“When you’re at a historic site, sometimes you have to think like an investigator,” Shagufta Siddhi, archivist and curator of oral histories, says, pointing to the many stone pillars sticking out of the ground next to the sprawling Hauz Khas reservoir. .
On a hot afternoon in the nation’s capital, Siddhi doesn’t take us to the crowded cafe streets and karaoke hubbub of Hauz Khas village that are any high schooler’s paradise – our focus is much less cool: exploring the landmarks , heritages and centuries-old fusion of cultures in this urban village in South Delhi.
Siddhi (42), a resident of Panchsheel Park, has always had an interest in archeology and history. She used to cycle to the village of Hauz Khas back when he was in college, when it was much more scenic and commercially inactive than it is now. After studying history in India and abroad, she wanted to design programs for young people in a way that makes their past relevant to their present and honors her innate syncretism. One part of Delhi that embodies this spirit of coexistence and harmony is Hauz Khas, in Persian meaning ‘royal chariot’.
The history of this village – with its reservoir, tombs and restaurant trail – dates back to the 14th century, during the reign of Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate. Delhi has always been arid and water-scarce, says Siddhi, as we stand at the edge of the famous reservoir which was built as a water reservoir by Khalji for his citadel at Siri (where Siri Fort stands today ). The original tank was twice its size today. Over the seven centuries of its existence, its canals have repeatedly silted up, de-silted and fallen into disrepair. Recent attempts by the Delhi Development Authority and citizens’ initiatives have improved its waters somewhat.
“Right after Khalji died, however, the tank fell into disuse,” says Siddhi. “It took a reluctant ruler, five decades later, to restore it. This guy was not into military campaigns or imperial expansion like the rulers before him; he had more scholarly inclinations. It was Firoz Shah Tughlaq.
We start walking through the complex, amid the chirping of birds, and we can see why Tughlaq found peace near the reservoir and wanted to surround it with architecture. Here was also a school for children, a madrasa, where they could study in the midst of nature and be taught by teachers from all over the world. Students would live in the lower level hostels and study in the upper level classrooms which would be open to sun, wind, grass and water.
“What a great place to be a student, right? Siddhi exclaims, as we enter the cool domed structure constructed of quartzite rock sourced from the Aravalli Mountains, “cemented” with a mixture of lime and legumes. “Today, a madrasa has regressive connotations but the children here learned mathematics, geometry, calligraphy, medicine, astronomy, theology…”
However, the key element of this madrasa remains the dome. “Architecture is a symbolic way of representing who you are, like your clothes,” she says. “When Islamic rulers arrived in India in the 12th century, they wanted to bring the architectural features of the dome and the arch, which the subcontinent had not yet explored. During the first 50 years of the Sultanate’s reign, a fusion between existing Indian features and new Islamic features created a unique blend that we now know as Indo-Islamic architecture – like the structure we stand in .
The local masons of the time did not know how to make perfect domes: all over India, temples used the technique of corbelling to create giant spiers, which put weights on the columns. The arch technique that Islamic rulers brought to India made it possible to eliminate these columns and form domes over large spaces.
This madrasa has two wings, one on each arm of the “L” shape around which the complex is built. At the intersection of the arms is the tomb of the man himself – Tughlaq. Given his artistic pursuits, he had his tomb designed during his lifetime, a much more sophisticated structure than was typical at the time.
On the ceiling are various Koranic inscriptions, speaking of death, heaven and the afterlife. We exit the tomb to see two small domed structures next to each other. “Think,” she said, “investigate. What should they be used for? They are close to the tomb but in a corner of the whole complex. We conclude that they must be rest homes or teachers’ houses, perhaps to house anyone who has come to pay homage to the sovereign.
An official from the Archaeological Survey of India whom we met laments the poor initiative that restaurants and locals take to maintain the complex, despite the premium they charge for the location. “People come here to smoke, drink and pollute the area,” he says. “Even the funds we receive for maintenance are insufficient, as most of the money goes to Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb.”
As we exit the complex, we stop near a largely abandoned masjid on the western arm of the L. One of its three walls, the qibla wall, faces southwest, towards Mecca. “People lived in this compound briefly after partition, before the government evacuated them,” Siddhi says. “Most of the people who own property here belong to the Jat community. In the 90s they lived almost exclusively here – with the odd exception of a showroom and a Bina Ramani restaurant. Now everything has been rented out to cafes and bistros.