Sunday, February 12, 2006

in the centre of a vanished city

I wrote this almost a month ago, without having been to the Begampuri Masjid for six years, from how I remembered it.

Today, I revisited it, and am glad to say that my evocations were not inaccurate...

How does it feel to stand in the empty heart of a vanished city? Walk past the posh parts of Sarvapriya Vihar, past the grunge and garbage of Begampur Village, and into vast, empty courtyard of the Begampuri Masjid, and perhaps you will feel your heart fill with strange, wild sorrow.

In a town filled with ruins as plentifully as Delhi, it is surprisingly easy to escape the indescribable feeling of sadness that the contemplation of the lost past often induces, and for which ‘nostalgia’ is a very inadequate term. Many of them are living monuments, the past not quite past yet; others have so many tourists with digital cameras as part of the landscape, that ‘the true picture of the past flits by’, unnoticed, unnoticeable.

In the Begampuri Masjid, however, there is nothing to distract from the almost oppressive weight of history. A few goats perhaps, and a miniature group of card players, framed by one of the twenty four arches of the mosque’s massive interior façade, at the far side of an empty courtyard the dimensions of a football field. This was the Jama Masjid, the congregational mosque, of Jahanpanah, the bustling mid fourteenth centre of all the ‘cities’ of Tughlak era Delhi. A city that Ibn Batuta lived in and described with awe and love. A mosque on a high plinth, with forty three now dark domes, which must once have been white and shining. One of the seven great mosques in Delhi said to have been built by Firoz Shah Tughlak’s wazirs, Khan-i-Jahan Telangani and his son. A Jama Masjid comparable in size and in grandeur to the Jama Masjid of what we now know as Purani Dilli. Imagine if that Jama Masjid stood derelict and abandoned, with Shahjahanabad crumbled around it in a heap of ruins.

Imagine the magnitude of loss. The city of Jahanpanah, Refuge to the World, disapperared leaving a few ruins and the ghost of a name. By the nineteenth century there was a village settled inside the courtyard of the mosque, its high walls giving shelter from the tumultuous politics of the disintegration of an Empire. Early last century, the Archaeological Survey removed the village from inside the mosque, to where it is now, huddled around it. A not so secret covered passage leads from the north west of the mosque towards the ruins of a grand palace, the Vijay Mandal, about a hundred metres away. For the Begam who gave the village its name?

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