Home Sweet Home – The Hyperlocal Architecture of Taak, Around Town
A disappearing element.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Consisting of an arch-shaped niche built into the wall, taak is an element of old architecture, now lost to history.
Fortunately, a few can still be seen around Delhi, and especially in the traditionally built homes in the Walled City.
A taak is generally placed at the centre of the wall, and meant to be used as a shelf to keep something sacred on it — such as the Quran or a tasbih (prayer beads). In the evenings, it is also the place in many households where the agarbatti (incense stick) is lit as part of a sufi tradition. In the old days, when Delhi homes had no Western-style furniture and people sat on mattresses laid out on the floor, a gaw-takiya (pillow-rest) would be placed directly under the central taakh (for a room could have more than one).
Many families would often use the taak for more secular purposes — keeping fruits, family portraits, Dadi’s spectacles, Dada’s tobacco, Didi’s make-up kit, or any other household knick-knacks people liked to have within easy reach. For such purposes, more spacious taaks could be built on the sides of the walls and serve as our modern-day open cupboards, ledges, shelves, or mantelpieces.
A taak was also, consequently, one of the many places in a house where people kept things and forgot about them. From this comes the popular Urdu saying “Usko to taak mein rakh diya”, naughtily implying that a person who’s been forgotten might have been dumped in a taak.
Taaks have also strayed into supernatural territory. They are believed to be the doors and corridors through which the djinns (spirits) travel from one house to another.
These alcoves are rarely spotted in new houses: taaks have been made obsolete by sideboards and shelves. As for old houses where taaks can be seen, it may be difficult to enter them for reasons of privacy.
Still, it is possible to come across a taak in the city, by strolling, for instance, in the localities surrounding the Jama Masjid. Some of the old doorways have taaks built into them for the mere pleasure of architectural aesthetics. Too shallow for use, they look like an impression on the wall. You may see such blank recesses in many Delhi monuments — the pre-Mughal tombs tucked behind the showrooms of South Extension-I are one example.
But there is at least one utterly beautiful taak easy to access and admire, and it is to be found in the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Built in the chamber of shrine caretaker Afsar Nizami, its inner surface has grown sooty with the smoky trail of the agarbattis lit inside it in the evenings. While nobody seems to be mourning the passing of the taaks, this is one place where one can appreciate its beauty before it gets too late.
The world of taak