The Fascinating Monuments of Mehrauli – The First City of Delhi
Qutub Minar, one of the most iconic monuments in Delhi, along with the Red Fort, is probably the best known symbols of Delhi’s rich history. As a UNESCO world heritage site, the complex around Qutub is immaculately preserved. Even the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, adjacent to the Qutub, houses scores of monuments and is a major Delhi attraction. But this piece isn’t about these celebrity monuments, but an effort to introduce people to the treasures that lie beyond these well protected sanctuaries and within densely populated residential areas where the past coexists with the present.
Mehrauli: A Short History
One does not have to go very far to understand what a treasure trove Mehrauli is. It is easy to spot a beautiful but neglected monument just beyond the Qutub Metro Station. A signboard proclaims an ASI-protected monument but does not mention a name. The guard isn’t much of a help either. Not much is known about its builders. The Madhi Masjid, a Lodhi era mosque with a robust, fortified structure decorated with bright blue tiles is now sandwiched between a busy highway and imposing residential complexes.
From a distance, Mehrauli appears to be just another congested locality of Delhi. But the facts behind it hide history. Mehrauli is the oldest urban settlement in Delhi founded by the Tomar and Chauhan Rajputs who built the initial fortifications in the 9th and 10th century. It was the seat of Qila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi, later conquered by Mohammad Ghori and Qutbuddin Aibak. They did cause some initial destruction but eventually contributed their own monuments to this historical area. Thus, Mehrauli came to be the first of the historic cities of Delhi, making it an excellent offbeat Delhi gateway. What is now known as “Old Delhi” came much later!
Exploring the monuments within the haphazard maze of residential complexes is quite a task. A few of these that lie on the main road running through Mehrauli are comparatively easily noticeable. The most prominent of
them is the Jahaz Mahal, an intriguing palace with an interesting name, though little is known about its past inhabitants. It lies on the banks of the Hauz-i-Shamsi, a 13th century water tank with a small pavilion on the other side. Encroachment has now reduced the tank in size and rendered the underground chambers of the Mahal a pile of rubble.
Another major structure in Mehrauli is the Mughal-era Zafar Mahal. The attached Moti Masjid stands just behind the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, the oldest Sufi shrine in Delhi. At Zafar Mahal, it is possible to climb up the dark staircases to have a better view of the locality. A clutter of residential buildings have encroached into the area. It is usual to find local children playing cricket on the roofs of the low houses. The Bakhtiyar Kaki dargah itself predates most of these monuments. This 12th century shrine also offers some delightful Qawwali performances on Thursday evenings.
Gandhak ki Baoli located on the opposite side of the dargah is another intriguing structure. A step-well named such due to the high sulphur content in the water, it is now partially destroyed with the water almost stagnant although locals use it for bathing and washing clothes. It is one of the few baolis of Delhi still in use.
The road eventually leads to the imposing tomb of Adham Khan, the son of Akbar’s influential wet nurse Maham Anga. Adham Khan, though not very well liked in his life for his desperate political ambitions and eventually executed by Akbar, was still honored by a memorial, a witness to Akbar’s respect for his mother. The octagonal dome on an elevated platform makes it a unique structure.
There are many other smaller structures hidden amidst the present day apartments. It may not be easy to locate them either. The interested curious Joes may find it worth their while to look for the tomb of Chaumachi Khan, Sohan Burj or Hijron ka Khanqah (the graveyard of the transgenders). These may look deceptively easy on Google Maps but one can easily get lost in those narrow, labyrinthine alleys of Mehrauli.
Sufism on the edge
While everybody knows Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah, there is another one at the end of Mehrauli, in the midst of the jungles. This is the Ashiq Allah Dargah which also has a very long history. Established in 1317 AD, it contains the grave of Hazrat Sheikh Shahabuddin Ashiq Allah (RA).The chilla (place of meditation) of Baba Farid, one of the masters of Nizamuddin Auliya, the renowned Sufi saint, is also situated nearby. The rich Sufi tradition is still observed through a langar where they feed the needy for free.
Inside the Jungle
People looking for more adventure can also venture into the protected forests of Sanjay Van beyond Mehrauli. It hides another valuable Delhi heritage, the last surviving portions of the Lal Kot, the erstwhile Rajput citadel. Walking through the jungle, climbing up the remnants of the fort walls and bastions to uncover the buried past of this city can be one of the most exhilarating and fascinating experiences in Delhi.
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