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In search of Delhi's first city, Mehrauli

Full of information about Mehrauli's monuments and interspersed with legends and poetry, Where Stones Speak is the handbook you should cart along on any exploratory walk through an area where ghosts canter past unseeing crowds in the evening light.

books Updated: Feb 26, 2017 07:59 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
Author Rana Safvi,Qutub Minar,Adham Khan's tomb
Built of red and buff sandstone, Qutub Minar has five storeys and four balconies. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

Author Rana Safvi leads a walk through Mehrauli, where Prithviraj Chauhan's army fought Mohammad Ghori's men, and where Timur pledged not to sack the city of Delhi.

Safvi is one of those few Twitter celebrities - she has about 20.6k followers - who isn't given to relentlessly pummelling the ether with tweets full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Her Twitter feed offers Urdu poetry, ruminations on Delhi's culture and heritage, occasional panegyrics to Krishna, great pictures of historic landmarks, and a glimpse into her own erudite, graceful personality. So when I learn that she has written a book on Mehrauli, the oldest of Delhi's seven cities, I waste no time in fixing to wander with her through the precinct.

We meet at Qutub Minar's gate and make our way into Mehrauli and past Emperor Akbar's foster brother Adham Khan's tomb. Son of the emperor's wet nurse Maham Anga, Adham Khan was thrown off the ramparts of Agra fort for killing another of the ruler's foster brothers. The monument is currently being restored and already the intricate tiled pattern in the central dome seems to be emerging from under centuries of grime.

Rana Safvi at Adham Khan's tomb. (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

Trudging down lanes that wind past homes and shops, we arrive at the Shahi Eidgaah where the Delhi sultans once offered their Eid prayers and where Timur pledged not to sack the city. "He called all the ulema and the nobles and promised that he would not destroy or kill people. Then, his women went to see the famous Imarat e Hazar Sutun in Adilabad, where someone misbehaved with them. Some locals also fought with his soldiers. So then Timur revoked his promise, sacked Delhi and killed thousands of people," Rana says. The silence that follows the story is rent only by the screeching of parrots.

Wandering further into Sanjay Van - where once the city sprawled - we come upon the dargah of Aashiq Allah or Nazariya Peer. "A lot of people come here, especially with babies, to ward off the evil eye," Rana says. The complex includes a cave where Baba Farid Ganj-Shakkar is believed to have meditated without food or water for a long stretch. Close to the dargah, which has a fair number of visitors even on a muggy afternoon, are a number of graves. "That's Ganj e Shaheeda'n, which means 'the place where the martyrs are buried'," Rana says explaining that the martyrs here were Mohammad Ghori's soldiers, who fell in the battles against Prithviraj Chauhan in 1191-92. Watching a family of mongooses scramble away from the graves and into the forest, I think about the ephemeral quality of human existence, of vital young men sinking into graves from one century to the next, hacking at each other till the end of Time. Rana draws both of us away from sombre thoughts and to the well close by where Baba Farid "did his chillah-e-makoos", a feat that involved hanging upside down for 40 nights.

Where Stones Speak; Historical Trails in Mehrauli, the First City of Delhi. Rana Safvi; HarperCollins (Rs.499; PP183)

Soon we are trudging down winding paths through the jungle and past the remains of a fort wall. "This is where the original city was; where Anangpal Tomar, Prithviraj Chauhan's grandfather, established Lal Kot," says Rana adding that the later Sultans called it Qila Rai Pithaura. The Qila was eventually abandoned by Alauddin Khilji for Siri Fort. "It's called Siri fort because of the 8,000 Mongol heads he had buried in the foundations. That's the legend," Rana says as we return to the busier part of Mehrauli past overflowing garbage heaps and remnants of more ruins, a testament to how badly we treat our magnificent historical sites that would otherwise rival the monuments of Rome. But whatever the state of our built heritage, you must pick up a copy of Rana Safvi's book. Full of information about Mehrauli's monuments and interspersed with legends and poetry, Where Stones Speak is the handbook you should cart along on any exploratory walk through an area where ghosts canter past unseeing crowds in the evening light.

1. Qutub Minar

(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

At 72.5m with 379 steps and built of red and buff sandstone, the Qutub Minar has five storeys and four balconies. Built by three sultans and repaired by many, the history of its construction is all given in the inscriptions on the various levels of the minar. It is the tallest ashlar masonry minar in the world

2. Adham Khan's tomb

(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

The son of Maham Anga, Emperor Akbar's foster mother, Adham Khan murdered another of the ruler's foster brothers, Atgha Khan, in a fit of rage. For this, he was twice thrown off the ramparts of Agra Fort. His mother died of grief six months later. Akbar built this monument to Adham Khan. Maham Anga is also believed to be buried in the complex though her tomb is no longer visible.

3. Shahi Eidgaah

(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

The date of the Eidgaah's construction is not known but it definitely existed during Timur's invasion of Delhi in 1398 AD. Now made of whitewashed brick, it has a small doorway in the centre of the west wall. This was used by the sultans so they didn't have to cross the common courtyard.

4. Lala Kot Wall

(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

Angpal Tomar, Prithviraj Chauhan's grandfather established Lal Kot, parts of whose wall is still visible.

5. Dargha of Aashiq Allah

(Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

The dargah was built in 1317 for Sheikh Shahabuddin, who is also known as Aashiq Allah or Nazariya Peer

6.Ganj e Shaheeda'N

These are the graves of Mohammad Ghori's soldiers who died while battling the forces of Prithviraj Chauhan.

7. Baba Farid's Well

The well at the entrance to the Aashiq Allah dargah is where Baba Farid is believed to have done his Chillah-e-Makoos, a form of penance where the person hangs upside down.

First Published: Aug 29, 2015 12:26 IST

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