CITYSCAPE History & Culture

The past and its present

The tomb of Ghiyas-ud-din Balban and the broken plaque Photos: Ritvik Chaturvedi   | Photo Credit: 07dmcbalban

The Delhi Sultanate forms a major part of any school kid’s history textbook. The Sultanate’s a vibrant story, with unexpected and expected events changing the course of our country’s history. The throne of Delhi passed from the hands of one king to another (and for once, even a queen) and tracing its course brings us to the threshold of the Modern Era.

One of the most important structures that the Delhi Sultanate left behind is the Qutb Mînâr and its complex that also contains the ‘Alâ’i Mînâr, the tomb of Iltutmish and the tomb of Alauddin Khilji as well as the first extant mosque in India, the Qûwwatu’l-Islam. On any given day, the Qutb Mînâr complex is filled with tourists, guides (or people pretending to be guides), security guards and street vendors selling water and food items, pamphlets and books about the monument. The complex today is one of the quintessential symbols of Delhi.

Barely a few yards away from the Qutb Complex is its little-remembered cousin, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. The park, spread over acres, has over 80 monuments. One may not be entirely wrong in deeming it to be richer than the Qutb complex itself. About a decade ago, the park was all but a jungle and the structures all but in ruins. During 2001-02, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), in collaboration with the Delhi Chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), salvaged the area from decay. Now the park lies in a much better state than before, offering interesting vignettes from a bygone era.

Like the Qutb complex, the park is also scattered with unmarked graves and structures. Though quite recently, the park was in news for the Baghichi monument, a late Mughal period mosque and a Lodi period mosque which have been so refurbished that they have lost their original look. These monuments were whitewashed and renovated with green plaster paint so much so that the inscriptions got damaged. Not everything in the park is hunky dory. Many monuments have ownership issues, with the Waqf Board claiming control over some of them. Since some are not ‘protected’ monuments, they have even fallen to encroachers. Some people have even installed electricity meters and put up tin sheds on the walls of these old structures.

The park’s entry is camouflaged by trees and shrubs and can easily go unnoticed. Gardeners can be seen pruning the grass and clipping other overgrowth. Youngsters and schoolboys playing truant have made it a playground. This does not portend well for the park, as in some places it is quite littered. When the park was refurbished, the ASI put up signages to direct the visitors to different monuments. Unfortunately, many of these are now broken and illegible.

The park also offers a glimpse into a relatively short period in the history of the Sultanate — namely that of Ghiyas-ud-din Balban, for it’s here that the tomb of this ruler lies. Balban was a Turkish slave in the court of the Mamluk dynasty ruler Iltutmish. He entered the course of the Sultanate when Turks wielded significant clout in the affairs of the state.When Raziya Sultana moved to abolish the jizya tax imposed on Hindus, Balban emerged as one of the strongest dissidents to the proposed policy. He is deemed as the last influential ruler of the Mamluk dynasty.

Balban’s grave is built in red sandstone, with many of the stones and slabs broken now. At first glance, it appears that the slabs have been heaped upon a forlorn grave. A sole line in Arabic adorns the eastern side of the grave. The tomb is enclosed in a structure made of rough hewn boulders. A small pavilion on the eastern side precedes the main chamber containing the grave. This tomb is considered the first structure to have a true dome and an arch. Nothing much remains of that now. The whole enclosure is very much in ruins and tall grass surrounds,each and every wall. There might have been a mud pathway from the Jamali Kamali Mosque to the tomb, but tall grass covers signs of the pathway, rendering it invisible. The tomb is built at a much lower level than other monuments and a steep narrow staircase leads us to the mausoleum. ASI’s plague at the tomb lay dismantled in the grass. Many other monuments have been built in the area centuries apart, offering glimpses into different times. The tomb of Balban’s son is not far away. Rajon ki Baoli and Quli Khan’s tomb are also splendid monuments one should look out for at the park.

Though compared to other lesser known archaeological sites, the park is remarkably well visited by the locals and even witnesses groups of heritage walkers on weekends. But unlike its tall cousin a few blocks away, it is not on a passing tourist’s itinerary. This seems to have a clear disadvantage: lack of upkeep. Stray animals have made it a haven. With no restrictions on the entry of vehicles, locals can be seen speeding up the pathways on their motorcycles and cars.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 11:47:25 AM |

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