Mehrauli area of Delhi is one of those sites of the world that has a history of continuous habitation for almost a thousand years. One of the most famous monuments of India, the Qutb Minar (built in the early 13th century) is located in this area. But there are many other tombs, palaces, baolis (stepwell), shrines, mosques and other historical structures that are to be found there. Mehrauli Archaeological Park has trails developed around medieval monuments dating from the 13th to the 19th century. In other words, beginning from what is commonly referred to as the time of the Slave dynasty right up to the early colonial period.
The heritage walk started at the entrance of the park and our first stop was the tomb of Sultan Balban who ruled from 1266 to 1286. He was a Turk and the ninth sultan of what is called the Slave dynasty. The Slave dynasty gets it title from the fact that these rulers began their careers as slaves and rose to become Kings. Balban is said to have been sold as slave to the Ghaznis by the Mongols. He worked for Sultan Iltutmish and later his daughter, Razia Sultan. He went on to become the vizier of Sultan Nasiruddin and finally declared himself the ruler after the former’s death. Balban’s tomb is believed to be the earliest monument in India which uses the correct technique of building arches (the true arch). There is no roof left to the tomb, but it has three chambers adjacent to each other. The biggest and the central chamber would have been the burial chamber of the sultan but no grave exists now. There is a grave in an adjacent chamber and that is believed to be that of Balban’s son, Khan Shahid. Around Balban’s tomb there are a number of buildings dating from the late-Mughal times, which probably constituted a residential area.
The next stop on our heritage trail was Jamali-Kamali. There are two structures here. The first is the mosque built by Jamali and second is the tomb of Jamali-Kamali. Both these structures are said to be constructed in 1528-29. Jamali was buried here after his death in 1535. Jamali was the pen name of the renowned Sufi saint and poet Sheikh Fazlullah. He wrote in Persian and was the court poet of Sikandar Lodi. He continued to receive patronage from the Mughal rulers Babur and Humayun after the Mughals had replaced the Lodis. Kamali’s antecedents are unknown but he is supposed to be a compatriot of Jamali. This mosque must be one of the first mosques built by the Mughals and a very good example of what is commonly referred to as Indo-Islamic architecture. There are arches, domes and Quranic inscriptions associated with Islamic architecture alongside motifs of flowers and kalash (earthen pot), jharokha (projecting window) associated with the older Hindu, Jain and Buddhist monuments.
The tomb is usually kept under lock and key but this a more recent measure taken by the Archaeological Survey of India when some local Muslim groups decided to reclaim the mosque (existing as a monument) as a place of active religious activity. A few years back the tomb and the mosque were easily accessible. But those of us who have visited the tomb earlier saw some beautiful and intricate decorations on the ceilings of the tomb and Jamali’s compositions too have been inscribed on the interior of the tomb.
From there we walked to the house of Sir Thomas Metcalf who christened his estate, Dilkusha. He was a senior officer in the English East India Company. He had an official residence in north India but he built a country house in Mehrauli. He purchased the 16th century tomb of Mohd. Quli Khan from the latter’s descendants to build his house with gardens around it. We walked to different parts of his sprawling residence. This included the tomb of Quli Khan, what was supposed to be the boat house and a folly. Metcalf built many follies around his residence, some of which still survive. We get a picturesque view of the Qutb Minar from these follies. Quli Khan was the brother of Adham Khan. The latter was a general in the army of Mughal king Akbar and the son of Akbar’s foster mother, Maham Anga.
Our last stop was the Rajon ki Baoli. This is a beautiful four floor stepwell which gets it title from the word raj which means masons. Each floor has arcades and rooms. Besides being the source of water supply, these baolis were also a place where people would meet for gatherings and socializing. There are several other baolis in Delhi like the one near Jantar Mantar called the Agrasen ki baoli and another step well in Mehrauli called the Gandhak ki baoli. We ended our walk after a visit to the masjid and a tomb adjacent to the baoli.
(The walk was led by Tanvi Bikhchandani and the blog post is by Jamal Kidwai, both team members, Delhi Heritage Walks)