Situated in the vicinity of educational institutions of such diverse nature as the Police Training School (PTS) , the Mother’s International School , the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the National Centre for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), and the Aurobindo College, is a quiet, dark monument, that is a mute spectator to the changes that had happened in the place in the last so many centuries. That is not an exaggeration, because this structure of enormous size, built in the 14th century, has seen many dynasties and turbulences and stands mute witness to the latest transformation that is taking place. Those passing through a road that runs in the vicinity may not be even aware of its presence except for the bus stand that bears its name.
Begumpuri Mosque, built by Mohammad bin Tughlaq, may have been one of the seven famous mosques built in that era and it could even be just a shade less in grandeur than the Jama Masjid that Shah Jahan had constructed of red sandstone, a couple of centuries later and that has remained as the landmark of the capital. But it remains almost abandoned, its premises encroached by settlements, and children playing cricket. It is not visible even from a few yards away and there has not been any attempt by archaeologists or lovers of monuments, or conservationists to do something about it.
Built on a grand scale, the structure was used for congregational purposes as well as a madrasa and was left out carelessly by this conqueror. Constructed in typical Tughlaq style it has a huge courtyard and arcaded cloisters with a huge gate at the eastern side that opens into the mosque with 64 domed compartments inside. There is a prayer hall on the western side that faces Mecca that also comprises the building’s central arch. For construction of the entire monument nothing other than rubble masonry was used.
You could feel the ambiance as you step inside; it is immensely peaceful and breezy. How they build those archways and how did they navigate these air currents amid such desolate landscapes. You look through the archways and can see below, a hundred feet down, lush greenery and trees of many varieties. The lawns have now been taken over by the municipal corporation and made into a park with manicured lawns and red gravel pathways and hedges. That is the only concession that modernity has been able to pay to this monument. That mosque was not just a place for prayers; it was also a meeting place for discourses, story-telling and catching up with the times. This is the sort of space one needs in the hustle and rush of the big city whose roar you can hear here.
The fourteenth century Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who was a frequent visitor to India, explained that chieftains sometimes fortified themselves in mountains, rocky and uneven places as well as in bamboo groves. He was wonder-struck by the opulence and splendour that was on display on the main road to the mosque from the Bijyamandal Palace in the evenings. He said he had not seen such prosperity in Samarkhand or Damascus where he had frequently traveled. This chronicler came here again more than a decade later and found, to his utter shock, the whole place devastated and reduced to rubble. How could human beings destroy such marvels and places of prosperity and love, he lamented.
Begumpur village is a mute reminder to a dynasty’s ancient glory and the mosque, a vestige of the old city, is reportedly patterned on a design by the Iranian architect Zahir al-Din al-Jayush. This majestic building in the heart of the city played a pivotal role of serving as a madrasa, an administrative centre with the treasury apart from being a mosque of large proportions. It was also the hub of the hub of a thriving market area. It has an unusual layout of three arch-covered passages with a ‘three by eight’ deep bay prayer hall on the west. Its construction has been credited to two sources, Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul Tilangani, Prime Minister during Feroz Shah Tughlaq’s rule, who also built six other masjids, and Tughlaq because of its proximity to Bijay Mandal, and probably dated to 1351 A.D., the year he died.
Sadly too, the mosque which is like the twin of the Jama Masjid was fated to be the exact opposite. Though under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India it now lies totally abandoned near Kirkhi with its huge courtyard being used for cricket matches, and booze parties and strewn with hash stubs. Elderly men play cards at the entrance, keeping a watchful eye on truant girls lurking in the area.
Around this place has now sprung up residential colonies with such evocative names as Sarvapriya Vihar, and Sarvodaya Enclave, Gitanjali Enclave and Navjeevan Vihar, and Panchsheel Park, bringing back memories of the national poet and the half naked fakir, of the principles of peaceful coexistence that Nehru preached, recalling the Buddha’s eternal teachings.
Till two decades ago, a narrow road wormed through the open fields and the cluster of huts that had sprung around the mosque. In those bare fields were grown cauliflower, radish and cabbage and commuters on cycles would stop by and buy these vegetables, fresh from the good earth, and covered with mud. During the festival time effigies of ten-headed Ravan would come on these fields and these would go up in flames as darkness set in, with the mosque bearing mute witness to the demise of another dynasty.
That road is now slightly widened, two lane, but on both sides have sprung up shops and showrooms of a dazzling variety of goods and services, with evocative names like Ferns and Petals, Curls and Curves, Bakes and Cakes, Pugs and Mugs, Usha Falls (selling saree falls), Chandrika Exports (exporting garments), Beyond Eternity (holiday home) and Zero miles to Murtal (a paratha outlet) and Venky Hatchery. There are the export-oriented coaching facilities like Latvian and Canadian varsity admission centres, Internet banking, and muscle toning joints and workouts where you could see, through the glass walls, youngsters sweating it out on what looks like pulleys and trapezes and railway signal equipment and other third-degree torture tools.
In her memoir, Where I Come From, Joan Didion writes, ‘There in my own small town we have torn up vineyards (in California) and now have planted the following crops; Wal-Mart, Burger King, Foos-4-Less, Baskin-Robbins, Cinema 6, Denny’s, Wendy’s Payless, Anderson’s Pea Soup, the Holiday Inn, McDonald, Carl’s Jr., Taco Bell, four gas stations, three shopping centres, two videotape stores, and a car wash.’ She goes on, ‘The enterprises named are in the main national chains, or franchises, not the kinds of entrepreneurial activity calculated to return either money or opportunity for the community.’
According to the eleventh century French idea of ‘three orders’ society has been divided into three classes, 1) those who prayed, 2) those who fought, and 3) those who tilled the land. All these seem to have been telescoped over a span of centuries into this space around this black domed mosque.
The Church which had frame these orders was aiming to keep warriors away from conflict among themselves and send them on a campaign against the Muslims who had captured Jerusalem, that led to the Crusades. Over the years they were forgotten, as was the mosque now and around it has sprung up new roads.
The Bijay Mandal, a well proportioned square dome, cannot be categorized as a tower or a palace though a typical Tughlaqi structure with battered sloping walls on east, west and southern directions, and with doorways in each cardinal direction. Ibn Battuta describes the purpose of this unusual structure as serving as an observation tower to monitor the activities of his troops. The ambiance of the place presented it as a place to relax and enjoy the scenic view and inclined path around was a walkway leading to the apartments of the Sultan. The process of ushering people into the Sultan’s presence was devious and formal involving entry through semi–public places to private chambers to the audience hall. Whether the Hazara Sultan Palace did exist during Alauddin Khalji reign and also during Tughlaq's time is debatable as also if these were one and the same palace. It is possible the stone hall of the palace was built by Alauddin Khalji and the tower adjoining the stone buildings by Tughlaq.
Watch towers for movements of troops, or the evening hours for prayer, these domes and minarets served many purposes apart from providing solace. As did the police training school nearby that was set up in the fifties to keep a watch on the cattle thieves who prowled the Mehrauli area. Rows of bullock carts used to transport vegetables to the city and at night the thieves would get into the carts and their sleeping peasants and divert some of them to the lanes that led to Katwaria Serai and Ber Serai. In the morning the caravan would be at the mandi and they would discover many carts missing along with the merchandise. The nearest police station was Parliament Street and sending reinforcements all the way to Mehrauli was found unworkable and thus was set up the PTS. Now the two serais are coaching centres with rows of photocopier machines.
Watch towers, police posts, and now outlets for merchandise of a dazzling variety, along this mud track caravan moves on as it had always been with the peasants. Wasn't it said about turning swords into ploughshares?