Late reaction of the authorities in Delhi on the Akabarabadi Masjid controversy has only led to whipped up religious passions, soiling of historical artefacts and unwanted media intrusion
The news of the discovery of the foundations of a large medieval structure near Jama Masjid has led to quite a commotion in the media and on the ground. The Archaeological Society of India (ASI) has been asked by the Delhi High Court to take over the now much talked-about site. The ASI, conservationists and historians have always been aware of the fact that the present site of the Subhas Park — till the early 1960s known as Edward Park — was the location of a mosque built by one of the wives of Emperor Shahjahan.
The mosque was demolished by the British in early 1858, in the aftermath of the 1857 riots, as part of a scheme to clear an area of 500 yards from the Fort walls. The British were feared another rebellion and thought they would be more secure if no one could approach the Fort unseen.
One of the suggestions for the proposed redevelopment plan of Shahjahanabad was to expose the foundations of the demolished mosque and to put in place markers for visitors to educate them about the history of the site. The suggestion was initially made by Professor Narayani Gupta of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission as part of a redevelopment plan for the Jama Masjid Area.
When the Akbarabadi Masjid controversy began to raise the temperature in Delhi, I asked Professor Gupta if any drawing of the original mosque exists and she said that it is in the book Aasaar-us-Sanadeed. A photograph of the same is being reproduced in these columns.
Accompanying the drawing there is also a text that describes the mosque. From the text we learn that the Akbarabadi Mosque was located in the Faiz Bazaar, now Darya Ganj area, inside Shahjahanabad. It was built in 1060 A.H (1650 CE) by Nawab Aizaz-un-Nisa Begum, one of the wives of Shahjahan, also known as Akbarabadi Begum because she belonged to Akbarabad (Agra).
The mosque was built with red sandstone; the main prayer hall, topped with three domes and seven arches, was 63-yard-long and 70-yard-wide; the central arch that projected forward was made of marble and was intricately carved. In front of the arched pavilion was a platform — 63-yard-long, 57-yard-wide and three-metre-high. A red sandstone water tank was located in front of the platform. The mosque was enclosed within a courtyard 154 metres X 104 yards, with rooms for students built along the periphery. A black stone tablet, placed above the main gate, gave the name of the builder and the year of construction.
When the proposal to lay the Connaught Place-Kashmiri Gate line via Red Fort was recently mooted and the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation began to finalise the alignment of the tunnel, the ASI had suggested a realignment as it came too close to the Jama Masjid and was likely to cause damage to medieval monuments and buried remains.
The proposal to connect the Commonwealth Games Village and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium through a tunnel that was to pass close to the Humayun’s Tomb was dropped when similar concerns were raised by conservationists. This time, however, the DMRC went ahead and the inevitable happened — the foundations of a large structure that many believe to be the foundations of the demolished mosque were revealed.
This has led to religious passions being whipped up; a rather ungainly structure has come up on encroached land; the ASI is yet to inspect the remains — many of the pottery shards and vases, full or broken and other artefacts that were excavated have been exposed, handled by countless people and photographed extensively, rendering them useless for purposes of carbon dating. The moment pottery shards were discovered, digging should have been stopped and the area should have been cordoned off and the ASI called in to take over the excavation.
None of this was done, mischief makers began talking of a miracle on the eve of Ramazan, counter claims of this being a Pandava palace began to be bandied about, self-appointed archaeologists took over and our 24X7 media always thirsting for breaking news jumped in with their intrusive microphones and cameras.
Those who should have prevented this broad daylight encroachment on public property did nothing and now there is a makeshift mosque, a terrible caricature of the grand mosque and madrasa that once stood here and now, after so much sewage has passed under the Jamuna Bridge, the matter is sub judice. Echoes of the Babri Masjid incident? Will we never learn? Will hoodlums, law breakers and encroachers continue to ride rough shod on our heritage while the keepers of law and law makers continue to prevaricate?