Delhi

Khirki Masjid – A Paradox of Past and Present in Delhi

Located in the very heart of Saket’s dense high-rise housing complexes and only accessible via winding narrow lanes and alleyways, Khirki Masid must rank as one of the best preserved Tughlaq dynasty monuments in the whole of Delhi. Without the aid of Google maps I doubt very much that I would have been successful in locating this mosque. Despite asking many locals for directions nobody seemed to be able to help, and once you finally reach this enormous and imposing structure it’s easy to understand why.

I have blogged on numerous occasions about unplanned encroachments on archaeological sites, but here we have an example of what must be approved planning and construction of tall residential blocks that completely surround and dwarf this gigantic fortress-like structure. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition between old and new, quite unlike anywhere else I have visited in India. This is a monument that is almost hidden from the outside world.

Khirki Masjid was commissioned and designed by Khan-i-Jahan Malik Juna Shah Tilangani, who inherited the position of Prime Minister (Wazir) from his father Khan-i-Jahan Malik Maqbool Tilangani, who was granted the position by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388). Unlike his father who relished the responsibility of administration and warfare, Tilangani junior instead devoted much of his time to construction, and is attributed to building seven of the finest mosques in Delhi. Those seven mosques are :

Despite his impressive architectural achievements, things did not end well for Tilangani junior. He was disgraced and executed while trying to stir up a quarrel concerning succession between the Sultan and his eldest son, Muhammad Khan Tughlaq.

Of all the mosques attributed to Khan Jahan Sujan Shah during the 1370s, Khirki has to rank as the most striking. As can be seen at Begumpur, the mosque is raised above the original ground level which can now only be partially seen at the bottom of the “moat”. This moat is not an original archaeological/architectural feature, it has been artificially created by the build up of surrounding domestic habitation over the centuries. The difference between the current ground level and the ground level as it was in 1370 is quite notable, and a great example of how stratigraphy can build up over centuries of occupation. The mosque itself is set on a 3m high raised plinth, which today is masked by the rise in ground levels even within the “moat” area itself.

The structure is square in plan, measuring 52m x 52m, with projecting entrances on the north, east and south sides, each framed by narrow minarets. All four corners of the mosque are reinforced by massive round towers. The roof is divided into a grid of 25 squares, 21 of which are covered by nine conical domes, the remaining four squares are open to the air, creating mini courtyards. This results in over 80% of internal space being roofed as opposed to being one large open courtyard, and indeed this was the first mosque in India to have this architectural feature. The only completely covered mosque from the Sultanate period is at Gulbarga, in northern Karnataka.

To compensate for the obvious lack of light entering the mosque from above, three exterior sides of the mosque have grid-patterned windows, twelve on each side. This is almost certainly how the mosque got its name, as Khirki means “window”.

The perimeter of the site is enclosed by a tall wire fence, obviously there to both prevent any further encroachment and keep out any unwanted people, the only obvious way in is via a gate at the eastern entrance. This was securely padlocked, and for a fleeting moment I was faced with the possibility of not entering a monument that I have wanted to explore fully for a number of years. I could see activity within, so decided to bide my time and see if I could gain access somehow. It turned out that the monument was closed due to renovations by the ASI, but after a bit of persuasion (i.e. declaring “I’m an archaeologist from the UK !”), I managed to convince the ASI man overseeing the work to let me in for a short time. This was on the proviso that I would stay away from the renovation activity, and I would only be a handful of few minutes.

The following few minutes was a bit of a blur as I was faced with recording as much of the interior of the monument as I could within a very short space of time. The geometrical patterns created by a combination of double and single columns (180 in total) within a regular grid-like plan provides endless photogenic views across the interior of the mosque.

Having said that, I found photographing the majestic interior was a bit of an issue. It’s hard to easily visualize compositions, and do justice to the immensity of it all. This is only further compounded by the lack of available light. Although I do travel with a tripod, I rarely bring it with me on days out as more often than not they are not permitted at ASI sites, and I never know in advance if these less visited sites will have a caretaker or not. As it turns out, I could have used a tripod here, so perhaps that’s an excuse to return here one day when I have the right equipment and blessed with more time.

For anyone who manages to gain access to the mosque for a longer period than me, hopefully when the ASI renovations are completed, it’s worth noting that there are steps that go up to the roof from the eastern gate.

The darkest area of the interior are the bays in front of the prayer wall (mihrab), due to the lack of any windows. Here you will almost certainly be faced with roosting bats, so be aware !

It was heartening to see renovation/conservation work occurring here, one can’t help but think that this fine monument deserves a little more attention from the outside world. Surely the local community would welcome the purchasing power of a tourist arriving literally on their doorstep, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why this place is not publicized more.

The Delhi chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has categorized the monument as a “Grade A” in terms of archeological value, and it was one of 43 monuments identified by the ASI for restoration before the 2010 Commonwealth Games. This restoration work included dealing with a collapsed section of domes in the north-east corner, and restoring some of the interior walls and arches.

Sadly some of this restoration was not quite what it should have been. In order to speed up the restoration time, workers changed the lime mortar ingredients resulting in a pinkish hue to areas that had been treated. This was due to the mixing ingredients for the mortar being changed from 50% lime mixed with sand, to 50% lime mixed with brick dust. This altered the chemical and physical properties of the mortar, and somewhat ironically, also made it a more expensive exercise (as brick dust costs more than sand).

The well established correct method of preparing a lime mortar for conservation in monuments involves initially burning the lime in a kiln, then submerging it under water for a month. It is then ground in a mortar mill in the proportion of 33% lime, 66% sand and other additives.

The ASI conceded that a mistake had been made, not just to Khirki Mosque but to many other monuments in Delhi. Renovations at Khirki Mosque were immediately suspended and the ASI ran a workshop on “Use of lime mortar in ancient times” to educate their staff on the proper restoration techniques for Mughal monuments.

This is not the first time Khirki Masjid has been in the news. In 2018 the ASI discovered a hoard of 254 copper coins stored in a clay pot near the entrance stairs to the monument while they were cleaning up prior to conservation work. The earliest coins from the hoard dated to the short seven year reign of Islam Shah Suri in the mid 16th century, but there were also coins from the Lodi period. This could suggest that the hoard may represent the savings of one or two generations of a family. A similar discovery occurred in 2003, when 63 coins were discovered also during pre-conservation cleaning activities. Clearly, this mosque should be cleaned far more often 🙂

Khirki Masjid was probably the highlight of my few days exploring the less-visited sites in Delhi. A gem of a monument hidden deep within urban sprawl, it deserves to be far more widely known about. A very short distance away is the unusual and intriguing site of Satpula, which is definitely also worth seeing at the same time as this mosque.


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Categories: Delhi, India, Khirki Masjid

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13 replies »

  1. Thank you for this lovely piece and pictures. I’ll be sure to visit next time as I’ve stayed in Hauz Khas many times but was not aware of Khirki mosque.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful mosque. I am wondering how the local government let the buildings surrounds such a beautiful mosque. Is it still being used for congregation daily?

    Thank you for your publication

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, this building is no longer in use and probably hasn’t been for at least 170 years (early photos show it as being abandoned). It is perplexing as to how such close construction was allowed, the pressures of trying to house a rapid growing population perhaps ?

      Like

  3. Firstly, the photographs – just like all others taken by Kevin – are exquisite!

    Sadly, however, WHENEVER I travel in India or view photographs taken by others, OFTEN I see a neglect of the heritage of India.

    The VERY FIRST photograph of this article shows an eyesore behind the historical building. In many countries, NO ONE is allowed to build a new structure near a historical place. An example is the archeological complex of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Banteay Serai, Ta Prohm, etc., etc. (near Siem Reap, Cambodia) where people are not allowed to live.

    India is a veritable photographer’s paradise, because of its history, variety, and geography. The preservation of such heritage – or lack thereof – is another story altogether though!

    Like

  4. This well written details are required to be publicised.
    Yes you rightly said ASI needs to give priority to the lesser known monuments for their unique architectural qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

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