Many of us know that Delhi has the unfortunate title of one of the most polluted cities in the world. However, standing at the gate of Mehrauli Archaeological Park, an expansive 100-acre space, with greenery all around, it’s quite easy to forget about the pollution. To be sure, the park has many stories to tell; the Mehrauli area is the oldest continuously inhabited part of Delhi. From the 11th century Rajput cities of Lalkot, and Qila Rai Pithora, to monuments from Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal, and the British era— there is perhaps no other place in Delhi with such a diverse history. We started our exploration at Balban’s Tomb, the resting place of the Mamluk king who ruled Delhi in the 13th century. Interestingly, the only grave remaining in the tomb complex is not Balban’s, but that of his son, Khan Shahid. Khan Shahid was not known to be a religious figure, but people do pray in front of his grave, and the enclosure often smells of incense. An example of the past and present interacting— popular memory does not always follow historical accuracy.
Continuing on to our next stop, we crossed over to reach the Jamali Kamali mosque and shrine. Built in 16th century, mosque is not currently in use. However, the structure still stands and the architecture makes for a pretty sight. The jharokas (balconies) and lotus motifs on the façade of the building are Indic elements, whereas the arches and the dome point to the Islamic influence. The presence of both types of features represents a cultural syncretism that was quite typical of medieval India. From the medieval period we moved to the modern as we climbed up a little hillock to see a hexagonal canopy— a “folly”— built by Thomas Metcalf. Metcalfe was an officer of the English East India Company and a resident at the court of the Mughal emperor. He was quite influential in his own right, and owned chunks of the land that makes up the park today. Other than the canopy structure, he also built a boathouse, and converted a Mughal tomb (that of Mohammad Quli Khan) into his summer residence. It seems rather strange to repurpose a grave area into one’s home. But as we stepped into the tomb and looked up at the exquisite carvings on the ceiling, we could perhaps understand why Metcalfe named his residence Dilkusha, or Delighter of the Heart. We were able to climb to the roof of the tomb as well, and had a wonderful view of the Qutb Minar and its surrounding areas.
We ended the walk at Rajon ki Baoli, a step-well named after rajgirs or masons, that also has mosque and tomb attached to it, and even some residential quarters. The step-well is dry now, save for some rainwater that had accumulated. Though we were only ones there at the time, baolis have historically been social spaces, and like so many other places in the—this particular step well has own stories and secrets.
(post by Tanvi Bikhchandani & photos by Kanika Singh, team members, Delhi Heritage Walks)