While reading about Delhi’s monuments & heritage structures, I often come across details about structures taken over by the city’s population, often demolished, at times occupied in its original state & at times renovated & turned into living quarters/shops/hospitals by changing the way the structure looked. The Red Fort was occupied by the British Army after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/War of Independence & several structures within the complex were razed to ground to make way for their barracks. But that was in 1857, & except for the Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort), I myself never saw any structure razed/renovated. Until a few days ago that is. Some days ago, I visited the Thanewala Gumbad in South Delhi. The condition of the structure made me realize that this is what happens when the ever progressive tide of urbanization comes face to face with a structure struck somewhere in the medieval ages.
|Thanewala Gumbad - First impressions|
Taken over on all sides by residential areas & shops, the structure lies surrounded by the spirit of commercialization in the middle of Shahpur Jat. A suburban village, Shahpur Jat, has suddenly found its way into the books of city’s nouveau rich – once a village home to Jats (an ethnic group more common to nearby Haryana), today the new lifestyle hub boasts of designer boutiques & shops selling everything from expensive collectibles, clothes, & furniture. & of course, there was also a Bikanerwala close to the gumbad (I have observed that you can find a Bikanerwala in almost every neighborhood in Delhi. They specialize mostly in sweets, but you can gobble up their pakoras (deep-fried bread filled with potatoes & cottage cheese, coated in a layer of corn flour & again deep fried) with a bottle of coke if you feel hungry after running around the numerous heritage structures that Delhi boasts of. The food is hygienic too!!). The Thanewala Gumbad today survives in the form of a large, domed chamber with its back against the shorter side of the large rectangular courtyard that encloses it.
The walls of the gumbad slightly slope towards the outside & are exceedingly unadorned. Nobody knows who built the structure, though it is accepted that the architecture is reminiscent of construction undertaken during the reign of the Khilji Dynasty (ruled 1290-1320 AD). The gumbad lacks ornamentation of any sort, a characteristic of Khilji & later Tughlaq-era buildings – both its interiors & exteriors are thread bare & the only concession to its simplicity are niches that line the bottom of the dome on the inside & the recessed, arched corners. Outside, the dome rests on an octagonal base (drum) decorated with a line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation work). The mihrab (the wall inside a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while praying) is very simple, consisting of three arched recesses, the central one slightly larger than the ones flanking it.
The side opposite the mihrab has three arched entrances, while the other two sides have two small arched entrances each & a blocked arched recess in the place of the central entrance. A small arched window is provided high in the centre of each side to let in sunlight. The courtyard also bears indications that there were several other structures within the complex. Only the foundations remain of what must once have been pillars on either side of the existing domed chamber, indicating the presence of cloisters. It is now accepted that the gumbad was once a mosque. A gumbad is basically a tall, domed chamber with solid walls. Cloistered chambers on either side of the said “gumbad” would fit very well with the mosque theory. Also there is no grave inside the chamber which is further proof that this is not a tomb (as most gumbads are). I don’t understand why isn’t it referred to as a mosque instead of a gumbad if that might be the case. Perhaps some later historian bungled up when compiling a list of structures in Delhi.
|Cloister remains to the left of the central chamber|
The courtyard also shows signs of arched recesses along one of the longer sides. Perhaps these alcoves were used for lightning earthen lamps, though these appear pretty large. I am tempted to believe that these were part of rooms for the priests of the mosque, or perhaps there once existed a small Islamic seminary. If that would have been the case, the mosque might have been very similar to the Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque in another part of Delhi, but in a similar run-down condition (refer Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque). The courtyard itself was filled with all sorts of rubbish & even construction material the day I visited the gumbad/mosque. A large family picnicked in the courtyard, complete with food & even a hookah!! A washer man dried clothes nearby. Thorny bushes grew around garbage heaps. More than the interior, it is the exterior of the enclosing walls that is in dire need of protection. Along the shorter sides of the courtyard ran parallel streets. A small slum house made with bricks & corrugated iron sheets (next to the main road flanking the gumbad towards its back) used the wall as one of its sides. Towards one of the larger sides, an alley lead to a cluster of houses & showrooms. It was one of these houses that I climbed on to get an “aerial” view of the gumbad/mosque & its surroundings. The walls of these houses maintained their distance from the gumbad’s enclosure, though it seemed almost hopeless, given that Shahpur Jat is a hotchpotch of buildings jutting out of nowhere & giving way only to narrow streets & almost none vegetation. Not wishing to spare any space available in this urban jungle, a buzzing generator set sat next to the courtyard wall in this alley.
|Eating into the structure - A shanty & a row of houses alongside the boundary wall|
Buildings on the other side were even worse, literally fusing together with the enclosure walls. One had to walk past those buildings into a side street (this one has the Bikanerwala!!) & then make a detour to reach the entrance of the gumbad/mosque. It is a pretty precarious situation that the gumbad/mosque finds itself in, surrounded by all these houses & shops, whatever happened to the Monument Notification Act (1958) that bans construction within 100 metres of a protected monument?? Perhaps the gumbad/mosque isn’t a protected monument, I did not see the characteristic blue board that Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) places near protected monuments. The only worthwhile thing here was that more than encroachments, the place was taken over by kids running around, playing tag here. Many of them clambered around me in a bid to get photographed along with the ruins. They jumped within the gumbad & around it too, unmindful of the pillar stubs sticking out in an ordered progression. The huge chamber boomed with their laughter & echoed back their shouts.
|These cloisters exist on the right side of the structure. Visible in the background are the remains of Siri Fort wall|
I would rather suggest that this surrounding courtyard be converted to a small park, similar to the park across the parking lot across the road that boasts of bastions & walls of the Siri Fort (another fortress city within Delhi, subject of another post). A gardener could be assigned here, at least this way the place would not give way to encroachments & hawkers, & even the kids would find a new spot within the congested city to run around. But then, is anyone listening??
Location: Shahpur Jat village
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Green Park Station
How to Reach: From Green Park Metro Station, take a bus for Shahpur Jat village. Opposite the bus stop is a large park, beyond which lies a parking lot. Walk through the park & the parking lot & you will spot the dome of Thanewala Gumbad rising in the midst of shops. Navigate to find the entrance.
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
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