What a gate!
One of the four surviving gateways of the Walled City.entertainment Updated: Sep 17, 2010 08:17 IST
It is so rooted to the place that few realise it’s there. Ajmeri Gate (circa 1644-49) needs a setting in which it can smolder as sexily as, say, Humayun’s Tomb. Instead of landscaped grass, open space and placid pools, it is tucked within a free-for-all traffic square. One road heads to the nearby New Delhi railway station; another to GB Road, the red light district, which is also the city’s largest bazaar for toilet fittings; and a third to Chawri Bazaar, a market that boasts of Delhi’s deepest metro station. One back alley that ends at the Gate is so dangerously peopled with knife-yielding goondas that you better stay away from it.
During the Mughal times, this sturdy signpost was the principal exit point for royal processions on their way to Ajmer, the sufi town in Rajasthan. Built as one of the 14 gateways in the great wall of Shahjanabad, today’s Old Delhi, Ajmeri Gate lies disconnected from its past.
The wall that it guarded has disappeared. Also lost to time are most of the wall’s gateways; only four survive — Ajmeri Gate, Lahori Gate, Mori Gate, Kashmere Gate.
Ajmeri Gate is also disconnected from the present. The surrounding scenery of commercial signboards carries forward no progression of any artistic style from the area’s principal landmark. This single-arched gateway, in terms of architectural merit, is unimpressive. The turrets, niches, battlements are commonplace. Tourists don’t come here. If the MCD demolishes the gateway tonight, the city will not be poorer, aesthetically.
But some historical buildings are important for the continuity they give to a place. Mughals fell, British fell, Gandhis fell; Ajmeri Gate remained erect. Everyday thousands of migrants step out of New Delhi railway station and the first significant landmark they see, or see through, is Ajmeri Gate. So do the daily-wage labourers walking past the ruin, dragging heavy loads with their bare arms. Dope addicts take siesta on its border wall. Autos and rickshaws are parked at its entrance. Hundreds of women from India’s poor villages come every year to live in the gateway’s immediate vicinity to work as prostitutes.
Situated in such a grim and noisy region, Ajmeri Gate is strangely one of Delhi’s most quiet monuments. Once abused as a urinal and garbage dump, it has been cleaned of filth. Often locked, you can get the caretaker inside to open it for you. The last time we went there, it was raining. The stone-paved ground was mossy-green. Three peepal trees stood in the courtyard. Inside, the curved archway looked to the clutter of Old Delhi.
The Rehmani mosque, the ‘New Chicken’
shop, a branch office of Indian Labour Union, an abandoned police post, as well as fruit stalls and omelette carts were just across the railing but that could be a different continent. As still as a grave, the gateway was at peace with the changing world around it, but on its own terms. It absorbed nothing of the outside chaos. Instead, the damp rubble wall exuded the calming vibes of a meditative yogi. Standing under the gateway’s roof was like being on a mountain peak.
While leaving, we spotted a lone pot in the courtyard. It had a cactus plant. Cactus grows best in the desert, and Ajmeri Gate is like a cactus: an oasis of solitude in a wasteland of multitudes.