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Delhi - Where Sultans Once Strode

Delhi's historical ruins speak of a royal past. Today more mundane activities-sports, shopping and eating-are their hallmark.

The Historic buildings in Jama Masjid, Nizamuddin, Ferozeshah Kotla and the Lodi Gardens are all leaves from a dynamic period of Indian history. But today they are connected with activities far removed from the past-sport and leisure, eating, and worship-making them familiar in our vocabulary of the city.

But once there were kings and queens, there was a fortressed city and a sumptuous palace; there was the trumpeting of elephants as they marched in procession carrying a royal retinue. There was the rhythmic sound of stone cutters as they erected the walls of another new city along the banks of the river Yamuna; and in a humble hut, there lived a holy man whose piety and learning brought people from far and near to establish a basti now synonymous with his name. And famous for its shrine where the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin, lies buried.

Not all of this happened at the same time. Nizamuddin Auliya was born in AD 1236 and lived for almost 100 years. Some say he was born in Ghazni in Afghanistan, some say he was born in Badayun, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, and having lost his father at a very young age came to Delhi with his mother. Whatever be the truth, he was a very special man, who by the example of his own austere and saintly life became known as a zinda pir, a living saint who could heal the body and spirit. Although his disciples built a tomb over his grave, the original, repaired and rebuilt by a Tughlaq monarch has long since disappeared. Today, the dargah of Nizamuddin is the collective work of many successive followers of the saint's teachings who added to a structure first built in 1562 by a devotee, the nobleman Faridun Khan.

Nizamuddin basti today is a congested, people-ridden settlement-not all of its inhabitants are aware of the spiritual origins of where they live, and certainly not interested in the little architectural gems that exist so close to their own ragged lives. To reach the dargah, you have to fight your way through warrens of the old and the infirm whose makeshift plastic roofs or dusty odds and ends identify their minuscule places on the earth, past wayside stalls peddling garishly coloured sweets and ribbons, readymade packets of taburuk (rose petals and sweets as offering at the dargah), marigold flowers and coverings for the head. And if you can ward off the self-styled "guides" successfully, you are finally in the holy precinct itself.

Surrounded by a courtyard of marble flooring, the tomb pavilion is enclosed by delicately trellised screens. As rich and zealous devotees contributed their bit to glorify the saint, the tomb acquired an ornate mother-of-pearl canopy, a veranda with engraved marble columns and brackets, and as late as the early 19th century, a huge marble dome with gold encrusted finials. The spirit of Hazrat Nizamuddin remains, however, very much above all the show of grandeur, and it is impossible not to be moved to devotion, especially on Thursday nights when the qawwals sing impassioned verses in praise of the Sufi saint.

Aside from the steamy dhabas that dish out spicy meat recipes and thick soft rotis to soak up the gravy, several other structures make the Nizamuddin complex a place worth visiting. Across the tomb enclosure to the west is the red sandstone Jamat Khana Mosque built on the spot where Nizamuddin himself would pray and sermonise. Probably constructed in 1325, it is a composite structure of three domes over three bays, central one being the largest. One of the telltale signs that establishes the period of building before the prolific Feroze Shah Tughlaq period are the marble lotus buds that fringe the arches, while the arches themselves are squinched to make the square bays appear octagonal. On the northern side of the dargah is a baoli, now practically dry all year round, where young boys would show off their diving skills. Legend says the baoli was being built when the imperious Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, angered by the saint's refusal to pay back money to the royal coffers that he had given away in charity, forbade its further construction. More-over, Nizamuddin had prophesied that Ghiyasuddin's son, prince Jauna would become the sultan-which he did by manipulating his father's death. Ghiyasuddin even stopped the sale of oil to the saint's followers so that they could not build at night. They continued, however, lighting their lamps miraculously with water from the baoli.

A few other minor monuments dot the Nizamuddin complex, but within the dargah enclosure itself is the delicate tomb of Jahanara, Shah Jehan's daughter, and a disciple of the Chisti saint. She is said to have built it during her lifetime, inscribing it with the touching words: "Let naught cover my grave save the green grass; for grass well suffices as a covering for the grave of the lowly." It is unfortunately noticed only by some as they return from the ritual homage to the main shrine.

A pilgrimage to Nizamuddin is incomplete without a visit to two to the other graves, one surrounded by marble jaalis that of Amir Khusro, the saint's most devoted disciple and poet whose mystic verses are sung by every qawwal; and the other, simpler one of yet another writer, Mirza Ghalib, perhaps the greatest Urdu and Persian poet to have ever lived.

The Tughlaq dynasty, which had only just established itself, while Nizamuddin Auliya was still alive, saw its greatest ruler in Feroze Shah (1351-88). Unlike his predecessors, military activities were not Feroze's priority, and although he ascended the throne when he was already 46, his accomplishments were many. An able administrator, he was the founder of Delhi's fifth city, Ferozabad, which once extended from the Ridge right up to Hauz Khas. Today, all that reminds us of this historic period are the grounds of Ferozeshah Kotla, better known for the hair-raising cricket matches that are traditionally held here. Aside it, the crumbling ruins of a once bustling city have become the haunt of lazing lunchtime officegoers, of amateur urchin cricketers, and at night, a haven for the homeless. But once there was a mosque where it is said that Timurlane, the terrible Mongol conqueror, said his prayers every Friday night. So impressed was he by the structure that he carried away masons to Samarkand to build an exact copy of it. In Ferozabad, unfortunately, only the rear wall now remains. Pieces of stone columns lie fractured on the ground, and within the core area of the site, broken down arched walls rise, pyramid like, supporting one of the two Asokan monolith pillars that Feroze Shah, an indefatigable collector of antiquities, brought to Delhi (the other is in Qutub Minar).

It is also said that once there were tunnels connecting the site all the way to Hauz Khas, so large that the sultan and his entourage could ride on horseback through them. No evidence of this remains, but if one counts this ruined city among all the mosques, madarsas, palaces, caravanserais, reservoirs and tombs that Feroze Shah built in his lifetime, then surely he must go down as one of the most prolific, though less flamboyant builders of Muslim architecture in India.

The last of the dynasties-before the Mughals arrived in India to make Delhi and Agra two of the most glorious historic capitals of the world-was that of the Lodis. Pathans from Afghanistan, their ambition was to conquer as many of the provinces they could that formed part of the Delhi Sultanate under the Turks. By the time, the last ruler of that dynasty, Ibrahim Lodi, had died at Babur's hands in the battle of Panipat in 1526, much of Delhi had become a vast necropolis, littered with the graves of rulers, nobles and their families. Building activity declined during the short-lived reign of the Lodi and Sayyid dynasty, and they seem to have concentrated more on the building of tombs than of other buildings that distinguish the more robust Tughlaq and Mughal periods before and after them.

The Lodi Gardens, however, belies the stark reality of death by war, fratricidal and court intrigue, for today its imposing monuments are enveloped by clumps of leafy trees and shrubs, flowerbeds and carpeted lawns. It was Lady Willingdon in 1936 who decided to make a garden around the tombs and mosque, and later, a disciple of Le Corbusier who put the final manicured touch with winding pathways, bamboo clusters, hedges and arbours. Even though the 15th century Sayyid and Lodi tombs provide the centrepiece of this planned landscape; its fame rests more on its popularity as a walking and picnic paradise, especially in winter when the gardens bloom with colourful clusters of flowers.

The tomb of Muhammad Shah, third ruler of the Sayyid dynasty (r.1434-44), that lies on the south side of the gardens, is one of the finest examples of an octagonal tomb of this period. It is also the oldest structure here. The other octagonal tomb is that of Sikandar Lodi (r.1489-1517). Two other dominating structures in the garden are the Bada Gumbad, attached to a mosque and a guesthouse, and the Sheesh Gumbad, that derives its name from the glazed turquoise tiles, a few of which can still be seen clinging desperately to the monument. Several graves lie within each of these buildings, many of them without names, the only reminders of a past when living was not only an art, but even death was distinguished by style.

The crowning glory of the Mughal Empire would well be the Jama Masjid. It was built in 1644 and was the last in the series of architectural indulgences of Shah Jahan, the Mughul emperor who also built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The biggest mosque built in India-even now there are very few in the world that are bigger-it is capable of holding 25,000 devotees at one time. The highly decorative mosque has three great gateways, high minarets and four towers in which thousands of pigeons nest. Constructed out of red sandstone and white marble, the Masjid stands on a raised hillock so that it would stand higher than and overlook the Red Fort. Built by Ustad Khalil, the architect of several of Shah Jahan's buildings, the Jama Masjid has been the centre for the followers of the faith for over 400 years. Today you have to fight for a place to park or take a rickshaw from the parking lot in front of Red Fort to even get there as walking is impossible.

It is said that one of the reasons Shah Jahan came to Delhi was because the roads in Agra were very narrow. And along with the mosque, work was also started on building a grand street that ran from the Red Fort to Jama Masjid, alongside a canal that was shoplined on either side. Called Chandni Chowk, it was on this road that Shah Jahan and Aurangazeb once walked in splendour, through this street was Dara Shikoh paraded as a prisoner and Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah rode in triumph. It was also the street that witnessed the Raj at the zenith of its glory when it seemed that the sun would never set on the British Empire. The huge procession that heralded the Delhi durbar of King George V in 1911, passed from the Red Fort through the Jama Masjid and into the Chandni Chowk road, when as if paying tribute to the glory of Delhi, the Emperor announced the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Delhi.

Today, the narrow bylanes have street hawkers selling their wares from fruit to used-clothes. The north side of the Masjid is home to chicken, fish and halal meat butcheries, jostling for space between the ittar and antique shops. The Jama Masjid is today known more for its food stalls especially Karims and other ersatz wannabes that have cropped up. As darkness descends the smells of charcoal-grilled meats waft through the air, and the faithful return to their gastronomical delights.

Beneath the wrap of urban growth and behind the patina of the mossed and creviced monuments, Nizammu-din, Ferozeshah Kotla, Jama Masjid and the Lodhi Gardens are still thriving with life today. Although threatened by their changing environments, they remain enriched by the history that surrounds them.

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