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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.