Walking through the narrow lanes of the upscale Hauz Khas village in New Delhi, past the niche restaurants and boutiques that offer antiques, designer clothes and old Hindi cinema posters, I stumbled upon the Hauz Khas archaeological complex. A huge complex, it used to be a part of Siri – the second medieval city of the Delhi Sultanate during the Khilji Dynasty (1296 – 1316). The site houses a water tank, an Islamic seminary, a mosque, a tomb, and pavilions that were built around the 13th century. It was a delight to chance upon the remains of these medieval structures hidden somewhere within the busy city but standing tall against the surrounding urbane landscape.
“The Hauz Khas village came up in the medieval times around the reservoir that was first built by Alauddin Khilji (1296 – 1316) to provide water for the inhabitants of Siri”, informs Nadeem Shah, who teaches Medieval History at Delhi University. “Alauddin was the second ruler of the Khilji Dynasty in India. ‘Hauz’, in Urdu, means a ‘water tank’ or ‘lake’ while ‘Khas’ stands for ‘royal’. The Hauz Khas or ‘Royal Tank’ was initially called ‘Hauz-e-Alai’ (the ‘reservoir of Alauddin’) and had a huge storage capacity to harvest water during the Monsoons.” It originally spread over 123.6 acres; was 1,968.5 ft in width, 2,296.6 ft in length and 13.1 ft deep.
“Later on, the reservoir was de-silted and cleared of clogged inlet channels by Feroze Shah Tughlaq (1351 – 1388) of the Tughlaq Dynasty.” As I took a tour of the archaeological complex, I overheard a tourist guide addressing his group, “The tank was supposed to be so huge that a written record by Timur, the Central Asian conqueror (a terror who razed major cities of the world to the ground and subjected Delhi to a similar fate in 1398) speaks of it as so large that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other. The tank that exists today, however, has been re-built by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and is almost a quarter of its original size.” Recent restorations and upkeep of the reservoir has been undertaken by DDA and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
“It was Feroze Shah Tughlaq who built the Islamic seminary (madrasa), the small mosque, his own tomb, and the six domed pavilions along the eastern and northern side of the reservoir. The madrasa was established in 1352 and was considered the largest and best equipped Islamic seminary in the whole wide world. It attracted teachers and students from all across the world and was a significant centre of learning.”
The madrasa building is laid out in an L-shape and its chambers are decorated with latticed windows, painted ceilings, lotus motifs, medallions in stucco and hanging balconies (jharokha).Staircases go down from each floor of the madrasa to the reservoir. The tourist guide says that the independent building to the south-west is assumed to be the principal’s residence; and Sayyid Yusuf, the principal during Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s times is buried in the courtyard of the seminary. There are the remains of single-cell compartments in the lower storey of the madrasa building, which is where probably, according to scholars, the students resided.
Towards the south of the seminary, there is a garden with six domed pavilions. These pavilions (rectangular, octagonal and hexagonal in shape) are actually graves with foliated motifs on the drums and kalasa motifs on top of the domes. The pavilions, raised on plinths and supported by square-shaped wide columns, have beams with projecting canopies.
There is a small mosque to the northern end of the seminary and the qibla (the direction of Kaaba)is projected towards the reservoir. A striking feature of this mosque is that the obligatory mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque that points at the direction of Mecca) is pierced by arched windows.
“Feroze Shah, the third ruler of the Tughlaq Dynasty who carried out a large number of far-sighted public works projects for his subjects (especially in irrigation), built his tomb during his lifetime at the Hauz Khas precincts”, tells me Nadeem Shah. The tomb is located where the two arms of the L–shaped madrasa building meet. It is a square chamber made of local quartzite rubble with surface plaster finish. Grey quartzite was used for the door, pillars and lintels while red sandstone was used for the carvings of the parapets. Shah adds, “The tomb is in sync with the typical Tughlaq stylistic trends of simplicity and solidity, but a unique architectural element here is the presence of stone railings at the entrance from the south. The tomb was repaired, centuries later, during the reign of Sikander Lodhi (Lodhi Dynasty) in 1507.”
The Hauz Khas Tughlaq remains is now a major tourist attraction. It is frequented by photography and art enthusiasts, young lovers, or those looking for a quiet corner to spend a lazy day. Also, there comes along the occasional group of connoisseurs doing the regular tour of Delhi’s majestic heritage, as well as the likes of me who just happen to stumble upon such magnificence and come back feeling blessed.