City Monument – Mubarak Begum Masjid, Hauz Qazi
The mosque of the whore.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Electrical cables. Machine-part shops. The Hauz Qazi police station compound. And the tender and infinitely graceful Mubarak Begum mosque. It makes for a daydream view, with no connection to its uncivilized surroundings.
Situated in a congested bazaar of Old Delhi, the mosque’s feet don’t touch the ground. The pale green entrance door is tucked between two shops selling nuts, bolts, cables, and welding rod electrodes. A flight of steep stairs leads to a courtyard, the sudden openness of which comes as a pleasant surprise.
The courtyard has an ablution tank and two large pots planted with vines. The centerpiece is the mosque, in red sandstone. Renovated in 2011, it is painted in a shade of brick dust. Its three entrance arches correspond to its three domes; they increase in size towards the center. Two rotating fans are mounted on both sides of the central doorway; a clock hangs on its top. Cats prowl the parapet.
Built in 1823, the mosque was named after one of the 13 wives of Sir David Ochterlony, Delhi’s first British resident, who was known for his passion for nautch girls, hukkas (hubble-bubble) and Indian costumes. Mubarak Begum, a Brahmin dancing girl from Pune, was a convert to Islam. Besides being the favourite wife (some say she was just a mistress) of Sir Ochterlony, she was a principal player in Delhi’s cultural life. Dilli ki Aakhiri Shama, Delhi’s last great mushaira, or poetry soiree, was hosted in her haveli just before the Mughal Empire dissolved in 1857. Forty poets were present that night, including the great Mirza Ghalib.
It is not clear if the mosque was commissioned by Mubarak Begum or was built in her honour. It’s crudely nicknamed Randi ki Masjid; randi is Urdu slang for prostitute.
The dark prayer chamber inside the mosque can accommodate about 10 men. Its homely smallness emphasizes the theatricality of the domes. The floor is of marble, the walls are painted pale yellow and the Mecca-facing mihrab (recess) is in glossy green. The noise from outside—the cries of the vendors, the tinkling of rickshaw bells, the honking of the scooters—is muffled.
Watching the mosque from across the street gives a fairy-tale feel. Perhaps because the bazaar is so banal, the domes get infused with a special rounded sweetness. Stare longer and the ugly aesthetics of the modern world dampen the mosque’s delicate beauty. It’s like looking at something that is already gone. That’s why it is one of Delhi’s most poignant monuments.
Where Next to Chawri Bazaar Metro station entrance, on the Hauz Kazi side Time sunrise to sunset.
Up the stairs
In the night
The remains of the grace