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.