Mehrauli: Herein Lies a King

Mehrauli arch under tree


Mehrauli has always been around the corner from where I have lived these past seven years. Despite this, beyond visiting the Qutub Minar time and again, seeking solace at the Dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, and relishing the hearty Muradabadi biryani around there, I had never really gone searching for the lost capital. That’s how, one fine day, I set out exploring the site of the erstwhile capital city along with Naseem, a fellow researcher in history and a determined explorer of historic sites in his own right.

We entered the archeological park from the wrong end. This side of the park was actually a dump, as opposed to the beautifully trimmed lawns and neatly maintained front side. The structures though massive, bear the marks of ignorance and are honestly quite filthy.

Masjid Sohailwali in Mehrauli

At any rate, the first structure that we came upon was a Masjid. Masjid Sohailwali doesn’t really have four walls or ornate domes and minarets. It must have, at some point of time. But as of now, what remains are a few columns, walls on two sides and the screen at the front that people would face while praying.

There are writings in black paint, saying Masjid, Govt. of Delhi NCR and Wakf Board. There are also writings saying Allah and Muhammed in the same out of place looking handwriting. The Mihrab or where the imam would stand and lead the prayer, has a tree and a bookshelf now (I loved this last part though, honestly. A chance to draw a tree and a bookshelf together; and that too inside a Masjid, what more could I ask for!).

There was also a functional Madrasa there. And as we both set down to do what we were looking forward to, me with my sketchbook and my friend with his camera, the little bodies that were swaying in recitation, suddenly turned their heads with mischievous smiles, without the Maulvi noticing.

Mehrauli: Past lives and unnamed graves

As we made our way further in through the wild shrubs, stray cows, dogs and pigs, in the midst of Mehrauli, we came upon a couple of domed structures within one enclosure. One thing anyone travelling through here is bound to notice is the fact that many structures and remnants here are unnamed and unidentified. The first dome had some beautiful pieces of calligraphy inside (it had become a makeshift shed to store broken ladders, sacks and the like!). The second domed structure housed a couple of unnamed graves and looked clean. As we climbed the stairs towards the dome, I could hear someone calling out to us. I looked down and an old man clad in white, with a long white beard and a skull cap was approaching. I climbed down, afraid that we must have done something wrong. But the man came up to me with a kind smile, asked me my name, what I do and so on. He seemed impressed that we were both history students (trust me, that doesn’t happen a lot). ‘Keep visiting’ he told us ‘and don’t miss out on anything.’

By then Naseem had finished his shots and come downstairs. And as we moved on I turned back again, I could see the old man sweeping the structure with a broom. I turned to the security guard and asked him who the man was. ‘He comes now and then, cleans the place and leaves’ he said.

Mehrauli graves

We made our way into the next structure, a gallery of sorts that housed a few graves. These are said to belong to the Pathans from the 14th and 15th centuries. The terrace had a beautiful chhatri and a few unnamed sarcophagi, and even a small tree. It looked like a nice frame, a grave lying in the shadow of the tree, with the chhatri in the background. I took a photo to sketch later. Suddenly someone called me by my name. I turned to see the old man walking down the adjacent path, waving to me. ‘This is my son’, he said, pointing to a young boy with him. ‘He is also studying’, he said with pride.

As we made our way across, the ambience started changing; the stray animals disappeared and instead there were groups of people doing photo shoots. The wilderness made way for manicured lawns. And there were families out on picnics. We had walked a long way by then and therefore sat down on a lawn side bench.

An archway and a tree

But if I was hoping to get some rest, that wasn’t going to happen. There in a corner stood an arch way under a tree. At least two thirds of it was submerged in the earth. But it still stood intact, defying time. As I peered at it in amusement, I was reminded of what my friend used to say every now and then. Even in conservation, we are selective. Well he was right, at multiple levels. But if I could help it, I wasn’t going to show that bias in my sketchbook. So out it came, and I began working on it. There weren’t any intricacies here for there was not much left on those stones to make them intricate. What I tried was also more of a doodle than a detailed sketch. For once I felt like not straining my fingers and eyes too much. And as it turned out, I did right. For, unknown to me, another sketch was waiting for me.

Balban’s Tomb

Once we had our rest, we started walking again. Near the Jamali Kamali Masjid, there was a narrow gate that led to a few graves and a lot more ruins within wilderness again. We went through. It looked like what used to be an urban space. My friend started explaining what it could have been. Though there was a mark saying Balban’s tomb, there wasn’t really any sign of it. I was already thinking of calling it a day when, having gone further down, Naseem called out to me. And as I made my way following his voice, tall walls and erstwhile archways it appeared before me. Amidst all those ruins, lay Balban. The sarcophagus was partly broken. Someone had picked all those stones and put them back on top, with no order or method whatsoever.

Time lays waste on emperors and empires

My friend was disappointed at the state of the tomb. I tried reminding him of where Alauddin Khilji laid in the Qutub compound near this Mehrauli Archeological Park. Despite all the power he wielded in his lifetime. ‘But’, my friend said, ‘to think that a man who in his lifetime, started off as a slave, became a water carrier to the sultan and then the Sultan’s wazir and eventually became the Sultan himself, is lying in such ruins…’ Then again, such is the power of time. It wears down the powerful emperors and lays waste their empires.

Nassif Mohammed Ali: Blog & Sketches

About Nassif Muhammed Ali 1 Article
Nassif Muhammed Ali is a research scholar in History. He has recently submitted his PhD thesis on the history of Malayalam cartoons, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. However, his fascination for cartoons and sketching extends beyond academic interests. He has been practicing both cartooning and sketching for quite some time and has also worked as a freelance illustrator. In recent years he has taken up travel sketching, thereby combining two of his passions together. The stories of these sketches and travels are also shared in his blog:

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