A tale of the wilds...
HASHTSAL MINAR is one of those landmarks which time seems to have cornered off in its apron. Situated North of Uttam Nagar, 17 km from Delhi, near a monsoon pond in the village of Hashtsal, the minar is 17 metres high and rises above a two-tiered platform. It is built of bricks and red sandstone, with a narrow staircase. Historical accounts are silent about its origins, but close by is the Hathikhana or elephant house of Shah Jahan, now in ruins. It is believed that the minar was erected by the Moghul Emperor as a shooting tower.
In those days wild life was plentiful in the area. Early in the morning, the hunters left for the place from the Red Fort and reached it before sunrise on horsebacks. Sometimes they camped there for the night in the summer months and during early winters the party left the fort in the evening to reach its destination before nightfall.
Shah Jahan had inherited his love for shikar from his father and grandfather. Though his ancestor, Babar himself was a great hunter -- who once killed a tiger single-handedly - he was more like Bairam, the legendary Persian, who hunted all by himself. His descendants had a large retinue to aid them in big game hunting.
Akbar had the knack of taming wild animals, specially elephants. He was also fond of watching fights among the animals kept in the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan heard his grandsire's tales from Jehangir, who often painted old shikar scenes. Shah Jahan himself was an authority of sorts on elephants.
Once when an elephant ran amok and headed for the pavilion where the emperor was seated, Aurangzeb, then a lad of 17, bounded forward in an attempt to cut off the animal's trunk with his sword. By then the mahout had controlled the tuskar. Shah Jahan came down from his makeshift throne and patted the prince on his back. "Wah, wah. It was well done, but on such occasions it is better to step aside and not insist on a show of gallantry," he said. How well Aurangzeb remembered his father's words is evident from his long reign.
Now, the villagers of Hashtsal tether their domesticated animals near the Hathikhana and sometimes climb the minar to look for goats, which fail to return from the grazing ground. The minar surrounded by houses is in a sad state of neglect, with deep cracks, its staircase dirty and sometimes stuffed with straw. It wouldn't be a bad idea to preserve it, along with the Hathikhana, before it is too late and posterity forgets that such landmarks existed even 345 years after the death of Shah Jahan. Now on to another hunting ground which was associated with Firoz Tughlak, who ruled long before the Moghuls in the 14th Century.
Viran Wali, off Malcha Marg, is still a wilderness of sorts. In bygone days it must have been a jungle where the emperor and his retinue hunted and drank deep of the spirit of the wild. Such lonely spots are fast disappearing from Delhi and hence it is a pleasure to visit Viran Wali on a winter afternoon, when there is nothing else to do. A part of it is well maintained but the rest is still overgrown with trees and shrubs, where doves coo and monkeys chatter. In fact, there are several families of monkeys there, each with its leader, a fat and proud patriarch who fiercely enforces discipline and protects the other members of his tribe. His is a harem as of old, with several maidens, madams, mothers, gay gallants and young ones learning the tricks. Sometimes the monkey horde raids the neighbouring areas, but otherwise it is well cared for by people who stop by to feed the denizens of Viran Wali.
As for the birds, there are several varieties -- doves, pigeons, mynas, parrots, crows, kites, woodpeckers, seven sisters, bulbuls, an occasional partridge and also peacocks. The woodpeckers feed in flocks, sitting on the ground like a group of nuns. The pigeons make love in quiet corners, the partridge hide in the foliage, the crows and kites engage in running battles with the monkeys, the bulbuls swing on tender branches, the mynas peck away at stray animals, the peacocks flaunt their tails as they stride majestically before the peahens.
But the seven sisters rush from tree to tree in keeping with the legend that they are actually seven princesses turned into birds by their stepmother, who was a witch and wanted her own children to possess the kingdom. The seven sisters keep looking for the magic leaf, which will help to dispel the charm and make them princesses again. So goes the fable.
Viram Wali in medieval times had a number of hunting lodges, some built by Firoz Shah. A story worth recounting is about a successor of his, who fell in love with a girl drawing water from a well in this wilderness. He went back to his palace and kept returning to meet the strange girl who had stolen his heart. But he didn't get to marry her as one day she just disappeared. Whether she was killed by some wild animal, carried away by robbers or murdered at the behest of a jealous queen is not known.
The name with which posterity remembers her is Viran Wali -- girl of the wields -- though "Wali'' and "Wala'' were also referred as localities in earlier times. In which case Viran Wali could mean wild area. In a corner of it is a grave revered as that of Viran Shah, a mendicant, around which some people had built huts and hung festoons as though celebrating a perpetual Urs. Perhaps it was an attempt to justify encroachment. But such attempts should be nipped before Viran Wali loses its charm.
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