Introduction of The Indian Standard Time – A Historical Survey

I am happy to share my paper titled Introduction of The Indian Standard Time – A Historical Survey that traces the history of Indian Standard Time (IST) based on hitherto largely unpublished original documents from National Archives and elsewhere.

In ancient India time was measured in units called ghaṭīs by means of the sinking bowl type of water clock.  In the late fourteenth century, Firoze Shah Tugluq adopted this water clock and the time units, so did Mughal rulers from Babur onwards.  This custom was emulated also by East India Company at its factories in the seventeenth century.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Crown assumed direct control of the subcontinent, and began to replace the water clocks progressively by mechanical clocks. However, every locality followed its local time.  In 1905 this plethora of local times were abandoned in favour of standard time 5 ½ hours ahead of the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  

The paper is available on Academia

In the paper, I discuss – How was time measured in ancient India? How was it adapted by Firoze Shah Tughluq and later by the Mughals? When and how was the mechanical clock introduced in India? How did the British arrive at the conclusion to implement a standard time and how was it approved by Lord Curzon? Till when did Bombay and Calcutta retain their local times even after the Independence?  Does it now make sense to introduce multiple time zones in India?

My Maiden Book is Published: Red Fort, Remembering the Magnificent Mughals

It gives me great pleasure in reporting that my book Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals has now been published. The book seeks to present the lived culture of Mughals in all its multiple facets. 

About the Book

When we think of a Fort, it evokes an imagery of a massive military edifice with impregnable defences against any aggression.

However, the Red Fort of Shah Jahan, the Emperor who invested his life furthering arts and culture, was built as a pinnacle of the Mughal soft power. Profusely laid flower and fruit-bearing char-bagh gardens criss-crossed with streams of water canals, it was layered in symbolism that art historians find interesting even after many centuries to discuss elements that give it a sense of freshness even with the mere empty shell of buildings left in it after 1857.

Right from depicting the Greek God of Music, Orpheus at Diwan-e-Aam to building a jharokha or a window where the Emperor could give daily ‘sight’ or darshan to citizens as an extension of Hindu temple traditions, the Fort was an amalgamation of cultural motifs from all corners far and wide – Indian, Persian and European. Not only that, standing at the centre of a bow-shaped city of Shahjahanabad and standing at the centre of super-imposing important cultural highways, it was the very heart of flourishing cultural exchanges, linguistic innovations and flowering of new traditions that have flowed down to this very age and will continue to do so, defining India’s cultural identity.

I have tried to look into these aspects and more, while making my commentaries on the Red Fort, taking it beyond a dry narrative on its structures and architecture.

The book is divided in four parts.  In Part 1 the focus is on the Imperial court and the court etiquette, cultivation of a multi-lingual culture with Persian and Sanskrit languages, and patronage of Hindu and Jain scholars.  Part 2 contains detailed accounts of the Red Fort and the symbolism of its architecture, the philosophy of rituals like the jharokha darshan, ceremonies, games and pastimes, the material culture of costumes and jewellery, food, drink and perfumery.  The remaining two parts deal with the decline and fall of the Mughal rule and the British Colonial Durbars at the Red Fort.  The broadly historical narrative is enlivened by various anecdotes.


It had been a long struggle. Perhaps I would not have ventured to take up this maiden project of mine, had I known the complexities involved at every step. But thanks to encouragements from all, it has finally managed to see the light of the day. My sincere thanks go to the publishing house, for sponsoring this project under their Wordit Art Fund program.

Prof. S. R. Sarma (formerly Professor of Sanskrit, Aligarh Muslim University), Padmini Smetacek (freelance editor at various reputed publishing houses) and Dr. Swapna Liddle (Convenor of INTACH Delhi Chapter) have warmly supported my effort and made many valuable suggestions which have been gratefully incorporated in the manuscript. Sohail Hashmi, who conducts highly illuminating heritage walks in Delhi, has advised me on the traditional water systems in Delhi. Dr Charn Jagpal, who wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled I Mean to Win: The Nautch Girl and Imperial Feminism at the Fin de Siecle, helped me shape the chapter on tawaifs; Nicolas Roth, a doctoral student at Harvard, reviewed the chapter on the gardens in the Red Fort and read through other chapters and made several valuable suggestions. I should hasten to add that any shortcomings in this book are entirely due to my own inexperience.

I am quite conscious of the book’s shortcomings, due to my academic and linguistic limitations. But I hope this will be an enjoyable read for people interested in Mughal history anchored around Delhi’s iconic Red Fort, the stories that lie behind its monuments had triggered my interest and so overwhelmed me that that I had no option but to write it in a book. I sincerely hope that my passion in telling these anecdotes will make up for any shortcomings.

Image by Saumya Kulshreshtha, academician and poet, who says: “What a wonderful guide to everything about the Red Fort – the era, the architecture, the culture and the legacy. There are scores of facts here about interesting practices, beliefs, cultural interactions which reflect the deep research, painstakingly combined in this book. Divided into bite sized chapters, the book manages to make you imagine the glory of the Red Fort and the Mughals, easily.”

The foreword to the book has been kindly written by eminent historian Prof. Harbans Mukhia, former Professor of Medieval History and Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, whose book The Mughals of India had been my constant companion. A few years back on a winter morning, I attended a heritage discussion with him in the lawns of the majestic Humayun’s Tomb. In the following months, I sought his guidance on the subject of my interest, i.e. Mughals: he not only helped me by referring various books but also been patient enough to entertain my emails and refined and rectified multiple initial drafts of this work. When he agreed to write a Foreword to the book, it was an encouragement beyond my imagination. He writes:

“For a hard-boiled professional, long trained and committed to the guiding principles of one’s discipline, an “outsider’s” intrusion can at times be exasperating and at others exhilarating. Debasish Das’ venture resoundingly belongs to the latter class. For, a telecom professional, working for an international giant, a book on Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals is purely a labour of love. His love finds a completely selfless expression, as the ideal of pure love dictates: it has no visible or hidden agenda – either career promotion or a political motive. It is also delightful to read, perhaps for that reason. It is a detailed, faithful, yet very aesthetic account of the Red Fort and the daily as well as ceremonial life within it from its inception through to its virtual destruction after 1857. But the message embedded in it has survived and is unlikely to fade out. The message gets renewed every year on 15th August in Independent India as the Prime Minister, irrespective of his/her ideological or personal predilections or party affiliation finds it unimaginable to address the nation from anywhere except the ramparts of the magnificent Mughals’ Red Fort. The cultural grandeur – synonymous with the very term Mughal – that inheres inter alia in the Red Fort – blends so comfortably with the hi-fi aspirations of the twentieth and twenty-first century India. In a beautiful way, Debasish Das’s blending of a career in a twenty-first century profession and love for the Mughal legacy is a testimony to the wellsprings of the durability that is India, the Idea of India.”


It is indeed an honor to receive the following review of my book ‘Red Fort: Remembering the magnificent Mughals’ from Shikha Jain, Director – DRONAH, Chairperson – DRONAH Foundation, State Convener – INTACH Haryana, and Vice President – International committee on Fortification & Military Heritage (ICOFORT)- ISc, ICOMOS. She also kindly shared the below image of an artistic rendering of Peacock Throne in the Red Fort. Thank you ma’am.

Excellently written to engage the audience with its anecdotes about various aspects of the Red Fort. Not many know about life inside the fort and the author has ensured with his short stories that the visitor gets a complete experience of all the fort spaces as they were designed and used. Be it the making of the fort, constructions, architectural details, planning and use, social life, games, palace politics, food, lifestyle or even the life in the surrounding havelis; the book covers all very well.
What is impressive is that the author builds on the previous Mughal references and texts to help the reader understand the essence of Mughal associations and lifestyle in the time of Shahjahan when the fort was built. And then it takes you on a complete journey of the fort when it was with the British and, also served as a centre point for Freedom Fighters. A book that truly records the complete saga of one of the most iconic of India’ monument.

(Artistic rendering of the Peacock Throne in the Red Fort, image courtesy – Shikha Jain) 

Historian and author of many books, Rana Safvi says in her review of the book, “Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals by Debasish Das recreates the grandeur of a fort unrivaled in its time. Since it bore the brunt of British wrath after the Uprising of 1857, it’s now just a shell of itself. Das takes us on a journey not just of its physical spaces but culture and people thriving in it and brings it to life for those who know it only in its current diminished avatar.” 

Sanskritist and Science-Historian, an eminent authority on ancient Indian astronomical instruments and former professor at AMU, Prof S.R. Sarma, writes in his review of the book, “Debasish Das writes with admirable felicity and engaging passion.  With his vivid descriptions, he fills the bare walls of the Red Fort with people — princes, amirs and other courtiers in their finery.  One can hear the water splashing in the artificial water channels or hear the rustle of silk as the ladies of the harem walk past and catch whiffs of the fragrance of the attar of roses or of musk.  Particularly interesting is his treatment of the literary culture at the Mughal court where Persian, Sanskrit and Braj Bhasha were avidly cultivated.”

Zehra Naqvi is an author, journalist and columnist, whose articles have been published in Indian Express, Reader’s Digest, The Hindu, Financial Chronicle, Women’s Web and Child Magazine.

Her immensely readable review is replete with captivating photographs taken by her at Hyderabad’s Salar Jung Museum. The jewelry in the above picture once belonged to Zehra’s husband’s great grandmother! How touching. She writes: “If there is one thing that can be said about Debasish Das’s book ‘Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals’, it is that the book captures, in equal measure, the resplendence and the pathos that the Red Fort stands drenched in, unbeknownst to the throngs that mill around the historic structure today. Equally importantly, it must be said that it presents the Mughals for what they were: Kings, Emperors, human beings. Neither does this book demonise them, nor does it exalt them to false heights. It presents a very balanced account of their contributions and their faults, etching out an image that is neither black nor white, but full of varying hues and shades.The author unfolds before our eyes visions such as those of the Nahr-i-Bihisht – River of Paradise – a canal channelled from the Yamuna, flowing across the rooms of the palace, into marble basins decorated with bejewelled flowers in pietra dura, so stunningly real that when water flowed over them, they appeared to be swaying mesmerizingly! You can see the bejewelled walls and gold ceilings, silken curtains and brilliant tapestries, the lamps flickering like fairy lights in alcoves behind water bubbling over marble chaadars, even as the royal elephant beneath the royal balconies stomps its feet restively”..”One of the most fascinating things about the architecture of Shahjahanabad are the Sufi and Hindu linkages in design, further spreading out to connections with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The city’s semi elliptical design is based on the ancient Hindu Manasara Shilpa Shastra that proposed a bow or karmuka shaped city-scape: the North-South street representing the bow string, and the outer city walls representing the curved shaft.The Iranian architects of the city also borrowed from the Sufi architectural traditions from the Rasail of the Ikhwan e Safa or Epistles of the Brothers of Purity, drawing analogies between the Cosmos and the human being, between the macrocosm and the microcosm – the very concept theorised by Da Vinci in his ‘Vitruvian Man as the cosmography of the microcosm’.”..”For a feminist reader and a sufi learner like myself, one of the chief draws of this book was Princess Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan. The book is peppered with details of the life of this cerebral and strong administrator, who was an amalgam of such varied traits that she takes your breath away: a learned sufi, a brilliant writer, an architect, a leader and an able administrator. The famous Chandni Chowk was designed by none other than the magnificent Jahanara!As a Sufi, she was taught by the Qadri Sufi mystic of Kashmir, Mulla Shah Badakhshani- who, interestingly, refused to admit her when she was first introduced by Dara Shukoh and Shah Jahan. Just three years after meeting him, Jahanara wrote the book Risala i Sahibiya. Mullah Shah was later known to have said that he would have prefered her to be his spiritual successor. Jahanara had the title of ‘Sahibat uz Zamani’ or Mistress of Her Age, and was also the first unmarried royal woman to have her own seal, and the ability to issue her own farmaans and edicts. She wielded great power and also received revenues from the port town of Surat.”..”One of the most riveting chapters in the book is the one about cultural and literary exchanges in the Mughal period. Translation of Sanskrit epics—religious and others—was at its zenith during the Mughal Era. “The first book taken up was the Atharva Veda, followed by the Ramayana, Mahabharat, Nala-Damayanti, Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads and many others. In Persian Mahabharata called the Razmnamah or Book of War, the narrative was interspersed with Persian verses,” enumerates Das. In fact, a Sanskrti-Persian lexicon was authored at Akbar’s court by Krishnadasa Misra.Dara Shukoh authored the Majma Al Bahrayn (Confluence of two Oceans) “where he theorized that the two traditions, Vedic and Quranic, emphasise the same basic truth. This book was translated into Sanskrit as Samudra Sangam.” Dara also sponsored the translation of fifty Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian. “..”From the zenith of the Mughals to the nadirs, from joyous celebrations of Jashn e Chiraghan (Diwali) to the bloodcurdling internecine murders for the throne, from heartrending descriptions of the raids by Nadir Shah to dramatic, poignant descriptions of the revolt of 1857 and the subsequent fall of the Mughals, the book deftly encapsulates the itr-like essence of the Red Fort—the rapturous revelry, the shattering tremors, the pallid gloom.The next time you decide to visit the historic city of Shahjahanabad, be sure to take this book along. You’ll never see the Fort and the city quite the same way again.”

While fleshing out my narrative on the Persian poetry scene in the 17th century Delhi and the composite Indo-Persian Mughal court in my book, I did not find a better insightful source other than Dr. T.C.A. Raghavan‘s award-winning book ‘Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers & Poets in Mughal India’, especially on the contributions made by the Khan Khanan, Abdur Rahim. Currently the Director-General of Indian Council of World Affairs, and a former High Commissioner of India to Singapore and Pakistan, his latest book ‘History Men’ is getting rave reviews. In the past, I was pleasantly surprised to receive his appreciative comments on few of my blogs, and now it is beyond my imagination to receive his praise and encouragements for my debut book on a subject of his expertise:

The Corona lockdown gave me the time to read Debasish Das’s Red Fort: Remembering The Magnificient Mughals. This is a book about the Red Fort but is much more than a history of the fort and its many structures and a bird’s eye view of the culture of the Mughals in Shahjahanabad.

The book is a treat for all those who like wondering through Delhi’s many monuments as it brings them to life, animated with anecdotes and historical detail that often escapes specialists. Das has moreover an eye for the obscure which is a delight to encounter.

I have been following Debashish’s blog for some time. It is invaluable in following up tangential details. I got hooked after reading his post on now forgotten Najibabad but so important to understanding Mughal decline and final extinction. I have been to Najibabad myself about 20 years ago but somehow missed a lot that there was in the blog so would like to go back post Corona and also visit then nearby Ghausgarh. The trauma the Mughals under Shah Alam suffered in August 1788 at the hands of Ghulam Qadir Khan is described on pages 263-264 of the book. Ghulam Qadir was Najib ud Daulah’s grandson and the humiliation he heaped on Shah Alam and the imperial harem was revenge for the Mughal attack on Ghausgarh some 10 years earlier. Jadunath Sarkar had dwelt at some length on Ghausgarh recognizing its symbolic importance in Mughal history. What the Mughals faced at Ghulam Qadir’s hands was thus for him ‘a tragedy of even greater poignancy than the downfall of the French monarchy five years later’. The reason he observed was ‘Afgans vengeance may sleep for decades, it never dies’.

I also liked this book for reminding us that the Red Fort was not just a representation of the Mughals in their prime. It was their home as they were in decline and the magnificence of the structures within somehow make us gloss over the fact that they were in decline for over a century till their final extinction in 1857. P 376 of the book reminds us:

“The Red Fort was overpopulated and overcrowded- with hundreds of royal descendants and their long line of relatives calling it their home. Unplanned structures of every random nature had sprung up….Arcades of Dewan e Aam were used as stores and stable houses. The area around the Shah Burj was crammed with new Indo European structures to accommodate princes. Right behind the Dewan e Aam the heir apparent built his residential quarter”.

Debasish Das congratulations on your book, may there be others and may your blog thrive.

(With Padmini Smetacek and Dr Swapna Liddle at the INTACH office)

Author of many books on Delhi including Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi and Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi and Convener at INTACH, Delhi, Dr Swapna Liddle is well known for her love for the city of Delhi. I feel honoured to receive a glowing review from her as follows.

This book has been sitting on my work table for several weeks now, and I have been dipping into it from time to time, since I didn’t have time to read it from cover to cover. It is easy to enjoy it in bite-sized pieces, because it is conveniently arranged in short chapters.

There are books that have been written on the Red Fort, and on the Mughals, but readers will find this particularly useful because the author uses his description of the fort as an anchor to give us a detailed picture of the life of the Mughals who lived in that palace complex for more than two hundred years. He draws on a wide range of travellers accounts, court histories and secondary sources for this.

The book deals with a large variety of topics. Apart from a study of the architecture and the important events in the Fort’s history, the reader will get a peek into the lifestyle the Mughal’s enjoyed, through chapters dealing with games and pastimes, royal animals, costumes and jewellery, perfumes and oils, food and festivals. It is also convenient that the reader can quickly find and go to a particular chapter of interest. In short it will interest different kinds of readers, from those who want to use it as a guide book to explore the Red Fort in some depth, to those interested in Mughal social and cultural history.

Well done Debasish Das, your sustained effort on this research has borne fruit!

Anisha Shekhar Mukherji, Director of Ambi Knowledge Resource, is a conservation architect as well as a visiting faculty at SPA, Delhi. Her book, The Red Fort of Shahjahanabad based on extensive archival research, is widely recognized as one of the most authoritative pieces of research and analysis of the Red Fort, and has been the reference for the case of the Fort’s inclusion in the World Heritage List.

My interaction started with her way back in 2016 when I sought few clarifications, and she advised me “to extract themes and tie together various sites in Delhi based on such themes – rather than write about them merely on the basis of individual sites, which is the more usual approach.” While writing my manuscript I kept that as a guiding principle to interleave a variety of themes with that of architectural descriptions.

So, with much joy and gratitude, I thank her for her glowing endorsement of my humble book, in which she says: “There’s much to commend in the book.”

I am humbled to see that she has featured my book in her own blogsite at Titled as “Another Book on the Red Fort”, each sentence of her scholarly review is a great encouragement to an non-academician like me, where she says:

She writes in the book review: The Red Fort is an iconic and complex piece of construction that has undergone both natural and forced transformations. It has been the subject of inquiry and research by many writers, and contains layers of information that can be discussed at multiple levels, with much that we need to appreciate, understand and apply in our present times. Debasish Das’s Red Fort, Remembering the Magnificent Mughals ( 2019) is a presentation of his journey in travelling within the spaces of the Fort and trying to comprehend them.

Das also writes a blog through which he has been sharing his explorations of the city of Delhi and its past. The book is a continuation of his exploration and is a personal interpretation guided by interactions with popular writers and scholars and heritage walkers. The book ties in various figures who have peopled Delhi’s historic and physical landscape, beginning from Babur. It is organised in a  sequence that moves from the city to the Fort, and is divided into short chapters, some as brief as two pages. These move between a variety of themes, dipping into aspects of the Fort’s architecture as well as ‘Perfumes and Oils’, ’Games and Pastimes’ and ‘Hooqah, Wine and Opium’, among others.

There’s much to commend in the book. It is written with sympathy and feeling. The fact that the chapters are short and organised into themes covering popular events, anecdotes and figures, will help those who are new to the Fort and are looking for a quick overview. The author’s focus, as he writes in the introduction, is on the stories behind the Fort; and his objective is to bring these alive, which he manages to do even with limited images.

Inevitably, the information in the book is influenced by the more popular narratives, reinforcing some conventional notions about the Fort. More specialised interpretations leading from rigorous primary analysis, which may not have perhaps been easy to access, do not form part of the source-base. Nonetheless, it is an extremely encouraging sign when history is no longer confined just to the domain of the professional. Histories are shared, and all of us need to dialogue with what our histories have left us with – and in the process dialogue with each other. Place-histories are a tangible way of conducting such a dialogue to connect us with the past and present of the places we inhabit. That more and more people are sincerely trying to be a part of their place-histories bodes well for our future.

Marryam H. Reshii, Consulting Editor with the Times of India, has been writing about food and lifestyle for thirty years – bringing to light the bonds between a land, its people, culture and cuisine, by travelling all across the globe. Browsing her website which has the tagline ‘Food, Travel, People’, is soothing to the soul. Author of The Flavour of Spice, Times Food Guide, Kashmir – The Himalayan Paradise, Kashmir – The Mystery, Insight Guides to India’s Western Himalaya, Table Fare, Celebrated Chefs of India, Eating Out in India 101 Favourite Restaurants, her review of Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals is truly touching, balanced and straight from heart:

“Debashish Das’ book, Red Fort, Remembering the Magnificent Mughals is exactly what a book about a historical period ought to be. Light, fun reading, answering those questions that most ordinary folk would love to know more about, but would not know where to look for the answers. Among all my shelves full of books written about the Mughal period, this one is the easiest read.

The subject has been cleverly arranged so that the Red Fort itself is the central gemstone in an arrangement where smaller, matching stones are arrayed around it. Thus, while the history of the fort is the leitmotif of the book, the characters – major and minor – the culture, shopping, gardens, perfumes, entertainment, court manners and protocol, are all set out in a lucid manner that helps the layman (and I’m certainly one!) to visualize the era graphically.”

Thank you ma’am! This is one of the best encouragements till now that I could wish for. The link to the website is


Rangan Datta is a freelance travel photographer and travelogue writer. Apart from his immensely informative blogs, his travelogues and travel photographs have also been published in some of the leading newspapers and magazines in the country. In the book review section of his blog, he says: “A fort is all about massive bastions and giant gateways coupled with massive military edifice and strategic defensive mechanism. But apart from being a defensive structure, forts have always served as independent cities complete with bazars, gardens crisscrossed with walkways and water channels. Forts complete with royal courts have always been centre of royal decision making. Behind the court, but within the walls of the fort, royal family politics had a significant role. This internal politics not only shaped the history of the empire but also had a significant role in the history of the entire mankind. The Red Fort of Delhi is no exception and Debasish Das in his latest book titled Red Fort, Remembering the Magnificient Mughals, brings out the stories from behind the walls of Delhi’s most iconic structure….Debasish in his book goes into the details of the fort’s layout starting from the char bagh gardens to the water flowing chanels. The addition of the barbican in front of the Lahore Gate by Aurangzeb or the vanishing north – south street of the fort and every other possible change in the forts layout have been minutely described…Debasish has taken utmost care in documenting the royal family politics including the roles of nautch girls and harem women. The murders of two Mughal (Farrukhsiyar and Jahandar Shah) emperors within the fort wall have been described with great details, so were the murder of the Britishers during the revolt of 1857. The looting of Delhi by Nadir Shah and blinding of Mughal emperor Shah Alam II by Ghulam Qadir Khan have been described to the utmost details. A vivid and detailed account of the royals jewels forms a section of the book. It deals with the much hyped kohinoor diamond to the lesser known Orloff diamond, presently mounted on the royal sceptre of the Russian Tsar. It is also interesting to know that a few of the diamonds of the present Crown Jewel of Iran traces back to the Mughal Red Fort. The detailed descriptions of the Peacock Throne are a reader’s delight….”

Ranbir Singh Phogat, well known heritage enthusiast, author and the M.D. of Haryana-Heritage says in his generous endorsement of my debut book, “I have read many other accounts of the Red Fort of Dilli, some of them exclusive works by independent authors as well as those published by the ASI, GOI, New Delhi and many in the travelogues and narratives contained in the memoirs etc., but what makes Debasish’s book different is his own observations and up dates.”

Screenwriter and author of bestselling books, Adite Banerjie kindly reviewed the book at her blog. Link:

Indian history as taught to us in text books is often a dry account of names, incidents and dates. Information provided at historical sites or monuments rarely offer insights into the era when they were built and the people who left their legacy behind. Even the history buff would find it difficult to make the connections between the glorious past that the placards talk about and the stark, near ruinous conditions of the monuments. While Western museums often have well-researched audio visual presentations for the lay visitor to be able to make this connect, unfortunately this facility is not available at Indian monuments…The author takes you on a guided tour of the Red Fort and the era in which it was built. The book is extensively researched and the facts presented in a structured format. The little stories and vivid descriptions add colour and bring alive an era that has passed. The reader is virtually taken on a drive through the alleys and streets of Shahajahanabad, its bazaars and mandis, the ramparts of the fort, the magnificent hallways and the customs of Mughal noblemen…Studded with little anecdotes and details, the book explores the various aspects of Mughal life, within and beyond the Red Fort, creating a complete picture of  life in Shahajanabad (which is now a part of modern Delhi). It also helps the reader understand what went into the making of the “magnificent Mughals” and also get insights into the reasons for their downfall. For anyone who has visited the Red Fort and for every citizen of Delhi, this book is a must-read. It provides insightful glimpses into the past and the legacy that continues to echo in the present.

Madhulika Liddle, author of the popular historical fiction series based on 17th century Mughal detective Muzaffar Jang, such as The Englishman’s Cameo, The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, Engraved in Stone and Crimson City shares her kind appreciations while pointing out proof-reading mistakes which I am planning to remove. She writes:

In the 1640s, the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, having constructed his magnum opus—the Taj Mahal in Agra—decided to shift the imperial capital to Delhi. Of course, as befitted his stature, his wealth, and his reputation as an aesthete, this meant creating a new city, not merely occupying the old one. Shahjahanabad was the outcome of Shahjahan’s decision to make Delhi his capital, and the focal point of Shahjahanabad was the Red Fort.

Debasish Das’s Red Fort is about the Red Fort, but it is about a lot else too, all in some way or the other connected to the iconic fortress. The book, in fact, is perhaps more adequately described by its subtitle: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals. Because while the main focus of the book is the Fort, Das also covers much else that is somewhat tangential. He begins with a very brief history of the Mughals, followed by an introduction to the conceptualization and construction of the Fort, then goes on to describe each element of the Fort. And, in conjunction with that, the aesthetics, the functions, the stories and myths and history attached to each of those elements.

So, for instance, when he describes the Diwan-e-Aam, Das also discusses the various protocols that were observed here: how court was held, how it proceeded, how Mughal emperors before Shahjahan (and after) conducted court, and so on. When he discusses the zenana, he talks not only of the royal harem and how they spent their time, but also of the noteworthy courtesans of Shahjahanabad, women like Qudsia Begum and Farzana (aka Begum Samru), among others. Life in Chandni Chowk, the etiquette attached to being a mirza (a ‘gentleman’), the ups and downs in the history of the Mughals after the 1650s—especially the uprising of 1857 and its aftermath—are among the many sections covered.

This is an extremely entertaining and informative book about the life of the Mughals, in particular Shahjahan and those who followed. It’s full of detailed and rich descriptions, and it’s obvious that Das has done a lot of research. It’s also an easy read, because instead of getting bogged down with dates and dry facts, Das finds interesting tidbits that bring to life the Mughals and their heyday—as well as the tragedy of their decline.

The sad part is, this book hasn’t been given the post-writing attention it deserved. The fact that the photos are poorly reproduced and printed is a small matter; the shoddy editing is what really irked me. There are typos, there are repetitions (several facts and incidents are repeated in numerous places, for example), and there is the very occasional tendency to wax eloquent and imagine what a particular scene must have been—which is something I personally do not like when reading non-fiction.

Here are some Media Features, Interviews and Reviews:

Feature at travel blog, Light-Travel-Action:

Interview with The News Now:

Interview with Thinker Views:

Firstpost, Feb 6th, 2020: ” (In) Debasish Das’ book on the Red Fort, a narrative that looks beyond the monument’s architecture….writer Debasish Das presents a multi-faceted cultural history of the Mughals.”:

The Telegraph, May 8th, 2020: “Debasish Das breathes life into the 17-th century monument…”

Live History India 11 March 2020: ‘The Tawaifs of Shahjahanabad’

Indian Women Blog 11 March 2020: “Author of Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent MughalsDebasish Das excursions the reader through the forgotten and much misunderstood period in history with rare for a researcher eloquence of fictional imagery that makes it an easy read. The book is fluent in facts and effortless in their delivery while letting the ray of imagination play on illusionary verandahs.”

Book Review in the News Now, Jammu:

Thinker Views Book Review:

Review and Interview at

Book Excerpt – The Dispatch, Jammu & Kashmir:

The Bibliograph, February 2020: “The one reason why this book stands out is the exemplary research that the author has carried out. Right from the first sentence, you realise the hard work that was put into the making of the book… From Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the author lucidly and vividly explains the chronology of the various events that shaped up their lives. The book also gives us a peek into the evolvement of customs and traditions over the centuries. It mentions and tells about Parsi and Hindu traditions, much of which could be unknown to the reader. Not only you get to know about the regal Mughal empire, but also the policies and administration that the rulers undertook to give their subjects a better place to live in. You come to know about the lives of the common people and the society as a whole, which was an important factor in determining the success of the empire. The book is a reminder of our rich cultural legacy and how we owe it to ourselves to take care of it. The language is so lucid and crisp and the Author has left no stone unturned to make this a masterpiece”

The book is now live on all e-commerce platforms. The following are links for e-book and paperback versions of the book. I look forward to your feedback and reviews.

Amazon ( International paperback)



Barnes & Nobles

Google play store


Fraser and Skinner: Men of Field and Fine Arts

William Fraser, was the Resident and Commissioner of Delhi, and Agent of Delhi territory to the Governor General of India during the reign of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II Zafar. He was the successor to David Ochterlony, and the predecessor to Sir Thomas Metcalfe as East India Company’s Delhi Resident. That was the time, when the British officers in Delhi donned native identities as ‘White Mughals’ : the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony (1758 – 1825) was famed for having thirteen Indian wives, each of whom had a separate elephant to roam around the streets of Delhi, and embark on a march every evening between the banks of river Yamuna and the walls of the Red Fort.

William Fraser (1784-1835), his assistant and successor as Delhi’s Resident, continued his style in becoming another Indophile, being ‘very much a Scottish Nawab with his Indian harem and Mughal wardrobes.’

William Fraser was so enamored with the Indian courtly culture, that he began taking Persian and Arabic classes twice a week from Shah Abdul Aziz. He  developed a close friendship with India’s greatest Urdu poet Ghalib. He even gave up eating pork and beef so as to be acceptable to Hindus and Muslims alike. It is said that he fathered, ‘as many children as the King of Persia’ from his harem of ‘six or seven legitimate Indian wives.’

His massive Gothic villa, now known as the Hindu Rao Hospital, stood on the crest of the Ridge. It was said that it was built “at great expense on the very spot where Timur once pitched his tent during the siege of Delhi”.

The French traveler Victor Jacquemont described Fraser as, “half-Asiatic in his habits, but in other respects a Scot Highlander, and an excellent man with great originality of thought, a meta-physician to boot.”

During this time, in 1815 to be precise, William was joined by his brother James Baillie Fraser in Delhi after many years of separation. James had arrived in India in 1814  to set up a trading business in Calcutta, following financial problems at home. He was one of the five sons of a Scottish noble-man, Edward Satchwell Fraser, all of whom had journeyed to India.

Six RecruitsFive Recruits

(Image Courtesy: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: Purchase )

In Delhi, James employed local artistes to make paintings of William’s servants, troops, dancing girls, holy men and villagers etc and asked them to submit their artworks with his brother. James himself was a gifted landscape painter, and later produced  collections titled ‘Views in the Himala Mountains ( 1820 )’ after his exploratory tour of river sources in hillside of upper India with his brother William, and also, ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs ( 1824-26 )’ after his subsequent posting there.  The below is plate 19 from James Baillie Fraser’s ‘Views of Calcutta and its Environs’.

James Fraser2

(View of St. John’s Cathedral, Image Courtesy: The British Library, X664 (19), Plate 19,

James was posted at Calcutta in 1816, but he asked his brother William to continue commissioning of paintings at Delhi.  William obliged the request and started taking local artistes along with him on his tours. James left India in 1820, with over ninety paintings with him, popularly known as the ‘Fraser Album’.

The Fraser brothers  involved renowned local artists such as Ghulam Ali Khan,  his nephew Mazhar Ali Khan, and other members of his family to record the costumes and scenes of daily Mughal life, by means of miniature paintings. The practice of pictorial recording of Mughal culture continued by his successor, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, who commissioned the ‘Dehlie Book: Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi ’ in 1844, executed by the same Mughal painter Mazhar Ali Khan.

By that time, the Mughal court did not have enough finances to indulge in the arts and culture, so artist families like that of Ghulam Ali Khan were looking at prosperous noble-men and British officers, like the Fraser brothers, the Scottish-Rajput mercenary James Skinner, Nawab of Jhajjar, and so on. Ghulam Ali Khan was undoubtebly the greatest painter of those times, and in one of his pictures, he describes himself as, “the hereditary slave of the dynasty, Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist, resident at Shahjahanabad.”

Joseph M. Dye III in the book ‘The Arts of India -Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ describe the two types of paintings found in the Fraser Album. The first category is the intensely realized figural studies against a minimal background. The second category is complicated village scenes created in  spatial stages. I am grateful to Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for sending me scans of relevant pages of the book.


(Image Courtesy: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,

The VMFA painting of a water buffalo standing in a picturesque Haryana village scene depicts a place called Rania, where  William’s mistress Amiban lived, along with their two Anglo-Indian sons and a daughter.

“The foreground, middleground, and background are skillfully organized to create a sense of spatial recession: individual pictorial elements are subtly modeled; and the sky, with its softly rendered clouds, as well as the turbaned figure leaning against a horse on the far left, are almost certainly derived from European sources”, he writes, “Nowhere are the visual objectivity and poetic feeling that define Company art in Delhi more effectively conveyed than in paintings from the Fraser Album.”

Such close relationship and attachment of a British officer with native life is remarkable indeed, and he himself wrote that the images recorded “recollections that never can leave my heart.”

Each of the miniature painting was a work of great detail, painstakingly executed with single squirrel-hair fine brushes to capture even single hair strands of the subjects. The painting style was as if to produce some sort of botanical illustrations of the subjects, detailed yet detached, capturing people of various castes and tribes, and producing the characters like they were some kind of  unique specimens for the curious eyes of British patrons.

The paintings were done against a stark white background for the desired effect against a void or minimal backdrop, so as to make their appearance look more ‘real’ than they were in reality.

Maybe, it was somewhat like  our dream sequences where the features of subjects in our dreams are so detailed as if our subconscious mind tries to convince us that it is the real world by portraying features that we may in fact be missing to notice if awake. Surely, our vision is an imperfect filter, taking in only three frames per second, and then imagining the rest in our brain to create a holographic visual. The subconscious mind is something we are far from understanding. But that seems to be the way a perfect artist likes to draw to imitate the subject on paper, but going beyond the features that we usually notice, thus producing masterpieces.

This new genre of painting was referred popularly as ‘Company School’ painting because of the patronage of East India Company officials, where the Indian painters modified their techniques to cater to the tastes of their British promoters and clients. The style was a mix of close representation of visual reality without the accuracy of a photograph, along with the stylization of medieval miniatures. The artistes began painting in water-colour, and used pencil or sepia wash on European paper. The result was a unique fusion technique of the West with the East. The paintings were hallmark of hypnotic attention to detail, glowing in the brilliance of gem-like colours.

Mazhar Ali Khan was a maestro who also executed  one of the greatest masterpiece of Company Art: a 45-feet long panoramic depiction of 1852’s Delhi, with the Red Fort at the center of the painting, presently at the India Office Library in London.

William Fraser was assassinated  on Sunday evening the 22 March 1835 at the age of 51, at the very steps of his own Residence, by Kureem Khan, noted for his excellent marksmanship. It is said that the assassin had fixed the horseshoes into the hooves of his horse in reverse, so as to mislead the investigators, who initially thought the marks on the ground suggested a horse descending from the location of the crime instead the assassin going up.  Mirza Ghalib wrote on Fraser’s death, “I lost again a second father. His Fraser Album, is regarded as the last great monument of the Mughals.”

Sir Thomas Metcalfe thus describes the event in his Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi. 

“William Fraser Agent to the Governor General of India and Commissioner of the Dehly Territory was assassinated within a few yards of his own Residence on Sunday Evening the 22nd March 1835 about ½ past 7 o’Clock when returning from a Visit of Ceremony to Maha Rajah Kulleean Singh Chief of Kishengurh, then residing in our City.
The act was committed by one Kurreem Khan noted as an excellent Marksman and employed by the Newab Shumsooddeen Khan of Ferozepoor for this very purpose.
The Assassin rode up in the rear of his Victim and when nearly in a line discharged the contents of his Carbine into the right side. Death instantly ensued. One slug having passed quite through his body while two others perforated in far as the outer skin of the opposite side.
Kurreem Khan was executed on the 26th August following and the Newab on the 8th of the following Month and never was the hand of Providence more signally displayed than in the means vouchsafed to the Local Officers of Government in unravelling this daring deed of Villainy.
The remains of this estimable and deeply lamented Individual were at first interred in the Burial Ground within the City but subsequently removed to within the Area surrounding St. James Church by the old and faithful Friend of the deceased Colonel James Skinner C.B. by whom also was erected this suitable monument.”

The Fraser paintings were all but forgotten, till they were chance-discovered in 1979 in Scotland, and it immediately caught the attention of scholars and art connoisseurs. M. Archer and T. Falk write, “Technically these drawings surpass all other Company pictures for the delicate realism, characterization and subtle composition of groups.”

The record of ownership of the Fraser’s Album is as below:William and James Fraser, India and Scotland, 1816-56; followed by the Fraser Family, Scotland, until late 1970s.



  1. The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple
  2. The Arts of India -Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, by Joseph M. Dye III, 2001, VMFA Publication
  3. Assassination of William Fraser,
  4. National Gallery of Modern Art’s website :
  5. ‘Princess and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857’ : Exhibition by Asia Society, New York, Feb 7 to May 6, 2012, William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma:

A Peep into the Past through the Drishyakala Exhibition

It is always a new learning in heritage walks. Few months back, I visited Delhi Art Gallery (DAG)’s Drishyakala Exhibition mounted at the Barrack Number 4 in Delhi’s Red Fort which was led by INTACH’s Ms. Jaya Basera. The exhibition put up in association with ASI was inaugurated by the Prime Minister in February 2019 and will be open till February 2020.


The barracks built by the British in the midst of the historic Red Fort of Shah Jahan have been the islands of incongruous eyesore for long – out of bound for visitors and screened off by metallic grills in the midst of the erstwhile Hayat Baksh Garden, a pleasure garden built to evoke an eternal  Season of Rains, the Sawan and the Bhadon, whose alcoves glowed all night with simmering candle flames behind falling cascades of water, giving an impression of a thousand twinkling stars thrown onto the waters. At the midst of these two structures, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar built another structure seemingly floating in the middle of water tank and which could be reached by wooden arched bridges, over which sat a battery of musicians every evening to entertain the royals. And tearing through this image of eternal beauty, the British built the Army Barracks and barricaded them with iron grills.

Now thankfully, the barracks, tastefully re-fitted with heavy glass panes and provided with air-conditioning, host a variety of museums and exhibitions. The galleries, accessible via a differential ticket pricing, also double up to provide some respite to visitors in air-conditioned halls in this sweltering summer heat.


The top floor of the temporary DAG exhibition at the Red Fort Barrack number 4 has all the paintings by the uncle Thomas and his young nephew William Daniell. Their paintings are quite well known, but the collection of all the paintings under one roof and curated by Dr Giles Tillotson,, Director of Research, Maharaja Sawai Mansingh II Meseum, Jaipur, and author of many books, is a well-orchestrated project. On the second floor of the barrack building, the left side displays the uncle-nephew duo’s paintings from their northern tour of India while the right gallery is from their southern tour. On their northern tour, they left Kolkata in 1788 on a boat upstream on the Hooghly and became inspired by beautiful riverine views of Mughal architecture. The tour lasted three years and they travelled from Kolkata to Patna, Varanasi, Prayagraj, Kanpur, Agra, Delhi, and then to the hills where they became the first Europeans to visit the Garhwal Hills: Najibabad, Srinagar (Pauri Garhwal), Pilhibit, Kannauj, before returning to Kolkata in 1791 via Lucknow, Gaya, Deo, Rohtas, Sultanganj and Gaur. They had a large entourage with them and were able to raise funds for their travels by a subscription revenue stream for from paintings back home in England.

Here are some images from the Daniell gallery of Delhi followed by few of the colonial print section on the first floor.



The artwork titled ‘The Mausoleum of Amir Khusero, at the Ancient City of Delhi – 1801’ of size 17.7 x 23.7 inches was drawn and engraved by Thomas & William Daniell in December 1801. A rare mistake: known for their beautiful landscapes that offer a glimpse into the past, the duo mistakenly named this Amir Khusrau’s tomb which obviously is the Chausanth Khamba pavilion in the same vicinity of Nizamuddin.

The Chausanth Khamba, or the 64-pillared hall, was built by Kokaltash, son of Atgah Khan in 1625 and houses the graves of Kokaltash and his family members. There are 16 single pillars, 16 double-pillars and its four corners have sets of four pillars each, making a total of (1×16) + (2×16) + (4×4) i.e. 64 pillars. In the painting, we can see few palm trees around it and a palanquin in the foreground, thus depicting an important visitor. It was customary to build graves around shrines of famous Sufi saints in the belief that they would be looked after till eternity by the blessings of the saints. Other tombs around the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin are that of Mughal Emperor Humayun, Princess Jahanara, poet Ghalib, Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ and many others.

On the other hand, Amir Khusru’s tomb is inside the main shrine complex of Nizamuddin Dargah. People often visit Amir Khusru’s tomb before they go into the shrine of his teacher, Hazrat Nizamuddin. Both the monuments exemplify the mentor-disciple philosophy.



A serene view of the Nizamuddin Baoli (stepwell) with trees from the side of the Dargah, which is not possible to witness at present because of a jaali installed now, with few domed buildings on the left that are now lost in encroachments. Stone or wooden loops and a pulley can be seen on the right to draw water from the baoli. Three people depicted on the right seem to be enjoying the cool wind. The painting titled ‘A Baolee near the Old City of Delhi’ was drawn and engraved by Thomas and William Daniel in December 1802 with a dimension of 18.0 x 23.7 inches.

The baoli is said to be built by Hazrat Nizamuddin himself in 1320. There is an interesting and popular story behind it. During that time the Sultan Ghiasuddin Tughluq was building his massive citadel in Delhi, known now as Tughluqabad Fort. Obsessed with building his new capital; the sultan ordered all laborers to exclusively work on his fort, and even those who were working on Nizamuudin Auliya’s baoli, were asked to abandon their work for the Saint. The workers had no choice, but out of their compassion for the Saint, they continued their work for Nizamuudin in the night, after the days’ work was over. Furious on hearing the same, the emperor stopped sale and use of oil so that night work would stop at the baoli. However, Nizamuddin asked his disciple Hazrat Naseeruddin to light the lamps with water, and miraculously the lamps glowed and the step-well was completed in a record 7 days. As a testimony to this victory, Hazrat Nizamuddin awarded the title of ‘Roshan Chiragh Dilli’ to Hazrat Naseeruddin.



Drawn by Thomas Daniell in January 1797 of size 18.2 x 23.7 inches, and titled ‘The Jummah Musjed, Delhi’, it depicts The Jama Masjid. The painting does not depict the sandstone pulpit because it was commissioned much later in 1830’s along with the world map and sundials in the mosque’s forecourt by Mirza Salim bahadur Shah, brother of Bahadur Shah Zaffar.



Titled ‘Eastern Gate of the Jummah Musjed at Delhi’, it was drawn and engraved by Thomas Daniell in March 1795 with a dimension of 18.5 x 23.7 inches. The eastern gateway to the Jama Masjid that was reserved for use by the Mughal royals is given a beautiful character here by the symbolism of a convoy of men mounted on elephants and horses.



The painting of 18.5 x 23.7 inches dimension, drawn and engraved by Thomas Daniell in May 1795, was titled ‘North East view of the Cotsea Baug, on the River Jumna, Delhi.’ This remains the only depiction of the Qudsia Bagh fort gracefully standing on the banks of Yamuna. The river has long receded from the spot, the Kashmire Gate ISBT now removes any such sense of serenity as depicted here, and no such building remains as of today. The Red Fort can be seen in the background giving a symbolic balance of power between the old and new in a single frame.



The painting of size 18.2 x 23.7 inches was drawn and engraved by Thomas Daniell in March 1796 and was titled ‘The Western Entrance of Shere Shah’s Fort, Delhi.’ We can see the Purana Qila with an undulating and unlevel ground all around, as if depicting falling apart of the Mughal Empire.



The artwork is titled ‘The Observatory at Delhi -1808’ of 18.2 x 24 inches size was drawn by the duo in December 1808. The giant Samrat Yanta sundial commissioned by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1724 seems lost in mounds of unlevel earth all around. The artists have shown people not only at the top of the gnomon where there was another small sundial, but also there are as many as three observers on the curved marble-lined dial plate. It is not possible to say if these people were engaged in an observation experiment.



Another view of the sundial, as seen from the north. Much of the ground appeared to be dug up. Beyond the soaring gnomon of the Samrat Yantra, the circular shaped Ram Yantra can also be seen. The strip of the marble dial plate is particularly highlighted on the right. It was titled ‘The observatory at Delhi’. Drawn in December 1808 by Thomas & William Daniell, its dimensions are 18.2 x 24.0 inches.



A very special depiction of the Qutub since it is the earliest depiction of the monument with the cupola mounted on top of it. The cupola fell down during an earthquake. The painting of size 25.0 x 17.0 inches by the duo in December 1808 was titled ‘The Cuttub Minar, near Delhi’.

The minar was originally surmounted with a cupola and ASI memoir 22 shows a conjectural view of the same that was retained by Feroz Shah Tughluq when he extended its height. When the Daniells visited Delhi, they saw the minar with the cupola and this painting becomes the first rendition of the same. When East India Company engineer Major Robert Smith carried out restoration much later, he installed an artistic replica of the same but that did not quite go well with the architecture and was taken down.



The painting titled ‘View at Delhi, near the Mausoleum of Humaioon’ was drawn and engraved by Thomas & William Daniell, in February 1803 of size 18 x 23.7 inches. It depicts a sweeping view from the point where the toilets are presently situated at the left of the Humayun’s Tomb’s main entrance:  from left to right ae the western gate of Humayun’s Tomb, the Afsharwalla tomb and mosque, Isa Khan tomb, the gate of Arab Serai, the gate of Bu Halima’s garden and the Sabz Burz that is now at the traffic roundabout.



Of the Firoz Shah Kotla that is more famous for djinns and cricket now, not a trace remains of this magnificent four storied circular building. The painting of size 18.5 x 23.7 inches was drawn by Thomas Daniell in September 1795 and was titled ‘Remains of an Ancient Building near Firoz Shah’s Cotilla, Delhi.’ Once again, we see the site abandoned to the elements during the duo’s travel to Delhi.




A family portrait of the House of Windsor.  This and the following prints of the British Royal family, must have been sold so that people get them framed and hang them in their houses. This print is an oleograph ( a print textured to resemble an oil painting) on paper of size 19.5 x 14.0 inches.  Before 1947, it was common even in village schools to have a framed photo of George VI and his wife.



An untitled oleograph on paper poster of size 10.7 x 8.5 inches by the Manchester-based Ralli Brothers in 1910s features the late Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, with the current heads King George and Queen Mary with their children- Princess Mary and the princes Edward, Albert, Henry, George and John.



An anonymous art from early 20th century representing Queen Mary wearing the Crown as a divine representation of Madonna.



Portly figure of Queen Victoria devoid of heavy jewelery, Empress of India, by an anonymous artist, attempts to portray an endearing motherly image to the Indian masses.



Printed by A. Vivian Mansell & Co, London in 1910s displays the splendid coronation of King George V and Queen Mary at Westminster Abbey, London that became popular in India on the eve of their journey soon after to Bombay and then to Delhi for the Delhi Durbar of 1911. The chromo-lithograph on paper is titled ‘The Coronation of His majesty King George V & Queen Mary’ and is of 19.7 x 26 inches size.

The Delhi Durbar, literally meaning ‘The Delhi Court’ was a mass assembly function organised by the British at Delhi’s Coronation Park to announce succession of an Emperor or Empress of India. The 1911 Durbar was the third and the last such function and was the only one that a ruling Emperor George V attended. The ceremonies lasted from 7 December to 16 December with the Durbar held on 12 December, when practically every ruling Prince and nobleman in India paid obeisance to the new Emperor and Empress of India, George V and Queen Mary. On 13 December, the royal couple stood on the iconic projecting balcony at Delhi’s Red Fort – granting a customary jharokha darshan to the mass of common people assembled below, thus replacing the Mughal Emperor in a symbolic gesture as a continuation of the practice of an Emperor standing atop the Fort’s jharokha to whom the people could bow and pay obeisance.



An anonymous souvenir print of the British royal family.



An anonymous print based on the 1911 Delhi Durbar shows King George V and Queen Mary in velvet robes holding scepters, with the crown on the left side and the coat of arms of the House of Windsor in the background.



The print titled ‘Imperial Delhi Durbar’ by A. Vivian Mansell & Co, London in the 1910’s shows the fantastic royal splendor of the 1911 Durbar. The dimensions of this oleograph on paper are 19.5 x 26 inches.



This untitled print is an oleograph on paper, pasted on card paper, and its dimensions are 12 x 9.2 inches. Global trading conglomerate Sassoon & Co with deep roots in India and China here uses the divine word ‘Shri’ to further their appeal with the Indian masses. On the bottom right, there is ‘shubh labh’ written in Gujarati. The word ‘shubh’ means ‘Good Luck’ and ‘labh’ means ‘Benefits’, and it is believed writing ‘shubh labh’ with turmeric or vermilion pleases Lord Ganesha and Goddess Laxmi, thus bringing both the benefits.

Established in 1867 by E.D. Sassoon and headquarter at Bombay. It started trade in dry fruit, cotton, silk, metal, spices, camphor going to export of opium and textiles to China and thereafter expanded operations to places like Baghdad and Japan. The image in the print is that of his son Sir Jacob Elias Sassoon who expanded its operations to Karachi and Calcutta. By 1927, it was the largest cotton mill in Bombay and by the WW-II, it was employing as many as 30,000 employees working in 15 mills. The business successes and an philanthropic spree by the Sassoons earned them the sobriquet of the ‘Rothschild of the East’.



A calendar by Manchester-based Ralli brothers invoke blessings of Queen Mary even when their target audience was in India.



Printed at A. Vivian Mansell & Co, London in the 1930s show the assembly of Indian princes in their ceremonial robes in the print titled, ‘The Ruling Princes of India, with the Nizam of Hyderabad at the center. The group often met for meetings at Delhi under the umbrella of Chamber of Princes.

Hope you liked this blog post. Looking forward to your comments and feedback!



“Just as a flower blossoms after enduring the bitter cold of winter, a dream can only be realized if one is willing to endure the accompanying trials and put forth the necessary effort.”

“Flowers bring hope and comfort to people. People gather where flowers bloom. Flowers bloom because they have deep roots and continue to draw sustenance from the soil. Let us send our roots deeply and firmly into the earth of faith and bring forth wonderful blossoms of hope and happiness! — Daisaku Ikeda.



Plants and flowers are indeed a joy to be around. But do we really need plants in our cities? It is difficult to imagine our cities without streets lined with shady trees. The asphalt, bitumen and concrete of cities soak up the heat throughout the day and make them heat bubbles. Trees not only help in making our cities and villages livable, but also reduce pollution, which to an estimation, corresponds to a 3% corrosion in our GDP (Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, 2019) and a reduction of 2.6 years in life expectancy in India (Economic Times, June 12, 2019). They bring mental calmness in our daily struggles of life. When we visited Japan in 2012, we were amazed at the importance given to Japanese gardens. In the historic city of Kyoto that prides itself with as many as seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites, a sight that still makes to the must-do list of visitors is the Arashiyama Bamboo forest, where roaming inside the grove gives an unmatched feel of getting close to mother nature. Even just outside the mind-blowing futuristic city of Tokyo where technology and skyscrapers can overwhelm the visitor in no time, the wooded trail to Kamakura is a welcome relief for locals and visitors alike. Nearer home, there are cities named after groves, such as Ambala, derived from Amb-vala (the land of mangoes) and Hazaribagh (the place of thousand trees). Near Gurgaon where I live, we have the Mangar Bani forest providing green lungs to a city sunk deep in pollution.

Trees are indeed an essential part of our lives. On road sides, we can find sellers positioned themselves under some shady trees with their mobile kiosks selling all sorts of things. A local barber setting up his chair and small shop, a tea-seller with a bench for people to sit and gossip while being served hot tea, few kiosks selling ice-creams or coconuts and water-melons are all too familiar scenes we find under road-side shady trees. Recently I saw a vendor placed himself under a large shady canopy and selling biryani from his Maruti Omni van and doing brisk business. Fruits and vegetable vendors too find a place under a tree to stand all day to sell from their carts. We can find rickshaws and autos conveniently parked under shady trees with groups of drivers chatting while waiting for their next customers. People park their cars under shady canopies to keep their vehicles cool. At few places, we find sacred threads and cloths tied around trees bang in the middle of busy intersections, where people have kept idols and photographs of gods and deities around a peepul or some other scared tree. Some trees have cemented platforms made under them, where random people sit and talk and some even catch a nap. Trees bring people together. A new trend in our cities are vertical gardens that are arranged up metro pillars with stacks of plants, designed to do their bit in filtering the harmful air of pollution. Nurseries line up major roads in Gurgaon with green clothes as roof curtains on their exotic collections of imported and native plants, with plant aficionados buying those green-jewels at great costs.

With environmentalist Kavita Prakash (The Sausage Tree Nature Walks), I had visited Sunder Nursery in Delhi few times to catch glimpses of flowering plants in spring. Indeed, plants producing beautiful flowers with different scents and colors in order to attract pollinating bees and insects open our eyes to the unfathomable variety of nature. Here in this short photo-essay, I combine the tree explorations done in two walks: the first walk was themed on the Shaving Brush Tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum) while the second walk was themed on the Sacred Barna (Crataeva adansonii).

Sunder Nursery is now a delight to walk through and explore nature – with its renovated heritage sites, as well as its collection of some 300 species of trees. It also hosts around eighty bird species and 36 types of butterflies. No one is so sure on how the park, which was originally called as Azim Bagh by the Mughals in 16th century, later came to be known as Sunder or ‘beautiful’. If the park was named after the two monuments, Sunderwala Burj and Sunderwala Mahal, or the monuments were named after the park, is best left to speculation. But one thing that is undisputed is the healing of the soul that the park offers to the visitor. It is as if stepping through a magical door to another world – which activates different set of senses to appreciate birds, butterflies and bees, playful flowers and shining leaves.

The nature walks were great learning trips. On a sunny morning, the trees welcomed us with open hearts, straightened themselves in the shining sun to showcase their best features as if to be photographed, encouraged by the most melodious melody of bird-songs and sights of spring flowers dipped in liquid colors of a fantasy land, in an otherwise silent world.




Barna (Crataeva adansonii)

Also called the Sacred Barna, Bengal quince, Garlic Pear, Three-leaf caper etc, its name originated from its Sanskrit name Varuna which means ‘Lord of Oceans’ and is one of the names for Lord Shiva. The Vedic God Varuna is associated with the Celestial Order and is venerated as a rainmaker. Per the Atharva Veda, its wood was used to make amulets. The tree is said to have medicinal as well as magical properties. (Nanditha Krishna & M. Amirthalingam, 2019)

A deciduous tree of a moderate height from 6 meters onward that grows to as high as 18 feet, it is a native to India, South China, Malay peninsula and tropical Africa, it is often found along river banks. In late April, it is blessed with beautiful flowers with lime-yellow petals that envelop its bunch of brilliant purple filaments holding the ovaries at their ends. Its use is widely documented in ancient Hindu medicines for its anti-inflammatory, diuretic and tonic properties. Its fresh leaves used to treat bruises and rheumatic joints, the bark used for gastric and urinary disorders. Its fruit is edible, full of vitamin C and bees are often seen buzzing around this tree. Its bark is used to treat biliousness, boils, rheumatic swellings as well as for chronic ulcer and nasal disorders.



Doodhi (Wrightia tinctorial)

Also called the Milky Way or the Sweet Indrajao plant, it is a native to dry deciduous forests of Northwest and central India. In Hindi, it is called Kapar or Dudhi, in Tamil it is called as Paalai and in Marathi it is called the Kala Kuda.  It is adorned with beautiful vanilla-scented white flowers with lacy threads surrounding a central cone. From a distance, its white flowers look like snowflakes on a tree. Its distinctive hanging fruit looks like a misshapen ear ring. Its wood is a preferred choice for making toys and small items like small boxes and matchboxes. A few drops of its sap in milk prevent curdling, hence its name Doodhi. Leaves of this tree yield a blue dye, hence its name of pala-indigo. In folk-medicine, the leaves are munched to relive tooth pain, hence giving it the name of toothache plant. It is also used in hair oils for its anti-dandruff properties.



Toot (Morus alba)

Also called Chinese or Silk-work mulberry, it originally belonged to the hilly regions of Central and East China and Japan, where silkworms were traditionally reared on its leaves since antiquity. It is also known as White Mulberry. No two leaves are similar and are pointed, lobed and pointed. Its fruit is packed bunch of small edible berries, developing a richer flavor when dry, which then is used as a raisin substitute. The tree needs a lot of moisture and is deciduous. It has a vertically fissured trunk. Its young leaves are used a tea substitute and its leaves and shoots are used as a famine food as well. Its stem-bark is used in paper making in China and Europe, its twigs are used as a binding material in making baskets and its fruit yield to an essential oil.




Chamrod (Ethretia laevis)

Also called the desi papdi, it is superbly drought-hardy and is native to north India. Its edible bright orange-berries give the tree a jeweled look. Its bark is chewed and the make the mouth red, earning its local name ‘datranga’ by locals. It has a yellowish wobbly trunk and is often a bush overgrown to a mid-sized tree.



Gunja (Lannea coromandelica)

Also known by common name of jhingangummi, it is a large 5-10 meter high deciduous tree with some specimens as tall as 20 meters in more humid conditions. It has a smooth ash-colored bark, thereby giving it the name of Indian Ash Tree. It is native to the Indian subcontinent, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Southern China. Male and female trees are often found nearby. Leaves appear at the end of branches. Purplish flowers appear when the tree is leafless. Greenish oval shaped fruits appear in clusters. Its bark is used to treat skin disorders, stomach ache and tooth ache, its bark is used to dye fish-nets. Its fruits are used to treat bone fracture. The tree is used for edible uses as well as a hedge tree.



Kath Gular (Ficus hispida)

Known also as the Hairy Fig tree, devil fig tree, opposite-leaved fig tree and rough-leaved fig tree, it is called gobla/kagsha/kala umbar/katgularia/phalgu in Hindi, dhed umbad in Marathi/Gujarati and kakodumbarika in Sanskrit. Its leaves are oppositely arranged on 1-4 cm long stalks, are thickly papery covered with coarse hairs, with toothed and pointed shape. Figs are covered in short hairs. The berries are emetic that is, they induce vomiting, and hence may be fatal if consumed in quantity.

kath goolar


Desert Cassia (Senna polyphylla)

It is a shrub or a small tree native to the Caribbean from Puerto Rico to The Virgin Islands. Due to its small weeping form, it is widely used as an ornamental tree to line boulevards in tropical cities. It is drought-resistant and grows to 2-3 meters high. Its five-petaled golden yellow flowers are two to three inches long cascading off its branches and blossom on and off the year in spring and fall. It is popular as a bonsai tree and also with butterfly enthusiasts.

desert casia2desert cassia1


Kankera (Maytelus senegalesis)

Known for its red spike-thorns, it is a small deciduous crooked bush or tree with an oval canopy and branches of solitary long spines. It is native to a very wide area covering Somalia to Senegal, South Africa, Madagascar, India and Afghanistan Tiny white scented flowers appear in bunches and its berry is dark red in color. It is termed as a magical plant in Africa and have been widely used traditionally in folk medicine for the treatment of a number of diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, tumors, virility, eye infections, nausea, yellow fever, toothache, malaria, snakebites, severe headache, and also as an aphrodisiac.



Pinj (Firminia colorata)

Commonly known as Scarlet Sterculia, with its name derived from Latin word for dung, stercus, because of its foul-smelling flowers and leaves. But its orange-red downward-hanging flowers give it a name of bonfire tree. The large 30-mm long tubular flowers are covered with fine downy hairs giving it a soft velvety feel. It is found in the forests of the Western Ghats and the Deccan and also in Southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam. In India, it is known as Kaushi in Marathi, Samarri pissi in Bengali, Malam herutti in Tamil.



Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica)

Native to China, it is known by its delicate little apricotish orange fruit – and is also known as Japanese Plum or Japanese medlar, Nespolo in Italy and Nispero in Spain where it is grown mainly as a fruit tree in the Mediterranean. Its fruit tastes slightly acidic and flavors similar to a combination of apricot, lemon, plum and cherry. The leaves are elliptically oblong:  younger leaves are downy and used in floral arrangements while the mature leaves become leathery. It bears clusters of small delicate flowers with a sweet fragrance.  It is an unusual fruit tree in the sense that its flowers in early winter and its fruits ripe in early spring.




Gamhar (Gmelina arborea)

It is also known by other English names such as Cashmere tree, Candahar tree and White teak. It is a fast-growing moderate to large sized deciduous tree with a wide spreading canopy. It is used as an avenue tree and its range covers East Asia, China, India, Myanmar and Far East. Its ovoid fruit is 18-25 mm long, has an aromatic and succulent flesh and has a bitter-sweet taste. Because of being a light-demanding species, it is a pioneer plant used in agro-forestry. Its wood is used in light construction, to make canoes and musical instruments and to carve images.

ok Gamhar1




Bilsena (Naringi crenulate)

A spinous small tree with straight spines of 0.5 to 1 inch long, with two-three pairs of leaflets dotted with white oil glands and the terminal leaflet largest with a toothed margin. The leaves look like pieces of jewelery and used as a ornamental plant because of its beautiful, feathery green foliage. It has a wide range from West Pakistan to Myanmar, SW China to Southern Cambodia. It is said to be sub-deciduous at the time of flowering. It produces a hard, close-grained, light-yellow wood and its leaves, fruits and roots are used in traditional medicine.






Shaving Brush Tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum)

A very beautiful tree when in blooms, it is native to Southern Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where the flowers are used to decorate homes and churches. It grows to 20-40 feet in height, and sometimes to even 60 feet, but also adapted by bonsai enthusiasts as potted plants of 3 feet high. Flowers bloom in spring, silky and are either red or white.  It is a deciduous tree and blooms when it has no leaves. Its buds open up at night with an audible pop. Apart from its ornamental uses, a highly intoxicating drink is also made from the tree in Central America.

Shaving Brushshaving 3shaving b 2



Badminton Ball Tree (Parkia biglandulosa)

Also called the African Locust Tree and Gong-Stick tree and locally as Chendul ka jhar, the tall tree is a native to West Africa that is sometimes confused with Jacaranda, but for its tennis ball shaped fluffy flower heads that appear in winter. White flowers prominently stand out on the flower head at the tip of long thick stalks. Leaves have numerous leaflets. It belongs to the Mimosaceae (Touch-me-not) family.

badminton ball


Indian Tulip (Thespesia populnea)

Its other names are Portia, Pacific Rosewood, Scarlet Bell, Fountain Tree and Seaside Mahoe. It is a large tree of height of 40 feet or more with heart shaped leaves and cup shaped white flowers. Its bark is used in traditional medicine as diuretic, stimulant and also as an aphrodisiac. It also yield a strong fiber used to make boats, fishing nets and cordage. The wood is highly valued for use in quality works such as light construction, flooring molds, musical instruments and utensils. Young leaves and unripe fruits and flowers are eaten as raw, fried or cooked or added to soup. It is also used as a coastal windbreak.

indian tulip


Kanju (Holoptelea integrifolia)

Known by other exotic names such as Indian Elm and Chilbil, it is large deciduous tree growing up to 22 meters. Its range spread from India to Vietnam through Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Its bark and leaves are used to treat diabetes, leprosy, intestines disorders, rheumatic pains, boils, etc. It is used for making carts, carving statues, making match boxes etc.



Mysore Fig (Ficus mysorensis)

Native to Mysore, it belongs to the family of Moraceae or Mulberry and is a strangler fig with a large canopy. Its figs measure about 1.5 to 2 inches, edible and good to make jelly with. The fig starts out green, then change to yellow, orange, red, purple and finally black. The fruits appear in clusters of three or five at the end of its limbs. Its leaves are wide and leathery and measure about 6 inches wide and 10 inches long. Interesting feature of the tree is most of its roots grow above ground, but due to its heavy and dense characters, it can weather strong storms.

mysore fig


Satin Leaf Tree (Chrysophyllum oliviforme)

It is commonly known as Damson Plum, wild star-apple, saffron-tree etc and is a native to Florida, the Bahamas and Belize. Often used as a street landscape tree due to its aesthetic look specially when wind rustles through its leaves. It is a medium tree with a narrow crown in shade but spreads more in the sun. It has light reddish-brown bark and characterized by its stiff leaves of 2-6 inches long that are dark green above and rusty bronze-satin below. The tree is bit tricky to cultivate and may take a couple of attempts and may become permanently damaged by lack of watering. The fruit looks like olives in size, edible and its color changes from green to dark-purple when ripe. Its wood is hardy and difficult to carve, so mostly used in situations where a strong beam is used like fences.

satin leaf


Siala (Markhamia lutea)

Also called as the Nile Tulip tree, it is native to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Its biological name Markhamia is named after Clements Markham (1830-1916), who was an English geographer and secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. The beautiful tree with a narrow canopy, with its lush foliage with very large leaves, yellow trumpet flowers with red lines near its throat and decorative fruits, is used as an ornamental tree. The tree has slender, crooked branches and its fruits are typically one feet long bean-like capsules hanging down from the tree. In Africa, its leaves are eaten by elephants. It is also used for tobacco curing, i.e to reduce chlorophyll content and to change its color.




Siris (Albizia lebbeck)

It is also known as Indian walnut, shack shack, rattlepod and Woman’s Tongue, the names derived from its pods with seeds inside. The generic name Albizia is named after the Italian naturalist Albizzi. Lebbeck is the rattling noise of its seeds in the pod.

The tree is venerated in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The north Indian town of Sirsa in Haryana is believed to be named after abundance of Siris trees since antiquity. As per the Sthalapurana, Goddess Durga worshiped Shiva under this tree to be able to defeat Mahisasura. Hence the tree is associated with victory. Soldiers in olden times used to wear garlands of this tree as a blessing of Goddess Durga. Its flowers are prohibited to be offered to Durga’s son Lord Ganesh because the tree is venerated to mother cannot be offered to the son. As per another legend, when demons attached the Gods, Lord Indra selected a Siris tree as a hiding place for the divinity. It is the Bodhi Tree under which a follower of Shakyamuni named as Krakuchchanda got enlightenment. The Jaina Tirthankara called as Suparsvanatha got enlightenment under a Siris tree. Per a legend, a giant Siris tree in the submerged city of Poompuhur in the ancient civilization of Kumari Kandam (in present day Tamil Nadu) was infested with fairies and demons.  (Nanditha Krishna & M. Amirthalingam, 2019)

Parakeets usually nibbling these pods and scatter the seeds. it is a beautiful deciduous shading tree up to 15 meters in height with grey flaky bark.  Its sawdust causes sneezing attacks. It has many uses in traditional Indian medicine to such as an antiseptic, anti-allergic, asthma, inflammation, and even to treat abdominal tumors and ophthalmic disorders among others. Its wood is used for construction and furniture. Its bark is used as a fish poison. Its leaf is also used to treat night-blindness. Its leaves and flowers are used as antidotes to snake bites and scorpion stings.

It has nitrogen rich leaves that are used as green manure. It makes an excellent charcoal, it is a highly valued honey tree as it produces both nectar and pollen and its bark is used in India to dye fishing nets. It is found in a wide range of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.



Ashoka (Saraca indica)

Its name saraca may be from a tree genus named Sarac, and indica refers to its Indian origin. There is a confusion of Ashoka with Sita Ashoka. During the second half of the twentieth century, says Prof Sarma, Polyalthia longifolia began to be planted widely as an avenue tree and people created the neologism of Sita Ashok.

The most sacred and legendary trees of India, its name (A-shoka) means ‘without sorrow’. It is said that one who lives under an Ashoka tree will never be sad. It is also called kalpa-vriksha, or the wish fulfilling tree.

The tree is venerated in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology.

In Ramayana, Sita spent her captivity in the Ashoka Vatika and Hanuman is said to have met her under an Ashoka tree. A grove of Ashoka trees in Sri Lanka is identified as Sita’s hiding place till date. The tree is associated with chastity, perhaps because Sita could sustain herself even being a prisoner in Ravana’s garden of Ashoka trees. Three types of blooming Ashoka trees in Lanka are described in the Ramayana – the ones with scarlet red flowers being the most common (looking like burning coals), few with blue flowers (like the steady blue oil lamps offered to the god), and golden yellow. Lord Rama had also a garden of Ashoka trees, which was very dear to Sita.

In Mahabharata, Damayanti is described to search for Nala in a forest of flowering Askoka trees and she addresses the tree as, “Oh, this graceful tree in the heart of the forest, decked in flowers, looks beautiful like a charming king of hills. Oh, beauteous Ashoka, speedily free me from grief. Have you seen king Nala, the slayer of foes and the beloved husband of Damayanti?”

Queen Mayadevi is also said to have given birth to Shakyamuni Buddha in the gardens of Lumbini under an Ashoka tree. Some early sculptures depict Mayadevi holding to a branch of Ashoka tree during delivery. In Jainism, Lord Mahavira is said to have attained enlightenment under an Ashoka tree in Vaishali.

Kalidasa describes a dance performance in Malavikagnimita where the dancer Malavika kicks an Ashoka tree under which she was to dance, saying now that she has touched the tree with her feet, the tree will soon be blessed with flowers. And if did not flower even then, then the tree would be too mean to hurt her maiden pride.

Per the Matsya Purana, once Parvati planted an Ashoka tree and the gods on asking its benefit, she replied, “a pond is equal in merit to ten wells, a son to ten ponds and an Ashoka tree is equal in merit to ten sons.” Another legend says once Parvati asked Lord Shiva on the merits of Ashoka and on being told it could grant wishes, she asked for a baby girl. Immediately a daughter appeared whom Parvati named as Ashoka-Sundari.

The festival of Ashoka Shasthi is celebrated in eastern part of the country on the eighth day in the month of Chaitra, where it is believed that the woman who eats eight buds of Ashoka flower would be relieved of her sorrows. (Nanditha Krishna & M. Amirthalingam, 2019)

Since the tree is associated with various Hindu Gods in texts such as Bhavisya Purana, Ramayana, Raghuvamsa, Kumar Sambhava, we often find stylized representations of the tree in Hindu temples. It is also said that Kamadeva, the God of Love and Desire had in his bow flowers of five trees: Ashoka, Mango, Nava Mallika (Ixora perviflora), Pink Lotus (Nilumbo mucifera) and Blue Lotus (Nymphaea stellate), and hence is considered as a fertility flower.

The tree is slowly disappearing. It is native to India, Malaysia and Myanmar. It is a small evergreen tree with a smooth grey-brown bark, prized for its startlingly beautiful fragrant flowers. Its bright orange-yellow flowers bloom in heavy lush bunches against deep green leaves. Its leaves are dropping and pointed. It has many medicinal properties such as for women’s fertility and to treat gynecological disorders and womb disorders. It is also used to treat diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

sita ashok1sita ashok2



Wild Almond (Sterculia foetida)

Other names of this tree are Jungli Badam, Java Olive and its botanical name Sterculia comes from the Roman God of Manure, Sterquilinus, because of its bad smell. Due to its extraordinary height of about 36 meters, it is considered one of the giant trees of India. It is native to East Africa and North Australia. Oil of wild almond is comparable to sunflower, soya and rapeseed oils. The gum from its trunk and branches is used for book binding.

wild almond


Hope you liked this photo-essay. Would look forward to read your comments and feedback.




Sacred Plants of India, by Nanditha Krishna and M. Amirthalingam, 2019.

Cities and Canopies, by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, 2019, Gurgaon

Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, by Pradip Krishen, 2006, New Delhi

The nativity Tree of Prince Siddhartha, by Basanta Bidari


Life Expectancy Erosion due to pollution:

Kamakura Trail:

Manger Bani Forest:

Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest:



  1. Introduction
  2. Entrances
  3. The Mihrabs
    1. The Central Mihrab
    2. The Second Mihrab (on the left of the central mihrab)
    1. The Fourth Mihrab (on the right of the central mihrab)
    1. The First Mihrab (on extreme left)
    1. The Fifth Mihrab (on extreme right)
  4. Conclusion

1.0   Introduction

The name Purana Qila refers to an ancient fort that locals in Indrapat village believed to be associated with the Mahabharata. Even the swelled-up ground of the place gives credence to the popular belief that an ancient city lay buried under it. To the critical mind, just across the Sher Mandal in the same complex lies the excavation site for Painted Grey Wares, giving one possible linkage to the fabled city of Indraprastha. Humayun repaired this old fort in 940 A.H. and called it Din Panah, a city named as the one dedicated to being the asylum of wise and intelligent people.  The common belief is that it was Humayun who built the walls, bastions, ramparts and the gates, while Sher Shah built the structures inside and inhabited the palace, calling it Sher-garh. His son, Salim Shah, further repaired or rebuilt its walls.

Abas Khan, author of Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi, writes that Sher Shah “built a Jama Masjid of stone, in the ornamenting of which much gold, lapis lazuli, and other precious articles were expended.” However, the monument has no historical inscriptions pertaining to a single emperor who commissioned it. While it could have been started by Sher Shah Suri, it was surely improved upon by later emperors. While the basic layout of a five-bay mosque template originated during the Lodis, the inlaid pietra dura motifs were innovations from Humayun’s time while the dazzling geometric patterns that we find here later became widespread in Akbar’s reign. This beautiful monument has no proper historical name and is simply called Sher Shah’s Mosque or the Qila-e-Kuhna (The Mosque at the Old Fort).

Tremlett is quoted by Carr Stephen as, “Nothing but a painting can do full justice to a result in which colour and workmanship alike contribute to the charm which the spectator cannot but feel.” Beglar writes, “The profusion of mouldings in the masjid inside and out, and the number of angles into which its flat walls are broken up give a variety of light and shade that is extremely pleasing, and the harmony of colour, obtained on the outside by the use of polished stone of the various colours noticed, and inside near the apses by colour, is unrivalled.” Henry Sharp calls it, “a high water-mark in the art of the period”. Sharp says the style of that period was an inevitable counter-reaction to the “deterrent puritanism” of Tughluq architecture, which in the first place was a reaction to “the unconventionally splendid efforts of the early conquerors with their utilisation of Hindu materials and craftsmanship.” Percival Spears says, “Its salient features are its excellent proportions, the harmonious blending of colours with the white stone, red sandstone and black and white marble, and the happy combination of Muslim and Hindu architectural detail; the Muslim pointed with the Hindu transom arch, the Hindu bell and bracket work with the Muslim dome and ornamentation, the Hindu lotus with the Arabic script. Delhi has few finer treasures than the best example of this style.”

The turrets at the back have two levels of semi-octagonal balconies with elaborately carved stone beams. The winding staircases inside these minarets, now closed to access, would take the visitor to the roof. On the roof there are traces of two missing domes, writes Carr Stephen. Only the central dome has escaped the ravages of time, with a Hindu temple-motif lotus-cresting pinnacle and surrounded with ornamental minarets.  On the back of the mosque wall, there are three square balconies with traces of enamelling on their domes.

The inscriptions of the monument are entirely with embossed Naskh letters, except at two places where Tughra and Kufic have been used. This mixed lettering is indeed a rare thing. Kufic had lost its popularity after the Slave Dynasty, and is rarely used. For example, Kufic letterings can only be found in the tombs of Altamsh and of Sultan Garhi, the Qutb Mosque, the Muhammadiwali Masjid, the tomb of Imam Zamin, Nili Masjid, and here at the Sher Shah’s Qila-e-Kuhna Mosque, compared to more than 850 Naksh inscriptions on Delhi’s various monuments. In fact, Naskh contributes almost all inscriptions on Delhi’s monuments, while merely a handful are other types of lettering . The most recent Nastaliq, which became popular only after Humayun ascended to the throne, can only be found at the Red Fort at the Diwan-e-Khas and the Musamman Burj, apart from two or three other Mughal monuments like the Chote Bateshawalla Mahal & Gumbad, Chausanth Khamba and Mandiwali Masjid. Therefore Qila-e-Kuhna is unique in the sense that two lines of inscription here are in Kufic and Tughra apart from Naksh.

After a recent revisit of the Old Fort with Ramit Mitra and Riya Sarkar of Delhi By Foot, I endeavoured to unravel its features. It is an attempt to co-relate available texts with close inspection, for which I relied on the 1930 ASI Memoir by Maulvi Muhammad Ashraf Husain, A Record of All Quranic and Non-Historical Epigraphs on the Protected Monuments in the Delhi Province.

It has the unusual feature of a Hindu temple-inspired jharokha (cantilevered enclosed opening) on the qibla wall, which is normally closed by design. Surely, this was a time of architectural experimentations: marble inlay, coloured tiled work, temple-inspired Hindu motifs, kalash and cypress-bodied pillars, mixed stone including buff and red sandstone along with granite and marble, and geometric patterns all find a place in this unique edifice.

The mosque has a unique design of having functional turrets attached to its rear. The design elements are heavily influenced by temple motifs.

(Interior of the prayer hall)

2.0 Entrances

There are five arched entrances to the five-bay prayer hall from the customary east with the central arch fronting the domed bay. The two on extreme ends are primarily of buff sandstone; the second and the fourth are adorned mostly with red sandstone. In the central archway, there is a dramatic throw of stars in a scattering of geometric patterns, with a canvas of marble and granite used profusely along with red sandstone.  A life-like garland of hanging lotus buds lines the red sandstone arches. Slender cypress-bodied pillars spring up from kalash motifs on the second and the fourth entrances. The entire length of crenellations (kanguras) are decorated with calligraphy disks written with the word ‘Allah’.

The central entrance as well as the both of those flanking it on either side are decorated with Quranic verses along their rectangular borders.

(Above are the merged close-ups of the calligraphy on the second, third and fourth entrances.  The second entrance is decorated with Chapter 67 (The Kingdom), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-20; the central one with Chapter 48 (The Victory), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-14; while the third entrance is calligraphed with Chapter 73 (The Wrapped Up), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-20.)

(Central Arched Entrance)

On the arched red sandstone recess, one can find circular medallions inscribed with the First Muslim Creed and two smaller disks carrying the word ‘Allah’ on spandrels, as in below image.

(Second or the left of the central Entrance)

(Fourth or the Right of the Central Entrance)


There are five mihrabs on the wall. The first (on the left most to the south) is similar to the one on the extreme right to the north. The second and the fourth are similarly similar. Below are a series of images of them, starting from the left to the right. The first and the last are smaller in height and their arches are of red sandstone. Marble rectangular borders are decorated with Quranic verses in all five of the mihrabs.

(Merged Image: Mihrabs from Left/South to Right/North)

The inscriptions on the first mihrab’s rectangular border is Chapter 59 (The Banishment), Sec. 3, Verses 21-4. The second mihrab’s border is decorated with Chapter 71 (Noah), Sec. 1, Verses 1-20. The third or the central mihrab is with Chapter 36 (Yasin), Sec. 1, verses 1-12. The fourth is with Chapter 62 (The Congregation), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-9. The fifth or the one on the extreme right is written from Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec.1, verses 1-6.

(Arches of the five Mihrabs from left to right)

Next inside the rectangular borders are the decorative arches: marble in the centre three and red sandstone on the extreme sides. Although the first and fifth are similar, the second and the fourth have major differences as far as symmetry is concerned. There is no hanging garland of lotus buds in the second as there is with the fourth, while there are no inscriptions on the marble arch on the fourth with respect to the second. The inside of the second arch is also not painted in stripes as was done on the fourth.

The arch of the first mihrab is inscribed with Chapter 105 (The Elephant), Verses 1-5; the arch of the second one with Chapter 18 (The Cave), Sec. 12, verses 107-10; the arch of the central one is with Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 40, Verse 284; the one on the fourth mihrab is uninscribed, and the last one on the right is with Chapter 107 (The Alms), Verses 1-7.

(Marble plates of the five mihrabs, from L to R)

The marble plates of the five mihrabs are bordered on three sides with a rectangular band of Quranic texts in calligraphy. On the top there is a rectangular box, below which is a line of calligraphy. Below that is another recessed rectangle, shown separately below, decorated with two disks flanking a decorative arch.

(Inner recesses of the five mihrabs, from L to R)

The rectangular border of the first mihrab is inscribed with Chapter 109 (The Unbelievers), Verses 1-6; the next one on the second mihrab with Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 34, verses 255 – “The Throne Verse”; the one on the central mihrab is written with Chapter 1 (The Opening), Verses 1-7; that of the fourth mihrab is with Chapter 113 (The Dawn), verses 1-5 & Chapter 114 (The Men), Verses 1-6; the last one on the right is with Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec.3, Verses 25-6.

The Throne Verse needs to be commented on in a bit more detail. This verse is the most widely-used verse in Delhi’s monuments and appears in at least thirty-five places.

The Throne Verse is as below:

Above the two circular disks on the marble plate of the mihrab, there are two lines of inscription: the top one inside a box and the second one below it. On the first mihrab, the boxed one reads, “There is no God but Allah, Abraham is the Friend of Allah”, while the second one is the First Muslim Creed.

The second and the fourth mihrabs have interesting features at this place. The boxed calligraphy consists of three sub-sections, containing inscriptions of Naksh, Tughra and Kufic characters, while the line below is a Persian couplet.

The words in Naksh are “Praise be to Allah”, the one in Kufic is The First Muslim Creed (“There is no God but Allah, Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah”), and the Tughra characters read “Kingdom is for Allah.”

The Persian Couplet on the second mihrab is:

“O God, show mercy since we are polluted; with the blood of heart our liver is washed. Make manifest guidance properly for in our own work we have little wisdom.”

In the case of the fourth mihrab, the couplet is:

“So long as this world is populated, may this place be populated, may the people of the world in it be happy and cheerful.”

(The Second Mihrab’s multi-character calligraphy, followed by a couplet in Persian)

(The fourth mihrab has a line of inscription in Naksh, Tughra and Kufic characters; while a Persian couplet is below the box)


(The Central Mihrab, whose outer rectangular arch contains the calligraphic inscriptions of Chapter 36 – Yasin, Sec. 1, verses 1-12)

(Marble Arch of the Central Mihrab, inscribed with Chapter 2 -The Cow, Sec. 40, Verse 284)

(The pillars are adorned with octagonal bosses of calligraphic disks containing the words “Allah is enough for me.”)

(The recessed mihrab is flanked by decorated walls on its left and right, on which appear calligraphic representations of “Allah is enough for me” and “Praise be to Allah”.)

(Marble Plate of the Central Mihrab)

(On top of the two disks on the central mihrab is the line of the First Muslim Creed)


(The Second Mihrab; its outer rectangular arch is inscribed with Chapter 71 -Noah, Sec. 1, Verses 1-20)

In the second mihrab, there is an inscription on the arch lining the lotus bud garland, and another one on the semi-circular concave arrangement. The marble arch has the verses from Chapter 18 (The Cave), while the semi-circular arch has a portion of verses from Chapter 9 (The Immunity).

(Further below are another pair of arches with a semi-circular band of inscriptions. They have Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec. 2, verses 17-8 and Chapter 6 (The Cattle), Sec. 1, verses 1-2.)

(The marble plate of the mihrab is lined with the Throne Verse along its rectangular border. The Throne Verse, or Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec. 34, verses 255, is the most widely-used verse in monuments.

The inner rectangle is bordered with Chapter 112 (The Unity), verses 1-4.

(Octagonal Disks containing calligraphic inscriptions)


The fourth mihrab: its rectangular border has inscriptions of Chapter 62 (The Congregation), Secs. 1-2, Verses 1-9.

The inner marble plate’s border has inscriptions from Chapter 113 (The Dawn), verses 1-5 and Chapter 114 (The Men), Verses 1-6.

The inner rectangle on the plate in inscribed with Chapter 112 (The Unity), Verses 1-4 on the left, top, and right sides. The line on top of the arch and the two disks of flowers is The First Muslim Creed. The line at the bottom, below the disk containing the word ‘Allah’, reads “The King, the Holy”.


The First Mihrab’s marble outer border is from Chapter 59 (The Banishment), Sec. 3, Verses 21-4.

The red sandstone arch is inscribed with Chapter 105 (The Elephant), Verses 1-5.

The marble plate has the border inscribed with Chapter 109 (The Unbelievers), Verses 1-6. The rectangular box has the words, “There is no God but Allah, Abraham is the Friend of Allah” and the line below is the First Muslim Creed.


The marble inscriptions round the outer rectangular border are from Chapter 2 (The Cow), Sec.1, verses 1-6.

The red sandstone arch is from Chapter 107 (The Alms), Verses 1-7.

The marble plate’s border is inscribed with Chapter 3 (The Family of Amran), Sec. 3, Verses 25-6.

The arch has a portion of Verse 21 from Chapter 12 (Joseph), Sec. 3. The verse portion is as below:

4. Conclusion

It is indeed an interesting study to inspect and interpret inscriptions on monuments. The last study, which I have referred to here, was done in 1930 and almost ninety years have passed since then. Moreover, with advancement in photography a detailed audit needs to be taken up. Inscriptions on non-linear surfaces such as on domes and pillars (Ashokan Pillar at Firoze Shah Kotla) may pose some problem in photographing letter by letter so as to present them along with their English transliterations but can still be done. The inscription categories can be either Quranic, non-Quranic religious, historical or literary like Persian couplets. The study will surely give us many unexpected and unexplored insights into the religious and non-religious spaces in different eras. ~


When Prof. S. R. Sarma, an eminent authority on Indian astronomical instruments, requested me some months ago for photos of the sundial in the Jama Masjid, little did I imagine that I would be in for an exciting journey of discovery.  Soon I found myself embarked on a sundial hunting spree: from Delhi to Hyderabad, then to Mysore, to Pulicat in the far south and to Jaipur and Western U.P. Every new sundial that I came across was designed differently and required fresh understanding to decode its curves and inscriptions. Like learning a new language, slowly I began to appreciate this fine science of antiquity, helped much through my correspondence with Prof. Sarma over last many months and from his recently updated unique catalogue on Indian instruments, called ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Astronomical Instruments.’

For conducting this study, while I could take detailed photographs from Delhi, namely at Jama Masjid and Fatehpuri Masjid,  I had to seek support of friends for sites in other cities. My sincere thanks to my colleagues and friends, who had to take out precious time to visit remote places. Here is the list of friends who did the actual exploration and took photos. While photographs from Hyderabad, Pulicat, Mysore/Srirangapatna were taken by Subbarao K, Premnath M.S., and Ejaz Ahmed respectively; those from Ghazipur and Nauli were taken by Dr. Nadeem Adhami and Gurdeep Singh respectively. Photographs of the sundial from Khanqah of Maulana Ziauddin Ziai at Jaipur were shared by Syed Ziauddin Ziai, and that from Khanqah Emadia at Patna was shared by Prof. S. R. Sarma.

It was an exhilarating journey, but also a sad one because many of the sundials are deteriorating through sheer neglect. Though originally designed to tell prayer times in mosques, with the availability today of more accurate watches, these antique sundials do not serve any practical purpose. However, these are valuable historical documents and deserve proper preservation.

Before describing the various sundials, a few words are in order to explain the mandatory prayers in Islam and their relation to the sundials.

For Muslims, the day commences at sunset and lasts until the next sunset. The five mandatory prayers in such a day are: Maghrib, or sunset; Isha, or nightfall; Fajr, or daybreak; Zuhr, or Midday; asr, or afternoon.

The times of these prayers, in particular those of the two daytime prayers, zuhr and ‘asr are astronomically defined and can be indicated by a sundial. Zuhr is said to begin when the shadow of the gnomon begins to lengthen after reaching the minimum at noon.  The time to offer ‘asr prayer starts when the shadow’s length (s) equals the sum of noon-time shadow length (n) and the gnomon’s height (g); it lasts until the shadow length becomes equal to the noon-time shadow length plus twice the gnomon’s height. These two time limits are called ‘asr-i-awwal and ‘asr-i-sani. Simply put,

The first limit (‘asr-i-awwal) occurs when s = n + g

And the second (‘asr-i-sani) occurs when s = n + 2g.

DSC_0653(Clocks showing Islamic Prayer Times at Sunheri Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Delhi)

For indicating both these time-limits, the sundial is engraved with two special curves. Due to variation in the sun’s declination every day at every latitude, the times of commencement and conclusion of ‘asr vary from day to day.

To facilitate the preparation of the sundial, Muslim astronomers prepared detailed tables marking the times for each of the 365 days of the year and for every degree of latitude of the inhabited world. With the help of these tables, the two ‘asr curves could easily be drawn on the sundials.

Furthermore, Muslims are required to offer prayers while facing the Kaaba in Mecca; and the mihrab in mosques are aligned towards Mecca.  The angle of this sacred direction is called Qibla. Again, Muslim astronomers compiled detailed tables of spherical trigonometry for calculating the Qibla from every place in the inhabited world.

Scholars are of the opinion that these two religious requirements caused the development of mathematical astronomy in the Islamic world. One of important features of Islamic astronomy are the exhaustive tables mentioned above, which are called zij. There are said to be hundreds of zijes extant, which include tables for spherical astronomy and trigonometry functions, star tables and many others. In India also, Sawai Jai Singh of Amber wrote his famous Zij-i Muhammad Shahi in the eighteenth century.


1.0 Jama Masjid, Delhi

Let us begin the journey with the magnificent Jama Masjid built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. As one enters the mosque through the eastern gate, which was originally meant exclusively for the emperor and the high nobility, one is overwhelmed so much by the sight of the great domes beyond the vast front court that one does not notice the small features like sundials.  I had to ask many people until I could locate the sundials in the south-east corner, close to the outer boundary of the front court.

a1(Jama Masjid, Delhi.)


1.1   Sundials in SE

In the south-east corner of the front court, there are two pedestals: a round one with a missing top and a rectangular pedestal with a sundial occupying half of it: the other half is empty. The sundial is engraved on a 46 x 46 cm marble slab. The marble slab is 2 cm thick and sits on a 70-cm high pedestal. Its inscriptions are heavily damaged. On the lower half is engraved a semi-circular dial to show time from 6 am through 6 pm. Diameter of the dial is 33.5 cm. The dial is marked with hour marks from 8 am to 12 noon on the left and from 1 pm to 5 pm on its right in Roman numerals. But the gnomon is missing; it would have been in the shape of a right-angled triangle, the angle between the base and hypotenuse being equal to the latitude of Delhi; then the hypotenuse would point to the celestial north pole.

A basic horizontal sundial consists of two parts: the gnomon which is a vertical wedge that casts a shadow and the dial plate where the hour markings are inscribed. The gnomon is raised at an angle equal to the latitude of the place, so it is location specific and a sundial designed for one city is useless for another city on a different latitude. The point where the north axis cuts the circumference of the dial plate is marked 12 p.m. Points on its left are marked for morning hours till sunrise, i.e. 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6. Similarly afternoon hours till sunset are marked on its right, i.e. 1, 2, 3,4 ,5, 6.

In the Jama Masjid dial, four lines from the centre to hour markings of 12 noon to 4 pm are extended upwards to enclose a rectangle with 18 concentric quarter circles. The quarter circles are to measure the lengths of the gnomon’s shadow. They are numbered from 7 to 23. These quarter circles are super-imposed by two curves which indicate the starting time and the ending time of afternoon prayer time ‘asr’.



(Elevation and plan of the sundial pedestal at Jama Masjid, Delhi. All measurements are in cm)

For Delhi, start of the ‘asr (‘asr-i-avval) is calculated to range from 14:51 pm to 15:32 pm. End of the ‘asr (‘asr-i-sani) corresponds to a range from 16:22 pm to 16:50 pm for Delhi’s altitude.

At the bottom of the dial is written ‘Sun Dial’ in English and ‘Dhoop Ghari’ in Urdu. The inscriptions state that the sundial was made by Hafiz Anwar Ali Siddiqi of Rohtak under the supervision of Sayyid Ahmed, the Imam of the congregational mosque at Ajmer. The top line on the dial reads ‘asr ghadi Dihli ard balad 28 darjah 39 daqiqah’ (Asr Clock for the city of Delhi at the latitude of 28 degrees and 39 minutes).

Unfortunately, the companion slab to the sundial is missing. Similarly, the top of a circular pillar nearby is also long lost. Now it is impossible to know when they were removed and by whom.


delhi1(The Delhi Jama Masjid Sundial and its missing companion)


1.2 World-map in NE of the Jama Masjid, Delhi

Prof. Sarma also mentioned a world-map engraved on a stone slab. This one is situated on the other side of the eastern gate, i.e., in the north-eastern corner. It is engraved on a marble slab (55 x 58 cm) which is set up on a 112-cm high pedestal.  Due to its tall height, it is not so easy to take a clear image of the map. I had to ask someone to lift me up so that I could take few shots with my shaking hands.

The world map is inscribed inside a circle in an old style called ‘Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection’ as against the modern maps which are based on ‘Mercator Projection’. Moreover, longitudes are arranged in such a manner that India is nearly at the centre of the map. There is a large hole at the centre.

The long inscription below the map reads: “The figure of the earth and the southern and northern climates [with respect to] the equator with the lines of longitude and latitude of the cities …. in the reign of Muhammad Akbar Shah Badshah Ghazi, [in the] year 1247 Hijri (1831-32), by order of the prince Muhammad Salim Bahadur Shah, Qazi Shuja al-Din Ali-Khan Ghazi… built and left as a memorial (yaadgaar).”


(The world map at the N-E courtyard of Jama Masjid, Delhi.)

Prince Muhammad Salim Bahadur Shah, also known as Mirza Salim, is a younger brother of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. He must have commissioned Qazi Shuja al-Din Ali-Khan Ghazi to prepare the world-map. The Qazi must have copied this India-centric map from an English atlas, because here Australia is labelled as ‘naw wilz janub’ literally meaning ‘New South Wales’, the name of the first British colony in Australia. The outline of peninsular India is also not well formed. Other regions that are labelled on the map include qutb shamal (North Pole), frans (France), fars (Persia), bahr qutb (polar sea or Antarctic Ocean), qutb janub (South Pole), and so on.

The date inscribed on the sundial is not clearly decipherable. While it looks as 1345 Hizri in the first look, it needs a closer inspection. The second digit seems as if it is ‘3’, that is a vertical stroke to which two half circles are joined. But if it is enlarged, the second half circle can be seen not as sharply defined as the first one. Rather it is just the expansion of the corrosion as shown in below pencil sketch. The third digit can be either 2 or 4, since the difference is not clearly visible. Therefore, the year is either 1225/1810-11 or 1245/1829-30, making it a contemporary of the world map (1831-32).

expanded number


(Analysis of the digits inscribed on the sundial, courtesy Prof S R Sarma)

It can thereby be safely said that it must have been set up at the instance of Prince Mirza Salim. The Prince is also said to have made several important additions in the mosque such as the sandstone pulpit near the main entrance of mosque in 1829.  It is therefore possible that he also commissioned the sundial (1819-20) and the world map (1831-32). It can be conjectured that the two missing slabs — one on a nearby circular pedestal, and another on the companion slab of the rectangular sundial — had two more astronomical instruments simultaneously set up by Mirza Salim.

a2(The circular pedestal could possibly have had some other astronomical instrument mounted on it)

What was engraved on the missing slab on the circular pedestal and on the one next to the sundial on the rectangular pedestal? Who commissioned them and when were they removed?  More important, what was the purpose of setting up a world-map inside a mosque?  One would rather expect a Mecca-centric map which shows the direction and the distance of Qibla in a mosque, but not an India-centric atlas.  The world-map was said to have been erected as a memorial or yaadgaar.  Which significant event of 1831-32 could have called for such a memorial? Who was the Qazi who prepared this world-map? What was held in the large hole at the centre of the map?  Did it have a vertical gnomon and was it designed as some kind of a shadow-instrument?


1.3 Old Accounts of Delhi

We looked for answers to these and other queries in the old accounts of Delhi. But the sundial and the world-map are hardly mentioned anywhere. Indeed, it seems that these two artefacts had not yet been consciously analysed till Prof. S.R. Sarma’s work earlier this year.

Gordon Hearn in his Seven Cities of Delhi (1928) remarks in passing: “On a pillar in the court is engraved an old map of the world.” Carr Stephen in his The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi (1876) mentions that “In the year 1829, Mirza Salim, son of Akbar II, put up a sand-stone pulpit under the central entrance of the mosque, the congregation being at time too large to take part in the prayers offered by the Imam inside the mosque” and “In the north-eastern corner of the court of the mosque is a plain sphere cut upon marble, giving a map of the world according to the common projection of the sphere.” Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, in his Urdu book Asar ul-Sanadid (1847) briefly mentions the sundial. A short translation by Fatima Quraishi published in the Journal of Art Historiography of 2012 has the lone sentence, “In the southern and eastern courtyard are clocks to indicate prayer times.” The mention of ‘clocks’ in plural indeed gives credence to our earlier conjecture that the two missing slabs might have had additional sundials on them.

The Jama Masjid was built by Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656. The existing sundial was set up in 1819-20.  Was there no earlier sundial in this mosque or elsewhere?


2. Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad

The oldest extant sundial is in the Mecca Masjid at Hyderabad. As one approaches the Char Minar from the Musi river, the mosque is just behind the Char Minar. It is situated at 17.36° N, 78.47° E and one of the largest mosques in India.

Prof. Sarma and his mentor Prof. David King saw and photographed the sundial in 1991.  In Prof. Sarma’s photographs, the inscription on the sundial is not clearly visible; he requested for better photographs. I, in my turn, asked my Hyderabad-based colleague Subbarao, K., who promptly sent me several photographs. Therefore, our virtual journey went thither.

Muhammad Qali Qutb Shah commenced the construction of this mosque in 1616, but it was completed by the fifth ruler of Qutb Shahi dynasty, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, in 1694 under the orders of Aurangzeb. The mosque is so named because its central arch was constructed with the soil brought from Mecca. On its grandeur, Tavernier, the French traveller writes,

“It is about 50 years since they began to build a splendid pagoda in the town which will be the grandest in all India when it is completed. The size of the stone is the subject of special accomplishment, and that of a niche, which is its place for prayer, is an entire rock of such enormous size that they spent five years in quarrying it, and 500 to 600 men were employed continually on its work.”

It is here that we find the oldest sundial in India which is still extant in a mosque. The dial is a circular plate of 63.5-cm diameter mounted on a 122-cm pillar. At its centre is a hole that held the gnomon, now missing. The dial surface has undergone such erosion that few sentences can no longer be deciphered easily. Behind this unique sundial, the ornate domes of Nizamia Tibbia college can be seen in the distance.

Hyderabad1(The sundial and its pedestal at Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad. Photo courtesy: Subbarao K.)

The Hyderabad dial is a simplified version of dials using hyperbolic curves such as the world-renowned one at Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

In this image, the vertical line represents the N-S line or the meridian while the horizontal line represents the W-E line. The lower hyperbola represents the summer solstice, the upper one denotes the winter solstice and the straight W-E line represent the equinoxes. The hour lines are marked on either side of meridian as a series of 10 straight lines, but they denote ‘ghati’ of 24 minutes each instead of 60-minute hours. So, the 10 lines cover a time span of 240 minutes or 4 hours on either side of the meridian, i.e. from 8 am to 12 noon on the left and from 12 noon to 4 pm on the right.

That this sundial is calibrated in the traditional Indian units of ghatis should not surprise us. When Muslim sultans established themselves in India, they adopted the local units of time such as the ghati and pahar for everyday common usage, reserving the 60-minute hours for astronomical purposes.  Babur talks about this local units of time measurement. The Ain-i-Akbari has a description of a water clock with which ghatis were measured. Jahangir too records time in ghatis in his memoires. After the advent of the British, both Muslims and Hindus started using hours progressively.

On the right, we can see broad sweeps of two large arcs, showing the times of beginning and end of ‘asr.  They are super-imposed on a grid of 20 concentric quarter circles to measure shadow length of the gnomon.


(Mecca Masjid dial with two distinctive hyperbolas representing the two solstices. Photo courtesy: Subbarao K.)

A single straight line shoots off from the centre of the dial towards west, showing the direction of Qibla. In fact, out of all sundials still extant in Indian mosques, only the Hyderabad sundial is the unique in the sense it has a Qibla line. Calculating on the basis of longitudinal and latitude differences between Hyderabad and Mecca, the qibla line is drawn at 77.27 degrees with respect to the N-S line, or at about 23 degrees off the West. It is often considered that direction to Mecca in India is always towards West, but exact mathematical calculations based on longitude and latitude offsets of the location with respect to that of Mecca give the accurate angle of the qibla.

The simplest and therefore an approximate method for determining the Qibla postulated by al-Battani was a graphical one. On a circle laid on a horizontal plane, draw two diameters along N-S and E-W directions that intersect at the centre O. Calculate the longitude difference between the current location and Mecca (say L), and draw a parallel line to N-S with the circle cut with the angle L. Similarly find the latitude difference between the location and that of Mecca (say M). Draw a line parallel to E-W at an angular distance of M. Let the intersect point of these two lines be called Q. Then OQ is the qibla.




(An approximate method to find the qibla was shown by al-Battani as given in David A. King’s ‘Astronomy and Islamic society: Qibla, gnomonics and timekeeping’)

An inscription towards the North says ‘nisf al-nahar’ (mid-day). Towards the South, two lines of inscriptions read as:

‘By the order of His Majesty…Abu al-Muzaffar Muhy al-Din Muhammad Alamgir Badshah. Made by …Mir Qasim for the latitude of the city of Hyderabad in the blessed regnal year 36…’

While Hyderabad can boast to have the oldest sundial existing in India, to find one of later varieties, we need to travel to the eastern part of the country, to the city of Patna.


3. Khanqah Emadia, Patna

On his visit to Patna in October 1991, Prof. Sarma was shown a sundial on the roof of Khanqah Emadia, a sufi seminary and place of worship. He writes, “In Patna, there is a Sufi seminary named Khanqah Emadia. Sometimes in the second half of the twentieth century, the head of the Khanqah, Shah Faridul Haque Emadi, designed an elegant sundial and had it set up on the roof of the mosque. The dial was engraved with hour lines and two long curves to indicate the times of the midday prayer zuhr and the afternoon prayer ‘asr. I saw it and photographed it in 1991. In the course of repairs, subsequently, the sundial was removed and discarded in a store room; I understand that the dial plate is still intact, but the gnomon is lost.” The dial was engraved on an octagonal metal plate with each side measuring 152 mm. An elegant brass gnomon rose from it at an angle equal to the latitude of the city of Patna, that is 26°.

 q1_1(The only image of Emadia Khanqah sundial at Patna, now lost/unknown. Picture courtesy: Prof. S.R. Sarma)

A small vertical pin having pointed tip, with unknown intended use, stood from the surface of the hypotenuse. The hour lines were marked from 5 am to 7 pm in common Arabic/Persian numerals. The curves for zuhr and ‘asr were drawn so ingeniously that they themselves appeared as the words zuhr and ‘asr respectively.

The north point was labelled as Allah. On the east point was written al-mashriq and on the north point, al-maghrib. On the left half of the dial was engraved the 38th verse of the 36th chapter of the Qur’an: “And the Sun runs his course for a period determined for him: that is the decree of (Him), the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing.”

My attempts to locate it and take fresh photographs through my colleague was unsuccessful. He visited the Khanqah and met the caretakers there, but none could tell for certainty where exactly we could find whatever remained of the unique dial. Therefore, Prof. Sarma’s photo is the only document to show the sundial in full.

After getting to know of these three sundials of different periods in different parts of India, my interest was further aroused. I began to search for more sundials and could locate the following specimens.


4. Chinna Pallivassal Mosque at Pulicat

Pulicat (13.42° N   80.32°E) is a sea-side town that straddles across the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu at around 70-kms north of Chennai. It is famous for India’s second largest brackish water lake or lagoon after the Chilka Lake. It also boasts of a rich cultural history, beginning with the Chola Dynasty. In the 14th century, it came under the Vijayanagar empire and in the 16th century, the Portuguese made it a base followed by the Dutch in the 18th and the British in the 19th century. All along, it has been influenced by the steady presence of a sizeable Muslim population.

The Chinna Pallivasal Mosque in this town was set up in 1708 A.D. and one of the most interesting features of this small mosque is a sundial which is still in excellent condition. When I found out this, I requested my colleague Premnath M.S. if he could visit Pulicat to fetch me details of the sundial. One Sunday morning, Premnath rode his bike all the way from Chennai and I had an excellent set of clear images of the sundial.

The sundial has clear inscriptions which say that it was set up in 1334 Hijri, or 1914 A. D. at the instance of Haji Mohammad Hussain Sahib of Muthialpet, Chennai. It is mentioned that it was made by Muhammad Abdullah Ahkar and verified by Haji Mehmood Sahib.

Pulicat4(The Pulicat Sundial showing two ‘asr’ prayer lines on top right. Photo courtesy: Premnath M.S.)

The dial plate measures 25 x 20-cm, upon which a triangular gnomon is affixed. The left side on the scale starts from 6 am marked on the horizontal line and shows the morning hours of 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10 am and 11 am. The triangular gnomon marks the 12 noon and thereafter the semi-circular dial is marked with afternoon hours of 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm, 5 pm and 6 pm. The hours between 7 am to 7 pm are further divided in 15 minute intervals. The gnomon has a finite width (as opposed to a thin sheet of blade), and in designing it, a double-line has been used, called a substyle. After drawing the substyle with the gnomon’s width, the semi-circular sundial’s design must have been cut out and pasted on both sides of it to complete the plan. The horizontal co-ordinates in such a dial is always 6 am and 6 pm.

Two broad curves above the right-hand side of the semi-circular dial shows the beginning and end times for mid-afternoon prayer ‘asr. The first line is labelled as ‘asr awwal shafi meaning the first time-limit of the ‘asr according to the Shafi school of jurisprudence. The second curve is marked as ‘asr sani hanifi, meaning the second time-limit of the ‘asr according to the Hanifi school of jurisprudence.

Like the ‘asr curves of Hyderabad and Srirangapatna which we will see in following section, the Pulicat ‘asr prayer curves are two broad wings joined at a sharp angle midway. The shadow of the gnomon for the first ‘asr curve follows the rule s = n + g, calculated from winter solstice to summer solstice. The sharp point denotes the equinox where the shadow length is zero at midday.

The dial stands out for its simple lines and clarity of engravings, thanks to the good maintenance.


5-6. Srirangapatna, Juma Masjid & Gumbad,

Around 130 kilometres from Bangalore and 15 kilometres from Mysore lies the town of Srirangapatna, erstwhile capital of Mysore under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. And here in this historical town, we discovered the next two gems in our search for sundials in Indian mosques. Ejaz Ahmed, my colleague from Bangalore readily agreed to explore the town on a weekend, and together with his friend, managed to travel there and sent me detailed pictures and measurements of these two sundials.

Mysore1(Tipu Sultan’s sundial with concentric circles atop the Jamia Masjid, Srirangapatna, Mysore. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed.)

JM3et(Faint traces of two ‘asr’ curves on the Mysore Jamia Masjid sundial. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed)

Mysore2(The second sundial of Tipu Sultan near the Gumbad in Srirangapatna based on same design of concentric circles. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed)

The first sundial is situated on the terrace of the Jumma Masjid that was built by Tipu Sultan in 1782 and originally called Masjid-e-Ala. The dial is circular in shape with a diameter of 53.34 cm set up on top of a 2-metre tall pillar.

The dial is engraved with 19 concentric circles that are criss-crossed by four diameter lines. Its design is unlike anything we have encountered so far. There are quarter circles in Delhi and Hyderabad dials, but Tipu’s dial has the circles drawn in full. Out of the four diameters, two must have indicated the cardinal directions. The centre has a hole where the gnomon was hosted. A thick line radiates from the centre.

Two parallel broad sweeps of arcs are very faintly visible on top left of the image, similar to the ‘asr curves elsewhere. Concentric circles were used to measure the length of the shadow. Inscriptions in small boxes along the circumference are placed at the end of the straight lines. There seem to be some other inscriptions, unfortunately, none of these can be deciphered as the dial surface is severely eroded. It is sad that these important historical artefacts set up by Tipu Sultan are in such a critical condition.

The second sundial is near the Gumbad, the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his parents Hyder Ali and Fakr-Un-Nisa. The dial here is engraved on a rectangular slab of black stone measuring 63.5 x 48.3 cm set up on a 94-cm high rectangular pillar. The design of the sundial is exactly similar to at the mosque.  The condition is equally bad to elicit any meaningful conclusions from its inscriptions.

The rest of the sundials which we discovered were meant only to show the regular time of the day, but they did not have any ‘asr curves.  These dials are described in the order in which they became known to us.


7. Moti Masjid, Agra

For unfathomable reasons, visitors are not allowed in the Moti Masjid in the Agra Red Fort as well as in the Moti Masjid of Delhi Red Fort. The Delhi Moti Masjid was constructed by Aurangzeb while the Agra Moti Masjid was by Shah Jahan. Out of these two contemporary mosques, only the Agra Masjid has a sundial in its courtyard while there is no such dial in the Delhi Red Fort mosque. It therefore raises the question if the dial was originally installed in the mosque courtyard at Agra Fort or was later relocated there.

Capt. J. T. Boileau, of the Bengal Engineers, was the first to describe the sundial at Agra. His report was published in The Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, volume 2, edited by none other than its famed secretary James Prinsep in 1833.

Boileau writes, “Among the curiosities of this once great emporium of learning and art, which have attracted the attention of strangers, is a dial-plate of white marble, with lines inlaid on its surface of a black slate…The style, which appears to have been an upright round pin, is gone, and the inlaying has been pulled out; but the configuration of the lines is still perfect, being marked by the channels wherein the inlaying fitted.”

He says that there were no hour lines except the meridian marking of XII and the ends of the dial marked with VI am and VI pm, which is obvious as the dial’s use was for regulating prayer times only.

He then makes two interesting observations:

  • The dial surface is inclined to the south by 3/8th of an inch, making him wonder if the sundial was originally installed elsewhere and the inclination could be the result of bad workmanship while re-installing at the present location. Says he, “…which leads me to believe, that it has been removed from the place where it was originally fixed; for the inclination is too small to affect the projection of the shadow of the gnomon in any sensible degree, and I believe, therefore, that it stood originally in a perfectly horizontal position.”
  • He noticed an inexplicable wide arc and absence of prayer lines, “…but the object of the circular arc, which subtends an angle of about 95 degrees, has never been explained, although many celebrated Moulavis have visited the Masjid and examined the dial as it stands.”

We then scoured old accounts to get other perspectives of this elusive dial. In Alexander Cunningham’s ASI report 1871-72, his assistant A.C.L. Carlleyle describes the sundial as “an ancient sundial composed of a low octagonal marble pillar about 4 feet in height with no gnomon but simply two cross lines and an arc.” His description is repeated verbatim by John Murray in his 1911 book “A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon”. Photographer Samuel Bourne passingly remarks in his photograph titled ‘Interior of the Motee Musjid, Agra’ taken in 1865 and now with the British Library (Photo 11/54, item number 1154) that “The central courtyard contains a square marble tank and a sundial in the shape of an octagonal marble pillar”. In recent times, Salim Ansari in his paper “Moti Masjid: A Real Pearl in Agra Fort” in ‘Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 73 (2012)’ provides a black-and-white image which is not very clear.

In the unfortunate restriction of access to the dial and lack of information elsewhere, we need to return to Captain Boileau who is the only person in last almost 200 years to write on the artefact.

Until further examination is done, this sundial remains an enigma with the only account by Boileau suggesting that its lines could not be fully deciphered by many Muslim scholars of his time.


8. Khanqah of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Saheb, Jaipur

We encounter the next sundial in the Khanqah of the 18th century Sufi saint Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin at Jaipur. He was born at Delhi in 1730 but later migrated and settled at Jaipur and was popularly addressed as ‘Maulana Sahib’. He came when the city was ruled by Sawai Pratap Singh (r. 1778-1803), grandson of Sawai Jai Singh, particularly remembered as the builder of Hawa Mahal. The king was deeply impressed with the miraculous powers of Maulana Sahib and became a devotee of the Sufi saint. He also allowed the saint to construct many mosques in the city. The Sufi convent or Khanqah was Maulana Sahib’s spiritual abode where he initiated his followers in various Sufi Orders. He spent his life in spiritual quest in this Khanqah till his demise in 1816. By conjecture, we can say that the sundial present here was constructed during the reign of Pratap Singh, that is, between 1778 to1803.

The sundial is set up on the Khanqah’s terrace, which is not accessible to be public. We are grateful to Syed Ziauddin Ziai, the spiritual successor of the Saint and hereditary administrator of the dargah who has kindly informed us about the sundial and provided us with its photographs. I had first met him in 2015 during a Sufi Trail led by author Sadia Dehlvi organised by Times of India. Since then I was fortunate enough to keep in touch with him and received much help from him on researching for an earlier blog. When I casually mentioned him that sundials as my latest topic of interest, he readily provided the valuable information. I think, this is the first study of this sundial done so far.

The dial is mounted on a short pillar and a triangular gnomon stands atop the perfectly round disc of sundial. The gnomon’s angle with respect to the horizontal plate must be about 27 degrees, the altitude of the city of Jaipur. Interestingly, like the sundial at the Mecca Masjid at Hyderabad, this dial is also marked with the traditional Indian ghatis of 24 minutes and not in 60 minute hours.  But here there are 17 ghatis on either side of the gnomon. No prayer lines are drawn, in fact there are entirely no inscriptions on the dial. This sundial seems to be the oldest Islamic sundial at its original position with its gnomon intact.

Jaipur(The unusual sundial on the terrace of Maulana Saheb’s Khanqah at Jaipur showing measurements in traditional 24-minute ghati. Photo courtesy: Syed Ziauddin Ziai, Gaddi Nasheen of Maulana Saheb’s mosque and Khanqah)

The dhoop-ghadi at Delhi’s Jama Masjid has the hours marked in hours of 60 minutes.

The horizontal line perpendicular to the triangular gnomon is the horizon line from East to West, marking the sunrise and sunset respectively. Two more lines radiate below the horizontal line on both sides, indicating that the counting started two ghatis before sunrise and ended at two ghatis after sunset.

On careful observation of this dial, we find two faint crosses marked at two points on its rim, intended purpose of which is unknown. Counting from the horizontal line, the x-marks are at the 7th ghati from sunrise and sunset, i.e. 2 hrs 48 minutes after sunrise and 2 hrs 48 minutes before sunset.


9. Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur

Ghazipur in eastern UP, also known also as Ghauspur in historical accounts, boasts of several monuments, including the tomb of Governor-General Lord Cornwallis who died here in 1805, a forty-pillared hall or ‘Chihil Sutun’ built by the eighteenth century Mughal governor Abdullah Khan, an opium factory built by the British in 1820, and the Aastana Masjid and Khanqah of the Sufi saint Hazrat Syed Shah Junaid.

IMG_5625(Dhoop ghadi on the terrace of Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur, overlooking the Ganges. Photo courtesy: Dr. Nadeem Adhami)

Syed Shah Junaid (1520 – 1581) was the son of an influential noble man of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi of Delhi and enjoyed a lavish childhood. Afterwards he denounced the worldly luxuries and chose to follow the spiritual path and went abroad to Baghdad. There he got the status of ‘khilafat’ or spiritual successor from Saiyid Abdul Qadir Al-Jilani, who had established the Qadriya Order of Sufism in Iraq. He came back to India and established the Khanqah and mosque at Miyanpur in Ghazipur (25°34’36″N   83°34’55″E). His tomb or dargah is at the same place. It is here that we discovered our next sundial.

IMG_5627(The well-maintained Dhoop ghadi on the terrace of Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur, overlooking the Ganges. Photo courtesy: Dr. Nadeem Adhami)

When I learnt of this dial, I was looking for friends who could visit the mosque and help me with its photographs and details. I am grateful to Dr. Nadeem Adhami, Director of Shah Faiz Public School at Ghazipur whom I contacted after getting his details on internet. He quickly provided me with a fine set of images. My colleague Gurdeep Singh could arrange detailed measurements of the dial. These were enough to study the dial.

The octagonal sundial is mounted on a short pillar on the terrace overlooking the river Ganga. The thick slab of the pillar top makes the dial plate. The East-West line marks the sunrise and sunset while hour lines are highlighted in white. The gnomon and the dial surface are brightly painted in red and green. There are no inscriptions or labels and hours are not further subdivided.

The 76.5 cm high pillar is shaped like a flower vase, at the top of which is the dial plate of 5.5 cm width, each side measuring 25 cm. The E-W horizon line measures almost the same as the N-S polar axis, both about 55 cm. The green coloured gnomon measures 23 cm as its base and 11 cm as its height, thus giving an angle as Tan(x) = 11/23 = 0.478, or x = arctan (0.478) = 25°55′ which is the altitude for Ghazipur.

Boats can be seen anchored on the mighty Ganges below. A bench is thoughtfully provided for the observer to sit.


10. Nauli Sharif, Nauli

About 25 kilometres from the city of Ghazipur lies Nauli (25°29’33″N   83°42’48″E) where we find our next sundial at the Mazar of Ayyube Ali Shah, popularly known as Nauli Sharif. It is an interesting dial. My thanks once again to my colleague Gurdeep Singh, who could arrange its images and measurements.

The dial plate measures 75-cm along the horizon line that forms the base of the semi-circular dial and 65-cm in width. Its triangular gnomon is freshly painted in red with few drops of colour dripped on the dial plate. The hypotenuse of the gnomon measures 20-cm and it has a vertical projection of 9-cm. The dial has hour lines from 6 am to 6 pm while the hours from 7 am to 5 pm are marked in 15 minute divisions. The hour marks on both sides of the noon mark are prominently labelled, signifying its main use for regulating prayer times.

A line of inscription at the bottom has faded and can no longer be deciphered. Probably an attempt can be made to decode it by putting a paper on the surface, and rubbing it with fine charcoal or pencil.

 2(Nauli Sharif sundial, Ghazipur. Photo courtesy: Gurdeep Singh)

5(Undecipherable inscriptions on Nauli Sharif sundial, Ghazipur.)

1(The dhoop-ghadi in front of the Nauli Sharif, Ghazipur. Photo courtesy: Gurdeep Singh)



11-12. Fatehpuri Masjid, Delhi

After exploring the span of the entire country, we decided to have another look at the various monuments in Delhi itself. Despite our best efforts, we found no sundials: neither in the Lodi Gardens, Safdarjung Tomb, Firoz Shah Kotla, nor in the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, Humayun’s Tomb, the Chilla or Khanqah of Nizamuddin Auliya. We scoured the lanes of Old Delhi, exploring old mosques such as Mubarak Begum Masjid as well as both the Sunheri Masjids – one on Chandni Chowk and another near the Delhi Gate of Red Fort, all without success. But to our utter surprise, we found two interesting items in the Fatehpuri Masjid.  Starting from the Jama Masjid of Delhi, we returned to the Fatehpuri Masjid, making a full circle like the hands on the dial of a clock.

DSC_0661(A vertical sundial mounted on the electric pole and a horizontal sundial kept below, at Fatehpuri Masjid, Delhi.)

The history of Fatehpuri Masjid is the history of Shahjahanabad itself. It was built in 1650 by one of Shah Jahan’s wives Fatehpuri Begum, so named because she hailed from Fatehpur Sikri. Standing at the end of Chandni Chowk, it stares back at the majestic Red Fort on the opposite side of the moonlit street of yesteryears, symbolising the status and power of royal women in the Mughal societal hierarchy. After 1857, the British sold off the mosque to a private merchant Lala Chunamal under whose custody it remained for 17 years. And, in the courtyard of this famed mosque we found two very remarkable dhoop ghadis.

At the centre of the courtyard is the ablution tank or hauzi, in the unusual shape of a circle in the middle and two long strips on each side, akin to a wrist-watch with a band. Around this clean tank where fishes swim unhindered, many small octagonal marble seats lie scattered for the devotees to sit and wash themselves before offering their prayers. Among these marble ‘stools’, on the side facing the mosque, lies an ancient sundial tossed in a similar manner.

It is a circular sundial made of marble, with a diameter of 30 cm. It is embedded in a circular sandstone slab with a diameter of 60 cm and a thickness of 13 cm. A line marking the true north is inscribed on the stone itself and extends onto the marble sundial, along the marks of the now-missing gnomon. There are no inscriptions, nor the hours are marked. The dial is from 6 am to 6 pm with the hours divided with two concentric bands. The inner-most band divides the hours into 15 minute intervals, whereas the outer band slices it further in 5 minute divisions. The gnomon must have had an appreciable thickness, for a small band is reserved in the centre of the two concentric rings.

a13(Horizontal sundial at Fetehpuri Masjid.)

The second sundial can easily be equally overlooked. Bolted to an electric pole, it is a south-facing vertical sundial. Its rectangular black dial plate is a sheet of 35 x 35 cm hung at a height of 240 cm from the ground to its lower side. It has a triangular gnomon at 28 cm from the bottom of the plate, around which the hour lines radiate down to cut a semi-circular ring that marks sunrise (6 am) to sunset (6 pm). In fact, this is the first instance that we have encountered a vertical sundial in a mosque.

A vertical sundial has two distinct features:

-Morning hours (6,7,8,9,10,11) are plotted on right and afternoon hours (1,2,3,4,5,6) on the left of the noon-mark (opposite to a horizontal dial)

-Hour lines in a vertical dial are calculated using the same formulae but using the co-latitude. Since Delhi’s latitude is 28.7 degrees, calculation of a vertical sundial should be made for (90-28.7) or 61.3 degrees.

An Urdu inscription at the top of the dial reads as follows, essentially meaning that since Delhi’s time lags behind the standard time, a correction must be added to the sundial’s readings whose values can be referred from the table below.

d2(The only vertical Islamic sundial found in India so far – at Fatehpuri Masjid.)

‘Delhi me dhoop ghadi ka waqt standard times se peeche rahta hai. Iski tafseel naqsha zel me mula khat karein ke angrezi ki kisi mah ki kisi tarikh me kitne minute peeche hota hai. Naqsha me hali qalam se minute ka hindsa hai, aur khafi qalam se satar se upar mahine ka, aur neecha tarikh ka. DHOOP GHADI MASJID FATEHPURI. DEHLI.’

According to the Shahi Imam Dr. Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed, both these sundials were the labours of love of his late grand-father Mufti Muhammad Mazharallah (d.1966) whose scientific, religious and spiritual knowledge was unparalleled. He was a courageous man who refused to leave the mosque during the disturbances in the aftermath of partition. Authorities such as the Nawab of Hyderabad Mir Usman Ali Khan (d.1384/1967) and government officials both in the pre-partition British Government and post-partition Indian government extended invitations to felicitate him, but he never showed much interest in official engagements.

a4 - Copy(Table on the sundial showing time offsets to be added to the dial reading to get the IST.)

excel1(The decoded table, yellow highlighted numbers denote minutes to be added to the sundial’s reading to get the IST, Reds denote months, and Greens denote Dates. For example, the first entry means 33 minutes need to be added on Jan 24 and March 4. Transliteration of Urdu numerals by courtesy of Basharat Khan)

On the scientific front, he always pondered over the relativeness of local time and the standard time and devised various calculations to regulate prayer times. He made a universal table that shows the eight prayer times irrespective of the year. It is framed and hung near the mihrab. He seemed to have designed the vertical dial after drafting the table. Regarding the circular dial, the Shahi Imam fondly remembers that it was originally installed on top of a small pillar at the centre of a small tank or ‘hauzi’ that no longer exists. He said that there was a third sundial designed by his grandfather which no longer survives. The grave of Mufti Muhammad Mazharallah is located inside the courtyard of Fatehpuri Masjid.


A Brief History of Sundials

The oldest sundial extant today is believed to be an artefact in the Berlin Museum that dates to 1500 B.C. It is believed that the sundial was introduced in Greece by astronomer Anaximander around 600 B.C. Roman dramatist Plautus who died about 184 B.C. lamented that a wretch had chopped his days into pieces by installing a sundial in the market place. Probably at that time, loud announcements were made at each hour boundary. Plautus says,

“The gods confound the man who first found out

How to distinguish hours – confound him, too,

Who in this place set up a sun-dial,

To rub and hack my days so wretchedly

Into small pieces! When I was a boy,

My belly was my sun-dial – one more sure,

Truer, and more exact than any of them.

The Dial told me when ‘twas proper time

To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;

But, now-a-days, why even when I have,

I can’t fall to, unless the sun gives leave.

The town’s so full of these confounded dials,

The greatest part of its inhabitants,

Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the street.”


The scientific knowledge was passed on from Greeks to Romans and then to Muslims. Muslims came into contact with the Greco-Romans in 7th century A.D. and transformed the entire science of gnomonics to suit their religious requirements. It was a happy coincidence of religion and science. The Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ‘ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz of Damascus was known to have used a sundial around 700 A.D. and in the 8th century we know of al-Fazari and Ya’qub ibn Tariq who worked on the science of shadows, though they did not write any books or treatises. From the 9th century, we come across a steady flow of Muslim astronomers who wrote books and almanacs, calculated tables for regulating prayer times using complex computational and graphical methods. It was then that the use of sundial was first used to predict prayer times.

Al-Khwarizmi of 9th century Baghdad is credited with the first known astronomical tables to construct horizontal sundials. Baghdad was the centre of such innovations till the 10th century, producing at least seven known early Islamic astronomers. Then it was followed by Cairo, Yemen, Damascus and Istanbul in subsequent centuries. Ibn al-Shatir from 14th century Damascus is believed to be the father of ‘polar horizontal sundial’ where the gnomon is oriented to North. His iconic huge sundial complex on a 2 x 1-m plate in Damascus made in 1371/2 A.D. is the most well-known sundial, which was broken during restoration and was replaced with an exact replica in 1876 A.D. by al-Tantawi. His design of ‘polar horizontal sundial’ then spread eastward to India and westward to Europe. In Europe, it became a popular garden decoration, and in India it was absorbed in Sanskrit astronomy and was called the ‘palabha-yantra’.

These scholars devised formulae that could be used to predict prayer times, calculate the time since sunrise, the hour-angles, hour-angles at the afternoon prayer time ‘asr and so on. Tables were published so that sundials could be constructed anywhere in any mosque just by referring these tables, without the need for complex calculations. Tables were provided for every type of requirement in a mosque, such as, when the muezzin should call for prayer, how much time the faithful still had till the muezzin would call, what time the lamps on minarets during Ramazan were to be extinguished, etc. Calculations were done for each degree of longitude for duration of daytime, duration of night time, start and end of the ‘asr and so on.

Before the 13th century, the muezzin in a mosque was given the responsibility of timekeeping apart from his usual duty of announcing the prayer times. Although he was chosen mainly for the quality of his voice and knowledge of religious rituals, he was also required to know the basics of ‘folk-astronomy’, the times of daytime prayers, shadow lengths at zuhr and ‘asr and so on. From the 13th century onwards, a new class of professional astronomers were attached to mosques for scientific regulation of time and were called ‘muwaqqit’.



Here is the list of sundials presented in the study, arranged as per their locations from north to south


This is a brief survey of this highly interesting topic. But it can hardly be termed as comprehensive, considering that there may be many more such sundials in the country – known as well as un-noticed. I would be grateful if you discover any other such sundials in Islamic places of worship and share the details so that the short survey initiated here can be further expanded.


1.4 Preservation

Being exposed to all kinds of weather in open air, these ‘dhoop-ghadis’ suffer extensive corrosion of stone inscriptions. Conservation initiatives such as putting glass cases above them, or retiring them to museums while re-constructing exact replicas on fresh marble or stone slabs with steel or brass fittings at their original positions will trigger public interest in this lost science.

It is important to locate and preserve these scientific artefacts before they are lost in obscurity.




  1. Ansari, 2012 | Salim Ansari, ‘Moti Masjid: A Real Pearl in Agra Fort’ published in ‘Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 73 (2012)’
  2. Berggren, 2001 | J.L. Berggren, ‘Sundials in Medieval Islamic Science and Civilization’ published in ‘The Compendium – Volume 8 Number 2, June 2001’
  3. Boileau, 1833 | Capt. J.T. Boileau, ‘Description of a Sun Dial in the Court of the Moti Masjid, in the Fort of Agra’ published in ‘The Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal – Vol. II’, Ed. James Prinsep, Calcutta, 1833
  4. Cunningham, 1874 | Alexander Cunningham, J.D. Beglar, A.C.L. Carlleyle, ‘ASI Report for the year 1871-72, Volume IV’, Calcutta
  5. Fanshawe, 1911 | H.C. Fanshawe, ‘Murray’s A Handbook to India, Burma and Ceylon’, London, 1911
  6. Gatty, 1872 | Mrs Alfred Gatty, ‘The Book of Sun-Dials’, Enlarged and Re-Edited by H.K.F. Eden and Eleanor Lloyd, 1900
  7. Gent | Robert van Gent, ‘Sundial’ published in Epact: Scientific Instruments of Medieval and Renaissance Europe
  8. King, 1996 | David A. King, ‘Astronomy and Islamic society: Qibla, gnomonics and timekeeping’ published in ‘Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science’, Vol 1, Ed. Roshdi Rasheed, 1996
  9. Mazharallah | Biodata of Mufti-i-Azam Shah Muhammad Mazharallah,
  10. Private, 2017 | Private Correspondence with Professor S.R. Sarma, who kindled my interest in the topic.
  11. Quraishi, 2012 | Fatima Quraishi, ‘Asar-ul-Sanadid: a nineteenth-century history of Delhi’
  12. Sarma, 1987 | Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma (Edited & Translated), ‘Yantraprakara of Sawai Jai Singh’, published in ‘Supplement to Studies in History of Medicines and Science, Vol X & XI -1986,1987
  13. Sarma, 2017 | Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Astronomical Instruments’ (
  14. Savoie, 2014 | Denis Savoie, ‘Sundials in Islam’, 2014
  15. Singh, 2015 | Khushwant Singh, ‘Delhi through the seasons’, 2015, Noida
  16. Stephen, 1876 | Carr Stephen, ‘The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi’, 1876, Ludhiana
  17. Waugh, 1973 | Albert E. Waugh, ‘Sundials: Their Theory and Construction’, 1973, New York
  18. Xavier, 2010 | Xavier Benedict, Anameka Architects and Designers, ‘Pulicat & Sadras: Confluence of History, Culture and Environment’, commissioned by the Embassy of The Netherlands in India,




Whispering Stones of Qutb Complex: Forgotten Calligraphy and Hidden Symbols

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Kallos’ meaning beauty, and ‘graphe’ meaning writing. The literal meaning of calligraphy as ‘beautiful writing’ is a bit shallow transliteration of the Arabic word ‘Khatt’ which is derived from three components – ‘line’, ‘design’ and ‘construction.’

Islamic calligraphy is strongly associated with the beautiful reproduction of chapters or verses from the Quran. It was and still is the main medium for artistic expression, since figurative art is prohibited on the suspicion of idolatry because the representation of human forms was considered a Christian iconography.

During the seventh century, when the Islamic community spread its wings to cover a vast area from Egypt and North Africa to Iran and beyond, two major Arabic scripts were developed. They were called Kufi and naskh. Kufi is believed to be linked to a small town in Southern Iraq called Kufa, while naskh was used as a copying script. Inscriptions on the coins, tombs, and monuments required Kufi script to become more square-ish and formal. Copying of sacred texts onto parchment, papyrus, and paper allowed ‘nashk’ to become more cursive. However, over the ages, both were simultaneously used on paper, coins, metal, and woodwork as well as on tombs and monuments. The first stone-inscribed Kufi scripts were found in Egypt. At the Qutb complex, you can see the simultaneous use of both scripts.

(north gate-vert

(Kufic inscriptions on the northern gateway. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The earliest copies of the Quran found to date back to the seventh century were written in a script that is considered a precursor to the Kufi Script. It had no vowels and its slanting lines were angled at 45 degrees to the right. There were only 17 letters without any vowels or dots, which were added later on after its discovery.


(10th century ceramic bowl with Kufic calligraphy, Brooklyn Museum, source: Wikipedia,_10th_century.jpg)

By the eleventh century, Kufi was not only well established, it also had three distinct varieties. They were the foliated Kufi, where leaves formed the decoration of the letters, floriated Kufi, which had letters ending with flower motifs, and plaited Kufi, which had geometric or mathematical calligraphic forms which were designed by weaving together individual characters.

Ibn Muqla is considered the innovator of the cursive naskh script. He died in 940 AD in prison and his right hand was cut off by his enemies before that. Even with the cruellest punishment that could have come down on a calligrapher, he taught and passed on his skills to a group of students. His masterly skill is praised by Abu Hayyan at-Tauhidi who believed, “Ibn Muqla is a prophet in the field of handwriting; it was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey cells hexagonal.”


(Well-defined calligraphic inscriptions at the entrance of Imam Zamin’s tomb. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

As many as six sub-categories of naskh were listed by Ibn Muqla: sulus, naskh, rayhan, muhaqqaq, tawqi, and riqa. The whole calligraphic study of naskh became very complicated due to the large amounts of varieties of design variations. For example, nothing could be more confusing than to name a sub-category of naskh as naskh. The word sulus meant ‘third’ perhaps because third of every letter was inclined. It was also the root script for the rest of the naskh’s sub-categories. The Sulus is also referred to as Thuluth, because in Arabic the first ‘S’ is pronounced as ‘th’, and orientalists tried to imitate the Arabic pronunciation. But Persian and Turkish speaking people pronounce the first letter as ‘S’ and so it is written as ‘Sulus’ as well.


(Southern face of Alai Darwaza. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

In the thirteenth century, as calligraphy spread from Iraq to Iran, it led to addition of two more scripts: ataliq and nastaliq. Ataliq means ‘teacher’ and had characters almost overlapping each other. Nastaliq was a very difficult script to read and was a hybrid made from the combination of ‘NAS’kh + a’TALIQ’.

Two centuries later, Turkish calligraphers introduced a new script called diwani. It was a font that was very pleasing to the eye and, as its name suggests, it looked like a majestic script. Turkey had another innovation in the field with the introduction of tughra, which was formed by arranging holy verses in the shape of animals. It was a creative technique used to disrupt the ban on drawing animal shapes. One example is an Arabic verse written in the shape of an elephant, complete with a howdah and a couple of people sitting inside the howdah. This tughra was written by Dara Shikoh and is part of the calligraphic collection of the Hamdard University Library, near Batra Hospital in Delhi.


                                               Architecture of Qutb Complex


By the time Delhi became the farthest outpost in the Islamic empire, the Saracenic art forms had already been developed in the Middle-East. With the Indian conquest by the Turks, a new template for architectural vocabulary was created by consciously incorporating both Hindu and Islamic elements, which is now known as Indo-Saracenic architecture.

In the Delhi Sultanate, spanning across the five dynasties of Slave, Khilji, Tughluq, Sayyid and Lodi, the monuments in the Qutb Complex were constructed and expanded only during the reigns of three sultans: Qutb ud-din Aibak, Iltutmish, and Allauddin Khilji from 1192 to 1316.

The Qutb Complex was built in three distinct phases. The first construction was done by Qutbudin Aibak from 1191 to 1200. The area was then enlarged by his successor, Iltutmish, until 1230. The last phase of expansion was by Allauddin Khilji during his reign from 1296 until 1315 AD.

These structures are the earliest Islamic architecture in India and offer an insight into the culture’s unique building style. Although there had been similar conquests by Arabic tribes in Sindh since 8th Century AD, there are hardly any monuments left behind to refer to and compare.

east gw2

east gw3-vert

(English transliteration of Arabic inscription panel on the inner lintel of eastern gateway by Zafar Hasan, published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

An inscription on the inner lintel of its eastern gateway reads, “The materials of 27 temples, on each of which 2,000,000 Deliwals had been spent, were used in (the construction of) this mosque.” In this construction overhaul, one must admire how the local craftsmen had skilfully assembled pieces of fallen temples to meet the new demand by stacking them to achieve a common height,  re-using corbelled domes of temples, smoothing or chiselling off sculptured figures or turning them inwards. No wonder that the naskh characters on Aibak’s great screens, inscribed by local Rajput craftsmen by copying the strange alien letters from their new masters, look less authentic than the similar inscriptions on Iltutmish’s great screen extensions. This was because, as soon as mass immigration of skilled workmen would have commenced from Persia, the motifs became more and more accurate. With the passage of time, as the Qutb Complex was extended, we see less of Hindu elements and more of the Saracenic influences. Newer architectural experimentations that involved designers picking and choosing fewer local elements while dropping or rejecting others.  Therefore, there is no better place than the Qutb Complex at Delhi to study how the first hesitant steps were attempted by the Turk masters, who were initially totally dependent upon local artisans to carve out their songs on stone, and how they developed a new style over the time.

The entire complex was built in three phases overlapping each other in the shape of nested rectangles, most of which are already gone and can only be conjectured. As we walk past the Mughal-era scalloped gateways at the entrance and turn left to enter the mosque, we must be aware that perhaps two more gateways would have stood in our way before we could reach the eastern entrance to the oldest mosque in Delhi.

Qutb image2-page-002

(‘Bird’s Eye-view of the Qutb’ by Gordon Sanderson, Plate XI, “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The monument is full of inscriptions which are partially gone and even those remaining are not fully legible. It was Syed Ahmed Khan, who helped with the translations; as a young man, he seated himself in a basket on a rope-swing and hung it from Qutb Minar’s balconies in order to record its inscriptions. He did this prior to 1847, when he published his book Asaaar-us-Sanaadeed’ or “Delhi’s Remains.”  Sir Syed, as he was called later, founded the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College that would become Aligarh Muslim University in 1921. The English translations of the inscriptions were published in 1922 by Zafar Hasan of ASI in his ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments- Vol 3’, and in J.A. Page’s 1926 ASI publication of ‘A Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi.’


                                                          Mosque Gateway


Today, the eastern gateway marks the entrance to the mosque enclosure, which was part of the innermost structure of the three nested rectangular layouts. The arched doorway gives the first example of such an amalgamation of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built into the heavy low lintels under the arched gateway, stands out a plaque with a line written in curiously sharp and angular Arabic fonts. Its striking characteristics are the long strokes, shooting out from the line of text below. This a typical Kufi script that is named after a place in Southern Iraq called Kufa where it originated.


(The arch entrance showing kufic inscriptions and decorated with a ‘kirtimukh’ and a row of hanging temple bells and flower garlands. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The Arabic inscriptions in the entire Qutb complex are either verses from Quran, eulogies written for the king, or records of historical events. The brief line in Arabic – whose few last words on the left have disappeared – must have been the only instruction from a Turk overlord to a group of local artisans to reproduce on stone and beautify the rest of the space around it as per their own creativity. The translation of the line reads:

“This mosque was built by Qutbu-d-din Aibak. May God have mercy on him who should pray for the faith of this good builder.”


(Ferocious-looking ‘kirti-mukh’, a talisman to ward off evil, decorated on Aibak’s columns in the mosque.)



The panels below it are equally interesting and highlight how the Hindu sculptors reverted back to their temple art practised over the ages to beautify the empty space around the line written in Kufi calligraphy. At the centre of the panel below the Arabic script, we see a fierce looking face. This is called a ‘Kirti Mukh’ and used in Hindu temples and even homes to ward off evil. In the panel below the Kirti Mukh, we see a row of flower garlands with temple bells hanging in between. Surprisingly, this Hindu motif must have looked adorable to the Turks, because this was one of the very few Hindu styles that was repeatedly used throughout later constructions, including the Qutb Minar and Alai Darwaza.



(Concentric circular stones, sometimes ring-segments, making up the interiors of these early domes.)

At the top of the doorway sits a curiously conical dome. From its inside, it can be seen as a series of concentric rings of progressively lesser diameter stacked on top of each other till the gap is closed. It is obvious that an attempt to build a dome was made without the skills to make a true arch or true dome that requires a keystone. There are several of these types of conical low domes created from temple spire design with corbelling architecture. ”The shallow corbelled domes (were) taken bodily from some wrecked Hindu shrine,” says J.A. Page in his ASI memoir in 1926. In fact, the absence of keystone in the pointed arches of the gigantic mihrab screens must have been the reason for their collapse, even if we discount man made destructions over nine hundred years.


                                                                 Arched Screens


The profusely decorated majestic screens that once stood as entrance to the prayer hall behind them shows a similar study of merging styles. Over the ages, Kufi script became more rounded and a new font called Nastaliq came into the picture, where taliq literally meant ‘falling’. The letters in this font look as if they are hanging or falling down. The Quranic verses on two sides of the screen panel are written in this font. The letters and sentences depicting Quranic verses to praise the God are superimposed on a bed of vines, lotus buds, and ten-petal blooming flowers. The naturalistic imagery of plants and flowers must have been chosen to invoke a sense of purity and devotion because sacred texts were historically associated with perfume, rose-water, saffron, and the likes.


(Calligraphy entwined with vines and creepers, from Aibak’s mihrab screen.)

Besides reproducing the beautiful calligraphy in Arabic, the sculptors were probably allowed to use their own creativity that was suitable for a religious structure. The panels in between the calligraphic bands represent a scroll-like pattern and is a common representation for Goddess Ganga. The wavelike pattern next to it similarly represent River Yamuna. Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted along with their mounts, or vahanas, in temples. The mount for Ganga is a hybrid animal called Makara with a body of a crocodile and the tail of a fish. The repeating serpentine pattern on the panel represents the tail of Makara. The waves on the next panel represent River Yamuna. Both Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted together at the left and right of temple doorways and are considered auspicious and good-luck charms. Together they define the boundary which the devotee must cross in order to enter the religious space. Both of the two rivers are considered very sacred and bathing in river Ganga is believed to wash away all the sins. So, in this medieval architecture, we see an attempt was being made to accommodate and merge different imagery for a syncretic idea of India.


(Goddess Ganga and Yamuna depicted on Aibak’s screens by scroll-like pattern of Ganga’s mount ‘makara’ on the left and wave-like pattern of Yamuna)

Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb could not have a better or more literal representation. As the word signifies, both rivers run parallel, maintaining their unique identities before merging together, and it is a synonym for secular co-existence and tolerance.

Continuing our study on the arched screens, they were expanded on either side by Aibak’s successor, Iltutmish. One of the features that was introduced for the first time in Indo-Saracenic architecture in the Iltutmish’s screens were the attached pillars on both sides of the arch. This decorative feature was then carried on through Iltutmish’s tomb, Alai Darwaza, and later throughout Pathan period and also into Mughal era architecture.


(Attached mutakha-columns at the recessed corners on both side of the arch is first introduced in India in Iltutmish’s screen extensions -1225 A.D.)

The curiously small s-shaped curves at the apex of the arches in Aibak’s screens are done away with in Iltutmish’s screens, but they re-appear in Iltutmish’s tomb. Constructional activities at the site came to a halt after the death of Iltutmish in 1236. Then, exactly sixty years later, from 1296 to 1315, Alauddin Khilji resumed construction for the last time at the complex with great frenzy.


 (Qutbuddin Aibak’s giant mihrab screens built in 1197 A.D. Note the slight s-shaped ‘ogee’ counter curve at its apex, and absence of a keystone.)

Poet Amir Khusrau describes Alauddin’s ambitious work at the Qutb Complex in his Tarikh-I Alai as below. He planned to completely dwarf all his predecessors’ constructions by building something so gigantic in proportion that the Qutb Minar would have become a miniature version of his planned new tower.

The Sultan determined upon adding to and completing the Masjid-I Jami of Shamsu-d din. “and upon the surface of the stones he engraved verses of the Kuran in such a manner as could not be done even on wax; ascending so high that you would think the Kuran was going up to heaven, and again descending, in another line, so low that you would think it was coming down from heaven.

He then resolved to make a pair to the lofty minar of the Jami masjid, which minar was then the single (celebrated) one of the time, and to raise it so high that it could not be exceeded. He first directed that the area of the square before the masjid should be increased, that there might be ample room for the followers of Islam.

He ordered the circumference of the new minar to be made double that of the old one, and to make it higher in the same proportion, and directed that a new casing and cupola should be added to the old one.”



Despite such explicit intentions and planning, the new casing and the cupola was never added to the ‘old minar’. The gigantic ninefold arches that must have really looked as if going to heaven and coming down, are all gone, except the stumps of masonry identifying its foundations. His signature tower lies unfinished at its first floor, but looks ambitious enough in its design. The only remaining edifice of the great sultan is the exquisitely beautiful southern gateway called ‘Alai Darwaza’.

Calligraphy on the bands of Qutb Minar highlights yet another phase of architectural progression. Tower construction commenced with Aibak, “the Commander of the Army… of the Sultan Muizzu-d-din Muhammad Ghori,” and Aibak completed the first level of the tower. Iltutmish built an additional two stories and began a fourth, and the remainder of the fourth and fifth stories were built by Firozshah Tughluq, the prolific builder king.


The main features of Qutb Minar are the calligraphic bands encircling its plain, fluted exterior in naskh characters and the unique stalactite decoration under its balconies. The stalactite feature was introduced for the first time in India on the Qutb Minar, but its origins are largely unknown. Contemporary designs exist in Cairo, Algiers, and elsewhere, but the origin and development of this Saracenic architectural form seems to have been perfected elsewhere a few decades earlier because the mature “honeycomb” designs could not have appeared at different places at the same time. One wonders whether the design could be from the city of Ghazni, where the prototype of the Qutb Minar is believed to have been first erected, however, any such possible links is beyond proof, as the city was totally destroyed in 1155 AD.

The tower’s decoration is almost entirely Saracenic in theme except the rows of flower garlands and hanging temple bells. Also, a row of flowers, each encased in small discs has two levels of eight petals, as if suggesting spokes in the chakra or rotating wheels of time. The bands of the majestic tower have mostly Quranic inscriptions and a few historic references to the builders who commissioned the tower. Although many of these stones have been rearranged without consideration to the correct order, it is quite easy to find the word ‘Allah’ written in bold Arabic letters in a few places.




(‘Allah’ written on the calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar)

In pictorial calligraphy, there is no right or wrong interpretation. It is said that just as humans grow, calligraphic letters also evolve – they are like living entities. No two strokes of the same character by a calligrapher are the same in meaning. Grids are often created by repeating a single letter to make abstract patterns that appeal differently to observers. So, whatever is interpreted, depends on how that person views the pattern. In those times, it was very contemporary to incorporate abstract designs on monuments, whereas now they are considered more traditional.

For example, when we want to represent the term ‘bujurg’ or ‘old man’, there are different things we think of.. To some, an image of a pair of spectacles may come to mind, whereas to others it may be a walking stick or even a banyan tree, which symbolizes a wise and grounded person.


                                                              Alai Darwaza


Even the pierced stone screen at the entrance of Alai Darwaza can be perceived differently. These types of jaali works made with repeated geometric patterns are very common in monuments. While the endless repetition is said to represent the Infinite, without beginning or end, signifying the God,   there are other interpretations as well. Here, the pattern is based on a six-pointed star surrounded by six hexagons. However, if the observer focuses not on the empty spaces but on the latticed frame, each of these holes can be interpreted as dots implemented in various forms. The tiny dot has profound significance in Islamic philosophy; a dot represents the Unity of Knowledge in an infinitely compact state.  Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet said, “Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.”


(Jaali perforations can be viewed as repeated manifestation of the ‘dot’ in various designs. After all, ‘Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.’)

Interpretation of calligraphic patterns takes on a new dimension in the beautiful Alai Darwaza built by Ala-ud-din Khilji. The structure was built almost a hundred years after Aibak-era constructions and, therefore, exhibits a mature level of Indo-Saracenic confluence. Rounded lotus buds and sinuous tendrils co-exist with beautiful arabesque decorations. Considered as the most beautiful structure of Delhi, its entrance is fronted by columns of flowery motifs.


 ( ‘Alif’ written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick seem to be beautifully integrated as these engraved marble flower petals.)


(Mere flower patterns? The central band can be viewed as a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’, while the right most panel has a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’, the two constituent letters of ‘Allah’.)

While its left most columnar panel is a design of stacked kalash motifs, the middle and right panel are more interesting. The design on the central panel may look like petals; however, from a different angle or interpretation, the pattern seems to come from a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’. The letters ‘Lam’ (=L) and ‘Alif’ (=A) are the constituents of the word Allah and are often repeated throughout Islamic architecture with endless style variations to invoke God. ‘Alif’ is written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ is written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick. In a Kufi inscriptions, these two letters ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’ are designed to be tall and determine the width of the calligraphic band as a whole. Knots, plaits, flowers and plants have been innovatively used to extend the abstract design based on these two letters. So, on the rightmost panel, we can see a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’. Here the actual letters are less important than the intricate geometric knot that weave them together.

It is said that the more obscure and incomprehensible the texts are, more devotional the calligraphy is. The text woven in complex mathematical patterns is considered amulets or magical lucky charms.


(A pattern of fishes, birds or circles of life. Notice how each unit is integrated to others by a knotted pattern.)

Another abstract pattern that is prominent on its eastern entrance is a beautiful art that can be interpreted in more than one way. While it may seem a never ending repetition of wheels of time rolling and moving for the eternity, others see the basic building block of the pattern as like four beautiful bird heads joined at the centre by their long beaks. It can also be interpreted as patterns of fishes – another metaphor for dynamics of life.

The texts on its southern entrance are inscribed with very sophisticated calligraphy. In calligraphy, it is said that every stroke of a character represents one lifetime. As the calligrapher dips his bamboo reed-pen in the ink and makes the lines and curves to create one single character, its width becomes more at the beginning when there is more ink and thinner as the ink reduces. It is akin to the statement “More ink – Less Clarity,” and “Less ink- More Clarity.” As one ages in life, his energies may come down, but maturity and understanding increase.


(A character depicted on stone with varying thickness as if written on a paper. Same is attempted with a reed pen on a paper. The style was chosen on stone as if to highlight ‘More ink – Less Clarity, and Less ink- More Clarity.’)

It is perhaps easier to understand this by copying a character on a piece of paper, but to represent the same on stone requires varying thickness at various points of a character. The same character could have been inscribed on stone with an equal width throughout, but the architects have chosen to represent a real-life scroll as if written by a reed-pen on paper or parchment.


                                                     Amalaka and Finial Motif


The arched doorways of the Alai Darwaza are fringed with lotus buds, but is not the only Khilji-era architectural innovation. Its red dome is another story in experimentation. The centre of the dome has a small gap which is covered by another dome – much smaller in size. This kind of a dome surmounting another dome has no parallel in Delhi at least.


(Amalaka-Finial motifs on top of Alai Darwaza built in 1310 AD) and Imam Zamin’s tomb built in 1539 AD. The finial on Alai Darwaza no longer exists.)

Once we step outside, we can see the top of the dome surmounted by a typical amalaka and the now-missing finial. This flat-disk motif in the shape of a cogged ring stone is known as an ‘amalaka’ after the ‘amla’ fruit (emblic myrobalan) or ‘Indian gooseberry’. The amla-fruit is considered sacred to all the three Gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. As per Skanda-purana, it is the first tree that grew in the universe. As per the text, Brahma resides at the bottom of the amla-tree, Vishnu at the middle, and Shiva at its top. It is also believed to be derived from the word ‘amla’ which means stainless or without impurity, thereby giving its synonym of ‘pure-stone’ or ‘Amala-Shila’. It is commonly used in Hindu temple shikhars such as Orissan temples and Khajuraho group of temples.

It is believed that the capping design of amalaka has two major interpretations. Since ancient texts relate temple parts with parts of the human body, the amalaka at the top is likened to the head. It is also believed to signify the passage from the material world and entrance into the world of Ether or Space. The compressed disk like stone design is also interpreted as the ‘amrita-kalasha’ or the vase containing the elixir of life. Above the amalaka, stands the finial or ‘stupika,’ containing a round body akin to a kalasha or pot. The kalasha here is interpreted as the Sun and the temple is the ‘the Mountain, where the Sun rests at midday.’ The same motif was not only used in the Alai Darwaza built in 1310, but also in the neighbouring tomb of Imam Zamin that was built during Humayun’s reign in 1539.


(The ‘bell’-capital along with amalaka-elements at the top of the Iron Pillar from 4th century A.D.)

In order to understand the finial on a dome, we must reflect upon the domes built from different eras – starting from the Slave dynasty up to the Mughals. Khlji architecture is showcased in the dome of Alai Darwaza commissioned by Alauddin Khilji, followed by the tomb of Ghiasuddin Tughluq from the Tughluq period, then by the Lodi tombs, and finally by the domes built by Mughals, such as the tomb of Imam Zamin. Throughout this 300 years, the Indian mason has been restless in perfecting the dome and has been experimenting on decorating the finial on all sorts of things. It is therefore the most appropriate situation to find the two tombs at the two ends of the historical spectrum, standing adjacent to each other- Alai Darwaza built in 1310 A.D. and the tomb of Imam Zamin built in 1539 A.D. After all these years of experimentation with the domes, the masons seem to have decided to borrow the kalash motif from the temple shikars as the final design element in the dome finial, which is seen in the Imam Zamin’s tomb.




On its western entrance, the pair of Kalash in typical dual tone colours of white and red signifies yet another accommodation of a Hindu motif. While few of the pillars in Aibak’s mosque had the ‘Purna-Kalash’ in entirety – the pillars being sourced from ransacked temples as building raw materials – its adoption in Alai Darwaza, which was built almost a hundred years later, is yet another example of how elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture were being experimented with an open mind. The pot decorated with overflowing leaves and even a coconut on top is called a ‘purna-Kalash’ and is a holy talisman symbolising prosperity that is still used in Hindu homes during ‘grih-pravesh’ (house warming), child naming, or daily worship. It is kept at the entrance as a sign of welcome.


(Purna-kalash motifs in Alai Darwaza.)

The ‘kalasha’ or the pot, also called ‘purna-kalasha,’ ‘purna-kumbha,’ ‘purna-ghata,’ or ‘mangala-ghata,’ is a Vedic symbol from the Rigveda, where it is described as the ‘overflowing full vase.’ It is believed to contain the ‘amrit’ or the elixir of life and is decorated with a coconut placed on its top with 5, 7, or 11 mango leaves hanging out of it, but touching the water inside. The ‘kalasha’ or the pot symbolises the womb that nurtures life, the mango leaves symbolise Kamadeva – the god of Love, the coconut denotes money and prosperity, while the water in the pot symbolises Nature’s life-giving ability. Another interpretation of the motif is that it denotes the five elements of nature: its base represent the Earth, its expanded centre denotes Water, its narrow neck is the Fire, and its opening at the top is the Air, while the coconut and the mango leave-decoration represents Ether.


( ‘Puna-kalash’ with mango-leaves sticking out and embossed with ‘Alif’ patterns in Iltutmish’s Northern screen extensions.)

The Kalash has been a part of our architecture since ancient times. The earthenware is used to store seeds for the next harvest and hence is a symbol of continuity. It is used to store water, the essence of life. Hence it is used in fertility rituals and in weddings even today. Kalash is considered a pious symbol, a representation of purity in India; so, local masons studded the new structures with kalash motifs, a symbol they venerated.

Ashes of the dead are also kept in a kalash. Over the time, it therefore came to represent the continuity of life and death. So when mausoleums were first built, the Kalash motif was used in the buildings for its supposedly connection with the ‘hereafter’.




The last symbol in the same building is worth deeper observation. The tops of the square building’s three horse-shoe shaped arched doorways are decorated with six-pointed stars on either side. While the origin of the six-pointed star remains unknown, it has multiple meanings in almost all religions, signifying that the symbol is beyond any particular religion and contains a message that is universal in meaning.

Its first representation in a monument is found in a 3rd to4th century synagogue in northern Israel. The symbol is profusely used in later-day Mughal monuments as well like Purana Qila and Humayun’s tomb. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, the Freemasons, as well as followers of occultism all use this ancient symbol. In Hindu Yantra, it is known as the ‘satkona Yantra’ and represents ‘Shiv’ and ‘Shakti’. Shiv is represented as the upward pointing triangle “Λ” meaning ‘Purusha’ or the Supreme Being, while Shakti is denoted by ‘V’ meaning ‘Prakriti’ or mother-nature, or Yoni-Yantra. The superimposition of two symbols denotes the Cosmic Creation.


(Double Hexagram patterns on both sides of three horse-shoe arched doorways in Alai Darwaza.)

The symbol is also said to represent the combination of basic elements: the upward triangle denotes Fire whereas the downward pointing triangle symbolises its elemental opposite, the Water. Air is also denoted by an upward triangle, but with the horizontal line through its centre, like the letter ‘A.’ Its opposite element Earth is a downward pointing triangle but with the horizontal line at its centre. The combination of Air and Earth again gives rise to a six-pointed star. When all four elements are simultaneously represented, it makes a double hexagram. The two triangles of the hexagram are also contained in the ‘damru’ or the drum in the hand of Lord Shiva, signifying the eternal cycle of creation and destruction. If we allow a smoothening of its edges, we can see the ‘infinity’ symbol consisting of the two triangles.

The same symbol is also known as the Star of David in Judaism, and depicted on the Israeli flag. The symbol is also used in Islam as Najmat Dawud (Star of David) or Khatem Sulayman (Seal of Solomon), which has the same roots as Christianity and Judaism. Even the modern Indian sage Sri Aurobindo uses the symbol as the union of the Man and God: the upward pointing triangle denoting the seeker calling out to the Divine and the downward triangle symbolising the descent of the Divine in response to the caller.


(Notice a hexagram on Aibak’s giant screen along with other complex decorations.)

David in Christianity is the same person as Dawud in Islam, as are Abraham and Ibrahim, Jesus and Isa, and Joseph and Yusuf. Mary came from a place called Nazareth near Jerusalem where Jesus was born. When the story of David spread to Arabia, the symbol was adapted in Islam while referring to the divine beginning. So, with the spread of Islam, the Star of David was further carried eastwards as the ‘Najmat Dawud’ to Arabia, followed by to Central Asia and then further to India. The common beginning of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is further exemplified by the letters INRI inscribed on the crucifix. It is the initials of the Latin title, ‘Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm’, where the word ‘Jesus’ is written as ‘Iesvs’ by replacing ‘J’ with ‘I’ and ‘U’ by ‘V,’ bringing a close resemblance between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Isa’. The title means “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Jews.” So, on a Christian Cross, we see Islamic references of ‘Isa’ while referring him as the Jewish King. This means Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have the same root and beginning, and therefore the Star of David is not exclusively a Jewish symbol, which is wrongly believed.


(“Allah” written in kangura-decorations on the wall around Imam Zamin’s tomb.)

The symbol’s antiquity really dates back beyond religions, from history to the folds of pre-history. In the ancient Egyptian pantheon of Gods, the triangle pointing down is considered as Goddess Nut, or the Goddess of the Sky, while the upward triangle -like a pyramid shape- symbolises her husband Geb -the God of the Earth. This is the first symbol of divine marriage and the Goddess is the cosmic creator.  The same symbol is also found in ancient native Indians of Mexico. Therefore the symbol is totally unrelated to religion, and it is only recently that religious interpretations have begun to be offered.

What is then its universal message? An equilateral triangle is the most stable of forms, as all its angles are equidistant from each other with no force between its components. It is the geometric representation of the ‘Triple Three or 333’ – the Trinity of God, as it embodies the three elements as ‘Creator,’ the ‘Creation,’ and the ‘realisation that both are one and the same.’ The hexagram is like a simultaneous representation of a centrifugal and centripetal force: both require each other. Like yin and yang, the two triangles represent the duality of nature: the complementary forces of the Law of Spirit, or Life, and the Law of Matter, or Resistance.

The Law of Spirit is selflessness while the Law of Matter is inward-looking. In the whole cosmic creation, only the human being is able to consciously balance the two Laws: the human body is matter while the consciousness is Spirit. Like the two overlapping triangles supremely in balance, the human being is the bridge between the two worlds. The two are complementary. Without the resistance of matter, the spirit cannot manifest itself. Without the body of the man, life cannot exist. Without the gravitational resistance of the earth, nothing can stand firm on it and the inert matter becomes a living body only when the Divine Spirit clothes itself in it.


The hexagram is the symbol of supreme unity of matter and spirit within ourselves. For example, we can take a blank sheet of paper and use it to represent “nothing.” When we draw a shape with a coloured paintbrush, the shape is something that has manifested out of the “nothingness” of the pure plain paper and we can say that the shape was always there inside the paper, only invisible to us. Only the true unison or balance of our consciousness with its counterpart of matter within our-self represents the fulfilment of attaining God, because we are just the manifestations of God & the Supreme Energy lives within each of us.

Before ending, let us revisit the concept of the point or ‘dot.’ In order for the dimensionless spirit to manifest itself in the universe, it needs a point of departure. A point is dimensionless and has not yet departed from the ‘nothingness,’ but is required for the manifestation of life.




In those early days of architectural experimentation, building motifs were never considered either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Islamic’ in character; they simply were art forms and that is why we find such a composite design evolving with time. Designs were finalised from the practicality and aesthetic points of view, rather than religious undertones. A roof covering a tomb was simply a roof, whether it was constructed with trabeate, squinched dome, true dome, horseshoe arches or Roman arch – they all were experimented till a mature and stable design materialised. From that perspective, isn’t the term ‘Hindu-Islamic architecture’ a misnomer?



The tomb evolved out of the arch, which was first built in Rome, much before the birth of Christianity. The biggest dome today stands at the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The arch and dome design were borrowed from the Romans by Islamic architects. The European domes are known neither as Christian architecture nor Islamic. Architecture has no religious colour attached to it. Therefore, calling these architectures as Islamic is a wrong representation. For example, there is nothing called as Christian architecture, although there are all sorts of different styles that existed – Renaissance, Gothic, Greek, Roman, French, etc. .


A dome is built upon a square roof, which is preferred in low rainfall areas. A slanting roof is preferred in heavy rain or snow fall areas. If the domes are considered Islamic in theme, all the mosques throughout the world would have been designed alike. But, it is not so. Mosques in Indonesia, Malaysia and even in Kashmir were built without domes – the so-called Islamic architectural symbol.

Similarly, the architecture styles prevalent in temples belong to different eras, and should be termed as Indian architecture, and not Hindu style of architecture. The use of common motifs, in both temples and mosques – be it the amalaka finial, purna kalash or the overflowing pot, the flowing scroll like Ganga-Yamuna patterns, the ferocious looking ‘Kirti Mukh’, flower garlands, hanging bells, or the lotus buds and vines – throw open a vivid insight into the minds of those builders and designers. Experimenting by hits and trial, – mixing and matching myriad design features from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds -, they were successful in bringing forth a composite cultural form – a beautiful manifestation of ‘Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb’.



(Un-deciphered details from lintels at the Northern gate interior and at south-west corner behind the mihrab-screens.)

Another viewpoint is that the early invaders came from areas around Afghanistan that was culturally identified with Gandhara not many centuries ago. So, were their architectural styles influenced by Buddhist iconographies such as lotus motifs, finial and amalaka designs, and motifs which we attribute as purely Indian styles? Profusely used lotus flowers  as well as finial shapes can also be seen in Buddhist motifs such as those used in holy caskets to keep the remains of Buddhist teachers, such as hair and teeth. Hence, in the establishment of Muslim rule in Delhi, were the Turks negotiating and adapting only with Hindu architectural styles or were they experimenting  novel contemporary designs by mixing diverse variations that existed those days – be it of Indian, Persian, or Buddhist origins? These are questions which we perhaps will never be sure of.




                                          Sidenote#1: Qutb’s master-builders


Whereas Muhammad Ghori took the daring gamble to rule India with an alien power, it was his trusted general Qutb-ud-din Aibak who can be considered the real founder of the Delhi Sultanate. Some say his name ‘Aibak’ meant ‘moon-face,’ although as per Siraj, he was certainly not a handsome man. Aibak could also mean he had an ‘aib’ in one of his hands and, therefore, he was referred to as ‘Aibak’ or ‘the six-fingered.’ He was bought by Ghori in a slave market in Ghazni.  With the fall of the Rajput kingdom in 1192, a new class of elite Turks started ruling over the Hindu and Jain population. As if to signal the change, the new rulers embarked immediately on erecting a grand mosque and a victory tower in Delhi, their chosen seat of power.


(Entrance doorway of the Qutub Minar with inscriptions saying, ‘He who builds a mosque for God, God will build for him a similar house in paradise.’)

Coming in quick succession as India’s second Turk ruler, it was not unexpected of Iltutmish to complete and expand the grand monumental project which was started by his predecessor. Iltutmish was another slave known for his beauty and intelligence who was rejected by Muhammad Ghori in the slave market of Ghazni, due to the high asking price. Instead, he was purchased by Aibak in Delhi for one lakh chital coins. The construction of Qutb Minar was started by Aibak who could not complete it beyond its first level, whereas it was Iltutmish who finished the structure. Historians are still divided in their views about whether Qutb Minar was named after its builder Qutubuddin Aibak, or if it was named after the great contemporary Sufi master Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Or if it was so named as to indicate the ‘axis’ or ‘qutb’ around which the new kingdom or religion was supposed to hinge around.

After the death of Iltutmish in 1236, there was a sudden lull of architectural activities in Delhi. His successor was his eldest son, Rukn ud-din Firuz, who was quickly dethroned and succeeded by Raziya Sultan, India’s first woman ruler and daughter of Iltutmish. “She rode on horseback as men ride, armed with a bow and quiver, and surrounded by courtiers and she did not veil her face,” writes Ibn Battuta. However, her reign was only three years and six days. Her successor was Iltutmish’s third son, Muiz-ud-din Bahram, whose two year term ended with his murder. The powerful group of nobles then placed Iltutmish’s grandson. Ala ud-din Masud, in charge until he was bound and thrown into the prison by those very nobles, who then placed Iltutmish’s youngest son Nasir-ud-din Mahmud on the throne. It was a period of rapid political flux, in which Delhi was ruled by as many as five descendants of Iltutmish – one daughter, three sons, and one grandson. All except Mahmud – the last one in the series, seventeen years of age and spending much of his time in copying the Quran and delegating the entire administration to another slave Balban – were murdered and thrown out by the powerful group of nobles, collectively called as ‘The Forty’.


(Calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar are bordered by eight-petalled flowers encased in circles and bands of temple bells hanging along with flower garlands.)

This was not the time when a new monument or architectural enhancement of the existing Qutb complex could have been carried out. But then, Balban’s rule of forty years – twenty years as sultan’s regent and twenty more as the sultan himself – was also strangely void of any of his fingerprints on architectural space. Balban, a slave purchased in Delhi by 1233, was of “short stature and mean in appearance” as characterized by Ibn Battuta, quickly rose in the echelons of power. He stabilised the Sultanate rule until 1287, when he died of shock of losing his son to the Mongols. Eighty year old Balban’s shock was perhaps more for losing an able successor to his throne, for which he has been grooming his elder son and “loved him more than his own life,” says Barani. He could see that the administration that he had firmed up during the last forty years carefully and dedicatedly going soon to the dogs. He was not wrong. Another period of intense chaos – interesting only in history books perhaps – saw two of Balban’s descendants, a grandson and even a three year old infant great-grandson sultan propped up to the throne but were quickly tossed out till Delhi had altogether an entire new regime. It was beginning of Khilji empire, established by Jalal ud-din Khilji in 1290.


Six years later, in 1296, Delhi’s architectural space became livid once again with yet another megalomaniac sultan: Ala-ud-din Khalji. The Qutb Complex, untouched since 1236 when Iltutmish died, had a new patron after sixty years. It was also the last of constructional activities at Qutb complex, 1296 to 1315 to be precise, because new capital cities were then established by subsequent sultans, starting with Alauddin’s Siri.

An illiterate, but ambitious man, Alauddin was soon drunk on his military successes. He dreamt of a grand scheme to establish a new religion altogether and to conquer the world like a second Alexander. “Bad-tempered, obstinate, hard-hearted… he had no consideration for religion…” as Barani  describes of one of the most unusual and successful sultans of India. He did not visit any Friday mosque and all that mattered to him was the administration and military expeditions. These qualities may be considered as virtues today, but in those days, chroniclers and political commentators like Barani did not find them impressive. It is still a bit strange that he took upon the reconstruction of Delhi’s grand mosque at Qutb complex, expanding it and commissioning a new tower designed to be of double the height of the existing Qutb Minar. His megalomaniac mind could not have thought of a better way to imprint his name on the cityscape.


(Alai Darwaza, built by Alauddin Khilji in 1310: Note the mutakha-columns set in the recessed angles of the pier-jambs on both side of arched windows.)



Sincere thanks to calligrapher Qamar Dagar, walk leader of Times Passion Trails’ ‘Calligraphy Trail and Workshop’ for her artistic interpretations; to Sohail Hashmi, for sharing his immensely interesting insights into common symbolisms from different cultures and religions; and to historian Dr Swapna Liddle, walk-leader of INTACH’s ‘Symbols and Motifs of Qutb’ for bringing out the commonalities with temple motifs in the monument complex.


Further Readings


* A Brief Introduction to The Arabic Alphabet, by John F. Healey, and G. Rex Smith, 2009, London

* Initiation, by Elisabeth Haich, 2000, Santa Fe

* An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi

* The Muktesvara Temple in Bhubaneswar, by Walter Smith, 1994, Delhi

* The Hindu Temple, Vol II, by Stella Kramrisch, 1946, Calcutta

* God’s Hexagram, by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, 3 July 2014,

* Styles of Calligraphy, by Annemarie Schimmel, 14 October 2011, Islamic Arts & Architecture:

* The Age of Wrath: A History of Delhi Sultanate, by Abraham Eraly, 2014, Gurgaon

Tree Spotting at Qutb Complex – Delhi’s First Settlement

Exploring Qutb complex is like un-layering the very root of the city of Delhi. When exactly the city began here, no one is quite sure. Some say its antiquity dates back to the times of the Mahabharata as Indraprastha—its legendary capital. When the Turks, led by Muhammad Ghori, descended here in 1192 to establish the seat of Delhi Sultanat, an exotic architecture style sprung up with the amalgamation of the creative prowess of local Hindu artisans and the Turkish newcomers. Among the strange architectural features carved out in stone, the repetitive symbolism of vines and creeper plants, flowers encased inside chakras, lotus bud fringes etc. creates imagery which represents nature. Today therefore, is it not unusual to spot some of the rare and exotic plants surrounding the ancient world heritage monument, as if cocooning it in the greenery of nature.

As we enter the scalloped gateways at the entrance of the monument, we follow a circular path around it, spotting old friends who have been standing here for a long time. We start along the path curving leftwards towards the entrance of Quwaat-ul-Islam mosque, saying hello to the Fiddle Leaf Fig on the left and the one-and-only Badhara Bush on the right, taking our path by the neem tree through the colonnaded corridor and exiting the Alai Darwaza. We explore the trees in the eastern sector of the compound and cross over to the western side, passing by the un-missable Australian ‘Reid River Box’. We walk behind the madrasa, meeting the Bilangada and Pilkhan standing as brave sentinels personifying some unknown characters from the layers of history buried here, before coming out to see the half-finished Alai Minar of grandiose design, silhouetted by the equally strange tree called Kanju which is considered home to ghosts and spirits. There cannot be a better place for this tree than in Mehrauli perhaps, where we fail to discover the details of the gory stories of grave after unknown grave, no matter how hard we try. As we exit the monument complex by the same scalloped gates, we see a row of palms with their arched leaves swaying in the wind, as if trying to say good-bye!


Fiddle Leaf Fig – The African Beauty (Ficus lyrata)

An exotic import from West Africa, it is marked by its large violin or fiddle shaped glossy leaves with prominent white veins on its underside. Its figs grow in pairs and are stalk-less.




Badhara Bush – Thicket of Thorns (Gmelina asiatica)

The large, spiny shrub-like tree is the only one in the whole of Delhi, and is native to SE coastal areas. The thorny bush is characterized by the shape of its leaves which change to a three-lobed shape. Its flowers grow in long bunches of canary yellow, often giving its name as Nag Phul.



Ashok – The Cemetery Tree (Polyathia longifolia)

Native to the moist forests of Sri Lanka but very commonly planted in Delhi, it remains evergreen throughout the year. Around fourteen varieties of Ashok are found in India alone. It is often planted as a sound barrier, but its intricate root system sucks the water from far below, thereby lowering the water table. For this reason, its widespread use in a place like Delhi is now being contested. It is identified by its long, narrow leaves which have wavy margins and due to their distinctive shape, its leaves are used in marriage celebrations for decorating gateways. The startlingly white wood inside its trunk is used for making pencils and even drums. A single flower produces a cluster of eight to twenty fruits from one common stalk.



Khabar (N) – Lively canopy on an Ancient Trunk (Salvadora oleoides)

Found exclusively in Mehrauli, this twisted bush-like tree that is also called ‘bada pilu’ has smooth green olive-like leaves with absolutely no elasticity and breaks with a thud. Its lifeless and old-looking trunk is in sharp contrast to its evergreen foliage.



Ber (N) – The Poor Man’s Fruit Tree (Ziziphus mauritiana)

Also called a desert apple tree, ber has been widely cultivated in India for its fleshy olive-like fruits. Its leaves are oval in shape and a beautiful dark green in colour. The bark seems as though it’s peeling off the tree trunk, and the jewel-like fruits are visible from outside the canopy but not from the inside. Its leaves are curled inwards as if to cover the fruits.



Dhak (N) – Upholding The Spirit of Friendship (Butea monosperma)

Known by many names such as tesu, palash, and ‘flame of the forest’, it can grow in almost any inhospitable terrain—be it frost, heat, water-logged poor soil or drought. It is also known as a pioneer tree as it is the first to regenerate in a forest clearing. Due to such qualities, it is used to colonize grounds by growing forests. Its velvety leather compound leaves of three leaflets is often cited in the proverb ‘dhak ke tin patte’, meaning ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. It is also called ‘parrot tree’ as its fiery orange flowers are shaped like a parrot’s beak. It is used to rear lac insects to produce shellac which is secreted by the female lac. Making jewellery such as bangles from shellac is quite popular in India. The orange flowers are used to make a dye used in the Holi festival, while dry flowers are often soaked in water in villages for new mothers to bath due to their disinfectant properties. Its inner bark is used to make ropes, while a rural eco-industry has sprung up to make plates by stitching together its broad leaves.



Ronjh (N) – The Acacia with a ‘Sick-Skin’ (Acacia leucophloea)

Known as white-barked acacia, it is distinguished by its cream-coloured bark with black patches like the skin of a diseased person. Its small leaflets close at night to conserve moisture. Its heart-wood or the non-living older wood-core is used to make beams and rural furniture.




Jand (N) – The Golden Tree of Deserts (Prosopis cineraria)

Deeply revered in deserts, this thorny tree is marked by an extremely fissured bark. Although it does not require much watering, its long roots extend up to ninety feet to search out water from great depths, thereby impacting the already low water table in arid areas. Its drooping branches are often seen with fruit-like growths called ‘galls’, which are not fruits but are in fact produced by insect infestation. During the 1868 Great Rajputana Famine, its sweetish bark mixed with flour saved a lot of lives.



Kareel (N) –The Leafless Tree (Capparis decidua)

This amazingly hardy plant is not found anywhere else in Delhi. It has a trunk like a crocodile’s skin, and a dense foliage of leafless green twigs. Small leaves remain for only a month, requiring the twigs to take over photo-synthesis which is why they are green in colour. Webs can be seen in this large bush-like deciduous tree, highlighted by brick-red flowers. Its leaves and tender shoots are powdered to treat boils, while its fruit is used to treat cardiac diseases.



Bistendu (N) –The Tree that Stupefies (Diospyros cordifolia)

The smallish deciduous tree has a spreading canopy of rich foliage whose leaves are velvety with a slightly heart-shaped base tapering to a thin point. Adivasis often mix its fruit pulp in water to stupefy fish.




Peelu (N) – The Toothbrush Tree (Salvadora persica)

A typical desert tree found from Arabia to Baluchistan to Patna, it has dark foliage with drooping branches and somewhat fleshy leaves. It is known as the mustard tree and is mentioned in the Holy Bible. Three trees are considered for the use of their twigs in brushing teeth: meswak, neem and babul. Peelu is the meswak tree and is often called the toothbrush tree. Such a use is believed to have been in practice since ancient Islamic times. Its leaves are considered to be an antidote to poisons.



Reid River Box – Landmark of Another Kind (Eucalyptus brownii)

A very rare tree from Australia and the only one in Delhi, Reid River Box is included in the landmark group of trees. It belongs to a box group of eucalyptus—an evergreen medium-sized tree with a flaky or fissured trunk. In early March, the flower callypts or ‘caps’ fall off and the white stamens pop out.



Chamrod (N) – The Musical Tree (Ethretia laevis)

Chamrod or the ‘desi papdi’ is a native tree with a knobbly pale-coloured trunk. It is known as the musical tree because bees, butterflies and migratory birds descend upon it in large numbers to eat its bright-orange berries which hang in clusters. White star-shaped flowers cover its canopy of oval-shaped green leaves.



Bilangada (N) – The Native Beauty (Flacourtia indica)

A smallish, native bush-like deciduous thorny plant, it has short, straight spines bearing flowers and leaves. The flowers have no petals, and the leaves have blunt tooth edges.



Pilkhan (N) – The Mufflered Tree (Ficus virens)

A common strangler tree, its aerial roots wrap around trunks like a muffler. It is used as a common avenue tree as its spreading canopy makes an excellent windbreak.



Kanju (N) – The Ghost Tree (Holoptelea integrifolia)

This is the tallest tree native to Delhi and is called the Indian elm, chilbil, and chudail papdi because dark spirits are said to reside in it. At night, a typical whooshing sound emanates due to the activity of bats, giving it further reason to be considered a place of paranormal activities. Its fruits are round papery disks, brown in colour when mature.




Wild Date Palm (N) – The toddy tree (Phoenix sylverstris)

A tree commonly found in lithographs of Old Delhi, the wild date palm with a stepped bark and curled trunk is related to the true palm of North African oases. Its roots are exposed almost a foot above the ground, and its leaves are used to make floor-mats and brooms, while the sugary sap collected from beneath its arching leaves is boiled to make palm jaggery (gud). Un-boiled juice is left to ferment to make toddy.

wild date palm1


The walk to observe these exotic and unique trees was led by the amazingly knowledgeable environmentalist Kavita Prakash of ‘Sausage Tree Nature Walks.’ The walk was part of ‘Delhi Walk Festival’ organised by ‘Delhi, I Love You’ and curated by ‘Delhi Dallying.’



1. Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, by Pradip Krishen, 2006, New Delhi

2. Landmark Trees of India:

1857 Uprising, “The Sigh of the Oppressed”: Exploring Kashmiri Gate

Early in January 1857, at the Dumdum cantonment near Calcutta, a Brahmin sepoy was walking down to his post to prepare his food with a lotah or brass water-pot, when a low caste khalasi asked if he could get some water to drink from the pot. The soldier refused to share his pot, saying that the touch of low-caste khalasi would defile it. The khalasi retorted, “You think so much of your caste today, but you don’t mind biting cartridges soaked in cow and pork fat.” When the startled Brahmin inquired the meaning of the accusation, he was told that the cartridges given out for the new Enfield rifles were coated with animal fats. The story spread like wildfire, and within just three months of the khalasi’s rebuttal, the issue had become the central theme to ignite the struggle by a conquered race to cast off the foreign yoke of British rule.


(Six portrait-miniatures with watercolor on ivory in delicate bracelet design, showing Dost Muhammad Khan, ruler of Afghanistan 1826–1863; Bahadur Shah Zafar, ruler of Delhi from 1837–1857; and Gulab Singh, ruler of Jammu and Kashmir 1792–1857; the three female figures are  typical Mughal portraits, rather than actual ones. Courtesy: The Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, USA ( Creative Commons License/Public Domain.)

Still, the refusal of 85 troopers out of 90 of the Third Cavalry at Meerut to use the new cartridges on that fateful Saturday of 24th April, 1857 could perhaps have passed off as just another incident, but for the manner in which the punishment was meted out. Kaye, the great historian, writes of the 9th May incident when those 85 sepoys were paraded to an open ground with both native and European onlookers present.

“Under a guard of Rifles and Carabineers, the eighty-five were then brought forward, clad in their regimental uniforms –soldiers still; and then the sentence was read out…their uniforms were stripped from their backs, then the armourers and the smiths came forward with their shackles and their tools…in the presence of that great concourse of their old comrades…There was not a Sepoy present who did not feel the rising indignation in his throat. But in the presence of those loaded field guns and those grooved rifles, and the glittering sabres of the Dragoons, there could not be a thought of striking….”

Defending the decision, H.H. Greathed, Commissioner of Meerut writes in his letter, “The carbine men of the 3rd Cavalry being ordered to parade to learn the new movement, which substitutes tearing for biting the cartridges, refused, to the number of eighty-five, to handle them, although they were the same they have always used, and have, of course, nothing to do with Enfield. The only reason they could give was, they feared to get a bad name with other regiments. The whole body is to be tried by court-martial, and no doubt a severe example will be made of such flagrant disobedience….”

khanjar (Khanjar or dagger obtained by Major William Hodson at Delhi, 1857 : Hodson probably took this beautiful dagger from one of the Mughal princes, whom he stripped and shot dead on 21 Sept 1857 after their surrender. Alternatively, he may have obtained it later on at the sale of treasures organised by Delhi prize agents. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission)

The first sign of revolt was in February in Berhampur, where soldiers refused to accept the Enfield cartridges, followed by Barrackpur in March, and finally in Meerut in May, where, 85 soldiers were court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for refusing to accept the new rifles. It was then that full-scale mutiny broke out. On the quiet Sunday afternoon of 10th May, 1857, when most of the Europeans were at the church, the rebel sepoys rose up in open defiance, shot dead John Finnis, Lieutenant of 11th Bengal NI and brother of the Lord Mayor of London, killed every European they could find, burnt down bungalows and residential quarters of the officers, and broke open jails where the mutinous troops were being held. The newspaper Englishman published the following account of the Meerut massacre from a correspondent, “On all sides shot up into the heavens great pinnacles of waving fire, of all hues and colours, according to the nature of the fuel that fed them, huge volumes of smoke rolling sullenly off in the sultry night air, and the crackling and roar of the conflagration mingling with the shouts and riot of the mutineers.” [Ref 33]

In the following days, about a third of the Bengal Army, in excess of 100,000 men, quietly but firmly separated themselves from the services of the East India Company, and enrolling as subjects of the Mughal Emperor of Delhi, thereby revolted against their commanders.

As many as 41 jails were attacked and 28,000 prisoners freed by the rebels. One by one, other garrisons –armed with all available artillery- rose against their British overlords: Ferozepur, Aligarh, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jullundhar, Sitapur, Cawnpur, Allahabad … the rebellion spread like a forest fire in a high wind.


(The brass carriage clock was posted from Calcutta in early 1857, and reached Delhi Post Office in May 1857. It lay there undisturbed throughout the siege, and was recovered later and forwarded to the addressee. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission.)

The morning after the Meerut incident, between 7 and 8 a.m. on 11th May, the troopers from 3rd Light Cavalry of Meerut crossed over Yamuna by the Bridge of Boats, assembled under the waterfront Jharokha of the Emperor.  Within hours it had started – the hunting and butchering of the British in Delhi. The personal doctor to Zafar and a “star native convert” to Christianity, Dr. Chaman Lal, was the first victim, killed in his Daryaganj clinic. This was soon followed by the murders of Delhi resident Simon Fraser and, Captain Douglas, commandant of the palace guards. The chaplain, Rev. Mr. Jennings, personally responsible for many religious conversions, was killed, along with his young daughter Annie, and her 18-year old friend Miss Clifford – both choirmasters at the St. James Church. While Dr. Chaman Lal was shot dead at point blank range, Reverend Jennings, Captain Douglas, Fraser and the two young ladies were cut down with swords. The editor of the “Delhi Gazette” and his family were similarly murdered.

For the British, it soon became “the degradation of fearing those who were taught to fear us’’.

The 54th regiment, under Colonel Ripley, was asked immediately to march down to the Kashmiri gate with two guns, but as soon as it reached there, the local sepoys deserted the officers and joined the rebels, killing all the British, including their commander. The 38th and 74th were then ordered to suppress the rebellion, but both refused to act.

flagstaff tower

 (Felice Beato Flagstaff Tower Picket, Delhi 1858, albumen silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2007. Reproduced with permission.)

By 5 p.m., a bullock cart arrived at the Flagstaff tower, where the Europeans had taken refuge, hoping that the troops would soon quench the uprising. However, it became amply clear that each one must now save himself or herself from the impending mass annihilation. Panic spread when they noticed a hand of a dead European protruding out of the heap of corpses covered by a cloth on the bullock cart, and Brigadier Graves signaled for immediate dispersal to Karnal and Meerut.

Officers, coming under fire from their own troops, escaped the cantonment that was engulfed in a blaze, crouching like frightful hares in the night, running and hiding as fugitives, while voices and shadowy figures stalked them. On their way, some of them were helped by random villagers and zamindars with food and shelter, only to be robbed and stripped by ruffians a little ahead. Braving the burning summer wind of May, hiding in grasses, and swimming across the river, some of them escaped, while many others perished – either from natural causes and hunger, or murdered in the most barbarous manner. Theo Metcalfe was one of the lucky people to escape safely to Hansi after meandering in the jungle for ten days.

In Delhi, Prince Mirza Mughal was appointed by Zafar as the commander of the rebel sepoy force.



What could have gone so wrong as to turn the same White Mughals – so enamoured with India and the Indian way of life – against the very Mughal Court which had granted them authority to do trading in India in the first place?

After 1803, Shahjahanabad came under British control, except for the palace-fortress, which still was ruled by the Mughal Emperor. By that time, the British officers in Delhi were commonly adopting native identities as “White Mughals.” No one would give a second look to the “Mughalized” Delhi Resident David Ochterloney, who used to take out all his thirteen Indian wives, each on her own elephant, in evening processions along the Yamuna. Neither would one see anything out of place in his successor William Fraser’s close friendship with Urdu poet Ghalib, his patronization of miniature paintings, or his scholarly commissioning of the Fraser Album. Intermarriages between the British and Indians became very common.


( Portrait of Zafar, from the first picture)

Successive British generations in India began to see its great Oriental heritage at close quarters and acted as cultural ambassadors to Europe.

In 1784, the British established the Asiatic Society of Bengal at the initiative of Sir William Jones and his assistant, Charles Wilkins. Regarded today as the Fathers of Indology, the duo translated numerous Sanskrit epics into English for the first time, namely Bhagvat Gita (1784), Hitopadesa (1787), Sakuntala (1789), Gita Govinda (1792), and the Lawbook of Manu (1794). After Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron translated Upanishads in 1786 into French, L’ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes was set up by the French government in 1795. There, Alexander Hamilton, from the Asiatic Society of Bengal, became the first European to teach Sanskrit. Formal Sanskrit courses were started in England for first time in 1805, at the training college of the East India Company at Hertford.  Instruction in Sanskrit was initiated at the universities in Oxford, London, Cambridge, and Edinburgh.  The French Societe Asiatique was established in 1821 in Paris, followed by the Royal Asiatic Society in London in 1823. In India, Alexander Cunningham, considered the Father of Indian Archaeology, singularly conducted a thorough study of ancient material remains.  James Prinsep decoded the long-dead script of Brahmi, enabling deciphering of the Ashokan pillar inscriptions.


As Cunningham put it, “But now a new era dawned on Indian archaeology, and the thick crust of oblivion, which for so many centuries had covered and concealed the characters and language of the earliest Indian inscriptions, and which the most learned scholars had in vain tried to penetrate, was removed at once and for ever by the penetrating sagacity and intuitive perception of James Prinsep.”


Around the end of the 18th century, Sir William Jones wrote – rather romantically and in part incorrectly that “the Indian Zodiac was not borrowed mediately or directly from the Arabs or Greeks or Mughals or any other nation of Mlechchas as the proud Brahmins call those who are ignorant of the Vedas.” When the astronomical tables of India were introduced in Europe, a terrible excitement gripped the scholars. Jean Sylvain Bailly in 1787 concluded that the Hindus were the inventors of astronomy and published Traite de l’astronomie Indienne et orientale. In 1792, Playfair urged an exhaustive and thorough search by British and Hindu scholars for works on Hindu astronomy, and an actual examination of the heavens, as well as that of old drawings of astronomical instruments.  S. Davis in 1789 analysed Surya Siddhanta to deduce that the tilted axis of the earth at 24 degrees was a Hindu observation dating back to 2050 B.C.


( Three Mughal portrait from the bracelet – Picture#1. On close examination, the three seem to have very similar facial features. )



So, among all these scholarly adulations and interests in India, what could have gone wrong? Let us see it from the very beginning. Were the events of 1857 the result of a greedy corporation’s territorial ambition and their aggressive drive for Christianity? Was there any secret conspiracy between Zafar, with the Sepoys, and even with Persians and Russians, – as he was subsequently charged with –, to overthrow the British that resulted in the out-burst?

A mere 82 years after Babur set up the 332-year long Mughal reign in India by overthrowing Ibrahim Lodhi, William Hawkins commanded British East India Company (EIC)’s first ship Hector to land at the port city of Surat in 1608, desirous of trading with the world’s richest country.

The Mughal Empire, after rising to the pinnacle of glamour and luxury, quickly faded after Aurangzeb’s death to become a total non-entity.

After the death of Quli Khan, – the last Viceroy of Bengal under Aurangzeb in 1727 – his successors ruled the united provinces of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa until one of their own governors, Alivardi Khan of Bihar, deposed his masters and  ruled in their place. Seventeen years later, Sirajudullah, Alivardi’s grandson, ironically faced the same fate as his own general, Mir Jafar, plotted to seize power. But what Mir Jafar did in his quest to rule changed the country’s history forever — he invited the EIC as his (literal) partner in crime. Subsequently, after his success in the Battle of Plassy, he became a mere tool in British hands. Mughal Emperor Shah Alam tried to salvage the situation by leading three military expeditions into Bihar, but each time he was thoroughly defeated by the British.  Finally, he had no option but to grant the EIC in 1765 the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa in – making the British the Mughal Court’s authorized revenue collector, in return for an annual fee of 26 lakh rupees that Warren Hastings stopped paying after 1772. Shah Alam was allowed to rule Allahabad under British protection, but he always dreamt of returning to the seat of his royalty in Delhi. Meanwhile, the Marathas had captured Delhi, and successfully bargained with Shah Alam to restore him to the throne, in return for money and cessation of territories. Thus, on 6th January, 1772, Shah Alam and his court rode their choicest elephants from Shahdara to his Red Fort palace in a short procession through the streets of Delhi, with thousands of onlookers on each side.

IMG_1156 ( The chance discovery of Zafar’s grave – from Zafar’s tomb, Yangon, Myanmar. Photo courtesy by friend Sushil K Rath)

Since Aurangzeb’s death, Shahjahanabad’s fluctuating fortunes had changed its course in 1739, only to rebound later, in 1803. Province after province was falling away from the Empire. By 1758, the Mughal emperor had to personally lead military campaigns to extract tributes from neighboring villages, which by then had shrugged off all allegiance to the crown.

From the northwest, Afghan forces under Ahmad Shah Abdali imitated their predecessor Nadir Shah’s 1739 plunder of Delhi with alarming regularity in 1748, 1756, and 1760. From the South, Deccani and Maratha forces were now claiming territories further northwards, and were the real rulers of Delhi from 1771 to 1803. The Eastern part of the empire saw Oudh and Bengal gone under the control of EIC.

Delhi – a city described as “a cage of tumultuous nightingales,” had totally collapsed by now. Ali Mardan Khan’s engineering marvel – the famed moonlit canal – where imperial children had once played with abandon, was clogged and dried up.

2-vert-horz ( Images from the Zafar’s tomb at Yangon, Myanmar. Photo courtesy – by friends Mudit Mathur/ Somendra Nath)

As if these long series of attacks on Delhi did not produce sufficient misery, there was a severe famine in 1782 that killed nearly half of Delhi’s population. That was the year when the great poet, Mir Taqi Mir, abandoned Delhi to settle down in prosperous Lucknow in the eastern province of Oudh, ruled under British alliance.

Hundreds of beautiful mosques built in every mohalla by the great Amirs and the Emperor’s family were unlit and deserted; its lovely mansions and fine buildings were tottering wrecks. The great poet Mir writes, “The scene of desolation filled my eyes with tears….The houses were in ruins. Walls had collapsed. Cloisters and wine-shops alike were deserted … whole bazaars had vanished. The children playing in the streets, the comely young men, the austere elders – all had gone.” In his verse, he wrote:

Here in this city where the dust drifts in deserted lanes,

A man might come and fill his lap with gold in days gone by.

These eyes saw only yesterday house after house

Where here and there a ruined wall or doorway stands.

poem-Mir1 (Mir Taqi Mir’s couplets on Delhi’s devastation, from ‘Three Mughal Poets’ by Khurshid Islam and Ralph Russel. Ref.19. Reproduced with permission of Oxford University Press India © Oxford University Press. Unauthorized copying is strictly prohibited)

1 (The City of Delhi Before the Siege – The Illustrated London News Jan 16, 1858, Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons –

In 1788, the Rohilla warlord Ghulam Qadir Khan Rohilla attacked and captured a poorly-defended Delhi. Demanding that the supposedly hidden treasures from the royal palace to be handed over to him, he threw Emperor Shah Alam II into prison. On 10th August 1788, the Rohilla invader –lounging on the royal throne in the Diwan-i-Khas– ordered the emperor to be brought in front of him. After torturing the royal ladies in front of the ill-fated ruler, he cut out Shah Alam’s eyes with a dagger.

Within a few months, the Maratha army reached Delhi and restored the blind emperor to his throne, after driving out the Afghan intruders. Ghulam Qadir Khan had been captured while attempting to flee, and was subjected to an act of macabre retribution. His eyes, nose, and ears were cut off and sent in a casket to the emperor, in an “eye for an eye” style of brutal justice.

11v2 (A rare map of Delhi by London cartographer Edward Weller. Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons –

With the Mughal Empire fast disintegrating, the Marathas — with effective control over large parts of Southern and Northern India – were considered the likely successor to the Mughals. Napoleon had attacked Egypt, and it was being foretold that he would soon advance to India like a second Alexander and turn the tables in favour of the French East India Company to drive out the British.

However, the British, superior in both military might and strategic thinking, turned out to be the winners in this “great game.” Lord Wellesley’s diplomatic master-stroke of “Subsidiary Alliance,” which involved yielding total power on provinces without taking any responsibility by means of a “double government,” was successfully followed up by Lord Dalhousie’s “Doctrine of Lapse” in taking away the kings’ “divine right of succession” by annexing state after state. Native provinces began to seek British military help in localized fights against their neighbours.

unknown pic    (Unknown Photographer not titled [group of nine Indian men and British Officer seat having their photograph taken], c.1875, albumen silver photograph, water colour, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2013. Reproduced with permission)

By that time, Mughal Delhi, under Shah Alam, was practically in French-trained Maratha hands. In 1803, Lord Wellesley ordered the French forces to be driven out of Delhi, and General Lake appeared in Patparganj village with the 27th Dragoon and the 76th Foot, totaling 4900 men.

Exactly 54 years before the British crushed the 1857 uprising, on 14th September 1803, the British forces entered Delhi and drove away the Marathas. In the Diwan-i-Am, Lord Lake was received by the blind Emperor Shah Alam, who in gratitude conferred on him the title of “Samsam-ud-Daula, Ashgah-ul-Mulk, Khan-Dauran, General Gerard Lake Bahadur, Fateh Jung”.

Lt. General Ochterlony, whose troops won the battle of Plassey, was appointed as the Resident of Delhi after Lord Lake’s dramatic entry in Delhi in 1803. Afterwards, peace and prosperity slowly returned to Shahjahanabad. The British began re-building the bazaars; founded a printing press, hospitals, etc; Dara Shikoh’s mansion was turned into the Resident’s house; a cantonment was set up in the Ridge area expanding the city boundary; construction of St James’ church near Kashmiri gate was started; Ali Mardan Khan’s canal was cleared by Lieutenant Blane and water again flowed in the streets of Delhi; and most importantly, the British fostered an economy where private traders started playing a greater role.

IMG_1141 (‘Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar’ at Yangon, Myanmar where Zafar (died 7 Nov 1862) and Zinat Mahal (died 17 July 1886) are buried. Photo Courtesy – by friend Sushil K Rath)

By 1805, a monthly allowance of Rs 60,000 was fixed for Shah Alam by EIC, an additional Rs 10,000 as festival gifts, and an agreement was reached to take the King’s approval before meting out capital punishment to any of the city’s residents.



Or was 1857 just yet another localized rebellion like the 1806 Madras Mutiny over sepoys required to shave off their beards and wear leather cockades in place of their traditional turbans; or like the 1824 Barrackpore and 1825 Assam Mutinies after refusing to travel overseas for the first Burmese war; or like a dozen odd Mutinies over pay and allowances – but one that went out of control?

In 1837, Zafar became the Mughal Emperor, in the same year, when Queen Victoria rose to the British throne; amid Lord Wellesley’s pan-India territorial ambitions playing out in its full glory.

Very soon, the succession planning of the Mughal Empire in Delhi was discussed, and in 1852, a document was signed by Lord Dalhousie declaring Fakhr-ud-din as the next successor after the death of Zafar, with his agreement to vacate the Red Fort and relocate to the Qutub Area.

reinforcements(‘Reinforcement proceeding to Delhi’, 1857: The lithograph by William Simpson, E Walker and others depicts the advance of Punjab reinforcements under the command of Brigadier-General John Nicholson to Delhi. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission.)

These terms were not at all agreeable to the Mughal Empress Zeenat Mahal, who asked her husband to modify the contract with the British to declare her son Jawan Bakht as heir-apparent. While this uneasiness was prevailing between the British and the Mughal court, Thomas Metcalfe died on 3rd November 1853, due to suspected vegetable poisoning ordered by Zeenat Mahal. A couple of years later on 10th July, 1856, the heir-apparent Fakhr-ud-din also died from poisoning believed to have been ordered by Zeenat. The game was becoming murkier.

If the EIC’s first metamorphosis was from its trading role to a military and political avatar with ambition to rule India (which was beginning to materialize slowly but quite successfully), it appeared to have developed yet another mission to accomplish in this part of the East Indies.

Between 1830 and 1850, the British took upon themselves the “religious duty to uplift the locals to the light of Christianity.” The Bible began to be read out to sepoys during military formations, and numerous little white churches sprang up across the cities and the countryside. The Delhi College became a mere apparatus in this motivated aspiration, fueling the general public’s fear of forced conversion to Christianity and prompting suspicion of the institute’s intentions in this regard.

627 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

If the EIC’s territorial ambition was a kind of hard blow that created the first wave of murmuring against the British, the seemingly softer agenda of introducing Christianity took that anxiety to a new level.

“Happy will it be, if our conquests should open the way for a farther introduction of the Gospel, and for the extension and enlargement of Christ’s Kingdom…. What a luster would such an accession give to British conquests in the Eastern world! ‘– Dr Glasse. (Quoted in “The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858,” by Penelope Carson)

Curiously, some of the arguably best British initiatives like the introduction of Westernized education, imposition of peace and order over anarchy, introduction of railways, telegraphs and post offices, abolition of suttee, and legalizing re-marriage of Hindu widows were viewed by many orthodox Indians as indirect attempts of religious interference and conversion. William Bentinck’s replacement of Persian by English as the official language, granting right of inheritance to religious converts, etc., could not become well accepted

Very high revenue demands pushed the zamindars into the clutches of moneylenders and changing trade patterns, with an increase in imported finished goods, made the weavers and artisans jobless. These created large-scale societal discontent against the Company. In fact, the land records were the first to be intentionally destroyed in the uprising, impacting British revenue to a large extent once order was restored.

626 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

The mistrust between the rulers and the ruled became so great that the British expected an outbreak anytime. James Thomason, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West provinces famously said of a sentry who saluted him, “There stands our future enemy.”

In July 1857, renowned Islamic scholar Fazle Haq Khiarabadi prepared a Constitution to run an Independent and parallel Mughal administration, consisting of 10 members of the Council under Zafar. He also issued a fatwa against the British, signed by 35 Ulemas and the Chief Qazi, proclaiming “If the English will be victorious, they would not only destroy the Timuri Dynasty, but also the entire Muslims.” The British were perceived as a political force actively planning to dislodge the Mughal Emperor, by the same citizens who had earlier seen their kings and kingdoms untouched and unmolested even by barbarians like Nadir Shah of 1739.

In the midst of this metaphorical powder magazine, where any single spark might trigger rebellion, the EIC inadvertently began playing with matches, thus bringing about the most violent frontal encounter ever between the two empires and drawing the final curtain over 332 years long Mughal Empire, as well as  the 258-year-old long East India Company.

625 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

In 1856, EIC introduced the shorter Enfield P53 rifle in the army to replace the old Brown Bess muzzle-loading musket. However, the new waxed cartridges were rumoured to be greased with pig or cow fats, perceived by the sepoys as a forced attempt to defile their religion and convert them. The Bengal Infantry had 74 regiments, manned entirely by high caste fine, handsome Hindus from Oudh and the east, who refused to touch the new cartridges on religious grounds.

As if this was not enough, rumours of bone powder being mixed with flour started making the rounds of the cantonments. It was also being foretold that the rule of old “John Company” will end on 23rd June 1857, on the centenary of Lord Clive defeating Siraj-ud-daulah in the battle of Plassey.

The epicentre of this clash of civilizations was Delhi, at the very doorsteps of the reluctant leader of the mutiny, the great Mughal Emperor Zafar. Although a British pensioner,  he was still an epitome of refined culture – a sad nostalgia for a bygone age of glory, living in his Red Fort long reduced to a crammed and dusty palace, heavy with long-decayed fine Persian rugs spread around lusterless rooms, neglected for many generations now.

624 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

As poet Agha Shahid Ali writes:

“I step out into Chandni Chowk, a street once Strewn with jasmine flowers

For the Empress and the royal women Who bought perfumes from Isfahan,

Fabrics from Dacca, essence from Kabul, Glass bangles from Agra….

I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor, Being led through this street

By British soldiers, his feet in chains, To watch his sons hanged.”

(From the book, ‘Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems’ by Ali, Agha Shahid,  ©Penguin India. Reproduced with permission. Ref.18)

Delhi fell after four months of epic struggle, and was deserted by its residents almost immediately. For the British, however, it was the time to start a methodical looting, after forcefully escorting out those half-starved old men, women and children hiding in tai-khanas who had been unable to join the mass exodus from Delhi through the Lahore Gate. Each street was heaped with debris of household items, while the houses themselves were in a state of wholesale destruction. Dead bodies lay rotting in the sun, giving out an unbearable stench, as cats, monkeys, and pet birds in cages looked on.


(An old photograph of the Kotwali or police station in Chandni Chowk,  Picture © ASI, New Delhi, from their publication, ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments of Shahjahanabad, Vol-I, illustrations, Calcutta, 1915.’ Reproduced with permission.)

On 21st Sept 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor as a British prisoner, was sitting cross-legged on a cushioned charpoy on the verandah of the former residence of Begum Samru, with two attendants waving peacock-feather fans against the heat. He was guarded by a British officer with two sentries, who had an express order to personally kill the king if any attempt was made to rescue him. Zafar sat not a great distance from the Kotwali in Chandni Chowk, where the bullet- ridden naked bodies of two of his sons were laid in the open on stone slabs for three days. The next month, in October, two more sons of Zafar were also shot dead.

The Mughal Empire had thus been exterminated.

623 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

Despite General Wilson’s order to refrain from looting, unofficial plunder of the fallen city was blatantly carried out, in search of jewelry from dead bodies and concealed wealth from deserted houses. Jewelry and antique shops in London were soon flush with the unofficial loot brought back by the British officers and soldiers. Prize agents would set out every day on their plundering expeditions with hammers, spades, pickaxes and two coolies, sometimes with local guides, to pick through cemented floors of Muslim houses and plastered walls of Hindu dwellings, and even temples in Chandni Chowk, to look for hollow-sounding concealments that could contain valuables. Precious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls as large as hen’s eggs, gold mohurs, tiaras, chains and bracelets, along with hundreds of fine miniature paintings, gold brocades and innumerable items of exquisite eastern workmanship dazzled the prize agents. A conservative estimate puts the collected amount that time to ‘half to three-quarters of a million sterling.’ [Ref. 12]

622 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

However, the troopers of the British Delhi Field Force were in for a rude shock if they were expecting a good percentage of the collected booty as prize money. “Delhi taken and India saved, for 36 rupees and ten annas” was the cruel joke among the soldiers, who received just that amount as compensation.



Telegraph Office Memorial

Today, a twenty-foot obelisk made of grey granite that was erected to commemorate the Delhi Telegraph Office stands at the apex of a long triangle formed by two merging roads. It is said that the actual wooden telegraph office stood near the old Flagstaff tower; however, the obelisk was erected near the Kashmiri gate. The memorial was erected in 1902. The whole structure is not so accessible for a close inspection as it is surrounded by a patch of land covered with untended shrubbery and as it is freely used by passers-by as an open urinal. However, if you can get up close, you will see that the four sides of its base are severely faded and are difficult to read, and in reality the inscription can only be read by cropping and magnifying a high definition photograph of the etched writing sentence-by-sentence. The most important engraving on one face of its base reads:

“Erected on 19th April 1902 By Members of the Telegraph Department to commemorate the loyal and devoted services of the Delhi Telegraph Office staff on the eventful 11th May 1857. On that day, two young signallers WILLIAM BRENDISH and J.W. PILKINGTON remained on duty till ordered to leave. And by telegraphing to Umballa information on what was happening at Delhi rendered invaluable service to the Punjab Government. In the words of Sir Robert Montgomery,



The inscription references an important event in the history of Delhi. The Telegraph Office was an important communication point, with a single telegraph line extending through Delhi to Ambala and Peshawar, with branches to Agra and Meerut. On 10 May 1857, Officer Charles Todd and his two young assistants, Brendish and Pilkington, were chatting in the telegraph office with their counterparts in Meerut about the uprising, and at 9 am they left for a break. When they came back at 4 pm, they found that the communication link to Meerut was not working. On the next morning on the 11th of May, Todd left Delhi to investigate the failure, but was captured and killed by the sepoys, who were beginning to mutineer. Brendish and Pilkington stayed at the station to the last possible minute despite the rising danger they were in from the advancing sepoys and continued to transmit a series of crucial telegraph messages to Ambala.


Ambala forwarded the messages to other stations almost instantaneously, and alerted the British. After their chief Telegraph Officer Charles Todd did not return, and when the burning of bungalows and the killings started, Brendish and Pilkington sent out two more SOS messages before fleeing the telegraph office, first to the Flagstaff tower, and then to Meerut.

At that time, the Suez Canal was not yet opened and it took 36 days for news of the mutiny to travel by the overland route to Alexandria, and by steamer to Trieste, from where it was telegraphed to reach England on 27th of June.


(Hon’ble E.I. Company’s Electric Telegraph. Message from Delhi -11th May. -Ref#7:

“Cantonment in a state of siege. Mutineers from Meerut 3rd Light Cavalry: number not known , said to be one hundred and fifty men : cut off communication with Meerut : taken possession of Bridge of Boats. 54th NI sent against them, but would not act. Several officers killed and wounded. City in a state of considerable excitement. Troops sent down, but nothing certain yet. Further information will be forwarded. Copy to be sent to Brigadier in Command.”)

However, the SOS telegram sent out by Brendish and Pilkington was hand-delivered more quickly to Gen. Anson in Shimla, who ordered the immediate mobilization of three European regiments to Delhi. On the 8th of June, Gen. Barnard – with 2500 infantry soldiers, consisting mainly of English, Sikh and Gurkha troops from the Kumaon battalion, 700 cavalry, and 22 guns – successfully captured the Delhi Ridge.

Meanwhile, five Companies of the 61st battalion from Firozepur were immediately ordered by Lahore HQ to proceed to Delhi and to join the ‘Delhi Field Force’ of 2,000 men under Sir Henry Barnard, constituting a force of 2000 men, who reached Delhi on 1st July after travelling 350 km in 17 days. However, the British camp was beset by problems and soon a post-monsoon spell of cholera descended on the camp, claiming many lives, including that of Sir Barnard himself. With cholera claiming the lives of both Gen. Anson and Gen. Barnard’s, ‘old and feeble’ General Reed took over the British force, but resigned in a mere two weeks owing to bad health, leaving General Wilson to took over command of the Delhi Field Force. However, with so many leadership changes and with only a 4000-strong British force in the Ridge pitted against a 20,000 strong rebel force, the results would have been very different indeed had the rebels had a good General in charge.


(“ We must leave office. All the bungalows are burnt down by the sepoys from Meerut. They came in the morning. We are off : don’t roll to-day. Mr. C. Todd is dead I think. He went out this morning and has not returned yet. We heard that nine Europeans were killed. Good-bye. (Sd.) H.W.Barnard, Major-General”)

The two opposing forces were engaged in constant fighting that raged almost every single day, with bullets like a swarm of hornets flying from every direction in and around the Ridge area, i.e. Metcalfe House, Hindu Rao House, Ludlow Castle, Sabzi Mandi, Qudsia Bagh and Flagstaff tower. The British force was being depleted very fast – both from the incessant gunshot firing from the sepoys, as well as from the cholera outbreak. However, for the soldiers there was no option but to pass time in whatever manner possible. Whenever a sepoy was killed, there was a wrangle among the soldiers to divide the booty recovered from the dead body. The whole force nursed the idea to grab as much prize money and untold jewels as possible, once Delhi – once the richest city in Hindustan – fell.

Whenever there was a ceasefire, the soldiers spent their time fishing, even holding lotteries as to who would catch the first fish, joking and merry-making, and the military band played tunes in the evenings, with good food available due to the large flock of fat sheep brought in to the camp by the 61st battalion.

During these initial days of siege, the British force attempted to blow up the bridge of boats used by the rebels as their supply lifeline, but failed miserably.

1r-horz ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)


Nicholson’s Cemetery

Nine acres of an eerie, alternate world are separated from the chaotic city traffic by an old cross-shaped gate. These lands, an enchanting place of serenity, are populated by dilapidated tombs and cenotaphs entwined in vines, some abandoned for almost one hundred fifty years. Low growing shrubs and a solitary old towering tree or two are the only undercurrent of life in the otherwise deathly silence of this place.


The cemetery was set up by the British just after 1857 to bury their dead, and was previously known as the “Old Delhi Military Cemetery.” It is still being used, and was renovated in 2006 by INTACH and the British High Commission. As one goes around the area, one is struck by the poor life expectancy those days – cenotaphs of young men and women in their thirties, along with those of little children, are in abundance, along with their haunting and evocative inscriptions, half covered in a carpet of weeds.

It is difficult to trace tombs specifically from 1857 in the thick vegetation; for instance, even the grave of Prof Yasudas Ramachandra, one of the first to convert to Christianity in Delhi, is hard to locate and lies in a pathetic condition among overgrown shrubs. However, a listing of a few of the graves can be found online at, (Ref.25) and it can be seen that many of these date back to the early 20th century.


One grave that can be identified is that of General Nicholson just to the right of the entrance gate. In fact, it is the only grave that is easy to locate in the entire cemetery. The epitaph, written on a large marble stone slab taken from the Red Fort, reads, “The grave of Brigadier General John Nicholson who led the assault of Delhi but fell in the hour of victory mortally wounded and died 23rd September 1857 aged 35.” When Nicholson died, the brave Pathan and Punjabi soldiers of his Multani Horse regiment wept like children and fell upon his grave, as they had considered him a demi-god of sorts.

607 ( Tablet on Nicholson’s grave)

On the contrary, Nicholson was a man who detested the locals with a passion and executed them with the violence of a stone-hearted maniac. However, for the British, in those days he was considered such a hero that the brief sentence below by Lord Edwardes summarizes him perfectly:

“My Lord, you may rely upon this, that if ever there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it.”          -Sir Herbert Edwardes to Lord Canning, March 1857.

That “desperate deed” was presented soon enough in the form of the Siege of Delhi, and allowed Nicholson to prove his mettle, but before coming to that, let us reflect upon who this man was.

John Nicholson was born in 1822 in Lisburn, near Belfast, Ireland, as the eldest of seven children to a doctor-father, whom he lost at the tender age of nine. Described as “a precocious boy almost from his cradle: thoughtful, studious, and of inquiring nature,” he was helped with his recruitment into the East India Company by his influential uncle, Sir James Hogg, Member of Parliament, and a Director of EIC.


(Portrait of Brig. General John Nicholson 1867 by Dicksee, John Robert 1817-1905. © Armagh County Museum, Northern Ireland, U.K. ARMCM.21.1951. Reproduced with permission.)

Nicholson, armed with the blessings of his uncle and mother, reached Calcutta after sailing for five months in the Camden, and soon was directed to proceed to Ghazni in Afghanistan to subdue the revolt by Dost Mohammed in 1841. It was not an easy expedition, and along with a few fellow British citizens, he was held captive by the Afghans for five months. Somehow, he escaped the captivity but found his younger brother Alexander had been killed in action in a most barbarous manner. During the following year, another one of his younger brothers, William, was also killed in action.

604 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

In 1842, he was appointed as assistant to Colonel Henry Lawrence in Lahore. A man of abrupt speech and curt manners, Nicholson would never be popular, but he proved himself countless times through his bravery. In the following years, he successfully subdued rebellions in Rawalpindi, Jalandar, Kapurtala, Amritsar, Sialkot, Jhelum, and elsewhere, thus driving fear into the Punjabi heartland.

Curiously, despite his high-handed manner of stamping out lawlessness, the man known as “Nikalsyen” was elevated to the rank of a deity by sects of Sikhs. Believing him to be a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, his followers would prostrate at his feet in open adoration, an act despised by Nicholson himself.

1 (2)


(1. Enthusiastic worshippers calling themselves ‘Nikalseyns’ at the feet of Nicholson;           2. Portrait of John Nicholson Courtesy: Ref.6 via- The Gutenberg Project, Public Domain.)

Ten years later, as the Deputy Commissioner of Banu in North West Frontier Province, he once cut off the head of a noted warlord and kept it on his table, as if to highlight the maxim, “the punishment of mutiny is death.” Legend has it that he did not have ‘mercy’ in his vocabulary and he never took any prisoners.

It was when he was posted in Peshawar that the news of Delhi’s capture by the sepoys came and dazzled everyone.

Nicholson, drawing on his close relationship with the Sikhs, formed a movable column comprised of carefully chosen native fighters. He had a strong sense of instinct, and would purge any native whom he suspected of being untrustworthy.

609 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

He was ordered to proceed to the Mughal Capital of Delhi on the 25th of July with his movable column. Captain Trotter noted that when his men would be taking rest in the shade of some trees, Nicholson stood “in the middle of the hot, dusty road, sitting bolt upright on his horse in the full glare of that July sun, waiting, like a sentinel turned to stone, for the moment when his men should resume their march.” Nicholson’s 52nd Regiment had some Multani horses, 1200 Sikhs and Punjabis, along with Europeans. The total reinforcement was of nearly 3000 men, 1100 of whom were Europeans.

After the reinforcement, the size of the Delhi Field Force swelled to 8000 men, although only 2000 were on active duty in the Ridge because the rest were sent away to Ambala due to sickness or wounds.

1b ( “Passing Stanger Call not this, A place of Dreary gloom; I love to linger near this spot, It is My Husband’s tomb.” – at Nicholson Cemetery)

Nicholson arrived at the Ridge on August 7th, 1857 as head of his forces. His Punjab movable column followed him into the camp on the 14th of August to the welcoming music of the 8th Foot. It would be exactly one month later, at 3 a.m. on the 14th of September, that his forces fanned out to assault the city of Delhi.

Nicholson’s first offensive was on August 25th with nearly 2500 men and eight guns in the Najafgarh village. He lost 25 men and killed about 500 sepoys. As congratulatory messages poured in, Sir John Lawrence telegraphed Nicholson from Lahore, saying, “I wish I had the power of knighting you on the spot!”

1c ( Weep not for me my Parents dear, I am from trouble free; Remember that your time is short, Prepare to follow me.”- at Nicholson’s Cemetery)

Nearly three months had passed since the siege began in Delhi, and the augmented British forces felt it was time for the final assault on the city.

On September 4th, the siege-train arrived at the camp with 24 heavy guns and 400 European infantries along with the savage-looking Baluchi Battalion. Additionally, a party of Sikh horsemen was sent by the Rajah of Jhind. On September 7th, another regiment of Punjabis, led by Wilde, arrived. A Kashmir contingent of 2200 men also joined the Field Force.

600 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

After the re-enforcements arrived, British engineers immediately entrenched forty-five heavy guns and mortars in positions in a mere four days’ time.

While the British anticipated breaching the city wall to be the foremost challenge, the Sepoy strategy was to lure the British into the narrow lanes of the city where they could take them down easily. Surprised to see their strategy not working once inside the city, the British force fell in disarray. When Nicholson tried to salvage the situation, the Bareilly troops gained the upper hand,and he was shot in the chest. He was immediately pulled out of action and taken to the hospital tent in the Ridge.



( 1. Nicholson shot in the back by a sepoy’s musket. 2. Nicholson – assisted by Theo Metcalfe – unperturbedly leading the army column to Najafgarh even when water was flowing above the back of his horse,.   Courtesy: Ref.6 via- The Gutenberg Project, Public Domain.)

Though full of pain and heavily sedated with morphine shots, he still had the strength to threaten to shoot his Commander Wilson when word reached him that Wilson was considering a retreat from Delhi.

For the British, it was a sad sight to see his fatally wounded younger brother, Charles, also brought into the same tent. Two brothers in the prime of their youth were exchanging sorrowful last words while holding each other’s hands. Nicholson was shot through his lungs, and as per Dr. Maclier it was a case of utter surprise as to how he survived for so long.


Brigadier John Nicholson died on the 23rd of September at the early age of 35, three days after the British captured the city. While the British forces were celebrating by lighting a victory fire next to the holy mihrab in Jama Masjid, and a dinner of ham and eggs was being served in the famed Diwan-i-Aam, his last words were, “It was my desire to see Delhi captured before I die.” It was told that he would have been conferred with the ‘Knight’s Commander of the Order of Bath’ (KCB) had he survived.



Master Ramchandra’s Grave

Almost hidden in the wild bushes of Nicholson cemetery lies the gravestone of Delhi’s famed intellectual, who took great initiatives to popularize western knowledge in everyday Urdu. His simple gravestone, inscribed in fading English and Persian, reads:

“Sacred to the memory of YASUDAS RAMCHANDRA. Professor of mathematics at the Delhi Govt College from 1844 to 1857, afterwards for some time the Tutor to H.R.H. the Maharaja of Patiala and Director of Public Instruction in the State.”


The grave of his wife, Seeta Ramchandra, lies nearby.

Yasudas Ramchandra was one of seven sons of a north Indian government official. Born in 1821, he was well versed in Persian, as it was a prerequisite for middle-class Kshatriya families to secure official jobs at both native princely states or even with EIC. When his father moved to Delhi, young Ramchandra was admitted to Delhi English School, which later became Delhi College. The college had two wings: one western section built to “uplift the uneducated and half-barbarous people of India” and an oriental section, or madrasa. From 1844 to 1857, Ramchandra was a professor of science and mathematics at its madrasa division. He was the editor of two journals, Fava’idu ‘n-Nazirin (‘For the benefit of Readers’) and Muhibb-e Hind (‘Indian Patriot’). He translated many books in medicine, mathematics, science, law, economics, literature, and history from English to Urdu. He championed Urdu to be the national language, instead of Persian or English, because of its widespread use.


In July 1852, his conversion to Christianity triggered an uproar. At that time, secret Bible classes started being introduced in the college, and respectable families began removing their children from the college for its perceived “Christian propaganda”. The circulation of his magazine also dwindled. The man who convinced him to convert was Padre John Jennings.


Despite being called “duplicitous” by Thomas Metcalfe and a “bigot” by Theo Metcalfe and despite being chased and driven out by Naga Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela for his dogged zeal to convert the “morally corrupt Indians” to Christianity, Padre John Jennings, then the chaplain of Delhi, had his share of successes. Jennings believed that “a strong attack must be made by the British to elevate the local people from ignorance, in return for the favour of ruling Hindustan and also the Koh-i-noor.” He and his beautiful daughter, Annie, together with her friend Miss Clifford, who were choirmasters at the St. James church, pulled off a major coup. This occurred when Zafar’s personal doctor, Dr. Chaman Lal, and talented mathematician Master Ramachandran, converted to Christianity.


It is ironic that the first casualty of the Uprising on May 11th, 1857 was not a British officer or soldier, but the unsuspecting Dr. Chaman Lal, who was killed by the sepoys while attending to patients at his Daryaganj clinic. On the same day, Master Ramchandra fled the city only to return after the British victory, expecting to be welcomed as a hero as a ‘star-convert’. However, if it was his religion before, now it was his skin colour that made him an outsider. Although appointed as an assistant to Prize Agents, he was continually harassed and humiliated by the British.

601 (Nicholson’s Cemetery) 


Kashmiri Gate

Today, it is one of the four surviving gates of the 14 original gates that surrounded Shahjahanabad. A moat, which can be seen in old photographs, no longer exists. The gate’s fortified facade is pock-marked from heavy artillery fire during 1857. Two huge arched entrances puncture the wide gateway, which lies in the direction of Shahjahanabad to Kashmir, leading to its name. Its looping designs, crenellations, and the inner wall have been significantly modified and added upon over the years. Recent renovations can be identified by pinkish portions of the wall, as a result of mixing lime and crushed bricks used as the binding material. A narrow staircase leads to its roof, which offers a view of the angular bastions jutting out at both ends. Hinges for the gate’s massive doors can still be seen on its arched entrances.

kashmiri Gate

(Samuel Bourne Kashmir Gate, Delhi 1860s, albumen silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2007. Reproduced with permission.)

Kashmiri Gate was chosen by the British as the point of attack to enter Delhi. Ironically, the thick city walls, surrounded by a moat, were specifically strengthened by the British to guard against Holkar-like attacks in 1804. Previously, there were crumbling mud walls without any parapet or ditch and it was the hardest for the same British forces who rebuilt the walls to break now.


With the re-enforcements, the Delhi Field Force now consisted of 12,588 men, whereas the sepoy force was estimated to be over 40,000. Here’s a breakdown of the British Force:

  • Europeans: Artillery – 580, Cavalry – 514, Infantry – 2672
  • Natives: Artillery – 770, Cavalry – 1313, Infantry – 3417
  • Engineers, sappers, miners, etc. – 722
  • Kashmir Contingent – 2200
  • Cavalry of Jhind Rajah – 400

Total: 12,588

‘Seize-guns’ arrived on the 4th of September, drawn by elephants, and the attack started from September 7th onwards. After continuous heavy artillery firing for four days from 18-pounders and 24-pounders, they achieved their first milestone on September 11th when the gate was successfully breached. The Kashmiri bastion was silenced, its ramparts and wall curtains shattered, and a large breach appeared on the wall. Rebel forces attacked back quite successfully, directing their field-guns, firing volley of rockets, and streams of musketry that caused a loss of almost 350 men in the British Force.

669-1-horz ( Note the original thin Lakhauri bricks on the left of the tablet and thicker modern bricks on right introduced in later restorations)

The attack strategy was drawn up by General Wilson:

“No quarter should be given to the mutineers; at the same time, for the sake of humanity and the honour of the country they belong to, he (Major General Wilson) calls upon them (the British force) to spare all women and children that may come in their way…indiscriminate plunder will not be allowed; (and) prize agents have been appointed.”

General Nicholson was appointed the overall commander for the assault, with immediate command of Columns 1, 2, 3, and 5.

  • Column 1: Brigadier General Nicholson with 1000 men to storm the breach at the Kashmir bastion
  • Column 2: Brigadier W. Jones with 850 men to storm the breach near the water bastion
  • Column 3: Colonel Campbell with 950 men to assault the Kashmiri Gate
  • Column 4: Major Reid with 1000 men to attack Kishenganj and enter the city through the Lahore Gate, and meet Column 1 and 2 there
  • Column 5 or the “Reserve:” Brigadier Longfield with 1300 men to cover Nicholson column’s advance as a reserve


Early on the morning of the 14th, the British Force assembled on the slope of the Flagstaff Tower, with Nicholson inspecting each of the column formations. The sudden silence from the ceaseless firing at this time might have convinced the rebel forces in the city that something ominous was being planned in the British camp. Once the attack started again, the ramparts and the roof of the walls became alive with sepoys directing hailstorms of bullets onto the British force (who were trying to cross the 25 feet broad and 20 feet deep ditch). As if on a suicide mission, some of the British forces carried powder-bags at the Kashmiri Gate and ignited the match, blowing up the Gate and giving free passage to the columns.

Columns 1 and 2 united as one, whereas 3 was guided by Theo Metcalfe to march towards Jama Masjid.

673 ( From the top of the Gate – angular bastions projecting outwards from the city and  a  green patch now covers the area originally used as a ditch)

The British entered into the city hoping for an easy over-run of a demoralized rebel force after the fall of the Kashmiri Gate. However, Bakht Khan and Mirza Mughal had made their preparations quite well and, once the British force crossed over into the city and were within the narrow city lanes, they immediately came under unexpected spirited attacks from rooftops, buildings, and street corners, inflicting very heavy casualties. The musketry poured like rain, combat started between both sides, cutting, bayoneting, and hacking the soldiers in front of them in order to move even an inch forward. The streets were suddenly alive with citizens and rebel forces in the labyrinth of its passages, field guns and howitzers pouring grape and canisters onto the columns, and turning the whole attack into a street-fight that went on till late in the night.


By the evening, the British had paid a heavy price; they managed to occupy just a quarter of the city, but almost one third of the attack force was dead or wounded, including General Nicholson and Major Reid. Attack Columns 1 and 2 could not advance beyond the Kabul gate, 3 had been checked near Jama Masjid by the rebels, and 4 completely failed. Altogether, 1200 men of the British Force were killed and wounded on that single day. Dead bodies lay in the streets and open spaces. The rebel forces suffered similarly high casualties.

On the 15th and 16th, the British and the Mughal forces were equally demoralized and were broken down with anxiety. To add to the misfortune of the British, they stumbled upon a huge cache of liquor just inside the city gates, resulting in the whole British force drowned in a state of drunkenness until all the remaining liquor was destroyed by General Wilson’s order. At this point, had the Mughal forces mounted a coordinated counter-attack on the British during those two days, it would have been a decisive victory for Zafar. Even General Wilson began considering withdrawal to the Ridge and awaiting further re-enforcements, a decision that was denounced by Nicholson lying on his death bed.

676 (Notice the original marking of the crenellated arches of the wall, over which later day additions have been made)

On the morning of the 16th, sensing the inevitable, around 70,000 people – common citizens and the fighting soldiers – gathered in front of Red Fort and appealed to Zafar to lead them to the final offense against the British. Some of them were quoted as saying things such as, “Why die a coward’s death? Lead us in the fight and leave an imperishable name.” This was the moment of truth for the Last Mughal; however, it was unrealistic to expect a feeble 82-year old man to lead a military expedition against the British army. On the morning of the 17th, Zafar slipped out of the river gate, took a boat, glided down the Yamuna, and reached the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya to hand over the sacred relics of the Prophet. Joined by his wife, Zeenat Mahal, he moved into the Humayun’s tomb, playing into the hands of Hodson who was too eager to be the great Imperial hero in capturing the Royal party.


When the people saw what the King did, they could foresee that the end was near and started fleeing the city. On the 18th night, there was a heavy rain, with reports that the Bareilly and Neemuch rebel brigades had left the city. On the forenoon of the 18th there was a partial eclipse for nearly three hours, astonishing everyone with the unusual darkness. It was considered as the ultimate ill omen and divine displeasure. On the intervening night of the 19th and 20th, a mass exodus by the citizens and soldiers took place through the bridge of boats, nearly everyone deserting the city.

On the 20th, the British captured the Red Fort by blowing up its massive gate with powder-bags. Soon, Salimgarh and Jama Masjid too were captured with virtually no resistance to face.

The loss of the British Force from 30th May to 13th September was 2,490 men, the loss on 14th Sept was 1200 men and between 15th and 20th September, they lost about 200 men, bringing the total loss to 4,000 men. This was apart from the 1,200 who died from cholera and other diseases.



British Magazine

On the same traffic triangle where the Telegraph Memorial is located, two isolated gateways stand today – remains of probably the largest arsenal of arms and ammunition that existed in India. A marble tablet that is fixed at the top of the entrance gateway to the structure reads:


“On the 11th May 1857, Nine resolute Englishmen Lieut. Geo. Dobson Willoughby, Bengal Artillery, in command, Lieutenant William Raynor, Conductor Geo William Shaw, Conductor John Scully, Sergeant Benjamin Edwards, Lieutenant Geo Forrest, Conductor John Buckley, Sub Conductor William Crow, Sergeant Peter Stewart defended the magazine of Delhi for more than four hours against a large numbers of the rebels and mutineers until the walls being scaled and all hope of succor gone, these brave men fired the magazine – five of the gallant band perished in the explosion which at the same time destroyed many of the enemy.”



The date was 11th May 1857. Between 7am and 8am, Theo Metcalfe had asked guns to be placed overlooking the bridge of boats. However, it was too late; as the mutineers had already crossed into Delhi. Zafar was bestowing his hesitant blessings on the rebel army when Willoughby found himself surrounded by a sepoy army at the magazine.


Soon, the palace guards also arrived and demanded to have the magazine handed over to the rebels. Willoughby barricaded the gates, lay a trail of powder from the store, and asked Conductor Scully, who volunteered, to light the fuse once Willoughby signaled him. At this point, the whole of the local staff deserted the magazine and joined the sepoys who were trying to capture it. Willoughby made the decision to blow up the magazine in order to prevent the vast cache of arms falling into the rebels’ hands. The explosion was so great that as many as 500 rebels were blown up with it. The sound of the explosion could be heard as far as Meerut. Several ceilings made of plaster came down in the Red Fort, a half a mile away. Although Lieutenant Willoughby escaped the explosion, he was soon captured by the sepoys and put to death.


James Skinner and His Architectural Patronage

James Skinner (1778-1841) was the son of a Scottish mercenary named Hercules Skinner. Hercules began his military career in 1771 with the 19th Native Infantry, and married a Rajput woman from Benares. James was one of six children the couple had – three boys and three girls. He was only twelve when his mother committed suicide because she felt her Rajput honour was violated when her three girls were sent to school. James was trained with a printer and then with a lawyer, but he lost interest in both of his apprenticeships. In 1799, he joined Madhoji Scindia’s army under the celebrated French general de Boigne. When de Boigne’s successor, Perron, launched a military expedition against Irish general George Thomas, it was James who liquidated Hansi, the Irishman’s stronghold that became the country home of James, the conqueror, in later days.


(Watercolor Portrait of Colonel James Skinner, a.k.a Sikandar Sahib ‘re-incarnation of Alexander the Great’ in his cavalry uniform,  by Indian painter Ghulam Murtaza Khan, 1830. © The British Library Board, ADD. 27254 f4r. Reproduced with permission.

1800 was the year when James Skinner returned miraculously from the brink of death. It was in a battle where he was fighting that he and his forces were thoroughly defeated. They lay wounded in the field, and hunger and thirst brought darkness to their eyes and made them yearn for death rather than to linger on. He lay surrounded by his unconscious or dead comrades, jackals tearing away pieces of flesh from their bodies. It was in those hopeless hours that James Skinner made a vow (some say he made three vows) which he promised to fulfill if he was given a second chance at life. His battlefield vows have been presumed differently, but the most popular one is that he vowed to build a church, a mosque, and a temple. It was perhaps an appeal to all the Gods of the heavens, but it could also be due to his association and respect for all three religions – his father being Christian, his mother Hindu, and his wife a Muslim. It is said that a village woman suddenly appeared, offering water and a second life to a man who would soon rise to be one of the most powerful in the sub-continent.


(From the catalogue, ‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

Begum Samru was senior to James by almost twenty-five years, but he was one of the very few men who commanded her rare respect. Following the inevitability of an Anglo-French war, Scindia had dismissed all Eurasians from his army, as he believed that half-English people could not fight wholeheartedly against the EIC. James was amongst those. At the same time, Begum Samru started influencing him to join the British forces. Skinner finally switched sides under the condition that he was never to be forced to fight against his ex-commander, Frenchman Perron; a condition that was accepted by Lord Lake, but with a comment that, ‘The Scindia is a lucky man.’


(‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

He was eulogized as a re-incarnation of Alexander the Great and thus was called Sikandar Sahib. The Mughal emperors bestowed upon him, for his mercenary services, a rather elaborate title of ‘Nasir ud-Daulah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jang’. Due to his mixed blood, he was barred by the British to join as a commissioned officer. However, when Lord Lake wanted to raise a cavalry corps and asked the soldiers to name their choice for the Commander, ‘Sikandar Sahib’ was the unanimous victor. Thus, on September 10th, 1803, he took up a regiment of irregular cavalry known as “Skinner’s Horse” or “Yellow Boys,” under the motto of “Himmat-i-Mardan, Madad-i-Khuda,” meaning “Bravery of Men, Help of God.” Only four days after, Skinner’s horse would prove its mettle in Lord Lake’s successful capturing of Delhi.

Often derided as a “half-caste” with 14 wives and a “heap of black sons,” James is best remembered as a dashing soldier, a kind of Anglo-Indian warrior prince.


(‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

Between 1830 and 1836, he commissioned six luxuriously illustrated Persian manuscripts, totally unexpected of a daredevil cavalryman known for his halting English. ‘Tashrih-al-Akvam’ and ‘Tazkirat-al-Umara’ are the works, the latter being a pictorial description of princes of India.

James died on December 14th, 1841 at Hansi. He was buried there, but his wish was to be buried at the very entranceway of the majestic church that he had built at Delhi, so that “all entering might trample over the chief of sinners.” On January 17th, his coffin was brought to Delhi with great fanfare – a sixty-three gun salute, one for each year of his life – and was lowered under the high altar of the church.


St. James Church

Unfortunately, early records of the first church of Delhi were all lost during the events of 1857. We do not know when the construction of this magnificent church began, who the planners and builders were, nor who its first priest was. However, it is presumed that James Skinner’s wish to fulfill his vow must have been rekindled by Begum Samru’s commissioning of a great church at Sardhana in 1822 – as he did not start the construction as soon as he settled in Delhi. His church became ready in 1836, the same year when Begum Samru died, and was entirely financed by Skinner, all without accepting a single rupee either from the EIC or from any missionary society. The church was named after Saint James, perhaps keeping in mind the coincidence with the patron’s name.


Although the early records regarding its construction are all lost, historians credit Major Robert Smith and Captain de Bude of Bengal Engineers with the architecture of the building. Regarding its first priest, there are no records up until Rvd. H.A. Loveday served from 1842 till 1848. The most illustrious priest in those days was Rvd. John Jennings, who took charge in 1851 and served until he was murdered in 1857. Jennings made Delhi the center of Christian activity based out of it’s first church, St James. In 1852, two notable people, mathematician Ramachandra and surgeon Chiman Lal, were baptized in this very church. In 1854, the first missionaries from England arrived in Delhi.



(A representative floor plan of Stanford Memorial Church at Stanford University, USA, showing different parts in a typical Gothic Church with Cruciform architecture. The unusual and distinct layout of St. James Church can be compared with respect to this standard layout: A- Altar, B-Chancel, C- Crossing, D-Naive, E- Aisles, F-Narthex, G-Arcade, H – East Transept with Transept Galley above, J-West Transept/Side Chapel with Transept Gallery above, K-Round Room. CC-BY-SA-3.0. Creative Commons.

In a traditional Gothic cruciform church layout design, the entrance generally opens to a longer side of the cross, called the naive. The shorter arm lying across the naive is called the transept. The naive and the transept are normally used as the sitting space for people. The head of the cross-styled architecture plan has a dome over the altar and the chancel. However, in St James church, an unusual majestic dome stands atop the structure’s centre and covers the entire congregational area, which is otherwise situated at the naive and the transept. This imposing eight-leafed dome is surmounted with a metal ball and a cross, supported on eight short pillars.


The metal ball and the cross are not the original ones. During 1857, the originals were targets for rebel sepoys, who tried to destroy them. After its restoration post 1857, those were replaced by a new pair and the originals were installed on the ground in the church courtyard. The metal ball and cross remained there until 1947, when they were stolen.


As per the records by a soldier named Fred Roberts, the scene in 1857 was such that the church was ‘riddled with cannonballs, filled with dying men, and made a magazine for shot and shell.’ In recent years, major restorations have been done by INTACH and the UK Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, including the restoration of the beautiful stained-glass windows that are placed on either side of the altar, depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. Other restoration measures by INTACH include arresting water seepage, complete electrical re-wiring, and strengthening the dome to prevent its collapse.

633 ( Tomb of William Fraser, at St. Jame’s  Church)

The church’s surrounding garden has many memorials and graves. A small enclosure on the north side has a large number of beautifully crafted tombs that belong to the Skinner family. Many of the grave inscriptions are in Persian, the official language of Skinner’s times. It is interesting to note that the man and his two closest friends lie buried in its small compound, as if united in death as well: James Skinner, Thomas Metcalfe, and William Fraser.


The tomb of William Fraser lies in the garden, just opposite to its main entrance. Its beautiful tombstone was destroyed in 1857. A large marble plate stands affixed the top of a raised platform and reads a eulogy to Fraser, who was killed on 22nd March 1835. William Fraser was the Resident Commissioner and Agent of Delhi territory to the Governor General of India during the reign of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was the successor to David Ochterlony and the predecessor to Sir Thomas Metcalfe as the East India Company’s Delhi Resident. He was very much an Indianised, white Mughal who adored Indian dresses and had six or seven Indian wives.

1g ( Tomb of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, at St. Jame’s  Church)

He was a close friend of poet Ghalib and is best remembered for commissioning almost ninety paintings by local Mughal painters, together known as the Fraser Album. He was killed by an assassin hired by the ruler of Loharu, Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan, for his interference in a property dispute. Today, his palatial bungalow is known as the Hindu Rao hospital in the Delhi Ridge. The grave complex of the Nawabs of Loharu can be found inside the Dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli.

Behind his tomb stands a huge grey cross that commemorates the Christians killed in Delhi during the uprising.


(For the memory of those who were killed- at St. James Church)

The Church complex also has the grave of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, EIC Resident at the Mughal court, who died mysteriously of food poisoning a few years before the 1857 uprising. The poisoning was carried out ostensibly by the orders by Zafar’s wife, Zeenat Mahal. Metcalfe is best remembered for commissioning a beautiful book of paintings titled “Dehlie Book: Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi” in 1844. He had a farmhouse in Mehrauli that he called Dikusha, or the “delighter of hearts”— a pleasure retreat built by extending Akbar’s wet-brother Quli Khan’s tomb. The exquisite stone screen that once surrounded his grave and a tombstone were destroyed in 1857.




Renovated and restored by James Skinner in his estate grounds, it was originally built in 1728 by a Fakr al-Nisa Khanum, wife of Nawab Shuja’at Khan. Literally meaning the “pride of mosques,” it has the main mosque on the first floor and shops occupy the ground floor. This arrangement was meant for the regular maintenance of the mosque to be financed from the shop rentals. Its bulbous striped dome and minarets topped by chhatris is the typical architecture style of the late Mughal era. The mosque is often cited as one of the three religious structures that James Skinner constructed or restored to fulfill his death-vows. Since this mosque preceded Skinner by almost a hundred years, we can only presume that only a major restoration was carried out by him.




Dara Shikoh’s Library/Old Residency

Dara Shikoh Library

(An old photograph of the Residency building , Picture © ASI, New Delhi, from their publication, ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments of Shahjahanabad, Vol-I, illustrations, Calcutta, 1915.’ Reproduced with permission.)

               The building was part of Shahjahan’s scholarly son Dara Shikoh’s estate and library until 1659, when he was killed by the orders of his brother, Aurangzeb. Thereafter, it was owned by a Portuguese lady named Juliana who then sold it to Safdarjung, the prime minister in the royal court of emperor Muhammad Shah, during the first half of the 18th century. It was bought by David Ochterlony, the first British Resident in Delhi in 1803, and continued as the official British Residency till 1844, when the Residency was moved to Ludlow Castle.


The building is believed to have been commissioned as part of Dara’s haveli around 1650, when the Shahjahanabad was built. Its ground floor constituted the Qutub Khana, or the library where his collection of books were kept. We can still see some old Mughal architecture such as cusped arches and baluster columns in the building behind its outer facade and verandah with Roman pillars. There are many terracotta and bone items, belonging to the late Harrapan era and from first century BC to fourth century AD, arranged in glass cabinets around its verandah. On its rear side, a series of Mughal arched structures co-exist with a row of Roman arched chambers, believed to have been used as stable houses.

640-1 (Although the building’s outer facade is colonial in looks, its interior still has original Mughal-era arches and pillars)

640-3 (Colonial and Mughal era  stable houses on the backside of the building)

640-2 ( Harrapan  artifacts on display inside the protected building. An original Mughal pillar can be seen on the left)

Currently, the building is under the protection of Delhi government’s Department of Archaeology. As per a proposal by INTACH, the building is to be converted into a museum.


Old St Stephen’s College

The building today houses the office of Chief Electoral Officer of Delhi. Colonel Samuel Swinton Jacob, the chief proponent of Indo-Gothic, or Indo-Saracenic architectural style, designed this unique building. He implemented architectural features like overhanging Chattris, domed chajjas, and eaves on cantilevers projecting from the walls, of Mughal style; co-existing with balustrades, semi-circular aches, arched colonnades, and a majestic square porch of Western design. The two-story building has half-octagonal turrets around circular staircases on its north side.


St Stephen’s high school was founded by Rvd. M. J. Jennings in 1854 in Chandni Chowk area; in 1876, it was allowed to introduce university classes. In 1889, Samuel Scott Allnut proposed a new college building either at Kashmiri Gate or outside the Lahori Gate. The former site was chosen and a new building – designed by Swinton Jacob, Chief Engineer of Jaipur – was constructed in 1891 at the cost of Rs. 92702 and 10 paise. Allnut was the founder and first principal of the college with 3 teachers and 5 students, which increased to 99 students by 1899, when he retired. He was nicknamed “the Giraffe” and rode about Delhi on his tricycle.

The cricket ground of the college was the site where the British troops gathered in 1857 for the final assault on Delhi; now the Inter State Bus Terminal occupies that site. The college boasts three Heads of State as its alumni: Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (India), Gen Zia Ul Haq (Pakistan), and Selim-e-Selim (Tanzania).



Sultan Sing’s Haveli and Estate

In the Chabi Ganj area stands a stately 19th century building called Sultan Singh’s haveli. Built in the 1890’s, it now houses the National Cadet Corps (NCC) office. Sultan Singh’s grandson, Virendra Singh, was one of the founders of the NCC.



A sweeping staircase leads up to the house, whose façade is a mix of Mughal and Colonial style. On both sides, projecting balconies supported on slender circular pillars stand above doors framed in Roman arches. Two arched windows with decorative keystones puncture the wall on either side of the door. Two beautiful decorative frames of Chinese glazed tiles in plasterwork frames are on either side of the staircase, believed to date back to the original structure. On its backside, the projecting jharokhas are enclosed with antique-looking wrought iron grills and wooden frames. It is believed that all decorative wrought iron grills in those days were manufactured entirely in England and were assembled here. A taikhana, or underground room, can be seen in the structure, whose ventilator projects out just above ground level.


The entire area surrounding the haveli was once his estate. Even the line of market in the street from Fakr-ul-Masjid on the left-hand side is called “Sultan Singh Market.” Dilapidated and faded ancient shop fronts with old Mughal styled pillars and traces of stylized grills and wooden planks mark the first floor of this market.

1d-horz The area originally belonged to James Skinner. In 1902, Sultan Singh donated one of his buildings to the Hindu college, which then shifted to the location it is in now from its original location in Kinari Bazar. The college operated here from 1902 to 1953. Juxtaposed with the old St. Sephen’s college, it acted as its academic counter-weight and fueled healthy rivalry in education. During the freedom movement, the college played an important role in intellectual and political debates.


Bengali Club

The Bengali Club was constructed in 1925 as a cultural institution for the swelling Bengali population in Delhi after the Capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912.   Many illustrious personalities like Subhash Chandra Bose and Rabindra Nath Tagore were associated with the Club. The first Durga Puja of Delhi started from here in 1910.


It is a two-story building, currently proposed for renovation by INTACH. The Bengali Club occupies two rooms and the lobby in the first floor, and the rest of that floor is converted to a hotel. The ground floor houses shops.


Finally, a brief timeline of the series of major outbreaks against the British, outlining the popular character against the British authority that may be regarded as the background and pre-cursor to the great revolt of 1857.

Year Reactions against British conquests
1792 Revolt by Raja Verma of Kottayam, Kerala
1794; 1830-32 Fighting by Raja of Vizianagaram
1798 Outbreak in Ganjam, Orissa
1800 Rebellion by Dhundia Wagh of Mysore
1800;1835 Revolt by the Bhanjas of Gumsur, Orissa
1805 Rebelleion following second Maratha War, specially at Ajaygarh & Kalanjar forts
1813 Revolt by Gujjars
1824;1829 Revolt in Belgaum
1824 Fighting in Bijapur
1826-29 Revolt in Poona by Ramosis
1830;1839 Fighting at Sadiya, Assam valley
1830;1832;1836 Revolt at Savantvadi on Konkan coast
1835 Fighting with hill tribe Kapaschor Akas
1840 Uprising at Badami Fort
1842 Revolt by Talukdar of Kunja near Roorki
1844 Revolt by Kolhapur
1844 onwards Revolt by South Indian states(Tinnevelly, Bellary, Anantpur, Cuddapah, Kurnool, north Arcot)
1844 Rebellion by Gadkaris of Kolhapur
1849 Revolt by Naga tribe
Revolts due to Political Causes
1781 Rebel by Chait Singh of Benares
1799 Rebellion by Awadh
Revolts due to Misrule in British Protected States
1804;1808 Revolt by Travancore
1815-18 Revolt by Rajput Baji Rao II of Kathiawad
Uprisings due to Economic causes
1767;1770;1773 Revolt by Raja of Dhalbhum, Bengal
1770;1799;1800 Rebellion of Chuar tribes in the hills of Ghatsila and Barabhum
1783 Revolt by Peasants of Rangpur
1783 Fighting in Tinnevilly by the Poligars
1789 Revolt in Bishnupur
1802 Revolt in Malabar
1807;1817 Rebellion in Aligarh at Dayaram’s fort
1816 Outbreak in Bareilly
1817 Revolt by Paikas of Orissa at Khurda; joined by Khonds from Gumsur
1817 Outbreak at Puri
1842 Outbreak in Bundelkhand
1852 Revolt by cultivators in Khandesh at Savda and Chopda
Religious Rebellions
1772 The Sanyasi rebellion in Bengal
1799 Uprising at Cachar, with help of Naga Kukis
1810 Revolt by Imam of Meerut
1821 Start of Wahabi movement in U.P.
1825 Uprising by Pagla Panthis in North Bengal
1831 Battle by Wahabis in Bengal
1838 Faraidi Movement in Bengal
Tribal Resistances
1783 Rebellion by Khasi tribe in Garo and Jantia hills
1787;1789 Rebellion by Khasis of Laur
1795;1825;1829 Khasi Rebellion
1809 Revolt by Jats in Bhiwani, Haryana
1818-19; 1820-25; 1831; 1846 Revolt by Bhils in Khandesh
1820 Revolt by Mers in Rajputana
1820 Rebellion by the Hos of Singhbhum
1824;1839;1844 Rebellion by Kolis in Western Ghats
1831-32 The Kol uprising at Ranchi, Hazaribagh
1832 Rebellion of Bhumij in Manbhum at Barabazar, and Barabhum
1846 Uprising by the khonds of Orissa
1855 Uprising by the Santal tribes in Bhagalpur
Outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny
6th Feb 1857 34th NI, Barrackpore: Open rebellion, setting fire to officers’ bungalows
19th Feb 1857 19th NI, Berhampur: Sepoys Excited but not violent, shouting against officers; 19th NI disbanded
29th March, 1857 34th NI, Barrackpore: Mangal Pandey shoots Lt Baugh; Mangal Pandey executed & 34th NI disbanded
End of March, 1857 Similar incident at Amballa
3rd May, 1857 Lucknow; sepoys threaten to murder their officer
9th May, 1857 Meerut: Full scale uprising by Third Cavalry, joined by 20th and 11th NI
11th May,1857 Meerut Sepoys capture Delhi, epicentre of the “Clash of Civilisations”



  1. The Last Mughal; by William Dalrymple, New Delhi, 2007.
  2. Video and Transcript of William Dalrymple’s lecture for ‘City of London Festival’ at the Gresham College:
  3. The Sepoy Mutiny and the revolt of 1857; by R.C. Majumdar, Calcutta, 1957.
  4. The Siege of Delhi; by Charles John Griffith, 1910; Photographically reproduced, Delhi, 1995.
  5. The Indian Mutiny to the Fall of Delhi; compiled by a Former Editor of the “Delhi Gazette.”; London,1857.
  6. John Nicholson, the Lion of Punjaub; by R.E. Cholmeley, London,1908. Courtesy: The Gutenberg Project (
  7. Mutiny Records, Correspondence Part I, Punjab Government Publications,1911, Lahore.
  8. Letters written during the siege of Delhi; by Hervey Harris Greathed, Elisa F. Greathed; London, 1858.
  9. The Seven Cities of Delhi; by Gordon Hearn, 1928, Calcutta and Shimla.
  10. Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, by Swapna Liddle, Delhi, 2011.
  11. The Tazkirat Al-umara of Colonel Skinner:
  12. The looting by British Prize Agents and Zafar’s crown-cap:
  13. History of St. Stephen’s college :
  14. Timeline map of Mughal Empire:
  15. Timeline map of British Empire in India:
  16. Hindu Astronomy, by G.R. Kaye; 1998, ASI, New Delhi.
  17. The Wonder That Was India, by A.L. Basham, London, 1954.
  18. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems; by Agha Shahid Ali
  19. Three Mughal Poets; by Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russel, New Delhi, 1991
  20. ‘Princess and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857’ : Exhibition by Asia Society New York, Feb 7 to May 6, 2012, William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma:
  21. INTACH Delhi Newsletter, Vol 1, Issue 2, September 2015:
  22. Delhi, A Thousand Years of Building, by Lucy Peck, 2005, Delhi.
  23. Grave Secrets of Yangon’s Imperial Tomb, 09 February 2014, Myanmar Times,
  24. ‘When telegraph saved the nation’; 18 November 2012, Indian Express,
  25. Find A Grave at Nicholson Cemetery:
  26. Restored cemetery raises ghost of colonial brutality in India, October 28, 2006, Financial Times,
  27. Master Ramachandra of Delhi College: Teacher, Journalist, and Cultural Intermediary, by Gail Minault:
  28. History of Hindu College:
  29. Graves of empire tell of India’s troubled past:
  30. God’s Acre, by R.V.Smith; October 28,2006, The Hindu:
  31. The Victorian Blogs of John Nicholson:
  32. A Living Witness – An account of St. James’ Church and its builder, Nirendra Kumar Biswas, St. James Church, 1999, Delhi.
  33. India, Mutiny Amongst the Bengal Native Troops (From the Sydney Herald, July 11.)
  34. Maulvi Fazle Haq Khairabadi & 1857:


The sites were explored during heritage trails led by Kanika Singh of Delhi Heritage Walks and Jaya Basera of INTACH Delhi. Thanks to both of them for making my study interesting and insightful.