04 June 2015

Satpula, Malviya Nagar, Delhi


“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”
– Traditional saying

As mentioned in several of the preceding articles on this blog, the Tughlaq Dynasty (reign AD 1320-98) rulers were some of the most prolific builder-architects that the city ever witnessed in its several millennia long history and left behind tell-tale signs of their prodigious existence in the form of massive fortress-citadels, colossal mosques, fortified tomb complexes, unusually beautiful Islamic seminaries, huge hunting palaces, inspiring pleasure pavilions and majestic waterworks. Of the last, built to counter the city’s perennial water shortage, the foremost example would be the nearly forgotten Satpula (“Seven-arched bridge”) sited near South Delhi’s Khirki Village which, despite the Government’s best efforts and the Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) repeated interventions at conservation and restoration, presently finds itself in an ominous predilection in that it has long ceased to exist in the popular imagination of heritage enthusiasts and history-philes and has become a popular haunt for alcoholics, marijuana-addicts and paint-wielding vandals who are attracted to it with the same propensity as moths to a flame. The colossal megastructure, not unlike other Tughlaq-era buildings that bear their penchant for structural enormity, defensive capabilities and an emphasis on functional characteristics, was conceived in AD 1340-43 by Sultan Muhammad Juna Tughlaq (reign AD 1325-51) as a gigantic three-tiered weir bridge designed to control stream flow characteristics of a rainwater-fed water channel draining into the mighty river Yamuna in order to bring extensive neighboring areas under the scope of agriculture and irrigation to sustain the local population. The remarkable rubble masonry structure’s prominent location at the protruding south-eastern corner of the enclosing walls of “Jahanpanah” (“Refuge of the World”), the Sultan’s cherished capital, rendered it ideal for transformation into a buttressed defensive structure.


Glorious ruins


Along one of its unusually desolate, nearly ruined longer sides of which a crescent-shaped portion has long collapsed, the weir bridge consists of seven arched, chamber-like openings on the lowest level and two additional similar openings on each flank built on successively perceptibly higher levels. These are surmounted by a decrepit second-level which is composed of a row of arched chambers flanked in the corners by extremely constricted staircases leading within the structure to the confines of the lower chambers. Lastly, the two corners are crowned with forsaken identical octagonal corner towers which, besides functioning in a strictly protective militarily capacity (thus the ubiquitous presence of tall narrow arrow-hole slits), also doubled into “madrasas” (Islamic seminaries disseminating knowledge of religious scriptures, jurisprudence and mathematics) during peace time and are intermittently simplistically ornamented with floral medallions and bands of graceful geometric plasterwork patterns. On the other side runs the smooth, finely finished wall punctuated by eleven thick diamond-shaped projecting buttresses which supported the sections where originally fitted the wooden sliding sluice gates (since disintegrated and disappeared) which could be vertically raised/lowered through the assistance of ropes in order to alter the flow, however the actual mechanism for the working of the bridge cannot be understood as a consequence of extensive damage suffered by the lower levels and the application of cement on the higher ones as integral to past conservation/restoration efforts.


Medieval water management


The ASI recently restored the unticketed monument as part of a Commonwealth Games 2010 prompted conservation drive focused on Khirki Village whereby the entire existential expanse of the monument was re-strengthened and revealed by removing soil and debris accumulation from around it and the huge open space around landscaped into a tree-lined, grass-shrouded lawn equipped with low-lying open-air auditoriums and viewing pavilions from where the massive immensity that the bridge is can be more readily appreciated. The substantial space underlying the structure continues to be utilized as a cricket ground by local teenagers while alcoholics can be seen even early morning sitting, gossiping and sharing a few pegs within the larger ruined chambers. The complete picture at present is that of ignorant isolation, heartbreaking miserableness and mediocre historicity with little visual composition to attract one’s attention to – but besides the emphasis on medieval engineering and water management techniques, the fascination with the structure’s heritage also stems from folklore that states that the renowned Sufi saints Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmud “Roshan Chirag-e-Dilli” (“Lamp of Delhi”) and Sheikh Yusuf Qattal (both of them buried in the immediate vicinity) used to perform their daily ritualistic ablutions (“wazu”) in the weir’s waters and the same has since been considered spiritually blessed and possessing medicinal healing properties (refer Pixelated Memories - Sheikh Yusuf Qattal's Tomb for a note on the latter’s life). Strangely enough, I couldn’t spot even a single drop of water, healing or otherwise, on either side of the bone-dry reservoir. And yet the board outside the complex comprising of meandering pathways and unutilized pavilions refers to it as “Satpula Lake District Park”! So much for our cultural, architectural and natural resources.


And not a drop to drink!


Location: Near Select Citywalk Mall, Press Enclave Road, Malviya Nagar (Coordinates: 28.531676, 77.223503)
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Entrance fees: Nil
Nearest Metro station: Malviya Nagar
Nearest Bus stop: Saket District Court/Khirki Village
How to reach: Walk/avail a shared auto (Rs 10/passenger) from the metro station to Select Citywalk Mall. The monument is located approximately 500 meters from the Mall on Press Enclave Road that runs immediately opposite the latter. Though most of the bridge cannot be viewed from the road as a consequence of the makeshift shanties and hutments impeding the view, the location is prominently marked "Satpula Lake District Park".
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 minutes
Other monuments located in the immediate vicinity –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Sheikh Yusuf Qattal's Tomb
Other Tughlaq-era monuments in the city –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Begumpur Masjid 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hauz Khas complex 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Khirki Masjid 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai-ka-Kot Fortress complex
Suggested reading –
  1. Archnet.org - Satpula 
  2. Thehindu.com - Article "Heritage locked up behind bars" (dated Sep 21, 2013) by Sohail Hashmi

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