“Karavan Diaries” with the Storyteller Asif Khan Dehlvi
by Bela Upadhyay.
It’s been a year exactly. But even after a lapse of this long a time the stories that we walked with, this day that year are still afresh.
So in today’s Karavan diaries we are writing about the memories of ‘Rudaad e Mehrauli’.
While packing a bag for travel what is the biggest conflict ? What to take and what to leave. That’s precisely been our dilemma throughout, as we try to bring you the stories of the kings, warriors, generals, eunuchs and saints from this graveyard of dynasties the Karavan visited.This was my sixth heritage walk in as many months to a place that upto sometime was synonymous just with the Qutub Minar for me.
The scattered stories in the plethora of monuments that abound in this first city of Delhi are endless. Mehrauli is a piece of Delhi’s historical jigsaw that grew, assimilated and changed in all the different millennia, sometimes merging in and at times standing disjointed. But never, was it abandoned.
As we gathered on the verandah of Adham Khan’s tomb, a shade descended upon the scorching afternoon sky as if, tempering down it’s heat for the visitors. The octagonal tomb, an architectural representation of Akbar’s anger for his foster brother’s crime, carrying the burden of Rani Roopmati’s curse has seen itself transform into Metcalfe’s guest house and later housed a police station too.
From here, we had began our walk, descending the steps of the Bhool Bhulaiya, wading through the bazaars of Mehrauli, the smells and sounds of life encompassing. Meandering through these narrow lanes is an arduous task for someone who can’t help but keep searching for stories in the crumbling old and sprouting new. I kept frequently bumping into a cycle or scooter wallah. Fearing the expected plain disdain for a clumsy woman, I just mumbled a sorry, never making eye contact.
The Hijr’on ki Khanqah
Tucked in the chaotic bazaar, a narrow entrance partially blocked by electronics shops leads to a small graveyard, called Hijron ka Khanqah, whose history goes back to the Lodhi era. Albeit, the identity of the people buried in its 50 graves is still unknown. The thing that strikes one, is the condition of the Khanqah, lovingly cared for by Shripal Yadav and his family.
The region’s transgender community, though, believes they are the final resting place of its prominent members down the centuries, and considers them sacred, visiting it on Thursday’s to offer prayers. The green tomb revered by them, is said to be of a hijra, named Miyan Saheb, loving addressed as ‘Aapa’ by Qutub Sahab. Their journey from the exclusive fringes of a Hindu society to the inclusive Muslim society and back to the periphery again is that of how time can be a tragic player.
They were highly valued for their strength, ability to provide protection to women’s palaces in the Mughal period. In fact, they served as messengers, watchmen, attendants and guards in palaces. Often, they counted among a king’s trustworthy advisers.
Jahaaz Mahal – Hauz E Shamsi – Jharna
Lying in close proximity to eachother are the Jahaz Mahal, Hauz E Shamsi and Jharna. The Jahaaz Mahal, a Lodi structure, which was primarily built for a saint and later served as a saraai , nowadays welcomes everyone with splendour during the Phool Walo’n ki Sair. With the Hauz e Shamsi spread out in front, sitting on one of the greystone and red sandstone walls, we were treated to a story about how a dream Sultan Iltutmish had, led to it’s conception. Many stories of intrigue, romance and spirituality lie in it’s tank bed. For all practical purposes though it was an exceptional water conservation system built in 1230 AD.
The Jharna is a beautiful example of a structure that underwent a makeover in it’s purpose and look through several dynasties. Firuz Shah Tughluq built a dam over the Hauz E Shamsi channeling the water to the Tughluqabad fort. When the fort lost it’s glory and the dam water started to flood the nearby areas, Nawab Ghiyasuddin Khan built a waterfall, adding a colonnaded ramp, verandah and pavilion. Bahadur Shah Zafar is said to have composed many couplets sittting in this idyllic surrounding. Sadly, the key to the Jharna was misplaced and the musaafirs had to turn back and walk down towards the Zafar Mahal. In my mind though I relived the story of Delhi ke banke which Asif had narrated in the verandah of the Jharna during the Phool Wal’on ki Sair last year.
As we entered the Haathi Gate of the Last Mughal’s summer residence, the Musaafirs scattered around the ruins, exploring. For me, the Zafar Mahal has been like a grandparent whose stories are infinite, and never fail to mesmerize. From Zafar’ empty grave to the jharokhas which have stood a witness to the beautiful processions, to the crumbling walls bearing a testimony to the ‘Jalee Shaakh ke Parinde’, I have heard it and seen it all in Asif’s voice. Sitting in the Bala khana, Asif this time narrated the stories of Delhi ki Tehzeeb. From this melting pot came out dripping in richness anecdotes of Delhi’s love with it’s food which led to ‘yeh mooh aur masur ki daal’, and ‘ ya toh khaaye ghee se, ya jaaye jee se’, being served.
Today a paan shop is more multi faceted but one thing that still holds true, is that it serves as a centre for gupshup and debate. Earlier, the shaayars thronged the paan shops and many a couplet were composed in it’s love.
“Meri Tehzeeb ke sab rang bhi Kya le gayiN daadi
LaboN par paan Ki surkhi, na hathoN me “sarauta” hai!!” (Nadeem Guft.)
On weddings and family occasions paan preparation was a major preoccupation.
The cool evening breeze worked up an appetite for more stories. And if we heard about the Paan then the courtesans can’t be far off as both, are seductively entwined. Mujra a Persian word, in fact meant aadaab or salaam in the court language. Later, during the fag end of the Mughal period, a courtesan before a performance would bow down and address the mehfil,”हुज़ूर, मुजरा अर्ज़ करती हूँ ।”
The tawaif’s introduction into her profession was marked by a celebration, the so-called missī ceremony, that customarily included the inaugural blackening of her teeth.
It is also believed that young nawabs-to-be were sent to these “tawaifs” to learn “tameez” and “tehzeeb” which included the ability to differentiate and appreciate good music and literature, perhaps even practice it, especially the art of ghazal writing. By the 18th century, they had become the central element of polite, refined culture in North India. However, as many things before, these women who were held in high esteem came into disrepute during the British rule.
As if signalling the end to the evening suddenly a flock of pigeons fly over the terrace in a magnificent formation. The kabootars are considered an urban menace today. But there were times when they were pursued as a passionate sport by the royals, elite and even by the common Delhite. As I look around the Balakhaana one last time the scene reminds me of these lines by Ahmad Kamal Parwazi,
“Udte udte kabhi masoom kabootar ko, Aap Ki chat pe utar aaye to shak karta hun “
Stories of kabootarbaazi are left for another time as the Musaafirs move towards the Dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki to pay their respects to the great Sufi. The shrine started as an earth mound with a simple cloth covering. But the later rulers added a dome, railings and marble.
Every stone in Mehrauli is a Paras Paththar, you rub love into it and it transforms into a story. For now, let’s just share a piece of Mehrauli’s spirit so beautifully enshrined in the following song, till we meet again, to hear another ruin speak.
“रसूल अल्लाह क्यूँ खरोशां है
आज क्या सैर ए गुल फरोशां है?
बहेलियों यककों का एक ताता है
जिसको देखो वो क़ुतुब जाता है
भाई जग्गू है सर पर दुकान
जाके मेहरौली में बेचेगा पान
मियाँ ग़फूर भी इस मेले पर
लाएँ है सारा कुना ठेले पर
हर एक दुकान पर भरा है माल
मिठाइयों के चुन रहे हैं थाल
नाशपाती, अनार और अमरुद
कहीं कड़ाई में चढ़ा है दूध
बेचता है कोई बुढ़िया के बाल
सेव बेसन के और चने की दाल
काबा ए ससख भून रहे हैं कहीं
लोग क़व्वाली सुन रहे हैं कहीं
नाच गाना हर एक मकान में है
इतर की फूयिएँ हर एक कान में हैं
वाम पर हैं नवाब मोटे से
नाइ पकड़ ली उन्होंने कोठे से
आये बाज़ार में गिरधारी लाल
तोंद इतनी है कि दुशवार संभाल
रईस हैँ ये हाल हैं पल्ले
खरीदते हैँ ये अँगूठी छल्ले
हँसी मज़ाक का अजब है तौर
चल रहा है शराब ए नब का दौर
बोतल एक और आने वाली है
नवाब पुतली गाने वाली है.”
(Images by Amaan Imam Ghazee & Bhavesh Upadhyay)