Updated: July 22, 2020 8:23:37 am
In the early decades of the 19th century, a courtesan who went by the name Mubarak Begum, built a glorious double-storeyed mosque in the Hauz Qasi area of old Delhi. An ambitious, influential woman, she was married to the British Resident of Delhi, David Ochterlony. In the last two centuries, the mosque came to be refurbished with a youthful look of rust red, and continued to stand tall and beautiful amidst the chaotic lanes of old Delhi. On Sunday, as Delhi experienced a torrential downpour, the central dome of the mosque came crumbling down.
The Masjid Mubarak Begum is perhaps like any other mosque in old Delhi. Its significance though, lies in its unique historical trajectory. To begin with, though there are quite a few mosques and other architectural gems built by Mughal women dotting the landscape of Shahjahanabad, the Masjid Mubarak Begum is the only one that boasts to have been created by the Indian ‘begum’ of a British Resident. The carefully crafted domes and minarets of this mosque, carry within them the story of a colonial past when British residents in India were truly enamoured by everything Indian. Equally interesting is the fact that the mosque also goes by the name ‘Rundi ki masjid’ or the ‘prostitute’s mosque’.
Ochterlony was appointed Resident at Delhi in 1803. He loved, adopted and embraced the Indo-Persian culture of 19th century Delhi, a characteristic that makes him one of the most intriguing characters in the history of the British in India. While Ochterlony is known to have had 13 concubines or wives, one of them, Mubarak Begum, clearly appeared to have been most favoured.
In his book, ‘White Mughals: Love and betrayal in eighteenth century India’, historian William Dalrymple writes at length about the British who willingly and wholeheartedly adopted Indian culture. About Mubarak Begum he writes that “much younger than Ochterlony, she certainly appears to have had the upper hand in her relationship with the old General, and one observer remarked that Ochterlony’s mistress ‘is the mistress now of everyone within the walls’.”
Formerly a Brahmin girl from Pune, Mubarak converted to Islam, and in Ochterlony’s will she was referred to as ‘Beebee Mahruttun Moobarukh ul Nissa Begume, alias Begum Ochterlony, mother of my younger children’. Locally, she was well known as ‘Generalee Begum’.
As per the records of the archaeologist Maulvi Zafar Hasan, Mubarak Begum built the mosque in Hauz Qazi in 1822-23 and named it after herself. “Even though the British later reduced Mubarak to a mistress, she was definitely Ochterlony’s wife and an extremely influential woman. She used her wealth to build this mosque,” says historian Swapna Liddle in a telephonic conversation with Indianexpress.com.
Though immensely loved by her husband, Mubarak Begum was clearly hated by the British and Mughals alike for her social and political ambitions. “She offended the British by calling herself ‘Lady Ochterlony’, and also offended the Mughals by awarding herself the title Qudisia Begum, previously that of the emperor’s mother,” writes Dalrymple. Further, since she was a dancing girl in the past, no respectable Mughal would be seen entering the mosque built by her. Consequently, it acquired the epithet, ‘Rundi ki masjid’ (prostitute’s mosque), which continues to be in use till date.
Dalrymple writes that Mubarak begum’s story “is a graphic illustration of quite how powerful a woman could become by being the wife or even the senior concubine of a British resident.”
The story of her ambitions though did not end with the death of Ochterlony. She then remarried Wilayat Ali, a Mughal soldier. “Ali became the captain of the royal troops during Bahadur Shah Zafar’s reign. All the royal appointees had to provide a ‘nazrana’ or a security deposit when they took up any post. Having inherited quite a lot of wealth from her first husband, it was Mubarak who provided the money and got him the post,” says Liddle.
Mubarak Begum died in 1878 and the mosque was taken over by the British government. It was restored for the first time in 1898.
Speaking about the damage caused to the Masjid Mubarak Begum, Liddle says, “the older structures are in fact more long lasting since the materials used to build like limestone mortar and limestone plaster are very strong.” “However, the damage that has been caused is because there is first of all a need for day to day maintenance. But more important is to use appropriate methods and material to maintain these structures,” she says. “The problem is that often in the case of living heritage structures like this mosque, conservation experts are not involved in the repair and maintenance.”
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