July 31, 2014

R.K. Puram Trail, Delhi


Having visited all the major fortresses, regal tomb complexes and renowned shrines in Delhi, I wasn’t left with any sufficiently huge monument complex where I could cheerily spend an entire day (or at least, till the camera’s battery refused to go on anymore!) photographing, exploring and observing. Given that there are about 1300+ monuments scattered throughout Delhi, a majority in the unlikeliest of locations, it isn’t very difficult to hit upon heritage trails and filter out some groups of structures that stand individually isolated but in close enough vicinity to each other to be covered on foot in a few hours. One such trail is in R.K. Puram – now, R.K. Puram is a relatively well-off area, one of the few properly conceived, planned and executed localities in the city, and there are quite a few medieval tombs here sharing space with beautiful modern Hindu/Sikh temples, simplistic wall mosques and upcoming residential quarters – the last generating the well-documented urbanization pressure on the medieval structures and restricting most, if not all, of them to picturesque oases composed of small un/maintained garden tracts lost in a sea of humanity, commercial establishments, residential buildings and traffic-choked roadways.

Wazirpur Tomb Complex –


Huddled together - The five tombs at Wazirpur complex


Location: Sector– 5, R.K. Puram
Coordinates: (28.562767, 77.175042)
Wazipur Tomb complex, a congregation of Lodhi-era (AD 1451-1526) rubble-built structures located in R.K. Puram Sector –5 and nestled in an extremely small but beautifully landscaped green space consists of a cluster of five tombs the identity of whose occupants is unknown, two wall mosques (“qiblas”), a simplistic stepwell (“baoli”) (now) filled with rubble and garbage, an old well and a grave platform. One of the tombs here has been encroached upon by a family while the personalities buried in the rest are venerated by the local population who regularly leave behind reverential offerings – flowers, incense, earthen oil lamps (“diyas”) and sweets. The tombs are externally and internally exquisitely decorated with intricate stucco medallions skillfully crafted from plaster; the smaller wall mosque too has been ornamented with striking artwork and prettily niches, however the larger bears a rough rubble surface, unadorned and uneventfully executed. Surrounded by clusters of large trees – neem, ashoka, amaltas (Indian laburnum), arjun and frangipani, and inhabited by squirrels and several avian species like sparrows, pigeons and lapwings, the pristine little complex immediately proves endearing not because of the magnificent artwork or designs (which there aren't many), nor because of the superbly-maintained condition of the complex (which is only on paper), but because of the splendid silence and the charming serenity that it affords even to the most wretched of travelers and the most discerning of heritage enthusiasts. For further information, refer Pixelated Memories - Wazirpur Monument Complex

Munda Gumbad –



Munda Gumbad ("Bald Tomb") - A unique landmark on Delhi's cityscape


Location: Sector– 5, R.K. Puram
Coordinates: (28.561165, 77.178832)
A difficult find in the well-laid streets of R.K. Puram, the unbelievably massive but uncompleted tomb boasts of a slightly raised embossment in the center of its stone floor indicating the presence of a single grave deep underneath the high hillock on which it stands majestically. Located within a small square park immediately opposite the Kendriya Vidyalaya of the area, the huge tomb, with its unremarkably bare rubble walls that have been designed to give externally the semblance of a double-storied structure through the use of arched entrances, windows and ornamental niches, has been reduced to a miniature landfill by the nearby residents who dump polythene bags stuffed with domestic waste on a daily basis in the park and often alight fires to get rid of the excessive garbage. Peeping inside the tomb that has been identified to be a Lodi-era (AD 1451-1526) structure and watching the play of sunlight on the huge gaping hole that exists in place of the domed roof, one notices the employment of trabeate arches (stone ledges of gradually increasing sizes placed one over the other in ascending order to span space) for the wide doorways and squinch arches in the corners (to convert the square interiors into an octagonal and a sixteen-sided structure) to support the heavy dome and wonders why the handsome tomb was left incomplete – did the person who commissioned it face an unforeseen depletion of funds, or was there a change in the governance and the new administration looked down upon the person buried or the one who commissioned it, or perhaps some other calamity like a reign change or a miserable war? 


Locked away - Munda Gumbad interiors


One also wonders what would the tomb would have looked like if it were completed – the present structure betrays the conceiving of a gigantic dome resting on a sixteen-sided drum (base) and a filled up western wall that would have acted as a mihrab (wall faced by the devout while offering Namaz prayers since it indicates the direction of Mecca) – would the mihrab have been as wonderfully decorated with white marble, red sandstone and plasterwork as in several other monuments throughout the city, would the dome’s concave surface boast of stunning artwork in incised plaster, or would the walls have displayed a stone or plaster finish with an endearing use of eye-opening medallions and perhaps stone inlay work? The gentle, isolated giant of a tomb raises more questions than it answers – wish at least the locals could answer correctly about its location instead of making a seeker go around in circles!

Sri Venkateswara Balaji Mandir –

Location: Sector– 3, R.K. Puram
Coordinates: (28.558154, 77.181519)
At a slight walk from Munda Gumbad stands one of the finest temples in Delhi – boasting of an array of excellent sculptures depicting mythological and mythical entities, the Sri Venkateswara temple has been built according to traditional Hindu architectural practices and is detailed with design motifs and religious symbolism that is a landmark of South Indian temple construction. Apart from the lofty trapezoidal-pyramidal central shrine (“Gopuram”), passer-bys are also lured in the Vaishnavite temple complex by the numerous Garuda statues that mark the temple complex’s periphery walls – Garuda, a mythical being considered to be the steed of Lord Vishnu (the Hindu God of life and nourishment) is often depicted as a semi-bird, semi-human creature with a beak-like curved nose and huge, powerful wings. 


Sculptural extravaganza - Sri Venkateswara Temple


It is difficult convincing the priests and mendicants residing within to allow photography and even when the managing committee representative yields permission, clicking within the sanctum is out of question – anyway the temple remains locked in the afternoon and opens only in mornings and evenings, so I wasn’t even expecting the priests to open the sanctum for me. The singularly impressive sculptures that adorn the high soaring, pyramidal roof of the temple are unparalleled and display an impeccable diversity in terms of the figures represented and their features. There are several smaller shrines too within the complex, each topped by a slightly domed-roof done up with cross-patching patterns and also ornamented with divine figurines but the most common deity remained the Garuda that could be seen seated atop each small shrine along the front corners. The temple has been commissioned and is being maintained by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), an organization that also maintains several other temples throughout the country including the renowned Tirumala Venkateswara temple of Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh), and is dedicated to Lord Sri Venkateswara Swami (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and his consorts Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth Goddess and personification of fertility) and Laxmi (Hindu Goddess of wealth, beauty, prosperity and happiness). 


The entire pantheon consisting of the Lord and his consorts, guards and devotees, amidst religious symbolism and traditional motifs


Spread over 1.2 acres and built at the cost of 11.5 crores (115 million) rupees in 1979 on land granted by the government (renovated in 1994 and 2008), the majestic temple also consists of a “Nata Mandir” (music and dance hall) and a “Dhyan Mandir” (meditation hall). Through the exquisiteness of its rich idols and the unmatched skill that went into its fine construction, the temple has definitely found its way into my list of the must-visit shrines in the city, even though I too came across it without any planning or inclination – now am even hoping to take my mom there the next time we pass that way!

Bijri Khan’s Tomb –

Location: Sector– 3, R.K. Puram
Coordinates: (28.558578, 77.181717)
Seated on its immensely raised platform like a rippling warlord and overlooking the continuous flow of traffic whizzing around it, Bijri Khan’s impressive tomb is perhaps the most massive “unknown” tomb I’ve ever come across in Delhi – built at an unprecedented scale and conveying a sense of uninhibited strength and fortitude, the gigantic tomb cradles in its huge bosom five simplistic, unmarked and unadorned cenotaphs. In the news in the recent past for all the wrong reasons – having been ignored by the authorities, standing in a miserable state in a forlorn corner of its own with its ornamentation lost due to the vagaries of time and nature, scaled on one side by a slum settlement and forgotten by most heritage and monument enthusiasts, the tomb saw a flicker of better days when it was “restored” (in reality only plastered over on the insides and landscaped around the plinth level) thanks to the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in the December of 2010, only to revert to its original isolated and uncared for condition – the slum still exists and it is quite a feat to find your way from the slum side to the tomb, on the other side is a palm reader’s shack while a wide road runs along the front face. 


Enormity exemplified! - Bijri Khan's simplistic but humongous tomb


An iron gate bars visitor entry to the tomb enclosure but the guard quickly appeared after I shouted for him couple of times, and though he reluctantly let me in when I stubbornly refused to go away and brandished knowledge of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) maintained monuments and laws, he became visibly agitated when I started clicking the structure claiming that he is not even allowed to let in people (yes, even those with genuine credentials), leave aside photography! Why, ASI why? Stepping through the gate and up the steps leading to the plinth, one is greeted by the sight of the guard’s innerwear drying on a clothesline – apart from that and the expensive illumination systems that appeared to have been perennially covered with a layer of mud, the tomb appears in a relatively well-off condition – even the interiors were spic and the plinth area was immaculately clean of debris and garbage unlike several monuments I already encountered on this trail. Sadly, the guard did not budge at all at the prospect of me heading upstairs to the tomb’s dome level and clicking – it would have been excellent to see that gigantic dome up close – in fact following this simple question, he began trailing me like a shadow lest I do something unpardonable, like perhaps clicking the other person who was snoring within the tomb’s precincts – how did he get permission to get in when others can’t?


Bijri Khan's tomb and its dwarf companion


There are no literary records available to indicate who Bijri Khan was – in all probability a very skilled military general or an extremely powerful noble – and why did he command such intimidating respect to deserve this giant tomb, but whosoever he was, he is extremely fortunate in death to have an ASI guard and then too such a diligent one – after all, there are literally hundreds of monuments decaying around Delhi’s ancient landscape! Along one side of the tomb, stands a very small structure, more of a "gumti" (little, domed room) than a tomb proper – though there is no grave within nor any other sign of identification or erstwhile adornment, it is conjectured that the structure functions in the capacity of a tomb – to whom it belongs is yet another mystery, perhaps to a servant or slave to Bijri Khan, or even to his favorite dog (yes, Delhi has its fair share of such inconceivable structures too!). Interestingly, if one is observant enough, one can spot a few signs of the original ornamentation along the front face, like a band of red sandstone chiseled to represent a line of geometrical flowers, besides the usual thick stone pillars carved up to create trabeated arches inspired by Hindu design motifs like auspicious vases and banana leaves that mark the entrances. It is hard not to be impressed by the enormity of the structure when even the red sandstone finial crowning the grand dome seems to convey a sense of superiority. Interestingly, the British, when they came to call the shots in the country, refused to be overawed by the tomb’s grandeur and converted it and the miniature gumti alongside too into fodder stores!


Somber bedroom - Bijri Khan's tomb interiors


Nearest Bus stop: R.K. Puram NAB (400 meters away)
Nearest Metro Station: AIIMS (5 kilometers away)
How to reach: Since the area doesn't lie on any existing metro line and the nearest metro station is actually very far, it is suggested to take a bus to R.K. Puram. Start at Wazirpur complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Wazirpur Monument Complex) and from there ask for Kendriya Vidyalaya school – Munda Gumbad is located opposite the school building. From here, proceed to R.K. Puram Sector– 3 bus stop – Bijri Khan's tomb is immediately at the bus stop, while Sri Venkateswara temple is a couple of meters away in one of the streets close to Bijri Khan's tomb.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil

8 comments:

  1. Hi Sahil,

    Yes RK Puram is a real surprise. That is the problem with temples - they never allow to photograph the premises. But I have been lucky to visit similar older temples in AP with the same design and motifs.

    I am impressed that you managed to go inside Bijri Khan Tomb because we were not able to browbeat the guard into submission! The tomb is especially majestic and needs to be opened up to genuine visitors. Sometimes it does make sense to keep them locked if you see what is happening at say Lal Gumbad in Malviya Nagar or Bijay Mandal.

    As always a delight to read through your trails.

    Nirdesh

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    1. Dear Nirdesh sir,

      Usually temples too don't refuse permission to click, you just have to be sufficiently obdurate - I was able to click in ISKCON, Lotus temple, Bangla Sahib etc, though I must confess after much arguing about my rights and the fact that I need photos for articles. The other exception would be Akshardham, but someday I might visit and click it from the flyover opposite.

      Haven't yet been to Lal Gumbad/Bijay Mandal - the whole Begumpur-Jahanpanah area is yet to be covered. Perhaps this or next week.

      Regards

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  2. Deepti JagotaSeptember 09, 2014

    As kids we believed the Munda Gumbad to be haunted!!! we would often play hide and seek there and entered it on the way back from school ( Kendriya Vidyalaya) feeling scared and thrilled at the same time....I experienced the same thrill and excitement when I saw the picture.... Thanks a ton Sahil for bringing back the memories....but why did you miss out the Swami Malai Mandir Sector-8 and Ayyappa Temple Sector-2....important landmarks of R.K. Puram...

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  3. Geethika ArekatlaSeptember 09, 2014

    Wow..So many memories. I lived in RK Puram when I was in Delhi and we regularly played in the area around the Wazirpur grounds...and I didn't even know that is what it is called! So awesome revisiting them through your pictures and write-ups. Thanks :) This has made my day :D

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    1. Geethika, thanks! Your comment made my day!
      Glad that I could pen down something that had you reminiscing about :)

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  4. hey sahil, thank you very much for this article! I am particularly interested in the temple. Could you please tell me from where you got the dates (meaning foundation of the temple, etc.)? anne

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    1. Hi Anne,

      This article in "The Hindu" here mentions the establishment of the shrine in 1979 and subsequent renovations undertaken. I could not find the exact date though.

      http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-newdelhi/consecration-of-balaji-temple-in-july/article1251507.ece

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  5. Hi Sahil, Thank you very much for the information! Anne

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