A nondescript gate opposite Delhi’s Qutub Minar metro station opens into Mehrauli Archaelogical Park, a magnificent resource of medieval India. First populated in the eighth century, Mehrauli was one of the original cities that became the city of Delhi. The 100-odd structures in this park, spread over nearly 200 acres, span many centuries and iterations of the city. They reflect a vast timeline, populated by motley characters including kings, saints, lovers, and eccentrics. Many of them date to the reign of the Delhi Sultanate kings, who ruled over large areas of India from 1206 to 1526, and are invaluable in piecing together the history of that period.
I feel connected to this archaeological park by virtue of simple things. The house where I lived is a little over three kilometres away and the old walls of Mehrauli extend right up to the boundary of my sleepy housing colony. As a newcomer to the city, its presence gave me a sense of history and belonging, serving as a reminder that Delhi has been settled by migrants for centuries.
It was a late autumn morning when I first visited this park as part of a walking tour and it immediately held me in thrall. Unevenly maintained, it is a space where dogs poop over medieval ruins, kids play hopscotch on centuries-old courtyards, squatters warm themselves over campfires, and religious groups lay claim to ancient places of worship. Here, history is like a well-worn shoe.
My guide, an enthusiastic student of history, spurred my imagination through her vibrant retelling of the founding of the Delhi Sultanate. I’ve always been fascinated by this period of history with its rags-to-riches stories of slaves who climbed the ranks to found the Mamluk dynasty that ruled much of the subcontinent. Mehrauli is the best place to relive the manifold legends of the Delhi Sultanate from the first sultan, Qutubuddin Aibak, to Ibrahim Lodi, the last. The first monument that I saw on my walking tour was the 13th-century tomb of Ghiyas ud din Balban, one of the dynasty’s most powerful rulers. The impressive arches on this structure set new standards for the Indo-Islamic architectural style. The tomb itself was open to sky and enclosed within walls, now in ruins. Neighbouring it, through an elaborate arched gateway, is the tomb of Balban’s son, Khan Shahid.
Between the two tombs lay the remains of a 16-17th century human settlement. Sunbeams filtered through gaps between the old stone. Even today, toys and earthen pottery continue to be discovered here. I climbed two steps of a ruined staircase leading nowhere and wondered about this close proximity between the tombs and homes that are nearly as old. Errant creepers popped up in ruined niches that once housed a lady’s dresser or a cook’s shelf of spices. Nature is reclaiming everything and threatens to colonize the old walls, and turn the ruins into something more alive. Like ghostly hands reaching out, tree branches cast long shadows on tombs.
It is perhaps this proximity between the living and the dead that has given rise to modern rumours of this complex being haunted. The most common tale is about the smell of sandalwood agarbattis that permeates Balban’s tomb occasionally, though none are lit there. However, all that assailed my nose during my visit was a strong whiff of cow dung.
From Balban’s tomb, we walked west on a trail that winds through the park for about 200 metres, to reach the most beautiful and well-maintained of the park’s monuments, the tomb and mosque of Jamali-Kamali. Built by the followers of the 16th-century Sufi mystic and poet Jamali, this mausoleum is believed to resemble the inside of a jewellery box. Admiring its domed structure and lovely blue and red stucco work, I was reminded of the little mother-of-pearl inlay boxes that I loved collecting as a child.
A silence descended among our chatty group as we entered the tomb. Ghost hunters list the tomb of Jamali-Kamali among Delhi’s most haunted places. Visitors claim to sense djinns with malevolent intentions. Some report having perpetual nightmares after entering this place, while others claim to have been slapped by invisible spirits. For hyperactive imaginations like mine, these tall tales add another dimension to the visit.
More than the architecture, I was interested in the two tombs in the monument, especially the unmarked tomb of “Kamali.” There has been much speculation about the identity of this unknown figure. The tomb has been said to belong to Jamali’s wife, close friend, disciple, or even his male lover. Of these, the tale of a Mughal-era forbidden love story between two men has captured the imagination of many. Whatever the truth, the idea of a “forever after” love in Mehrauli’s hodgepodge history and politics found a happy believer in me.
In front of the tomb of the Sufi saint is a manicured lawn with structures that rather oddly blend Indo-Islamic and Victorian architecture. The architect of this puzzling space was Sir Thomas Metcalfe, baronet and agent of the governor general of India at the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar between 1842 and 1844. A bonafide eccentric, he turned the tomb of the Mughal general Quli Khan into a pleasure retreat. According to our guide, Metcalfe was known for his follies, both real and architectural. Here, he built several extravagant and ornamental pavilions to adorn the extensive gardens. The house itself was called Dilkusha, meaning that which pleases the heart. With its luxurious sprawling lawns and rest houses, and spectacular views of the Qutub Minar, Mehrauli was quite the retreat from Old Delhi’s chaos.
Returning to Jamali-Kamali’s tomb, we walked west for six minutes to two stepwells, Gandhak ki Baoli and Rajon ki Baoli. Though constructed 300 years apart, they are similar in size and scope. These stepwells were designed as places for people to bathe and congregate at, and gain respite from the hot summer sun. The source of the 13th-century Gandhak ki Baoli, among the largest of Delhi’s stepwells, was a sulphurous spring (gandhak means sulphur). The 16th-century Rajon ki Baoli is a grander edifice with arched halls that bear inscriptions from the Koran. Climbing down its steps I admired its intricate masonry while my group walked on to the next monument. My musing was interrupted by shrieks of “OUTTT” from children playing gully cricket just outside. I found myself not really wanting to catch up with my group any more, as I was exactly where I wanted to be—at the perfect intersection between the past and present.
Appeared in the May 2016 issue as “History’s Mysteries”. Updated in August 2017.
INTACH Walks INTACH organizes expert-led weekend walks to Mehrauli Archaeological Park (www.intachdelhichapter.org; book by filling form on website; Rs200 per head).
India City Walks The two-hour-long Inception of Delhi walk covers the park as well as the surrounding Mehrauli village area (www.indiacitywalks.com; Rs2,000 per head).
Delhi Heritage Walks with Sohail Hashmi Writer, academic, and historian Sohail Hashmi is a fount of knowledge on the old cities of Delhi (www.facebook.com/DiscoveringDelhiWithSohailHashmi; check the page for updates).
Delhi Heritage Walks organizes a weekend walk at least once a month to Mehrauli Archaeological Park (www.delhiheritagewalks.com; 2 hr; Rs600 per head).
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.