Located in the heart of Jahanpanah, the fourth medieval city of Delhi, Bijay Mandal is considered one of the most puzzling historic buildings in Delhi. The complex has clearly been subjected to numerous alterations during its use, making it difficult for scholars and archaeologists to untangle the sequence and understand the nature of this ancient secular complex. Without extensive archaeological investigations we can only speculate as to how Bijay Mandal functioned as a building/complex, although it is widely assumed to be part of Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s palace.
Unfortunately the lack of concrete archaeological evidence is not helped by the equally scant documentary evidence. Ibn Battuta, the Muslim Berber-Moroccan scholar who travelled more than any other explorer in history and spent eight years in India from 1333 to 1341, does mention Muhammad Bin Turghlak’s palace, but fails to describe it in any detail. All he says about the palace is that it was entered via three gates, the last of these gates…
…opens into the immense and vast hall called Hazar Sutun, which means [in Persian] ‘a thousand pillars.’ The pillars are of painted wood and support a wooden roof, most exquisitely carved…. It is in this hall that the sultan sits for public audience.”“A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling”, commonly known as “The Rihla” – Ibn Battuta
The fact that this massive hall appears to have been constructed of wood demonstrates just how difficult it is to interpret the buildings here. The only remains such structures would leave behind for archaeologists to discover are circular dark stains in the ground where these posts have rotted away (known as ‘post holes’), and even discovering these can be difficult depending on the conditions.
Our lack of knowledge about domestic buildings from the 14th century makes it difficult to even imagine how this hall would have looked. Almost certainly it never had a thousand pillars, which is a common claim for many buildings and palaces in India. It is curious that the hall was constructed of wood, a medium that would be subjected to movement with the constant changes in heat and humidity, one would hardly consider this the best choice for a vast hall. Perhaps it was a temporary building, but now we will probably never know.
We do know from limited archaeological excavations here that the buildings were still in use after Firoz Shah’s reign, with evidence that perhaps it was used as a treasury at some point. Artifacts recovered from these excavations included pieces that could be classified as treasure, and even today there are local rumours that gold coins are occasionally found on the site. In the 16th century the site was occupied by Sheikh Hasan Tahir (a Saint), so the site appears to have been in continuous use right up to the time of the Lodi dynasty.
My visit to Bijay Mandal was hindered by a lack of time, and the presence of a guard who seemed to want to follow me around everywhere. Although I’m sure he had my personal safety in mind, it made for an uncomfortable experience, so this is a site I definitely need to return to again in the future. One of the major structures here is an octagonal pavilion that sits on the highest point of the site and may well have been Muhammad Turghlak’s private retreat, but this important structure I completely missed as I was hurriedly escorted around the ruins.
I entered Bijay Mandal from the north, having just explored the nearby Begumpur Masjid which was almost certainly a royal congregational mosque. Evidence suggests there was once a passageway connecting the mosque to the Bijay Mandal complex. From this entrance, the first area you reach is the tomb of Sheikh Hasan Tahir and his descendants. The Sheikh is said to have settled in the Bijay Mandal prior to his death in 1503 C.E. Besides the tombs is a ruined arcaded building, with a confusing mix of Lodi and Tughlaq architectural styles.
Heading further south is a domed building, thought to have been constructed in the 15th century with some evidence of extensive basement passageways. The eastern side of this structure is completely solid, the remaining three sides each having two openings. This structure is considered to be slightly later than the core of the palace complex, but its exact function remains a complete mystery.
Next to the domed building in the heart of the complex stands a series of tiered platforms with barrel vaulted chambers. Excavations here in the early 20th century found a wealth of material culture in the form of glass beads, pearls, red coral, fragments of porcelain and ivory, rubies, gold and coins. These were dated from 1296 to 1390 C.E. and represented the reigns of various sultans. The assumption is these chambers were used as treasure stores, and most likely confirms the site as Muhammad Tughlaq’s palace.
Crowning the tiered platforms is an octagonal pavilion (sadly, not photographed). Situated to catch every available breeze and considerably cooler on the inside in summer, this is almost certainly the royal private quarters. Deeply recessed holes around the structure roof suggest that there was once a temporary pillared pavilion constructed from wood crowning the building.
Sadly, due to time constraints and my unease at being escorted (at pace!) around the complex, some of the other minor ruins I did not explore on my visit. For sure at some point in the future I will return here to do a more complete account of the ruins.
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