This is to be read as a sequel to my earlier post, A Tale of Two Mosques.
First published in Landmark. Photographs by DEVNDRA CHAUHAN. Credit for the map drawings: NITIN SAINI.
With the exception of Humayun’s tomb, and it is an exceptional structure, I have up to now stuck to my brief of talking about lesser known monuments of Delhi and will hopefully continue doing so as long as some monuments continue to exist incognito or till I am told to layoff. Considering that some of the readers have reacted favourably to my output I hope to continue to tread on what used to be a lonely trail.
Of late I have discovered fellow travellers on my jaunts, this path is no longer as lonely as it was when I began to see them in my teens in the company of my father who had strayed into archaeology from furniture designing, interior decoration and draughtsmanship.
The two structures that I want to talk about today were built in the 14th century; both are believed to have been built by Khan-e-jahan Juna Shah Telangani, the Prime Minister of Firozeshah Tughlaq. The Khirki Mosque on the Saket Chiragh Dilli Road, not too far away from the Satpula of Muhammad-bin-Tughlq, was according to the ASI built by Juna Shah, though there seems to be some doubt about the authorship of the Begumpur mosque. The ASI Publication “Delhi and its Neighbourhood” says that “….the Begumpuri-Masjid,(is)….reputed to have been built by Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah….” The doubt probably stems from the observation made by some writers that the Begumpur area was deserted by the time of Juna Shah when Firozeshah started building his new capital of Firozeabad (the Firozeshah Kotla of today) on the banks of the Yamuna.
The popular belief however tilts in favour of Juna Shah as the builder of both the mosques and I tend to subscribe to this view as well. The idea that this area was abandoned because a new capital was being built in a different locality appears a little far-fetched. If Begumpur was so completely deserted, the area around Khirki, barely a couple of kilometres away would have been affected as well but Juna Shah caused a mosque to be built at Khirki during the same time. I, therefore see no reason to doubt the Juna Shahi lineage in Begumpur as well, especially since there are so many architectural similarities between Begumpur and other Juna Shai Mosques.
Of the seven mosques Juna Shah is reputed to have built two were built in the new City of Firozeabad, one near the shrine of Shah Turkman Bayabani and the other within the new palace complex. Four out of the remaining Five, were built in the older settlements spread across what is now South Delhi, but was the Puraanni Dilli of those times. The 4 mosques were located at NIzam-ud-Din, Khirki, Begumpur and Kalu Sarai while the last was built in an area that fell outside the city limits; of Firozeabad it was actually located in an area that did not even become a part of Shahjehan’s Dilli and fell outside his city between the Lahori and Kabuli Darwazas of the walled city.
Let us return to the Begumpur and Khirkee Mosques. The Begumpur Mosque can be approached from two sides. The more complex route first, go under the Panchsheel flyover and take the road that goes towards Malviyanagar, turn left on the road to Shivalik, before you reach Begumpur village proper, you will see a fruit juice shop at the head of a lane to your right. Turn in, if you are in a car park where you can, you can drive through but turning will be a major hassle on your return, so park and walk straight. The narrow road will split, take the left fork- walking straight and sticking to the left are healthy and politically correct habits- continue till you come to a T junction, hemmed in on both sides by houses, turn right, the narrow lane will take a bend and deposit you near the east gate of the mosque.
The other route is simpler, cross Essex Farms – a monument in its own right to expensive lack of taste- and turn left ( the left turn again, stick around and you will become a revolutionary yet) before Azad Apartments. The narrow road turns right, but corrects itself and turns left again, before continuing straight till coming to an abrupt end before an iron gate that opens into the Bijay Mandal of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq. More about that in a later piece, park if in a car, turn right and left again walk 50 yards or so and you will see the mosque wall to your right (too many left turns and you end up on the right) another few steps and you are in front of the East gate of Begumpur Mosque.
You will be confronted with an iron fence and an iron gate, meant to discourage encroachments but succeeding in ruining the building. The dozen or so high steps that lead to the imposing gate are now piled high with stone slabs, rubble, and sundry other trash left behind by the last bunch of ASI restorers when they ran out of funds. The rubbish awaits the next outbreak of restoration likely to coincide with the commonwealth games. Most of the available space on the steps is taken over by Hookah smoking, card playing and gossiping elders of the village and an undetermined number of prancing goats.
Once you negotiate the steps and push your way past another massive, rusted and crooked iron gate you enter the mosque. Let it sink in slowly it is magnificent! At almost 1000 sq meters (91meters X 93 meters) it is 2nd only to the Jama Masjid of Shahjehan.
As you enter through the main gate you come into a large covered space topped by one of the four large domes that adorn the three gates and the central arch that is the principal entry into the prayer hall. The Large courtyard that can accommodate a few thousand praying humans, the covered verandas – single arch deep – on the east, the south and the north and the roofed main prayer hall -three arch deep- give you an impression that is not dissimilar to the mosque design that was to emerge later in Central Asia. Did it come from there or did the design, developed by Juna Shah, find an echo in far away Tashqand and Farghana is difficult for me to say.
Towards the western end of the northern veranda there is a very low and very narrow opening that leads to a small structure. This is believed to be a separate mosque that was probably reserved for women. The narrow passage was perhaps meant to discourage mediaeval eve teasers. This part could also be accessed from outside the mosque but the staircase is now blocked by rubble, empty beer bottles and other remains of the wastage that contemporary lifestyle leaves in its wake.
The court yard is a popular cricket field for the local urchins, the surroundings of the mosque are used as a rubbish dump by the local residents who have long treated this area as their own property. In fact an entire village used to live inside for long and it was quite an effort for the early ASI staff to persuade them to move out in the late 1910s. The smoke blackened ceilings of the mosque are a testimony to their long occupation.
Excluding the central domes the Verandas to the North and south have 14 domes each, seven on either side of the central domes while the East and West sides have 16 domes each, again divided into 8 and 8 on each side of the central domes. 7 of the domes on the north western side and a large part of the ceiling have collapsed and so have three on the north eastern side. The latter are being restored as are the awnings that run along the inner walls of all the verandas. When the mosque was built it had 69 domes in all, 4 large ones, 60 small ones atop the three verandas and the prayer chamber and five on the roof of the adjacent mosque for women. Aside from these there are 2 Pyramid shaped roofs that cover the passages leading to the northern and southern gates.
There are more than a couple of staircases that lead you to the roof. The view of the Bijay Mandal of Mohammad Tughlaq from the top of the Prayer chamber and of the neat rows of the domes is worth much more than a fleeting glance, especially if you ignore little piles of burnt foil left behind by young men who hide behind the domes to chase smack at odd hours of the day. While climbing up the steps look out for shards of glass lying across all nooks and crannies, remains of surreptitious drunken binges not uncommon in less frequented monuments under the caring supervision of the ASI
My last visit to the mosque was with the Editor of Landscape and this was the first time I climbed atop the East gate. The Climb was worth the visit because I noticed something that I had not seen before in buildings of this period. Small Lakhori Bricks have been used as an element of decorative trimming in the mosque. This intrigued me no end, I had been told that this brick was first used in the “mughal” period and was later replaced by the big bricks in the colonial period.
Here I was atop the eastern gateway of a sultanate period mosque, looking at a design that reminded me of Central Asian weaves and suddenly I realise that the builders had used a brick that was not supposed to be in use at the time. One must however grant the fact that these bricks were used only as embellishments and that the builders had relied on large pieces of Delhi Quartz for pillars and a mixture of rubble cemented together with soaked lime and crushed baked bricks as mortar for building all the load bearing structures. Like most Sultanate period structures, he same materials have also been used in the Khirki Mosque that we will talk about presently, but before that I have to make a request, please take out time and pay a visit to this mosque. The more people visit such neglected structures, the better it is for the protection of these monuments. The lonely ASI guard has nothing to do the whole day and would willingly show you around if you treat him kindly.
Reaching the Khirki Mosque is relatively easy. If you drive down the saket road that connects Aurobindo marg with Sheikh Sarai, you will drive past, Geetanjali, Hauz Rani and the Khirki village one after the other to your left while the ruins of a sultanate period fort, being sold as ‘the fort that Prithvi Raj Chauhan’ built, followed by Saket, Press Enclave, an old graveyard, Max Hospital, Modi Hospital and the Saket District Centre will be to your right.
Slow down as you reach Khirki Village Bus stand to your left, a little ahead is the lane that turns into the Khirki Village proper, beyond this lane on the main road you will see a clump of trees, this clump of trees is bang opposite Select City Walk, the latest South Delhi landmark for the well-heeled.
Turn left beyond the trees and before a clutch of non-descript shops. Walk straight ahead for about 10 yards, keeping the make shift temple that is just a wall and a couple of idols to your left and a gaping ditch to your right, beyond the 10 yards, to your right you will see a buffalo tied to a wooden peg, if the buffalo is missing, the signs of her occupancy and the lingering aroma of her strong presence will tell you that you are on the right track.
Right in front is a sloping ramp and beyond is the mosque. Though modest in size when compared to the Jama Masjid at Nizam-ud-Din and the Begumpur mosque it is certainly grander in design and execution.
As the bird’s eye view drawing will show you the basic design consists of 25 squares, Nine of these have three rows of three domes arranged neatly in a solid square, 12 squares have been coverd with a roof and 4 squares have been left uncovered to let in light into the mosque.
The mosque is unique in many ways, more than 80 % of the mosque is roofed over, the entire design is such that the west side of the mosque, the side pointing to the Kaa’ba from India is built in exactly the same manner as the other three sides, the only difference is in the absence of a gate on this side. The play of light through the day creates fascinating patterns from the shadows of the many arches that supported the 90 domes that adorned the more than 2500 square meter mosque. The east gate was the principal entry into the mosque and the sides of the lofty entrance are flanked by two stumps, the beginning of the minar as part of the mosque, the exterior of the stunted minars have drawn inspiration from the design of the Qutub Minar, some thing that one finds replicated on the Jamaali Kamaali mosque as well, though the latter was completed a full 130 years later during the time of Humayun.
Unfortunately it is impossible to view the mosque from a distance, the side facing the road has been occupied by a make shift temple of doubtful antiquity, a buffalo, an ungainly wall and an ugly iron fencing, the fencing surrounds the other three sides as well. Beyond the fence are houses thrown together and packed so tightly that they leave no space for a visitor to step back and appreciate the view.
The only saving grace is the access to the terrace, reached through two staircases approached from inside the mosque on either side of the east gate and then there is the breathtaking interior. The fact that the mosque is largely covered with a roof has played a major role in preserving the monument from the excesses of the weather.
I have a thousand complaints but I must also record the change that has come in the last 16 years.
I visited the Khirki mosque for the first time on a cold January morning in 1993. I could not have entered if I had not covered my face with my scarf. The stench coming off the huge pile of bat droppings would have driven away a camel. Once inside, I found two donkeys, several small fires with motley crowds of vagabonds huddled together chasing smack from cigarette pack foil. The air was awash with the sickening smell of donkey shit, bat droppings and damp.
All this is gone now, the place can be visited without fear, the number of bats has come down drastically and there is ASI staff on duty. The piles of dirt are still there, though not inside,
In my last piece (Landscape November 2007) I had talked about two other mosques built by the same Juna Shah, the Kalaan Masjid near Turkman gate and the Jama Masjid at Nizamuddin both of them are under the care of the Waqf Board while the Khirkee and Begumpur Mosques are under the protection of the ASI. The ones that the Waqf looks after have been spruced up beyond recognition and the ones that the ASI is supposed to maintain, preserve, protect and guard are in shambles.