Mehrauli in South Delhi is the oldest inhabited area of Delhi. No, It is not Purani Dilli around Red Fort or Chandni Chowk which is less than 400 years old. Actually, the oldest inhabited part would be the Purana Qila, but that is not in the same category any more. It is just another of the ruins of Delhi where only tourists come.
Things to do in Mehrauli
Come with me to this heritage city called Mehrauli – a twisted form of Mihirawali as it was originally called.
Lal Kot literally translates to Red Fort. You can easily call it the original red fort of Delhi. Though, when you walk along the walls, which is what remains of the mighty fort, you may not see the red colour it refers to.
Lal Kot was built by the Tomar King – Anangpal II in 736 CE. Anangpal traces his ancestry to Arjuna who was one of the Pandavas who ruled from Indraprasth or Delhi. Anangpal’s name is also inscribed on the famous Iron Pillar of Delhi. In recorded history though, after the Tomar dynasty, the Lal Kot came under Chauhans through Prithvi Raj Chauhan. They renamed the fort to Qila-Rai-Pithora. This change of hands of Delhi throne happened not by war but by marriage as one of the sons-in-law of Tomars was a Chauhan, who took over from them.
Origin of Delhi's name
The city of Delhi also owes its name to Tomars, who named it Dilli or Dhilli.
Lal Kot lies behind the Qutub Minar complex. You need to go through one of the fancy restaurants. Not really maintained, you have to walk through the forest to reach the walls of Lal Kot. The walls are tall and broad. The bastions appear at regular intervals. Standing on top of the wall, you can only imagine how big and mighty this fort must have been. Unfortunately, this is the most ignored monument in Delhi.
We could see the outline of a couple of water tanks that would have been an integral part of Lal Kot. You get a very different view of Qutub Minar from Lal Kot. You also see the top view of Sanjay Van that makes Delhi look green.
Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Mehrauli, being the oldest living area of Delhi, has imprints of all the ages it has seen. Right from the time, it was a Jain city called Yoginipura to Tomars and Chauhans who built the first fort of Delhi. The Islamic invaders also initially ruled from here before creating other cities around the place.
The Archaeological Survey of India or ASI has carved out a piece of Mehrauli and converted it into an archaeological park. Here you can see the history of the place in a nutshell, including the distinct architectural styles of various eras of Mehrauli.
Located not too far from Qutub Minar you can easily combine visiting the Archaeological Park with your visit to the Minar. Some of the things that you should not miss at the park are:
Rajon Ki Baoli
The Rajon ki Baoli is a magnificent stepwell that was built not for kings but for the masons working here. One of the most beautiful step wells in Delhi, the multi-level stepwell has sitting spaces all around it.
Whenever I visit Rajon ki Baoli, I imagine the masons resting here between their morning and evening shift of work. I wonder what they talked about when they opened their potlis of food brought from home and as they drank the water from the Baoli. In fact, this is a perfect place to rest even today or to sit and listen to the stories of Mehrauli.
Today, Jamali Kamali is a small mosque with one of the few surviving works in blue tiles in Delhi. The mosque supposedly belonged to some Sufi saints who lived here. Jamali indicates the sect of Sufi saints – yes, they do have sects within Sufis too. Kamali refers to the miracles they could do, though I am not aware of any documentation of miracles performed by them.
Around this mosque, you can see the Rajputana influence with the stone-carved Jharokhas.
Quli Khan’s Tomb & Metcalfe’s Folly
This structure has an interesting story. This tomb served as a dining hall for the Metcalfe – who treated this structure as his personal retreat. Imagine sitting on top of a grave and enjoying your meals. Come to think of it, even the Taj Mahal was treated the same way during the British period. Behind the tomb, you can even see the living quarters added during the British rule.
Metcalfe’s Folly is a canopy located on a mound. To me, this is a great vantage point to stand and see the ruins all around. As a piece of architecture, it has no real significance. It only tells the story of how the brain of Charles Metcalfe worked. He got this canopy built to gel with the rest of the structures around and placed it on a mound so that he can see it from his retreat. I must say he had a good sense of photography even before photography became mainstream.
Besides these, you can look at many tombs, most of which are in ruins. The notable aspect is that tombs are built with beam and lintel technique here instead of the techniques used to make arches.
The Mehrauli Archaeological Park has well-laid lawns that take you away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Visiting this park is like time travel. If you can leave your gadgets behind, you could feel like you're in a different era.
Ancient Yogmaya Temple
A walk around the Qutub Complex would tell you that Mehrauli was once dominated by Hindu and Jain temples. Some of the works have survived in pillars of the mosque while most of it is lost to time. One temple that has managed to survive the invasions in Mehrauli is Yogmaya Temple.
Located behind the famous Qutub Minar on the main road going through the village is this small but ancient temple that is dedicated to Devi -- Yogmaya or Jogmaya.
The name is a reminder of the days when Delhi was known as the city of Yoginis. I assume there must have been many temples dedicated to Yoginis then. However, this one is the sole temple left – thankfully it is there. Some legends say that Yogmaya was the sister of Krishna, the daughter of Nand and Yashoda who was replaced with him. She is the one who flew off and announced that the killer of Kamsa was born.
Another legend connects the Yogmaya temple in Delhi to Mahabharata. It is believed that Krishna and Arjuna prayed here on the day when Jaydratha had to be killed by Arjuna. With her Maya, she created an eclipse that helped Arjuna kill Jayadrath.
Yogmaya is also believed to be an incarnation of Mahalaxmi. At Yogmaya temple in Delhi, she is present in the Pindi form, which you can see if you visit at the time of 'abhishek'.
The temple as you see now is not very old, however, Devi's bhavan is very old. It is said that Aurangzeb tried hard to destroy this temple, but failed. Do not miss a huge fan hanging from the ceiling of the Yogmaya temple. The fan is offered by the president of India during a festival called ‘Phoolwaalon ki Sair’ in September-October. Floral fans are offered at both this temple and at a Mazar nearby. The festival actually starts from a natural spring situated at some distance from the temple.
Jain temples of Mehrauli
Like I said, the place was once the stronghold of Jains. The two living and practicing Jain temples here are a testimony of the Jain past of this area. If you live in Delhi, you have probably driven on the MG Road. At one of the traffic signals you would have seen the sign of Dadabari Jain Temple but maybe never bothered to stop and see what it is. I once followed this sign and was greeted by two beautiful temples.
Dadabari Jain Temple
Built-in pristine white marble-like many Jain temples, this is almost like a hidden gem of the city of Delhi.
Dadabari Jain temple in Mehrauli dates back to the 13th CE. The legend of the temple tells the tale of the famous Jain Muni Manidhari Dada Shri Jinchandra Suri from Jaisalmer, who was born with a Mani or a precious jewel on his forehead. Being a child prodigy, he took 'Deeksha' at an age of 6, and by the time he was 9, he was already an 'Acharya'. As per Jain tradition, he roamed around the country on foot.
However, his Guru, foreseeing his death in Delhi, instructed him to go anywhere but the Capital. The circumstances did lead him to Delhi where he built a beautiful Parsavnath temple, probably in the area now occupied by Qutub Minar. He left his body at the age of 26.
It is believed that he chose to rest at the place where Dadabari Jain temple stands. It was called Manik Chowk – a busy crossroads in the days of the saint.
Typical Jain Temple
Dadabari Jain temple is a typical Jain temple – simple, elegant, rich, and peaceful. It is impeccably maintained. The marble arches, silver doors, and glass interiors take you away from the hustle & bustle of the city just a few hundred meters away. The somber white marble makes way for ornate torans that lead you to the colourful glass interiors inside the main shrine.
You can see the stories of Jain Tirthankaras like the dejection of Neminath at the time of his wedding. Life of Dada Guru is also depicted on the walls of the Dadabari Jain temple. A hillock takes you around the shrines dedicated to different Jain Tirthankaras. The temple has a provision for 300 people to live on campus.
On the opposite side of the MG road from the turn that takes you to Dadabari is a hillock. On top of this hill is a beautiful 14ft-high image of the 24th Tirthankar of Jains – Lord Mahavira.
The image is surrounded by two lion sculptures – the symbol of Mahavira. There are some ancient sculptures in dark green stone, probably from South India. This is just about a 30- to 40-year-old place. It gives you a vantage view of the place. You can see the Qutub Complex, various tombs, and the lovely green cover of Delhi. Mysteriously, you do not see the roads much.
While you can get a glimpse of the place as it was at the Archaeological Park, Qutub Minar Complex, and ancient Jain and Hindu temples, to see the current day, you need to take a walk through the village. The village is full of monuments of different ages with tons of stories to tell if you have time enough to listen. Every time I walk through this place, I feel the monuments are like friends of different ages sitting and telling their stories.
Let us begin the walk from the northern end of the village and end it at the southern end. We will take a few detours when needed. Start walking from the Yogmaya temple towards the village bus stand.
Adham Khan’s Tomb
On your right, you will see a very symmetrical octagonal tomb on a raised platform that locals call 'Bhool Bhulaiya'. The inside of the dome of this tomb has a typical Mehrauli architecture of blue and red tiles. It is said that the octagonal tombs were built for traitors during the Mughal era and Adham Khan, Akbar's general, was definitely a traitor, so he got not just an octagonal tomb but also a tomb outside the then city limits.
Interestingly, like Adham's brother Quli Khan’s tomb, this tomb has served as a residential quarter, a police station and as a post office during the British rule.
War Memorial Stone
Just ahead of Adham Khan’s tomb, on the pale-yellow walls of the primary health center is a memorial plaque. It tells us about the 1,262 men from this village who fought in the First World War and 92 who lost their lives.
Gandhak ki Baoli
It is an interesting 5-story narrow and long stepwell with steps only on one side. Gandhak means sulfur. Once upon a time when this stepwell had water, it was used only for bathing. It is believed that it used to smell of sulfur and had curative properties, especially for skin diseases.
Baba Khaki Dargah
Follow the signs and walk through the markets to reach the dargah of Baba Bakhtiar Khaki. A notable feature in this dargah is a stone that was used by Nizammudin, his discipline to stand while praying. Since women are not allowed inside this dargah, I could only see through the marble screen. The complex has graves of many people who probably wanted to be buried close to Baba.
Zafar Mahal, a palace built by the last Mughals, is now in shambles. The Hathi Gate, through which you enter the palace, looks healthy but once you go inside – be very careful.
You would notice a Moti Masjid here similar to the one you see in Red Fort. This is where Bahadur Shah Zafar wanted to be buried, but fate had Rangoon marked for him.
Start walking on the main road southwards and you will see Jahaz Mahal standing at the edge of a large tank called Shamsi Talab or pond. The pond is attributed to the 13th CE slave dynasty king Iltutmish. The tank is now a fraction of its original size though it still looks big.
Well, Jahaz Mahal gets its name from its shape that looks like a ship parked on the banks of the lake. If this was a palace or a hunting lodge or a pleasure palace for summers or a Sarai for visitors – no one really knows. It may have been all of that.
You can see canopies on top with remains of blue tile work peeping through.
Just opposite the Jahaz Mahal, you can ask for the spring where the 'Phoolwalon ki Sair' starts. In the good old days, it was the water of this spring that fed the tank next to Jahaz Mahal.
Keep walking and you will see many old structures, many of them with domes. You can stop by and listen to the stories from the locals, but let me tell you every time I walked, I heard a different story. People of the place are real storytellers.
You will come out close to the Andheria Mod, after walking through the eras of history.
Qutub Minar is one of the three UNESCO World Heritage sites in Delhi. It is the most recognisable feature today. First-time Delhi visitors can start their exploration of this heritage place from Qutub Minar.
If you think this place is all about ruins from the past, hold on. It is also home to some of the best designer boutiques in Delhi. I find it very romantic to walk through the ruins to find gourmet food and creative designer outfits.
Top-notch designers like Manish Malhotra, JJ Valaya, Rohit Bal, Pallavi Mohan et al have their boutiques here. Some of these are specialised for wedding or bridal shopping – for that is when you loosen your purse strings the most.
When it was the seat of rulers, it must have invited visitors from around the world. Well, not sure if they adapted to Indian cuisine, but today you can literally get any international cuisine here.
I still remember my lavish Italian lunch at the Olive Bar & Kitchen many years ago. You get some of the best Japanese, French, Spanish, Armenian, Thai as well as Indian food. It is definitely a destination for the food connoisseurs in Delhi.
History, heritage – including a UNESCO World Heritage site, shopping, and great food – what more can you expect from an ancient corner of Delhi?