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The Last Structure of Delhi: Zafar Mahal

Updated: Mar 22

In the southern nook of Delhi, now transformed into an urban hub with a myriad of boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants, is the first city of Delhi; Mehrauli. A walk through the streets of Mehrauli takes one through the expanse of architecture developed by the Sultanate and especially the Mamluk Turks who were given this city by the Muhammad of Ghor after the second battle of Tarain. Across the vast expanse of Sultanate buildings, is also the last structure built by the Mughals; located adjacent to the Dargah of the Chishtiya Sufi Saint Qutubuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki or Qutub Saheb, who was Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s successor. The Zafar Mahal built by Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II is a later Mughal residential palace that was used as a summer retreat by the Mughal kin and as a residence during Mehrauli’s syncretic festival, Phool Walon Ki Sair.

Many people question the name of the Zafar Mahal as to why it is named after the pen name of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, even though it was built by Akbar Shah II. All through 19th and 20th-century records, there is no official mention of the name “Zafar Mahal”, as the word “Majhar” or a tomb enclosure of the graves of Mughal emperors was used in the records. It is not until John Marshal and Maulvi Zafar Hasan used the name “Zafar Mahal”. Basheer Ahmad in his texts, reasons towards the name Zafar Mahal. He mentions the ‘Haathi Darwaza’ or the elephant gate of the palatial structure next to the Qutub Saheb Dargah; added to the structure by Bahadur Shah Zafar. Before the addition of the gate, it was also known as Khas Mahal, which was probably the original name of the structure. Records also tell us that the palace was probably called Mahal Sarai and even Lal Mahal before Zafar got the Haathi gate installed, which is a 50ft gate, through which an elephant could pass.

Tanya Kaur

The Zafar Mahal is built in a style that historians have described as a late Mughal configuration of spaces, where there is a sequence of verandahs and compartments around the court. Rough plans of the structure, that have been retrieved by scholars also tell us of a Zenana Mahal and a Mardana Mahal within the complex. Akbar Shah originally built a one-storeyed structure. After Zafar got the gate installed, Zafar Mahal became a 3 storeyed structure. The Haathi Darwaza has a curved Bengal roof with a nine-cusped Shahjahani arch and a lotus bud at its centre. The upper portion of the gate forms a Chajja, which probably served as a Naqqar Khana (Drum House), which was used by musicians when someone from the royal family took entrance. Another part of the structure is the oriel windows (bay windows) which protrude out of the gate. The inside of the gate comprises arched compartments, with paintings of fruit baskets. A lot of flower designs can be noticed on the upper side of the walls of these arched compartments. Within the complex, some compartments also give traces of colonial architecture. In one of the rooms, there is a fireplace which is particularly noticeable (fireplaces are synonymous with the western world). Claims of a fireplace are also supported by the painting of Ghulam Ali Khan, which is a portrait of the Zafar Mahal.

Apart from these structures, the Zafar Mahal complex also houses the Moti Masjid and the tombs of several Mughal emperors and princes. The Moti Masjid was built by Bahadur Shah I (different from Bahadur Shah Zafar) in 1709. It is made of white marble with three bulbous domes. The walls of this mosque share its boundary with the Dargah of Qutubuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki. It used to have two entrances earlier, one which opened up to the Dargah and one which opened up to the palace. The floor of the mosque is built in a carpet pattern, with black and white marble.

Beyond this mosque, is the resting place of three Mughal emperors; Bahadur Shah I, Akbar Shah II, and Shah Alam II. Apart from these three graves, there is also the empty grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar who could not be buried here, and also the grave of his son/ heir apparent of the Mughal Empire; Mirza Fakhruddin. Few historians have noted that the marble screen on the grave of Mirza Fakhruddin, caught the fancy of British residence, Thomas Metcalfe, and hence it became a part of his collections. Mirza Fakhruddin can also be seen enjoying parties at the Zafar Mahal, in many paintings that have been found. Apart from these, there are a few other graves within the complex, which belong to the Mughal family only. The story of the empty grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar would ache the heart of many. All through his life, Zafar wanted to be buried next to the Qutub Saheb Dargah, and he even got his grave dug out here, for when he leaves the earth, he must be buried at that exact spot. Unfortunately, due to the events in 1857; in the month of September, Zafar was sent to exile in Rangoon where he later died a scornful death. His sardgah, till the day, lies empty and just there, at the spot, next to the Kaki Dargah. During his time in exile, Zafar wrote:

kitnā hai bad-nasīb ‘zafar’ dafn ke liye

do gaz zamīn bhī na milī kū-e-yār meñ

How unfortunate is Zafar, that for burial he could not

get even two yards of land near the beloved’s abode.

Today, the empty patch of grass at his empty grave bears witness to this verse. The Zafar Mahal is a witness of waning away Mughal power during the 18th-19th century. Even the hunting lodges of the earlier Mughal emperors were more intricately built than the Zafar Mahal. Today, within the Zafar Mahal, children play cricket, local Zamindars have tried to take over the palace, houses have been built at a kissing distance of the palace, and during the dark hours, men come to play cards, consume alcohol, and litter the space. The complex now, is a maze of different levels, with small dingy cells and crumbling staircases. For our future generations, there is an urgent need to protect the Zafar Mahal and many other monuments within Mehrauli only; as such tangible heritage is visually appalling and provides deep insights into history and art.

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