Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bijaymandal: The Hall of a Thousand Columns

Location - Sarvapriya Vihar/Begumpur (click here for the map location)

Co-ordinates - N28 32.438 E77 12.366

Closest Metro Station - Hauz Khas (Yellow Line)

Landmark - Opposite Sarvapriya Club, Sarvapriya Vihar

If you look at the right nav of this page and scroll down to 'about me', you will see the point about discovering yourself when you travel. Of all things that I have discovered about myself in the last 18 months, the one that stands out is the romantic and adventurer in me. I always thought I was one or maybe I always wanted to be one. Now I know, I am one and I enjoy being it. Its this romantic in me which is jumping guns to post this first. I have 5-6 other posts pending but none as romantic as Bijaymandal.

Ibn Batuta came to India in 1433 and stayed around till 1441. The Tughlaqs were ruling with an iron hand. As he gained favour with the Sultan and was let into the most private of the chambers, observing the idiosyncracies of the rulers, he saw a lot. In his book of travels, he describes what he calls 'The Hall of Thousand Columns', Hazar Sutan. Needless to say, it was grand, it was gigantic and it witnessed exceutions. The expression 'Hall of Thousand Columns' has also been used for a hall built by Alauddin Khilji, the one of Siri Fort fame. Whether Tughlaq built his version on the earlier one or not, no one knows. No one even clearly knows if this site, Bijaymandal is the place where the hall stood. It is all conjecture. That is where the story begins.
Remains of 'The Hall' and the octagonal structure

As you get down at the non-descript location called Sarvapriya club, a rusting iron gate stares at you. Inside the gate is dense shrubbery. To your right are some remains of the wall. 'Wait!!, have I walked into where I wanted to? Could this be the hall of thousand columns described so elaborately by Batuta?', is what you find asking yourself as your senses get used to what lies ahead, the sight and stench of human excreta amongst them. In the middle of the forgotten village of Begumpur, close to nowhere is a patch of land, raised above its surroundings which once was the site of The Hall of Thousand Columns. What survives today is a section of a wall close to the entry gate, an unexplained dome like structure, ruins of a hall (or maybe The Hall), an octagonal observation post on the top and many legends.

Built by Mohammad bin Tughlaq sometime in the second decade of the 15th century, Bijay Mandal lay at the center of the 4th city of Delhi, Jahanpanah. It was from here that the Tughlaq sultan would have conducted the affairs of the kingdom, received travellers (like Batuta), meted out justice (or injustice) to the various petitioners, executed criminals and traitors and issued royal decrees.

The first section surviving to the North is that of a wall, which presumably formed the boundary of the entire complex and had a gate. The surviving structure does show remnants of what could have been barracks for guards on duty. In all, 5 arches survive on the South side of the wall and 3 on the North. Just South of this structure is a Sufi's grave along with a few other graves draped in cloth various shades of green. On the west of this is a short mosque mihrab. The sufi's grave and the mihrab are clearly recent additions and are used as a place of worship.

The wall section from the South
5 arches of the wall as seen from the North
Inside the wall arches
South of the wall is lots and lots of shrubbery, as high as 6 feet high in places. Various earthen paths zigzag away. Most of them, winding in various ways do lead to the main structure, considered to be the remains of The Hall of Thousand Columns. Before you get to the hall however, the path heads west and reaches a large dome structure with 2 arched entries on all sides except the East. According to sources, this structure was added after the original hall was built but its purpose is not clear. However, based on the underground passages (no longer accessible) excavated by the ASI, it is thought this structure was an annex to another set of buildings.
The large Dome with 2 arched entries.
Light streams into the dome like structure. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Inside corner of the dome.
Just South of the dome is the main structure. The walls of the dome almost touch it. As you stand at the base of the dome and look up the wall, you are effectively looking at what a subject of Tughlaq would have seen before being ushered into the presence of the Sultan. The wall is high and vertical. Given Tughlaq's propensity in meting out harsh punishments to the erring, one can easily conceive a few hundred errants having been hurled down the wall into oblivion. True to the image, the staircase that leads up is narrow and winding and gives an impression of carrying you somewhere unpleasant. As you get to the top of the first flight, there is a large open courtyard. To the left are the remains of the main chamber of the palace, possibly the Sultan's living quarters, possibly a large public hall, possibly 'The Hall'. Of the Thousand columns that once constituted it (though that claim could be easily questioned), less than a score remain. On the South side of The Hall are 2 circular openings, which perhaps served as entrances to the vaults or the treasury.

The Hall from the South (5+1 doors can be seen).
Whatever remains of the 1000 columns!!
From outside the hall, in the courtyard, another narrow staircase leads up to the terrace. The moment you reach the terrace, you realize the significance of the site. There is a clear view of Delhi all around. In those days, when his subjects lived in hovels and hamlets not rising above 2-3 metres and the air was clear, the Sultan would have been able to see clearly for a distance in all directions. Even today, with modern construction and bad visibility, one can see a lot in all directions. Its also from on the way to the terrace that one gets an idea of the magnitude of the structure. From midway up the staircase, the dome like structure which seems huge from the ground is already below you.

Remains of the terrace with the octagonal structure
The dome from the terrace. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven

The terrace is not the end. Perched atop the terrace on its West corner, is a small octagonal structure which can be climbed by narrow staircases on 4 sides. On the inside, the structure has the shape of a plus sign. The staircases leading up are from the outside walls and if one is enterprising enough, it is possible to go around the octagon, even though it involves walking on a ledge for sometime. The octagon was almost certainly an observation post, as much for the Sultan as for his chiefs of army. There is no place with as commanding a view as this in South Delhi except perhaps the Qutub Minar. One can well imagine the Sultan relaxing and basking in the sun on the terrace and making an occasional foray onto the top of the octagon to keep an eye on his kingdom. Not that it would be needed, its just that the feeling of being on top of things (literally and figuratively) was perhaps too heady to be not indulged in regularly.

Looking East from the Octagonal observation post.
Not much remains of what must surely have been a grand palace once. Time has done what only it can do. The ruins do however lend it a romantic appeal. If there is a place to let your imagination loose and imagine what a grand palace must have looked like, if there is a place to stand on and imagine yourself the ruler of Delhi, this place is it.

I had gone there just to see Bijay Mandal. However, once at the top of the octagonal post observing the world around and feeling slightly like the Tughlaq, towards the South, I saw a structure which to say the least intrigued me. Strain your eyes and look at the below picture (click and blow it up if need be). You will see a series of domes and 4 larger domes at the middle to farther end. 'What in the name of god is that!!' I asked myself. More about that later.

The mysterious domes! Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven

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