Follow by Email

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Women Builders of Delhi

There is a Delhi we see and a Delhi we don’t. This other Delhi, which I like to call Invisible City, holds an embarrassment of riches in the form of countless little-known, seldom-visited, largely unheard-of tombs, mostly nameless pavilions, mosques, madarsas, pleasure gardens, baolis, cemeteries, and much else. Yet few Delhites bother to stop and stare at the timeless beauties in their midst let alone stop, enter, see, and touch some of these beautifully crafted relics. And the great pity is, that unlike the West, entry to almost all of these monuments is free.

Why is this so? What lies behind the average Dilliwallahs blitheness for the past? Why has neophyte New Delhi been so quick to discard the great majority of these old monuments on the rubbish heap of history, choosing to validate a bare minimum with a name, an identity and a place of visibility? Related to the city dwellers’ blasé disregard for the past is a general but larger question about the past itself: Why do certain monuments fall off the tourist map? Who decides whether a certain historical building is worth a visit or whether it ought to be consigned to oblivion?

Perhaps the answers lie in the way city planners and developers envisage the city itself. Perhaps it isn’t just the people of Delhi who see these old monuments as dribs and drabs from long-forgotten history lessons occupying, in many cases, prime real estate. Perhaps the city planners, too, see them as inconvenient stumbling blocks standing in the path of a cleaner, more modern, more cosmopolitan Delhi. And that explains why the two have connived to coax the forces of urban renewal to obliterate these blots on the shining, new cityscape.

When writing about women builders of Delhi, I cannot resist first talking about the lesser known monuments of Delhi, per se and only then going on to talk of the even lesser known monuments, those built by women. While it is true that the great majority of Delhi’s built heritage is attributed to male patrons, women, too, have played a smaller, but significant role in constructing tombs, pavilions, mosques, and caravan sarais. I have chosen a small selection of monuments that are not just hidden behind a curtain of anonymity but are virtually unremarkable because they were built by women who were not powerful or well known in their own right. I shall begin with the Neeli Masjid in A Block of Hauz Khas built in 1505-06 by Kasum Bhil, the nurse of Fath Khan, son of Khawas Khan who was Governor of this area. Situated on a busy road connecting Aurobindo Marg with Khel Gaon Marg, this small but pretty mosque has three bays with a shallow dome sitting atop the central one and small minarets marking the octagonal base or drum of the dome. Striking blue tiles run along the drum, thus causing it to be called Neeli Masjid, or the Blue Mosque. Though no more than a dozen or so of these tiles remain, they must have once created a strikingly effective border against the stone roof and the rubble masonry walls.

Construction activities either directly commissioned by women or built under their supervision gained momentum during the Mughal period. Significant examples include: the Darghah Shah-e-Mardan and the cluster of buildings near Jor Bagh built by Qudsia Begum, wife of Muhammad Shah and mother of Ahmad Shah, who also built the Qudsia Gardens near ISBT. Since Delhi has been ruled by Sunni Muslim emperors so unlike other cities such as Lucknow or Hyderabad, there are few Shia monuments here. However, emperor Ahmad Shah’s mother, Qudsia Begum, was a Shia. In 1724 she was said to have received a stone bearing the footprint of Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and revered by Shias as the bravest of warriors, as the King among Men, hence given the title of Shah-e-Mardan. Qudsia Begum placed the footprint referred to as Qadam Sharif at the bottom of a marble tank fixed on a marble platform. An inscription set in marble reads:

On the piece of ground where there is a mark of your foot, for years there will be prostrations by men of insight.Over the next few years Qudsia Begum commissioned a cluster of monuments around it and so came into existence Delhi’s holy site for its Shia community. Today, the buildings around Aliganj continue to be kept alive and serve many vital functions: the Majlis Khana serves as an assembly hall for both religious and civic ceremonies, the mosques in this complex are all in good condition and the karbala nearby is the burial ground for Shias.

Other examples of construction activities undertaken by women patrons in Delhi are the Roshanara Gardens built by Princess Roshanara; the Garden of Bu Halima near Humayun’s Tomb; and the Fakhrul Masajid built by Fakhr-e-Jahan begum in memory of her husband, Shujaat Khan, opposite the St James’ Church. Several Mughal princesses built small but pretty mosques such as the Zinatul Masajid (Ornament of Mosques), also called the Ghata Masjid because of the black and white stripes on its dome, built by Zinat-un-Nisa, one of Aurangzeb’s daughters. The Fatehpuri Masjid at the far end of Chandni Chowk was built by one of Shahjahan’s wives. Then there is the Khairul Masajid and madarsa on Mathura Road opposite the Zoo and the tomb of Adham Khan opposite the bus depot at Mehrauli built by Adham’s mother Maham Anagah, who was also the wet nurse of Akbar and the only one who could be considered a powerful woman in the Mughal court.

The most spectacular building in Delhi commissioned by a woman is, of course, the Humayun’s tomb. Built in 1565 by Humayun’s widow and Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum, not only is it one of the most beautiful specimens of Mughal architecture in Delhi but it is, in many ways, the prototype of the garden-tomb that was to later show the way for the Taj Mahal. A great deal has been written about the Humayun’s Tomb given its inclusion in the World Heritage Sites listing, so I shall not dwell upon the Tomb itself; instead I shall draw your attention to a neglected site nearby, the site that had come up to house the three hundred Arabs who were invited by Hamida Begum.

Also known as Haji Begum because she had made the Haj pilgrimage, rare for a woman in those days, Hamida Begum is sometimes referred to as Mariam Makkani (one who has been to Mecca) in contemporary chronicles to distinguish her from Akbar’s wife, Mariam Zamani. Hamida Begum commissioned a Persian architect, Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, to construct Humayun’s Tomb at the exorbitant expense of Rs 15 lakh! She died in 1603, and was buried with great ceremony in one of the unmarked graves in the north-eastern chamber beside her husband. The architect Ghiyas is credited with providing India with the first dome in the Persian style – a dome that is a complete semicircle. It is not clear whether the Arabs were invited by him or brought back by Hamida Begum herself upon her return from Mecca. There is dispute also whether the three hundred Arabs were artisans engaged in building Humayun;s tomb or Arab maulvis brought back by Haji Begum as a token of veneration.

Be that as it may, a walled enclosure with three imposing gateways, close beside the south-western corner of Humayun’s Tomb, came to be known for posterity as Arab ki Sarai. Historians quibble that being a Persian, Ghiyas was more likely to have invited Persian artisans rather than Arab ones. But, misnomer or no misnomer, Arab ki Sarai has always been known as Arab ki Sarai even in ancient times. Recent years have brought it name and fame in the guise of the over-hyped over-priced Sufi extravaganza touted by Muzaffar Ali under the rather grandiose name of Jahan-e-Khusro. And for those few days in late winter when Delhi’s chatterati flock to see and be seen among the jasmine-scented beautifully lit-up ruins, Arab ki Sarai emerges from the shadows. Festival over, it slinks back into invisibility.

In the Humayun’s Tomb complex lies the Garden of Bu Halima, another example of building activity undertaken by a woman. Who Bu Halima might have been is hard to tell, though her dilapidated tomb is tucked away in a corner of the garden ascribed to her. In fact, entry to Humayun’s Tomb is through this gateway to her garden enclosure. Till 1914 a sweepers’ basti flourished here; the land was subsequently reclaimed by the ASI and some of the buildings restored. Once, Bu Halima’s Garden stretched from Humayun’s Tomb till the area around Delhi Public School. It included the Sundarwala Burj, Sundarwala Mahal, the Bara and Chhota Batashewala Mahal. Now, the Sundar Nursery has replaced Bu Halima’s Garden.

The tradition of building handsome monuments initiated by Akbar’s mother was carried forward by his wet nurse. Akbar had grown up under the tutelage of Bairam Khan and the fostering care of Atgah Khan. Maham Anagah however played an important role in the early years of his life and more so after the assassination of Bairam Khan. She tended the infant Akbar virtually from the cradle and waited upon him till some years after his accession to the throne. According to contemporary chroniclers such as Abul Fazl, Maham Anagah increasingly began to exercise undue influence not just on matters of the harem but also on matters of state. Like all mothers, she also grew increasingly ambitious about her own son, Adham Khan, who had grown up with Akbar and whom the young emperor looked upon as a foster brother.

However, the mother-son duo, fearful of losing their hold over Akbar’s affections, grew jealous of the other courtiers. Akbar’s love and dependence upon the nobleman called Atgah Khan, husband of yet another wet nurse named Ji Ji Anagah, was a special thorn in their side. Moreover, Atgah Khan had helped Akbar’s father, Humayun, escape after suffering defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri. For his loyalty, Humayun had appointed his wife Ji Ji Anagah as wet nurse for Akbar and bestowed several titles upon Atgah Khan. Akbar, therefore, not merely relied upon his sage counsel but also looked upon him as a father figure.
One day Atgah Khan and Adham Khan quarreled and the latter murdered Atgah Khan. Adham Khan then rushed to Akbar’s private apartment with the blood still fresh on his hands. Enraged to hear that the young and foolish Adham Khan had killed a man he loved dearly, Akbar is said to have seized Adham Khan, carried him across the length of the apartment and thrown him over the terrace with his own hands. According to other accounts, Akbar ordered Adham Khan’s hands and feet to be bound and then had him flung over the terrace. From that day on, Akbar deposed Maham Anagah and thus ended her brief chapter in the books of history. The grieving mother later built the large, grim-looking tomb in Mehrauli for her foolish, headstrong son. She herself, too, lies buried close beside her son.

The tomb she had constructed is a bit of an architectural anomaly; a typically Lodi-style building built during the Mughal period it arouses some curiosity because of the peculiarity of its construction. An octagonal building with verandahs on all sides and three arches on each of the eight sides; it is built of grey sandstone and rubble and is reminiscent of Muhammad Shah’s tomb in the Lodi Gardens.

Situated opposite the bus terminal in Mehrauli, today few would know it by its real name. Locally called Bhul Bhulaiyya Adham Khan’s tomb is more famous for the labyrinthine maze of passages cut in the thickness of its stone walls than the life and times of the man who lies buried here. It has low round towers on the eight corners of the platform on which the tomb stands, small, slender minarets on each of its eight-cornered verandah, and a wide-bottomed dome springing from a 16-sided drum. The dome is, inexplicably, surmounted by a red sandstone finial – the only bit of ornamentation in this otherwise severe building. Despite the no-frills architecture, vandalism has taken its toll here as in most other buildings in the Mehrauli area.

The other building attributed to Maham Anagah in Delhi is the Khairul Manazil on Mathura Road, opposite the Purana Qila. Literally meaning The Most Auspicious of Houses, this was a mosque with a madarsa attached to it. It was built in 1561-62. Khairul Manazil is one of the hidden jewels of Delhi, its invisibility all the more bizarre given its wonderful location. The mosque is surrounded by a wall of random rubble masonry broken in parts but still serving to mark a boundary. The east-facing gateway is large and imposing with a hollow concavity in its exterior arch. Built of red sandstone the archway still has traces of the decoration it once must have sported. You enter through a massive wooden door (closed at night to secure the mosque from vandals) to enter a spacious courtyard. A well on the right still has plentiful water and is used by the faithful for ablutions till this day.

Though under ASI protection and not the Waqf, prayers three times a day are permitted inside this broken-down but still very pretty mosque. Perhaps because it is in use, limited though it is, the place is kept clean. An old man has taken the self-appointed task of sweeping it and tending it as best as he can. But there is not much he can do about the sacks of lime left behind after the last restoration job! Or the planks of wood and assorted odds and ends that the contractors have left stacked in the arches. Nothing, however, can take away from the solemn beauty of the place. Grey pigeons and long-tailed parrots fly off the nooks and crannies as you approach the intricately worked outer wall of the prayer chamber. Traces of tile work in the most stunning azure blue remain on the outer walls which are decorated with arched niches, pilasters and inscriptions. A single dome sits grandly over the central arch, topped with a finial -- a typical Mughal ornamentation, one that you don’t see in the Lodi and Tughlaq buildings. The minaret, however, is still to make its appearance. A staircase leads up to the flat roof from where the muezzin would have given his call to prayer. Turrets with arched openings mark each side of the west-facing outer wall. Inside, the prayer chamber consists of five compartments, the central one being the largest and the grandest with fine engravings done in pilaster. A marble slab fixed on the central arch of the prayer chamber proclaims:

In the time of Jalaluddin Mohammed who is the greatest (Akbar) of just kings, When Maham Anagah, the protector of chastity, erected this building for the virtuous,

Shihabuddin Ahmad Khan, the generous, assisted in the erection of this good house…

While the mosque proper stands in reasonably good shape, the madarsa attached to it has fallen on hard times. It was housed in the double-storey colonnades that marked the north, south and east walls. The eastern and southern walls are no more than ruins; the northern wall allows some sense of what the rest of the building must have once looked like. Small cell-like rooms, some little more than arched niches, must have once housed the boys sent here to learn to recite from the Holy Quran. The spacious courtyard with the well on one side and a large octagonal sunken basin in its centre must have once reverberated with the sound of young voices learning to read and memorise the scriptures. Now, silence greets the occasional visitor to this, the Most Auspicious of Houses, built by a woman for whom it could be said: the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

Not far from the Khairul Masajid, in the shadow of the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya lies the grave of Princess Jahanara – sister of Aurangzeb, daughter of Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The princess’s grave is inside a simple marble jaali enclosure open to the sky. The epitaph in Persian, which she wrote herself, reads:

Let nothing but the green grass cover the grave of Jahanara
For grass is the fittest covering for the tomb of the lowly.

Most days, you will also find some rose petals strewn over the grass, scattered by those who cherish the words of this Mughal princess centuries after her death. The rose petals restore my faith in Delhi. They tell me that as long as simplicity and goodness are remembered in this blithe city, there is hope for us.

(The above was a lecture delivered at Delhi University, during a seminar 'From Indraprastha to New Delhi: A Cultural Journey', 15 December 2009. RakhshandaJalil has written Invisible City: The Lesser-Known Monuments of Delhi, Niyogi, 2008, Revised Third Edition 2011.)


  1. 1 BHK Flats in Yamuna Expressway
    :-very nice information, we are glad to read this news or post,

  2. Wonderful blog & good post.....Realvalue The demand of commercial and residential properties is enhancing at the fast pace in the Chennai. Chennai Developers are getting significant fortune due to more and more demand of residential and commercial properties. There are various leading builders in Chennai that sell many housing properties in little acre of land.

    Builders In Chennai

  3. I think, this information is well about Women Builders of Delhi. Thanks for providing this information.
    2 BHK Flats for Sale in Mayur Vihar Ph-I New Delhi

  4. Woman builder always construct luxury residential flat where you can stay with your family in peaceful environments.
    2 Bhk Apartments For Sale In Mumbai

  5. Search over a Million real estate properties for sale and to rent from top developers, real estate agents, direct owners in India -