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Zafar Mahal and Moti Masjid: From Many Bygone Eras...

The Moti Masjid in Zafar Mahal Photo, Delhi, India

The last Mughal Emperor was the ill-fated Bahadur Shah II, an accomplished poet who used the pen name `Zafar’, Bahadur Shah `Zafar’ had the misfortune to be the de jure ruler when, in 1857, the Mutiny broke out. Once it was quashed (and very violently too), Bahadur Shah was summarily pensioned off and exiled to Burma, where he later died.

Bahadur Shah lived at a time when the grandeur of the great Mughals had dwindled away into a sad and tawdry echo of its past magnificence. The British had, in effect, become all-powerful and Bahadur Shah was given a mere Rs 1,00,000 a month to meet all his expenses—which included all the expenses of the 5,000 people who lived with him in the Red Fort and were dependent on him.

So, where two centuries earlier the wealthy Shahjahan had built his magnum opus, the Taj Mahal, and followed it up with the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid and the city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi, Bahadur Shah could barely scrape together the funds to make himself a retreat away from the crowded Red Fort. Since he was short of money, Bahadur Shah ended up simply adding to an existing palace: what is today known as Zafar Mahal. Bahadur Shah’s father, the Emperor Akbar II, had built this palace but it was Bahadur Shah who added the gateway to it and made it a retreat, where he and his family would come to stay for days at a time.

There’s an open space—a sort of square—in front of the Zafar Mahal—which is used as a vegetable trading centre of sorts. As we weave our way gingerly between the lorries laden with vegetables, young men deftly package cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, radish, spinach and carrots in large plastic bags. Ahead of us, behind a high iron railing, stands the gate to Zafar Mahal. A small stone plaque, inscribed in English, contains a brief description of the palace.

The gate is an impressive one, made of red sandstone and embellished with white marble. It has two especially ornate medallions in the form of large lotuses on either side of the main arch. Below, just above ground level, are two shallow oriel windows or jharokhas, both looking more Rajasthani than typical Mughal. The gateway is closed with a weatherbeaten wooden door; in the right leaf is a small wicket-gate, through which we step into a dark, high passageway. One section of the passage slopes up ahead, flanked by arched recesses which still retain traces of ornately painted plaster: we can see brightly coloured fruit and flowers decorating the edges of the niches. Another section of the passage slopes up to the left. All of it smells of bats, but only for a few yards: once we emerge from the passage into the small courtyard beyond, it’s fine.

It’s impossible to give precise directions on navigating Zafar Mahal: it is by far the most eccentric building I have ever seen. It’s a maze of different levels, small dingy cells, high crumbling staircases, and strange nooks and crannies which appear to have no earthly use. Partly, it’s because Zafar Mahal consists of bits and pieces built up over a long time. For example, towards the front of the courtyard is a structure of heavy grey Delhi quartzite, roughly hewn and with square-sided columns and a plastered dome. This is probably a 15th century structure made during the reign of the Lodhi dynasty, but no-one’s quite sure who made it, or why.

Beside this building is a broad staircase which leads up to the top of the gateway. We go up, and here’s another interesting discovery. A pretty arched balcony with fluted Shahjahani columns fronts the gate, offering a view of the neighbourhood beyond and below. The columns at the front—the ones between which the Emperor would ceremonially have stood every morning to show himself to his subjects—are good white marble; the columns at the back, which wouldn’t have been visible to the general populace, are sandstone, covered with lime plaster and polished to resemble marble. Rather sad, really.

Back down the staircase, we make our way across to the chambers on the left. These contain traces of the colonial architecture that had started becoming popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Bahadur Shah’s sons had begun experimenting with Western concepts, and some of these can be seen here: there is, for example, a fireplace high up in one wall (this was originally a two-storied chamber, but the floor of the first storey has since collapsed). There’s a chimney above it, and on the other side, a panel of painted plaster which looks more Italianate than Mughal. The broad, low-stepped staircase we’d descended is also definitely colonial: in traditional Mughal (and even pre-Mughal) buildings in Delhi, staircases were very narrow and steep affairs built within walls.

Beyond this is a small and distinctive three-domed mosque made of white marble. Known as the Moti Masjid (the `pearl mosque’), this sits in its own little enclosure, separated from the rest of the palace. It was built by the Emperor Bahadur Shah in the early 18th century and though it’s made completely of marble, it’s very austere: there is almost no decoration to speak of. Even the mihrab that marks west—the direction of prayer—is, uncharacteristically, unadorned. On the south, a little border of floral carving marks the top edge of a dado, but that’s about it.

Above this dado and outside the mosque is a roofless enclosure screened off on all sides by carved panels of white marble. There’s one opening, though, and we step in to see four cenotaphs. One, tucked away in a corner by itself, is relatively plain and is the cenotaph of Bahadur Shah’s son, Mirza Fakhroo, who died in 1852. The others are all cenotaphs of the later Mughal emperors. There’s a marble-rimmed grave covered with earth, the cenotaph having disappeared; this is the grave of Bahadur Shah I. Beyond that is an empty plot of earth, and then two very ornately carved cenotaphs, one of white marble and the other of black marble. These are, respectively, the cenotaphs of Shah Alam II and Akbar II. The empty plot of earth is believed to have been earmarked by Bahadur Shah II as his burial spot, but is unlikely, since the earlier emperors died long before him and could hardly have generously decided that they’d leave a spot vacant for their descendant.

Zafar Mahal is right next to the western gateway to the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. There’s no entry fee—in fact, Zafar Mahal is more or less a free-for-all. On the day we visited, there were groups of men sitting around and playing cards; there were boys playing cricket, and some hangers-on who seemed to have nothing better to do than just laze around in the courtyard. If you want the place to yourself, try to go a little early: around 8.30 A.M should be a good time to beat the crowd.

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