Gateway to medieval era

Illustration by Vinay Kumar

Illustration by Vinay Kumar

Gateways always lead to somewhere. Simsim led to the treasures accumulated by Abul Hasan, the robber chief, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-type character who was Qazi Sahib or a Moroccan town governor by day and a ruthless marauder by night, looting left and right with his gang of 40 as per the saga of “Ali Baba Chalis Chor”. The Alai Darwaza of Alauddin Khilji led to the Qutub complex. The Buland Darwaza was the royal entrance to Sheikh Salim Chisti’s shrine at Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri, the Kashmere Gate was the portal for caravans going to Kashmir, the Turkman Gate led to the shrine of Hazrat Turkman Bayabani and the Delhi Gate to the city of Shahjahanabad.

The Lal Darwaza was one of the gates of Sher Shah’s capital city and a magnificent one at that. But it was badly damaged in the rains in August 2012, with a part of it collapsing. Now, three years later the Archaeological Survey of India has belatedly started repairs after removing the wall built as a stop-gap protection.

The cracks in the façade have widened since and the restoration work has become a little more complicated, necessitating an estimated expenditure of Rs.50 lakhs. Facing the Purana Quila which has gates on the north, south and west, the last named opposite Delhi Zoo, being the main entrance now. The Lal Darwaza was used by Sher Shah while returning from the citadel he had constructed after demolishing the Dinpanah of Humayun. But he left it unfinished, says historian Dr. Y. D. Sharma, because of his untimely death and it was left to Humayun, after he had recaptured Delhi from his arch enemy’s Suri’s descendants to complete it along with the construction of a Humayun Darwaza. Sher Shah often visited Sher Mandal in Old fort complex which he had built as a pleasure resort, but converted into a library by Humayun who, ironically, fell to his death from its steps while hurrying down to answer the evening call for prayer after (interested in astronomy he was) observing the star Venus (Zohra) in the ascendant.

The Sher Shah Gate exists at the side of Khairul Manazil Masjid and got its name because of the red sandstone from which it was built. The arcades of the gate were used as shops so that people entering the expansive new city of the Afghan ruler or going out of it could buy goods and foreign merchants exchange money, or so it is believed. There are at least three Lal Darwazas dating to Sher Shah’s reign, the second one being the Kabuli Gate, which got its name from the colony of Kabuli Afghans then situated nearby. However some aver that caravans to Kabul went that way. This gate is now known as the Khooni Darwaza as two sons and a grandson of Bahadur Shah Zafar were shot dead there by the notorious Lt. Hodson while being purportedly led to the Red Fort after Zafar’s surrender at Humayun’s Tomb when the British recaptured Delhi in September 1857.

Lal Darwaza also brings in mind the visit of Amir Habibullah of Afghanistan to Delhi in the first decade of the 20th Century. The Amir, who was assassinated in Kabul in 1919, not long after he went back to his faction-ridden country, had come for talks with the British Viceroy, also utilized the time to survey medieval monuments especially those built by the Afghan rulers. Among these, it’s worth recalling, were the monuments constructed by Sher Shah, who had restored Afghan rule for 15 years. The Amir saw the tank which provides water to the namazis for “wuzu” or the ceremonial washing of face, hands and feet before prayers at the Khair-ul-Manazil mosque and noticing the deplorable state in which it was had it repaired at his own expense. This mosque was built during the reign of Akbar (near the Sher Shah Gate) by the Mughal emperor’s wet-nurse Maham Anga in 1561. The Quila Khuna Masjid in the Old fort was repaired by Lord Curzen during his Viceroyalty.

Amir Habibullah’s interest in the Delhi monuments stemmed from his love for the Afghans who reigned over Hindustan. He wanted to bring back those balmy days in his own country which, like India, had been subjugated by the British. While repairing the tank in Khair-ul-Manazil Masjid, he turned his attention to other monuments also, among them was the Sher Shah gate, part of which too is believed to have been repaired by the Indian masons employed by him. An overseers of these workers, one would like to repeat, was Masood Khan. One day he gave Amir Habibullah a taweez (amulet), blessed at Nizamuddin Dargah, for his personal safety. After the Amir’s assassination, Masood Mian remarked that he had probably thrown it away as he was an orthodox Wahabi. Restoration of the Lal Darwaza brings all this to mind, incidentally at a time when Afghanistan is again passing through a turbulent period with many of its own monuments being demolished by the IS.

All said and done, the ASI should be more prompt in maintaining our own medieval heritage.

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2022 6:35:10 am |