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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Narnaul -- Travel

Narnaul – in Haryana

To some, the dusty townships of Haryana might seem the least likely repositories of hidden architectural delights. For, the Jat heartland evokes, if anything, images of pre-natal sex determination clinics, prolific coaching centers and, in recent years, Mallika Sherawat! Yet this land of scrub vegetation and hardy country folk is studded with jewels of the most remarkable beauty, in towns such as Farrukhnagar, Jhajjhar, Narnaul, Pataudi, Panipat, to name just a few. Each is home to some of the most unvisited yet spectacular monuments, within comfortable driving distance from Delhi and accessible by good motorable roads making them ideal destinations for day-trippers on a history trail. But, first, Narnaul…

Situated at a distance of about 75 km southwest from Delhi in the district of Mahendragarh, Narnaul has had a checkered past. Local historians trace its history to the Mahabharata when it was known as Nar Rashtra or ‘the land where lions roamed’. Excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India in the nearby area of Rewari have revealed traces of painted grey ware and other shards of pottery dating to the late-Harappan period. In Narnaul itself, however, most monuments are from the medieval period. Given its strategic location between Delhi and the princely states of Rajputana, Narnaul has always been a prized possession for ambitious chieftains -- be they Afghan, Turk, Mughal or Rajput. It reached the zenith of its prosperity during Akbar’s time when it became a district headquarters for the province of Agra and a mint was set up to give it greater importance.

Like much of rural Punjab, Narnaul has produced several sufi saints, the most venerable being the thirteenth century pir, Shaikh Muhammad Turk Narnauli. Later, in Akbar’s time, there was the Chishti Shaikh Nizam al-Din whose fame as a man of learning has been recorded in the Ain-e-Akbari. The Shaikh died in 1589 and was buried in a square stucco-covered tomb built in the severe no-frills Lodi style. Once a popular pilgrimage site, Shaikh Narnauli’s tomb is somewhat overshadowed by the enormous mausoleum of Ibrahim Sur in its immediate neighbourhood. Sadly tumble down and forlorn, it has some of the most spectacular polychromed arabesques and bands of Quranic inscriptions in some of its hujras or meditation chambers. Such was the devotion to the Shaikh’s memory, that one Niamat Khan built a single-aisled, three-bayed mosque facing the tomb. Both shrine and mosque are unvisited, rendered virtually invisible by the cloud of unknowingness that hangs heavy as Haryana’s dirt in the air.

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While the Great Mughals were busy leaving their mark, architecturally and administratively, on the bigger cities of Delhi, Lahore and Agra, it was the lesser nobility, the chieftains, jagirdars, mansabdars and soldiers of fortune who were busy transforming the provinces. Their legacy, found dotted about in little-known towns such as Narnaul deserves to be revisited not merely because what they have left is, visually, so pleasing to the eye but equally significantly it shows the coming together of diverse styles -- of the rulers and the fringe nobilty. The monuments of Narnaul testify how local artisans working under Imperial architects could produce buildings of quaint charm that were, often, lifted as blueprints for monuments across the length and breadth of the burgeoning Mughal empire.

Let us begin with one of the most spectacular buildings in Narnaul – the Tomb of Shah Quli Khan, a general in Akbar’s army who by the time of his death had risen through the ranks and amassed high titles and great wealth. His tomb built in 1574 bears an uncanny resemblance to Qutb al-Din Muhammad Khan’s tomb in Baroda built ten years later. The point being that local, regional styles traveled out of the provinces and over a period of time created a pan-Indian style. The tomb is built atop an octagonal platform in a style reminiscent of the Lodi and Sur kings. Unlike the verandah favoured by earlier sultans – seen in the Lodi Gardens and the Bada Batashewala Mahal near Humayun’s Tomb – here a cylindrical octagonal structure rises sheer from the open platform and is topped by a squat dome mounted on an octagonal drum. Interestingly, the monument built some 25 years before his death, was used by Quli Khan as part of a residential estate, a country house in the boondocks in modern parlance. It has the most stunning combination of grey marble and blood red sandstone and the most imaginative and symmetrical use of blind arches. Several years after building his tomb, Quli Khan added a magnificent multi-storied gateway, known locally as Tripolia Gate. It shows stunning red and white paintwork on its interiors that is, unfortunately, seen by no one except the buffaloes tethered at its entrance.

Quli Khan clearly enjoyed living in Narnaul for, after the tomb, he built a huge pleasure resort in the classical Iranian style of situating buildings inside or at the edge of water tanks. Known locally as Jal Mahal or water palace, Quli Khan had named his pleasure resort Aram-e-Kausar after the fabled pool in paradise whose waters are said to grant immortality. An arched causeway leads to a flat-roofed pleasure pavilion topped with chhatris, distinctly reminiscent of the Diwan-i-Khas in Fatehpur Sikri, sitting in the center of a water body. Paradisal imagery, a characteristic feature of many Mughal buildings, is mentioned in the inscription that dates the tank and the pavilion to the year 1593. It also mentions Shah Quli Khan’s valour in defeating the local chieftain Hemu, thus strengthening Mughal rule in this provincial outpost. The paradisal gardens have gone to seed, the tank is bone dry and the pavilion looks shabby and unkempt.

The same story of neglect and apathy is repeated in virtually every building in Narnaul. The town’s piece de resistance, the monumental tomb built by the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Sur for his grandfather, Ibrahim Sur is surrounded by hovels and piles of filth. That something so strikingly good looking can exist in such miserable surroundings speaks volumes for the utter disregard we have for own past. The same imaginative use of Imperial designs and small local innovations makes this tomb strikingly different. Born in Narnoul itself, Sher Shah chose to build this grand mausoloeum over his grandfather’s modest grave in 1542 – 50 years after his grandfather’s death. In so doing he not only brought some glory to his horse-trading grandfather and his own lowly birth but laid down a prototype for monumental tombs. At first glance the tomb’s façade reveals a plethora of styles and a bewildering variety of ornamental details. There is, first of all, the striking use of pink and grey marble offset with judicious use of red sandstone. Built to inspire awe, its interior is as wondrously-decorated as its exterior. The west-facing qibla wall has three mihrabs or niches, each decorated differently. This profusion and variation makes you stop and stare, unable to take in all the details at one glance.

You leave Ibrahim Sur’s tomb, and Narnaul, wondering how something so out-of-the-ordinary can lie hidden in this nondescript town and not draw attention to itself!

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

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