high-rise apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity of Bluebells International School while travelling between Kailash Colony and Moolchand stations on the violet line of Delhi metro.

Of these two mausoleums, the larger (Tomb I), so gigantic that it fairly easily outsoars the neighboring massive buildings, has been so appallingly molested and encroached upon that one frightfully shudders to even look at it – divided into individualistic corners, a portion of it, accessed by traversing through infinitesimally narrow, garbage-covered and exceedingly cold and damp streets, has been converted into a substantial cowshed by a septuagenarian deaf-and-mute man who also shares these drenched, damp and cow dung-spattered accommodations with his bovine charges.


Repulsive!


The perplexed animals, accustomed to adhering to their monotonous undisturbed lives but presently as shocked upon noticing us as we were on discovering them cheerfully lodged in this wretched imposing monument, confusedly stumbled and trampled about endeavoring to escape through the constricted opening where we stood, until the frail old man shooed and pushed them away and sympathetically switched on a high-wattage incandescent bulb precariously hanging overhead to facilitate our clicking some photographs. Bored eventually after a few minutes, he shooed us away too and the impressive monument despondently reverted to its dimly lit, mistreated existence.

Another portion of the mausoleum, externally entirely cut-off from the first and accessible only after circling through several intermediate ever-constricting streets, has been converted into an atrociously dreadful living quarter by an ingenious neighbor and is perennially leased on rent to garbage-collectors who, besides sleeping here in makeshift hammocks stretched between the walls, also horrifically light fires within the medieval edifice and store huge stacks of non-perishable rubbish like irredeemably broken toys, fragments of punctured tires, unfixable electric fixtures and damp rotting cardboards! Despite the indescribably miserable squalor they inhabit and the freezing cold they were enduring sitting in a small, garbage-littered opening adjoining their grand residence, the impoverished garbage-collectors were heartwarmingly quick to share tales of destitution and penury, concerning their livelihood and living conditions (bitterly describing the freezing wafts of cold January air blowing through the enormous entrances as murderous!), as well as simplemindedly asking why we do not petition the government to save these monuments from such inexcusable humiliation and certain obliteration. If only the government would listen!


A few good men?


They, like the elderly cattle-keeper, respectfully welcomed us into their meager hearths and undeniably earned sanctuary in our hardened hearts, not so however the foul-mouthed middle-aged man who had covetously encroached upon the second-largest mausoleum (Tomb II) by converting it into a proper family residence complete with iron double-gates and whitewashed medieval walls, and arrogantly proceeded to threaten us when we attempted to click photographs, stating, I quote, “This is Lal Dora land. What will the ASI officials do when even the policemen can’t help you here?” “Lal Dora” are those unregulated colonies/urban slums which are exempted from construction guidelines and civic planning protocols as regulated under the Delhi Municipal Act, and quite glaringly, seldom do the municipal authorities have any noticeable presence here. What is most reprehensible however is the knowledge that this particular notably enormous monument, which flamboyantly displays all the telltale structural and ornamental motifs of Lodi-era architecture, including decorative recessed alcoves externally adorning its walls and a dexterously chiseled inverted lotus finial crowing its prominent dome, is not even within the claustrophobic village cluster but barely skims its expansive, relatively uncluttered peripheries! Its resilient walls might have been cleverly whitewashed and the celebrated medieval nature of its cavernous interiors might have been entirely obliterated, but what cannot be wished away is the certainty that, given its conspicuously outstanding architecture and the magnificent harmony of its traditional design relentlessly and starkly contrasting against and contemptibly shaming so-called modern building designs burgeoning around it, it shall never cease to visually stand out as a majestic beacon amidst the abysmal squalor and detestable turmoil of its disgraceful surroundings.


History vs Modernity


Positioned at the acute vertex of an extraordinarily narrow street where it forcibly branches off into two even more congested streets (if these can be referred thus!) which eventually culminate into cul-de-sacs after a couple of steps, Tomb III’s entrances have been temporarily cordoned off with heavy wooden boards and it has been converted into a makeshift warehouse by neighboring residents to store unusable junk and rotten rubbish. Nauseatingly, one of its thick sides has been entirely assimilated as a not inconsiderable fraction of the perimeter of the adjoining unhealthily cramped building; even more horrendously, the quarter off the adjoining corner has been surgically sheared off to accommodate yet another building. As measly relief in the spirit of the legendary beneficence and forbearance of this city, the unevenly-constructed staircase of the densely populated tenement on the third side only barely skirts the mausoleum’s dome and doesn’t really incorporate the edifice within its own structure except for the matter of the small assistance where it raises its entire support configuration over a corner of the latter’s roof! Magnanimously did the inhabitants also spare a small opening between to be used as a community dump yard, and besides the unavoidable unpleasant stench, the mausoleum is now also gleefully richer by an abnormally intriguing diadem composed of colorful, multi-textured plastic wrappers and polythene rubbish.


Eternal damnation! - Tomb III


Furthering these marvelous monuments' incorrigible helplessness, where humanity’s ceaseless avariciousness and heartless barbarity eventually relents, the perpetually incriminatory forces of nature take over – a gnarled Peepal tree (Ficus religiosa), the ultimate bane of monument conservation in the subcontinent, rises from the last remaining corner, imperceptibly gradually yet certainly strangling the monument to indiscernible powder.

“Three or four young pipal-trees have begun to spread their delicate branches and pale green leaves rustling in the breeze from the dome of this fine temple; which these infant Herculeses hold in their deadly grasp and doom to inevitable destruction. Pigeons deposit the seeds of the pipal-tree, on which they chiefly feed, in the crevices of buildings.

No Hindoo dares, and no Christian or Muhammadan will condescend, to lop off the heads of these young trees, and if they did, it would only put off the evil and inevitable day; for such are the vital powers of their roots, when they have once penetrated deeply into a building, that they will send out their branches again, cut them off as often as you may, and carry on their internal attack with undiminished vigour.

No wonder that superstition should have consecrated this tree, delicate and beautiful as it is, to the gods. The palace, the castle, the temple, and the tomb, all those works which man is most proud to raise to spread and to perpetuate his name, crumble to dust beneath her withering grasp. She rises triumphant over them all in her lofty beauty, bearing high in air amidst her light green foliage fragments of the wreck she has made, to show the nothingness of man’s greatest efforts.”
– Major-General Sir William Henry “Thuggee” Sleeman, British East India Co. Administrator
“Rambles and Recollections of an Indian Official” (1844)


Classical architecture - Tomb I interiors


I would be memorably surprised if there are even a dozen people not from Zamrudpur who have ever set eyes on Tomb IV. After spending several minutes traversing the bewildering streets in unordered circles, we could only barely catch a glimpse of some of the irrepressible stone brackets of this small mausoleum startlingly incorporated within the dingy, uninhabitable corner of an irregularly constructed residential building at the very end of a blind alley so unnaturally dark that there was little scope of visually making sense of the congested, garbage-infested, dust and spider web-carpeted surroundings without switching on the camera’s flash! A common toilet exists barely a couple of steps away and stacked against the dingy moldy corner were old rusted motorcycles, political hoardings, wooden furniture and semi-rotten fragments of clothes and other miscellaneous organic wastes. It was only afterwards, when a kindly local lady, feverishly incensed against the neighbors for having nearly obliterated the entire medieval monument, took us up her building that we could make complete sense of the torturous and yet outlandish events that really preposterously transpired here – it appears that an entire multi-storied building, was profanely conceived in a crooked U-shaped manner, had one of its asymmetric extreme branches miraculously arising midair, tenuously supported structurally by the equally unbalanced central branch and the similarly haphazard building on the other side – where the vanished ground floor of this extreme branch of the U-building should have been, there instead exists the aforementioned dingy moldy corner framing a tiny knoll.


Abandon all hope! - Tomb IV hiding in plain sight


To our indescribable horror, masquerading as the tiny hellhole infested with terrifying mold, spiderwebs and the accumulated dust and rotten wastes of several years past, the shabbily crumbling, rubbish-infested knoll was Tomb IV, whitewashed and cunningly camouflaged by a tiny apartment built greedily embracing it! From the adjoining buildings’ roofs, we were looking down at it as if it was within a haphazardly constructed well! One can observe its sheared-off extremities and the moderately-proportioned, perfectly-rounded dome, slowly yet persistently being submerged under a dreadful deluge of plastic wastes, polythene wrappers and other garbage. How long before the entire monument disappears under this wretchedness?

“Fearful, indeed, the suspicion – but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress as is burial before death. The unendurable oppression of the lungs – the stifling fumes of the damp earth – the clinging of the death garments – the rigid embrace of the narrow house – the blackness of the absolute night – the silence like a sea that overwhelms – the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm – these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed – that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead – these considerations, I say, carry into the heart which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonizing upon earth, we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell. And thus all narratives upon this topic have an interest profound; an interest, nevertheless, which, through the sacred awe of the topic itself, very properly and very peculiarly depends upon our conviction of the truth of the matter narrated.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”


Tomb V - The monument stands, modernity around crumbles!


Thoughtlessly degraded and bitterly injured, if these mausoleums too could have spoken, would not they too have hopelessly lamented this unjustified and intolerable burial under garbage? Were these gorgeous epitomes of architectural heritage in some other, more discerning country, they would have been painstakingly and honorably conserved and restored to their original outstanding grandeur, and cherished as magnificent embodiments of the glorious achievements of their unparalleled art, architecture and culture. Here, they have been devastatingly condemned, intermittently shattered and wait to be demolished entirely!

Judging from the outstanding remnants of its artistic ornamentation and physical immensity, especially the exquisitely incised plasterwork medallions inscribed on the underside of its large dome, Tomb V is unarguably spatially the largest and artistically the most celebrated of all the pavilion mausoleums (that is, possessing a massive umbrella dome symmetrically surmounted on several relatively slender pillars, in this case twelve, four to each side) in the city. Or it would have been were it not so heartrendingly converted into an immense clothesline stiflingly located at the end of a claustrophobic road in an extraordinarily dark-damp opening tightly bordered on all sides by several irregularly-conceived high-rises!


Tomb V - The multipurpose clothesline/playground/makeshift temple/garbage dump/hangout zone!


Howsoever irredeemable be their crimes towards these mute edifices, given the bone-chilling cold and the unusually fierce draughts storming this small opening in this otherwise thoroughly densely congested colony, somehow one cannot help pitying the impoverished locals who are condemned to miserable life in such a gloomy and drenched hole, that too in the national capital of one of the self-proclaimed "socialist" global superpowers. It does become near impossible to efficiently argue for the dedication of greater financial resources for heritage conservation and monument restoration in the face of such staggering destitution and criminal inhumanity towards fellow individuals. Wonder when do we get our act together – it's another 26th January tomorrow.


Meager remnants - Dome medallion, Tomb V


Location: Zamrudpur village, immediately behind Bluebells International School, a short walk from Kailash Colony metro station. I could not determine the coordinates of tomb V, however the other monuments should, I believe, approximately correspond to these coordinates – Tomb I - 28°33'26.6"N 77°14'11.8"E, Tomb II - 28°33'28.0"N 77°14'12.9"E, Tomb III - 28°33'26.4"N 77°14'15.5"E (tentative) and Tomb IV - 28°33'25.6"N 77°14'13.7"E.
Nearest Metro station: Kailash Colony
Remarks - Since most of these monuments have been entirely encroached upon and converted into private residences, entry and photography might be restricted by the locals and/or the person(s) living within. It is advisable to be careful and cordial while photographing/documenting. None of these monuments are under the aegis of Archaeological Survey of India and no charges of any kind are applicable.
Relevant links -
Other monuments/landmarks in the immediate vicinity -
Other Lodi-era funerary monuments in the city -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Bada Gumbad (Lodi Gardens)
  2. Pixelated Memories - Bagh-i-Alam ka Gumbad (Green Park)
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gol Gumbad (Lodi road)
  4. Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb (Qutb complex)
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb (Lado Serai)
  6. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb (Mehrauli Archaeological Park)
  7. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb (Mehrauli Archaeological Park)
  8. Pixelated Memories - Sheesh Gumbad (Lodi Gardens)
  9. Pixelated Memories - Tombs in Hauz Khas (Choti Gumti, Sakri Gumti, Dadi's Tomb and Barakhamba)
  10. Pixelated Memories - Tombs in South Ex. (Bade Khan ka Gumbad, Chote Khan ka Gumbad, Bhure Khan ka Gumbad and Kale Khan ka Gumbad)
Suggested reading -

12 January 2016

St. James' Church and Fakhr-ul-Masjid, Delhi


“The services of the 1st and 2nd corps of irregular horse, under command of Lieut.-Colonel Skinner, assisted by Major Fraser, throughout the siege, have frequently elicited the highest admiration and applause. Nothing could exceed the bravery of this valuable class of soldiers; and Lieut.-Colonel Skinner and Major Fraser fully merit this acknowledgment of his lordship's unqualified approbation of their conduct, and that of their men.”
– General Gerard Lake, British Commander-in-Chief, Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803)
(As mentioned by James Baillie Fraser, “Military Memoir of Lieut.-Col. James Skinner, C.B.,
For Many Years A Distinguished Officer Commanding a Corps of Irregular Cavalry in the
Service of the H.E.I.C.” (1851))


Gracefully located at the culmination of numerous perennially crowded streets slithering their way not very far from the magnificent Red Fort in the heart of Old Delhi, the majestic St. James' Church (more popularly renowned as Skinner’s Church), one of the finest English edifices to be constructed in the city, is undoubtedly a veritable time portal traversing whose sunshine yellow-drenched precincts instantaneously and miraculously allows one to be transported to an adventurous age, as so stimulatingly portrayed in Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”, of British territorial and military supremacy and intelligence networks, when numerous legendary men from distant Britain undertook imperial administrative, judicial and military offices in the subcontinent, raised extremely powerful, semi-independent cavalry and infantry units and marched around with glittering field honors and glowing official commendations to indulge in extensive warfare and subdue inconsequential native warlords, ferocious dacoit brigands and militarily insignificant, however exceedingly extravagant, royalty.

Having survived numerous legendary battles, commendably distinguished in warfare and admirably regarded as a highly educated noble-minded man ceaselessly gallant in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity and courteous to his brother-soldiers as well as indigenous subordinates, Colonel James Skinner (1778-1841), a most generous friend and an inspiring officer, still remains indelibly etched in the annals of the British East India Company as a military adventurer whose thrilling military exploits, unparalleled insightfulness of mind, undiminished benevolence of heart and unmatched comprehensive knowledge of Indian customs and languages could rarely be surpassed by other undoubtedly audacious English infantrymen, mercenaries and political agents with whom the country was thickly swarming in those early decades of British colonialism.


In consequence of a mercenary's gratitude - St. James' Church


In those early days, being recurrently challenged by its formidable French and Portuguese counterparts and yet ambitiously proceeding with rapid consolidation of power through territorial annexation, expansion of influence circles and militarization, the British East India Co. efficaciously resorted to the Mughal system of allowing enterprising private individuals to raise irregular fighting units in lieu of enormous rent-free land endowments (“jagir”) and military standing. At the right place at the right time for the right reason, Col. James Skinner was one such highly resourceful individual. His courageous men endowed him with the respectful name “Sikandar Sahib” derived from the vernacular rendition of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, and it needs be noted that besides unmatched chivalry and dauntlessness, he was also celebrated for his unequaled learning and understanding. Indeed, so unquenchable was his thirst for the acquirement and dissimilation of knowledge that he even laboriously penned two encyclopedic books titled “Tazkirat al-Umara” (“The Princely Families of the Rajput and Sikh states of India”) and “Kitab-i-tasrih al-Aqvam” (“History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India”)! Like most of his Indianized English contemporaries, he too spontaneously adopted the social, behavioral and sartorial preferences of the indigenous aristocrats, maintained a harem of, it’s said, 14 or 16 native wives of mixed Hindu and Muslim denomination, and strongly insisted on being referred to by his complete Persian honorific title “Nasir-ud-Dowlah Colonel Sikandar Bahadur Ghalib Jung” (lit., “The Most Exalted Col. Skinner, Victorious in War”). His mansion, renowned for generous hospitality and sumptuous indigenous feasts, endlessly resounded with music, dance congregations and poetry sessions, and all his subordinate men were invited, irrespective of their military rank and social standing, to the religious festivities and grand regimental banquets that were celebrated on his enormous estate with enviable splendor.


Classical!


“I do not mean to flatter when I say you (Col. Skinner) are as good an Englishman as I know; but you are also a native irregular, half born and fully bred; you armed them, understand their characters, enter into their prejudices; can encourage them without spoiling them; know what they can and, what is more important, what they cannot do. The superiority of your corps rests upon a foundation that no others have.”
– Major-General Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833), British East India Co.
Administrator and Historian


As glanced from personal correspondence and military memoirs however, in his long fruitful life he did undergo wretched misery and mournful lamentation as well – point in case, the significant necessity of leading life as a freewheeling mercenary following the contemptible denial of ardently desired military commission and territorial estate along with the unfairly prejudiced treatment he had to regularly endure both from the Hindu Maratha confederacy as well as British East India Co. who continuously contemplated his fierce loyalties on account of his being an Anglo-Indian whose dark-complexion ceaselessly acted as a vicious double-edged sword despite his having successively raised irregular cavalry units for them. Notwithstanding the repulsive slights and discriminatory deceptions, “Skinner’s Horse”, popularly referred to as “Yellow Boys” following their brilliant canary-yellow uniforms, the highly competent irregular light cavalry regiment he raised during the Second Anglo-Maratha War (1803) for the British East India Co., relentlessly proved its military mettle time and again while Col. Skinner dexterously commanded it, especially in First Afghan War and the battles of Ghazni and Bharatpur, and even afterwards until its mechanization, assimilation into and acclamation as the senior-most cavalry regiments of the Armored Corps of Indian Army.


From the threshold - The time portal


Left for dead for an entire night in the battlefield after being shot in the groin in the Battle of Uniara (Rajasthan, 1800), Col. Skinner, painfully wounded, miserably bereaved at the demise of his fearless men and relentlessly threatened by insatiable jackals, was unexpectedly provided lifesaving water and succor by a cobbler woman who was scavenging for valuables amongst the dead and detected signs of life in him. Immediately upon this deliverance, he gratefully vowed to build an episcopal church were he to somehow survive and acquire economic means to do so – this is generally believed to be the incontestable reason for the commissioning of his gorgeous classical edifice. Also as documented in contemporaneous literary records, Col. Skinner was doubtlessly inspired to construct a handsome church within the enormous peripheries of his Delhi estate as an accompaniment to the ruinously devastated Mughal mosque (more on that later) he discovered and ordered to be repaired therein.

“Among these natives, as among Christians of old, it was customary to devote large sums to charitable and holy purposes; no doubt, in the hope that their souls would be benefited by the sacrifice. Skinner was no whit behind them or any one in deeds of charity; and it was, doubtless, in something of this spirit mingled with sincere gratitude for blessings bestowed, that he vowed and afterwards built this church. In the same spirit of piety, with a sense of modest humility and of his own unworthiness, did he desire that when he died he should be buried not within the precincts of his church, but under the doorway sill, so that all persons entering might trample on “The Chief of Sinners”.”
– James Baillie Fraser, “Military Memoir of Lieut.-Col. James Skinner, C.B.,
For Many Years a Distinguished Officer Commanding a Corps of Irregular Cavalry in the
Service of the H.E.I.C.” (1851))



In the company of God and Col. Skinner


Constructed between 1826-36 at a cost of Rs 95,000 financed by Col. Skinner, the elegant church, faithfully consecrated by Bishop Reverend Daniel Wilson, was designed by engineer-architects Major Robert Smith and Capt. de Bude of the British Army in graceful Renaissance revivalist-style of architecture seamlessly amalgamating classical English colonial structural design with several Mughal artistic motifs. A bell tower, although inherently upsetting the overall remarkable symmetry yet as a fraction of the whole entirely complimentary to the outstanding floor plan, was constructed later. On a tangential note, Rev. Wilson had personally commissioned and presided over the Anglican Church of Calcutta (refer Pixelated Memories - St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta), while Major Robert Smith is also credited with designing the delicate red sandstone Bengali-style cupola that once surmounted the Qutb Minar but presently lies miserably secluded in a relatively distant corner of Qutb complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb complex and Pixelated Memories - Smith's folly).

The church’s soothing yellow cruciform structure interspersed with flawless white highlights, its three stately pillared porticoes surmounted by heavyset triangular pediments and the enormous ribbed double dome crowned by its ornamental lantern and gilded copper cross-and-ball cupola have essentially become one of the most affectionately adored and certainly the most cheerfully photographed of all the British-era monuments and memorials plentifully peppering the Kashmere Gate area. Stepping into the hallowed interiors, exclusively dominated by semicircular arches and rounded floral-esque recesses and simplicity of ornamentation, in every direction one looks to one comes face-to-face with poignant memorials commemorating the memory of the deceased, especially valorous military heroes. Amidst the honors and details of numerous battles impeccably sculpted in resilient marble, the flawless flourishes of floral wreaths and the precise outlines of crossed swords and military badges, emblazoned against numerous of these touching memorials are the insignia of Skinner’s Horse and its battle cry “Himmat-i-Mardan Madad-i-Khuda” (“By the will of man and the benevolence of God”), however there are many others too that were installed to graphically memorialize the unfortunate victims of the First Indian War of Independence (aka the Sepoy Mutiny, 1857) as well as to honor several illustrious servicemen from other regiments and the more eminent amongst the descendants of Col. Skinner (including Brig. Michael Alexander Robert Skinner (1920-99), the great-great-grandson of Col. Skinner and Commandant Skinner’s Horse (1960-63)).


Lessons in history, warfare and discipline


Several of the emotionally-charged memorials insistently remind those shockingly harking to the dangerous romanticism and the elaborate espionage and communication games involved in the Sepoy Mutiny that entire families, irrespective of ethnicity, gender and religious beliefs, were outrageously murdered in cold blood (not to deny that the barbaric British retribution was equally, if not more, vicious. They did not even spare funerary monuments and religious edifices in their indignant wrath!) –

“Sacred to the memory of
Thomas W. Collins, Esq., many years Deputy Collector of Delhi, his wife Eleanor and mother-in-law Mrs. E.P. Staines. Three brothers-in-law, J.W. and E.W. Staines and G.R. White. Four sisters-in-law, Mrs. A. Hunt, Mrs. Eliza Cochrane, Mrs. A. White and Miss Christiana Staines. Seven nephews, William C. and Lewis C. Staines, George L. Hunt, James, Henry and Edward White, and an infant son of G.R. White. Three nieces, Margaret, and Mary Hunt and Christiana White. Three grandchildren, John T.C., Josephine T.C. and Joseph O’R.C. Leeson. All barbarously murdered at Delhi on or about the 11th of May 1857.
Also Hannah Collins mother, J.R. Collins brother, and Janet Collins sister-in-law of T.W. Collins. The former was killed at Futtyghur and the two latter at Futtypore by mutineers in June 1857.
Also Robert P. O’Connor, nephew of T.W. Collins, who was killed at Agra on the 7th July 1857.

“In the midst of life we are in death.”
“The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

This tablet has been erected by the surviving orphans of T.W. Collins.”



Where and how? - The church's plan and position vis-a-vis the garden and auxiliary buildings enclosing it (Photo courtesy - Archinomy.com)


The church has since its inception played a very important role in the everyday life and social obligations of Delhi’s Christian community; H.M. Queen Elizabeth II (reign 1952 – present) visited it in 1961 and H.H. George Leonard Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1995. Until the construction of the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in 1935 near the Presidential palace (refer Pixelated Memories - Presidential House), successive Viceroys since 1911 too used to regularly offer prayers here. The hallowed edifice’s indescribable undisturbed tranquility and the unpunctuated stillness of silence somehow inexplicably eliminates all sounds of the immense mass of boisterous humanity and disorderly vehicles outside; unarguably further assisted by its immensely sober architecture and ornamental treatment, possessing merely these poignant commemorative plaques and two vividly painted stained glass windows depicting respectively the Crucifixion and Ascension of Jesus (a third, depicting Roman soldiers unequivocally cowering in undisguised fear and amazement at the sight of Jesus’s Resurrection, can be perceived within the small church management office immediately adjacent the entrance), the peaceful serenity soothes frayed nerves and calms one’s mind until one is entirely immersed in the contemplation of the conventional architecture and the emotional memorial tablets. Under the benevolent gaze of the painted Jesus and perpetually surrounded by numerous dear friends, descendants and brothers-in-arms, interred therein underneath the glistening white marble close to the altar table are the mortal remains of Col. Skinner shrouded by the unpretentious inscription – 

“Here rest the remains of the late Colonel James Skinner C.B., who departed this life at Hansi
4th December 1841.
The body was disinterred, removed from Hansi and buried under this on the 19th January 1842.”

He died at the age of 63. His heartfelt wish to be buried under the door sill was never fulfilled by his descendants or the two hundred soldiers who faithfully disinterred the remains in Hansi and elegantly escorted them with complete military honors and guard to Delhi, however one assumes his spirit would still be gleefully galloping around armed and mounted on his favorite stallion.


Exquisite poignancy


I had been postponing the visit to Kashmere Gate area for years for no apparent reason except lethargy and eventually it was Rana Safvi, fellow blogger, history enthusiast and an extremely knowledgeable writer, who convinced me to accompany her to document the monuments located there (her brilliant articles can be read at Hazrat-e-dilli.com). We could not however click many photographs of the church interiors since the querulously argumentative lady caretaker refused to allow us – the church authorities, we later learnt, are considerably intimidated following the recent arson attacks on Christian religious shrines and cemeteries in the run-up to the politically and religiously charged Delhi elections. While the physical attacks have stopped, sick mockeries and veiled threats, also undeniably threatening the social fabric of the country, have relentlessly continued to be hurled on social media sites since. 

In painstakingly sculpted sepulchral mausoleums erected within the enclosed “Skinner family plot” in a corner of the church lawns is where unperturbedly repose in eternal slumber several members of the Skinner family clan, including his sons and daughters. The mournfully weeping angels carved flawlessly, the flourishes of scrolls and wreaths and the fading dark and sorrowful lettering in English and Urdu as inscribed on numerous of the headstones, present an extremely touching picture of inconsolable grief and pitiful lamentation. Nearby is a large plain red sandstone grave indicating the internment of the remains of Col. Skinner's most devoted and learned friend Major William Fraser, the Commissioner of the territory of Delhi and the Agent to the British Resident. Col. Skinner considered his murder in 1835 on the ghastly orders of Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan of Lotharu-Ferozepur Jhirka (Haryana) as one of the most devastating losses in his life and had his mortal remains disinterred and reburied here when he had the church constructed. The original exquisitely inlaid white marble mausoleum designed and executed by some of the finest stonecutters whom Col. Skinner could have employed was also entirely shattered during the Sepoy Mutiny and reconstructed afterwards. The highly emotive memorial epitaph inscribed by Col. Skinner nonetheless survives and reads –

“The remains interred beneath this monument were once animated, by as brave, and sincere a soul, as was ever vouchsaved to man by his Creator;
A brother in friendship, has caused it to be erected, that when his own frame is dust, it may remain as a memorial for those, who can participate in lamenting, the sudden and melancholy loss of one, dear to him as life.
William Fraser
Died 22nd March 1835”



In sacred memory - The memorial cross and Mr. Fraser's unpretentious grave


Upon a ziggurat-like pedestal adjacent the grave was erected a large three-dimensional cross commemorating the poor Christians deceased in the Sepoy Mutiny. Inscriptions in Hindi, English and Urdu remember the cataclysmic event thus –

“Sacred to the memory of those Christians who were murdered at Delhi in May mdccclvii;
And in gratitude to God for his mercy in having spared a remnant of his people to erect this cross.”

The simplistic mausoleum of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe (lived 1795-1853), the British Agent (Negotiator) at the courts of the last two Mughal Emperors Akbar Shah II (reign AD 1806-37) and Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II (reign AD 1837-57), is also located in the church grounds. His singular life and unusual extravagances have been extensively dealt with in these three articles – Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri,  Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats and Guardhouses and Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb.


Fakhr-ul-Masjid - Rising above mediocrity


As already mentioned, the First Indian War of Independence (Sepoy Mutiny, 1857), the murderously catastrophic culmination of a formidable storm brewing barely under the undisturbed surface of the vast subcontinent, also spelled calamitous for the church and its handsome yellow structure. The then Chaplain, Reverend Jennings, was arrested and executed by the mutineers. The church's dome too, relentlessly used by the Sepoys for target practice, was so greatly damaged by shell fire that the cross-and-ball finial surmounting it was badly bruised and toppled. Since 1988, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is undertaking the Delhi Government-sponsored maintenance and restoration drive which involves the relaying of several severely damaged polished sandstone surfaces, the removal of several hundred kilograms of unnecessary cement plaster, addition of structural buttresses and support enhancements, restoration of stained glass windows and the repair and gilding of the sophisticated cross-and-ball surmounting the massive ribbed dome. Col. Skinner would have graciously approved – after all, he too amiably adopted and had extensively repaired the aforementioned crumbling Mughal mosque that strikingly sprawled on his estate. 

“The Fakhrool Musajid was built by Kuneez i Fatima widow of Shoojaat Khan about A.D. 1729, to the memory of her husband who was one of the confidential followers of Nizam ool Moolk, Minister of Mohummud Shah. It adjoins the Estate and is nearly opposite to the Church erected by the late Colonel Skinner C.B. and has been of late years repaired at no inconsiderable expense by that distinguished Officer, for the convenience of his followers military and menial.”
– Sir Thomas Metcalfe, “The Dehlie Book”
(“Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi”)


“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


Affectionately commissioned in 1728-29 by Kaniz-i-Fatima (entitled “Fakr-i-Jahan” (“Pride of the World”)) in loving memory of her deceased husband Mirza Shujat Khan, a high-ranking noble (“Mansabdar”) and an artillery officer commanding 4,000 infantry and 2,500 mounted cavalry in the imperial army of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (reign AD 1657-1707), the gorgeously conceived and unusually proportioned mosque was originally christened “Fakhr-ul-Masjid” (“Pride of the Mosques”), but is presently simply referred to as “Lal Masjid” (“Red Mosque”) on account of its red sandstone character. Its handsome facade embedded with pink-white marble and its bulbous onion domes highlighted through the employment of slender strips of black marble, the mosque is an enthralling sight, rising as it does from a very high platform in the midst of an entire bazaar peopled with scooter mechanics, fruit-and-vegetable sellers, voracious pedestrians thronging to several of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and roadside sweetmeat sellers, rickshaw-wallahs ferrying around enormous weights and cyclists meandering this way and that to navigate the oncoming flood of humanity that literally threatens to burst through the seams in this very narrow street. The unsophisticated interiors portray extremely simplistic yet very delicate ornamentation predominantly comprising sleek arches and calligraphy inscriptions of the Islamic kalima –

“La illah illa Allah, Muhammad-ur rasool Allah”
“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.”

Originally cheerfully existential as part of Col. Skinner’s historic estate, presently the small mosque is geographically as well as emotionally separated from it by this aforementioned serpentine bazaar which wedge-like malevolently ranges between the two, thereby introducing on the innocent part of the mosque an element of being overboard and therefore being neglected by conservation authorities and history enthusiasts alike. The traditional architecture and the subdued artistic ornamentation are simplistic in conception and yet undeniably succeed in impressing a casual visitor through their graceful humility and abhorrence of pretentious flamboyance.


A chilly, foggy morning


Along the sprawling courtyard have been built tiny rooms, lockers, a washroom and a kitchen to accommodate the numerous students who learn here the recitation of Quran, Islamic jurisprudence, Arabic, Hindi and a bit of English and mathematics (no sciences though!). The cold December day we visited, all of them as well as their middle-aged, bearded teacher (“Imam”) were sprawled slumbering undisturbed in the agreeable afternoon sun and upon being unintentionally thus woken informed us that they were continuously offering prayers all night and were therefore tired now.

Although the historic mosque looks pretty well-maintained vis-à-vis several others scattered throughout the ancient landscape of Delhi, one has only to take a gander along its rear extremities which have been incorporated within the horribly ruinous premises of the offices of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi – here, in the midst of wreckage and ruins of abandoned and demolished buildings, does one see the terrible destruction fraught by men and women ironically charged with the maintenance and preservation of Delhi’s civic infrastructure! The illustrious Hindu College, which originally functioned from here, has long been shifted to Delhi University’s north campus and its building here demolished and replaced by multistoried unappealing office blocks, yet in a commendably well-camouflaged corner survives a small, low-roofed circular building hugged on one side by a classical colonnade.

Carefully masquerading as a miserably abandoned, appallingly maintained storage warehouse where are stuffed broken furniture, unfixable electrical fixtures, shredded college examination papers and the lifeless remains of an inoperable motorcycle perhaps preserved here for posterity, this modest orange-yellow edifice impeccably disguises its prestigious historic associations – it constituted a not insignificant fragment of Col. Skinner’s estate and functioned as his dining-cum-recreational room where he entertained his most distinguished and royal guests during the winter months spent here – one assumes that here in a corner stood a cards table, in the center finest of rugs and comfortable bolsters surrounded by extravagantly carved hookahs inset with colorful stones and designs; numerous servants would have continuously whirred about bearing servings of fine alcohol and various kinds of meats and breads when drinking sessions would have continued till late night; interesting hunting expeditions would have been planned, experiences in fierce battles and with lovely dance girls and politician-generals as easily recounted, and one believes that Col. Skinner, ceaselessly engrossed in the betterment of agricultural yield and irrigation facilities of his gargantuan estate in Hansi (Haryana), would have relentlessly deliberated with indigenous village chiefs and governmental officials the dis/advantages of the various modes of cultivation and revenue collection.


Pitiable!


Afterwards, the building along with the surrounding segment of Skinner estate was acquired and similarly employed by Rai Bahadur Lala Sultan Singh Jain (1876-1930), the Treasurer of Imperial Bank at Delhi, Shimla and Meerut and one of the city's richest and most celebrated citizens of his time, renowned for his extravagantly aristocratic style of fine living, his role in the establishment of and philanthropic contributions to several reputable educational institutes including Hindu College, Indraprastha College and Tibba College, and his cordial associations with the foremost of Congress party members and the Maharajas of Kashmir, Jaipur, Mysore and Darbhanga. I wonder if my sister, who recently graduated from Hindu College, would have heard of him.

“So long as Charity, Benevolence, and the kindlier feelings of the human heart
Are held in respect by Mankind,
The name of James Skinner will be remembered and revered.”
– Memorial stone, St. James’ Church

For some inexplicable reason brought about by the ceaseless passage of time and the vagaries of human social response and communal memories, not many remember and/or revere Col. Skinner today. His beautiful church, on the other hand, continues to be affectionately admired and cherished, and remains to this day, as originally intended, one of the most prominent landmarks of Kashmere Gate area. Were it not for the ignorant MCD employees disturbingly hellbent on irreversibly disfiguring the hallowed mosque and the sorry remnants of Col. Skinner's estate, the same could perhaps have been said about them as well.


Of neglectful ignorance and wanton destruction


Location: Kashmere Gate area, north Shahjahanabad (Coordinates: 28°39'56.4"N 77°13'51.2"E and 28°39'54.0"N 77°13'46.3"E)
Nearest Metro station: Kashmere Gate ISBT, approximately 1.5 kilometers away (however, most bus drivers passing past the church would, if requested, briefly halt immediately opposite it as well).
How to reach: Kashmere Gate ISBT is one of the most well-connected bus terminals in the city and is throughout the day accessible via regular bus and metro services. Furthermore, it is only a very short walk from Mori Gate terminal. One can easily walk/avail an auto/rickshaw to the church/mosque from Kashmere Gate metro station/ISBT bus stop. Red Fort/Chandni Chowk is approximately 3 kilometers from the church/mosque and one can avail a bus/auto from there as well. The delicate domes of the beautiful mosque are visually perceptible from the church and its entrance is via a narrow staircase built underneath slightly offset from it amidst the bustling bazaar.
Church timings: Monday to Saturday: 8 am – 1 pm and 2.30 pm – 6 pm; Sundays: 8 am – 12 noon
Church service timings: Winters (October – March): 9 am; Summers (April – September): 8.30 am
Mosque timings: Fakhr-ul-Masjid remains open to people of all religious beliefs, faiths and genders every day from sunrise to sunset.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/video charges: Nil. Prohibited by permission within the church building.
Relevant links -
Other edifices in Delhi indelibly associated with British East India Co. officials -
Some of the churches in Calcutta commissioned by British administrators/clergymen -
Suggested reading -

03 January 2016

Kaushal Minar, Hastsal village, Delhi


“I do not deny the glamour of the name of Delhi or the stories that cling about its dead and forgotten cities. But I venture to say this, that if we want to draw happy omens for the future the less we say about the history of Delhi the better... We know that the whole environment of Delhi is a mass of deserted ruins and graves, and they present to the visitor, I think, the most sorrowful picture you can conceive of the mutability of human fortunes.”
– Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, 1899-1905


Reminiscent of the monolith from Arthur C. Clarke's "Space Odyssey" series!


According to numerous convoluted mythological tales as recorded in Mahabharata, unquestionably the most enigmatic of the ancient Hindu epics, Delhi was the enviable site of “Indraprastha” (literally “City of Indra” (Indra being the God of war, lightning and thunderstorms and the chief of the numerous deities collectively invoked in the Hindu pantheon)), the magnificent fortified capital of the mythical Pandava brothers. Its contemporary twin citadel was “Hastinapura” (“City of Elephants”) whose very nomenclature indelibly references the widespread presence of immense hordes of massive pachyderms roaming about and being extraordinarily well-domesticated as majestic beasts involved with religion, warfare and royal impressionism. Surprisingly though, remarkably few inhabitants of the rapidly urbanizing metropolitan are aware that vast territories within the city’s expansionist peripheries were even in medieval ages densely vegetated forestlands thickly inhabited with hundreds of fascinating species of flora and fauna. Nonetheless, tales of this long forgotten environmental history do survive in popular folktales and local lore – point in case, the tranquilly laidback, commercially underdeveloped and visually kaleidoscopic urban village of Hastsal (a corruption of “Hast Sthal” (“Land of Elephants”)) where it’s said existed enormous lakes encircled by impenetrable woodlands which constituted an immense elephant corridor.


No elephants anymore! - Hastsal village


Presently accessible via Uttam Nagar metro station and regular bus and Grameen Seva cab services from the soaring residential enclaves of Uttam Nagar, Janakpuri, Vikaspuri, Nangloi Jat and Najafgarh, the urban village, essentially an agglomeration of vividly painted, box-like multistoried residential buildings intermittently interspersed by hole-in-the-wall shop stores, painstakingly endeavors to vertically dominate and entirely camouflage its viciously avaricious brutality towards what might be considered its golden egg-laying goose – the Kaushal Minar, also otherwise referred to as Hastsal Minar and Chota Qutb Minar, a 17-meter (55 feet) high minaret commissioned in AD 1650 by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan (reign AD 1627-57) which is wretchedly enveloped in its entirety by urban encroachments, rubble remains of obliterated residential annexes and a perennially multiplying rubbish dump so much so that it is next to impossible to observe and photograph its physical enormity from the immediate vicinity and one has to eventually resort to sneakily climb up peoples’ rooftops to better appreciate its mammoth proportions.


Caged beauty!


Access to the high platform on which toweringly rises the precariously ruined monument is now restricted to a grimy half meter wide staircase littered with plastic garbage and domestic vegetable refuse, however what the archaeological authorities forgot to take into account was the resourcefulness of the ingenious locals, many of whom have imaginatively designed their dingy warren-hole of houses such that the staircases and balconies literally skirt the soaring tapering structure. Considered originally to be five floors high and constituting a not insignificant fraction of a gorgeous hunting pavilion where rested the royally-entertained emperor and his immediate retinue following adrenaline-tripping chase and hunt in the forsaken center of all-encompassing wilderness, the colossal minaret, locally known as “Laat” (pillar/staff), is a very sorry picture of its erstwhile regal grandeur – a deplorable condition it grievously shares with its better renowned Shahjahan-era cousins, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, which too are sadly existential as heartlessly degraded mere skeletons of their original opulent splendor (refer Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid and Pixelated Memories - Red Fort).


Yes, it is indeed a protected monument! Why would you think otherwise?!


The upper two floors and the chattri (umbrella dome surmounted on slender pillars) crowning the majestic tower are said to have collapsed somewhere in the 18th-century. Notwithstanding the epithet “Chota Qutb Minar” referencing the more renowned, ethereally ornamented victory tower in another distant part of the city (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar), the Hastsal minaret doesn’t really invoke any particular visual or historic reminiscences of the former and doesn’t share any transcendental decorative features except that it too, like all minarets, is a minaret. Adorned with a single row of flawless white marble highlights, the vibrant red sandstone tapering structure was conceived fluted throughout with alternate circular and angular projections, however it can unquestionably be considered the most modestly ornamented both architecturally and artistically, in fact almost soberly bare, vis-à-vis the aforementioned dazzlingly flamboyant monuments that Shahjahan conceived and commissioned as well as his magnum at Agra, the unparalleled Taj Mahal which mere words are explicably hard put to describe.

Enroute to the minaret, there are bustling bazaars not any different from most others that dot Delhi’s other residential enclaves and sectors, thoroughly crowded with pedestrians, shoppers and motorcyclists and teeming with multi-hued shops (festooned unerringly with glittering glimmering hoarding and shimmering tinsel) offering stationery, confectionery, gold jewelry, everyday necessities, pharmaceuticals, utensils, brassware and the like.


Piercing the skyline


The strangely sanitized scene within the small urban village is however vastly different from the rest of the perpetually crowded city – as if relentlessly endeavoring to smother it in concentric hugs, most of the narrow streets curving around the monument are so congested that automobiles cannot possibly whizz about and thus in their absence there exists an undisguised crystalline silence, an unusual bubble of undisturbed tranquility in the midst of ceaseless noise and remorseless destruction and recreation. At least for me, following an often frustratingly indecipherable zigzagging treasure hunt, it proved to be indescribably exciting to spot the colossal sandstone enormity peeping from behind differently colored buildings and then circle the seemingly concentric, narrow streets and promising looking cul-de-sacs in an eventually fruitful attempt to discover the minaret’s base. Only an infinitesimal number of people outside Hastsal are privy to the existence of this medieval monument – sadly however, as irrefutably evidenced by the beautiful structure’s pitifully aggrieved existence as a dump yard mercilessly encroached upon on all extremities, the locals irresponsibly take for granted the privileged view appreciable only from their terraces.


Howdy, neighbor?


Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Location: Hastsal village, near Uttam Nagar in west Delhi (Coordinates: 28°38'01.9"N 77°03'26.1"E)
Nearest Metro station: Uttam Nagar (West), approximately 1.2 kilometers away
Nearest Bus stop: Hastsal village. Regular bus and Grameen Seva shared cab services are available from nearby Uttam Nagar, Janakpuri, Vikaspuri, Nangloi Jat and Najafgarh.
How to reach: Walk/avail a rickshaw from the bus stop/metro station. Ask locals for the "laat" and they will quickly provide the requisite directions.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant links -
Other landmarks located in the vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Barbeque Nation, Janakpuri - Restaurant review
  2. Pixelated Memories - Tatarpur - Ravana effigy business
  3. Pixelated Memories - Tihar Jail - Graffiti and Haat
Other Shahjahan-era monuments in Delhi -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
Suggested reading -
  1. Indianexpress.com - Article "Hastsal Minar" (dated Jan 04, 2009) by Shambhu Sahu
  2. Thehindu.com - Article "Standing not so tall" (dated July 09, 2010)
  3. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Mini minar in big mess no protection" (dated Nov 23, 2010) by Richi Verma