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The passageways of Delhi’s Zafar Mahal echo a forgotten past

“Ya mujhe afsare e shahaana banaya hota

Ya mera taaj gadayana banaya hota.”

(Either I should have been made the chief of kings

or my crown should not have been made miserable.)

– Zafar

Seedha seedha aagay (Just head straight).” That was the response I got from one of the shopkeepers as I asked him for directions to my destination.

I saw shops and doors as I passed through the streets. As I continued, I saw narrow bylanes leading to more of the same. I wondered how a landmark of such historical significance could be right in the middle of such a busy area.

Those coming here for the first time would ask that. But those who are familiar with the place know that this is how Mehrauli is.

Located in southwest Delhi, the neighbourhood is littered with relics from the past.

A close up view of Hathi Gate.
A close up view of Hathi Gate.

Making my way through the crowded area, I suddenly found myself in front of a huge gate. I had read and seen photographs of it, but to actually witness something this majestic left me overwhelmed.

I knew that I had reached the monument that marked the end of an empire. I was standing in front of the last palace built by the Mughals: Zafar Mahal.

The gate, popularly known as Haathi Darwaza (Elephant Gate), was a later addition to the palace, by the emperor-poet Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last of the Mughal emperors. Members of the ruling family used to pass through the gate on elephants – hence the name.

The architecture has shades of Buland Darwaza (Gate of Magnificence), the highest gateway in the world, built in 1601 by Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri to mark his victory over Gujarat.

The arched structures can be seen throughout the palace.
The arched structures can be seen throughout the palace.

I entered the palace through a small opening in the gate. It stood empty and quiet. Once one of the symbols the Mughal dynasty, today the same structures are khaamoosh tamashai (silent spectators).

The large passageways, showing signs of years of damage, must have a number of stories to share. I saw people playing cards, young boys hanging around the palace, a few of them busy staring at their cellphones. Sadly, not many care about those stories.

Zafar Mahal, originally called Jangali Mahal or Lal Mahal, was built in the 1820s by Bahadur Shah Zafar II’s father, Akbar Shah II, the second-last Mughal emperor of India. The palace was the royal family’s summer retreat.

I climbed the stairs and observed the ruined palace from above. I could see the Qutub Minar at a distance, which is also in the same locality. The Minar, built by Qutub-uddin Aibak in the year 1200, marked the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate. Zafar Mahal, on the other hand, is a symbol of the end of a dynasty.

I could see four domes belonging to two different eras. Three belonged to the Moti Masjid, which is attached to the palace and commissioned in 1709 by Bahadur Shah I, Aurangzeb’s son. The fourth dome belonged to the shrine of Qutub-uddin Aibak.

The domes of Moti Masjid.
The domes of Moti Masjid.

Climbing another set of stairs led me to the uppermost floor and a terrace, from where Zafar used to enjoy watching Phool Walon-ki-Sair, an annual event to celebrate the return from exile of his younger brother, Mirza Jahangir.

The procession, which continues till this day, is described by R.V. Smith in The Delhi That No One Knows:

“After the rainy season, Zafar’s court, like that of his father, moved to Mehrauli, where the Phool Walon-ki-Sair reaches its colourful end. From the balcony of Zafar Mahal, hookah in hand, Zafar watched the procession of pankhas wending its way to the shrine of Qutb Sahib and later to the nearby Yogmaya temple. After that he ate the fabulous dishes prepared by royal cooks.”

Right to left - Bahadur Shah I, Shah Alam II, and Sardgah, where Zafar desired to be buried.
Right to left – Bahadur Shah I, Shah Alam II, and Sardgah, where Zafar desired to be buried.

The last, and most tragic, piece of this tale lies inside a marble enclosure next to the Moti Masjid.

In this small area there are four graves belonging to Mughal emperors and a prince: Emperors Akbar Shah II and Shah Alam II, and Zafar’s son Prince Mirza Fakhruddin. Who is buried in the fourth grave is a mystery.

Right next to Shah Alam II’s grave is a green patch. The sardgah, or the vacant burial place, is supposed to be where Zafar wished to be buried. Instead, the emperor lies far away in Myanmar, where he was exiled by the British following the demise of the Mughal Empire.

. In Zafar’s own words:

Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku e yaar mein.

(O how unfortunate Zafar is, for his burial he could not even get place in the street of the beloved.)

Card players sit in the middle of the palace ruins.
Card players sit in the middle of the palace ruins.
The way back to the Hathi Gate.
The way back to the Hathi Gate.
Arches are a common feature seen in the palace architecture.
Arches are a common feature seen in the palace architecture.
The giant passageway.
The giant passageway.
The four domes.
The four domes.
Zafar's intended burial place was right in between the grave of his grandfather, Shah Alam II, and father, Akbar Shah II.
Zafar’s intended burial place was right in between the grave of his grandfather, Shah Alam II, and father, Akbar Shah II.
The remains of a past that refuse to surrender.
The remains of a past that refuse to surrender.
Hathi Gate up close.
Hathi Gate up close.
It is said that the 'chhatri' (umbrella) pavillion was built by Zafar.
It is said that the ‘chhatri’ (umbrella) pavillion was built by Zafar.
The ruins continue to tell stories.
The ruins continue to tell stories.
The last Mughal palace contains a strange sense of serenity.
The last Mughal palace contains a strange sense of serenity.
The ruins have many memories attached to them.
The ruins have many memories attached to them.
The remnants of the palace echo many stories.
The remnants of the palace echo many stories.
People can be found playing cards within the ruins of Zafar Mahal.
People can be found playing cards within the ruins of Zafar Mahal.
Mirza Fakhruddin's final resting place.
Mirza Fakhruddin’s final resting place.
The palace contains a few graves.
The palace contains a few graves.

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By:SYED ZEESHAN AHMED
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