It is impossible to do justice to the history of this wonderful city in a small post. A visitor can spend weeks in the city and still find something new and interesting everyday. For that matter, even residents of Delhi may discover quite unexpectedly something about the city’s ancient past. Sometimes such discoveries happen by chance and sometimes they happen only if you go looking for it earnestly and persevere.
From Kashmiri Gate Metro I walk in search of St James Church. On the way I come across workers repairing old walls and a gateway. The walls contain arched and recessed spaces. Crenellations decorate the wall on top. The arched gateway leads to a space behind. One would expect something grand on the other side but there is nothing but a little space abruptly conquered by modern walls and buildings beyond. In Delhi, history survives in the most unexpected corners. If not for the little restoration going on here today, even this gateway might have disappeared.
Upon reaching the church, I find the gate closed. A board announces that it is open only on Sundays. I peek at the building through the iron grills of the gate. The plan is like a Greek cross with a central ribbed dome and classical porches of simple columns. A small tower is annexed to the building and it might contain the bell. By scale, it is small but pretty. I take a picture and move on. Nearby are fascinating buildings of the Colonial Era. Two chhatris stand out on top of a stone building. A red brick building stands with typical elements of Indian architecture. A white-washed building with red highlights announces the office of the GPO. A Romanesque church stands grandly across the road. This is the St Mary’s Church.
I walk through old arched gateways, grappling with the traffic at times and eventually end up near Chandni Chowk. A few tongawallahs are idling around. Their horses and carts are parked under a shade. I walk through this busy area of Delhi. The constant traffic and noise gets to me. I walk into Gurudwara Sisganj at the street’s end. I spend a few minutes in the prayer hall, watch pilgrims come and go. From the road, remove the chhatris and the golden dome on top, one can hardly suspect this to be a gurudwara. It would appear as any other building lining the street. This gurudwara stands at the spot where Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded by Aurangazeb. It is a special place for all Sikhs.
Next to the gurudwara is the Suneri Masjid. I peek at it for a minute and move on. Standing by the street, I wonder if I should turn left to the Fatehpuri Masjid or turn right to the Red Fort. I opt for the latter. I pass a Jain Temple but having seen the best of them in Rajasthan, I give it a miss. The Red Fort, that grand creation of Shah Jahan, comes into view. I am impressed by the facade. The open space outside is large and visiting crowds are continuous. I am in no hurry to go in. I walk around the outer walls admiring solid bastions, embrasures spaced regularly and most of all, the merlons with cusped outlines. The moat is today dry and not very deep but might have been so in Shah Jahan’s time. It must have been connected to the Yamuna flowing close by to the east. Parts of the fort inside are used by the Indian Armed Forces. I sit near the Dilli Gate and make a sketch.
When I am done, it is time for lunch but I can’t find a single place to eat. I walk around looking for something when I hit upon a small mosque almost hidden in a shade amidst trees. This is the Shahid Suneri Masjid built by Qudsia Begum, wife of Mughal Emperor Mohammad Shah. The caretaker is busy having lunch. He offers me some but I decline.
‘I am from Uttar Pradesh,’ he mentions between bites of roti and morsels of rice. ‘I love Delhi. You know, no one will go hungry in this city. Everyone can get food, no matter how poor.’
‘Do people come to pray here?’ I ask and add, ‘The Jami Masjid is so close by.’ In fact, the famous Jami Masjid, India’s largest mosque can be seen from here across the road.
‘Not a lot, but people do come to this mosque.’
He gets paid about three thousand rupees a month. A girl is sweeping the courtyard outside. The mosque is delightfully small with three domes, two minarets, three bays seen on the facade and a single bay in the North-South direction. The pistaq is small with double cusped arches. The gateway leading up the mosque is in itself a little architectural wonder. The same brown stone has been used everywhere.
What is to be done for lunch? Silly as it may appear, I walk back to the gurudwara, dump my boots at the cloak room and join the langar. I have a clean and filling lunch, make a donation, collect my stuff and head back to the Red Fort. I stand in the queue for tickets. There are two separate queues here – one for Indians and the other for foreigners.
‘Where are you from?’ asks a guard suspiciously. The question is posed to a man standing before me in the line. His skin is fair. He is dressed neatly and carries a small backpack. Slung by his shoulder is an SLR camera. There is no mistaking that he is a tourist. He may even be a foreigner. Foreigners are charged much higher ticket prices.
‘Kashmir,’ replies the man.
‘Let me see your ID?’
The man shows his ID and he is allowed to continue in the queue. I get my ticket, walk through security, pass under massive gateways and arrive at Meena Bazaar, supposedly modelled on Persian markets. It is an arch-vaulted space with shops on both sides. The perspective is interrupted by an open chamfered space before the bazaar continues further into the fort in the same manner. Perhaps they are trying to recreate a medieval building but really without the goods of the period it can never be recreated. History may repeat but it lives only once.
The initial buildings are drab and boring. These are additions by the British and they suggest railway architecture. The real entry to the Red Fort or Lal Qila is through a gateway of three arches of which the central one contains the passage. Looking back, I see that this is not really a gateway alone but the Naubhat Khana. The first building is the Diwan-i-Aam, a massive space of typical Shah Jahani pillars and cusped arches. A jharokha defines the seat of the emperor and the inlay work of pietra dura at the back suggests European influences into the Mughal court and grandeur. Moving beyond this building are the other palaces built in a line south to north with a view of the Yamuna river to the east – Rang Mahal, Khas Mahal and Diwan-i-Khas. In these palaces are superb perspectives of cusped arches, chini khana of beautiful floral designs, decorative vaulting in alcoves reminiscent of Gothic lierne vaulting and beautiful marble inlay work similar to the ones in Agra Fort. The palaces are connected by elaborate water circulation and cooling systems, pools, channels and cascades. Today none of these are operational and one can hardly expect it at this time of the year. Summer is already here and Delhi is becoming unbearable by the day.
Most palaces are of marble with some decorative stucco. In the ceiling of Diwan-i-Khas I see wooden cofferings. Pavilions in these palaces face the river for Shah Jahan to give darshan to his subjects. It is all part of the aura of royalty and keeping up appearances. The hamams further up, claimed to contain magnificent decorative work, and beautiful Moti Masjid are both closed for public. Beyond this part are large gardens with pavilions and walkways. Even today these are quiet open spaces for a nice stroll. I can only imagine them to be far better in the days of old when channels flowed and fountains danced to cool the summer’s heat.
I come out and head to the Jami Masjid. It is not far from here. Together with the Red Fort, these are the two main landmarks of Shahjahanabad, the city created by Shah Jahan. Approaching the mosque through a maze of moving crowds and roadside stalls is coming to grips with the urban madness of Delhi. The three domes of the mosque stand out from a distance but as I approach it what really overwhelms me in scale is the eastern gateway. It projects out prominently from the high walls and its imposing scale impresses from the start. The central arch is flanked by arched niches on two levels. In this manner it is different from the Buland Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri which is just one huge arch, grander than the arch here.
Another thing unique about this mosque is the open arcading all around. This gives a wonderful view of the city from the mosque’s courtyard. This is unlike most other mosques of India. The pistaq is impressive and this is achieved by making it almost twice the height of the five bays that flank it on either side. A clever mix of red sandstone and marble makes this mosque beautiful. The prayer hall is covered with white marble with arched motif in black. Little turrets and domes adorn the eastern gateway. The northern and southern gateways are plainer. Scaffolding on the central dome betrays ongoing restoration work.
It is the time of prayer. The muezzin calls. Men do the ritual washing at the central tank and go into the prayer hall. The sky darkens. Birds return home. The faithful depart. I linger around till the last of them have gone. When I am ready to leave I find that they have locked the eastern gateway. I come out from the northern side and make my way through Shahjahanabad.
Modern Delhi is quite different. After an entire day at the National Museum I walk down Rajpath. At one end is the Indo-Sarcenic architecture of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the North Block, the South Block and the Sansad Bhavan. I try to walk around to admire the buildings closely but I am stopped by security. Apparently, ministers are on the way and they won’t let me walk around freely. I am told to come back later. I try to take a picture of Sansad Bhavan, the Parliament House, but a military personnel with an automatic weapon shoos me away. The buildings in general are classical European architecture with articulations inspired by Indian or Indo-Islamic elements. So we see the floral roundels, chhajjas, chhatris and jalis in addition to Romanesque archways and grand porticos of rounded columns with Corinthian capitals.
At the other end of Rajpath, which in itself is a grand road lined with open green lawns on both sides, is the India Gate. It is a monument dedicated to the those fallen during the First World War. It is also the site of Amar Jawan Jyoti, a cenotaph dedicated to soldiers of independent India. The imposing monument makes a great view from afar but appeares less impressive from up close. It is the counterpoint of the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the other end of Rajpath. The architect Edwin Lutyens has planned this part of New Delhi in its entirety and the result is satisfying. I watch sunset and return home.
The next day I am back to the ancient past, starting with Firuzabad, the city erected by Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Commonly known as Firoz Shah Kotla, the ruins may be all but forgotten yet the name survives in public popularity thanks to the cricket stadium next door. I see people queuing up at a counter for tickets to an IPL match. I get a ticket for the old ruins. The place is empty except for lovers cuddling in shady corners. The ruins have not been restored in any way, only preserved well in their original bricks and mortar. The barbican and the flanking bastions are impressive. I climb up to one of them and get a view of the approach to the fort. It is a known fact that parts of this fort was robbed to build Shahjahanabad.
The most impressive structure here is a pyramidal one crowned at the top with an Ashokan Pillar. Firoz Shah had the craze to transport such pillars and erect them in his palaces. I had seen one such in Fatehbad, Haryana. Entry to the top is closed. So I content myself with looking at it from below. Ruins that face this structure form the extensive foundations on which the Jami Masjid of Feroz Shah Tughlaq stands. I walk around in these ruins and watch history emerge and fade as the mood dictates. Even if little detail remains in these buildings, I discern that Tughlaqi architecture preferred austerity and simplicity to the extravagance and ornamentation of the Mughals.
It takes me about an hour to walk from here to the Purana Qila, the seat of Sher Shah Suri but really begun by Humayun. I am first greeted by a lake where some public are boating in the afternoon heat. It’s not a good time for boating but I suppose it is quieter this time of the day. This lake is created from what used to be a moat around the old fort which stands in its walls and ramparts across the lake on an embankment. I walk to the gateway, three storeys high and framed centrally by a spectacular pointed arch that rises for many feet before finally coming together. Little jharokhas flank the arch and the gateway is topped with chhatris. It is a mix of restoration stonework, old red sandstone, white marble and blue glazed tilework that surives in sparse outlines. I walk along the outer walls and bastions till I arrive at the southern gateway, the formal modern day entrance into the fort. This has a broader appearance but I think I like the northern one much better. I buy a ticket, spend some time in the museum and later wander within the vast grounds.
Purana Qila has buildings that are better preserved than at Feroz Shah Kotla but are worse off than those of the Red Fort. As ruins come, they are almost perfect and picturesque. They inspire imagination of old times, the great ages of stone buildings of grand scales. A stairway leads underground to the hamams but access is closed to the public. Nearby is an eccentric octagonal building on two levels topped by an octagonal chhatri, the Sher Mandal. The recessed alcoves on each side are blind at the lower level and connected by narrow slits on the higher level. Thus on a higher level one can walk all around the building. Decorative detailing is minimal. This building is supposed to be a library in Humayun’s time and this is where he unfortunately fell to his death.
More ornate and perhaps the most spectacular building in the Purana Qila is the single domed Qila-i-Kohna Masjid, attributed to Sher Shah Suri. The facade has five bays with the central one exhibiting superb mix of red sandstone and marble inlays. The pistaq is not prominent and only slightly above the flanking bays. Likewise, there are no minarets over the pistaq. The qibla is superbly done in white marble with highlights in black. The transition zones leading to the dome are beautiful. Patterns of stone inlay, bud-fringed central arch, elaborate muqarnas in squiches, reliefs on pillars, calligraphy in white marble and little jharokhas are expressive elements of design that give this mosque a rich appearance. At the corners of the western wall are octagonal towers three levels high with elaborate chhajjas and brackets. This is truly a mosque unique in all of India.
By the time I am done with admiring this wonderful mosque, the last of the visitors are on the way out. The sun has set. Walking down a little bit I find another ruin. A small door is open within the arched gateway. A little lamp is flickering in a corner. It is a quiet moment. It almost feels like I have stepped into 16th century India. This mosque, linked to a madrasa, was built during Akbar’s reign. I step inside the Khair-ul-Manazil. The name of this mosque when written in Persian indicates its year of construction – 969 Hijri. A few Muslim men are praying in the hall to the west. An empty tank in the open courtyard gapes at the night sky. Arcading on the sides lead into rooms that are now in ruins.
I come out and walk in search of a for a bus stop. It seems the day is not done. I find another ruin, this one brightly lit. It towers grandly in the darkening night. This is the Lal Darwaza. It is too late in the day to explore what’s behind it and I call it a day.
By now I realize that Delhi requires more than a week if a visitor has to explore it properly. The day begins with a visit to Jantar Mantar. I have seen similar structures in Ujjain and Jaipur built by the same king, Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur. Disregarding their purpose towards astronomical observations, the structures on their own make splendid buildings from an architectural point of view. The Samrat Yantra is accurate only to a minute whereas the one at Ujjain is accurate to 20 seconds. In many instruments the scales are gone unlike the well-preserved ones at Jaipur. This is easily attributed to the medium – these are brick and mortar structures whereas the ones at Jaipur are of white marble. Despite the king’s ingenuity, my host in Delhi is skeptical.
‘Okay, all these buildings survive, but have they made any significant discoveries? Where are the tables? Where are the observations?’ questions Sharma. He continues, ‘We Indians claim to have done a lot in the past but look at recent history. We have not done much in the field of astronomy.’
My next stop is one I should have covered yesterday but couldn’t due to lack of time. It is one of Delhi’s fantastic monuments, Humayun’s Tomb. It may be just one famous monument of the area but really it is surrounded by tens of other mausoleums and tombstones all located within walking distance of each other. This is no coincidence. For Muslims, it is important to be buried close to the shrine of a saint and in this part of Old Delhi is buried the famous Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia of the Sufi order.
But Old Delhi will not take me to Humayun’s Tomb without deviations. With history in almost every street and corner, I am unexpectedly waylaid at the busy circle leading to the tomb in question. Modern traffic weaves around the circle, minding its own business. Here stands a 16th century monument today known as Sabz Burj. I cross the road. I find no security guard and the gate is not locked. I step inside and take a quick walk around it. I see painted decorations in the recessed arches. The dome sticks out rather ungainly but is a wonderful cobalt blue in colour. The dome is basically on a square plan with chamfered corners, with pistaqs but no turrets or chhatris anywhere.
‘Get out, get out,’ comes a voice from the gate. The guard has just entered. ‘Visitors are not allowed.’ I have seen enough.
First is the Tomb of Isa Khan, pre-dating Humayun’s only by 20 years. It is an octagonal tomb on a low octagonal plinth at the center of an open land enclosued by walls and ramparts in octagonal formation. The tomb is interesting for its chhatris, jali screens, spandrels of arch netting or roundels, stucco work and surviving glazed tilework. Each side has three bays. At the corners are sloping buttresses. It is a pretty Afghan-style monument, like the one at Sasaram of Sheh Shah Suri’s. Isa Khan was in fact a noble in the court of that great king who had defeated Humayun. At the western end is a mosque of three bays on its facade. The mosque’s central dome is flanked by two domed chhatris, an unusal feature in its own right.
Visually, Humayun’s Tomb is stunning. It is set in a large lawned garden divided neatly by water channels and fountains. The tomb is a typical takhtgah tomb topped with the monument on the platform. The monument is in red sandstone with highlights in while marble. The main dome is of white marble. Little turrets and chhatris decorate the monument. High pistaqs decorate the facades on all four sides. There is uniformity in the manner in which arched niches stand everywhere in two levels. The whole design on the inside is quite complex but basically they appear to be a central octagonal space connected to smaller such spaces at the corners. All are connected in a complex way and yet seem to stand in their own quiet spaces of isolation.
There are some unique things to take note here. Because the corner octagons are significant on their own, the central pistaqs are set back, yet their retain their visual importance. Chamfered corners adjacent to the pistaqs when seen as part of the pistaqs form a concave space. This scheme is mirrored ingeniously by the gateway leading in from the west. The corner spaces on the SE and SW are accessed from the southern side on the inside. Interestingly, the NE and NW corners are accessed from the northern side from the outside. Decorative work is in beautiful jali screens, colonnettes with zigzag moulding and muqarnas in miniature and arch netting.
Sunlight streams from the west. The shadow of a jali screen wraps a marble tomb like a remembered tribute. The horn of a train sounds somewhere. Birds are chirping in the trees outside. Crowds come and go. The northern side is under restoration as betrayed by scaffolding. Most of the water channels are dry in the gardens below but some are barely flowing. It would take a lot of water to bring this place up to its original glory. Lesser tombs dot the landscape all around. I look up to the chhatris. At one time they would have been decorated in colourful glazed tiles. I think like prefer the way they stand today. Perhaps they would look better in white marble to match the central dome.
Near this tomb is Barber’s Tomb from the 16th century. I have no idea who he was but his tomb is small and impressive. Four corner chhatris decorate it on top. The dome sits on a 16-sided drum decorated likewise by sixteen turrets hugging the dome. Inside is the most interesting of intersecting ribbed arches. The ribs rise one framing another. The bigger ones intersect with adjacent ribs of similar nature to form interesting spandrels. It is an interestng monument for this reason alone. It reminds me of Bijapur’s Gol Gumbaz.
I walk to Nizamuddin in search of the grave of the old saint. It is the time of prayer. The place is teeming with Muslims. It’s okay to wander around on the streets but I don’t think it’s the right time to be going in to visit a holy shrine. I come across what’s called the Urs Mahal, a modern building that isn’t very interesting. I see a sign that shouts “Ghalib Academy for Calligraphy of Urdu Poetry.” Nearby is another one that says mundanely “Computer Aided Training.” Ghalib is supposed to be buried somewhere here but exactly where?
Today is the day for exploring one of the iconic monuments of Delhi, the Qutb Minar. By the Mudrika Service once again, I get off at the AIIMS where I am to change to another bus. The area around AIIMS is a mess right now. They are trying to build a Metro station here for a new line that would connect the Central Secretariat to Qutb Minar and beyond. I wonder when this line will be opened but I am sure that this sort of work in Delhi is executed better than in Bangalore.
‘You have to get change,’ I am told at the ticker counter. The minutes I have stood in the queue for getting my ticket to the Qutb Minar complex have been a waste. There is quite a sizeable crowd of visitors and tourists at this monument. I am surprised they don’t have change. Service in India has a long way to go. Worst of all, there is no decent place to have lunch or buy a snack. For a monument of this stature and renown, it suprises me that there is absolutely no decent restaurant anywhere in the area.
I cross a highway, walk a long way in the sun until I find a small supermarket. I buy a few things. Here too the service is not all that great. The notorious summer heat of Delhi is in full swing and it is getting to my mood. I am hating this visit to Qutb Minar. It has been an unpleasant day so far. I have seen nothing. All I have done is walk here and there under a hot sun smiling through a cloudless sky.
I settle down under a shade at the gates of a Jain temple, have a snack and gulp down half a litre of fluids. I cross the highway and make my way once more towards the Qutb Minar complex. Only this time, I am armed with the necessary change. By chance, I come across a small gate leading into what is called Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
The ruins in this park are vast and varied. Among the largest is the Jamali Kamali Masjid, single domed with five bays on the facade. The gate is closed and I miss a look at its interiors. Tombs are littered across the park which is largely a thorny woodland of trees and shrubs. Remains of caravanserais appear. Gateways stand in oblivion. Mausoleums stand with bare walls, missing domes and silent tombstones. A stepwell by the name of Rajon-ki-Baoli stands dry and littered. Uniquely a narrow stairway at the back gives access to the terrace where stands to the west a little mosque.
Outside the park is the rest of sprawling Mehrauli with little lanes and old houses. Another stepwell of early 13th century stands here – Gandhak-ki-Baoli. These wells are quite plain in design and detail, nothing comparable to those of Gujarat. Mehrauli neighbourhood itself appears squalid but historically rich. I don’t have a map of the area but I am sure there is much more here than what I have just seen.
Coming out to a busy intersection I am surprised to find another magnificent octagonal monument – the Tomb of Adham Khan. Adham Khan is one of Akbar’s generals who is credited with the conquest of Mandu but his death was at Akbar’s own hands. The monument is a splendid one with three bays on each side and engaged colonnette at each corner. It is strikingly similar to Isa Khan’s tomb except that there are no chhatris on top. Framed by these arches, I can see the Qutb Minar rising in the distance.
Finally I get to the Qutb Minar. The crowds are even more at this evening hour. The tower stands grandly on five unequal levels with four balconies and a top terrace. Its imposing size is enough to grant it fame. Add to this its unique design with columns bearing a mix of sharp wedges and smooth bulges. Islamic calligraphy is beautifully done. Under the balconies are superb details that can either be considered as Islamic muqarnas or derivatives of temple designs. Thus, Qutb Minar is a combination of Islamic design and local craftsmanship.
The Alai Darwaza a few meters from here is another wonder of the complex. The walls are packed with details. Recessed squinches with horseshoe-shaped arches mirror the arches of the doorways leading to the space under the bulging dome. This sort of an arch reminds me of Kapurtala’s Moorish mosque. The architects are to be credited for the clever mix of marble and red sandstone. Such combinations were rarely used in Indian temples even in later periods. It is only Islamic architecture that seems to have used it extensively. A creation of Alauddin Khilji, the Alai Darwaza was part of a mosque and a madrasa.
This mosque is the Quwwat-al-Islam of which very little of the prayer hall survives. What does survive are the corridors which have been built out of pillars pilfered or salvaged from Hindu temples. The late afternoon sun is streaming through at an angle and casting sharp shadows of these pillars. The reliefs are brought to lively forms. The pillars are simply superb with an array of fine details. There are bells hanging link by link or by twisted ropes ending in delicate tassels. The purna kumbhas, that wonderful motif common all across India, with spouts, are decorated with festooned beaded work. There are pillars with as many as four kumbhas and two kirtimukhas.
The Qutb Minar complex is value for money for any tourist who gets to see the best of Indian art from both Islamic and Hindu perspectives. The enigmatic Iron Pillar stands cordoned off. Supposedly rust proof, I see bit of rust on its surface but generally in excellent condition for a pillar standing in the open for nearly 1500 years. The Tomb of Iltumish stands nearby and that too is packed with wonderful stone carvings. Alauddin Khalji’s Tomb is comparatively simpler. The base of what was to be Alai Minar, supposedly taller than Qutb Minar had it been finished, suggests the ambitious plans of Alauddin Khalji. An eight-pillared kiosk stands at the corner of a lawn. It was once installed on the terrace to crown the Qutb Minar but was brought down. It simply did not fit the design and stood out only as a folly.
With this, my tour of Delhi comes to an end. There is much I have not seen. I think of visiting Safdarjang’s Tomb, the last great Mughal mausoleum. Perhaps I will visit Tughlaqabad but I have been warned of troupes of aggressive macaques. I don’t fancy much visiting Akshardham because it has no history whatsoever and is just a modern money-making machinery. Instead, I would like to visit the Lotus Mandir. And the list goes on. Frankly, the heat of Delhi has become so bad the last couple of days that I am struggling. I have two more days for my train to Bangalore. I am going to just relax in the cool comfort of the indoors.