City · environment · mehrauli · stories

Delhi on foot: Tales from the historic bylanes of Mehrauli

by Shriti K Tyagi

The article has been earlier published at Ecophiles :

For many of us Mehrauli ends at Qutab Minar, a brunch or a dip into a Sabyasachi or his brethren’s carefully designed stores, some even go a bit further to tuck in some food-with-a-view. And that’s it!  As a neophyte in Delhi, that’s probably what I did too but as I shook off the historic lethargy and started engaging with the city, Delhi opened up, let me in and here we are.

The urban-historic village Mehrauli, also known as the first city of Delhi, lies beside the better-known Mehrauli Archaeological Garden and Qutab Minar waiting for someone to ask its stories. Spreading south of the octagonal tomb of Adham Khan, Mehrauli village is an uncomfortable coexistence of the old and the new – one struggling to exist and the other sprouting organically.

But the stories strewn in the crumbling remains held me. Here are a few.

Mehrauli Archaeological Garden. Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur via Flickr

Bad Blood

Adham Khan’s tomb opposite the Mehrauli Bus terminus is busy but not with people who have come to admire or engage with it but with squatters, hangers-on, walkers (yes, people use its precinct for walks), monkeys, children and pigeons. It stands in the middle of a busy street where buses ply every other minute and there are shops all around. But it stands to tell its story.

Mughal Emperor Akbar had two wet nurses – Maham Angah and Jiji Angah who couldn’t see eye to eye and their families were always engaged in rivalry. In a fit of rage, Adham Khan, Maham Angah’s son killed Atgah Khan, Jiji Angah’s husband and an important nobleman in Akbar’s court. Akbar had him punished by having him repeatedly thrown from the ramparts of Agra Fort unto death.

Adham Khan’s body was then brought to Delhi and buried here. On Maham Angah’s death, her body was also buried next to her son. The octagonal tomb depicts the typical Sur-Lodi and Sayyid dynasty (Mughals termed them traitors) style of architecture. Since both were considered traitors, Akbar probably had their Tomb built in a style the monuments were built by the previous dynasties.

Adham Khan's Tomb -Interior. Photo: Vaydehi K

After the fall of the Mughals, a British officer converted the tomb into his private residence and removed the graves in order to make way for a grand dining hall. After his demise, the tomb was used as a British Rest House and later as a Police Station and a Post office until Lord Curzon had the bungalow vacated and restored the grave of Adham Khan. Maham Angah’s grave could not be restored.

Legend has it that many women resist visiting the tomb because it carries the curse of Rani Roopmati, whose lover Baz Bahadur was killed by Adham Khan.

Adham Khan's tomb. Photo: Vaydehi K.

Seeking the Saint

A short distance from Adham Khan’s tomb is the shrine of the Sufi Saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar ‘Kaki’. He came from Osh in Fergana valley to Delhi after the conquest of the Delhi by Qutbuddin Aibak and later became the spiritual master of Iltutmish (the second Slave Sultan of Delhi).  His real name was Qutbuddin and Bakhtiyar was a title given to him.

The ‘Kaki’ was added in deference to a miracle that he performed related to kaak, small bread cakes. It is believed that a local baker’s wife taunted the saint’s wife and refused to offer anything on credit. On hearing this, he forbade his wife to go to the shop again and from that day onwards, kaak would appear miraculously in a small niche in his house everyday. Of course, there are multiple stories about why he was called ‘Kaki’, all equally fascinating.

The shrine of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar. Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur via Flickr

I felt I left the city behind as I walked towards his shrine. The road narrowed flanked by restaurants preparing something in huge aluminium pots and firing their tandoors. I could smell mutton and then as I turned the corner, roses, meant for offering at the shrine. The place wasn’t crowded. There were a few beggars suspended between absence and presence. If you luck out, like I did, you will hear a Qawwali too. Not as elaborate as its Nizamuddin counterpart but beautiful in its simplicity. Qawwalis are invocations with simple lyrics, clear meanings and a lot of space to improvise with the tunes. The song followed me as I went about wandering and has stayed in my mind’s eye since.

Zafar Mahal

Walked out of the shrine and stood facing Zafar Mahal, the summer palace of the Mughals, named after the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The imposing entrance known as the Haathi (Elephant) gate was his brainchild to allow easy entry of the elephants with his haudah.

Haathi Gate Zafar Mahal. Photo: Vaydehi K

The rest of the structure with Moti Masjid, dalans and rooms and courtyards was built by Akbar Shah II. It was the last great monument built by the Mughals though seeing its condition one can hardly imagine that. The royal family would reside here after the monsoons and during the Phoolwalo’n Ki Sair festival (still celebrated!) It must have offered a magnificent view of Mehrauli at one time, now it is hemmed by construction on all sides.

women inside the crumbling remains of Zafar Mahal with Moti Masjid in the background. Photo: Vaydehi K.

As you walk around the precinct, you get a sense of the exhausted resources and waning power of the Mughal Empire when it was built. But the sense of loss comes through the small enclosure near Moti Masjid where the later three Mughal kings, Shah Alam I, Bahadur Shah I, Akbar II are buried. There is a small grassy patch between the last two graves, left open and empty as it was supposed to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s final resting place but he was exiled to Rangoon by the British after the Revolt of 1857 and buried there. As I stared at the place the famous lines of the Emperor in exile came rushing:

Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen na mil saki kuche yaar mein

How unfortunate is Zafar, he could not be buried

In two yards of land in the lanes of his beloved

A place of sighs. Truly.

For Want of Water

There are two other sites that catch your eye as you navigate the narrow lanes and by-lanes of Mehrauli village – Gandhak ki Baoli and Hauz e Shamsi.

Gandhak ki Baoli (stepwell) is a well fed by natural sulphur or gandhak and therefore the name. It was built during the reign of Iltutmish. It I said that once when Iltutmish came visiting Saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar ‘Kaki’, he found him distressed. When he learnt the reason of the saint’s distress not being able to bathe due to shortage of water, Iltutmish took it upon himself to build a stepwell near the shrine for the saint to bathe at will. The result was the five-tiered Gandhak Ki Baoli. It must have been a charming place once upon a time but seems like it has been left to decay. It was shut the day I first wanted to have a peep – someone had committed suicide!

Gandhak ki Baoli. Photo: Vaydehi K

If you walk towards the other end of Mehrauli through its bazaars you will see Jahaz Mahal (from the Lodi period) and right next to it is the Hauz e Shamsi. Iltutmish built the water reservoir in 1230 AD.  According to legend, to feed the need of the growing population of Mehrauli, Iltutmish wanted to build a water tank but was undecided about its location. One night, The Prophet came in his dreams and instructed him to build a tank in the place where he found the hoof marks of his winged horse, Buraq. The Sultan accompanied by Qutub Sahab went to look, found the exact place and built the tank around it. Many stories surround this Hauz. There is also a belief that if someone recites the Quran from sunset to dawn sitting near the Hauz e Shamsi, his prayers will be answered.

Hauz e Shamsi pavilion. Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur via Flickr

Apart from the landmarks Jahaz Mahal and Jharan, a must ‘find and stop’ place is Hijron Ka Khanqah – a Sufi spiritual retreat and a burial spot of the eunuchs maintained by the eunuchs of Turkman Gate (Old Delhi). The only one of its kind and it is a pleasure to see that amidst the decaying medieval buildings around this place is being kept in fairly pristine condition.

Hijron ka Khanqah Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur via Flickr

Walk on ! It’s a trip worth taking.

About the Author: 

Shriti K Tyagi is the founder of Beyond Bombay and Beyond Delhi. Mapping Mehrauli is also the name of a walk Beyond Delhi now conducts in this area. For details email

Source of Stories:

Rana Safvi, (2015) Where Stones Speak, Harper Element, Harper Collins, INDIA.

Swapna Liddle, (2011), Delhi:14 Historical Walks, Westland Limited

Raza Rumi, (2013), Delhi by Heart, Harper Collins, INDIA

Abrahm Eraly, The Age of Wrath: History of the Delhi Sultanate, Viking, Penguin Group

Nitya Jacob, Jalyatra: Exploring India’s Traditional Water Management Systems, Chapter 2: Forgotten history lessons, Delhi’s missed date with water


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