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17th century inn lies in ruin as Delhi govt, defence ministry squabble

The Delhi government had prepared a plan to revive Mehram Nagar ruins last year, but conservation work was discontinued after a dispute erupted between the state archaeology department and the Ministry of Defence

delhi Updated: Nov 23, 2017 08:27 IST
Parvez Sultan
Parvez Sultan
Hindustan Times
Mehram Nagar,Delhi airport,Ruins near Delhi airport
Mehram Nagar ruins are the neglected remains of one of over hundred inns constructed in 17th century to comfort weary travellers. .(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Tucked away in a grove of trees and wild shrubs, with Mehram Nagar village on one side and the domestic airport on the other, lie the ruins of a rare 17th century caravanserai.

Once upon a time, more than hundred inns — constructed for the comfort of weary travellers with food being served free for up to three days — used to dot trade routes passing through the city. Today, its landscape is largely bereft of the historical structures, and even the few that survive exist in a dilapidated state.

The Mehram Nagar ruins are the neglected remains of one such caravanserai.

Significant features of the structure – chhattris, gateways and pavilions – have been vandalised. The garden area has turned into a veritable jungle with wild shrubs growing all over the place. No help seems to be forthcoming either.

Though the state government had prepared a plan for its revival last year, conservation work was discontinued in May after a dispute erupted between the state archaeology department and the Ministry of Defence. This conflict between the two agencies arose due to a peculiar situation – though the land belongs to the defence ministry, the structures lie in the archaeology department’s list of protected monuments.

Still, the site is popular among airplane spotters who come equipped with cameras in groups. As the caravanserai is located close to the domestic airport, planes fly at a low altitude over it.

‘The Silk roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce’, a book by renowned Pakistani archaeologist and historian Saifur Rehman Dar, states that Turkic Muslim ruler Feroz Shah Tughlaq built 120 hospices and inns in Delhi through 1351-1387. “Several sarais were raised outside the old city (Siri, Tughlqabad and Dinpanah) gates. They are Lado Sarai, Jia Sarai, Yusuf Sarai and Katwaria Sarai, to name a few,” said Syed Najaf Haider, professor of medieval history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Other dilapidated caravanserais can be found at the Qutab Minar complex, Badarpur, Arab Ki Sarai, and Badli ki Sarai near the Azadpur wholesale fruit and vegetable market.

History of Mehram Nagar

This unnamed sarai with an attached garden located near the airport was set up by Mehram Khan, a eunuch who headed the harem of Mughal courtier Muhammad Amin Khan under emperor Aurangzeb’s rule. The word ‘mehram’ has an Arabic origin, meaning close friend or confidant who can freely talk and meet with women in the family.

“Historical records establish that Mehram Nagar, located seven kos (roughly 22.4 km) from the city, was founded by Mehram Khan. There was also a marketplace named after him,” said Swapna Liddle, historian and convener of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

The inn complex is a fine example of rubble masonry and lakhori brick-mix construction, with chhattris and vaulted chambers set atop all its four corners, a baradaris (pavilion), and water channels running through the middle of the campus.

Later, a settlement – now known as Mehram Nagar – came up near the sarai. The village has an imposing double-storey gateway with pointed arch openings, fitted with a huge wooden door. The large chunk of vacant land in the neighbourhood was once used for agricultural purposes.

Following years of neglect, the ensemble of monuments has decayed to a wretched state. Though it originally had three gateways, only one is still left standing. The enclosing walls are perforated, and a significant portion has collapsed. Two of the chhattris are missing, and the vaulted chambers beneath them serve as a safe haven for drunkards. The water channels lie buried under piles of garbage and loose soil. There are two wells on the premises, but both have dried up.

Residents of the village allege that the Delhi Metro is using the open land to dump construction waste. “They throw their leftover concrete waste here. They have also diverted a drain that flows through the complex. The municipal corporation stacks garbage in the vicinity, and people from neighbouring areas — mostly labourers and drivers— come here to defecate. As a result, this place stinks to high heaven,” said an elderly resident on the condition of anonymity.

However, the Delhi Metro denies the charges. “We are not carrying out any construction work in the immediate vicinity of the complex,” a spokesperson of the transport agency said.

Restoration project hangs in balance

The state archaeology department of the Delhi government initiated restoration work last year, along with 17 other historically important structures. The task was assigned to INTACH. However, the work came to an abrupt halt in May on the directions of defence estates officer Alok Gupta.

“Rules of the state archaeology department or Archaeological Survey of India do not apply on our land. They did not take permission to carry out restoration work. In fact, they have not even applied for the same since May, when the work was stopped,” said Gupta.

A source said the conservator had completed nearly 40% of the work when Gupta raised the objection. “The historical structure has fallen victim to hierarchy and red-tapism. The department had already spent Rs 5-6 lakh on restoration. A gateway was resurrected and parts of the water channel and walls were restored. Elderly people from the locality even began coming to the area for walks, but then things went back to square one,” he added.

Vikas Maloo, head of office (archaeology), Delhi government, said the matter has been taken up with the appropriate authority. “We are writing to the authority concerned for permission to resume the project,” he said.

Local MLA Surinder Singh also expressed displeasure over the development, and said he would try to resolve the issue. “Who will not support the idea of heritage restoration? I will personally talk to the defence estates officer and get it resolved. If required, I will contribute from my local area fund to ensure that conservation work is restored. The place can be developed as a major tourism attraction,” he added.

First Published: Nov 22, 2017 11:24 IST