"Ya mujhe afsare e shahaana banaya hota
Ya mera taaj gadayana banaya hota."
(Either I should have been made the chief of kings
or my crown should not have been made miserable.)
“Seedha seedha aagay (Just head straight).” That was the response I got from one of the shopkeepers as I asked him for directions to my destination.
I saw shops and doors as I passed through the streets. As I continued, I saw narrow bylanes leading to more of the same. I wondered how a landmark of such historical significance could be right in the middle of such a busy area.
Those coming here for the first time would ask that. But those who are familiar with the place know that this is how Mehrauli is.
Located in southwest Delhi, the neighbourhood is littered with relics from the past.
Making my way through the crowded area, I suddenly found myself in front of a huge gate. I had read and seen photographs of it, but to actually witness something this majestic left me overwhelmed.
I knew that I had reached the monument that marked the end of an empire. I was standing in front of the last palace built by the Mughals: Zafar Mahal.
The gate, popularly known as Haathi Darwaza (Elephant Gate), was a later addition to the palace, by the emperor-poet Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last of the Mughal emperors. Members of the ruling family used to pass through the gate on elephants – hence the name.
The architecture has shades of Buland Darwaza (Gate of Magnificence), the highest gateway in the world, built in 1601 by Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri to mark his victory over Gujarat.
I entered the palace through a small opening in the gate. It stood empty and quiet. Once one of the symbols the Mughal dynasty, today the same structures are khaamoosh tamashai (silent spectators).
The large passageways, showing signs of years of damage, must have a number of stories to share. I saw people playing cards, young boys hanging around the palace, a few of them busy staring at their cellphones. Sadly, not many care about those stories.
Zafar Mahal, originally called Jangali Mahal or Lal Mahal, was built in the 1820s by Bahadur Shah Zafar II’s father, Akbar Shah II, the penultimate Mughal emperor of India. The palace was the royal family’s summer retreat.
I climbed the stairs and observed the ruined palace from above. I could see the Qutub Minar at a distance, which is also in the same locality. The Minar, built by Qutub-uddin Aibak in the year 1200, marked the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate. Zafar Mahal, on the other hand, is a symbol of the end of a dynasty.
I could see four domes belonging to two different eras. Three belonged to the Moti Masjid, which is attached to the palace and commissioned in 1709 by Bahadur Shah I, Aurangzeb’s son. The fourth dome belonged to the shrine of Saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki.
Climbing another set of stairs led me to the uppermost floor and a terrace, from where Zafar used to enjoy watching Phool Walon-ki-Sair, an annual event to celebrate the return from exile of his younger brother, Mirza Jahangir.
The procession, which continues till this day, is described by R.V. Smith in The Delhi That No One Knows:
"After the rainy season, Zafar's court, like that of his father, moved to Mehrauli, where the Phool Walon-ki-Sair reaches its colourful end. From the balcony of Zafar Mahal, hookah in hand, Zafar watched the procession of pankhas wending its way to the shrine of Qutb Sahib and later to the nearby Yogmaya temple. After that, he ate the fabulous dishes prepared by royal cooks.”
The last, and most tragic, piece of this tale lies inside a marble enclosure next to the Moti Masjid.
In this small area there are four graves belonging to Mughal emperors and a prince: Emperors Akbar Shah II and Shah Alam II, and Zafar’s son Prince Mirza Fakhruddin. The fourth one, darker grave, supposedly belongs to Bahadur Shah I.
Right next to Shah Alam II’s grave is a green patch. The sardgah, or the vacant burial place, is supposed to be where Zafar wished to be buried. Instead, the emperor lies far away in Myanmar, where he was exiled by the British following the demise of the Mughal Empire.
In Zafar’s own words:
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye
Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku e yaar mein.
(O how unfortunate Zafar is, for his burial he could not even get place in the street of the beloved.)
All photos are by the author
The previous version of the article stated that the fourth dome belonged to the shrine of Qutub-uddin Aibak. It in fact belongs to the shrine of Saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki.