Sunday, November 7, 1999
When this high gate was strongly built as desired, the heart gave the date of its erection. May the gate of Zafar remain standing...
ETCHED on a marble slab above the archway of what is perhaps the last known piece of Mughal architecture, Zafar Mahal, built by Akbar II in the sunset years of the Mughal Empire, now lies in ruins. The lofty gate erected by his successor, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah II, has withstood the ravages of time, men and the elements!
But ironically, like its creator Zafar (meaning Victory: nom de plume of Bahadur Shah II) wasting away in some obscure cell in distant Rangoon, the gate that bears his name stands....but stands forgotten.
In the bustling alleys of Mehrauli, people have no time for Zafar or the monument next door. Seeking directions is futile because the name Zafar Mahal either does not register at all or is mistakenly associated with the Jahaz Mahal, a late fifteenth-century structure better known as the venue of the annual phool walon ki sair. However, a visitor can reach the Mahal without straying by making inquiries about the dargah, that is the Dargah-Qutb-Sahib of Khwaja Qutbd-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki, a thirteenth century Sufi saint popularly known as Qutb Sahib.
Once there, the mahal, which stands about 100 yards to the west of Ajmeri Gate of the dargah (incidentally, Khwaja Kaki was a disciple and, later, spiritual successor of Khawaja Moinud-Din Chishti of Ajmer) cannot be missed on account of its imposing gate.
Built in red sandstone with a free use of marble, this three-storeyed edifice measures some 50 feet across and has an 11 feet 9 inches wide opening designed to allow the easy passage of elephants. According to the inscription above its main arch, it was added to the existing mahal by Bahadur Shah II in the eleventh year of his accession (1264 A.H. i.e. 1847-48 AD). This makes it a later day construction relative to the Zafar Mahal inside the Red Fort that was built in 1842 A.D.
The gate has been raised on a generous scale and has a loggia over its entrance with small projecting windows covered with curved Bengali domes on its either side. A broad Chhajja built in the later Mughal style is considered its crowing feature. Inside the gate, a spacious arcade with arched compartments on either side runs for some distance due south, while another branches off eastward just inside the entrance. It is believed that the layout of these arcades was suggested by the Chhatta Chauk or vaulted arcade of the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort.
A few steps down either arcade brings one to the remains of the mahal itselt. The scarcity of literature regarding this structure and its present state of decay make it extremely difficult for one to comment on its architecture. Even the List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments issued by the Superintendent Archaeological Survey of India, Northern Circle, in March 1920, says no more than, "The inner buildings of the place do not compare with the gateway and are but poorly built in inferior masonry". At another place, under the heading condition, it describes the palace as ruined.
But irrespective of what its style and scale might have been, one thing that is fairly clear is that the palace was built to be used by the Royals on their visits to the Dargah Qutb Sahib. Like Delhis most other rulers from the time of Iltutmish, the later Mughals were also devotees of Qutb Sahib. This view is further confirmed by the fact that several of them, including Bahadur Shah I and Farrukhsyar made improvements to the dargah . Besides, three of them Bahadur Shah I, Shah Alam II and Akbar II along with members of their families, lie buried in the various enclosures around it. Even Bahadur Shah II had a grave prepared for himself in the same compound but it remained unoccupied as he was deported to Rangoon, where, following his death, he was buried.
Today, this silent reminder of the last days of the Mughal Empire is in grave danger from encroachers. Although it has been classed as a protected monument for over eight decades (even in 1920 it was protected by the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904), new constructions have come up on portions of its southern and eastern walls. If their growth is not checked, the country might lose a structure that has been declared to be of national importance.
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