Once upon a time in Delhi, 1240 AD to be exact, there was a king who started off as a slave. His name was Ghiasuddin Balban and he was ambitious enough to name a village after himself—Ghiaspur, a prosperous little place—which later took on the name of its most famous dead inhabitant: Nizamuddin. In Ghiaspur, Ghiasuddin built himself a little red palace called the Lal Mahal, which later housed Firuz Khilji and most famously, Ibn Batuta.
Why should you care about this history lesson? Because the slave king’s home—India’s oldest surviving Islamic palace, which incidentally, also has South Asia’s oldest surviving true dome construction—is about to be torn down to make way for a “two storey structure”, modern and concrete, complete with en suite bathrooms.
We heard of Lal Mahal from the Twitter feed for Monuments Of Delhi (https://twitter.com/DelhiHeritage) run by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, an IT person, with no historical background but an abiding love for Delhi’s hidden history. “I’m so totally into IT, I can’t think of anything else,” he jokes to us on the phone, but this can’t be true, because Vikramjit is also the creator and founder of Delhi Heritage Photography Club, a group that meets to look at unknown monuments in the city—and maybe take a few pictures while they’re there. In the two and a half years Vikramjit has been running the club, they’ve gone on close to 80 walks, with not a single one repeated.
Here Are The Stats Then:
Monuments in Delhi you know: 10 to 15
Monuments in Delhi someone who really knows the city knows: 25
Monuments listed with the Archaeological Society Of India: About 150
Actual number of historical monuments and sites in Delhi: 1,317
Number that still exist: 800
Number that Vikramjit has seen: 300.
Lal Mahal is in danger of destruction, but not if Vikramjit has anything to do with it. The world of heritage conservation in Delhi seems to be a strange politically filled place from what we learnt in conversation with him: we were warned against going to visit Lal Mahal on our own because people have blocked the entry way, and he speaks of fights going on for years between the ASI and the government. With his Save Lal Mahal campaign (#savelalmahal on Twitter), he wants to bring attention to it in the best way, cease the mosque next door from constructing further (one part of the building is already destroyed) and make it a heritage monument open to all. There are even plans of a conducted walk there, so email if you’d like to sign up!
PS: We got Vikramjit to give us a list of five places you probably never knew about, hidden right under your Delhi belly:
Zafar Mahal: As opposed to Lal Mahal, the first Islamic palace, this is the last, in the heart of Mehrauli. Built by Akbar Shah II (father of Bahadur Shah Zafar), when he started the famous Sair-e-Gulfaroshan (Phoolwalon ki Sair festival).
Kushk Mahal: The hunting lodge of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It is (hold your breath) inside Teen Murti House, next to Nehru Planetarium and Nehru Memorial. During Tughlaq’s reign, this area was a dense forest and so he built a high hunting lodge for to score prey.
Khirki Mosque: One of the most magnificent mosques of its time. This is the first (mostly) covered mosque of South Asia. Built by Junan Shah Tilangani (prime minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq), it has red sandstone windows everywhere (from where it got its name Khirki). It’s right opposite Select City Walk Mall, but hidden by row of small shops.
Begumpur & Bijai Mandal: In the colony behind Khirki Mosque stands the majestic Begumpur Masjid, which was built by same Junan Shah, and is much bigger in size. Its uniqueness is that it has a very huge central arch, which was unusual during in 14th century. Plus it has a raised Mallu Khana attached outside northern wall, which was a separate mosque for women. From the top, you can see the other monument and all the way up to Qutub Minar
South Ex Part 1: Right behind South Ex 1 Market, there are series of tombs spread across the residential colony. Starting from Darya Khan Lohani’s Tomb in Kidwai Nagar, which is on the raised platform on a round-about to tombs of Kale Khan, Bhure Khan, Chhote Khan and Bade Khan. Not too far from this place is Kotla Mobarakpur, which has magnificent Octagonal Tomb of Mubarak Shah Sayyid and a hidden mosque.
And just to even it out, five places you can’t visit, even though they’re right there:
Malcha Mahal: Deep inside Delhi ridge, this is a huge hunting lodge of Feroz Shah Tughlaq. It was given to Begum Wilayat Mahal of Oudh Dynasty by the Supreme Court and her children, Princess Sakina and Prince Raza live there. The palace has no electricity and no basic amenities. They (now in their late 60s) live alone and don’t allow anyone to approach.
Chaumachi Khan’s Tomb: This is a very small tomb hidden inside Mehrauli. On three sides, buildings have been constructed and the fourth side belongs to the local Ramlila committee and they have fenced it in, blocking access to the tomb. It’s a rare octagonal tomb, where all eight sides are different sizes.
Qasai Wala Gumbad: These are two huge tombs in Vasant Vihar. They are so big that their white glazed domes can be seen on Delhi-Gurgaon expressway. This complex contains one small tomb also, known to be the shrine of Pir Murad Ali Shah. But it is under private control not open to public exploration. They won’t stop you if you go and worship at this grave but if you try to enter the Mosque or Madrasa, where dozens of kids study Islam, they will confront you.
Monuments inside Airport: Delhi Airport has some amazing monuments. It has the Dargah of Raushan Khan and Kale Khan: yes, the same one who established Sarai Kale Khan. This shrine is right next to Runway 2. Behind this runway, there are the Air India A380 and Blue Dart hangers and behind these hangers, there’s a huge tomb and sarai of Sohail, who was the ruler of this town. These were earlier on Runway 2 but when GMR started building T3, they were uprooted and moved.
Monuments of Golf Course: Delhi Golf Course has some brilliant monuments hidden in it – the Lal Bangla (twin palaces) and Barakhamba. It also has Mir Taqi’s Tomb (not to be confused with the famous poet Mir Taqi Mir) and a few others, which are closed to the public because the Golf Course is a private property.
Go on then, build a little history.
Getting there: Tweet with the hashtag #savelalmahal to get involved, join the Facebook group here to go for free walks, visit the website at http://monumentsofdelhi.com/ for write-ups, maps and photos of the monuments mentioned.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city