Three Features of Diwan-e-Khas

There are quite a few interesting things in Delhi’s Red Fort when you try to unravel its features that may not appear quite apparent at first, but three things that stand out in replaying the Diwan-e-Khas or the Hall of Private Audience in one’s mind’s eye are the couplet inscribed on its walls, the symbol of the Scales of Justice and of course, the Peacock Throne and Koh-i-Noor diamond. While the throne can only be imagined in the hallowed hall of Diwan-e-Khas, the rest two can still be seen, though close access to them has been restricted.

A paragraph from my book reads: “With the 12-foot-wide murmuring Nahr-i-Bihist gliding through it and the Emperor seated on his Peacock Throne or the Takht-e-Taawus, one can visualise the aptness of the verse by Amir Khusrau that was inscribed on it which says, ‘If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, O it is this!’

Agar firdaus bar ru-i-zamin ast, Hamin ast, hamin ast, o hamin ast”

Amir Khusrau most probably penned these lines in appreciation of the new city of Siri commissioned by his contemporary Sultan Allauddin Khilji more than three centuries ago. But recent research by Rana Safvi disputes this claim in favour of poet Mirza Muhammad Tahir “Aashna” (AD 1628–71), entitled Inayat Khan, son of Zafar Khan, the governor of Kashmir. (

Recently I received three special covers issued in 1978 with beautiful cancellations that brought this thing back into my mind. Each of the cover carried images of beautiful and colourful pietra dura flowers that adorn the pillars of Diwan-e-Khas that were designed perhaps to give a feeling to the Emperor that he was never far from nature, with the murmuring ‘Nahar-i-Bihisht’ or the Stream of Paradise flowing along the hall.

But the more interesting features of these covers are their cancellations. While the first had this verse below the image of the fort, the second one brings us to the second important feature of the Diwan-e-khas:  Scales of Justice.

From my book: “Interesting to note are the ‘Scales of Justice’ – a pair of scales that represented the just rule of Shah Jahan – carved on a translucent marble sheet and fused atop a finely pierced marble screen below which flew the Nahr-i-Bihisht. From this final court of justice at Diwan-e-Khas, the graphic depiction of Justice nearby was perhaps to comfort the petitioners while reminding those meting out judgements on their duty to uphold impartiality. The ‘Scales of Justice’, or the Mizan-i-Adal, was depicted on a crescent moon surrounded by countless stars or suns – a portrayal of the heavens, signifying fairness of Mughal Justice in the entire universe. The lower portion of this screen standing atop the conduit for Nahr-i-Bihisht was almost like a fine lace. “

The intended visualization was now complete: Emperor seated on his Peacock Throne or the Takht-e-Taawus in a hall designed with pietra dura flowers encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones that mimicked the most beautiful flowers in their beauty if not in fragrances, and Justice itself depicted as a fine scale in the Mughal Empire’s final court of appeal, while the ‘time-like’ waters of Nahr-i-Bihisht passed below. And one could definitely appreciate the aptness of the inscribed verse: “If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, it is this, it is this, O it is this!” Agar firdaus bar ru-i-zamin ast, Hamin ast, hamin ast, o hamin ast.

This brings us to the last feature – the Koh-i-Noor and the Peacock Throne and the invasion of Nadir Shah. But maybe I will have to get on to a new post and few new artefacts to discuss that.

Jahangir and Madonna – The Mughals and the West

In my book, I have discussed how the Mughal Emperors were quick enough to adapt Christian concepts and ideas into Mughal paintings and monuments, if not the religion itself.  Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) – “the world-conqueror” – the emperor who was famed for his indulgence in arts was known to be influenced by novelties from the West. They were perhaps, in Ebba Koch’s words eager to show their world-wide connections and their international status as rulers belonging to the family of the kings of the world.

The Shahjahani balustrade column, for example, is said to be partly influenced by illustrations by Flemish artists in a set of volumes of the Bible presented to Akbar in 1580 by the Jesuit mission.

While writing the book, I was not aware of this beautiful miniature of Jahangir holding the picture of Madonna. Recently my attention to it was drawn by a stamp from Tanzania featuring the same. I think it would have been a good addition to the book, and when I examined the painting from google Wikimedia.

I found that both the Emperor and Madonna are depicted with respective solar halos around their heads, with the Emperor holding the picture and examining it. I was reminded of Prof Harbans Mukhia’s observation which I have included in my book that miniatures showing Jahangir and the Persian Emperor Shah Abbas depicted them similarly: “Although they never met each other, Mughal miniatures depicted both (Jahangir and Shah Abbas) sitting side by side. But in those portrayals of brotherly love, says Harbans Mukhia, the solar halo of Jahangir was depicted slightly bigger, his seat shown a little higher, and his physique a bit healthier than that of Shah Abbas.”

(From Wikimedia)

There are few verses inscribed on the painting. After my futile efforts to get their translations, I turned to friends. Qamar Dagar, India’s noted calligrapher and artist, and Maryam Shaikh, Professor of English at Pune University, helped me on this. The inscription is not fully readable, but it is a poem on friendship by Persian poet Pir ‘Abdullah Ansari:

“O Allah, what virtues is this that accompanies Thy friends?

With what privilege hast thou brought them into the world,

That whosoever found Thee would know them,

And whosoever knew them would find Thee!”

(also at

Then it reads: “O Allah! I tremble like the willow tree lest…(sentence incomplete)”

Courtesy to Qamar Dagar again, the verse on the right reads:

“(First hemistich missing) The horse was exhausted after the night’s journey. They wailed in the morning that they were tired out – explore the saddle bag of the chaste ones.”

The rest of verses are not readable.

I looked up regarding the poet, Abdullah Ansari. He was from Herat in modern-day Afghanistan (1006-1088) and was known as the ‘Sage of Herat’ or ‘Pir-i Herat”. An outstanding poet in Arabic and Persian, he was well-known throughout Khorasan. When I looked deeper, I even found a stamp on him – from Tajikistan! Maybe I should do that follow up later in another post.


Zafar’s Lament Immortalized

You may recall the familiar couplet penned by the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar:

“Lagta naheen hai jee mera ujde dayaar mein, Kiski bani hai aalam e na payedar mein;

Kah do in hasraton se kaheen aur jaa basein, Itni jagah kahaan hai dil e daaghdaar mein”

The extended poem and its translation (Ref: The Sufi Courtyard, by Sadia Dehlvi including the translation of Zafar’ lament by Rachana Rao Umashankar) reads as below:

“Lagta naheen hai jee mera ujde dayaar mein, Kiski bani hai aalam e na payedar mein;

Kah do in hasraton se kaheen aur jaa basein, Itni jagah kahaan hai dil e daaghdaar mein;

Umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye the chaar din, Do aarzoo mein katgeye, do intezaar mein;

Kaanton ko mat nikaal chaman se, O baaghbaan, Yeh bhi gulon ke saath pale hain bahaar mein;

Kitna hai badnaseeb, Zafar, dafn ke liye, Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo e yaar mein.

(In this land so desolate I find now only pain; Has this impermanent world ever afforded gain?

Tell these desires to find another place; My heart is home now to only wound and stain.

For a long life I’d wished; was granted but four days; Two I spent in hope, the other two in vain.

O Gardener don’t remove the thorns from these flowers; They too, like the roses, have supped on Spring rain.

No lament from the Nightingale, the trapper has no regrets; For destiny has allotted some with only bond and chain.

How unfortunate you are, Zafar, for in your native land; There’s not even a plot of earth for your body to be lain)

Few days back, it was dear friend Late Sadia’s 64th birth anniversary – the same day I also received these two stamps – one of Gambia showcasing Zafar’s portrait and the other was the 1975 Indian issue, commemorating the 200th birth anniversary of Zafar.

The designer of the Indian stamp, instead of placing a much used portrait of the Emperor, had instead chosen exactly the same couplet, to highlight the literary persona of the Emperor:

Lagta naheen hai jee mera ujde dayaar mein, Kiski bani hai aalam e na payedar mein;

Kah do in hasraton se kaheen aur jaa basein, Itni jagah kahaan hai dil e daaghdaar mein…

In my photo of the Zafar Mahal in Mehrauli taken few years ago, the empty space or the “sardgaah’ near the tomb stones of the three earlier Mughal Emperors (Bahadur Shah I – 1701–1712), Shah Alam II – 1759–1806), Akbar Shah II – 1806–37), was identified by the Last Mughal Zafar as the place for his own tomb stone, in the vicinity of the sacred Sufi Dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki… however his death was destined to happen in faraway Rangoon , where he had been deported by the British post 1857. How prophetic were his couplets!

Finding Babur in the World of Philately

In the world of philately, the theme of Mughals is not very a popular one – a fact that triggered me to hunt down such stamps for my amateur collection, especially on Mughal Emperors, their ancestors and broad Mughal themes. I could localize few of these – Uzbekistan issues on Timur and Babur, Mongolian issues on Genghiz Khan, few African countries on Shah Jahan and Bahadur Shah Zafar….but no country has issued anything on Akbar, the symbol of tolerance from Mughal India!

As I continue this journey of philately on Mughals, let me start with this one from Uzbekistan on Babur issued on 14 Feb 2008 to mark the 525th birth anniversary of Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur – the man who established the Mughal dynasty.

It is a sheet consisting of 9 stamps based on paintings from Baburnama:

The first one (top left) for example is: “Babur’s Coronation and Accession to the Throne of Ferghana”

The middle on top row is: “The inhabitants of Samarqand welcome Babur”

The right on top row is: “Babur in Herat at Sultan Husein’s House”

The center one on middle row is his portrait.

The left one on the middle row is: “Babur receives the Ambassador of Bengal”

The right one on middle row is: “Setting Kabul Fortress free from the mutiny”

The left on bottom row is: “Babur surveys the Mausoleum in the environs of Delhi”

The middle on bottom row is: “Khodja Seyaran spring in the vicinity of Kabul”

The right most on bottom row is: “Babur surveys the Palaces of Man Singh and Bikramajit”

Indeed, a very innovative issue! There is one more stamp on Babur issued by Turkey in 1987, that is on my hunting list😊

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:

Asian Age: Resurrecting, in Mind’s Eye, A Living Red Fort by Indranil Banerjie –

Deccan Chronicle: Resurrecting, in Mind’s Eye, A Living Red Fort by Indranil Banerjie –

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.

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“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. ~