The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has chapters all across India. The Delhi Chapter has its work cut out: Delhi has over 2,000 listed historical structures, many in constant danger of being razed, encroached upon, used as a garbage dump, or being put to other highly inappropriate uses. Although a large part of its work involves carrying out restoration projects, the Delhi Chapter also does its bit to educate people on Delhi’s history, and the need to conserve the city’s heritage.
As part of this drive, INTACH regularly organises public walks—anybody who registers for the walk and pays a fee of Rs 50 is welcome to join. All through this month, the Delhi Chapter’s done weekend heritage walks across the city, in Daryaganj, Hauz Khas, Lodhi Gardens, and Mehrauli. This one, in Mehrauli, is being conducted by my sister Swapna, a historian.
I carpool with Swapna; the walk’s to begin at 8.15 AM, and we arrive at the rendezvous—the Mehrauli parking lot—by 8 AM. Opposite the parking lot is the gateway to the Jogmaya Temple: an ancient Hindu temple, but now completely renovated. Mehrauli, unlike colourful, exotic Chandni Chowk, is little known, so the number of people who’ve registered for this walk is relatively small: there’s just about fifteen of us.
Mehrauli is extremely interesting, in that it is Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited locality. Delhi is old—it’s been around for over 30 centuries—and some areas, like the Purana Qila, show signs of habitation from ancient times, though with populations coming and going as the years passed. Mehrauli is different; it’s been constantly occupied since at least the 8th century. Such a long history translates into a vast number of old buildings and structures, dating as far back as the 12th century, and right up to the end of the British Raj.
We begin our walk, strolling up the easy slope to a crossroads, the Mehrauli Bus Terminal on our left. This is a busy area, with the Delhi Transport Corporation’s buses racing along at full speed as they move in and out of the terminal. Just before the terminal is a judicial department of some sort. Outside the office, on the pavement is a long row of ramshackle desks, each of them with its own little board: Notary. Litigations filed. Property and tax cases handled. And so on; all of these are advocates whose practice seems to be restricted to doing paperwork.
Beyond them is the first of Mehrauli’s interesting buildings: the Public Library. It’s a circular building, fringed by a verandah of pleasant arches, all of it topped by a dome. A small, obviously colonial building, newly whitewashed and in thankfully good condition. We walk on, up to the top of the hillock, on which stands the prominent Tomb of Adham Khan. We walk up the stairs and into the tomb, where we spend a while looking at it and taking photographs. Once we’re done—and Swapna’s explained the history of the tomb—we emerge from the tomb and cross the square opposite, taking the lane which leads downhill approximately opposite the tomb. (There are a lot of lanes converging here; ask for the road to the dargah if you’re confused).
The dargah, the shrine or tomb of the 13th century Sufi saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, is one of Delhi’s most important centres of pilgrimage. Though much of the shrine is now so modern you can’t see its original form, it’s still worth visiting. Unfortunately, it requires a lot of time (a walk, as Swapna says, of its own). So we won’t be visiting the dargah, but we do stop by on the way to admire the Gandhak ki Baoli and to offer a heartfelt thanks to the Archaeological Survey of India, which has recently had it cleared and cleaned.
We walk on, passing two tall stone structures on either side of the lane. These, Swapna tells us, formed the Naubat Khana (the drum house) to the dargah. Musicians would sit in the balcony of the drum house, and play on kettle drums to welcome visitors to the shrine. The structure on the left has been taken over by a local gurudwara. They’ve whitewashed it, so you can’t really see much. The structure on the right is more or less intact, made of good solid stone with beautifully carved oriel window supports on the sides.
Past the Naubat Khana, we come to the doorway of the dargah. There are shopkeepers here selling chadars of green cloth embroidered in glittery golden tinsel; rosaries; roses; and other votive offerings. We turn right and walk on till the lane opens out into a square, with the red sandstone-and-white marble gateway of the Zafar Mahal opposite.
Zafar Mahal is large and historic, with lots of intriguing features, so takes up a good bit of our time. When we emerge, Swapna turns left and takes us up a narrow lane past two old tombs, both with four-sided, somewhat conical domed roofs. One’s been turned into a grocery shop; the other appears to be a home. The lane—by now less than four feet across—slopes up slightly and joins the main road of Mehrauli Village. A man is selling raw sugar here in its myriad forms: large discs of orange-gold gur; sacks of pale yellow shakkar; heaps of brown bura. All of it smells gorgeously intoxicating, but with the dust of the road right there, I wonder how hygienic all of this is. Further down the road, past shops selling gaudy polyester saris aglitter with sequins and tinsel, a man is selling large bunches of brown tobacco, hung upside down from the rafters of his shop. Below stands a row of earthen chillums and gleaming hookahs.
Even though this is the main road (and was once the main Mehrauli-Gurgaon road) it’s narrow: two cars coming from opposite directions can cause a traffic jam if there happens to be a slow cart moving along in front of one of them. And there are slow carts here by the dozen. Behind us, a man pedals a cycle with a large barrow loaded with vegetables. Ahead of us, a sewer-cleaning crew is hard at its smelly work: they’re manually lifting filth out of the open drains and piling it into a deep-sided cart pulled along by a large and patient bullock. We hold our noses and race past—only to run into the mother of all traffic jams: a consignment of large steel pipes has spilt across the road, effectively choking half of it off. There are cyclists, men on motorbikes and scooters, cars, a small lorry, and us.
We squeeze past, walking intrepidly over the pipes till we’re the past the jam. Swapna leads us further down the road, pointing out traces of old architecture: semi-circular arches, Greek columns and shuttered windows in one building; traditional dripstones with sandstone supports in another. We go past the Jamaluddin Building—conspicuously labelled, its name and date (1940) spelt out in plaster below the ornate facade—and the Kali Prasad Haveli, a much more typically Indian mansion. Swapna tells us that, through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Mehrauli became a popular retreat for the rich and powerful of Delhi: those who could afford it invariably built a mansion here where they would come now and then from north Delhi for a holiday.
The road opens out at the Jahaz Mahal, beside which men sit selling spices: huge yellow heaps of turmeric and bright red dried chillies contrasting with the dull red and grey bulk of the building. We wander around Jahaz Mahal, admiring the carving on the pillars and braving the treacherously narrow, steep staircase to climb up onto the roof and look out over the Hauz Shamsi beyond.
Back downstairs, we cross the road and walk down to the Jharna. Someone seems to have been plucking chickens here: the ground’s littered with white feathers, enough to stuff a couple of mattresses. But the only people around are a bunch of children from the neighbourhood. They’re all equally grubby but cheerful, playing happily by themselves until we come by. They realise this is a good opportunity to get photographed, and they pose for us once Swapna’s finished with her explaining of what the Jharna is all about.
It’s a long walk back to the parking lot, but Swapna manages to ensure that for the last five minutes of the walk, we use a different route—so we see some interesting new features. There’s a clinic housed in what looks like an old tomb; there are late colonial buildings which are now shops; and there’s a quaint old plaque inserted in the main wall along the road. All it says is that "From the zails [districts or quarters] of Mehrauli and Badarpur 1261 men went to the Great War 1914-1919. Of these 92 gave up their lives."
And on that note, we walk up to Adham Khan’s tomb beyond, and then to the parking lot.