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 - 

6 comments:

  1. Stunning structure, and equally stunning write-up. Kudos to you, boss!! :) :)

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  2. I am glad i could come by ! and do all the crazy stuff from asking people their name and climbing their terraces! :D
    History was pretty interesting!
    i will be finally able to post photos now ! *Shukriya* :D :P

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    1. Lol..haha! I never stopped you from posting, did I? :P And you already did -_-

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    2. u never stopped.. u requested xD

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  3. Rakesh RanjanOctober 01, 2014

    Sahil bhai, I have been to Khirki Masjid must be 8 years ago.. The Masjid no doubt is spectacular .. but i recall it was pretty dirty around the mosque, not sure how is it now..

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  4. Nice article. I doubt if "Khirki Masjid" is the mosque's original name. No emperor or minister would ever name his mosque that. It must be fairly recently since it has been referred to as so.

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