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Friday, April 4, 2014

Parathewali Gali

Parathewali Gali in the heart of Old Delhi is famous for its… parathas, what else. The technique here is different, the variety mind-boggling and the taste out-of-this-world 

It’s tough to define the paratha. ‘Stuffed’, unleavened bread? But there’s the breakfast-staple ‘plain’ paratha. ‘Fried’, unleavened bread? The tandoori paratha hath not a trace of fat in it. Fried, unleavened bread could also be the poori. And if both fried and stuffed, it could be the kachori.
Oh, you meant fried, unleavened bread ‘made on a griddle’? But that’s just your homely tawa paratha. You seriously need to step out to extend your horizon of the paratha-sphere.  


Taking the world of parathas to be a globe, the fat-free tandoori paratha qualifies for its South Pole. Moving north, at every latitude you will find an ‘oiled’ variant, ranging from the merely smeared to the generously soaked. And what lies at the apex – the North Pole?
Till recently, I would have placed my mother-in-law’s parathas at the very top. Employing a special deep griddle that can hold a few spoonfuls of oil at the base, she has been conjuring the crispest, crackling, golden-brown parathas for decades. The line dividing her parathas from kachoris is thin indeed.
But more than the frying, it is their copious stuffing that marks out ma-in-law’s parathas. “More stuffing than dough” is her thumb-rule. So, the aloo paratha sizzles on your plate with whole chunks of boiled potato peeping out from the edges. Ripping the gobhi paratha results in a shower of grated cauliflower. The pyaaz paratha takes longer to cool down, but you can keep picking off the sweet, fried onion pieces from its skin in the meantime… 
It’s only fair then that, after four years of beginning my days with such treats, I consider myself a paratha connoisseur. And having moved base to Delhi, it was just a matter of time before I set out to try the parathas of its fabled Parathewali Gali. 

Actor Akshay Kumar claims he grew up in the Gali, and when his Chandni Chowk to China releases next January, the lane might have a cameo in it. But till then, it must remain – as it has in living memory – famous for parathas alone. 
Inside any of its old shops you will find framed photographs of stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri enjoying a meal. Some of the shops, like those started by Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad Dikshit and Pandit Gaya Prasad, are veritable institutions. Gaya Prasad’s, for instance, opened in 1872 –- Mahatma Gandhi was three years old at the time!
The Gali’s heyday was in the 1960s, when more than a dozen old paratha shops summed up Old Delhi’s night life this side of Jama Masjid. Owned and run by UP Brahmins, they were a veggie foil for the Masjid area’s non-vegetarian excess. 
Today, though only five of the old shops remain, their popularity is undiminished. At mealtimes, on weekends especially, you would need to wait a while for a turn at the table. I waited almost 20 minutes outside Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad Dikshit’s, but it was time well spent in studying their operations.
The Gali’s paratha artists clearly don’t cut corners in anything. Even if the filling is of dry fruits, they pile them on with a free hand. The dough gets more than a little oil after being rolled into a pancake, and the paratha itself is deep fried in a shallow kadhai (trough) rather than on a griddle. The last bit is perhaps made necessary by the sheer rush of customers. Were they to crisp their parathas gradually on a deep griddle, as we do at home, they wouldn’t be able to serve more than 10 orders in an hour. In the boiling kadhai, the parathas are turned vigorously like records on a turntable, and are fried before you’ve stopped gawping at the bubbling oil. 
As for fillings, every shop has at least 20 different varieties on offer. These range from the basic (aloo paratha) to the curious (nimbu paratha) to the outlandish (khurchan paratha—khurchan is milk reduced to a flaky consistency by boiling). Prices, however, remain reasonable even if you opt for a cashew nut filling. Thirty rupees is about the most expensive that a paratha gets here. 
Unlike a typical sit-down restaurant, the mood in the Gali’s shops is quite ‘live’. As soon as I mention my choice of filling, loud voices ring out: “ek gobhi (one cauliflower paratha)”, then a louder counter check, “ek gobhi?” and a confirmation, “gobhi.”
A loud clap that would do credit to Mumbai’s eunuchs marks the slapping down of dough on to the chakla (rolling board). My order is being processed. 
A minute later, the sound of stainless steel meeting wood heralds the arrival of my gobhi paratha. It is golden brown all right. And when I tap it with a spoon, it crackles too. I break open the paratha, expecting a shower of grated cauliflower but it does not happen. Yet, the skin is nicely lined with gobhi flakes like the inside of a felt jacket.
At this point, I dismiss the critic in me and dig into the paratha with eyes shut tight. Mmm. “Ek gajar (carrot) paratha,” I motion to the boy who’s hung on in anticipation. 
“Ek gajar.”
“Ek gajar?”

Getting there:
Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is now connected by the Delhi Metro. The station lies on the Central Secretariat-Vishwavidyalaya line, which also passes through Connaught Place and the inter-state bus terminus at Kashmere Gate. Parathewali Gali is just a five-minute walk away from the Metro station’s exit.

The Lodi dynasty

In the heart of pickle city Panipat, in an area called Tehsil Camp, lies an unkempt municipal park. There are no roses here: only wild grasses under tall trees. In the afternoon, tired rickshaw pullers and other poor labourers lie down in their shade to rest. In the evening, gangs of boys play cricket on the shapeless bald patches. But when the sun sets, Sultan Ibrahim Lodi finds himself all alone: powerless even to shake off the day’s litter of dry leaves from his roof of 481 years.

When he lived, Ibrahim was surrounded by fawning courtiers. He was lord of Delhi. His writ ran from Bihar to Punjab. Dissent had no place in his realm. Even those in his inner circle lived in mortal fear, for the capricious sultan had them tortured and murdered on the slightest pretext. All the nobles were secretly hostile to him because he made them bow and scrape in his presence. Such obsequious ceremony had been all right under the Turk and Arab sultans of Delhi, but the Lodis and their nobles alike were Afghans. By playing with Pathan pride the sultan was tempting fate…

The Debacle    

Ibrahim had marched to Panipat at the head of 100,000 men and 1,000 war elephants. He had meant to rout the pretender from Kabul: Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, who had invaded the country on the invitation of the sultan’s rebel clansmen. Babur had only 10,000 horsemen and some cannons, but on the day of battle—April 20, 1526—his superior strategy and use of artillery carried the day. 

The battle was over by noon. More than 40,000 of Ibrahim’s forces lay dead. There was no trace of the sultan himself, and he was believed to have fled. But when Babur had said his afternoon prayers, one of his nobles, Tahir Tibri, brought him a severed head. It was Ibrahim’s. Tahir had found the sultan’s body lying in a heap of the dead and brought away his head as a trophy. 

In his autobiography Babur censures Ibrahim as “ruled by avarice” and “an unproven general,” but at that moment he was so moved by the sultan’s bravery that he walked up to where the body lay and ordered his men to bathe and bury it at that very spot. He also ordered them to build a tomb over the grave. Yes, that same brick platform with a lone sarcophagus that you see in Tehsil Camp’s municipal park today.

First Among Equals

Many miles south of Panipat, in a hallowed South Delhi village called Chirag Dilli, lies buried the founder of the Lodi dynasty, Bahlol Shah. Unlike his grandson Ibrahim’s tomb in Panipat, Bahlol’s is quite large, befitting a successful sultan. Its high roof is topped by five domes and the floor underneath is divided into nine equal bays by arches. The central bay contains two sarcophagi, of which the larger is evidently the sultan’s. 

Although Bahlol Lodi’s tomb is large, it lacks in ornamentation. This is probably the result of overzealous re-plastering, which is apparent on all the pillars, domes and even the ceiling. However, it must have been beautifully decorated in its day. For instance, we know from Babur’s autobiography that the tomb was set amidst a garden. Also, the setting of the tomb is special because it stands by the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s spiritual successor, Roshan Chirag Dilli.   

Bahlol Lodi’s life makes a fascinating read. It is said that he was born of caesarean section after his mother died in a house collapse. Since his father had died a few months earlier in battle, the infant was handed over to his uncle Islam Khan, the governor of Sirhind.

As a youth, Bahlol traded in horses and with his uncle’s influence he was able to bring some thoroughbreds to the then sultan, Muhammad Shah Sayyid. Muhammad Shah liked the steeds but being bankrupt he advised Bahlol to raid a rebellious province in lieu of payment. Bahlol did this so efficiently that the sultan made over the province to him. Overnight, the orphan became an emir at the sultan’s court! 

Soon after this, Bahlol inherited the governorship of Sirhind from his uncle and became the most powerful potentate of the Delhi Sultanate. And finally, on April 19, 1451, he was able to take Delhi in a bloodless coup—Sultan Alauddin Alam Shah Sayyid being too timid to confront him.    

Since Bahlol had risen from the Pathan ranks, he respected tribal sensibilities. Unlike his grandson, he treated his Pathan nobles as equals, and instead of sitting on the throne, he discoursed and ate with them on a carpet. This no doubt earned him the support he needed to realise his dreams. When Bahlol took the throne of Delhi, it was joked that the sultan’s writ ran from Delhi to Palam (an ancient village which now houses the Delhi airport), but by the time of his death in 1489 AD the sultanate once again straddled most of modern day Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and east Pakistan. 

Prince Charming

The Lodis did not leave behind a grand fort, palace or mausoleum, but are best remembered by gardens that they did not lay out. The Lodi Gardens in posh Central Delhi came into being only on April 9, 1936, and as Lady Willingdon Park at that. Till then, the garden site lay under a village called Khairpur, which was dotted with the finest Sayyid- and Lodi-era tombs. Of these, the grandest belonged to Bahlol’s son and Ibrahim’s father, Sikander Lodi.

The most successful of the three Lodi sultans, Sikander is said to have been obsessed with his good looks. Born of a Hindu mother, he was always eager to prove himself a staunch Muslim, often committing excesses against other faiths. Yet, nothing could induce him to grow a beard. The story goes that a Muslim saint, Haji Abdul Wahab, often admonished Sikander for shaving off his beard. One day, Sikander lost his cool and said something disrespectful to the saint, whereupon he developed a severe throat ailment that eventually proved fatal.

Sikander ruled from July 1489 to November 1517, and perhaps the most important act of his reign was the relocation of the capital from Delhi to Agra in the year 1504. It is thanks to him that the first five Mughals—from Babur to Shahjehan—made Agra the tourist attraction it is today.
All the same, Sikander chose Delhi for his own burial. His octagonal tomb stands intact in a walled enclosure within Lodi Gardens. Typical of Pathan tombs, it exudes brute strength. Its pillars are solid rock, and the corners are buttressed. But inside, some of the coloured tile-work is still seen. The monument’s surrounding fortification is also in good shape.

To reach Sikander’s tomb, you must walk past three other fine buildings. The first of these is the imposing Bara Gumbad, probably built as a grand gateway to the Bara Gumbad Mosque behind it. The diminutive mosque itself seems plain from the outside but as Englishman Herbert Charles Fanshawe wrote about it in 1902: “it is quite the most beautiful specimen of (plaster) ornamentation that exists in India.” The mosque’s inner walls are a complete “riot of incised plasterwork”. The third major monument seen here is the Sheesh Gumbad, also a Lodi-era tomb.

But there’s one other must-see monument that stands hidden in the gardens. It is the tomb of Sultan Muhammad Shah Sayyid, who could not pay for Bahlol Lodi’s horses. Perched atop a mound and open to view from all sides, it is arguably even more charming than Sikander Lodi’s tomb. But it’s amusing to think that a king who was indigent in life could be so self-indulgent in death!   


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Firoz Shah Kotla

Firoz Shah Kotla, now known for cricket matches, was the heart of Firozabad, the fifth mediaeval city of Delhi after Mehrauli, Siri, Tughlaqabad and Jahanpanah

It’s the year 1354: Delhi has long grown used to Muslim rule; the Sultanate is in its 162nd year, headquartered in Jahanpanah, the fourth city of Delhi. The 13th sultan, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, is a peaceable man with an iron hand, as he has shown by trouncing the Mughal horde three years earlier. He prefers to devote his time to the welfare of his subjects––planting trees, digging wells, building caravanserais and mosques (he is just a little bigoted). And he has made up his mind to establish a new city in his name––Firozabad. 

The cities before Firozabad have been nearly contiguous growths, but Firoz Shah wants his capital built many miles north of the existing Delhi, on the Yamuna’s right bank. For his citadel, he has himself marked out a plot in the village Gawin, and plans to build three palaces, a baoli (step-well), a mosque and a pigeon tower in it…


What was Firozabad like? In 1388 AD, the year Firoz Shah died, his chronicler Shams-i-Siraj Afif, described it thus: “So many buildings were erected that from the kasba of Indrapat to the Kushk-i-Shikar (a hunting palace), five kos apart, all the land was occupied. There were eight public mosques…each large enough to accommodate 10,000 supplicants.”

No doubt, a populous city; besides, it had the markets and the entertainment to draw the residents of the older cities. As Afif writes, “People used to go for pleasure from Delhi (meaning the area around Mehrauli) to Firozabad and back in such numbers that every kos of the five kos between the two towns swarmed with people, as with ants or locusts.”

Firoz Shah Kotla  

Mention the name and Delhi’s most famous cricket pitch comes to mind. But the cricket stadium near Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, the Capital’s Fleet Street, is only a fledgling compared to the 650-year-old citadel whose name it bears. Gone is Firozabad, lost amidst Shahjahan’s Old Delhi and Lutyens’ New Delhi, but the citadel has survived. The river has shifted a long way east, making way for the Ring Road, sprawling samadhi grounds of national leaders, the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium and sundry other buildings, but the low walls of the fort-palace still stand, revealing just enough to rouse curiosity.  

Firoz Shah Kotla is best seen from Ring Road, but since it is a no-stoppage zone, and also because the citadel’s main gate faces west, you must approach it from Bahadurshah Zafar Marg. The citadel’s fortification is unimpressive: the wall, typical of Tughlaq buildings, is devoid of ornamentation, is not seriously high or thick to thwart an assault for long, and the gate is the biggest letdown––a mere gap in the wall. But then, Firoz Shah did not build it for war; apart from the Mughals, whom he had taught a lesson, there was no apparent threat to his sultanate.   

What he saved on the Kotla’s defences, Firoz Shah invested in the inner buildings. As you enter, there are stumps of pillars on both sides, and high walls at the corners. It’s easy to visualise the sultan’s large hall of audience that must have existed in between: pillar after pillar supporting a high roof. The Khaljis and the Tughlaqs liked to style their palaces as Hazar Sutun (meaning thousand-pillared, a figure of speech) and this one seems a worthy candidate for the name. 

The western half of the citadel is littered with such ‘remains’ (rather than ruins). An arched gate here, a wall there, some pillars, and you can complete the picture with a child’s imagination. The grounds of the Kotla are lush with grass, and a number of flowering trees stand amid them. It’s a nice picnic spot with few takers. Almost everyone who comes to Firoz Shah Kotla rushes to one of two places: the mosque or the pyramidal building supporting an Ashokan pillar atop it.

The Jami Masjid (Friday mosque) of Firoz Shah was apart from the eight that Afif wrote about. In the 16th century, Father Monserrate, a Christian missionary, described it thus: “The exterior is covered with brilliant whitewash, made by mixing lime with milk, instead of water. It shines like a mirror; for this mixture of lime and milk is not only of such remarkable consistency that no cracks appear in it anywhere, but also, when polished, it shines most magnificently.”

The mosque, though in ruins now, is still used for prayers. Its only gate, facing north, is intact and reached by a high flight of steps. Along the courtyard, only bits of the outer wall stand but the vaulted chambers under the mosque, and the colonnade surrounding them, are intact.

Facing the mosque’s gate is the pyramidal building on which stands the Ashokan pillar, and in the ground before it is the large circular step-well––not very deep since the water level close to the river was fairly high––that supplied water to the citadel. The well is still used to irrigate the Kotla’s grounds. Even now, you can climb down the step-well, but more than the water and the walls what will intrigue you here are the burnt incense sticks and candles. In fact, you will find a lot more of them in the pyramidal building outside. 

The Ashokan Pillar

Those candles and incense sticks are the result of a belief that djinns (spirits) reside in the Kotla, especially in the pyramidal building. So, every Thursday, thousands of poor people troop into the citadel with petitions scribbled on paper. The petitions may be about property disputes, family problems, business losses…and these are thrust into the gaps between the stones. The colonnade under the mosque is another popular place for this activity.

But coming back to the pyramidal building, with cells upon cells, what purpose did it serve? The cells are too small to serve as palace rooms. They are also completely open to view. It seems the building was raised only to support the ancient pillar the sultan had taken a fancy to.

It was on an excursion to Tobra near Ambala (200 km from Delhi) that Firoz Shah found the Ashokan pillar. He recognised its historical value and decided to shift it to his new citadel, and how! Afif records that, “Quantities of silk cotton were placed round the column, and when the earth at its base was removed, it fell gently over on the bed prepared for it.” And how was it transported? “A carriage with 42 wheels was constructed, and ropes were attached to each wheel. Two hundred men pulled at each rope.” By and by the pillar reached the Yamuna, but how did they manage to take it across the river? Afif says a number of boats, ranging in capacity from 80 to 280 tonnes, were strung together to ferry it across.

But the biggest challenge lay in raising it to the top of the planned building. To get around this difficulty, the builders employed an ingenious technique: they built a step and raised the pillar above it; then another step, and the pillar was raised higher, and so on. Instead of lifting the pillar in one massive heave, it was raised day after day, along with the building! Finally, when the building was completed, the pillar was capped with a gilded cupola and set erect, with the name Minar-i-zarin (golden column).

The pillar of Ashoka still stands, a little chipped, the cupola missing, but still the most popular object in the citadel of Firoz Shah. His city may be lost, but the sultan’s labour of love hasn’t gone waste.

Junan Shah's mosques in Delhi

Khan Jahan Junan Shah’s seven mosques in Delhi have withstood six centuries

Of all the kings who ruled Delhi, the Tughlaqs probably have the most colourful histories. Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the founder of this 14th century dynasty, ruled only four years, but his run-ins with Delhi’s favourite Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, have passed into local lore.

One story goes that Hazrat Auliya started building his baoli (step well) at the same time as the sultan was building his citadel Tughlaqabad. Tughlaq was a man in a hurry and he needed all the hands he could get to complete the fort whose walls ran a length of 6.5 km, so he banned the men from working on the baoli. But devout followers as they were, they continued working at the baoli by night. Then, Tughlaq banned the sale of oil for their lamps, but, wonder of wonders, Hazrat Auliya blessed the well and the workmen could light their lamps with its water!

Ghiyasuddin died in a building collapse in 1324 AD. It is generally agreed that the sultan’s son and successor Muhammad engineered the ‘accident’, managing to rid himself of a brother as well in the event. For the next 27 years, Muhammad ruled with an iron hand, taking steps that have made ‘Tughlaq’ a synonym for ‘fool’ in India.

To begin with, he decided to set up a new capital, Daulatabad, in faraway Maharashtra. It was a wise decision given his expansionary plans, but he decided to take the population of Delhi along with him as well––a 40 days’ march. Untold numbers perished. Nine years later, after severe reverses, he made the survivors march back. 

While he was campaigning in the Telangana area of present day Andhra Pradesh (in southern India) as a prince in 1322 AD, Mohammad had taken captive a Hindu, converted him to Islam, and given him the name Khan Jahan Telangani. In time, this man came to be one of his trusted courtiers. When Muhammad’s cousin Firoz Shah Tughlaq came to the throne in 1351 AD, he elevated Telangani to the position of wazir (prime minister). Indeed, many contemporaries held Telangani to be the centre of power in Delhi. When Telangani died after serving Firoz Shah for 20 years, his position went to his son, Khan Jahan Junan Shah, the hero of our story.


Junan Shah proved an enthusiastic builder of mosques. His position provided him the means to translate his dreams into stone, and he is believed to have built seven large and small mosques in Delhi itself in the 17 years that he was Firoz Shah’s wazir. He might have built more, but he fell out of favour just before the sultan’s death in 1388 AD, and was expelled from court.

The last of these great mosques––all of them were called Kalan Masjid, meaning large mosque––was completed on June 28, 1387 AD, shortly before Junan Shah’s unceremonious exit from court. Despite the roughly 620 years since, the man is well remembered by not only historians and archaeologists but also those who come to pray at his mosques.

Of the seven mosques Junan Shah built, three are still used for prayers. Another––largest of the seven––is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The architecturally most fascinating of the lot is not used anymore but is in excellent shape, while the remaining two are frankly beyond hope. On a trip to Delhi, you can find at least four of these mosques with ease, and, if you have the time, do so by all means.


Ideally, you should save the best for the last, by which I mean you shouldn’t visit the Khirki Masjid till you have been to the rest. Start at the Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad, and let the lesser mosques whet your appetite for more. The Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad is the last of Junan Shah’s mosques, mentioned earlier. It stands atop a mound, much plastered and painted over since the wazir’s days but structurally intact. 

Back in those days, the city, rather cities, of Delhi lay many miles to the south. From the Slave Dynasty’s Mehrauli to the Khaljis’ Siri to Mohammad Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah, all were half a day’s march away. Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s own citadel, Firoz Shah Kotla, on the Yamuna’s right bank was the nearest ‘city’. So why did Junan Shah build a mosque so far north of the cities? The only plausible reason is the presence of Shah Turkman’s dargah nearby. A popular saint, Shah Turkman died in 1240 AD but was held in high esteem down to the days of the Mughals, which is evident from the fact that one of the gates of Shahjahanabad is named after him. 

The mosque stands on Sita Ram Bazaar Road that connects the Chawri Bazaar Metro Station with Turkman Gate. It is a pretty sight, rising above all the other buildings in the alley, and unless you come at prayer time, it is fairly quiet. Do climb the steps leading up to the roof, to see the mosque’s 30 domes that cover the bays below. These small domes are characteristic of Junan Shah’s architecture, with Khirki Masjid having the most.

Two other mosques built by Junan Shah lie in the north; one of them, called Chausath Khamba (not to be confused with the Mughal era tomb in the Nizamuddin area), is still used for prayer, but it has been so far altered that it is hard to make out its original form. Still, if you wish to visit it, it lies close to the southern entrance of the landmark Lok Nayak Hospital. 

The other mosque, which has lost its name and purpose down the ages, stands on Qutb Road that runs north from the New Delhi Railway Station. It was used as a municipal hospital early in the last century, and is now used as a storage. Visiting it is a pointless exercise unless you are less of a tourist than an archaeologist.  Leaving these two, it is best to head south, to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (mentioned earlier), near which another of Junan Shah’s mosque stands.

The Kali Masjid––Kali being an obvious corruption of Kalan––is well known in Nizamuddin Village, which has closed in upon the mosque and now verily breathes upon its walls. Amongst the first mosques built by Junan Shah––the inscription above the gate gives the date 1370 AD––it has the trademark bays covered with individual domes. The main entrance is similar in design to the one attached to Shahjahanabad’s Kalan Masjid, or the three gates of Khirki Masjid. Like the former, it has been plastered and painted over.  

The Kali Masjid was in ruins at the start of the 20th century. It was repaired, rather than restored so some of the features of Tughlaq architecture were lost. The concrete pillars and arches added at the time of rehabilitation are also a jarring note, but on the whole the Kali Masjid, which is again used for prayers, gives the visitor a good idea of Junan Shah’s style.

As you move southward from the Nizamuddin area, you are venturing into the old cities of Delhi, including Mohammad Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah, which housed three of Junan Shah’s seven mosques. Two of these mosques lie within walking distance of each other, very close to the premier Indian Institute of Technology. These are, the Begumpuri Masjid––largest of the lot––and the Kalo Sarai Masjid. The latter is in ruins, the locals don’t know it by name, and you would be hard put to find it. Even if you did, you would be sorely disappointed to see it encroached upon by poor labourers.

But the Begumpuri Masjid is another thing. Vast, rather than large, it is a living testimony of Delhi’s prosperity centuries ago. Evidently, such a large mosque would have been built for a sizeable population. While the open courtyard had space for thousands of the faithful, the deep, covered arcades on all four sides could also house almost as many. Given his master Firoz Shah’s puritanical nature, Junan Shah kept ornamentation to a minimum. Unlike Shahjahan’s Jami Masjid, which combines delicacy with grandeur, the Begumpuri Masjid had a stern, awe-inspiring presence.

Standing among the domes on the roof of Begumpuri Masjid, you can see a large, modern glass-and-steel building coming up in the southeasterly direction. The Khirki Masjid lies across the road from it, in a village of the same name. Somewhat smaller than the Begumpuri Masjid, the Khirki Masjid exhibits greater design and engineering skill, since it is an almost entirely covered mosque.

The mosque’s interior is divided into a series of bays by pillars and topped by individual domes. To let enough light in, Junan Shah left four large openings in the roof besides building a series of windows in the outer walls. Perhaps this is what gives the mosque and the village their current names (khirki means window). Steps lead up to the mosque’s roof, from where you have an excellent view of the domes: there would have been 81 in all but nine have collapsed.

The mosque is now hemmed in with tall residential buildings, but even 200 years ago it would have been the tallest structure for miles around. Humayun’s Tomb, Sher Shah Suri’s citadel and even Firoz Shah Kotla might have been visible from it. Who knows, even the Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad!  

On the steps of Delhi's Jama Masjid

There are exactly 69 steps between the new Meena Bazaar and Gate 2 of Jama Masjid. First 15, then a landing, 15 more, another landing, then a wide step and 31 up to the landing before the majestic arch. Finally, four low steps bring me level with the Masjid’s courtyard. 

Wasim taps my shoulder and says, “One-fifty”. Still camera, I tell him hopefully. But he says it does not matter, “One-fifty”. Have it your way, I say, I’m not going inside. But he doesn’t like my sitting down on the steps either. Half a minute later, he taps me with a broken plank, “Sit elsewhere.” 

Elsewhere is very hot. The May sun is living up to its 2 pm reputation, which no doubt explains the lack of life on the Masjid’s steps. It’s not long since the 1.15 namaaz got over but the courtyard inside is quiet. Not one foreign tourist is in sight. Only a group of young boys–locals, I am sure–a few poor, weary families and two chana sellers have apportioned the gate’s slim shadow on the top landing. 

The cop at the police checkpoint halfway down the steps does not even look up as I trot past him, all the way down and then on to Gate 1, which overlooks Matia Mahal. There’s a bustling market across the road from the Masjid on this side but I only notice the shops selling religious books and kebabs.     

Gate 1 is only half as big as Gate 2, with only half as many steps leading up to it–32, to be precise–but it is equally lifeless. The darban, Munne, who is at least twice Wasim’s age, shows none of the aggression as he sits calmly inside the gateway. He has served at the Masjid for 22 years. I ask him about his routine, and that of his fellow attendants: who opens the door and when, who cleans the steps and so on, and get the most uninteresting reply: “I do.”

Munne would like to sleep, I think, considering that three cops and a metal detector are stationed at the base of the steps. The threesome anyway don’t have enough work to go around between them as they lounge in armchairs. One of them, Naseem, turns out to be a Masjid staffer dressed in khaki. The 40-year-old came to Delhi from Allahabad in 1995, and joined the Masjid a year later. A little goading by the two Delhi Police constables sets him talking.

“This is the most important gate,” he says, “the first to open and the last to close–most people enter and leave the Masjid through it.” The three gates have different timings? “Yes, Gate 2, which is known as the Shahi Darwaza as it was meant for the emperor’s entry, has always opened at 12 noon and closed at 7 pm, while Gate 1 remains open from 4 am to an hour after the last namaaz, which takes place at 8.45 pm in summer.” 

Are the steps always so deserted, I ask Naseem. “Most of the time now,” he says, adding, “there was a time when people from nearby areas spent summer evenings enjoying the breeze on the Masjid’s steps. In winter, they gathered here during the afternoon to soak in the sunlight. And regardless of season, there was always a crowd of railway passengers killing time on the steps before boarding their trains from the Old Delhi Railway Station nearby. 

“And of course there were the beggars, hordes of them. Some of them are unforgettable, like old Rajja who died five years ago. He seldom spoke, but always in English, and then only to ask for a beedi. He never bothered anyone, only, sometimes, he looked up to the sky and spewed the foulest curses. Some people even took him for a holy man.”

‘Special’ tea has arrived. The older cop says it is the ultimate restorative. Sure, one cup has enough sugar for six. So, when are the steps most crowded, I ask Naseem. On Thursdays and Sundays, he says. Sundays I can understand, but why Thursdays? “Because that’s when the Prophet’s relics are displayed inside the Masjid,” he says. 

It’s half-past-three as I cross the Masjid’s courtyard over to Gate 3 on the Dariba side. This gate is even quieter, if anything. I count aloud–36 steps–much to the amusement of Syed Waqar Ahmed, hereditary caretaker of the Prophet’s relics. “It’s not like the old times anymore,” he says on learning of my purpose, “our elders told us of the times when the leading lights of the Independence Movement held discussions on these steps. Even we grew up seeing impromptu mushairas and kite flying on the steps. Pigeons used to be sold here, and bhishtis (water carriers) used to clang their silver bowls musically. And can I ever forget the kakri sellers’ spiel, “Laila ki anguliyan, Majnu ki pasliyan, chaar aane ki dus le lo (they are as delicate as Laila’s fingers and Majnu’s ribs, take 10 for four annas).”  

I spend some time chatting with Syed saab, discussing a book on Delhi’s history that he’s editing. By the time I return to Gate 2, it’s 4.30 pm and things are looking up. Meena Bazaar is alive, there are people on the steps, although not as many as I had imagined there would be. The biryaniwalas and the sherbetwalas are doing brisk business. The bhishtis have taken up positions on the steps and are pouring water out into silver cups from their goatskins. 

Shaista Alvi, a short, burqa-clad woman, accosts me. “Aap journalist hain? Mujhe aapko ek khabar deni hai (are you a journalist? I have news for you).” It takes me a while to convince her that I am not “that kind of journalist,” but rather than turn away, she offers to introduce me around. First up is the bhishti Shaukat, who has served water on these steps since his childhood. Forty-five now, he looks much older and spends only a couple of hours a day at his post. I ask another bhishti how many people does he serve in an hour. “Fifty, maybe 60,” he says. I am surprised that in these days of bottled water, there are people who drink from a skin. 

Shaista then introduces me to sherbet seller Mohammad Bashir who has been around for 25 years. Hailing from Lucknow, he now has two stalls but prefers to vend the sweet red water from the shabbier one. What’s the greatest change he has witnessed? “A glass of sherbet was worth 50 paise for as long as I can remember, now it sells for a rupee.” Bashir attends to a dozen customers in the space of this little ‘interview’.

Ghiyasuddin, the old biryaniwala, proves the most talkative of the lot. I ask him what time of the day does he like the most. “Businesswise?” No, in terms of happiness, I say. “The late evening. That’s when people come here to stroll, sit down on the steps and chat.” But even he thinks the steps’ best days are lost in time. “Now it’s all about money; there’s little love.”

As the Masjid’s loudspeakers summon the faithful to the 5.30 namaaz, the crowd starts to melt away in one direction, and I bid adieu to Shaista. “Aapne hamara photo nahin liya (you haven’t shot me),” she reminds me. Oh, of course. After five minutes, as I make to leave again, a small hand pops out of the burqa. “Goodbye.” 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Humayun's Tomb

Akbar’s tomb is opulent, Jehangir’s splendid and Shah Jehan’s ethereal but none possess the bold authority of their forebear Humayun’s tomb in Delhi…

The ticket price has doubled. The ticket itself is computer generated. Even the turnstiles are electronically controlled. But modern technology steps aside the moment I walk into the green, manicured lawn. It’s called Bu Halima’s Garden. And it has not changed in the six years since I last visited it. 

Visited it? That’s not true, for I merely walked through it and out of the gate at the far end. The round, white dome of Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb was pulling me irresistibly.

Bu Halima still gets the short shrift from most visitors, I observe. Her simple quartzite tomb, that looks more like a stage due to its low rectangular construction, does not draw anyone. It’s ironical because without Bu Halima we might not have had so many other tombs, including Humayun’s, in one place.

Whoever the lady was, she laid out her garden near the Yamuna before anyone else. Practically nothing is known about her but archaeologists date her tomb to the early 16th century – the early years of Mughal rule in Delhi. 

Bu Halima laid her simple garden with an ornate gate in the east and was put to rest in her simple tomb – presumably – some years later. But she set the ground for others – like the Sur noble Isa Khan Niyazi – to expand upon. So well did the neighbourhood flourish that today, more than 450 years later, it is one of the most beautiful heritage sites in the country…


This time, instead of rushing straight into the charbagh surrounding Humayun’s tomb, I turn towards the dilapidated gate in the southern wall of Bu Halima’s garden. It used to be an ornamental gate with a gallery above the entrance but most of it has collapsed.

Five steps lead up to the entrance and five down on the other side. Isa Khan’s rugged tomb is before me. This monument is so different from the grand edifice commemorating Humayun across the eastern wall. It has none of the smooth lines, rich ornamentation or grand scale of the emperor’s mausoleum. Yet it has its own soldierly grace.

The large, undressed quartzite slabs that make up its walls lend it a weighty dignity that is not diminished by the little flourishes like domed pavilions, carved screens and tile work on all eight sides (the tomb is octagonal). This tomb brings to my mind a fine sword. The stout walls are like a purposeful blade while the tiles and screens are its jewelled hilt symbolising a soldier’s vanity.

A Persian inscription (which I cannot read) inside the tomb states, “This tomb, which is an asylum of paradise, was built during the reign of Islam Shah, son of Sher Shah…by Masnad Ali Isa Khan, son of Niyaz Aghwan, the chief chamberlain, in 954 AH (1547-48 AD).” So it was completed full 21 years before Humayun’s tomb. 

Isa Khan’s mosque, which stands to the tomb’s west, is also a simple and robust structure. It consists of a single prayer chamber with three arched openings – the preferred design of most mosques attached to tombs in that period. 


Coming out of Isa Khan’s enclosure, I walk down Bu Halima’s garden and out of her pretty gate. A larger, more beautiful gate lies straight down the path. It is the entrance to the charbagh or four-folded garden of Humayun’s tomb. Portions of the tomb tempt me through the gate’s arches but I resist them for another gate on my right.

This sandstone-clad gate once led into a large serai built for the 300 Persian artisans and craftsmen who built Humayun’s tomb. The dilapidated compound is today called Arab Serai, a misnomer.

While the serai is practically a hopeless ruin now, the large garden behind its eastern wall contains a tomb and a mosque. Both monuments are unremarkable in the company of Humayun’s and Isa Khan’s tombs. But by themselves they make a striking pair on the sprawling green.

The tomb has a marble sarcophagus with the number 974 inscribed on it. This corresponds to the AD year 1566-67. In other words, the tomb is an approximate contemporary of Humayun’s tomb (built in 1569 AD). Which also implies that the man buried in it must have been an important official in the Mughal court to lie so close to the emperor. Yet his identity remains a mystery. 

The two monuments are simply called Afsarwala Tomb and Mosque. An official sure, but who, we might never know…


A small exit in the northern wall of the garden leaves me right in front of the gate leading to Humayun’s tomb. This gate has got a facelift and the arched cells on both sides of the passage have been done up nicely as galleries displaying photographs of various monuments before and after restoration. Archaeological Survey of India also sells books and brochures about Delhi’s monuments here.

A good number of tourists, mainly foreigners, are walking around the charbagh on the warm morning. The monument’s ‘Unesco World Heritage’ status is one of the reasons for its popularity abroad. 

It was Babur, the first Mughal, who brought the symmetrical charbagh layout to India. It essentially means a garden divided into four quarters with walkways and water channels. Humayun’s tomb sits in the middle of such a charbagh, aligned with gates in the west and the south, a hammam in the north and a baradari in the east.

The Yamuna used to flow under the baradari 400 years ago, adding a picturesque backdrop to the walled garden but it has shifted course many miles now.

After the quartzite buildings all around it, the sandstone and marble mausoleum of Humayun knocks the breath out of visitors. Its effect, of course, has something to do with scale. For instance, the square plinth on which the tomb sits is 99 metres long on each side. Just about the length of an Olympic track! The top of the dome also rises about 43 metres from the ground – the approximate height of a modern 12-storey building…

In its day, this ‘double dome’ was unique in India. The buildings before it had only one dome that served both as a roof and a ceiling above the graves. But given the extraordinary height of Humayun’s tomb, one dome would have risen too high above the emperor’s sarcophagus. So the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas designed one dome above the burial vault, at a proportionate height, topped by the marble dome visible from outside. This architectural device was used in many Mughal buildings later on.

As I climb up to the terrace, the tomb looms larger with every step, its beauty unfolding rapidly. And it is a simple, geometrical beauty. Humayun’s tomb is not heavily decorated with calligraphy or coloured tiles like some later day monuments. It dominates the visitor with its clean sobriety.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this monument is the emperor’s slim sarcophagus. It sits alone on a raised platform in the middle of the floor, under the high first dome. The walls here are plain like the ones outside, only the colour scheme is inverted – more marble than sandstone.

A group of French tourists is delighted by the vault’s acoustics. They together attempt a classical vocal recital, making the air reverberate. It is first rate entertainment but I am a little uneasy for the emperor. Hush, let him sleep!   


From the tomb’s terrace I spot a small (relatively) red tomb in the garden’s southeast corner. It is partly hidden by trees and bushes. I had somehow missed it the last time I was here. Maybe because it was the rainy season and the foliage then was very thick. 

But now, Nai ka Maqbara (as my guidebook labels it) seems worthy of a look at least. If not architectural merit, the tomb certainly has curiosity value. After all, how many barbers have had tombs raised in their memory!

On nearing the monument, I realise it is at least as big as Afsarwala Tomb and decidedly more ornate. This barber must have been a real favourite of his emperor. But which emperor? 

The figure 999 carved on the grave inside gives the Hegira date, corresponding to the AD year 1590-91. Humayun’s son Akbar was in the 35th year of his reign then. So the man buried in the tomb must have been Akbar’s barber…

Walking back to the cool shadow of Humayun’s tomb, I wonder what memorial the emperor would have raised for a travel writer. A marble grave under the open sky, maybe… 

Delhi secrets

Purani Dilli: 30 heritage picks from the last 2300 years   

At every turn in Delhi you find a crumbling monument––a story-in-stone waiting to be heard as it runs out of time and patience. Abhilash Gaur lends an ear to ten

They also serve who stand and wait. Like most of Delhi’s monuments that are put to use as pens, godowns, garbage dumps and dens of vice––monuments that are not on any tourist’s itinerary, places that don’t earn a paisa of revenue, stories that don’t seem worth telling. Like the tomb of Khan-i-Jahan Telangani (who you have never heard of) in Kotla Nizamuddin that houses a mini colony in its eight-sided veranda. It’s the first octagonal tomb in Delhi, in fact the whole of India. 

So what? So what if the Qutb Minar is 72.5 metres tall and 800 years old? So what if Humayun’s Tomb is the first tomb of a Mughal emperor in India? So what if Major Hodson brought the Mughal Empire to an official close at its gate? We don’t care for the facts and figures, and the stories behind these monuments, do we? We like them for their looks, just as we like any large, flashy mall, or (even if grudgingly) the Kuckrejas’ golf course villa.

But if we cared for the stories behind old stone, more of Delhi’s 1,200 monuments would be in a presentable shape and we would have more ways to spend Sunday evenings than we do now. Perhaps, we would also begin to see ourselves as figures in an epic continuously scripted over a thousand years and more.

City Secrets 

Three thousand years is more like it if you go along with the belief that this was the Pandavs’ Indraprastha. Otherwise, we have it on authority that the area around the Iskcon Temple in East of Kailash was inhabited 2,300 years ago. Next time you are there, look out for the concrete shed atop the rocky outcrop in the park opposite the temple. It covers a rock not an electric pump, as you might think. Inscribed on the rock is an Ashokan edict: 10 barely-visible lines of Brahmi script propagating Buddhism. And the very first line is perhaps the most important: “It is two-and-a-half years since I became a Buddhist layman.” Ashoka embraced Buddhism in XXXX BC, so you can easily calculate the year when the edict was carved.   

This rock exists in situ, unlike the Ashokan pillars that Firoz Shah Tughlaq brought to Delhi from Tobra (in Ambala district) and Meerut, so it is more relevant to our collective history. But you might not be tempted to visit it, for it is only a rock with a faded inscription. Instead, try seeking the Chilla (sanctuary) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Nizamuddin East. The ruin is easily located on the right if you continue up the road past the Humayun’s Tomb parking. Tradition has it that Delhi’s favourite Sufi saint lived and meditated in the upper cells of this Tughlaq-era building. It’s an unprotected building, and the dervish there also doubles as its caretaker. Every evening, he makes a perilous climb up the broken wall to light a chirag in the Chilla. Tip him honourably and follow him up to the Auliya’s cell, and then hear some fascinating tales about the place. Also ask him why he does not come in through the convenient and safe main entrance accessed through the Humayun’s Tomb garden. 

Moving on from the Chilla, walk past Gurdwara Damdama Sahib and follow the railway line till you reach a wide, stinking drain that once carried fresh water into the Yamuna. On your right you will see two bridges: the nearer one deserted and clearly very old, and the other, a busy one, in the background. The old bridge is called Barahpula, simply because its arches are supported on 12 piers (it’s easier to count the decorative minarets rising from the road level). In its heyday it was considered the prettiest bridge in Delhi. Built during Jehangir’s reign, the 214-metre bridge was also a vital link on the Delhi-Agra road. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Nizamuddin West, just across the road from Humayun’s Tomb, is well known for the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. But it also has numerous other monuments like the Kali Masjid (Aman Nath’s favourite, pXY) and the Chausath Khamba (see box on pXY). One monument you won’t find, though, is the tomb of Khan-i-Jahan Telangani, Delhi’s most lived-in tomb. 

It’s not an easy quarry, this tomb, for nobody in the basti has heard of Telangani. But try asking for the phirangi ka maqbara inside the qila, and they might just lead you up to it. The qila was indeed a fortification, and Telangani is called phirangi because he was a Hindu convert to Islam. He was captured by Mohammad Tughlaq in Telangana (Andhra Pradesh) in 1322 AD, and later served as prime minister under Firoz Shah Tughlaq for 20 years. After him, his son Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, remained wazir for the next 15 years, and we’ll have more to say about him later.

Coming back to the invisible tomb of Telangani, what makes it important is the fact that, as the first-ever octagonal tomb in Delhi, it was the prototype for some other landmark buildings. If you like Isa Khan’s tomb in the Humayun Tomb complex, Adham Khan’s tomb at the entrance to Mehrauli Village and the tombs of Muhammad Shah Sayyid and Sikander Lodi in Lodi Gardens, you’ll know what you’re missing. We could have added Mubarak Shah Sayyid’s tomb in Kotla Mubarakpur to this list (it’s the second octagonal tomb in Delhi), but you surely haven’t seen or heard of it.

For a while, let’s leave Nizamuddin and head north to Shahjahanabad, but to a time long before Shahjahan. In the 14th century, Firoz Shah Tughlaq settled the city of Firozabad on the Yamuna’s bank and built himself a fortified palace complex, what we now call Firoz Shah Kotla. This, then, was the extent of urban Delhi in the 1380s. But Khan-i-Jahan Junan Shah, Firoz Shah’s prime minister, who is famous for building seven large mosques (amongst them Khirki and Begumpuri, see box on pXX) in Delhi, built one further north, close to Shah Turkman’s dargah. Called Kalan Masjid, it was the last of his great mosques, completed on June 28, 1387 AD. And it still stands, its 30 small domes (a Junan Shah trademark) are intact, and its courtyard echoes with prayers at all five times of the day. A century ago, a traveller paid this tribute to the mosque: “It cannot pretend to great variety and elegance, but it is a monument to the tender qualities of violent men, and a suitable shrine for the not mean figure of the kneeling buccaneer.”  

While in Shahjahanabad, move out of the crowded old city and take the road up to Shalimar Bagh, a Mughal garden that has been around since 1653 AD. Overgrown and with its buildings in ruins, it still is a pleasant place. Amongst the surviving structures here is the Sheesh Mahal, which served as the country retreat of two British Residents: Ochterlony and Metcalfe. The garden’s layout is credited to Shahjahan’s wife Akbarabadi Begum, but its greater claim to fame is Aurangzeb’s first enthronement, which was held in the garden on July 31, 1658, probably on the missing marble throne that an English traveller mentioned in his account in 1801.

Coming back to Old Delhi, try finding your way to another Tughlaq-era qila or kotla in Qadam Sharif village, north of the New Delhi Railway Station. Inside the kotla is the tomb of Firoz Shah’s son Fateh Khan. And had the son outlived his father, this would have been the tomb of Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq (he’s now buried in a tomb beside the Hauz Khas tank). Firoz Shah had the fortified tomb built for himself, but when Fateh Khan died in 1374 AD, the sultan buried him here, and capped his sarcophagus with a marble slab bearing the Prophet’s footprint––called Qadam-i-Rasool––that he had obtained from the Caliph. Today, the tomb is a Muslim shrine, known as Qadam Sharif on account of the marble slab. But the slab remains in the caretaker’s custody and is brought out only on important days.

The Tughlaqs were the third Muslim dynasty to rule Delhi, and Firoz Shah their most prolific builder. Before the Tughlaqs, the area around Mehrauli had formed the seat of the Sultanate, and it remained important even up to the days of the Mughals, for whom it was a summer retreat. So, not surprisingly, it abounds in stories-in-stone. If the monument on our cover intrigues you, it is the gateway of a Lodi-era mosque called Madhi Masjid that stands in the Dada Bari Jain Mandir lane, just behind the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. It is a quiet and clean monument that always has its gates shut. But a shove will open them, letting you into the finest ‘wall mosque’ in the city.  

If you have a few hours of daylight left, venture into the Archaeological Park, which has, among other things, the ruins of Balban’s tomb (he of the Slave dynasty) near its entrance on the Gurgaon Road. Then there are the mosque and tomb of Jamali-Kamali (Giles Tillotson’s favourite, pXY), and further afield lies a beautiful step-well called Rajon ki Baoli as it was once used by masons (raj). The well built in 1506 AD is pretty, and just above it is a simple mosque added in 1512 AD. The building of such a large step-well here in the Lodi period gives an idea of the inhabitation around it, while today there’s only the forest. Not a bad thing at all.

If you have been to the Phoolwalon ki Sair Festival (the papers certainly have lost all interest in it), you would have seen Mehrauli’s Hauz-i-Shamsi (1229 AD) and Jahaz Mahal. Across the road from them, a filth-lined path leads down to a Mughal garden called Jharna. Once you get over the initial revulsion, imagine its channels flowing with surplus water from the Hauz, imagine the scraggy trees laden with flowers and fruit, wish away the slum, and you will realise why the emperors holidayed here. Right in the middle of the garden is an unremarkable sandstone baradari, whose thin pillars speak of a lack of funds. Guess who built it? The last Mughal: Bahadur Shah Zafar.