I’m nearing the end of my series of occasional articles on little-known secular historical structures in Delhi, but before I end this series, I did want to mention one particular building that should be close to the heart of anybody who loves books and reading: the library of Dara Shukoh.
Dara Shukoh (1615-59) was, as most people aware of the Mughal period would know, the eldest son of Shahjahan. Groomed from an early age to succeed as Emperor (and announced formally as the heir to the throne in 1642), Dara was a spiritual man, and very well-read as well. His spirituality and interest in the written word come together not just in the fact that Dara translated (with help, of course) the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian, but also in his poetry: his Iksir-e-Azam was highly regarded. Other works by Dara include Majma al Bahrain, Safinat al Auliya, and Sakinat al Auliya, the latter two on the lives of Sufi saints, the former a philosophical work.
Dara Shukoh is also known for one of the most exquisite collections of illustrations and calligraphy extant from the Mughal period, the Dara Shukoh album. Housed at the British Library, the album is dedicated—in Dara’s own hand—to his wife Nadira Banu Begum, and consists of paintings and calligraphy accumulated over many years by Dara.
Hardly surprising, then, that Dara Shukoh should have had a large library (a kutb khaana) in Delhi. This is located near the Kashmiri Darwaaza, on part of what were Dara’s estates. The building, located in the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, today houses the Department of Archaeology Museum—and, at first glance, looks not even vaguely Mughal. The reason behind this is the eventful history of this building.
After Dara’s execution in 1659, the kutb khaana building came into the possession of a wealthy Portuguese lady named Juliana, and was eventually bought by Delhi’s first British Resident, David Ochterlony, when the British took over Delhi in 1803. Ochterlony used it as an office, and it was later turned into the official Residency for his successors.
The ‘Mughal’ nature of the building was, during its stint as the British Residency, altered almost past recognition, with tall Ionic columns added on. These remain even today, along with ranks of blue-painted shutters, making this look very obviously colonial. If you enter, however, you can see typical cusped (or ‘scalloped’, or ‘Shahjahani’, or ‘denticular’) arches, along with the fluted columns so common in buildings of Shahjahan’s period.
Also, if you walk around to the back of the building, there are more traces of arches and columns in red sandstone, all of them part of Dara Shukoh’s original library building.