A Mughal-era sarai, contested history and murmurs of a curse
As the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway cuts through Naurangpur, some 20 kilometres from the heart of Gurugram, one lands at a maze of under-construction buildings that are fast sprouting across the skyline of South Haryana. Products of rampant construction, these buildings punctuate the roads on both sides — some frozen with partially completed structures, some waiting to be sold, and others with their absentee flat owners.
Cranes dangle in the air even as dust bellows from the mounds of construction material dumped on the ground floors of these buildings. Skirting the northern foothills of the Aravalli mountain range, these buildings make way for the sun-kissed mustard fields as one heads toward Tauru in Nuh (erstwhile Mewat).
The landscape changes and animal herders can be seen leading their cattle into the fields that flank both sides of the road from Naurangpur to Tauru road. The trail is largely innocuous and is unlikely to attract any spectacular attention. However, it’s from here that a small detour off the main road leads one to a nondescript village called Sarai — which is imbued in history but whose past has largely been forgotten.
The village Sarai derives its name from a Mughal-era Sarai Mirza that has existed here for the past 323 years. The village, in fact, seems to have grown around the sarai.
Centuries ago, sarais used to serve as temporary halting stations for civilians as well as the troops. “A sarai is a historic wayside inn or halting station where travellers would rest at the end of a day’s journey. They can be found all across the country, along major movement corridors. Sarais were used both by common people as well as transiting army troops. Emperors and rich landlords got them constructed,” said Swapna Liddle, author-historian and convener of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Delhi.
A vortex of streets — interspersed with hookah-smoking men at every few metres — leads to the Sarai Mirza, the presence of which is signalled by a towering arched gateway, which casts its shadow over the houses in the vicinity. The antiquity of the Sarai Mirza can be traced back through a valuable inscription — surprisingly in a fairly good condition — that has managed to survive all these years. The inscription is placed on the grand entrance gateway of the Sarai Mirza whose alcoves are now a busy hideout for pigeons. The survival of the inscription for over three centuries is enough to indicate the prowess of the constructor and the structure.
The inscription — penned in classical Persian on a marble slate — mentions its year of construction as 1696 CE, according to experts. Siddique Ahmed Meo, community historian and author of books on Mewat’s history, visited Sarai Mirza a few years ago, took a picture of the inscription and got it translated with the help of a renowned Persian expert.
“The inscription reads: During the reign of Badshah Alamgir Ghazi Mahiuddin, Mohammad Lashkari son of Khan Feroz (may his legacy survive in Mewat) acting out of generosity, wisdom, and justice laid the foundation of the sarai Lashakarbad in the year 1107 (hijri) (sic),” Meo maintained.
“The title of Alamgir was bestowed on Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. His army would pass through the region while going to Jaipur. It is likely that Sarai Mirza came up as a place of halt for the army. Later, as time progressed and population multiplied, more humans must have started settling around the Sarai Mirza. In a way, the village came up gradually in the vicinity of the sarai,” he said.
A careful exploration of the area reveals that the portion of the village that has newer houses was once a part of the Sarai Mirza premises and reeks of Mughal architecture. A mosque from the same time period can also be located opposite. The mosque, which shows traces of red and blue, is now used as living quarters and a shelter house for buffaloes. “This mosque is as old as the Sarai Mirza but we don’t know who got it made. Some say that a king by the name of Alamgir got it constructed,” said an old woman, who lives next to the mosque.
Today, Sarai Mirza, too, can easily pass off as a large storehouse of cow dung cakes, or even an animal shelter house. A cursory glance across Sarai Mirza, in all possible directions, reveals only one thing — mounds and mounds of cow dung cakes. Plastered on the ground, the walls, and within the alcoves and arches, they are to be found everywhere. One could wander within Sarai Mirza, get lost, and yet come back to find a wall of cow dung cakes in the vicinity.
Occasionally, one can also spot women within Sarai Mirza, at different corners, dumping cow dung cakes or leading cows back into their shelters. They negotiate their ways amid these mounds of cow dung cakes that spill over every nook and corner.
“Many Muslims used to reside here before the Partition of the country. However, only Meo Muslims continued to live here after the Partition,” said Rajindar Bhadana, as she collected cow dung cakes from her family’s portion of the Sarai Mirza. “The entire expanse is used like a collective village area where different families use the area for keeping their cattle, and storing cow dung cakes,” she said.
Some locals occasionally call it by the name of qila (fort), a usage that possibly stems from the vast expanse.
One can also spot a handful of houses within the premises of Sarai Mirza. However, none of them are inhabited by humans — a fact best explained by a belief that gained strong currency in the region over the past few years.
Locals believe that if humans start using the space within Sarai Mirza as a residential property, they would be cursed. “Anyone who dares to live within Sarai Mirza invites a curse and misfortune. Our ancestors had started living here, but soon after moving in, there were a series of deaths in our family. In another case, a person fell off the terrace of his house and died. No one lives here at night. The few houses that have been constructed are used for storing cattle fodder,” said Deshraj Bhadana, a resident.
Some people also believe the famous Dilli gate at Farrukhnagar was once a part of Sarai Mirza, and was dislodged by the warring king of Farrukhnagar who took away the gate as a souvenir.
“We have heard from our ancestors that the huge wooden gate in Farrukhnagar was originally a part of Sarai Mirza in our village. The king of Farrukhnagar and Badshah Alamgir had locked horns in a battle and, Alamgir had to bite the dust. The king of Farrukhnagar got the gate removed and took it away as a prized memento of his victory,” added Bhadana. This information could not be verified since there is no mention of the monument in the Haryana State Gazetteer, and historians had little information about it.
Spread over more than 10 acres of area, Sarai Mirza demonstrates Mughal architecture with Rajput influence. “It has traditional cusped arches which are often called Shahjahani arches.this style was prevalent in northern region in areas like Rajasthan and Haryana during the Mughal period. The Shahjahani arches, especially, came around towards the 17th century,” said Shikha Jain, convener, INTACH, Haryana chapter.
Potential for tourism
Sarai Mirza, which, at one point, was the halting point for Mughal armies, now stands desolate. While the outer façade of the haveli is intact, the structure is in desperate need of repairs.
Locals said that there was potential that the structure could be developed as a tourist area. “It would be good if the place is converted into a playground or a place for people to visit. Right now, it looks like an animal shelter and is a complete mess. There is potential for the area to be developed into a good tourist spot. We also have two hotels in close proximity,” said Deshraj Bhadana.
However, with multiple stakeholders of the property, many were sceptical about any such plan becoming a reality.
“If the department of archaeology or any other agency puts pressure on the villagers to vacate the premises of Sarai Mirza or remove their animal shelters, they’ll approach politicians. Eventually, nothing will come out of the whole exercise. Sarai Mirza will continue to stand as it stands today—an animal shelter and storehouse of cow dung cakes. However, it will be better for all if one makes efforts towards repairing the monument. It is a part of our history, after all,” said Budhran Bhadana, 65, a former sarpanch of the village.
Officials from the state Department of Archaeology and Museums said that the monument was not listed but the department was aware about its presence.
“The structure is spread over a large area — roughly 10 acres — but it is completely encroached. There are some major and minor cracks in the structure. The structure is among those monuments which were discovered during a survey in 2017. The department is aware about its presence but there are no immediate plans of taking it under protection. It’s on the list of unlisted monuments,” said Banani Bhattacharyya, deputy director of the Department of Archaeology & Museums.