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Many tales of Delhi's Barakhamba...

R. V. Smith


HOUSE-FRONTS can be indicators of the time in which they were built. The ones in Kucha Pati Ram, Delhi, are an example. Just as the old house-fronts of Jaipur indicate that they were constructed during the days of the Maharajas and those in Daryaganj that they came up in the 1920s and `30s, the house fronts of Kucha Pati Ram show the influence of Moghul architecture.

Surprisingly enough this is not so much in evidence in the Jama Masjid area where the houses are simple dwellings, except for some which have a fish carved above the main door or an inscription noting when the manzil was built. The houses of Ballimaran have more character in that respect. Incidentally, the fish on a house front is the symbol of good luck and prosperity. Some relate it to the Deluge when, besides Noah and his ark, only the fish outside survived.

Kucha Pati Ram is a cluster of buildings which date back to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. But the motifs on the house-fronts indicate that these houses came up on the site of the ones originally built during the reigns of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Some were destroyed at the time of Nadir Shah's invasion and others during the `Mutiny', but habitations are always rebuilt and so was the case with this Kucha.

When the sliver sheet of Chandni Chowk was first inhabited the motifs of the Red Fort, in which grapes and flowers of Persia and Afghanistan found pride of place, came to be adopted as a standard decoration by the bullion merchants for their houses. The candle took over from the diya, but the figures of gods and goddesses were not neglected. And there were innovations too, like Ganesh sitting surrounded by leaves and tendrils of some distant land.

Kucha Pati Ram has come a long way from the Moghul times and many of the houses of the locality have been converted into business premises. But still the character of the place is slightly different from that of the nearby lanes, the craftsmanship on house-fronts surviving the upheavals in Delhi as examples of communal harmony in architecture. So in this Kucha the Flute Player of Vrindavan can be seen among peacocks, unmindful of the Persian motifs.

Incidentally, there is a mural in the Red Fort depicting Orpheus playing his lyre. How come the Greek god of music found a place in the Hall of Public Audience built by Shah Jahan? The Moghuls were not unfamiliar with Greek history and mythology. The legendary Greek musician is depicted in a wall panel behind the marble throne in the hall. These and other panels, depicting flowers, birds and beast, were executed by an Italian sculptor Austin de Bordeaux. The panels were damaged during the `Mutiny' of 1857 and taken to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London but later restored to their rightful place by Lord Curzon at the beginning of the 20th Century.

The Moghuls were also fond of carving mystical figures on the buildings they constructed in Delhi, Agra, Lahore and elsewhere. These figures have been left behind as motifs for posterity.

Like the figures seven, the figure 12 too has mystical significance. There are 12 hours in the day and 12 in the night, then there are 12 months, 12 apostles, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 tribes, 12 branched candlesticks and 12 kinds of men and women, to give only a few examples. Twelve-pillared buildings were quite common in both ancient and medieval times. The tomb of Mausolus in Turkey had three times 12 pillars and it was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

In North India, you will find Barakhambas in many cities, including Delhi and Agra. In the Capital the tomb of Hazrat Nasiruddin has a 12-pillared square chamber and near Nizamuddin there is the Barakhamba, a square building with arches on three sides supported by 12 pillars and a verandah all around. It is from the pillars that the structure gets its name.

Nobody really knows who lies buried there. The tomb is probably of some high official or nobleman of the Lodis for the architecture is reminiscent of that period. But the building did not find favour in the eyes of the Archaeological Department with the result that it was neglected as far as preservation goes.

No wonder it had been encroached upon. In a city where accommodation is a big problem, poor Muslim families which somehow look upon historical buildings as their heritage, occupy them as a matter of right. They are not always local people. Many of them are those who seek aims during the Urs at various shrines and camp in discarded monuments. Some of them stay behind in the hope of better earnings.

There were a number of families staying in the Barakhamba which is in a dilapidated state. If one cared to visit the place then one would have come away disgusted for there were rags spread or hung all over the smoky fires on which dal or meat was being cooked. The people who inhibited Barakhamba treated it as their family preserve.

Mystical figures did not find a place in their scheme of mundane affairs. And so this 12-pillared monument, which its nameless grave, awaited slow but sure destruction until the authorities woke up to the threat and had it vacated.

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