Text and photos: Rangan Datta
M ehrauli, a locality in southern Delhi, is home to Delhi’s most well-known land mark – the Qutb Minar. The Qutb Minar, along with the other structures of the complex, forms one of Delhi’s prime tourist attractions. The area surrounding the Qutb Complex, which projects into the rocky outspur of the Delhi Ridge, is scattered with ruins of more than a hundred monuments, consisting of tombs, pleasure palaces, mosques, dargahs and step wells.
A few of the ruins of Mehrauli date back to the oldest of Delhi’s many cities, and the area has remained permanently inhabited since the days of the Delhi Sultanate. Although thousands of tourists make it to the Qutb Minar complex, only a handful make it through the undulating terrain to the numerous scattered monuments of Mehrauli.The monuments of Mehrauli are spread over a large area and can be classified under two categories – Mehrauli Archaeological Park and Mehrauli Village. The monuments of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park are spread over a smaller and compact area, and are maintained by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). These monuments are well-maintained and are connected by pathways through landscape gardens, with proper signage.
Most of the monuments of the Mehrauli Village are maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and are scattered over a large area. There are no road signs and the monuments are difficult to locate, but the locals are extremely helpful and provide necessary directions for locating the monuments.
The Mehrauli Archaeological Park
To explore Mehrauli, it is best to start with the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, which is located in the shadows of the towering Qutb Minar. The entrance of the park is located next to the Qutb Complex and is through strange pyramid-like structures. These structures are known as ‘ziggurats’ or Mesopotamian pyramids. They look totally out of place and strangely, these were not constructed in the Sultanate or Mughal period, but were erected during the British rule.
Straight ahead of the pillar lies the octagonal structure, which finds mention in Willam Dalrymple’s famous novel The Last Mughal. The octagonal tomb of Mohammad Quli Khan was converted into a garden house in the 1830s, by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalf, civil servant and agent of the Governor General of India at the imperial court of the last Mughal Emperor – Bahadur Shah Zafar. Metcalf called it the ‘Dilkhusha’ meaning “delight of the heart”, and used it as a pleasure retreat. Located in the shadows of Qutb Minar, it was surrounded by gardens and follies.
Metcalf used to lease out the house to honeymooning couples. But the history of Dilkhusha dates back far beyond the days of Metcalf or of the British. The tomb belongs to Mohammad Quli Khan, a general of Akbar’s army.Nothing much is known about Quli Khan or the battles he won. He was the son of Maham Anga, who was often considered as the foster mother of Akbar. Quli Khan was also the brother of the notorious Adham Khan, whose tomb stands next to the Mehrauli bus stop. In the 1830s, Metcalf transformed the tomb into a country house, which served as a pleasure retreat till his death in 1853. During the revolt of 1857, Metcalf’s Dilkhusha was vandalised and left in ruins. For the next century and a half, Quli Khan’s tomb, along with the other monuments of Mehrauli, were forgotten and left in utter neglect.
It was only during the beginning of the new millennium that INTACH took up the initiative of restoring the tombs of Mehrauli, leading to the formation of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Since then, the tomb of Quli Khan has been restored to its former glory, and can be considered as one of the most stunning tombs of Delhi. The tomb stands on a high plinth and is approached by a flight of stairs. It is octagonal on the outside and square on the inside. The paintings on the inner walls have been redone and look spectacular. The exterior has designs of stucco plasters consisting of calligraphy, floral and geometric designs. A few traces of coloured glazed tiles can also be seen. The interiors are exquisitely ornamented with intricate and painted plaster work.
Although nothing spectacular, Balban’s tomb is of great architectural importance as it contains the first true arch (a true arch is constructed by circular arrangement of stones) to be constructed in India. The tomb also has an entrance gateway with a black pyramidal roof, but the roof of the tomb has long collapsed, leaving the grave of Ghiyasuddin Balban exposed to the sky. In the side chambers of his tomb exists a large rectangular solitary grave, constructed out of bright red sandstone, containing intricate calligraphy. It contains the mortal remains of Balban’s son, popularly known as Khan Shahid.
After Independence, the tomb of Azim Khan was left in neglect. It was only during the Commonwealth Games’s (Delhi 2010) beautification drive, that the neglected tomb finally got its much needed attention. During the process of restoration, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) decided to build a staircase leading up to the tomb, thus making the century old inaccessible tomb accessible. However, the tomb is hardly visited by people, and the approach road is extremely difficult to spot.
The step wells or baolis of Mehrauli
From Azim Khan’s tomb retrace your steps back to the Jamali-Kamali mosque, past Balban’s tomb, and it’s time to head for Mehrauli’s famous step wells. The step wells are an integral part of North and West India landscape. They are known as baoli in Delhi, vaav in Gujarat and barab in Maharashtra, and are a unique form of architecture built around the gigantic shaft of a well.
Sadly, the water in the Rajon ki baoli has long dried up and has come to be known as the sukha baoli or the dry well. Even in the height of monsoon, one can only find traces of black greasy water at the very bottom. But in spite of its dryness, Rajon ki baoli still maintains its graceful charm and architectural beauty. Small, narrow staircases lead to the terrace of the baoli, which offers a spectacular view of the Mehrauli region and houses a small mosque on the western side. In front of the mosque stands a domed pavilion supported by 12 pillars. The dome is crowned with a floral motif finial and only traces of blue ceramic tiles can be seen to this day.
A similar narrow staircase leads on to the subterranean levels of the baoli, where sadly, the arches on the frontal part of the step well are only decorative. Those on the side are simple and devoid of any ornamentation. However, the side walls contain shallow alcoves, where earthen lamps were lit during the medieval period to light up the baoli at night. The experience of descending the narrow staircases leading to the deep inside of the well, is an experience akin to travelling back in time!
After Rajon ki baoli, one makes one’s way past several unknown and unmarked structures, to the main road. If you take a right turn and before you reach the Mehrauli bus terminus, you will reach Gandhak ki baoli, Mehrauli’s second step well on your right. Unlike the Rajon ki baoli, Gandhak ki baoli contains water for a majority part of the year. During the monsoon, local boys perform stunts by jumping into the sulphur rich water of the well, so it is often referred as the jumping well.
Head towards the Mehrauli bus stop and on the left is an old Sultanate period tomb converted into a public health centre. For obvious reasons, the tomb has lost it beauty and grace, but the real surprise lies on it outer walls. It’s a plaque dedicated to the soldiers from Mehrauli and Badarpur, who lost their lives fighting for the British in World War I (WW I).
In 1561, Ataga Khan was appointed Wakil (Prime Minister) by Akbar, much to the displeasure of Adham Khan and his mother Maham Anga. Ataga Khan, who was the husband of another of Akbar’s wet nurses, Jiji Anga, was murdered by Adham Khan. A furious Akbar ordered that Adham Khan be thrown from the ramparts of the Agra Fort. Strangely, Adham Khan survived the fall of 12 meters, so Akbar ordered him to be thrown again, and this time Adham Khan was not lucky.
Maham Anga died four days later and both their bodies were transferred to Delhi and strangely, Akbar commissioned a grand tomb for him. And just like Adham Khan’s life, the tomb also had its share of ups and downs. In 1830, a British officer Blake, of Bengal Civil Service, converted the tomb into a pleasure house and had his grave removed. Very similar to the Quli Khan Tomb which was converted into a pleasure house by Thomas Metcalfe. Later on, Lord Curzon had the tomb restored and the grave replaced.
The tomb consists of an octagonal domed chamber in Lodhi style. The corners are marked with low towers. It is commonly known as bhul bhulaiya (labyrinth) as visitors are said to lose their way amidst the several passageways. The walls, both exterior and interior, have a handful of floral motifs and the lone fresco, on the inside of the dome, has almost faded away. The interiors still serve as a sleeping place for the homeless.
The Mehrauli Village
Now it is time to retrace your steps past the WW I plaque and Gandhak ki baoli and head for the monuments of Mehrauli Village. The dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, after whom the Qutb Minar is named, is the first stop. There is no signage and asking the locals is the only option to visit the dargah. It is an active dargah and consists of several other dargahs and graves along with a mosque. The huge but simple complex attracts people of all faiths.
Adjoining the dargah is the Zafar Mahal and the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque). Zafar Mahal, named after the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah II and constructed by the second last Mughal ruler Akbar II, happens to be the last major structure to be constructed by the Mughals in India. The Zafar Mahal served as a summer palace for the royals and also served as a resting place for the royals during their visit to the dargah. Bahadur Shah II added the gigantic Hati Gate (Elephant Gate) to the summer palace, which allowed elephants to pass through it. The huge three-storeyed sandstone gateway, with marble relief work, still towers above the crowded neighbourhood of Mehrauli.Today the entrance is through a small opening in the gigantic Hati Gate. Collapsed roofs, broken walls and cracked arches are all that remains of the summer retreat of the later Mughal rulers. The place is deserted and a lone security guard stands as a custodian of the century old palace. Although in ruins, the gigantic arches, through which the elephants once passed, reminds one of the glorious days of the Zafar Mahal.
Passages through the giant archways lead to an open courtyard. At the far corner of the courtyard stands the Moti Masjid (Pearl Mosque). Built in 1709, it has three domes and a recessed Miharba on the western wall. Impressive parapets and tapering minarets add a new dimension to the mosque. On the south-eastern and north-eastern corners of the small complex, stand two azan minars. The Moti Masjid was once approached from both the Zafar Mahal and from the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, but today the entrance of the dargah is kept under lock and key by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which has also declared Zafar Mahal and Moti Masjid as protected monuments.
Next to the Moti Masjid is a small enclosed place surrounded by beautiful marble jali work, it contains the grave of Akbar II and a vacant place lies next to it, probably meant for Bahadur Shah Zafar or Bahadur Shah II. Sadly, history had a different tale to tell. After the revolt of 1857, Bahadur Shah II was deported to Burma (Myanmar). He died there and was buried unceremoniously without a grave, while his proposed place of burial remains vacant to this day. A few rickety steep staircases lead to the first floor of the Zafar Mahal, where a lone stone pavilion and a chhatri still stand, reminding one of the last days of the mighty Mughals.
Now it is time to move deeper inside Mehrauli and head for the Jahaz Mahal. Although in ruins, the Jahaz Mahal towers like a ship over the congested and overcrowded Mehrauli neighbourhood. Located next to it is a huge lake called Hauz–i–Shamsi, dug by Sultan Iltutmish in 1230. Jahaz Mahal was constructed almost 200 years later during the Lodhi period and because of its reflection in the huge lake, it gets a ship like appearance and hence the name Jahaz Mahal. The U–shaped Jahaz Mahal was probably surrounded by a moat, sadly the moat has long dried up. A flight of stairs on the southern end probably leads to Jahaz Mahal via a wooden draw bridge.
The wooden plank of the draw bridge has long vanished, and presently the entrance is through the eastern side, where a part of the moat is covered up to give access to the Jahaz Mahal. Historians have doubts about the exact usage of the Jahaz Mahal. Some believe it to be a Sarai (inn) for pilgrims, while others believe it to be a pleasure house of the royal family. The presence of a Miharba on the western wall of Jahaz Mahal indicates that this part of the building was indeed a mosque. The U–shaped courtyard is lined with several anti–chambers, each crowned with a dome with decorative squinches.
Hardly visited by tourists otherwise, the Jahaz Mahal becomes the centre of attraction during the festival of Phool walon ki sair, celebrated in the month of August. The origin of this festival dates back to the late 18th century when the son of the Mughal Emperor Akbar II, Mirza Jehangir, was imprisoned by the British. Mirza Jahangir taunted the British Resident Archibald Seton. The young prince also took a shot at Seton at the Red Fort, but missed his target and killed his orderly instead. His mother Mumtaz Mahal (not to be confused with the wife of Shah Jahan), vowed to offer chadars at the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and the Hindu Jogamaya Mandir on the release of her son. Ever since, the festival is celebrated with devotees, irrespective of religion, with offers of colourful chadars and decorated floral fans to the dargah and the temple. The festival continues with kite flying, wrestling bouts and qawwali and the neglected monuments of Mehrauli, like the Jahaz Mahal, get the much needed attention.The huge Hauz–i–Shamsi Lake, located next to the Jahaz Mahal is an interesting mix of history and legend. It is believed that the Prophet arrived in Iltutmish’s dream and mentioned about the suggestible site of the tank. Next day Iltutmish visited the place and found the hoof marks of the Prophet’s horse. Iltutmish had the tank dug and in the centre of the tank he made a pavilion housing the stone with the hoof marks of the Prophet’s horse. The Moorish traveller Ibnn Batuta was struck by the vastness of the tank. Today, the tank is a shadow of its past and probably it has also shrunk in size and the water looks dirty. A lone domed pavilion stands on the southwest corner of the lake. The domed pavilion approached by a concrete passage is probably a recreated version of the original one created by Iltutmish.
If you are still hungry for more, you can head for the tomb of Sultan of Ghori at the edge of Mehrauli. The more adventurous can even explore the ruins of Delhi’s first citadel, the Lal Kot.