A Spiritual Encounter on a heritage walk through Paharganj, Delhi

By: Abhishek Jain 

Sometimes, it takes mixed expressions to recount an experience that is complex and difficult to explain. Something similar happened to me while writing this article. It is about an experience I recently had during one of the heritage walks I conducted in Paharganj area (an exploration to trace morphology of outskirts of historic city of Shahjahanabad). We unexpectedly came across a lesser known but culturally and religiously very significant heritage resource.

The Encounter

While spanning the area by foot during the walk after tracing and exploring Chheh Tooti Chowk and surrounding Mohallas (neighbourhoods) of Paharganj, which in 17th to 18th century was a wholesale grain market of Shahjahanabad and acted as a center of trade as well. However, this area also has structures and places which date back to the Tuglaq  era – before Shahjahanabad came into existence. One such place which we came across in our walk is named “Mohalla Qadam Shareef” which means neighbourhood having a holy foot mark. The nucleus of the Mohalla is a tomb made by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 14th century, nearly 200 years pre-Shahjahanabad. This tomb has a stone piece with a footmark/ footprint of Prophet Mohammad (one foot from the pair). As far as the architecture of the complex is concerned, it is a typical Tughlaq style building in Delhi quartzite stone, having a square plan with a central sanctum and trabeated structure with central dome. During the walk, as I started moving inside the Mohalla, which is like any other Mohalla of Shahjahanabad with an irregular spine street branching into short residential pockets with cul de sacs occupied majorly by Muslim households but also occupied by some Hindu families.. The morpho-structure of Mohalla is such that due to lack of proper maps we have to constantly ask the residents the way to the Dargah. Strangely, most of them did not even know the name of the Mohalla or about the  presence of that heritage resource in the area. A few older people guided us and they said that there is a mosque also, which to my astonishment was a  newly built one next to the Dargah not the heritage tomb complex. This shows how in many places,people living in and around any lesser known heritage resource are unaware of its existence and unmindful of its cultural significance.  Anyway, as we moved inside the neighborhood, we observed how very dense and unhygienic it is due to community’s expansion over time in the same area and also due to lack of maintenance. However, this street has tremendous cultural significance in terms of a unique communal and social structure but the rate of conversion of mixed use buildings to commercial at certain stretches is quite alarming,  leading to further deterioration. As we reached to the entrance of the Dargah complex, we came across a Hindu temple at in form of a small chowk. The area is like an island of Hindus amidst a largely Muslim locality. I was pleasantly surprised to see traces of historical built structures of the Tughlaq era in this delapidated precinct.   Like all Tughlaq era complexes, which are lined with walls and huge gateways, here too there was a broken gateway visible but bearing the load of  many layers of development and supporting upper extensions of buildings densely packed around the gateway. As we entered, we encountered  another gateway with two stone columns on each side of delhi quartzite and a lintel on top and seemed more like a historical checkpost with broken thick random rubble masonary walls, once an element of grandeur. It seems low height due to layers of concrete added on the road Entering through this gate from a Hindu temple chowk to a totally Muslim occupied area , both exhibiting different cultural contexts and contrasting landscapes, was an experience that I find very difficult to explain in words , it can only be experienced .

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Historical gateway with new extensions
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Temple inside Dargah complex

 

As we moved inside, my eyes started investigating the built heritage around and noticed its deteriorated state –  it seemed like extensions have been made on existing old ruins of red sandstone and Lakhori brick houses. After taking a right turn from this very dense and dark alley, we reached Soon to another chowk which forms the outer courtyard of the Dargah. Here there are remains of many graves dating back to both Mughal and Tughlaq times. These are mostly covered with debris and earth, and goats and children were playing on them. The tomb is in a good state as it is being maintained by a family which has been taking care of it since generations. They took us inside the Dargah. We asked them about the  respected Prophet’s foot print and they said that it is taken out only during the Urs celebration of the Dargah. So, dejected,  we exited the building after discussing the features of the tomb building, which is very raw with stone structural elements without ornamentation. But, suddenly one of the caretaker’s family members called us and asked us whether we would like to view the foot print!!

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The holy footprint

It was a wish come true. Excitedly, I said yes, and felt as if  it had been destined for us to pay our respects to the Prophet. We went with them to the inner rooms where they got a metal box which contained the stone with the foot print tied in a cloth with the fragrance of  Attar (natural perfume) and we all had goose bumps on seeing it. It was a really spiritual and tranquil experience which can’t be expressed in words. We also touched the stone and suddenly a heritage encounter was transformed into a spiritual experience.

But what convulsively affected me the most is the state of awareness of people living around a heritage resource of such important global cultural and religious significance. In retrospect, I would like to express my disappointment at the lack of awareness of people about their city – even their immediate neighborhood. Thus, consequently, the pride people should feel residing in the vicinity of an important heritage resource of such global cultural and religious significance goes missing.

The most important message here is that while we view historic cities as a city level asset – as a whole, we forget the parts that make up this ‘whole’ . We need to have  a microscopic vision to understand and value different and varied heritage resources scattered in these historic cities, otherwise such resources face neglect and finally oblivion. A whole becomes more than a sum of its parts only when every part is not only ‘whole’ but also wholesome…

As they say – Om Puurnnam-Adah Puurnnam-Idam Puurnnaat-Purnnam-Udachyate
Puurnnasya Puurnnam-Aadaaya Puurnnam-Eva-Avashissyate ||

(Om, That is Full, This also is Full, From Fullness comes that Fullness,
Taking Fullness from Fullness, Fullness Indeed Remains)

 

The Author is the Founder of ‘Shahjahanabad Heritage Walks’, and the ‘Shahjahanabadi Foundation’.

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