Traditional geometric artist Aidha Cader, also an avid reader of history, art, and architecture, goes heritage hunting across Delhi’s old metropolis.
It was the end of March, and with winter receding and clouds shielding the sun, we hit the road to go monument hunting. Our tour guide, a middle-aged man with laminated credentials, appeared competent. However, he went through my lengthy itinerary and remarked, “Some of these sites, ma’am, I don’t know, but I will try; you can use Google Maps.”
We visited Delhi’s iconic attractions: Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar Complex, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, and Chandni Chowk. It was splendid. I experienced a mild case of Stendhal syndrome while admiring the intricate geometric patterns, floral arabesques, and calligraphic carvings on dressed stone and marble. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has skillfully restored the mausoleums of Isa Khan and Humayun. Numerous monuments from the 11th century CE are found in the 65-hectare Mehrauli Archaeological Park. These include the exquisite 16th-century Jamali Kamali tomb and mosque, as well as the Adam Khan mausoleum. They are fenced off; their protected status is advertised on signboards, with guards hovering nearby who showed us around unenthusiastically, but at the Qutub Sahib ki Baoli, there was no one to unlock its gates.
Delhi is a roaring necropolis of tombs and ancient ruins, often referred to as a graveyard for emperors, saints, and warriors. However, finding some of its obscure monuments proved difficult. We wandered around the back alleys of the old city. Storefronts, warehouses, and tenements have encroached upon the walls that once held courtyard havelis, with the crumbling remnants of the past becoming the trash dumps of the present. We asked some local kids who were following us for directions, but they led us astray. Finally, we reached the Tughlaq-era Khirki Masjid. The stairs lead up to the mosque’s entrance, which is perched atop a plinth. We walked over a rickety drawbridge above ground to enter it. The inside was in disrepair. It was one of the first mosques in India with a covered interior as opposed to an open courtyard, a novel architectural feature, and local jali windows adorning it. Years of weathering have caused the northeast corner of the domed roof to collapse, leaving it more exposed to the elements.
The majority of less well-known monuments are neglected, allowing them to naturally deteriorate. Many of these are in low-income Muslim neighbourhoods and appear to lack urban planning and public services, which exacerbates the problem. The Archaeological Survey of India, the Waqft Board, the municipality, and other local authorities jostle for power with no apparent solution.
Seekers of the Supernatural
In his book City of Djinns, William Dalrymple delves into the city’s extensive mythology and history, my starting point on our next day’s tour. Our tour guide told tales of people who have experienced unforeseen circumstances, nightmares that last for days, or being knocked down flights of stairs.
The Agrasen ki Baoli, a stunning ancient stepwell, is where our journey begins. Visitors frequently claim to feel an eerie presence here, and some have even felt compelled to explore its depths only to be drowned in its murky waters. Taking no chances, I focused on my platform heels, firmly planting them on each of the 103 stone steps as we descended.
The imperial capital of Tughlaq, founded in 1354, came next. The opulent and ornate fortress of Emperor Firoz Shah, with its dressed stone façade and painted and gilded elements that made it famous in the past, is no longer visible. The 3rd-century emperor Ashoka’s iron pillar, which Firoz Shah erected in his pyramidal structure, stands tall. Today, the walls of Kotla house the hopes of the many worshippers who visit every Thursday with letters, candles, incense sticks, and rice to share their most private secrets and ask for favours from the djinns who are said to reside here. According to our guide, rather than seeing it as a historical site, visitors see it as a dargah. However, no famous saint is buried behind its walls, but rather, as they believe, a colony of djinns.
Next, we visited the Hauz Khas Complex, built in South Delhi during the rule of Alauddin Khilji. The Islamic seminary, mosque, mausoleum, and pavilions that overlook the reservoir are home to some sinister stories as well. Criminals were punished at the site’s Chor Minar by having their heads hung from spikes. Our guide claims that several of these criminals’ evil spirits are still said to haunt this place.
While I was admiring the Shish Gumbad, a mausoleum from the Lodhi Dynasty in the Lodi Gardens, I made my way to exit the tomb and took a step, only to be knocked down the flight of stairs and thrown to the ground by a strong force. I got up quickly, a little dishevelled with a few minor bruises and ran over towards my husband, who seemed preoccupied with taking photographs of the Bada Gumbad. Considering the stories I had heard all day, I was certain that it was something more sinister than simply being knocked off my heels.
The Unifying Factors
As the sun set, painting the sky in hues of purple, we walked down winding pathways that led to the tomb of Nizamuddin, a 13th-century Sufi saint who withdrew from the world and preached the message of love and compassion. The lanes are lined with stalls selling religious books, prayer caps, bright chaddars, incense sticks, rose petals, and a variety of food stands. The smells of baking naans in tandoors, roasting kababs on sticks, deep-frying enormous parathas, and fragrant sweetmeats all contributed to the strong aroma. As we haggled for space down the alleyways with throngs of devotees, some vendors clambered for us to leave our shoes with them, while others urged us to buy flowers and chaddars. After entering the gateway, the corridor led us past the baoli, which is thought to possess miraculous powers. In the hope that their wishes come true, devotees tie red and yellow threads onto the jali screens that line the hallways facing the step well.
The tomb itself, a 14th-century white marble-domed monument constructed by Muhammad bin Tughluq, was decorated with colourful lights, adding to the heady mix of colour. Male worshipers hold brightly coloured chaddars and flower baskets as they wait in line to enter the shrine. The women gather around the marble patio, which encircles the mausoleum behind the jali screens. Although there is no entry fee, we had to fork out a donation, as the staff who oversee the site can tell a tourist from a devotee. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter the complex’s red sandstone Jamat Khana Masjid, one of Delhi’s oldest mosques constructed during the Khilji era, because of the ‘no ladies policy.’
In a mystical trance, a few Qawwali singers seated on the courtyard’s marble floor perform the rhythmic devotional songs, composed of Persian modes in the local ventricular. The tomb of Amir Khusrow, the founder of Qawwali, is located within the complex. Hinduism’s mystical components, which attracted Muslim worshipers and sultans of the day, such as one’s pursuit of the union with God within oneself, helped close the gap between the two faiths. The dargah continues to remain popular for both Hindus and Muslims alike.
The city’s skyline, dotted with domes and minarets, stands as a sombre reminder of its former glory. If one looks beyond its occasionally politically charged atmosphere, it is clear that the fusion of the two cultures and religions has always resulted in the best artistic flare. Delhi’s beautiful architecture sits on the dividing line between these two worlds. To create distinctive Indo-Islamic architecture, Muslim royal patronage and skilled Hindu stone cutters and builders worked together. Islamic arches, domes, and minarets were combined with indigenous Hindu motifs like the bell, swastika, and lotus. It takes some time to realise that the Delhi of today is striving to keep a place for its past. Its tolerant and profoundly spiritual residents have always proven the sceptics wrong and continue to weave the multicultural and dynamic chaddar of the future.
Photographs: Courtesy of Zareef Cader