Driving past Khairul Manzil

Being on the busy Mathura Road has its advantages but it has also meant fewer visitors for this mosque and madrasa complex

Being on Mathura Road opposite the Purana Quila has been both an advantage and a disadvantage for Khairul Manzil. The prime location has ensured that the 16th century monument gets a touch of conservation periodically and with beat constables often sitting in the shaded courtyard outside the main gate, it has been able to keep vandals at bay—so no Kittu loves Kitty on its walls. But traffic intersection on one side of the monument and heavy traffic on the road in front has also meant that many tourists skip this mosque and madrasa complex that stands next to the ruins of Lal Darwaza. There aren't many who come here for Friday prayers either. But driving past the road or while waiting at the traffic signal in the evening, one can't miss the sight of hundreds of pigeons flying down to rest on the dome of the monument.

A doorway with recessed main arch, half dome, corbelled beams, small windows above the entrance, all look typically Mughal. But inside, the mosque follows the Delhi Sultanate pattern. The courtyard and its large central pool are under repair. With the administration gearing up to welcome tourists for the Commonwealth Games, the Archaeological Survey of India is repairing portions of the structure.

The madrasa, with its two levels, is on both sides of the mosque. The larger rooms are on the ground floor and a narrow open passage leads to the smaller rooms on the first floor. The enamelled glazed tiles on the exterior and interior of the mosque are similar to those at Agra's Chini ka rouza. No two tiles are similar, though there are very few that have survived the onslaughts of time and marauders.

Standing on the courtyard and watching a group of people work almost unmindful of the heat, one can only imagine what it must have been like when the mosque was being built and then thrown open to the public for the first time. The Lal Darwaza next-door, built in quartzite and red stone, must have been an imposing structure then. The shops, now in ruin, lined on both its sides, must have once bustled with activity. The ruined houses behind the Lal Darwaza were once homes of prosperous families who may have sent their wards to this madrasa.

The mosque's name literally means an 'auspicious building'. Built in 1561 by Maham Anga, this was perhaps the first Mughal mosque in Delhi. Maham Anga, the wet nurse of a young Akbar, was no ordinary woman. Ambitious and assertive, she was the virtual ruler for a brief period. Did she visit the mosque every day?

A flight of pigeons interrupts my thoughts. As I look up, a gentle voice advises me not to look at the sun, and instead, stand in the shade, and if I wish, sprinkle water from the well inside the complex. The man turns out to be a trader who had given up his shop at the posh Greater Kailash-I market to take up the faqiri of this mosque. So, shop-owner Ali Sher Khan has now become Ali baba.

He stays here till sunset when the monument is closed. He then leaves for his home in east Delhi and returns at sunrise the next day.

Ali baba talks about djinns and angels who motivated him to become a faqir. "The djinns stay here, they talk to me regularly," he says, insisting that the mosque dates back to the pre-Akbar era. But what about the inscription here, I ask. "That's Akbar of the Tughlaq dynasty, a nephew of Muhammad-bin Tughlaq. Besides, look at the architecture, it doesn't look Mughal," he says.

But according to the ASI, this mosque was built during Akbar's reign, and the doorway is clearly Mughal as are the glazed tiles, I insist. He smiles, indicating that he doesn't want to get into an argument. After all, it's time for prayer. "Prayer is the only way to achieve peace," he says, as I walk back towards the gate.

The sun is about to set and the pigeons are returning to the mosque's dome for the night. They are the only ones allowed inside after sunset, except, of course, the djinns.

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