NEW DELHI: Frequent visitors to the shrine of revered 14th-century sufi-saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi can spot the difference in its 700-year-old Jamaat Khana mosque. The Quranic inscriptions, carved in the mosque’s stone, as well as the ornamental medallion on the façade of its domes and arches fringed with lotus-bud embellishment, have been restored to its original glory. The intricate architectural features of this Khilji era masjid, a three-bay red sandstone structure, were hidden beneath the layers of lead-based enamel paints for decades.
During painstaking conservation — started about three years ago by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) — the impressive stone carvings have been cleaned and missing sections fixed. The thick layer of cement plaster, which had caused enormous damage to the stone in the core, was removed and corroded stones were replaced.The 100mm thick terrazzo flooring, a 20th century intervention, has been ripped out.
“We never thought about mosque’s architectural heritage value. Ignorance and lack of funds were responsible for past interim measures. Finding skilled labourers and having the understanding required for restoring ancient buildings was another hurdle. The mosque’s red sandstone had started chipping off. When I discovered deep cracks on the central dome, a few years ago, I realised that it is high time to undertake its systematic preservation work,” Najmi Nizami, a mutawalli (trustee) of the mosque. His family has been leading prayers here for centuries.
The ongoing conservation effort at the mosque, also known as Khilji Masjid, is the first such initiative at a living mosque —unprotected structure — in India, where worshippers come to offer namaaz.
As per AKTCs’ estimate, the shrine complex is visited by 20 lakh devotees every year. Ratish Nanda, chief executive officer (CEO) of AKTC, said that conservation exercise at the mosque is significant and has its own constraints as the work can only occur here in a piecemeal manner as the space is need for offering namaaz.
“The work is in its final stage and we will complete it within three-four months. About 75 per cent of the work is done, which includes preservation of the main hall, northern bay and their domes. As civil work is finished, the structure will be provided appropriate energy efficient lighting and fixtures. All visible wires, will be hidden,” said Nanda.
Jamaat Khana — built by Khizr Khan between the years 1312-13— is arguably the oldest mosque in the national capital, which is still in use. Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in his book on monuments in Delhi wrote
that the Khizr, son of Khilji Sultan Alauddin had constructed the central hall and dome, who was a devotee of Nizamuddin Auliya.
As per an account recorded in the book, one of the prominent nobles in the court of Khilji, who was also a disciple of the saint, suggested the sultan to spend time in the company of Nizamuddin Auliya to seek his blessings. Instead, Khilji sent his son. “Khizr gained the company of the pious saint and became his devotee. During this period, he had the middle dome and the hall built,” says the book.
Two adjoining halls with two domes each were added by Muhammad Tughlaq Shah when he took over the reign around 1325. Marble pulpit was placed in the prayer hall around 90 years ago.Southern hall known as ‘chhoti masjid’ (small mosque) is exclusively for women worshippers. Its original wooden door collapsed around 30 years ago but was repaired.One of the unique features of the structure is the lofty central dome. “Its dimension makes it exceptional. This is probably one of its kinds-a single dome with large dimension-in the country, since large sized dome is generally constructed based on double-dome pattern,” Nizami said.
The lofty dome has a golden bowl suspended from the centre. As the folklores go, when the Jats and later British took over the city, they thought that the bowl was made of gold and fired shots at it to get hold of it.Another popular version says when an elderly woman devotee was praying for financial help for her daughter’s wedding, the bowl fell on her lap.
Afterwards, a new bowl was hung in its place.
Nizami, however, refuted all the claims saying that neither version is supported by evidence. “It is not known what metal the bowl is made of but definitely is not gold. When it was brought down for the repair of the dome recently, round marks, however, could be seen on its surface. I am not sure whether those were bullet marks,” he said.
The golden bowl
The mosque’s lofty dome has a golden bowl suspended from it. As the folklores go, when the Jats and later British took over the city, they thought that the bowl was made of gold and fired shots at it to get hold of it. Another story says when an elderly woman was praying in the mosque for financial help, the bowl fell on her lap.