The mosque built by Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Maqbool Telangani, the Prime Minster of Ferozeshah Tughlaq, was declared a protected monument in the 1920s. A recap of what the mosque has been through.

On a couple of occasions mention has been made in this column about a rather novel approach to heritage conservation that is being tried by a diverse group of people at the 14th century Begumpur Mosque.

The mosque built by Khan-e-Jahan Juna Shah Maqbool Telangani, the Prime Minster of Ferozeshah Tughlaq, was declared a protected monument in the 1920s. A recap of what the mosque has been through in the centuries of its existence will help to understand problems faced by conservationists.

After the death of Mohammad bin Tughlaq in 1351, his successor Ferozeshah Tughlaq (ruled 1351-88) built another city, Ferozabad, close to the Jamna. Some time after the Tughlaqs, the capital shifted to Agra and stayed there till the building of Shahjahanabad in 1740s. The Begumpur area would have gradually lost its importance, the mosque was probably abandoned as were many other structures in this area as the centre of power shifted away. The gradual decline of the Mughal Empire from the early 18th century encouraged regular attacks on Delhi and these probably prompted the local peasants to seek refuge in structures like the Begumpur Mosque, the Khirki Mosque, the Tombs of Humayun and of Isa Khan that could be defended against opportunist bands of raiders.

These perhaps were the conditions in which many of these structures were converted into residences by the populations that used to live in their neighbourhood and it was in this state that the staff and officers of the Archaeological Survey of India found them when it began the process of listing and documenting the historical monuments of Delhi in the 1920s.

Those living inside the Begumpur Mosque, and an entire village lived inside with their cattle, were encouraged to move out and build their houses in the vicinity. The 50 yard or 100 yard prohibited area perhaps did not exist at the time and the evacuees built their houses on three flanks of the mosque, within a few feet of the protected structure.

According to the old residents of Begumpur, the mosque has stayed in the care of the ASI from 1928. Meanwhile, the families of those that had been evicted kept on growing and those that had moved into new houses in 1928 as toddlers are now in their mid-eighties. Four generations have been born in these houses and many families need to expand their houses to accommodate the new arrivals.

This is the problem that Begumpur and all monuments surrounded by human habitation face and it is this that leads to a conflict between those living in close proximity of protected monuments and the ASI. The ASI and the conservationists want the rule of law to be strictly adhered to and are not in favour of allowing any construction or alteration in the skyline while those residing cheek by jowl with the protected monuments want the right to repair, expand or rebuild their houses to meet their needs. There seems to be no meeting ground between the two parties.

This is a situation that does not augur well for our heritage. You cannot have conservationists and our own people in a state of permanent disagreement with each other. Clearly there is need to start a dialogue and this is precisely what the “Friends of ASI’ seek to do.

The FrASI, as the group calls itself, consists of some activist historians, a few heritage enthusiasts, conservation architects and is actively being helped by students, teachers and parents of the Mother’s International School (MIS) and some residents of Begumpur village. The group has chosen Begumpur as a site where they want to try out their ideas to get the ASI and the conservationists on the one hand and the villagers on the other, to sit across and look at possibilities of understanding what the other party wants and to explore areas of agreement.

The work that has been going on quietly and slowly for several months has seen a general cleaning up of Bijay Mandal and the Begumpur Mosque at the initiative of the ASI, a tree plantation drive jointly carried out by the ASI and the MIS and a week-long exhibition about Begumpur held at the Begumpur Mosque last month. The exhibition displayed large photographs, drawn from the ASI achieves, of the mosque and of the village as it appeared in the 1920s with the entire village settled inside the mosque. Posters, paintings and articles about the mosque and on the importance of heritage conservation put together by students of MIS were also on display and were a big draw with the villagers. Students of MIS, who had been trained earlier, conducted heritage walks in Bijay Mandal and the Mosque. A film on the Mosque and Bijay Mandal made by a student of MIS was also shown.

A beginning has been made, a few in the village have come forward to own the mosque as “our heritage” a dialogue is now possible. If this attempt succeeds, the FrASI plans to carry the experiment to other sites in the Capital as well. Especially the active involvement of so many students in the effort, gives great hope.