Monday, 26 December 2011

Qudsiya Bagh

 In my last post about the wanderings on the ridge, I made a brief mention of Qudsiya Bagh and then promptly forgot about it. That was until this Sunday. Browsing the internet for something random, I came across a website of old Indian photos. It had a photograph of the Qudsia Bagh masjid from just after the mutiny (war of independence) of 1857. Taken in 1858 by Dr. John Murray from the Western side, it shows the collapsed or collapsing arches of a bridge on the right and the main building of the mosque, all holed and battered perhaps by the gunfire.
The Qudsiya Masjid in 1858
In some ways, the Qudsia Bagh of today stands in a very similar setting. First of all, it is, amazingly, still a bagh i.e. a garden. It still is an island of silence and serenity right next to the bus station. Unusual for such a setting, there are no amorous couples here. All we came across were the caretaker of the mosque and a couple of old ladies sitting under an old gate. The mosque is still alive, the domes in the exaggerated late Mughal style. The damage to the standing walls has been covered up with plaster but none of the collapsed walls have been rebuilt. The gate has ornate red sandstone carvings and decorations with floral patterns and vines.

Qudsia Bagh is not a place I would recommend a standalone visit to. However, if you are around the bus station with a few minutes to spare, do walk over. It is short, it is sweet and it is stunningly serene and detached. The mosque, the old gate, and one later structure (which looks like a mansion but we could make nothing further of) are the bonuses.

Qudsiya Masjid in July 2011
The gateway
Floral patterns on the arch

Friday, 28 October 2011

On the Ridge

In City of Djinns, William Dalrymple briefly mentions a bungalow that William Fraser built for himself on a hill. The mention is only about a sentence or two. Read carefully, it yields two things important enough to hold my attention any day. That it was built by William Fraser and that it was atop a hill. For the uninitiated, my love for William Fraser is documented here and that for the hills much more extensively at Trek Himachal. Obviously visiting the bungalow immediately became a personal quest. So, when one July morning a friend, Varsha, expressed a desire to see the Northern ridge, I had every reason to accept.

We got into the swanky Delhi Metro from Hauz Khas and got off at Kashmere Gate. After stopping briefly at Qudsiya Bagh and wandering around a city park we quibbled over which direction to take, (and sadly, I lost the argument) before we finally got into an auto for the Hindu Rao Hospital.

It was a surprisingly short auto ride. Towards the end it got really interesting, weaving through a couple of small lanes before eventually climbing up a steep hill. I had no idea such steep slopes existed in Delhi. Eventually, we were dropped off at the entrance of the Hindu Rao Hospital, and had no clue what to do. Dalrymple had said Fraser's bungalow had been converted to Hindu Rao Hospital, named after a Maratha merchant of that name, who had bought the bungalow after Fraser's death. An ASI book we were carrying said the same thing. We had assumed we would get off the auto and bingo, bang in front of us we would see a charming building from early Raj with fluted columns and colonnades. Instead, there was a 1980s, dilapidated, typical stinky hospital looking at us with sleepy, disinterested, eyes. Lost of purpose, we walked around a bend in the narrow road and spotted a police post. But Varsha refused to use her womanly charms to quiz a policeman for the whereabouts of the haveli so we moved a little further down the road trying to orient ourselves while sifting through the pages of the ASI book.

Just before we passed the last of the hospital grounds, we spotted another guarded gate. Just to prove a point I had been making (that I am a very charming man), I politely asked the guard on duty for a baoli in the area which the ASI book mentioned. People are more likely to know old, unused baolis than re-used havelis. After a bit of apprehension, he actually led us inside the gate. While I was basking in the afterglow of having proven my point, Varsha looked around and whooped at having possibly found Fraser's haveli. I am not sure why she got so excited. What stared us in the face was a sad, half mossy, stinking, unkempt building showing multiple failed attempts at renovation. We tried going inside but were blocked by a pile of broken chairs. Anyway the room stank like a public loo in Kashmere Gate. I lost all my enthusiasm.. I have been to many a ruin covered in shit but this building was supposed to be in use. You could see name plates outside doors and yet it was stinking of pee. It was unbearable!

Walking a little further down the road, the baoli was not much different either. Parts of the walls had caved in and it was fenced off. Tall grass grew around it and, moss settled into the empty places left by fallen stones. ASI had fenced it off physically and fenced it off their minds as well. A little further after the baoli, was Pir Ghaib and it was a completely different story. It is a curious structure. I didn’t know what to make of it. Actually, no one does. One legend goes that a sufi resided here and one day just disappeared. Disappear is ghaib in urdu, hence the name. Who the Sufi was, when he lived, how and why he disappeared, no one seems to know. There is no mihrab anywhere to indicate a place of worship. The couple of graves inside are not conventionally oriented. The ceiling has a couple of openings which seem to be part of an astronomical observatory. Then there is the theory that this could have been a part of Kushk-i-shikar, Feroz Shah Tughlaq's hunting lodge on the ridge. There are very steep staircases with very narrow stairs on the first floor leading to the rooftop. From there, you can peer down through the holes to the ground floor and also look around many parts of North Delhi. It is two floors high on a high hill in Delhi and in a green area with very little haze. This is about the best view you can get in the city.
The curious Pir Ghaib, of the Pir who disappeared curiously

After Pir Ghaib, we went to the Asokan Pillar on the ridge. Truthfully it was nothing but another thin, strong column of special iron with Asoka's edicts on it. This one had been taken off from somewhere, reassembled somewhere else, then blown to fragments in a blast, collected and pieced back together again and then placed somewhere else. I wonder if Asoka would be able to read what edicts are left on it!
The Asokan pillar! Yet Another!

One of the charms of the Northern Ridge (and I say this with the benefit of hindsight) is many small monuments littered in a small area, all a short walk away from each other. They come in all shapes, mostly small sizes and encompass about eight centuries of Delhi not counting the Asokan Pillar. The latest of them all is the Mutiny Memorial built by the British in memory of the Mutiny of 1857.
Mutiny Memorial from the foliage

The search for the Mutiny Memorial took us on one of the most pleasant walks I have ever been to in Delhi. Varsha, with her aching feet, would probably not agree. We strolled down a slope on a narrow road with woods all around. It was rainy season, the forest was lush green and calm. An auto plodding up the slope with a few school kids looking curiously at us accentuated the far away feeling. It could have been in a small village in Himachal.
A close up.

Finally, we turned back up the slope, much to my disappointment, and found our way towards the Mutiny Memorial. While the memorial was closed for renovation, the staff allowed us to poke around the outside. Whatever else people may say about it (it has been renamed Jeet Garh with new inscriptions about how 'those referred to as traitors here were the freedom fighters'), the British taste of location was perfect. Perched on the top of a small hill, itself on the top of Northern Ridge, there could hardly have been a better location for placing a memorial to victory. It is not grand and is slightly understated but, placed where it is, it does not need to be any of those things.

We walked around a bit more and were surprised to find amongst other things a clean loo in a public park. The park itself is full of monkeys, has a water channel, a small pond, Flagstaff Tower and some other remains of Kushk-i-Shikar. Finally, exhausted and in search of an auto, we walked past Rajpur Road, which I had recently learned was the poshest of the posh residential neighbourhoods in Delhi. Yes, more upmarket than anything in South Delhi. You only have to walk on that one road lined by huge bungalows and mansions situated back in their own grounds and guarded by tidy greenery to believe that this exists in Delhi.

Flagstaff Tower. British officials' families hid in during the mutiny.
The afternoon was topped off by a sumptuous Korean meal, courtesy of a friend Jamal Mohammad, who is the single most reliable source of food information in Delhi and a lecture on moderation by Varsha, which she herself did not follow when faced by a chocolate fondue at AIM Cafe in North Delhi and the most wonderful waffle I can ever hope to have.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Fatehpuri Masjid

Fatehpuri is one of Old Delhi’s many hidden gems. In 1650, Shahjehan decided to let his wife, Fatehpuri Begum (known so because she was from Fatehpur) build a mosque at the far end of Chandni Chowk, a straight shot down Red Fort’s once great canal. Standing at the gate of Fatehpuri Masjid you could see the Red Fort clearly. Today, that view is obscured by Delhi’s ever present haze, haphazard construction, and tangles of electric wires.
Fatehpuri Masjid at sunset
The mosque, a poorer cousin of the grand Jama Masjid is still in operation and actually quite big itself. As you enter from the main gate, on your left you can see recently constructed apartments encroaching onto what used to be the madrasa on the first floor. A yellow wall here, a few red bricks there, some taking up all the space and some just teetering into the mosque. Its as if a web of the surroundings is starting to engulf the mosque, very slowly. Even if new construction takes the originality of the building away, it makes the old mosque a true part of the bustling surroundings. The courtyard has a homey feel. People stroll through the courtyard with nonchalance, as if they were walking in the courtyard of their own homes. Maybe that is what they are actually doing.
The surroundings becoming one.

I visited three times, spending quite a bit of time on each trip. The hospitality of the people in the courtyard struck me every time. Someone offered to take me around, someone else volunteered information about the mosque, and yet another person inquired if I was having a good time and liked the place. Whatever the mosque lacks in size and grandeur compared to Jama Masjid, it more than makes up for in its welcoming atmosphere and hospitality.
Walking to pray

Monday, 3 October 2011

Sunehri Masjid

One day last winter, I was walking from Nili Chhatri Mandir towards Chandni Chowk when from amongst the leaves of a large tree, I saw a small bronze dome right next to the road. A small detour to the right, up and down some steps and through a large iron gate, I finally landed at the Sunehri Masjid. It was built in late Mughal period by Qudsiya Begum, mistress of the infamous Muhammad Shah 'Rangila', the Nero of Delhi. They say the three domes were gilted with copper. The copper was stolen, possibly during one of the many foreign sweeps of Delhi. Eventually Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, had the remaining metal replaced with sandstone.

Today it stands a little away from the Red Fort, very close and yet very far from the road. The inside has 3 arches with reed mats laid below. In one corner are some taps for performing ablutions before the namaz. Once in a while, someone walks in to pray. The noise of traffic outside is drowned out by the sound of a broom scrubbing the floor.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

A story from Sultan Garhi

Prince Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud was brash and young. As the eldest son of Iltutmish and the governor of large parts of Eastern India, the prince had unparalleled prestige in the empire and was looked upon as the successor to the throne. This heir apparent slept on a bed laid with rose petals every night. A slave girl was employed just to ensure the petals were laid out well and the prince's bed stayed soft.

One day, tempted by luxury, the slave girl decided to see for herself how the bed felt. After all the prince wouldn’t be back until much later. However, the bed turned out to be so comfortable that the girl slept for over four hours and was only woken when the furious prince dragged her out of bed and ordered her flogged. As she was being flogged, she started laughing hysterically. This irritated the prince even more. He ordered her to be whipped harder. But the more she was punished, the more she laughed. Finally tired of the flogging and stumped the prince put a stop to the punishement and walked up to her.

'What is wrong with you? What is so funny!?'

The girl did not respond and just continued laughing. Multiple entreaties from the prince yielded no response. Finally, after much cajoling, the girl said:

'You will have me killed if I tell you what I think.'

Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud, curious as hell promised her riches and a life long pension if she would just open her mouth. Convinced, the girl replied,

'I was wondering if sleeping on this bed for four hours makes me feel so soft and weak, what must you feel like? You have slept on this bed all your life.'

The prince was flummoxed. This was a man known for his bravery, for having helped conquer parts of East India and was known as Malik-us-Sharq, King of the East. And here, right in front of his eyes, a slave girl, bound and tied was calling him a weakling. Stories say he was a fair minded man. He kept his word of reward to the girl. Before she left she predicted:

'You will never be the king. But you will be venerated as a saint.'

True enough, Nasiru'd-Din died long before his father and never got to be the king, though he was buried in a tomb befitting one. Over eight centuries later, without knowing the weight of the prince’s story locals from Sultanpur and Rangpur pray at the tomb and address him as baba, a title normally reserved for Sufis. Every thursday, the well to do from the villages host a free lunch for the poor. The entire community basks in the light of baba Nasiru'd-Din.

This was my introduction to Sultan Garhi. A middle aged man, lame with a wooden crutch, ostensibly the care taker of the tomb of Nasiru'd-Din Mahmud was flitting around in the dark underground crypt when I entered. Peering through his half closed eyes with a broom in his hand, he egged me to climb down the stairs. I could hardly see anything. A beam of light was entering the crypt from the small, short entrance, lighting the tomb in a surreal light and making it look like something from the distant past. Three graves lay at the bottom, two of them unidentified.

Seeing me stay around for much longer than others, the old man told me this story. There is much around the tomb to see. Its a unique structure, the oldest Muslim tomb in Delhi. You can read more about it here. There are Sanskrit inscriptions around, the oldest well excavated in Delhi, the restorations by the ever present Feroz Shah Tughluq and some Mughal ruins.

For a better version of the story however, you have to make the trip to the tomb and hope to meet the old man. To see the impact of baba Nasiru'd-Din and how a prince-turned-sufi fosters communal unity, find a Thursday afternoon, 12pm to be exact. Enjoy a free meal with the lungars at what is the oldest monument in Delhi.

The mihrab (far) and the octagonal crypt
Chatting in a tomb. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
The divine light. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
At Nasirud'din's grave. Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
Photo Courtesy: Rachel Leven
The Thursday feast.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Posers

At Satpula, near Khirki Masjid, wandering around, I met a bunch of kids. They wanted to be photographed. Look at the below and judge how keen they were! All this was just so I would take more shots. The more I took, the more I refused and the more they resorted to.

That one in the middle was THE HAM!
Getting ready to pose.
Off they go!
Should we say one and a half out of three?
What poses are those?
I know I have not written about the Satpula at all but I promise to soon. Its difficult to write posts when you are a 'normal' working man no longer wandering around Delhi!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Makhani Khizr

There is a theme running through our blog. And it’s not just us, really it’s present in all travel writing on Delhi. That is, the struggle to see beyond the Delhi of tomorrow, the mega city that is India’s capital, to appreciate its unique place in history and to find some small space where the push and shove of urban life is held at bay. How romantic! How clichéd. It would probably do us all some good to remember that we are just as addicted to the race for the cosmopolitan life as we are in need of escaping it.

With that in mind, wandering can have its disappointments when it does not deliver the otherness that the traveler is seeking. For me the Dargah-e-Aashiq-e-Allah (The shrine of the lover of Allah) was almost such a place. In a hurry to arrive, we stepped off from auto into shrubbery and set off down a dirt road. We passed an active village mosque which stands deserted outside of prayers. The late construction of the building was nothing to write home about. The road is clearly well used, however, and we passed a number of commuters on their way to pray at the dargah or turning down other paths.

It was hot, dusty, and dirty. Although the one story tall plant life blocked our view of South Delhi’s concrete roads, beggars and fancy cars – one worshiper arrived at the courtyard of the dargah in a new automobile, no doubt to give thanks for some sort of good luck, or perhaps to pray for more – was not my idea of escape.

The dargah too was a disappointment. White washed walls thick with water logged paint, unnamed graves the same color as the walls, holding a scattering of rose petals. This was not entirely surprising. The site is known for its legend, not its décor. Although the Imam of the dargah is not one to boast, or to tie his shrine to folklore, it is said that the Green Sufi could be evoked from a cave on this location. As early back as the 15th century Sufi saints fasted and prayed for 41 days, perhaps even hanging upside-down to call on the guidance and help of an ancient mystic and saint, one whose connection to God was so strong as to lend him sway over water and rain. Even in recent years his spirit has made an appearance. About fifty years ago, when Sufi saints still widely followed a tradition of praying in the Yamuna for days at a time, one saint was washed away (the Yamuna was a mightier beast then). The drowning man evoked Khizr and bystanders claimed that a green cloud formed to pull him back to shore. Khizr in spirit and flesh is seen in folk stories across the Islamic world, always with the same theme of love for Allah and a special connection to water. The Koran mentions the figure explicitly as a companion and teacher of Moses.

We walked up a few flights in the dargah with nothing grabbing us for a second look. But at least the view from up here was nice, with the Qutub Minar in the distance. The normal prayer ribbons were, instead, many colored plastic bags, adding an interesting quirk to the lattice of the roof. The legend of Khizr is not widely known amongst locals so few visitors actually make their way to this far corner. Still, we waited in line behind three other visitors, two middle aged men and an older woman. Two younger women, having finished their circuit walked by us happily chatting. This section of the dargah, the roof, was only a few meters in area with a tomb in the middle and a cave to the left. We walked around the tomb as the wind picked up, blowing flowers and kheel from the grave. We entered the cave. More like a dank room of natural rock than a cavernous retreat.

Inside there was barely enough room for two people. A reed mat lay on the floor and a green cloth covered the mihrab. A box which looked to be for incense, and interestingly not for donations, sat to the side of the mihrab.

I sat and stared at the black walls of the cave. At first I thought, ‘How long has it been since they gave this place a good wipe down?’ Then, ‘How many layers of soot cover these walls?’

A light sprinkle of rain began to fall outside, putt-puttering on the plastic bags. I kept looking forward, considering how many candles were burnt over the years to create the shinny black veneer.

The rain came down harder, splattering our backs the tiniest bit. The pattern of the storm echoed through the cave, drowning out all other noise, even my own doubting thoughts. With no way to leave we sat, silent, looking. And looking. And looking. And finally, right or wrong, I imagined the black surface expanding, becoming a tunnel, stretching back to the green one himself.

The rain stopped and we left. The return journey seemed lighter, more interesting with the drying landscape. Exiting into a village, I noticed those things I had missed in our earlier rush, like a 70 kg pig and her babies and the neighborly streets which quickly returned to a rush of honking and the metal garden we call home.

Wandering, like anything in life, is nothing but a state of mind.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Divers

At Gandak ki Baoli in Mehrauli. You may have to click and blow up the images to really see the diver because the background does not contrast the subject.

Can he fly?

No he cant.

And the Splash!

The steps down.

The quorum

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Khirki Masjid

Why is it that after going through painful hours of searching for a monument, it always ends up sitting right in front of me the whole time? When I find it, I realize I’ve already walked all around it, never taking that final turn to get me there.It reminds of an old Hindi saying 'Chirag tale andhera', (there is always darkness under a lamp).

One April afternoon, I was looking for directions to Saket Mall on Google Maps. Across the road from the mall, I noticed Khirki Mosque written in large letters. I was intrigued but did not expect much. Being so close to the mall, I figured it would already have been a local attraction if it was anything great. But for a lark, I pulled up the satellite image. Here is what I saw: