Continuing with my series on the lesser-known heritage buildings (and that too ones of a secular nature), this time I’m going to be focussing on the madarsa at Hauz Khas.
I can almost hear the din of voices wondering how I could label a madarsa ‘secular’, but let me explain. The modern concept of a madarsa as a place of Islamic learning, of religious education, is exactly that: a modern concept. The word madarsa (also written as madrasa or similar variations) is an Arabic word for an educational institution—not necessarily an institution imparting religious education. In medieval Delhi, at least, a madarsa was far from being a school where children were taught about Islam. Instead, it was a school of higher education.
One of the most famous madarsas (and the first major one in Delhi) was that at Hauz Khas. The water reservoir at Hauz Khas had been excavated under the aegis of Alauddin Khalji in the early years of the 14th century. In the 1350s, Firuz Shah Tughlaq got the tank desilted and renovated, and built a tomb for himself on its bank. On either side of the tomb, stretching along two sides of the tank, he built a madarsa.
The madarsa at Hauz Khas consisted of both classrooms (on the ground floor) and living accommodation for students (on the floor below), as well as for teachers.
Assembly halls and small pavilions where smaller groups could sit dotted the area outside the buildings. The buildings—made mostly of hard grey Delhi quartzite stone—look mostly functional now, but were described by contemporary travellers as being beautifully painted and with golden domes. Fruit trees and gardens of flowers surrounded the buildings in the complex.
Besides its salubrious surroundings, there were other things to recommend the madarsa. This was, in its time, one of the largest and most major madarsas in the eastern hemisphere, and scholars came here from as far away as Baghdad.
Among the subjects taught were rhetoric, calligraphy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, grammar, Islamic law and jurisprudence, and the Quran. The madarsa, since it was funded by the Sultan, Firuz Shah Tughlaq himself (and could therefore afford the very best) employed some of the most respected teachers in this part of the world.