My quest to find the lesser known monuments of Delhi usually finds me searching for small isolated structures that have been almost swallowed up by the city’s urban development. In the case of Begumpur (or Begumpuri) Masjid, near Shivalik Enclave next to Malviya Nagar, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being an equally uncared for and neglected structure, this long abandoned mosque is a colossal and magnificent example of medieval architecture.
Upon entering, the arcaded courtyard is simply vast. It measures over 75m x 75m (the entire structure is 90m × 94m), with squared domed chambers at the center of each side. It’s an eerie experience meeting this courtyard for the first time, such a wide expanse of nothing and with little chance of seeing anyone else. I wondered if there is anywhere else in Delhi of this size that is so empty of anything.
Begumpur Masjid is a prominent example of Tughlaq era (1320-1398) fortified architecture which favored functional characteristics, including defensive capabilities and fortress-like features. In terms of scale, it is the second largest mosque in the city after Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid.
On the west side is the prayer hall, consisting of a central square chamber, larger than the gateways, with a 3 x 8 bay hall on each side. It has a tall Pishtaq flanked by attached minarets, inside of which is a large arch (iwan) containing three doorways. The columns and arches are not decorated, aside from a few carvings on the capitals in the prayer halls. This is consistent with most Tughlaq monuments, which are invariably more functional than decorative. Much of the stonework and domes here would have been once covered with bright white chuna plasterwork, but this has deteriorated over the years.
Surprisingly for such a prominent structure, the precise dating of the mosque has proved tricky. Many scholars believe that it was built by Muhammad bin Tughlaq (1325-1351), which would make it part of the original Jahanpanah, the fourth medieval city of Delhi.. The mosque’s close proximity to the supposed Bijay Mandal palace suggests that this may have been the Jami Masjid, or royal congregational mosque. The structure also appears to have a smaller square Mulla Khana (Zenana Mosque) that would have been used by royal women for private prayers, with a passageway connecting it to the palace complex.
The opposing theory is that this is one of the seven mosques built somewhat later by Khan Jahan Junan Shah, Firoz Shah’s (1351-1388) prime minister. It’s interesting to note that Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Berber-Moroccan scholar who travelled more than any other explorer in history, fails to make any reference to the Begumpur Masjid in a detailed account of his journeys “A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling”, commonly known as “The Rihla”. We know that Ibn Battuta was in India from 1333 to 1341.
It is thought the mosque remained in active use until the early 18th century while Jahanpanah was occupied, but in 1739 everything changed. With the gradual weakening of the Mughal dynasty and the plundering of the city by the Iranian Sultan Nadir Shah ,locals in the area took refuge and moved their homes, all their belongings and animals, into this fortified structure and established a small village inside the walls.
It is said that up to 50 families settled inside the mosque, building walls for living quarters, communal toilets, and even wells – utterly transforming the interior of the mosque but thankfully preserving much of the main structure. It wasn’t until 1921 after a portion of the mosque roof collapsed that the ASI managed to persuade the inhabitants to move out, by which time much damage has been subjected to the former mosque.
History repeated itself in 1947, when desperate refugee families from Pakistan reached Delhi following partition of the subcontinent and were allowed to settle in the mosque. It is only quite recently that these former refugees moved out of the mosque, leaving us with this quiet empty space we see today.
Visiting what must be one of Delhi’s best kept secrets was quite an experience. The sheer scale of this solid and imposing building coupled with its now deserted and peaceful setting was almost disorientating. The memory of this place will certainly never leave me.
Please ‘Like’ or add a comment if you enjoyed this blog post. If you’d like to be notified of any new content, just sign up by clicking the ‘Follow’ button. If you have enjoyed this or any other of my posts, please consider buying me a coffee. There’s a facility to do so on the righthand side of this website for desktop users, and just above the comment section for mobile users. Thank you !
If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…