We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself in our mirth;
And o’erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world’s worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth
The urge to talk about Mehrauli Archaeological Park is literally irresistible now. After weeks of traveling and researching over the internet and books, I could not but wonder whether this is the most architecturally and historically rich places in the world. Turning the pages of history brings alive every alley and stone of Mehrauli area with a vigor which I had never ever imagined in wildest of my dreams as I passed through these streets over last several years I have been in Delhi.
To talk about Mehrauli is to talk not just about the seven capitals of Delhi but all the cities of antiquities and medieval times, a daunting task whose scope certainly borders on epic. It is when you talk about this place as you move to and fro in time that the words of Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya “Hanoz Dilli Dor Ast” strikes you to take heed of its essence. Delhi is still far off, a city in flux, constantly evolving all the time and a new city rising each time this phoenix turns to ashes to rise more gloriously with a renewed vigor. In a sense Delhi is one of the only city in the world which is still becoming, expanding, assimilating and growing.
Mehrauli is the site of plethora of monuments, so much so that a sense of history and legends pervade every lane and even stones, for here lived kings, sultans, generals, warriors, saints and monks. Prehistoric tales associate Mehrauli with the descendents of the Pandavas. Later it saw the building of Lal Kot, a bastion of the first real city of Delhi whose archaeological proof could be found. Then it became the dominion of legendary Rajput warrior prince Pritviraj indelibly ingrained in Hindu courtly love tradition. Qila Rai Pithora was witness to the glory of Prithviraj Chauhan who was later defeated in Second Battle of Tarain by Ghauri, whereupon the latter’s death, his slave Qutubdin Aibak made Mehrauli his capital and the Sultans and emperors who followed him ruled from there.
The Qutub Minar was the crowning glory of Mamluks. Then Khiljis took over and build monuments such as Alai Darwaza, Madarsa and also laid foundation to the audacious Alai Minar which was supposed to be twice the size of Qutub Minar. The Tughlaqs built their own capital in the vicinity and the Sayyids and Lodis also left behind their modest creations which are now nestled inside the sprawling Lodi Garden.
The Mughals too liked this place and built several monuments. They were great devotees of the saint Qutubdin Bakhtiar Kaki and build many structures to show their respect and reverence. Bahadur Shah I found his last resting place in Mehrauli and Bahadur Shah II also wanted to be buried here in Mehrauli but unfortunately his wish was not granted as he was exiled to Burma after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, where his ‘mazaar’ now lies. The last Shah of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Jafar’s despair and anguish of not finding his beloved resting place was immortalized in his famous gazal:
लगता नहीं है दिल मेरा उजड़े दयार में
किसकी बनी है आलम – इ – नापायदार में
कह दो इन हसरतों से कहीं और जा बसें
इतनी जगह कहाँ है दिल – ए – दादगार में
उम्र – ए – दराज़ मांग कर लाये थे चार दिन
दो आरज़ू में कट गए दो इंतज़ार में
कितना है बदनसीब ‘ज़फर’ दफ़न के लिए
दो गज ज़मीन भी न मिली कू -ए-यार में
My heart finds no joy, in this ravaged city
Who has ever felt fulfilled, in this mortal world?
Please tell my wishes to go away somewhere else
There is not enough room for them in my sorrowful heart
I had requested for a long life of four days
Two were spent in wishing and two were spent in waiting
How ill-fated Zafar is! For his own burial
He couldn’t even get two yards of earth in land of the beloved.
Bahadur Shah Jafar II – The Last Emperor of India
There are many ways to reach Mehrauli Archaeological Park which include Delhi Metro. If you are using this mode of public transit, you should take the Qutub Minar Station exit. From there its a short walk to the gates of the park. It’s impossible to believe, as you walk the road towards park, that a place like this even exists there. When you’re on road, you’re in midst of the civilization, a part of urban Delhi but then suddenly a portal opens up and you step into a different world altogether – a world as magical as in entering the Platform Number 9 ¾ of the King’s Cross Station in London – You know what I am talking about if you have seen or read Harry Potter :-) Nestled amidst the urban chaos and din of ever expanding Delhi on all sides, Mehrauli Archaeological Park is a veritable oasis, a place bordering on ethereal if not for the encroachments (call it invasion of plastic, sewer lines and garbage dumps) of urban lifestyle.
The world inside the gates is so very different from the usual one that we the people notice everyday, that it’s a wonder how a few step left – literally as you walk from towards Metro Station – could set everything right. It’s like the lines of Robert Frost whein he says that I took the road less traveled. And believe me those are the path which leads you to joys of life, a veritable Route du Bonheur. Inside is a magical world – relics of past, sprawling lush landscape, nature encroaching on man’s dream of immortality, audacious monuments trying to commemorate the cold residents in their bowers for all eternity; and a sense of calm, serenity and freshness seldom witnessed in the bustling megalopolis of Delhi.
Nestled in the shadows of the World Heritage Site of Qutub Minar Complex, Mehrauli Archaeological Park is a gem to be discovered, a treasure trove to be explored and a magical escape to savor. With right kind of conservation and restoration and a little bit of human concern, this sprawling 100 acres park has the potential to be the crowning jewel of Delhi’s heritage and a tourist hotspot. Although restoration work is going on – and the work done by INTACH is definitely commendable – the nature is slowly taking over the monuments, some corners are used as landfill, plastic litter abounds, people play cricket and except for a few well known monuments most of the enclosures, gumtis and tomb lie in state of gross disregard as they are yet to be declared “protected monuments”.
Tomb of Quli Khan or the Dil-Kusha (Metcalfe’s House)
Pleasure gardens once were sprinkled across Mehrauli and it became the picnic spot of the royal families residing in the Red Fort. Later with the arrival of British, things changed but the allure of Mehrauli remained strong and Metcalf’s Follies and Dil-Kusha are prime example of that British penchant with then scenic Mehrauli.
A large part of what is today the “Mehrauli Archaeological Park” was purchased by the British Resident, Thomas Metcalfe. Metcalfe himself noted that one could not remain indifferent to the majestic ruins which were meant to immortalize their cold inhabitants for eternities. So after purchasing this vast expanse of land he went about landscaping the area.
Metcalfe also converted the tomb of Quli Khan into his residence. The house which was rechristened ‘Dil-kusha’ (the Delight of the heart) by its eccentric builder, once boasted of a drawing room, library, an oratory, as well as an external wing for guests and separate servants compartments. In fact, to add to the eerie quotient, the central chamber of Quli khan’s tomb (where his cenotaph existed) was removed by Metcalfe who made it into a dining room.
Metcalfe also build several structures to add to the ambience of his weekend retreat and a place which he sometime lent to honeymooning couples. There were boat house, springs, pools and what not once when Metcalfe was happily settled here to “look after” Bahadur Shah Jafar II from close quarters. One can spot one of the Metcalfe’s follies standing on top of a mound, just beyond the Jamali Kamali mosque. Another of his follies, a ziggurat, could be spotted near the parking of the Qutub Minar Complex. Ziggurats were massive structures built in ancient Mesopotamian valley having the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding levels.
But glorious days of Metcalf’s Dilkusha were shortlived. During the Great Revolt of 1857 the house was ransacked and abandoned. Over the next one and half centuries, the entire region was covered with vegetation with only glimpses of archaeological structure visible. In 2001 – 02 a massive conservation initiative was taken up by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which gave birth to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, housing close to 70 archaeological monuments.
One of the most important monuments inside the park, when it comes to development of Indo-Islamic architecture, is the Balban’s Tomb. Balban was slave of Iltutmish and the last sultan belonging to Mamluk Dynasty. He succeded legendary Razia Sulatn when she was killed by her noble. Balban was known as a ruler with iron fist. After his death he was buried with royal honor in what is now known as Mehrauli Archaeological Park. His tomb now lies mostly in ruin and it is also not as ornamentally carved and inscribed as his master Iltutmish. It is said that after the death of his favorite son – who was also supposed to be his successor – in a fighting near Multan against the Mughals, Balban was heartbroken. This incident is also said to have quicken his death.
Balban’s tomb belonging to Balban – Slave dynasty ruler of Delhi Sultanate and last of Mamluks – was constructed here in the 13th century can still be marveled at, although in a ramshackle state. This tomb is the first one to incorporate true arch, a breakthrough in Indo-Islamic architecture. The tomb was made of rubble masonry and now lies mostly in ruins. It was the first building to incorporate true arched dome in architecture which alas didn’t survived making Alai Darwaza in the Qutub Minar Complex, a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, the earliest such structure standing intact. Although Balban’s cenotaph is no longer accounted for, another cenotaph belonging to Balban’s favorite son, Khan-i Shahid (the martyr prince) or Muhammed, who died fighting Mongols near Peshawar before he could be crowned, is also located nearby Balban’s Tomb.
Jamali Kamali Tomb
Another important monument inside the park is the tomb and mosque of Jamali Kamali which is a mystery of sorts. Sheikh Fazalullah was a noted saint and poet who lived through the reins of Lodis Babar and Humayun. He died in 1536, 10 years after the Mughal dynasty was established in India. The romantic bent of Fazlu’s mind found expression in poetry which was highly appreciated and it also led the young Fazlu, a hapless romantic, somewhat arrogant character, with his head high in the air.
There’s an interesting account of how Fazlu became Jamali. According to anecdotes, once Fazlu went to a deserted spot where he was supposed to meet his beloved. it was the time of the year just after the rainy season when nature puts on her best and even the old moon shone brighter. The night was still young when Fazlu stood admiring it and composing couplets in his mind as he waited for his beloved with great anticipation. According to this version of the story, Fazlu paced restlessly as the hours passed by and at last saw a figure approaching through the trees. Thinking that his beloved has arrived Fazlu caught hold of the figure draped in robe but to his surprise Fazlu found out that it was an old man who looked like a dervish. Since that night his life changed and he becomes a hermit.
The period during which Fazalullah lived was the one in which saints Kabir, Sur and Tulsi Das flourished. It was when Bhakti movement was at its apex. Fazlu was drawn into the fold and came to be known as Jamal Shah or a fiery saint. He performed several miracles which cemented his ‘jamal’ or glory and so the name Jamali became popular. Historically, Hamid Bin Fazlu’llah belonged to merchant Sunni family who rose to considerable prominence during the reign of Sikandar Lodi. Under the aegis of his pir Sheikh Samauddin, Fazlullah was initiated into Sufism and later at his pir’s suggestion changed his nom de plume from Jalali (awe inspiring) to Jamali (lovable).
The construction of his tomb was begun by Jamali himself in 1528, as was the tradition in those time and was completed during the reign of Humayun. The walls of the Jamali’s Tomb are decorated with colored tiles and inscribed with verses composed by the poet himself. The grave next to him is referred to as that of Kamali. As for who Kamali actually was there is no record. But the name Jamali Kamali goes together for the Mosque and the tombs. A conjectural explanation could be that Kamali was the same old deverish man who Jamali grabbed that night waiting for his beloved, an incident which changed the course of Jamali’s life.
Rajon Ki Baoli
Ingrained in folklores not just in our part of the world but in the Occident too, are the legends of tooth fairies and djinns inside step wells and divinatory/healing power of water inside step well. Wells and springs were even reputed in folklore to be the entrances to the other worlds and like portal stone – which Rand uses to go to mirror world in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan – a way to the world over. After the Church took over the pagan world, some of the wells and springs were also supposedly used for divinatory purposes, or for seeking blessings upon oneself and one’s family, or for cursing one’s enemies. Thankfully all the three baolis that I have visited in New Delhi had none of these supernatural properties or it may be that with the passage of time these properties have evanesced, just like the water which these step wells once held.
This magnificent three-storeyed step well is believed to have been built by Daulat Khan during the reign of Sikandar Lodi in 1516. The name Rajon Ki Baoli is often inadvertently translated as step well of Kings (Raja = King). In actuality this magnificent three-storeyed step well should translate to step well of masons (rajon = builders). It is believed that this baoli was used by masons for some time, hence, the name.
It’s a spectacular sight as you reach here in the midst of wilderness. The manner in which Rajon ki Baoli – which is entirely subterranean – unfolds before your eyes is fascinating. Its like a layer cake, with each level adding to the sense of awe as you behold the colonnaded section running along three sides of the step well. The well is dry now but once it would have been the center of lots of activity, offering refuge and water to the merchants and city dwellers alike. Even now, a sense of serenity and calm pervades the interiors of Rajon ki Baoli. In the summers it offers a cool retreat to the denizens to beat Delhi’s unruly summers blue.
Within the structure of the baoli is a mosque and a tomb enclosure connected to the step well through the flight of step. There is unmarked cenotaph within the tomb which has 12 pillars forming arches. The mosque has an inscription on its chhatri. The inscription on this chhatri, which records the year of its making, dates Rajon ki Baoli back to the times of Sikandar Lodi reign. Rajon ki Baoli is the largest and most resplendent of the three Baolis in Delhi which I have visited – That includes Gandhak ki Baoli and Agrasen ki Baoli on Hailey Road in Connaught Place.
Other Monuments inside the Park
Sprinkled across the park are numerous Gumtis, enclosures and other relics of past which are slowly but surely being superimposed by nature. Several monuments are yet to receive the status of “protected monument” which well maintained monuments like Rajon ki Baoli and Jamali Kamali Mosque and Tomb enjoys. According to the paper of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), these unprotected structures within the park would be covered under the Phase VI of the conservation plan which is supposed to be the culmination of the previous phases wherein this park was designated as Mehrauli ‘Archaeological Park’ in Delhi Master Plan 2021. These unprotected structures belong to various dynasties – like the Mamluks, Khaljis, Tughlaqs, Lodis, Mughals and even British – which have ruled and laid foundation of the Seven Capitals of Delhi.
Gandhak ki Baoli
Just as you step outside Mehrauli Archaeological Park towards the Mehrauli Bus Terminus you can find a nondescript entrance to Gandhak Ki Baoli which is almost hidden between residential buildings and dhabas. The legend behind building of Gandhak ki Baoli is that Iltutmish built this step well for the saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. The story goes that one day the emperor, who had been bought as a slave boy by Qutubuddin Aibak, came to pay his obesience to Qutub Sahib and seeing him disheveled inquired why he had not bathed. The saint replied that he needed a place to do so. ltutmish immediately gave orders for a baoli to be built and Gandhak ki Baoli was constructed in record time.
Tomb of Adham Khan
Just as you exit from the park towards Gandhak ki Baoli and head towards Bus Terminus, from out of nowhere you will come across an anomalous sight. Surrounded by busy market place and thronged by people in quest to catch the bus, Adham Khan Tomb is almost unreal in the chaotic environs as in it does not belong where it is. The tomb of Adham Khan in Mehrauli gives a sense of peace and quititude but has a turbulent history of betrayal, murder and bloodshed. The tomb however contains no such stain now to corroborate to its violent past. Surrounded by the bazaars that have sprung up and dusty Mehrauli Bus Terminus, the tomb complex is a different world altogether.
One of the things which make this tomb distinct is that it is neither Mughal nor Afghan in its conception. One of the reasons being given is that it was built by Emperor Akbar in imitation of the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalam. The other explanation is that since it was built for a traitor the elements of Sultunate period architecture – the octagonal shape – were ingrained in the pattern of the tomb.
The person who lies interred here is Adham Khan, Akbar’s foster brother and son of the emperor’s favorite wet nurse Maham Anga. It is said that Adham Khan was a man devoted to worldly pleasures. He was fond of the pleasure of the flesh, full of a great deal of swagger and could not bear the sight of Atgah Khan because the latter occupied a high post and was referred to as Akbar’s foster father. Thinking that Atgah Khan’s removal from the equation would clear his path for more respect and higher position, Adham Khan conspired and had Atgah Khan killed in Agra Fort.
When Akbar came to know of this treachery he went mad with rage and had Adham Khan thrown from the top of a balcony of the Agra Fort. According to the chronicles, Adham Khan was thrown twice from the height of the fort to ensure that he was dead. The body of both Atgah Khan and Adham Khan were bought to Delhi for burial and whereas Atgah Khan was buried in Nizammudin – most probably due to proximity with the great Sufi saint’s tomb – the body of Adham Khan was buried in Mehrauli close to the traitors (Sultans). As the destiny would have it, the tomb of the Adham Khan turned out to be grander of the two.
The uncommon feature of this tomb is the intricate passageway or the labyrinthine maze up a flight of steps and that may be why this tomb is popularly/locally referred to as Bhool Bhulaiya. Even if you go on asking the locals about whose tomb this one actually is no one can tell you the name of the person interred here neither will you find plaques or board telling you that the tomb actually belongs to Adham Khan.
According to a popular folklore women should not visit this tomb. This is because of the curse of Roopmati. Like Romeo & Juliet and Laila-Majnu, the story of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur is one of those grand romantic sagas of Indian history, filled with beauty and emotion, yet ending with tragedy, loss and separation.
According to the romance, Baz Bahadur who was the ruler of Mandu from 1555 to 1562 once caught sight of Hindu pastoralist Roopmati singing as she bathed in the Narmada River. Enchanted by her beauty and her melodious voice, Baz Bahadur instantly fell in love with her head over heels and yes you’ve guesses it right; it was love at first sight. There was no turning back as we all know that love is blind. From then onwards all Baz Bahadur could see was Roopmati. Thence started the adventure of our own Mr. Eagle and Phebe in the Forest or Arden. India’s very own Romeo began spending his time in the pursuit of love and music, leaving a placard hanging from the palace which read: “you are most welcome, but do not disturb”. So when Satans’ general, Mephistopheles Khan, attacked Mandu in 1561, the kingdom was his for the taking.
Baz no longer Bahadur fled to Chittorgarh to seek help leaving behind apple of his eyes and melody of his heart, Roop, forgetting all the love they shared “jab they met”. Adam khan came as the conqueror to Mandu to do what they did best – plunder both wealth and women. Adam tried to invoke Aphrodite’s wish granted to him through royal diktat when he beheld the enamoring beauty of Helen of Mandu. But bred in Indian culture of chastity, pati-vrata nari in tradition of Sita and Sati, Rani Roopmati stoically poisoned herself, Indian romance/tragedy’s very own Lucretia; thus ending this magical saga of love and commitment immersed in music, poetry and beauty between Brave Eagle II a.k.a Baz Bahadur and Titania a.k.a Roopmati.
So when MJ asked the ultimate question “Who’s bad?” from humanity, Captain Hook a.k.a Adham Khan was petrified to see every finger pointing towards him and to this day it is considered an ill omen for a woman to visit this tomb which would mar a lady’s conjugal happiness.
Now for the general information from tourist point of view, there are no public conveniences that I know of or see inside the park but there are secluded corners which people do love to use for nature’s call. It may take several hours if you are for serious sightseeing inside Mehrauli Archaeological Park so plan accordingly. For lunch breakfast and dinner, there are several dhabas near the Adham Khan’s Tomb serving Indian cuisines including stuffed paranthas. From here you can even walk up to Qutub Minar Complex. As for how to reach this park, Metro is your best bet and you should ideally get off at Qutub Minar Station and walk from there to the park and do keep looking left for a gate to the park.
Other entrances to the park are from near Gandhak ki Baoli near Mehrauli Bus Depot and from near Qutub Minar parking where you see the Ziggurat, one of the Metcalf’s follies. For those using their own vehicle, you may also drive up to Jamali Kamali Mosque inside the park. Parking is not an issue as park remains mostly deserted if not for cricket playing kids. It may get real secluded hence I’d advise caution to ladies traveling alone especially in late hours of the day. In the morning and afternoons it’s as safe as any part of Delhi which is I am sorry to admit is not much.
Let me finish with a few lines from the same ode I begun with in the first place to aptly sum up this post. These beautiful lines pay tribute to the artists, the dreamers, the thinkers, the builders, the power of human imagination and to those who dare. Another narcissistic interpretation of the lines would be that ultimately it is left to us, we the storytellers, poets and writers among other artists since time immemorial, who have the ability to affect the course of history through our narrative to an extent often greater than the mightiest conqueror :-) And I travel; therefore I write. I write; therefore I am :-)
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.
A Few More images from my trip to Mehrauli Archaeological Park:
The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) offers heritage walks of Old Delhi and Mehrauli Archaeological Park at weekends. You can also arrange private guides. Alternatively pick up a copy of Old Delhi: 10 Easy Walks for inspiration. Join the charitable organisation Salaam Baalak Trust for a city walk with a difference. These two-hour walks (Monday to Saturday) are led by a former street child who shows you what life is like for kids living on the streets.
I hope you liked this installment which might be considered as a short detour from the seven capitals of Delhi but an important part nonetheless. Your feedback about the series uptill now would be most welcome. Till the next chapter CIAO :-)