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.
What a way for a library to be preserved. Such is life. Peel off a layer of the British and find Mughal.
I went there last month and the guard there told me all sorts of crazy stories about ghosts haunting the place and even injuring him by throwing him off his chair at night and only ceased harassing after he lit some agarbattis. :)
Such a wonderful discovery (for me at least!)!
And very sad that the series will end soon! :(
Ava: “Peel off a layer of the British and find Mughal.”
Very true! And close to the converse, too. If you look at two important elements of Mughal architecture – the dome and the arch – both were brought to India from Central Asia, but they had originated in Rome. How ideas travel…
M: Haha! That is a delightful story. :-D I remember going a few years back to the Sunehri Masjid near the Delhi Gate of Red Fort, and an old sweepress there very seriously told me “Yeh jinnaat ki masjid hai. It was built by jinn, and they still stay here.”
Harvey: Oh, I’m just finishing this series of little-known secular monuments. I’ll start another series, with another theme. ;-)
Well this Library is now part of Ambedkar University and in my first year of college I was so keen to go inside the library but the guard did not let me enter and I questioned him why he says that the person who is responsible for this library is not keeping well so I should stay away till that time…. there was a huge lock on the door of this library! Its the last year of my college and every day I sit in the Dara shikho lawn I wondering there must be soo much that they are hiding stuff or may be they have not maintained it. I wish those doors open up soon
I’d no idea the university’s name had been changed.
Anyway, as you can see from the photos, the inside isn’t anything great to look at. Do go around to the back, if you can – behind the building. I was told that recently some of the rubbish and vegetation has been cleared from there, so some more of the original red sandstone can be seen there.