Delhi’s neglected Roshanara Bagh falls into obscurity

Oct 02, 2023 05:44 AM IST

Begum’s grave rests in the middle of the 57-acre garden and the tomb has a central hall with open courtyards on four sides

In 1650, Roshanara Begum — a Mughal princess and the daughter of emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal — patronised the construction of a pleasure garden on the outskirts of Shahjahanabad. The bagh, or garden, in Shakti Nagar in north Delhi, also came to house Begum’s tomb after she died in 1671, which is now among a few other historical structures from the period. While the garden currently only houses the tomb, a 17th-century eastern gateway, and a water channel, the other structures have fallen into obscurity over the years for lack of proper care and maintenance.

The tomb of Mughal princess Roshanara Begum. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)
The tomb of Mughal princess Roshanara Begum. (Sanjeev Verma/ HT Photo)

The tomb is an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)-protected structure. However, it exhibits severe damage while piecemeal repairs over the years have failed to stem the overall deterioration of the tomb and its surroundings. According to officials, there are no immediate plans for the core conservation of the complex.

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According to Maulvi Zafar Hasan, a former ASI deputy superintendent who prepared the first list of monuments worthy of conservation in 1916, Roshanara Bagh inhabited a few other buildings but only some were left. The elaborate garden itself is frequented by locals and other visitors, but the decrepit tomb of its patron continues to stay neglected.

Begum’s grave rests in the middle of the 57-acre garden and the tomb has a central hall with open courtyards on four sides. On a day when the weather is kind, one can see women indulge in kirtans in one corner even as middle-aged men play cards in another. The garden also hosts the now-sealed Roshanara Club, where young cricket aspirants can be seen practising. The tomb closely resembles a baradari (a pavilion with 12 openings) and is surrounded by a water tank.

Praveen Singh, superintending archaeologist, ASI Delhi Circle, said that the government agency was currently carrying out work at the water channel adjacent to the baradari. Singh said they worked on the gateway of the Roshnara complex but admitted they needed conservation support. He added that the agency could only carry out work at a limited number of monuments at once.

“This year, we are working on the water channel, connected to the tank. It was in bad shape as people threw garbage and littered the area. We are repairing the lakhori bricks in the channel, and plastering the surface. We have plans to take up work in the interior parts of the baradari going ahead,” said Singh.

Singh added that various factors, including budget, workload, and the timeline of the tender processes determine the conservation work at monuments. “Heritage conservation is an ongoing process but requires a lot of planning... ASI has a massive mandate and undertakes work wherever there is a requirement. In line with budgetary allocations, we need to prioritise work,” said Singh.

At the four corners of the tomb, there are two-storied chambers with staircases leading to the roof. The corners of the roof are lined by chattris or canopy-like structures. In the middle of the central hall, there is a small roofless square chamber that contains the grave of Begum, which is surrounded by a marble with lattice screens.

In her book Mughal Architecture: An Outline of its History and Development, art and architectural historian Ebba Koch noted it was likely that an already-existing garden house was converted into a tomb after Begum’s death. According to Koch, the tomb is located in a flat-roofed Hasht-Behesht pavilion with verandahs of baluster columns and multilobed arches.

The pillars of the complex have sustained serious damage over the years and some of them have eroded to the extent that only half of a pillar remains. Plasters have chipped away on the walls, exposing the layer of lakhori bricks underneath. Slabs have come off from the chajja of the complex while the jaali of the grave enclosures are broken in parts.

Floral motifs and intricate ornamental carvings lining the interiors of the complex have disappeared from various parts. In some enclosures, the bricks have fallen off and the recesses are now home to pigeons. The rooms at the corner of the enclosures are used as stores and the stairs here can no longer be accessed. The corner rooms are packed with sacks of cement and other raw materials used by ASI for routine work. There is an old well in one corner of the complex which remains closed with a metal cover.

According to historical references, Begum took the side of her brother Aurangzeb during the civil war between brothers Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh. “Roshanara, also known as Dahr Ara Begum, was born in Burhanpur in 1631 AD. Her mother died a few hours after her birth. She was not as attractive as her sister Jahan Ara Begum, nor so remarkable for intelligence. She took very little part in public affairs, but managed to convey valuable intelligence by means of spies to her brother,” wrote Hasan.

Residents who frequent the garden for morning walks said the monument rapidly ran to ruin.

Chaudhary Laxman Singh, 63, said that there was a popular belief that the princess had been buried with gold, silver, and other precious ornaments. As a result, efforts were made to extract the valuables. “When I was a child, people used to make attempts to look for treasure. They used to believe that Begum was buried here with valuables. Nothing was ever found,” recalled Singh.

Recalling his childhood days, Singh said that the water channel and the lake were popular recreational spots for students after school. “A water stream used to run here where I often took a bath as a child. The water from the stream would also fill the lake surrounding the tomb. The stream has been dry for the past three decades,” said Singh.

Kundal Lal, 70, said while repairs were undertaken occasionally, they were not enough. “Two years back, repairs were carried out by ASI in some parts but major damage has not been addressed. Children also play cricket here due to which the structure sustains damage. Earlier, brass grills and chains were used to surround the grave. However, people remove them every time,” said Lal.

Anandi Devi, 70, who lives close to the garden and visits it daily for kirtan. “The condition of the monument is dilapidated. If it is not offered support, it might also collapse in the future,” said Devi.


    Sadia Akhtar is a reporter at Hindustan Times where she covers education, heritage, and a range of feature stories. She also writes about refugee communities and tracks stories at the intersection of gender and social justice. Before joining HT's Delhi team, she reported from Gurugram and Mewat where she tracked politics, education, and heritage.

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