Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, loved his monsoon and summer outings, a break from the walls of Red Fort in Shahjahanabad.
He loved to go hunting from Zafar Mahal, his summer palace in Mehrauli, to nearby jungles.
Long after the capital was shifted out of Mehrauli, it remained the summer and monsoon retreat for the ruling elite. Princes asked for a houses there as gifts and later, high-ranking British officers maintained a ‘kootub house’ for its cooler climes.
The place stays true to its tradition — it is synonymous with farmhouses today.
According to the Archaeological Survey of India, Mehrauli is the oldest continuously inhabited area of Delhi, with a history of a millennium. The Tomars were its earliest rulers. They were defeated by the Chauhan Rajputs and then came the Turkish rulers of Sultanate who shifted the capital. According to Charles Lewis, the author of Mehrauli: A view from the Qutb, “The ruined walls of Lal Kot — the evidence of earliest fortification of Delhi — from 11th century are clearly visible from Adham Khan’s tomb.”
This tomb, locally known as Bhool Bhulaiyya (maze), stands in front of the busy Mehrauli bus terminus.
A ride on Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus no. 533, that plies from this oldest part of Delhi to Old Delhi, gives a glimpse of the great caravan of life from the 11th to 20th century. It is home to India’s most visited monument, Qutub Minar, but just a casual walk into the village will tell you that no place in Delhi comes embellished with so many medieval ruins.
Once resplendent palaces, pillared halls, tombs, baolis (wells), mosques and pavilions appear and vanish like a dream here. Mehrauli Archaeological Park, spread over 100 acres behind the minar, houses 80 monuments.
“I love you Mamta. I miss you. I am sorry. Please call me,” reads a message dated November 12 on a cement bench. Lovebirds have made it their rendezvous and the cricket-loving kids of the neighbourhood have found many a twenty-two yards to play. But the park is so huge that their worlds never meet. Vehicle sounds from the civilisation outside seem like voices coming from a deep well, an antidote of a place for urban ennui.
Emperors were very fond of Mehrauli due to their reverence for Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtyar Kaki, a Sufi saint who lived in the 13th century. Qutb Minar gets its name from the saint. Most of them wanted to be buried close to his dargah. A narrow lane from the bus terminus goes to the dargah, where qawwalis (a form of singing) starts after the late afternoon prayer. Thursday evening is the best time to visit.
Mehrauli’s busy bylanes retain a lot of the old world charm and way of life, never mind the open gutters.
The main bylane is also the market and has, among others, many fascinating hookah shops. Cheap biryani and kebab shops dot the area.
The arches of erstwhile buildings serve as gates for many of the houses even today, the subzi mandi (vegetable market) being one.
A plaque on the primary health centre’s wall proudly announces: “From the zails (administrative units) of Mehrauli and Badarpur 1261 men went to the great war (1914-1919). Of these 92 gave up their lives.” In contrast are the high-end boutique shops like Ambawatta Complex and restaurants catering to the elite.
For the residents, it’s a lot more than a place they live in.
“I shot most of the serial Zabaan-e-Ishq (Language Of Love) based on the lives of 40 Urdu poets here. The atmosphere lends itself well,” said Muzaffar Ali, filmmaker.
History lives on here and historian William Dalrymple couldn’t have lived at a better place than Mehrauli while writing The Last Mughal: The fall of a dynasty, Delhi, 1857.
In his introduction he writes: “Sometimes, on winter afternoon walks, I wander to the lovely and deeply atmospheric ruins of Zafar’s summer palace in Mehrauli, a short distance from my Delhi house.”