A Tale of Two Mosques

Kalan Masjid all dressed up
Kalan Masjid all dressed up

Ferozeshah Tughlaq (1351-1388), the last significant ruler of the Tughlaq Dynasty, built his capital of Ferozabad on the banks of the river Yamuna. The ruins of the city, that came to be called Ferozeshah Kotla in later centuries, are located behind the Indian Express building and the perpetually under-renovation Ferozeshah Kotla Cricket grounds that derive their name from this 5th capital at Delhi.

While secular concerns of building a new capital to impress the world with the might and grandeur of the Tughlaqs occupied Ferozeshah, his prime minister, Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Maqbool Telangani, was engaged in the pursuit of a more spiritual objective – trying to secure peace and happiness in the hereafter. Juna Shah was building Mosques and in order to be sure of success in his mission he built, according to records and popular belief, not one or two but 7 mosques.

The Kalan Masjid or the Kali Masjid near Turkman Gate, the Jama Masjid at Nizam-ud-Din, the Khirki Mosque and the Begumpur Mosque are better known than the other three that included a small mosque in Kaalu Sarai (opposite IIT), a small mosque inside Ferozeshah Kotla and another small mosque that was located in an area that now falls outside the limits of Shajehanabad between Ajmeri Gate and Lahori Gate. In this piece we talk about the first two i.e. the Kalan Masjid near Turkman Gate (completed in 1387) and the Jama Masjid or Kalan Masjid built by Juna Shah 17 years earlier in 1370 at Nizam-ud-din.

It is said that while Ferozabad was being built, one of the courtiers of Ferozeshah who was a devotee of Shah Turkman Bayabani requested the king to expand the city limits in order to bring the shrine of the saint within the city. This, he said, would ensure that the reign of the Tughlaq’s would last forever. This easy formula of achieving permanence appealed greatly to Firozeshah and the city limits were expanded to include the shrine of Shah Turkman Bayabani and the surrounding areas within the city.

The Kalan Masjid is located in Mohalla Qabristan near Turkman Gate and you have to enter Shahjehanabad (puraani dilli or dilli 6, as it is derisively referred to, by those who believe that New Delhi is a city) through Turkman gate if you wish to see the mosque. Within a few steps you will come to a bifurcation, stick to the street one on your left, walk through piles of old air-conditioners, washing machines and discarded computers, stacked along the narrow Mohammad Din Ilaichi Marg, continue past the massive ruins of the main gate of the Haveli of Nawab Muzaffar Khan – Khan-e-Jahan during the reign of Shahjehan.

The street takes a bend and becomes narrower, continue walking on the left side- it is safer and will get you to your destination faster. You are now approaching Mohalla Qabristan, there were open grounds and some graves in this area till the late 1940s and early 1950s. The large scale migration into the walled city that accompanied the partition of India saw a large number of people settling down in this area. Gradually most of the graves were built over, though a few still lie scattered in the narrow lanes of the area. Those that survive include the shrine of Shams-ul-Arefeen Shah Turkman Bayabani and Razia Sultan the first women ruler of Delhi, both died in 1240.

The interior of Kalan Masjid
The interior of Kalan Masjid

Though Mohalla Qabristan is now filled with multi-storeyed hovels, this area was very open till the late 40s and early 50s according to Dr. Aslam Pervez, well known Urdu Scholar, whose family has lived in the area for generations. Dr Pervez and his friends used to play Football and Cricket in the grounds beside the shrine of Shah Turkman Bayabani. The same grounds were also used for the annual Basant Mela that was organised at the shrine.

The lands were occupied initially by those who migrated from Punjab in the aftermath of the partition and later by Muslims from surrounding districts of Haryana and West UP who were looking for spaces where they felt a little more secure. Gradually the open grounds disappeared and houses sprang up even on top of the graves. All that remains now is the name mohalla qabristan, with scores of Bawarchi’s who cook for weddings and Nanbais whose tandoor baked Sheermaals and Khameeri Rotis are in great demand.

Amidst all this there is a narrow non descript lane that opens out to reveal the third most imposing structures in the walled city, The Kalan Masjid – the Lal Quila and the Jama Masjid occupy the first and second positions in this triumvirate . “Kalan Masjid” would roughly translate as ‘the grand mosque’. Over the years the rough hewn stones with their lime mortar plaster and the original coat of white became black with mildew and the mosque came to be called Kaali Masjid. The mosque was probably built here because of its proximity to the shrine of Shah Turkman Bayabani and it is possible that the courtier who prevailed upon Firozeshah Tughlaq was none other than Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Maqbool Telangani, the builder of this and six other mosques in Delhi

You have to climb almost 20 feet through more than two dozen rather high steps to reach the imposing single entrance of the two storied mosque enclosed by really heavy-duty walls that are almost 2 meter deep. Flanking the entrance are two stump like minars, broad at the base and narrowing at the top, precursors to the Minars that were to find full expression almost two and a half centuries later in the time of Shahjaehan. The front of the ground floor, that was more like a basement, consisted of a series of double apartments that could have been used as living quarters for the Imam, The Muezzin and others looking after the upkeep of the mosque. By the 1920s most had turned into shops while the rear was used for residential purposes, the basement is currently being used for residential purposes once again, though from all that I know the imam is no longer one of the occupants.

Delhi Quartz was the stone that was the preferred building material during much of the sultanate period and it is the same stone that has been used in the construction of this mosque. The 33 carved stone Jaalis (perforated windows) that pierced the walls at regular intervals at both levels were however carved from red sand stone, as the quartz chipped and did not take too kindly to such niceties. Almost al these jaalis are now gone and the openings have been bricked up.

Nizam-ud-Din's Jama Masjid: A Bird's Eye View
Nizam-ud-Din's Jama Masjid: A Bird's Eye View

The Courtyard is enclosed by corridors topped with a single row of domes to the east, north and south while to the west the prayer chamber is three aisles deep with five arched openings, topped with three rows of domes. The mosque has enclosed cloisters to the north and south of the prayer hall and there are three small rooms towards the rear of the prayer hall that were probably used by those who wished to spend their time in continuous prayer undisturbed by worldly concerns.

The Mosque Courtyard was originally paved with 2’X2’ Delhi Quartz slabs but now they have been replaced by Kota Stone slabs. Rubble masonry mixed with lime and crushed baked brick mortar was used for roofing and in the construction of the 30 domes that rest on numerous single and double pillars. The arches rising from the pillars and supporting the domes create fascinating patterns when viewed from different angles.

The mosque is currently managed by the Waqf Board and the present management seems to have gone overboard in restoring and maintaining this 622 year mosque. The mosque is no longer black; it has now been painted over in shades of green blue and pink. The Kaali Masjid is now a white, pink, blue and green mosque.

The walls of the prayer hall have been lined with straw boards that have been fixed, pasted, or nailed to the walls and painted a strange shade of green. Thick and ugly iron strips have been fixed to the arches, hooks attached to the strips support ceiling fans and gaudy glass shades, with fake mother of pearl designs, nailed on to the pillars illuminate this garish sight.

The plaster on the walls of the grand entrance had begun to flake off and was replaced with a layer of marble chips mixed with white cement. This so called effort to look after and maintain a mosque, that has withstood the depredations of time for six centuries and a quarter, has obliterated all traces of its antiquity and taken away all the imposing grandeur of one of the most remarkable and enduring Pre-Mughal structures in this part of the city.

The state of the Jama Masjid / Kalan Masjid located on the eastern edge of Nizam-ud-Din is not very different. Basti Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din, to give this 700 year old settlement its proper name, has been one of the most important spiritual sites in Delhi. Its importance dates back to the time when Nizam-ud-Din, who was asked to go and live in Delhi by his preceptor Baba Fareed Ganj-e-Shakar of Ajodhan, decided to live in this mostly uninhabited locality known as Ghyaspura. The then Sultan of Delhi Ghyas-ud-din Tughlaq was not well disposed towards the saint and asked him to clear out of the region on several occasions, Ghyas-ud-Din’s son Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq was however a devotee of Nizam-ud-Din and the saint’s fame had spread far and wide by the late 1300s when Juna Shah Built his mosque at the Basti.


To reach the Mosque enter the basti from the Bhogal- Nizam-ud-Din road, turn left after the Nizam-ud-Din Bus Stand and go straight, ignore the huge multi storey mosque on your right, continue straight beyond Urs Mahal, Ghalib Academy and Ghalib’s mausoleum and head straight towards the dargah of Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din, sooner or later you will be stopped by someone with a request to take off your shoes. The moment this happens ask for directions to the Kalan Masjid or Jama Masjid, you will be directed to take the left lane, continue walking and asking for directions, you will reach the mosque in about 5 minutes, a passage running between the mosque wall and another building to your left will take you to a steel door, enter take off your shoes and turn right. You are inside the mosque.

The Nizam-ud-Din Kalan Masjid, like its cousins in Turkman Gate and elsewhere in Delhi, is typically Tughlaq in its appearance and use of material. Large stones with little dressing make up the walls that are straight inside while on the outside they taper inwards as the structure rises. Rubble mixed with a mortar of lime and crushed brick is the material used in the ceiling and in the domes that are almost conical outside and hemispherical inside. The roof rests on a number of single and double pillars with square bases supporting cuboid pillars hewn out of single rock. Series of arches rise from the pillar bases and support the small though heavy domes that run in a series of straight lines on the terrace leaving very few flat surfaces.

Originally the Mosque court yard was partly covered and partly uncovered as in the Khirki Mosque, incidentally these are the only mosques in north India which are by and large covered. An inscription on the eastern doorway states that the mosque was built by Juna Shah Maqbool entitled Khan-e-Jahan son of Khan-e-Jahan, in the reign of Abulmuzzaffar Ferozeshah Sultan in the year 772 AH. (Coinciding with 1370-71 CE).

Descriptions of the mosque talk of the courtyard being divided into 25 squares and continuing with rather difficult to understand descriptions of the placement of the domes. Exasperated by the mismatch in the descriptions and my own observations I was keen to get a bird’s eye view of the entire mosque in order to understand the ‘grand design’ and to try to figure out the damage that has been done by time and by those trying to repair and restore.

Google Earth came to my assistance and my colleague Nitin Saini drew a rough plan view of the mosque. The solid circles show the Existing domes and the circles with a white cross within show where other domes might have been

There are 38 domes that survive atop the mosque. 9 in a cluster of 3 x 3 on the north-west corner of the mosque covering less than 1/3rd of the prayer chamber (If the roof over the rest of the prayer chamber followed the same logic, there would have been 33 domes over the prayer hall including the 9 that survive). Going by the lay of the surviving domes on the 3 remaining sides and those placed atop the veranda that divides the courtyard in two parts, my assessment is that there would have been 67 domes atop the mosque. Add to these the 3 larger domes that sat atop the north, east and south gates and you have 70 domes in all. Such a large number of domes still falls short of the 89 that Juna Shah managed to construct atop the Khirki Mosque.

Let me state that this is my own conjecture and I could be flying a kite, I hope I am not. My common sense tells me that this is what the mosque plan would have looked like. I am going by the belief that Juna Shah would have followed acertain symmetry in this mosque as he had in the others that he had commissioned.

Most of the spaces marked by white crosses would have contained domes which broke down or collapsed over time. The fact that the mosque was in the middle of Basti Nizam-ud-Din would lead one to believe that the mosque would have seen repairs from time to time with the fallen domes and pillars being repaired or replaced with material that was in use at the time of repairs. Large parts of the terrace that are now level are paved with large bricks. Such bricks came into use only during the colonial period. Some such repairs might have been carried out before the idea of protecting old monuments came into being with the formation of the ASI. The repairs that have been carried out more recently fall into another category altogether and it is these that we need to look at more critically.

A rather hideous brick and concrete staircase has been built to reach the terrace. Marble tiles have been stuck to the south gate and elsewhere, the east gate has been painted and the same is true of the interior. A strange kind of pond with a stranger cover has been built for ablutions. A row of toilets has come up at a mezzanine level towards the southern wall with an iron staircase that provides excess to them. The violence that has been done to this beautiful structure is mirrored by what has been said above about the repairs and renovations carried out at the Kaali / Kalan Masjid near Turkman Gate.

In a country with virtually thousands of ancient and medieval temples, mosques, churches and other religious structures many of which are being used for prayers even today, there is an urgent need to develop mechanisms that would prevent organisations managing these structures from interfering with the original design of these heritage sites. Given the attempts being made by all kinds of unscrupulous elements to grab these ‘properties’ it is necessary to move fast. Failing which we can kiss goodbye to our heritage.

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Mosques”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful, and wonderfully evocative/passionate post.

    There is much cause for sadness here, but also joy. I am thinking in particular of these lines:

    “…sooner or later you will be stopped by someone with a request to take off your shoes. The moment this happens ask for directions to the Kalan Masjid or Jama Masjid, you will be directed to take the left lane, continue walking and asking for directions, you will reach the mosque in about 5 minutes…”

    Hilarious! Made my day…

    Sadly, on my own trip to Delhi I went to the Begumpur mosque, but missed going to the ones you mention here. I did not know about them, but it does spur me as far as my bext trip is concerned…

    Thank you.


    1. intezaar ka phal meetha hota hai
      par zyada intezaar kiya jaye to phal sad jaata hai
      aisa hi kuchh ho gaya hai mere dost


  2. Thank you! any chance of a piece on Chiragh Dilli? visiting Delhi last month and discovered that my cousins, who have lived all their lives in Delhi, are unaware Nasiruddin Chiragh-i-Dilli was a real person – if I have it right, the successor to Nizamuddin Auliya – have you considered publishing these pieces together?


  3. A few months go, while visiting the Jama Masjid, I happened to ask one of the attendants about the area surrounding the mosque. He introduced me to a young man who had grown up in the mohalla, and I spent the next 4 hours on one of the most fascinating and intriguing walks in my life. An insiders world that was built on layers of history, and the passage of time. My guide was well versed in the history of the area, having been blessed with the curiosity of a seeker of information , although deprived by poverty from much more than a high school education. He made up for it by seeking out the learned and scholarly in the mohalla who had become his “history department: and introduced me to two scholars whose life missions seemed to be to chronicle the history of their little world.

    The Kalan Masjid was the most memorable.. sadly , as well described by you, laid waste by the cultural frailty of the Waqf board. Regardless, the resonance of the original structure was still to be found and the walls spoke (under the plastic mother of pearl gewgaws) of what the original might have been.

    Excellent article, I much enjoyed it


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