Heritage encroached

The controversy over the camping of Myanmar refugees in a protected area in Delhi has several dimensions, the most important being that the land is home to a 13th Century mausoleum for Altamash's son, the second to be built in the Indian subcontinent

May 12, 2012 12:35 pm | Updated July 11, 2016 04:29 pm IST

The Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi Photo: V V Krishnan

The Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi Photo: V V Krishnan

The first monumental mausoleum built in the Indian subcontinent belongs to Qutub-ud-Din Aibak, built in 1210, it is to be found at the bustling Anarkali Bazar in Lahore. The second, the Mausoleum of Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood, the eldest son of Altamash (Iltutmish) built in 1231 is located opposite Pocket C of Vasant Kunj in Delhi

Nasir-ud-Din Mahmood was governor of Bengal, then known as Lakhnauti, and was killed there, his body was brought to Delhi and Altamash started building the mausoleum to his beloved son. What stands today is an incomplete structure because the octagonal platform atop the grave was clearly meant to be built over. Had Altamash not died within five years of his son's death a dome would probably have come up above the platform with a cenotaph as is the pattern repeated in all monumental mausoleums.

The structure that looks like a small fortress with its four bastions, one at each corner, is popularly known as Sultan Garhi. This is a corruption of the original Sultan-e-Ghaari (the king of the cave) so called because the original grave is located in a kind of a crypt that one has to climb into.

Over the centuries the mausoleum has come to be venerated by the local population as the shrine of a Sufi or Peer. This conversion of a dead prince into a Sufi is strangely responsible for the preservation of this remarkable structure and is now the cause of its encroachment and this is the dilemma that conservationists face in preserving what are known as living monuments.

The graves of Nasir-ud-Din's brothers Ruknuddin Feroze Shah and Muizzudin Bahram Shah, a stone inscription that mentions the building of a water tank in 1361 and a mosque probably dating to the time of Firoze Tughlaq and the ruins of an old village that was inhabited till 1947 are other structures that lie scattered about this 30 acre piece of land under the protection of the ASI.

The village that grew around the mausoleum was a Muslim majority village and those that lived in the ruins that lie scattered were either consumed by the madness of the times or those who were lucky escaped, virtually by the skin of their teeth. The mausoleum remained because it had come to be venerated, both by the Hindus and the Muslims.

Post 1947 the locals, now almost exclusively Hindus, continued to flock here every Thursday, gradually as things settled down some Muslims too started coming here and so an ASI protected monument, recently preserved through ASI-INTACH joint effort, was gradually being turned into the shrine of a non-existent Sufi. Some had even begun to present the joint ownership as a fine example of communal harmony

It would have continued to lead its obscure existence, probably one day quietly turning into a shrine just as many other monuments have in Delhi, turning into temples or mosques or Sufi shrines with local politicians lending support to encroachers and conservationists eventually reconciling to losing one more part of a heritage that no one seems to be too worried about. This well established routine has however been disrupted through the intervention of a new player, the arrival of more than a 1000 refugees from Myanmar, the erstwhile Burma.

Why the refugees from Myanmar are camping here is a strange story of callousness and apathy that this city exhibits on a fairly regular basis. The Myanmar refugees were initially camping in front of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Vasant Vihar. They were demanding that they be recognized as refugees and be given that status, the UNHCR was taking his time, such bodies always do.

Meanwhile, the residents of Vasant Vihar, who did not like so many hungry and ill clad people crowding their neighbourhood complained. The voices of the complainants were heard with alacrity. Such voices are always heard with alacrity. Had the same alacrity been shown to solve the problems of the refugees they would have been taken to a place where they would not be exposed to the elements, but the idea was to remove them from Vasant Vihar and then when they were out of sight things could go back to routine.

Unfortunately things show no signs of going back to normal, the villagers who venerate the non-existent Sufi have threatened action if these people are not moved out by May 15 and they have been promised results by that date. Meanwhile, an uneasy peace prevails with a police picket in position keeping the curious away and no one seems to be asking the questions that need to be asked.

Who told the Myanmar refugees about this place, who told them that they could shift there, who arranged the shift, who gave the permission. Did anyone bother to ask the ASI or the National Heritage Commission? Is this another encroachment being orchestrated with the poor refugees being innocent pawns, just as poor migrants have been used on earlier occasions in other parts of the city.

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