Begumpuri Masjid, and a bit about the Tughlaqs

A few weeks back, I’d decided to begin a series of articles on some of the more interesting medieval mosques of Delhi. I began with an introduction to mosque architecture, then wrote a piece on one of the most striking (yet not terribly well-known) masjids, the Qila-e-Kohna in Purana Qila. What next, I wondered? A small but exquisite mosque (like the one at Bada Gumbad)? An obscure but pretty one (like the Neeli Masjid)? Or a huge, sprawling mosque that most Delhiites don’t even know about? I settled for the last: Begumpuri Masjid, tucked away near Shivalik Enclave, next to Malviya Nagar.

A view of the sehan at Begumpuri Masjid.

The Begumpuri Masjid.

To begin with, a brief history. The Begumpuri Masjid was built in the 14th century, during the Tughlaq period. The three main Tughlaq Sultans—Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, Mohammad bin Tughlaq, and Firoz Shah Tughlaq—between them ruled Delhi for less than 70 years, but during this relatively brief period, they constructed some of Delhi’s most enduring landmarks. Not beautiful, perhaps, but certainly long-lived: the three forts of Adilabad, Tughlaqabad, and Firoz Shah Kotla (which itself was only the citadel of the city of Firozabad, also established by Firoz Shah); scattered monuments like the madrasa at Hauz Khas and Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s palace, Bijai Mandal; numerous waterworks, tombs, and mosques. Firoz Shah Tughlaq even got repairs and additions made to existing structures like the Qutb Minar and Hauz Khas.

The Tughlaqs’ love for construction, however, was markedly different from those of another, later dynasty that also left its mark on Delhi’s cityscape: unlike the Mughals (in particular, Shah Jahan), the Tughlaqs weren’t particularly obsessed with prettiness. They didn’t have the time for it; what they wanted to do was build their forts, settle in, protect themselves from invaders (the Mongols), and rule.

Tughlaq monuments, therefore, are invariably more functional than beautiful. They aren’t ugly—by no means—but there’s relatively little in the way of carving, inlay, tile work, and so on. Some of the embellishment—like painted plasterwork, or wood—has of course fallen prey to time, but even otherwise, Tughlaq monuments were probably meant more to be functional than decorative.

The main gateway into the Begumpuri Masjid.

The main gateway into the Begumpuri Masjid.

Which brings us back to Begumpuri Masjid. After Shah Jahan’s Jama Masjid, this is Delhi’s largest mosque—and one look at it is enough to reinforce all that I’ve written about Tughlaq architecture in that previous paragraph. It’s solid, it’s imposing, and it looks more like a fort than a mosque. Totally Tughlaq. The masjid is built of a combination of plastered rubble masonry (stained black, because the plaster’s organic) and the local grey stone known as Delhi quartzite. Delhi quartzite is very hard and therefore notoriously difficult to carve—which makes it good as building material that endures, but not one that gives itself to decorative carving.

A view of the sehan at Begumpuri Masjid.

A view of the sehan at Begumpuri Masjid.

Inside, the huge sehan or central courtyard (which, in the Tughlaq period, used to be covered with a cloth canopy overhead) is surrounded on all sides by riwaaqs or cloisters. Above the riwaaqs, topping the roof, are multiple domes (in fact, if you look out from a height nearby—for instance, from the top of Bijai Mandal—Begumpuri Masjid is immediately recognizable by the many black domes on its roof).

A riwaaq at Begumpuri Masjid.

A riwaaq at Begumpuri Masjid.

In one corner of the mosque, separated from the main mosque (which is a mardana masjid) is a small room, approached through a cramped passage and a staircase, that used to function as the zenana masjid. It has its own pretty little mihrab to mark the direction of prayer. A path used to connect this zenana masjid to the palace at Bijai Mandal, so that the royal ladies could easily (and privately) come to the mosque for namaaz.

Inside the zenana masjid - a glimpse of a stone filigree screen, or jaali.

Inside the zenana masjid – a glimpse of a stone filigree screen, or jaali.

At Begumpuri Masjid, looking towards the zenana masjid.

At Begumpuri Masjid, looking towards the zenana masjid.

The Begumpuri Masjid has an extremely interesting history, too. It’s not clear who built it, for one. One (more plausible) school of thought ascribes its construction to Mohammad bin Tughlaq, citing the position of this masjid—so close to his palace—as proof that he used it. Others say that this was one of the seven or so mosques built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s Prime Minister, Khan-e-Jahaan Maqbool Telangani and his son and successor, Khan-e-Jahaan Junan Shah Telangani. Between the two of them, these men are credited with having built also the Khirki Masjid, the Kalan Masjid in Nizamuddin, and the Kalan Masid near Turkman Darwaaza (in what later became Shahjahanabad).

Begumpuri Masjid ceased to be in continuous use after the establishment of Firozabad. The neighbouring village of Begumpur, however, continued to exist. Centuries later, when Nadir Shah invaded Delhi in 1739, the villagers of Begumpur took refuge from the invading troops in the masjid. They moved in, bag and baggage, along with their livestock and all, about fifty families, and Nadir Shah’s troops never thought of looking inside the masjid.

Interestingly, the villagers didn’t move out of Begumpuri Masjid even after Nadir Shah was long gone. They stayed on, erected huts for themselves, and even dug wells inside the sehan. It was only when the British came to Delhi and set about restoring and conserving various monuments in the city that they evicted the occupants of Begumpuri Masjid. This, as it turned out, wasn’t a permanent evacuation of the mosque: in 1947, with the Partition, several Hindu families moved into the mosque, again using it as shelter. They built proper brick walls for their homes, turning the mosque into a mini fortress of sorts. My sister, a couple of years ago, actually met an old gentleman who remembers his early childhood growing up in Begumpuri Masjid.

Begumpuri Masjid is today one of South Delhi’s best-kept secrets: a massive mosque, surrounded by large, even fairly upmarket neighbourhoods—and almost unknown, except to local children who come here to play cricket in the sehan. Go visit it someday, if you can. It’s quite an experience.

27 thoughts on “Begumpuri Masjid, and a bit about the Tughlaqs

  1. What an informational read. You always come up with surprising finds in Delhi. This post has taken me back to my childhood. I wish my father and Bhuaji were still alive. They were an encyclopedia in themselves. Dad knew Farsi ( he could read too ), so he would read inscriptions and explain, it would have been great to share your article and visit the mosque with them. I have lived in Delhi off and on while growing up and visited many places with family, Dad finding a new place to visit, but have not heard of Begampuri masjid. Next visit to Delhi, will definitely visit a few places you have mentioned in your posts including the mosque. We have relatives in Malviya Nagar, wonder if they know of this place.

    Wish the Bombay film makers would come to Delhi and do some historic story around the old structures of Delhi. Now that would be a film I could watch.

    • It’s a real advantage to be able to read Persian, if you visit these old monuments in Delhi – my sister did learn some basic Persian in order to do her research, but she does have to rely off and on on a dictionary when she gets stuck. Of course, the good thing is that Urdu borrows a great deal from Persian, so it’s not that difficult if you are fluent in Urdu – and my sister is.

      Malviya Nagar, interestingly, is close to not just Begumpuri Masjid, but also the striking tomb known as Lal Gumbad – and a small, obscure, but pretty Sufi tomb, of a mystic called Yusuf Qattaal. I worked in Malviya Nagar for a couple of years, around 2000-01, but never knew about any of these.

      Talking of Delhi monuments and a film, I watched Merchant-Ivory’s The Householder and was taken aback to see just how much Delhi has changed in the years since. There’s this especially memorable scene where Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu walk through Mehrauli – a very green, clear place, no buildings except old tombs. I recognised the tombs, but they’re completely surrounded by buildings now.

      • hi! i used to live in malviya nagar in the 90s and passed it almost daily and there were always kids playing cricket there. were there horse tangas as well? can’t remember too well… i walked around the outside, but never did venture in. as you say, these black stone buildings looked more imposing than welcoming. i do remember lal gumbad, though never came across the yusuf qattal.

        can i ask – what sources do you use for the info on the monuments?

        • My source for most information on these monuments is my sister, Swapna Liddle, who’s a historian. Swapna has been leading heritage walks – mostly for Habitat World and for INTACH – for over 15 years now, and her PhD too was about the cultural history of Delhi (though specifically in the 19th century). Swapna’s book on Historical Walks is my usual reference for fact-checking when I need it:

          Now, of course, I’ve been to most of these monuments so many times, I am quite familiar with them anyway. Other books I refer to include Zafar Hassan’s twin volume set on Delhi’s monuments (ASI), and Lucy Peck’s book on Delhi’s built heritage. HK Kaul’s anthology of Delhi is also useful in places.

      • Good Afternoon,
        Happy Diwali.
        Reading your reply, with information on the present status of the surroundings of these most valuable monuments and structures, I feel so sad and regret why the Government is not taking care to safe guard the Indian Ancient heritage.
        Hope at least they will take care of Taj Mahal, Kutub Minar, etc.

        Thanks once again for your amazing knowledge sharing article.
        Blessings from Uma

        • Thank you, and a very Happy Diwali to you and your family too!

          Yes, it’s a pity that the government isn’t doing enough to protect our heritage – but the problem lies also in the overall mindset of society, which does not value history and heritage at all. Yes, we take great pride in ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, but the truth of what really is culture or tradition is often warped – look at the sort of myths that pass off as ‘history’. It’s sad.

  2. Oh wow, I know about the Begumpuri Masjid and have seen it too but this info about it being used as a shelter during the Nadir Shah invasion and then during partition is new. This is so interesting. Thanks, Madhu.

    • You know, Harini, my sister actually even showed me in a book an old photo of Begumpuri Masjid when it was occupied – little brick walls, narrow galis between one set of huts and the next; even – if I remember correctly – a buffalo tied up outside one hut. Quite amazing.

  3. What I love about these articles of yours, Madhu, more than the description of the place (which always makes me want to go visit, anyway), is the meticulous research you put into narrating its history. That the villagers of Begumpur would seek refuge in a masjid is natural, but to hear of Hindu families seeking its protection during the Partition – it is little things like this that you uncover for us that makes me wish the articles do not end. As I said before, ye dil maange more. :) Thank you for an interesting, and informational article.

    • Yes, that bit about the Hindus sheltering at Begumpuri Masjid during Partition first stumped me too, but I realised later that it might not be as astonishing as it appears now. After all, the mosque’s walls are so thick and formidable, it would actually make for a fairly good fortress – so defending it would have been perhaps easier than trying to defend flimsier individual homes. Also, (and this is a wild guess), may it have been a question of something akin to the medieval Christian concept of sanctuary? Could they have thought that Muslims would respect the sanctity of the masjid and not break into it, even if it was to flush out Hindus?

      Who knows. I must ask my sister, the next time I meet her, if she knows anything about this or has any theories.

  4. Lovely and absolutely fascinating!
    Whenever I read yoyur articles about Delhi monuments, I would like to take the next flight to Delhi.
    But till it comes to that, I will settle down for your wonderful narratives of these places.
    Please do carry on with the series. I won’t mind (and I think others too) if you revisit the already described places and also the more famous ones.
    Thank you!

    • Harvey, thank you so much! I’m glad you liked this. :-)

      I don’t think I will revisit the places I’ve already written about – but it’s a good idea to talk about some of the better-known places, because more often than not, people don’t even know too much about them. Will do. Thank you for the suggestion!

  5. Wow, never came across such interesting facts about begampuri masjid. I was reading about mughal coinage on a website called Mintage World and wanted to know more about muhammad bin tughlaq history, when I read your article.. thanks for sharing..

  6. Really an Excellent, interesting and a very valuable information of Historical importance. Thanks for sharing knowledge on Indian History.
    Regards and blessings.

  7. Please save this mosque it is architecture of tuglaq s is second big mosque after jama masjid.municipalty and archilogical survey of India should investigate and repair the mosque.let all people go for prayers and nimaz.
    There should be a mini market,so that people instead of separating people by fanatism,go to spend time on holidays it used to be in 60 s or70s too.good luck dehli.

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