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Women builders

Men have not been the only ones who have adorned their beloved Delhi down the ages. Women, too, have played a smaller, but significant role, writes Rakhshanda Jalil.

art and culture Updated: Aug 30, 2011 16:47 IST

Men have not been the only ones who have adorned their beloved Delhi down the ages. Women, too, have played a smaller, but significant role, in constructing tombs, pavilions, mosques, temples and caravan sarais. There is, for instance, the Neeli Masjid in A-Block, Hauz Khas, built in 1505-06 by Kasum Bhil, the nurse of Fath Khan.

The Khairul Masjid and madarsa on Mathura Road opposite the Zoo and the tomb of Adham Khan opposite the bus depot at Mehrauli were built by Adham’s mother Maham Anagah, who was also the wet nurse of Akbar and a powerful woman in the court. Construction activities either directly commissioned by women or built under their supervision gained momentum during the Mughal period.

Significant examples include: the Darghah Shah-e-Mardan and the cluster of buildings near Jor Bagh built by Qudsia Begum, wife of Muhammad Shah and mother of Ahmad Shah, who also built the Qudsia Gardens near ISBT; the Roshanara Gardens built by Princess Roshanara; the Garden of Bu Halima near Humayun’s Tomb; and the Fakhrul Masajid built by Fakhr-e-Jahan begum in memory of her husband, Shujaat Khan, opposite St James’ Church.

Several Mughal princesses built small but pretty mosques such as the Zinatul Masajid (Ornament of Mosques), also called the Ghata Masjid because of the black and white stripes on its dome, built by Zinat-un-Nisa, one of Aurangzeb’s daughters. The Fatehpuri Masjid at the far end of Chandni Chowk was built by one of Shahjahan’s wives.

The most spectacular building in Delhi commissioned by a woman is the Humayun’s tomb. Built in 1565 by Humayun’s widow and Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu Begum, it is the prototype of the garden-tomb that was to later show the way for the Taj Mahal. Also known as Haji Begum because she had made the Haj pilgrimage, rare for a woman in those days, Hamida Begum commissioned a Persian architect, Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, to construct Humayun’s Tomb at the exorbitant expense of Rs 15 lakh!

She died in 1603, shortly before Akbar, and was buried with great ceremony in one of the unmarked graves in the north-eastern chamber beside her husband. Much ink has been spilt over the Humayun’s Tomb and its inclusion in the World Heritage Sites listing. Little, however, is known about the site that came up to house the 300 Arabs who were invited by Hamida Begum to build the grand mausoleum. In the next column we will visit the site — known for posterity as Arab ki Sarai.