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Tank, tombs, eateries: Hauz Khas Village, from 14th Century to now

The original tank was twice its size today. Over the seven centuries of its existence, its canals have silted, de-silted and fallen into disrepair multiple times. Recent attempts by DDA and citizen-led initiatives have improved its waters somewhat.

Written by Udbhav Seth | New Delhi |
Updated: July 28, 2022 6:40:47 pm
Hauz Khas Village, Hauz Khas, Delhi walking in the city, Delhi news, Delhi city news, New Delhi, India news, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News, Indian Express India NewsShagufta Siddhi used to cycle down to Hauz Khas Village in her college days when it was far more quaint and commercially dormant than it is now. Shivam Kumar Jha

“When you’re at a historical site, sometimes you have to think like an investigator,” says Shagufta Siddhi, archivist and curator of oral histories, pointing to the several stone pillars that rise out of the ground next to the sprawling Hauz Khas tank.

On a hot afternoon in the national capital, Siddhi takes us not to the café-crowded streets and karaoke-heavy hubbub of Hauz Khas Village that are any high-schooler’s paradise — our purpose is far less cool: to explore the monuments, legacies and centuries-old fusion of cultures in this urban village of South Delhi.

Tombs of Hauz Khas complex. (Express photo by Shivam Kumar Jha)

Siddhi (42), a resident of Panchsheel Park, has always been interested in archaeology and history. She used to cycle down to Hauz Khas Village in her college days when it was far more quaint and commercially dormant than it is now. After studying history in India and abroad, she wanted to design curricula for young people in a manner that made their past relevant to their present, and honour its innate syncretism. Hauz Khas, Persian for ‘tank of the royals’, is one of the parts of Delhi that embodies that spirit of co-existence and harmony.

The tale of this village — with its tank, tombs, and trail of eateries — dates back to the 14th Century, during the reign of Alauddin Khalji of the Delhi Sultanate. Delhi has always been arid and water deficient, says Siddhi, as we stand on the edge of the famous tank that was constructed as a water reservoir by Khalji for his citadel in Siri (where Siri Fort stands today). The original tank was twice its size today. Over the seven centuries of its existence, its canals have silted, de-silted and fallen into disrepair multiple times. Recent attempts by the Delhi Development Authority and citizen-led initiatives have improved its waters somewhat.

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Dome of Firoz Shah’s tomb, with the perfect domes and arches on display. (Express photo by Shivam Kumar Jha)

“Right after Khalji’s death, though, the tank fell into disuse,” says Siddhi. “It took a reluctant ruler, who came five decades later, to restore it. This chap was not into military campaigns or imperial expansion like the rulers before him; he had more scholarly inclinations. This was Firoz Shah Tughlaq.”

We begin walking through the complex, to the background score of birds chirping, and we can see why Tughlaq found peace by the tank and wanted to surround it with architecture. In here was also a school for children, a madrasa, where they could study amidst nature and be taught by teachers from around the world. The students would live in the lower-level hostels and study in the upper-level classrooms which would be open to the sun, wind, grass and water body around.

In the madarsa of Hauz Khas. (Express Photo)

“What a great location to be a student, no?” exclaims Siddhi, as we enter the cool domed structure built of quartzite rock sourced from the Aravalli mountains, “cemented” together with a mixture of lime and pulses. “Today, a madrasa has regressive connotations but children here learnt maths, geometry, calligraphy, medicine, astronomy, theology…”

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The star feature of this madrasa, however, remains the dome. “Architecture is a symbolic way of representing who you are, like your clothes,” she says. “When the Islamic rulers arrived in India in the 12th Century, they wished to bring in the dome and arch features of architecture, which the subcontinent was yet to explore. Within the first 50 years of the Sultanate rule, a fusion between the existing Indian and new Islamic features created a unique blend which we now know as Indo-Islamic architecture — like the structure we are in.”

Local masons of the period did not know how to make perfect domes: all around India, temples employed the technique of corbelling to create giant spires, which placed weight on columns. The arch technique that Islamic rulers brought to India allowed these columns to be eliminated and domes to be formed across big spaces.

This madrasa has two wings, one on each arm of the ‘L’ shape that the complex is built around. At the intersection of the arms is the tomb of the man himself — Tughlaq. Given his artistic pursuits, he got his tomb designed in his own lifetime, a much more sophisticated structure than was typical at the time.

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The Hauz Khas tank. (Express Photo)

On the ceiling are various Quranic inscriptions, speaking of death, heaven and the beyond. We walk out of the tomb to see two small domed structures next to each other. “Think,” she says, “Investigate. What purpose must they serve? They’re close to the tomb but in a corner of the entire complex.” We conclude that they must be rest-houses or homes of faculty members, perhaps to house anyone who came to offer homage to the ruler.

An official of the Archaeological Survey of India we meet laments the poor initiative that restaurants and residents around the area take in maintaining the complex, despite the premium they charge for this location. “People come in here to smoke and drink and litter the area,” he says. “Even the funds we get for maintenance fall short, because most of the money goes to Red Fort, Qutub Minar and Humayun’s Tomb.”

On our way out of the complex, we stop by a mostly derelict masjid on the western arm of the L. One of its three walls, the qibla wall, faces south-west, towards Mecca. “People briefly lived in this complex after the Partition, before the government evacuated them,” says Siddhi. “Most of the people owning property here are of the Jat community. In the ’90s, they almost exclusively lived here — with the odd exception of a Bina Ramani showroom and restaurant. Now, all of it has been rented out to cafés and bistros.”

As we enter that commercial nirvana, the tenor of our surroundings immediately glitches the tranquility of the 14th century – we are greeted by enthusiastic ushers trying to lure us to neon-signed enterprises, Ed Sheeran beats thumping out of nearby eateries, and youthful chatter calling for friends to photograph them against café walls.

“By no means am I against urban regeneration or restoration but just look at these houses – clearly they’re expensive and someone who likes the view of the fort has taken it. If there was a fund for public donation or an initiative where all restaurants and landowners here sponsor, say, the maintenance of the flowerbeds, or school visits, so much would be possible,” says Siddhi. We enter a narrow alley and cross Delhi Art Gallery, Siddhi’s first job after college.

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“We know the fact that at some point in history some buildings were demolished just as we know the motivations of those who want to bring the excavations to light. But that was the sensibility of centuries ago. Will you do that now?” she appeals, before taking my leave at the perennially traffic-jammed entrance to Hauz Khas Village.

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First published on: 17-07-2022 at 04:15:05 am

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