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Swapna Liddle’s Delhi Secrets

Well-known historian and author Swapna Liddle picks some of Delhi’s heritage gems:

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Thousands visit the world heritage site of Qutub Minar in Delhi, but not many know of the historically rich area of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park in its immediate neighbourhood. The Mehrauli area (where Qutub Minar is located) has been continuously inhabited for probably more than a millennium. The park is situated mostly to the south of the mid-eleventh century fortified city of Lal Kot, often called the ‘first city of Delhi’. Portions of the ruined city wall can be seen here; but what is special about the archeological park is the fact that it has seen construction down the centuries. One sees buildings from different eras, representing a wide range of styles and functions. Moreover, all this is set in a green area that is an oasis in the metropolis.

The tomb of the Emperor Balban, who reigned between 1265-87, is one of the oldest structures located in the park, and represents probably the first use of the true arch on Indian soil.

Balban

Before the advent of the Turks in the late twelfth century, Indian builders were not familiar with the arch in construction. The earliest buildings, commissioned by the early Sultanate rulers Qutubuddin Aibak and Iltutmish, saw the first unsuccessful experimentations with arcuate forms (seen in the buildings of the Qutub complex). The ruined tomb of Balban however exhibits a true arch for the first time.

A number of tombs and graves dot the area, as this was considered ground particularly suitable for burial. The reason for this is that the dargah (shrine) of the thirteenth century Sufi saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki lies just outside in the precincts of the park, in the historic Mehrauli village. In the early sixteenth century a pavilion tomb with a small but beautiful mosque was built not far from the shrine. Next to it was built probably the most beautiful step-well (or baoli) in Delhi – the Rajon ki baoli. It is built on four levels, with arcaded rooms surrounding the pool. This would have provided water to the local community, as well as travelers who could have found shelter here.

Rajon

In the sixteenth century there was a thriving population that had settled in the valley of a stream that drained this area, and an important Sufi, Maulana Jamali too made this his seat. Maulana Jamali was an acclaimed Persian poet and was revered by the early Mughal emperors. He built a beautiful mosque in this area, and at his death in 1535, was buried in a small tomb next to the mosque. This tomb is a small gem of a building.

Jamali Mosque

With a deceptively simple exterior, the inside walls and ceiling are decorated in exquisitely finely carved and coloured limestone plaster, tile and marble. Verses of Maulana Jamali’s poetry are inscribed on the walls, and carved in marble at the centre of the mihrab or prayer wall, is a purnakalash, an auspicious Hindu ritual vessel. It truly represents the syncretic beliefs of the Sufis, who incorporated Hindu symbols and thoughts into Islamic beliefs and practice. It is this reaching out to people of all faiths that has made the Sufi legacy an enduring part of the culture of the subcontinent, where the shrines of Nizamuddin Auliya, Muinuddin Chishti and many others, receive large numbers of devotees of all faiths even today.

Excerpted from an article published in Travel Secrets magazine (March-April 2012). Text & pics by Swapna Liddle, author of Delhi: 14 Historic Walks

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