Discover Delhi: Why a room with a view spells tragedy for historic Mehrauli
On International Day For Monuments and Sites, welcome to the fall from grace of Mehrauli, one of Delhi’s most historic regions. The neighbourhood has hundreds of monuments dating from almost every empire that ruled this part of the world.delhi Updated: Apr 18, 2017 14:45 IST
Wow, this is a mind-blowing sight.
We are talking of a spanking new multi-storey apartment complex in south Delhi’s Mehrauli. Constructed by a builder based in the nearby Kishangarh village, the pink edifice is yet to be given a name. We enter one of its empty flats. The walls smell of new paint. The windows in one of the spacious rooms look to a most stunning view of Zafar Mahal.
If you throw a marigold out of the window, it may land straight on the monument.
When it comes to the quantity and varieties of monuments, Delhi is said to be as world-class as Rome or Istanbul. But those cities are luckier. They do not have housing towers raised in such close vicinity to great buildings of the past.
This is a point to beat our chest about especially today — the International Day For Monuments and Sites.
Look at Zafar Mahal! It is not just another obscure Delhi monument. It was the last important building of the Mughals and was built by Emperor Akbar II, father of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the dynasty’s last ruler. Zafar, who lies buried in faraway Rangoon, actually wanted to be buried in Zafar Mahal. He had even marked out a space for his grave. That vacant spot can still be seen in Zafar Mahal.
(On second thoughts, it’s perhaps good for Zafar that fate denied him a burial in Zafar Mahal — an unknown grave here has a black leather shoe half-buried in it!)
In the blinding daylight of the summer afternoon, the glass windows of the pink flats glimmer with the reflection of Zafar Mahal’s stone domes. This breathtakingly beautiful scene is a perfect illustration of Mehrauli’s unfolding tragedy.
The area boasts of many such contrasting sights of old and new buildings within spitting distance of each other. A top photographer’s office is situated within a spectacularly unsightly multi-storied complex of concrete whose glass wall faces a Mughal-era mosque. We tried entering the lovely mosque but were shooed out by an aggressive woman whose family had built a house in it.
Did nobody tell her that building a house of cement inside the monument was taking things too far?
After all, Mehrauli is even older than Old Delhi, and has hundreds of ruins dating from almost every empire that ruled this part of the world. Scores of romantically derelict buildings litter the justly named Mehrauli Archaeological Park.
Mehrauli also boasts one of India’s most famous monuments, Qutub Minar.
And yet, a walk in this heritage district triggers despair, instead of delight. So many monuments seem to be on the verge of extinction. We were heartbroken to come across a beautiful stone column standing orphaned beside a modern three-floor apartment.
It looked as hapless as one of those poor scared leopards you see in those YouTube videos being hounded by angry town people who actually built their towns in the animal’s natural habitat.
Even worse was coming face-to-face with a collapsing stone structure in the bustling Mehrauli bazaar. It was left with just a hint of its arched roof, the rest of it had either disappeared or lay buried under a pile of garbage.
Don’t imagine we are exaggerating. A survey conducted late last year by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage declared that many of Mehrauli’s listed heritage monuments are no longer to be found. The more we walked, the more horrors we discovered. One particularly unlucky monument — near the dream-like Jahaz Mahal — was being utilized as a urinal.
Even the grand Zafar Mahal has been reduced to a playground for the area’s local cricketers; the elder men are seen huddled around card games. Perhaps we ought not to mind this—it could be the neighbourhood’s way of creating an intimate relationship with its landmark monument.
We should try to see the new Zafar Mahal-facing flats in the same light. Because now it’s too late to get angry.