Delhi has a vast number of mosques (not unusual, considering the many centuries this city was ruled by Muslims). They’re large and small, obscure and prominent. And some of them have really odd names: the Imliwaali Masjid (‘the mosque of the tamarind’); the Amrudwaali Masjid (‘the mosque of the guava’), and the Randi ki Masjid (‘the prostitute’s mosque’, formally known as Masjid Mubarak Begum, but called by its unsavoury epithet because it had been built by General Ochterlony’s extremely unpopular Indian wife Mubarak Begum).
And then there’s the Moth ki Masjid, near South Extension: the ‘mosque of the lentil seed’.
This is a 16th century mosque, built during the time of Sikandar Lodhi (1488-1517 CE) and there are various versions of the legend behind its name. One has it that Sikandar Lodhi was out strolling with a minister named Mian Buhwa, and in the course of the walk, the Sultan bent down, picked up a lentil seed that was lying on the ground, and handed it to Mian Buhwa. Mian Buhwa, not wanting to throw it away (since it was, after all, a ‘gift’ from the Sultan) decided to put the lentil seed to good use: he planted it, and from the resultant crop, grew more lentils, which he sold—and continued the cycle until he had enough money to build a mosque. The Moth ki Masjid.
There are other variations; one has it that Mian Buhwa and Sikandar Lodhi were at namaaz, and when the Sultan rose from his knees, Mian Buhwa noticed the lentil seed on the prayer mat and took it. There’s another (less well-known, even less likely, and therefore mostly ignored) version which has nothing to do with Sikandar Lodhi but talks of an old woman who found a lentil seed and used it to grow crop after crop of lentils for sale until she had collected money enough to build a mosque.
Like a few other medieval mosques (the Begumpuri Masjid and the Khirki Masjid are other examples), the Moth ki Masjid looks, from the outside, more like a fortification than a place of worship—especially if you happen to be looking at it from the back. This area, with its high, forbidding wall, curved, bastion-like turrets and general air of solidity, is so much like a citadel that you’d be forgiven for not realizing it’s a mosque.
If you go round the surrounding wall, though, you’ll soon begin to see signs of the decoration that makes Moth ki Masjid such a very attractive building. At the corner, the wall is topped with a pretty domed chhatri (a small pavilion) adorned with bright blue tiles.
Further on, the main gateway to the mosque is beautiful carved in a style that is highly reminiscent of Hindu temples: the same lintels, the same ‘elephant trunk’ carvings, the same square pillars. (It’s an interesting example of how ‘Indo-Islamic’ architecture, since so many of the stone carvers were Hindus, incorporated symbols and elements that had been in use in indigenous architecture for centuries before the arrival of Muslim rulers in Delhi).
A short flight of steep steps leads up from the gate into the sehan, where there is a shallow hauz for wazu, or ritual ablutions. The mosque itself, with its five-arched façade, is pleasant without being fussy. The arches are all triple ones, each arch consisting of three recessed ones. Medallions of incised plaster, niches, and strips of sparse carving in red sandstone form the basic decoration here.
For me, the best thing about Moth ki Masjid is the fact that relatively few people seem to know about it. Most times I’ve been here, there has been nobody about except a local caretaker/sweeper. Just pigeons pecking about in the sehan, among heaps of yellowing neem leaves fallen from the trees above. Bliss.