Till a few years back, visiting the Tomb of Jamali-Kamali or Balban was a bit of an adventure if you didn’t have someone to guide you- simply because Mehrauli is so full of old buildings that you could easily mistake one for the other. In about 2000, however, a massive project of excavation, restoration, and conservation was launched by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and the result is the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. A large number of monuments—tombs, mosques, stepwells, and more—have been enclosed within the park. At the main gate (which is near Andheria More), a heavy slab of red sandstone depicts a map of the park, with all the major monuments marked for easy reference. From the gate itself, you can follow the path, which curves gradually towards the right and finally curls back on itself. The path is very well marked; there are red sandstone posts every now and then, with clear directions to various monuments. Take a detour to see something you want; or carry on down the main path. There’s a lot to see here, and from a range of eras.
Almost the first monument that you’ll come across is the Tomb of Ghiyasuddin Balban (reign: 1265-87), a powerful Sultan of pre-Mughal times. Although the tomb is in ruins now, it must once have been pretty grand. At any rate, it merits a visit for one feature: it is probably the first monument in Delhi which incorporates true arches. Balban’s Tomb is a little off the main path- you’ll have to clamber through undergrowth and over rubble to get to it.
Back to the main path, and you’ll see something rather unprepossessing, marked as Gumti. This too is more or less in ruins- a square structure with columns at each corner and a dome on top. Neither beautiful nor of any great historic significance, so you can walk further on, down the path. Move straight on, and you’ll reach a series of arched recesses. This was probably once a stable, and though not very decorative (unsurprisingly; why waste artisans on something only horses or their grooms will see?), is pleasing enough.
Further down the path is a very pretty wall mosque dating back to Lodi times. The mosque is basically just a wall with a mihrab marking the direction of prayer. It is decorated with intricately incised plaster, and is worth a brief stopover. Next to it is an old tomb, which didn’t look very attractive when we visited since some of the conservation workers were camping out in it. We gave this one the miss, and walked on up the path, along a filthy stream of water that smelt distinctly of sulphur (more on this later).
On the bank of the stream is a wonderful old tomb known as theTomb with the Jharokhas. Jharokhas are ornate windows that typically jut out of the building, and you’ll often see them in old forts and palaces in Rajasthan. They are not common in tombs, at any rate. But this tomb with its dome and its side staircases seems to be the exception, for its has two delightful jharokhas at the corners overlooking the stream. Since the tomb is still half-buried, the jharokhas appear to be just above the ground; in medieval times they’d have been one storey up.
You can follow the smelly stream and go to the Mughal tombs that lie at the far end of the park, or (as we did) you can take a detour to the right shortly after the Gatehouse. The Gatehouse, by the way, appears to have been around for quite a few centuries; the one you’ll see was built by Charles Metcalfe, the British Resident of Delhi in the early 1800’s.
The path crosses the stream and leads you to one of the most impressive structures in the park, the 16th century stepwell known as the Rajon Ki Baoli. If you have the time, you can also visit the adjoining mosque and tomb. And if you’ve still not had your fill of stepwells, you can go further along the path, to the nearby 12th century Gandhak Baoli. This stepwell has been named for the strong smell of sulphur that permeates its waters, and it is the source of that stream you’ve been following.
From the Gandhak Baoli, retrace your steps to return to the Rajon Ki Baoli and then follow the path to Metcalfe’s Boathouse and Dovecote. Although this structure had existed since the Lodi period, Metcalfe carried out extensive repairs and made additions to it. Originally, an artificial lake existed here, but this has since dried up and all signs of it have disappeared under the vegetation.
Right opposite the Boathouse (the Dovecote, a set of pigeonholes, is on the upper storey) stands the Tomb of Quli Khan. Restoration work is currently in progress here, so we decided not to visit it. The glimpse we got of it, however, was very alluring: it’s an ornate, domed structure, and must’ve looked quite impressive in its time. Well, impressive enough for Metcalfe to have made it his Summer Residence.
Instead of going up to Quli Khan’s tomb, we made our way over Metcalfe’s Bridge, towards Metcalfe’s Canopy, a folly with a dome and arches that looks 16th century but actually was made as recently as the 1850s. Just across the Canopy, on lower ground, is (in my opinion) the highlight of the park: the Mosque and Tomb of Jamali-Kamali. The mosque is pleasant enough, but it’s the tomb that takes some beating: almost every square inch of the ceiling is painted, in reds, blues, and ochre. It’s kept locked, but you should usually be able to find the caretaker nearby, and he’ll open it to let you have a look. If you can’t have it opened, peer in at the sandstone grill on the side: with a little bit of effort, you should be able to get a glimpse of the inside.
All in all, this is an interesting snapshot of Delhi at various stages in its existence. Entry to the park is free; come any time between sunrise and sunset, and you’ll find it open. Set aside at least an hour (preferably two) to explore the park. Remember to wear good walking shoes, and if you’re intent on visiting each of the monuments, wear heavy-duty jeans or trousers to protect yourself from thorns or insects: you may well need to plough through undergrowth to get to some of the less accessible ruins. And yes, bring along a bottle of drinking water. Walking through the park can make you thirsty, and there are no shops or cafés anywhere within the park.