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Sacred seven


Khan Jahan Junan Shah's seven mosques in Delhi, after more than six centuries, are still awe-inspiring.


STRIKING STRUCTURES: The Begumpuri Mosque.

OF all the kings who ruled Delhi, the Tughlaqs probably have the most colourful histories. There was Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, whose run-ins with Delhi's favourite Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, have passed into local lore. His son and successor, Muhammad, made the name Tughlaq synonymous with "fool". His best remembered "folly" being the movement of the capital from Delhi to distant Daulatabad, near present day Aurangabad.

One of Muhammad's trusted lieutenants was a Hindu convert called Khan Jahan Telangani. When Muhammad's cousin Firoz Shah Tughlaq came to the throne in 1351 A.D., he elevated Telangani to the position of wazir (prime minister), and after him his son Khan Jahan Junan Shah — the hero of our story — got the post.

Mosque builder

Junan Shah proved an enthusiastic builder of mosques. His position provided him the means to translate his dreams into stone, and he is believed to have built seven large and small mosques in Delhi itself in the 17 years that he was Firoz Shah's wazir. He might have built more, but he fell out of favour just before the Sultan's death in 1388, and was expelled from court.

The last of these great mosques - - all of them were called Kalan Masjid, meaning large mosque - - was completed on June 28, 1387, shortly before Junan Shah's unceremonious exit from court. Despite the roughly 620 years since, the man is well remembered by not only historians and archaeologists but also those who come to pray at his mosques.

Of the seven mosques Junan Shah built, three are still used for prayers. Another - - the largest of the seven - - is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The architecturally most fascinating of the lot is not used anymore but is in excellent shape, while the remaining two are frankly beyond hope. On a trip to Delhi, you can find at least four of these mosques with ease, and, if you have the time, do so by all means.

On the trail

Ideally, you should save the best for the last, by which I mean you shouldn't visit the Khirki Masjid till you have been to the rest. Start at the Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad, and let the lesser mosques whet your appetite for more. The Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad is the last of Junan Shah's mosques, mentioned earlier. It stands atop a mound, much plastered and painted over since the wazir's days but structurally intact.

A few of the numerous domes of the Khirki Masjid.

Back in those days, the city, rather cities, of Delhi lay many miles to the south. From the Slave Dynasty's Mehrauli to the Khaljis' Siri to Mohammad Tughlaq's Jahanpanah, all were half a day's march away. Firoz Shah Tughlaq's own citadel, Firoz Shah Kotla, on the Yamuna's right bank, was the nearest "city". So why did Junan Shah build a mosque so far north of the cities? The only plausible reason is the presence of Shah Turkman's dargah nearby. A popular saint, Shah Turkman died in 1240 A.D., but was held in high esteem down to the days of the Mughals.

The mosque stands on Sita Ram Bazaar Road that connects the Chawri Bazaar Metro Station with Turkman Gate. It is a pretty sight, rising above all the other buildings in the alley, and unless you come at prayer time, it is fairly quiet. Do climb the steps leading up to the roof, to see the mosque's 30 domes that cover the bays below.

Two other mosques built by Junan Shah lie in the north; one of them, called Chausath Khamba, is still used for prayer, but it has been so far altered that it is hard to make out its original form. The other mosque, which has lost its name and purpose down the ages, stands on Qutb Road that runs north from the New Delhi Railway Station. It was used as a municipal hospital early in the last century, and is now used for storage. Leaving these two, it is best to head south, to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, near which another of Junan Shah's mosque stands.

Shoddy repair work

The Kali Masjid - - Kali being an obvious corruption of Kalan - - is well known in Nizamuddin Village, which has closed in upon the mosque and now verily breathes upon its walls. Amongst the first mosques built by Junan Shah - - the inscription above the gate gives the date 1370 AD - - it has the trademark bays covered with individual domes. The main entrance is similar in design to the one attached to Shahjahanabad's Kalan Masjid, or the three gates of Khirki Masjid. Like the former, it has been plastered and painted over.

The Kali Masjid was in ruins at the start of the 20th century. It was repaired, rather than restored so some of the features of Tughlaq architecture were lost. The concrete pillars and arches added at the time of rehabilitation are also a jarring note, but on the whole the Kali Masjid, which is again used for prayers, gives the visitor a good idea of Junan Shah's style.

The main arch of the prayer hall of Begumpuri Mosque.

As you move southward from the Nizamuddin area, you are venturing into the old cities of Delhi, including Mohammad Tughlaq's Jahanpanah, which housed three of Junan Shah's seven mosques. Two of these mosques lie within walking distance of each other, very close to the premier Indian Institute of Technology. These are the Begumpuri Masjid - - largest of the lot - - and the Kalo Sarai Masjid. The latter is in ruins, the locals don't know it by name, and you would be hard put to find it.

Testimony to prosperity

But the Begumpuri Masjid is another thing. Vast, rather than large, it is a living testimony of Delhi's prosperity centuries ago. Evidently, such a large mosque would have been built for a sizeable population. While the open courtyard had space for thousands of the faithful, the deep, covered arcades on all four sides could also house almost as many. Given his master Firoz Shah's puritanical nature, Junan Shah kept ornamentation to a minimum. Unlike Shahjahan's Jami Masjid, which combines delicacy with grandeur, the Begumpuri Masjid had a stern, awe-inspiring presence.

Standing among the domes on the roof of Begumpuri Masjid, you can see a large, modern glass-and-steel building coming up in the southeasterly direction. The Khirki Masjid lies across the road from it, in a village of the same name. Somewhat smaller than the Begumpuri Masjid, the Khirki Masjid exhibits greater design and engineering skill, since it is an almost entirely covered mosque.

The mosque's interior is divided into a series of bays by pillars and topped by individual domes. To let enough light in, Junan Shah left four large openings in the roof besides building a series of windows in the outer walls. Perhaps this is what gives the mosque and the village their current names (khirki means window). Steps lead up to the mosque's roof, from where you have an excellent view of the domes: there would have been 81 in all but nine have collapsed.

The mosque is now hemmed in with tall residential buildings, but even 200 years ago it would have been the tallest structure for miles around. Humayun's Tomb, Sher Shah Suri's citadel and even Firoz Shah Kotla might have been visible from it. Who knows, even the Kalan Masjid in Shahjahanabad!

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