Long before Edwin Lutyens received his commission to design New Delhi, Delhi was a rather small city restricted to Shahjahanabad and a few outlying suburbs. The vast bulk of what now passes for the City was open plain, dotted with ruins and villages. Even as late as 1931, Robert Byron could describe the area beyond Lodi Road as “flat country-brown, scrubby and broken…quite [like the] Roman Campagna: at every hand tombs and mosques from the Mughal times and earlier, weathered to the colour of the earth-bearing witness to former empires”.
These ruins still dot much of South Delhi. They are today enclosed by colonies, parks, markets and roundabouts. Some are well known-like the Qutb, some are shadowy figures that are seldom visited-like Masjid Moth. Still others are known by sight, like the solitary tomb that stands under the flyover near Nizamuddin. There are countless others that have barely survived the ravages of time. Their crumbling walls flit by as one drives through post 1947 Delhi, their names too insignificant to feature on maps and guidebooks. This post is the product of late afternoon’s rambling walk through one such South Delhi colony.
Getting off at Jorbagh Metro Station, one can wander right into the Nursery next door. This is the last surviving remnant, though in a modern avatar, of the Bagh-e-Jud, whose trees gave its name to the locality. Throughout the later Mughal era, this area was a part of the estate of the Awadh Nawabs, the second of whom-Safdarjung, is buried in a magnificent tomb on the opposite side of the Qutb Road. The village here was then known as Aliganj and the site now occupied by the Nursery was a graveyard where Delhi’s substantial Shia community ended their Muharram taziyah processions. The practice was stopped for a few years after Partition but resumed soon after, though on a smaller scale. Today the much reduced graveyard occupies a portion of the plot. In its centre is the distinctive tomb of Mah e Khanum (around 1725 CE). The tomb structure is nothing but a gateway and the burial chamber lies deep underneath. The Farsi inscription on her grave describes her in rather flowery language as ‘the brightest star in the zodiac of chastity who hid her face in the cloud of God’s compassion’. On most afternoons, there is nobody around save an old caretaker who moved here from Western UP in the 80s.
Taking the exit to the east of the graveyard, one passes a Mughal era wall mosque. Much like an Eidgah, these have only a western wall indicating the direction of Mecca. Mehrauli is dotted by plenty of such structures. The one here now has a brand new shamiana covering it along with signs of recent construction. This flurry of activity has to do with the simmering dispute between the management of the graveyard and the people who run the Nursery. Tempers have been frayed in the last couple of years and stone pelting was reported barely a few months ago. A couple of rifle toting policemen are always around to maintain the peace. The very idea of communal violence seems incongruous in this homely, lower middle class colony named after BK Dutt, the revolutionary who was Bhagat Singh’s accomplice in bombing the Central Assembly.
In the centre of the locality is the Shah e Mardan, Delhi’s best known Shia shrine. Like such shrines all over the world, this is not an actual dargah. Instead it symbolically commemorates the Caliph Ali and his wife Fatima, the son in law and daughter of Prophet Muhammed, respectively. The building is all gleaming white marble and contrasts sharply with the filth around it. Grimly smiling Shia Ayatollahs with flowing beards look down from posters. A gateway is all that remains of the original structure that the new shrine has replaced. For such an important shrine, it is remarkably deserted. The Shias who originally inhabited the area moved out after Partition. The Punjabi refugees who inhabit the colony now have little to do with it. Right next to it is the tomb of a child saint called Sayyed Arif, again late Mughal. In a case of questionable judgement, it has been covered all over with bathroom tiles.
It is easy to forget in this secluded and poor corner of Central Delhi that posh Lodi Road is barely a five minute walk away. Lodi Road marks the southern boundary of the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (as seen in the helpful ‘Welcome to NDMC’ boards that you come across after crossing it). While its present name dates only from the last century, it is one of Delhi’s oldest roads-having been continuously used in one form or the other since the 14th century. In the Sultanate era, it took a more northerly route and connected the capital at Jahanpanah (near modern Green Park) to Firuz Shah’s citadel at Ferozeshah Kotla. The tombs in today’s Lodi Gardens came up along this road. The eastern terminus of this road gradually shifted to Nizamuddin (known as Ghiyaspur then-after the Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban) as the dargah became a preferred pilgrimage spot and Kotla fell to ruins. Akbar’s spectacular Athpula in Lodi Gardens carried one of the offshoots of this road over a minor stream to somewhere around Purana Quila.
Around the time that Safdarjung’s tomb was coming up at the western terminus of Lodi Road with the old Qutb Road, a village called Khairpur grew up around the Lodi tombs. A hundred years later, the railway leading south from Old Delhi Junction bisected this road about halfway through (the railway station of Hazrat Nizamuddin was located at what is today the 13th fairway of the Delhi Golf Course). The original plan of New Delhi envisaged the retention of this line and a station in the centre of Connaught Place. Better sense however prevailed and the railway was realigned. The villagers of Khairpur were evicted-many of them to neighbouring Kotla Mubarakpur, and their land taken over by the Lady Willingdon Park-now the Lodi Gardens.