September 29, 2014

Gandhak ki Baoli, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi


A few posts ago, I wrote an article pertaining to Rajon ki Baoli in Mehrauli Archaeological Park (Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli). Continuing with the thread, we head to Gandhak ki Baoli located not very far from the former at the periphery of the park and demarcating the vast complex from the congested, overcrowded Mehrauli village. The easiest way to reach the baoli therefore is not through the forested archaeological complex stuffed with thorny shambles and dense overgrowth, but from the outside – simply walk from Adham Khan’s tomb/Mehrauli bus terminal towards the adjacent shrines dedicated to Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Sardar Banda Bahadur (the nondescript route is indicated by numerous markers and painted signage along the road), the baoli is only a couple of meters from the bus terminal along the route. In a commentary on the neglect on the part of authorities towards this beautiful medieval structure, though there are direction markers leading to the shrines, there are none indicating the presence of the baoli.

Containing water rich in sulphur ("gandhak") that is considered beneficial for skin ailments, the baoli was constructed during the reign of Sultan Shamshuddin Iltutmish (AD 1296-1316) – one belief is that the Sultan himself swiftly commissioned the baoli when he arrived uninvited to Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s monastery and learnt that the saint, not being able to avail potable water for the purposes of bathing and ablutions, was forced to remain in a disheveled and unwashed state. The unadorned structure possesses five levels and diminishes in thickness as it descends deeper underground in order to withstand the increased subterranean pressure. The two monotonously plain arms of the baoli are composed of rough rubble and stone; simplistic narrow walkways define the boundary between the successively less wider levels and there are neither chambers circumambulating the structure nor alcoves ornamenting the surface as is the case with most baolis throughout the city. Only the topmost level displays a rudimentary cloistered area utilizing thin pillars that are reminiscent of pillars observed in the nearby Qutb complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex) that were derived from Hindu and Jain shrines for the construction of Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque; the lower levels display just two pillars demarcating the wall that separates the baoli tank from the well shaft behind. Despite its location in a naturally arid region unable to retain monsoonal overflow, the baoli continues to remain brimming with cool water for a major part of the year – in fact, though I visited the monument in scorching June and July, it was filled with water till just below its topmost level and local children were diving from the terraces into the tank. The splash of divers, combined with the laughter and shrieks of kids and the shouts of the elders sitting along the stairs and exchanging everyday news and gossip, is indescribable since it immediately transports an onlooker to a time framed eight centuries ago when the baoli was constructed since the scene hasn’t changed at all since then. This is one baoli that, true to its original purpose, continues to function as a venue for social congregations while providing respite from the sweltering heat.


Water, water everywhere


The baoli has not remained untouched by the urbanization pressure exerted by an ever expanding congested neighborhood and while its periphery has been wedged in by high iron railings, the entire area around has been engulfed by thickly populated residences and shanties – notwithstanding the important legislation prohibiting construction activities in a 100 meter radius around a monument, the baoli’s backyard has been taken over by a slum and commercial establishments are being ominously raised and run along the road snaking adjacent to the baoli unmindful of its historicity or heritage value. Though Delhi High Court severely reprimanded the municipal authorities and police way back in March 2014 on account of their failure to curb construction activities, I noted buildings coming up and being renovated immediately opposite the baoli as late as July 2014. As it is, the baoli already remains dry part of the year and is experiencing a decrement in its water level on account of the relentless massive water supply requirement of the local population, the construction work further compounds the problem many fold and endangers the baoli structure. It would be a major loss if the neglected baoli is any further damaged – the serene experience of being magically transported back in time and being alienated from the noise and commotion that ensues outside the enclosure is simply otherworldly and would be hard to replicate if this majestic 800-year old water monument is lost. There was a era long gone by when divers would jump in the water chasing after the coins thrown by visitors – that age is never coming again given Delhi’s depleted water table and the impossibility of reviving it; hope we don’t reach a situation in the future when people rue the absence of water in the baoli. 


And not a drop to drink! (Photo courtesy - Wikimedia.org)


Sincerest thanks to Rangan Datta, a very warm person and an amazing blogger chronicling Calcutta's culture and monuments (Rangandatta.wordpress.com) for visiting the Mehrauli area with me and helping explore almost a dozen monuments, including this baoli.

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance Fees: Nil
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
How to Reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop and at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. The metro station is further away and one can avail a 10-min bus ride from Saket to Lado Serai. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 20 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other famous baolis in Delhi -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Agrasen ki Baoli
  2. Pixelated Memories - Baoli, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla fortress and baoli
  4. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli
  5. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli
  6. Pixelated Memories - Baoli, Wazirpur cluster

September 23, 2014

Khirki Masjid, Saket, Delhi


With the singular exception of old Delhi’s ethereally beautiful Jama Masjid, the grand Khirki Masjid, possibly the largest mosque I have ever been to in Delhi, located in a maze of untrodden alleyways and winding narrow lanes immediately opposite the massive MGF Mall at Saket, is also perhaps the most prominent example of the gigantic militaristic architectural scheme that came up during the reign of Tughlaq Dynasty (AD 1320-1414). Despite its simplistic unadorned structure, the mosque nonetheless continues to appear immensely majestic, even more magnificent than its smaller, more splendid cousins like the shimmering white Kalan Masjid at Nizamuddin basti or the vibrant red and gorgeously bedecked Jama Masjid at Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah complex – it might have something to do with the collective amnesia suffered by the large population of the Khirki village who have literally not the slightest clue that there is such a massive structure located at the periphery of their village – in fact, when Sakshi and I tried locating the ruined mosque by asking for directions from the locals and shopkeepers, none of them had any idea of what we were indicating about, and this is extremely surprising given that the village settlement itself has been christened after the unique mosque which draws its apt nomenclature from the numerous red sandstone “khirkis” (perforated stone lattice windows) that distinctively mark its surface (but are absent in other mosques). Though the continuous going around in circles and walking into cul-de-sacs unexpectedly introduced us to several stunning graffiti panels that adorn the village buildings (perhaps the products of the Delhi Street Art festival that I talked about here – Pixelated Memories - Tihar Jail - Graffiti and Haat), it did eventually get very frustrating and we were on the verge of switching on the Google maps in our phones when an elderly cobbler running his trade from a corner of a footpath, confused at what we were looking for, asked if we wished to visit the “Qila” (“fortress”) and directed us to it – that was it – even Tughlaq-era mosques flaunt a fortress-like appearance, more of a cross between a religious and a militaristic structure, complete with thick, battered rubble walls, tall forbidding gateways, lofty minarets, soaring corner watchtowers and formidable battlements. The sudden appearance of the mosque’s enormous rubble walls between residential buildings and tall trees that conceal it from prying eyes is surprising – past a narrow alley, it grandly and unexpectedly conjures out of thin air and fills the entire landscape with its enormity and characteristic rough appearance. 

Forbidding - The southern gateway (only entrance in use at present) and rows of cells on either side


The nearly 650-year old structure was designed and commissioned by Khan-i-Jahan Malik Juna Shah Telengani, who inherited his title “Khan-i-Jahan” (“Lord of the World”) and his position as the “Wazir” (“Prime Minister”) from his father Khan-i-Jahan Malik Maqbool Telengani who before him was the prime minister to Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq (ruled AD 1351-88). Telengani Junior lacked the characteristic interest in administration and warfare that his father was renowned for and his only penchant was for architecture and construction. He raised seven of the finest mosques in Delhi, all of which possessed an unparalleled splendor in their more glorious days and some of which are still unbelievably grand  – interestingly, he himself was only a second generation Muslim – his father was originally known as Kuttu Yugandhar Gannama Nayaka and was the military commander of the Warangal garrison that Feroz Shah’s cousin and predecessor Muhammad Juna Khan Tughlaq (ruled AD 1325-51) had destroyed when he defeated the Kakatiya Dynasty sovereign Prataprudra Deva II. He was captured and brought to Delhi where he converted to Islam and since then efficiently led numerous military campaigns for his new master following which he was bestowed with the titles “Masnad-i-Ali Ulugh Qutlugh Azam-i-Humayun” ("The repository of religion and jurisprudence and the greatest of the blessed lords"). When Feroz Shah Tughlaq ascended the throne of Delhi, he immediately raised Malik Maqbool Telengani to the enviable position of prime minister, entitled him “Khan-i-Jahan” and prompted by his own lack of interest in administration handed over the entire governance and powerful military to the latter along with an annual salary of 1.3 million gold coins (at a time when the entire annual national revenue from all sources was pegged at 65 million gold coins!) besides annually paying a thousand gold coins to each of his sons and a slightly smaller sum to each of his daughters born from the over 2,000 wives he boasted of in his harem (a ridiculously exaggerated tale I believe). Following his  death in AD 1370, his eldest son Malik Juna Shah inherited his position, titles and salary besides the religion and immediately set about constructing the mosques – through religious activities, he might have proved himself to be a devout Muslim but he never inherited his father’s fierce loyalty to the emperor and was disgraced and executed while trying to foment quarrel between the Sultan and his eldest son Muhammad Khan Tughlaq. 


Ghostly! - First impressions as observed from the eastern (primary) gateway that now remains barred and locked. On either side in the foreground are staircases leading to the roof. 


As if the mosque is surrounded by a moat, the lush green square, in which the gigantic structure is located and which demarcates its existence from the thickly-populated village encircling it, is situated on a considerably lower ground level compared to the surroundings and enclosed by means of a high iron wire mesh. A sloping ramp leads downwards to the base of the gigantic gateway set protruding from the mosque’s walls; the solid gateway is flanked by two rounded conical minarets that are garishly obscured at places by overhanging thick electrical wires and bear a fluted appearance at least till the first of their three floors. The mosque itself sits on a high plinth – nearly 3 meters tall – composed of numerous arched chambers that make up the ground floor of the structure; around a score stairs lead up to the rough rectangular entrance composed of trabeates (stone ledges of successively increasing size placed atop each other to span space) that were a favorite of the affluent Tughlaq nobility. But before heading down the ramp and then up the wide staircase, one is tempted to take a walk around the entire wire enclosure and explore the mosque from all sides – the wire effectively shuts out encroachments and vandals but also wretchedly stifles the mosque structure and leaves not a single side from where one can appreciate or photograph the huge structure in its entirety. 


Strikingly symmetrical - 180° panorama looking at the corner tower and the two gateways on either side clicked from a corner of the confined enclosure


We began discussing how splendid the characteristic militaristic structure would have looked like when it was faced with a layer of untainted white plaster and perhaps affixed with marble or red sandstone where the numerous cross-shaped indentations exist in the line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) that runs along the roof – the discussion prompted us to go around the entire structure and if possible observe it from one of the tall buildings in the immediate vicinity – the over 2500 square meter area of the mosque (52 meters X 52 meters) is more than 80% covered by a roof surmounted by numerous domes positioned in a complicated placement plan – the entire roof is divided into a grid of twenty five squares, nine of which (on the corners, immediately adjacent to the gateways and the center) each possess nine slightly conical domes; one relatively larger, ribbed dome also surmounts each of the gateway and the corner turrets culminate into domed conical watchtowers thereby imparting the entire roof a symmetrical but very congested checkered appearance and bringing to mind the enormous dinosaur egg clusters in “Jurassic Park” series. The mosque was the first in India to be shrouded peculiarly by such a massive roof – all other mosques of such grand dimensions usually have open courtyards as congregational areas for the faithful to offer prayers from, or, at the most, colonnades along their peripheries to serve as walkways and shield the visitors from the elements – till date, it is one of the few to display such a markedly distinctive architectural design. The decision made, we began the circumambulation, it was then that we met Komal, a sweet little girl who resides in a small match-box building divided into numerous quarters immediately overlooking the mosque, who led us upstairs to her narrow terrace from where we could click the mosque – discounting my scared apprehensions about traversing almost 30 feet above ground from one rooftop to another located a couple of feet away (my doctor says if I hurt my arm again, it will be permanently damaged!), we did climb up and even try to click the mosque's vast span while standing on a wobbly table, but sadly, the view here was impeded by many other buildings. Komal then took us to one of the highest buildings in the neighborhood and the view from here was, simply put, fascinating – apart from the huge mosque spread majestically below us, we could look over most other rooftops, even see the Saket malls in the background and identify the ancient Satpula dam in a green clearing. 


Where did she learn to pose like that?! - I don't know why I feel shy clicking portraits/candids, but there was something about Komal, her unwavering confidence or her unremitting gaze, or perhaps the fact that Sakshi besides me was doing the same, that prompted me to click her.


Following the descent down the unbelievably dark, narrow and winding staircase of the six-floor building, we traced our way back to the mosque’s entrance – though originally the eastern entrance was the primary gateway to the mosque, now it too is barred by means of a locked iron grille and only the southern entrance, that faces the arterial Press Enclave Road and the malls on the opposite side, is now functioning. There are neither guards nor ticketing officers on duty, the structure is serenely isolated from the population as if it doesn’t even exist in their midst; a few men sat and gossiped near the entrance but none ventured within nor did they stay there very long, probably one of them was the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) guard since he stayed back even after the others had left. At first appearance, the mosque’s unornamented stark interiors look like most other medieval structures – simplistic arches, unadorned monolithic rectangular pillars and shallow alcoves along the walls make up most of the architectural plan – all features that can also be observed in numerous other structures scattered throughout the city – it is the massiveness of the structure, apparent only once inside since the exteriors have been very successfully bludgeoned into an unflattering confinement by the wire enclosure, that holds one’s amazement. There are rows upon rows of pillars supporting the heavy roof for as far as one can see, the view is regal and spellbinding and it becomes difficult to fathom that even a mosque could be this huge.


Colossal - 180° panorama looking inside from one of the gateways. And this is less than a quarter of the entire area!


The colonnades along the walls are blinding dark since the windows elegantly fail to let in enough sunlight to illuminate even slightly beyond their limited domains – most of the light and ventilation entering the mosque's deeper recesses are facilitated by the four open to sky courtyards near the center. Roosting among the dark and damp colonnades are hundreds of scary bats that chirp and squeal continuously and often dive close to one’s head or shoulders – in fact, there are so many of them that one can spot dark circles of their shit and refuse underneath the individual concave roofs supported by the rectangular double pillars at the very margins, especially in the completely dark portions near the mihrab . The mihrab (a mosque’s western wall indicating the direction of Mecca that is faced by Muslims while offering prayers) lacks the entrance as well as the signature windows, but is otherwise entirely identical in design and execution to the other three walls, even possessing a faux blocked up gateway. But the colonnades flanking each of the four aforementioned courtyards around the center prove an interesting but extremely sharp contrast by facilitating the sudden appearance of shards of blinding sunlight. A few of these colonnades have been recently repaired and replastered, but a major proportion has been left untouched and decrepit, there wasn’t any sign of workers or construction material around either to indicate that the restoration work is in progress – it fills one with a unique joy to imagine how eye-catching the interiors would look when completely leveled with layers of fresh white plaster. Photographing the majestic structure is an issue, one cannot understand how to visualize the compositions so as to make them appealing but also do pictorial justice to the numerous pillars and the immensity of the interiors. The play of light and shadows, though visually spellbinding is difficult to transform into alluring photographs without ignoring the other architectural aspects of the mosque like its striking symmetry or the presence of numerous distinctive stone windows latticed into smaller squares. Eventually, I decided to click panoramas, even though I abhor them for the lack of details they record, in order to include the mosque’s mammoth spread and its enthralling architecture.


Fascinatingly vintage!


The eastern gateway was once embedded by a stone plaque that detailed the mosque’s commissioning and construction, but it is long gone – it would have in all probability read something like “Juna Shah Maqbool Telengani, titled Khan-i-Jahan, son of Khan-i-Jahan, commissioned the mosque in the reign of Saka Lord Sultan Feroz Tughlaq in the pious year 1370-71”, of course along with a few honorifics and hyperboles. Nearby, a portion of the domed roof along the south-eastern corner has collapsed and lets in patches of sunlight incongruous with the light and dark patterns throughout the rest of the interiors, but nonetheless a welcome relief from the extremely dark, bat-infested conditions; pigeons roost here and prove to be considerably more noisome though remarkably less scary than the sneaky bats. Two narrow staircases built on either side of the gateway along its internal surface lead upstairs to the roof where one can observe the numerous domes (and the etchings and graffiti left by vandals on their blackened surfaces) up close and juxtaposed against the spellbindingly uneven skyline of the Khirki village. The cluster of malls with their reflecting glass panels prove to be an eyesore, blocking out much of the view on one side, but nevertheless appear beckoning with the promise of shade and air conditioning that no one could have possibly refused in this sweltering heat. We decide to find shelter from the inconceivably brilliant sunshine underneath one of the domed corner towers before proceeding from one corner to the next to click from each of them even though the view was identically similar – in one of these towers, someone had left their treasured stash of kites, while in another were left a few bone dry but perceptibly fresh chappatis (Indian bread) – indicative that some locals do visit the mosque, even though they might not be aware of its historic or architectural importance. 


Squares and dinosaur eggs - 180° panorama clicked from a high rise overlooking the medieval structure 


The village, though so far kept at bay from the structure by the wire enclosure, has literally choked the well-preserved mosque in clear disregard of an ASI rule stipulating prohibition of construction within 100 meters of any protected monument – the mosque’s encircling and subdual by a wave of urbanization and unplanned construction is most apparent from the rooftop from where one can see how it has been dwarfed and imprisoned by the haphazard outcrop of surrounding buildings. It might perhaps have been a little bearable were the grassy corners of the wire enclosure not brimming with everyday waste discarded by the village inhabitants besides used electrical equipments and glass and plastic wastes, including a broken tube light on which I stepped unknowingly. Telengani Senior’s octagonal tomb (the first of its kind in Delhi, also designed by Telengani Junior) in the densely congested Nizamuddin basti has been so devastatingly encroached upon by the locals that there is no access to it nor any way to observe any of its features except the dome that still remains untouched by the surrounding buildings; a few of Telengani Junior’s mosques have also already been submerged in the deluge of shabby residential quarters and encroachments – will the Khirki mosque also go the same way? Let’s hope not! The thought itself makes one shudder. Perhaps the way out of this stalemate between monument conservation and the pressures of urbanization would be to include the local community in the former by providing them space around the mosque for congregation and physical activities and converting the interiors into a restored recreational zone – as envisaged by an architectural design company, ASI and INTACH have already begun trying to organize student-oriented activities like sketching/painting events, dramas, storytelling sessions and pottery classes in some of the more ventilated portions of the mosque. Plans are on to lend the colossal congregation area for short plays, book fairs and such besides also housing information kiosks and souvenir shops while the cells along the plinth level could be made available to artists to display and merchandise their work.


Looking back - The mosque, as it appears when viewed from the road separating the congested village from the glamorous malls opposite


Though of course all these plans won’t proceed unless the mosque is restored first and the work, which had been begun in anticipation of tourist footfall, came to a standstill soon afterwards after several oversights relating to the use of material and their subsequent effects on the structure were observed. As a beginning, night lightning would go a long way – given that the structure is located just off an important arterial road and immediately opposite some of the most renowned high-end shopping clusters of the city, lightning might even help attract visitors and tourists and who knows, perhaps someday the monument might also host the occasional sound and light shows or plays featuring renowned actors/storytellers. Tourism is definitely going to play a significant role – the more people visit, photograph and write about these forgotten structures, the quicker the archaeological and municipal agencies would be forced to take notice and complete the restoration-conservation work and who knows, perhaps supplement the monument sooner rather than later with a publication/souvenir department. The idea is definitely well thought out – for me at least, even the thought of a monument being put to such wonderful uses instead of being relegated to a forgotten, neglected state fills the heart with an inexplicable fascination! But before we begin to give ourselves to thoughts of fancy that, given the lethargic Indian bureaucracy and administration, might take several years to materialize, the foremost need of the hour is to ensure local awareness, including proper signages and information panels, so at least when in near future two photographers come nosing around looking for the medieval mosque, they won’t draw blanks or have to go around in circles!


Signs of change? - One of the numerous graffiti panels that adorn the otherwise unremarkable streetscape of the village


How to reach: The mosque (coordinates: 28°31'52.3"N, 77°13'11.2"E) is located in Khirki village immediately opposite Select Citywalk/MGF Mall and across the Press Enclave Road. It can be accessed by heading down a short stretch of a narrow uneven lane adjacent a makeshift temple (more of a wall with red painted bricks and a few idols) at the side of the Press Enclave road. Walk from the Khirki village bus stop (couple of hundred meters away from the mosque) or take an auto for Rs 50 from the metro station to the malls and walk from there on.
Open: All days, 10 am - 5 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Advisory - Given the secluded nature of the area and especially the mosque, female visitors should prefer to be accompanied by men and avoid visiting the area after dark.
Relevant Links - 

September 22, 2014

"Ishq-e-Dilli" Light and Sound show, Old Fort, Delhi


Characters bigger than life and constituting numerous legendary tales are whom you get to meet in history – megalomaniac emperors, cunning conniving ministers, simplistic peasants, sorcerer conjurer saints, warmongering generals and powerful loyal eunuch lords – there is no dearth of such fascinating characters in the unimaginably vast Indian history. And Delhi’s territorial history and the stories of its sultanates and dynasties are only a fraction of the gigantic thread that defines the entire Indian chronological lore. It would reasonably take over a lifetime to collate and study only Delhi’s tumultuous history that stretches several millennia back to ancient citadels and near-mythical kingdoms, to gaze through it in one hour is near impossible – but that is exactly what the renowned “Ishq-e-Dilli” (“Romancing Delhi”) sound and light show at the magnificent medieval citadel of Old Fort attempts to achieve. 


"Ishq-e-Dilli"


The imaginatively titled show takes a viewer through a whirlwind tour beginning from the Hindu Emperor Prithviraj Chauhan whose defeat, capture and subsequent execution by Afghan-Turk Muslim armies is the stuff of legends and bardic traditions, most notably Chand Bardai’s “Prithviraj Raso”, to the establishment of the Islamic rule in Indian subcontinent and the dramatic game of musical chairs that was played in rapid succession by numerous intervening short-lived emperors, and finally the advent of British colonial administration just before India’s freedom struggle and division into two separate sovereign entities. The stunning and well-calibrated utilization of visual scenes drawn from numerous chapters of Delhi’s history, portrayed on the massive “Humayun Darwaza” gateway of the fortress are indescribably captivating – so endearing is the depiction, brilliantly combined with vibrantly colorful theatrics, timely narration and the overall direction, that for an hour viewers are literally left spellbound and captivated by Delhi’s enchanting history.


Welcome to Delhi, the city of cities


The ruined gateway, with its numerous associated arched chambers and surmounting chattris, appears eerily ominous in the starless cloudy night with only the bright moon for company and brings to mind the numerous stories about it being considered cursed following Emperor Humayun’s demise here, but frames, with a finesse, the interesting array of scores of kings, numerous bloody battles and the rise and fall of several of Delhi’s medieval citadels. Most of the visual depictions are emphasized by the gateway’s architectural features, especially the initial dance sequences where the dancers convincingly appear to whirl and hide behind the pillars.


The majestic capital of scores of Sultans


The history and the characters are at times celebrated and at times rued, the battles described mournfully and the tragic loss of several thousand lives deplored (in one case, by showing huge glittering doe-eyes arising from an expanding blood splatter framed by deep blue – it takes a few moments of silence to hammer in the conception that the fortress has literally disappeared behind the astounding visuals), the several cities that make up Delhi are adoringly described as if the narrator longs to reside in each of them at different times of their being – in fact, to my surprise, there is even mention of Kilokheri, the small short-lived fortress capital of Sultan Muizuddin Kaiqabad (ruled AD 1287-90), that was ruined and recycled by later Sultans to furnish building materials for their own capitals and now only survives in stories and legends. Rapidly hastening towards the present, visitors are introduced to almost every facet of Delhi’s history, from the legendary feud between the mighty Ghazi Malik Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and the adorable saint Hazrat Nizamuddin to the less interesting later Mughals and including a brief stopover at the mythical city Indraprastha that existed at the site of Old Fort almost 5000 years ago, and all this while the radiant laser projection show flashes hundreds of images and animated movements of emperors and armies, elephants and horse-mounted warriors, dancers and common men, daggers and fire, rainfall and vegetation, rise and collapse.


A city that has fallen and risen from its own ashes numerous times like an immortal phoenix


The visuals pertaining to the freedom struggle and its heroes are exceedingly realistic and for a few seconds it appears that the ruined walls of the fortress have been imprinted with actual photographs. If that’s not enough, the monotony is broken by two songs, slightly long in my opinion – one a beautiful Sufi number “Nizamuddin” by Kailash Kher, and the other, one of the most touching renditions of Amir Khusro’s “Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni” that I have heard by Rekha Bhardwaj – and it is scarce believable that long after the show was over, the images of the protagonists of the song, a Sufi dervish draped in red and white beseeching Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and a beautiful singer-dancer with Kohl-rimmed eyes and gold adornments, continued to flash in front of our eyes. 


The city of devotees, lovers and beauty


Though photography was a bit of an issue given that it is extremely difficult to get superior photographs in such low light conditions and there were numerous scenes where a cityscape was revealed only as an outline or a major historical event was depicted with nominal lightning, but Mr Adarsh, the show’s manager, was extremely cooperative and permitted our club, Delhi Instagramer’s Guild (DIG), to organize the fortnightly instawalk in the fort premises and bring tripods within (which are otherwise prohibited at all monument complexes unless one pays an exorbitant charge). A very polite man, extremely well-spoken and understanding of the needs of photographers and history writers, Mr Adarsh made us begin to love the show even before we had stepped into the fortress compound. The superbly-researched show was to be prepared for the Commonwealth Games that Delhi hosted in 2010, but could only be readied by January 2011 – it has mostly been scripted with collaboration from history professors at JNU and is run by Indian Tourism Development Corporation’s (ITDC) Ashok Hotel Group. 


Also the hub of education, learning and instruction


It was nearly house full for the Sunday evening Hindi show (7-8 pm), but we saw only a couple of foreigners lining up for the English installment (8:30-9:30 pm) and if that’s the situation on a weekend, it appears that weekdays would be even worse off, which is rather sorry since the impressive show has been so thoroughly researched and innovatively designed and directed, and the visuals incredibly creative and unbelievably grand, that one couldn’t stop wishing that more people took an interest and the daily event was better marketed and advertised (even though the entire video and the individual songs have been made available on youtube) – where else would one get such amazing and highly informative value for their money? The best part is that the entire visual scheme has been so painstakingly calibrated that the entire fortress gateway appears to be one gigantic magical screen and nowhere does the highly varied texture of the walls prove to be a hindrance for the surrealistic viewing pleasure; the acoustics are equally remarkable, especially the heavy baritones that seem to ring in the ear and permeate all sounds even days after the show. 


Hallowed by its numerous saints and their monasteries and tombs


The event is considered amongst the foremost in the country, and is highly recommended by the Delhi Instagramer’s Guild team who remain indebted to the “Ishq-e-Dilli” team for the permissions and cooperation they heartily extended.

Show timings: September to October: 7.00-8.00 pm (Hindi), 8.30-9.30 pm (English); November to January: 6.00-7.00 pm (Hindi), 7.30-8.30 pm (English); February to April: 7.00-8.00 pm (Hindi), 8.30-9.30 pm (English); May to August: 7.30-8.30 pm (Hindi), 9.00-10.00 pm (English). The Hindi show is far superior in my opinion.
Entrance fees: Rs 80/person (Rs 40 for children up to the age of 12 years, differently abled and senior citizens). Tickets are available from the fortress’ ticket counter and can be purchased up to an hour before the show’s start.
Nearest metro station: Pragati Maidan
How to reach: The fortress is connected to different parts of the city by a regular bus service – the bus stop is located immediately opposite the ticket counter. One can walk/avail an auto/bus from the metro station if coming by metro. Parking facility is also available.
Photography/Video charges: Nil. Flash prohibited.
Contact: 011-24307539 (for information)
Relevant Links - 
Have a look - 

September 18, 2014

Tihar Jail – Graffiti and Haat, Delhi


“Subah likhti hun, Shaam likhti hun, 
Is Chardiwari mein baithi, bas tera naam likhti hun 
In faaslon mein jo gam ki judai hai, Usi ko har baar likhti hun 
Ye mere shabd nahin, dil ki aawaz hain, 
Khwaish zinda hai, Sochti hun subah kabhi to hogi hi, Har aas mein jeeti hun 
Haan, Subah likhti hun, Shaam likhti hun, 
Is Chardiwari mein baithi, bas tera naam likhti hun” 

(“I write in the morning, I write in the evening, 
Trapped between these four walls, I just write your name 
I continue to write about the sorrow of separation 
These are not my words, but the anguish of my heart, 
My dreams are still alive, I wait for the dawn and continue to live in hope 
I write in the morning, I write in the evening, 
Sitting in this prison, I just write your name”) 


Chaardiwari - Four Walls


An artistic transformation is in progress at Tihar jail. Asia’s largest prison complex now flaunts the country’s largest mural – spread over 968 meters, it is a blend of exquisite artwork and lyrics of a poem painted in the prominent street art textual style executed by extremely skilled artists. It is no secret that hand painted lettering that is symbolic of the subcontinent’s streetscape and a source of livelihood to thousands of painters and artists is dying a slow death at the hands of cheaper machine-printed vinyl and paper posters and text/art panels – an attempt is being made to jolt the lettering style back to life by the Delhi Street Art festival (“St. Art Delhi”) that is a brainchild of painter-artist Haneef Kureshi and envisages introducing the inhabitants of this antique city to the nuances of graffiti and street art. Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat villages, the renowned hubs of textile designers and uber-expensive restaurants and bars, already display the handiwork of these talented artists, especially “Daku” (“Bandit”) who has left his mark on numerous walls and flyovers of Delhi through his trademark signature executed in the vernacular – but who would have ever thought that Tihar jail, that continues to remain a symbol of oppressive incarceration and inhumane treatment despite several reforms aimed at improving the social and emotional well being of the inmates besides police sensitization, would one day host this splatter of multi-hued and vibrant colors that are indicative of artistic freedom and imaginative abundance.


Tihar's other side


Nonetheless, to augment the mood within the prison walls and in solidarity with the inmates, the designs are largely subdued and depict numerous symbols reminiscent of the imprisonment of these men and women and the reasons thereof. The poem itself, entitled “Chardiwari” ("Four Walls"), has been composed by Seema Raghuvanshi, an inmate of the jail, and strikes an extremely poignant note, especially when read in Hindi (my English translation is horrible!). While the text follows a largely uniform pattern with the monotony being broken by the use of several different colors and shades ranging from vibrant reds to glittering blues and dazzling yellows, it is the artwork accomplished by the artists from the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh and students of Delhi College of Arts that steals the show with its range of subjects and sketching styles – on a large gray panel is a caricature of a man drowning in a pit of black ink emanating from a pen, perhaps expounding on media trial of the accused and the assumption that a person is guilty before being proved so; another is a tempting collection of three panels painted side-by-side and interspersed by wide white margins depicting three dark angels confined in a space that is too congested for them; a third innovatively utilizes the trunk of a tree growing through the prison wall to depict a cruel, rough face that, in a commentary on the judicial system and law enforcement agencies, holds in its hands a cage and a bird respectively.


Atleast the tree cannot be held by the prison walls - One of my favorite panels


Another art piece, by graffiti artist Yantra, depicts, through a smooth blend of vibrantly colorful swirls and flourishes culminating into several heart shapes nudged in square panels reminiscent of diabolical machineries in cartoon shows, the mentality of a prisoner being transformed by the Tihar jail. Painted, in both Hindi and English, adjacent to one of the entrance/exit gate of the jail is the description – 

“Behind bars, Imprisoned in four walls, 
A set routine to be followed day after day. 
From mechanical conformation 
To a rehabilitated self, This was a jail 
Until it set my heart free.” 

The text is often interspersed by garbled lines looping several times upon themselves and painted in a variety of styles that can be seen so often painted through the city by juvenile graffiti artists. The impressive artwork is definitely worth a stop outside the jail premises, it beckoned me immediately the first time I passed it after it had been completed, yet very few passer-bys and none of the vehicles stop to admire the panels or read the touching words inscribed on the otherwise green-gray monotonous walls and I find it hard to believe that the residents of the city are unable to appreciate the execution of such wonderful artwork by these brilliant artists. 


Some words carried through and others lost in a jumble


I on my part never thought graffiti art could blossom in the country, especially since almost every public surface is considered open space for pasting horrible posters advertising everything from political parties to bakeries – somebody or the other would always cover up a beautiful piece of art with hideous posters (my eyes are on you ABVP and NSUI – shame on you for defacing public infrastructure, this wasn’t expected from students, especially those who claim to be the future of the country). Also graffiti is considered an offence under the West Bengal Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 1976, which was later extended to other states as well. Section 3(1) of the Act states that whosoever defaces any property in public view by writing or marking with ink, chalk, paint or any other material except for the purpose of indicating the name and address of the owner or occupier of such property, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to Rs 50,000, or with both. 


Another particularly scathing commentary - The media and public trials and the assumption of someone being guilty before being proved so.


But before I digress again – a gateway in the kilometer long front face of the prison complex where the graffiti–poetry is inscribed leads to the renowned Tihar Haat, an outlet for everyday FMCG products manufactured in the jail by prisoners. “Most of the prisoners here are victims of outbursts of rage which gripped them unexpectedly and propelled them to commit a crime they didn’t really intend to. Only a very small fraction are hardened criminals” pointed to me the middle-aged soft-spoken man who was running the Haat that day. Though he refused to share his name and the details of the crime he committed, he acknowledged that he was in for life imprisonment and no amount of remorse can alter his past. Delving into his emotions, which weren’t too far from the surface, perhaps owing to lack of people to talk to and his need to share his story, he confided that he misses his family and the prison system is a cruel one where the inmates do not have emotional solace or filial support. Though he didn’t have to live in the prison complex anymore owing to his good behavior and the grant of government accommodation opposite the complex which he shares with other inmates also employed in the Haat, he wasn’t free to do whatever he wanted or roam the city like he used to and it is the luxury of freedom that he missed most. I couldn’t fathom what to say to lessen his grief while he recounted his story but promised that I shall write about the graffiti mural and the Haat. 


Inside Tihar Haat - The furniture and art section


Though photography within the Haat premises is prohibited, I was able to click a few photographs while glancing through the goods shelves – the Haat is divided into several sections – the first one encountered is the pottery section immediately outside the well-ventilated showroom; inside, apart from daily use articles (soaps, oils), food products (pickles, spices, bakery items), jute bags, rugs and incense, the Haat also houses a publication and furniture department – I was introduced to the book “Tinka Tinka Tihar”, a voluminous anthology consisting of poetry and stories penned by the inmates and their photographs, possibly the centerpiece of the Haat given that all copies were wrapped in transparent plastic sheet and displayed prominently on the wall shelves. The furniture, especially the votive alcoves crafted from wood, have been crafted exceptionally skillfully and priced reasonably too. But the most splendid of all the items on sale are the numerous paintings and sketches, created by the inmates as part of psycho-therapeutic sessions, that adorn the entire interior surface of the Haat and mesmerize onlookers with artistic proficiency. Most of the bulkier items however were not for sale since one is required to first place an order for them and, given their worthiness and nominal pricing, they are so much in demand that usually a patron has to wait for a couple of months for delivery. 


Angels, fallen and confined


Apart from the boutique and the FMCG department, the Haat also possesses a small cafeteria and a seating arrangement outside that is enclosed and roofed by fiber glass panels. The inmates, most of them being skilled workers and yet entitled to a meager salary of Rs 74 per day, refuse to be photographed and dejectedly I again feel the terrible pinch of what had just been discussed about guilt and stigma.


"This is not Street Art" (specified near the prison entrance)


Location: Jail Road, near Janakpuri
Nearest Metro Station: Tilak Nagar
Nearest Bus stop: Tihar Jail
How to reach: Buses are available from different parts of the city for Tilak Nagar and Jail Road. One can avail a bus/auto from the Tilak Nagar metro station which is located couple of kilometers from the prison complex.
Open: All days, 10 am - 5 pm
More graffiti abounds here - Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex
Suggested Reading -

September 15, 2014

Mughal tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi


"'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'  Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away."
– Percy B. Shelley, "Ozymandias"

Since I began delving into the world of monuments and architectural heritage, I have come to realize that it is actually the smaller forgotten structures, often reduced to ruins, taken over by dense foliage and emerging from inconsequential locations and ignobly mundane settings, ignored by conservation authorities and untouched by the garish application of plaster and paint that goes about in the name of restoration in our country, that are the most warm and beckoning, throbbing with a plethora of tales regarding their long forgotten past and holding in their decrepit bosoms multitudes of stories and lore regarding the city’s existence and development and their own commissioning and construction. Nowhere is this bizarre anomaly more apparent than in the vast, forested and forgotten Mehrauli Archaeological Park where the trees seem to inch closer as one heads deeper underneath their canopy and the perennially dry air buzzes with an ominous silence disturbed only by the whistle of wind and occasional footfall of fellow visitors. It isn’t like the entire archaeological complex is bereft of visitors – the local residents come hither in the late afternoon and evening to graze their goats, guards and the rare tourists can often be spotted near the more famous medieval structures like Jamali Kamali complex and Rajon ki Baoli (see links at the end of this post), schoolboys come to play cricket and practice drama plays in the vast, landscaped area around Quli Khan’s beautiful tomb – but except for these, the only company are dogs and birds of several species.


Graceful!


Moving straight within the archaeological complex from the entrance located near Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban’s tomb is a nameless yet bewitching set of ruins, though most will simply look at it as that only – ruins. The semi-buried row of neatly stacked chambers, conjectured to be horse stables, surrounded by a low enclosure wall has always surprised me and made me wonder if it would bear the same charm once it has been dug out of the earth and the piles of heavy stones spread around it removed. I doubt that. I guess once these ruins are subjected to a beautification drive, they would simply become a set of very old rooms, not captivating chambers/stables, much like Balban's tomb complex that now appears as far from original as it could possibly be (refer Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb).

Further ahead nearby, in a corner not tread by many, stand two of my favorite tombs – dated to the Mughal-era by the distinctive ornamental features they display, the two stand couple of meters from each other flanked by numerous ruins of undated antiquity on one side and a deep sewage channel (“naala”) on the other. Yes the beautiful oasis has been hijacked by sewer lines and a flood of plastic and polythene; rest assured I do not like the two resilient structures for their surrounding ambiance, (which is poor when most respectably referred to as), but it is the graceful charm, even at being semi-submerged underground, that they exude that attracts me every time I’m at the archaeological park.


Submerged!



The larger of the two has lost most of its decorative adornment, it is this one that is half-buried in earth and located immediately next to the sewage channel – the only features it displays now are remains of calligraphy inscriptions and medallions, two large jharokhas (protruding windows) and kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) on the exteriors and a fairly well-preserved, though moss layered, roof medallion inside – but seldom does anyone venture within since one is forced to bend pretty low to enter the blocked entrances, moreover piles of garage surround it on every side and thick cobwebs bar entry within.

Post overcoming the the darkness and the strong stench of damp and rot, one can observe that most of the wall and roof surface seems to be draped by layers of moss-like vegetation – the dark is intense and I was forced to switch on the camera flash to click the medallion, though I avoid using flash in monuments since the pigments in natural colors used in such old structures are said to get damaged. The jharokhas are a surprise – though common in palaces, gateways and mosques, they are seldom seen in tombs, in fact this is perhaps the first time am seeing them used thus. Across the sewage channel is Waqf land, belonging to the Muslim administrative body involved with burial land, and a madrasa (Islamic seminary) is run there – it is nobody’s guess how the students manage to fixate their attention on the subjects and the sermons despite the stench they are subjected to. Soon, several students would peep out to observe the stranger with the camera photographing the neighborhood monuments, some would wave, others would point, but none ventures close. Anyway, a metal wire mesh separates the onlookers from the archaeological complex.


Spoiled!



The second, considerably prettier tomb has been recently restored, its walls that were cleaved in two, perhaps by earthquakes, have been sewn together with mortar but left untouched by the plasterwork and paint job – did the conservation authorities want to emphasize the work they undertook? The perfectly square structure possesses stucco medallions, glittering red paintwork on the wall portions above the arched entrances, minarets along the corners of the roof and a well-defined dome seated on a high drum (base); the interiors too display remains of exquisite stucco work, but the entrances have been barred by grilles and locked, the space within being used as a storeroom, a very miserable reflection on the way centuries-old monuments are treated in our country, even by the authorities tasked with conservation and restoration – this is the worst way to conserve a structure, I reckon!

Adjacent to the tomb is the associated wall mosque (“qibla”) that has been recently encroached upon, painted dazzling white and modified to add chambers alongside – now a madrasa is run from within the premises with scant respect for the heritage value of the structure and the exquisite surface ornamentation of the mosque have been assimilated in the madrasa and lost due to excessive plastering over. Peeping from behind the walls are the slender turrets of the mosque and painted in English and Arabic are the name and phone number of the religious instructor and the legend “Choti Masjid Bagh Wali” (“Small mosque in the lawn”), the name with which the structure has now been christened.


A storehouse!


The students there, middle-aged, bearded men, each dressed from head to toe in white, were aggressive regarding the photography prohibition being effected there and refused to allow even a single click. Thankfully, after I reiterated that it is Government land and I am entitled to click and write about the structures here, the person delivering the sermons quickly turned his face away from the camera and left; most of the students though decided it to be an excellent opportunity to pose next to the mosque and get clicked! Perhaps the adamant behavior was caused by the fact that the news about encroachment of the structure and its repainting has splashed in most major newspapers in the city, though there seemed to be no pressure on them of any sort to cease the modification work and vacate the land. I was not allowed to enter the narrow chambers. Given the presence of numerous Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) officials in the park overseeing the restoration-conservation work at nearby monuments, I find it scarcely believable that a monument was hijacked and they did not even have a whiff of it till after rooms were erected next to it!


A wall mosque? Now incorporated within this narrow seminary!


One doesn’t have an option to sit back next to these structures and adore them longingly – at last count there were atleast a hundred monuments (and more being excavated daily) in the complex spread over some 80 acres! With so much to see and click, who has the time to stop and stare – the same archaeological complex, stuffed with scores of structures representing over a millennium of civilization and construction, that magnifies the beauty of the structures hidden in its deep green bosom also makes more apparent the observation that the monuments here are but a transient glimpse in the eyes of the visitor, much like they were drops in the flow of this one millennium.

Once upon a time! (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)



Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Entrance Fees: Nil
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
Nearest Metro Station: Qutb Minar
How to Reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. Walk/avail an auto from Qutb Minar metro station or avail a bus from Saket metro station. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri 
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats 
  8. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli 
  9. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins 
  10. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
Suggested reading - Epaper.timesofindia.com - Article "Mughal-era monument painted white" (dated March 9, 2010) by Richi Verma