City Monument – Masjid Mubarak Begum, Chawri Bazar
Like a wounded fairy tale.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It is among Delhi’s most melancholic souvenirs. One of the domes no longer exists. The missing portion is wrapped in a blue tarpaulin, like a makeshift bandage on an amputation wound.
One morning in July last year, thunder, lightning and rain fell fatally on Masjid Mubarak Begum in the Walled City’s Chawri Bazar, causing a dome to splinter into uneven halves. The old building now appears reconciled to the impairment.
This afternoon, a lone man is reclined in the courtyard. The open space is more like a deck, for the mosque rests on a plinth high enough to stay disconnected from the chaos of the bazaar. Directly underneath lies machine parts shops, spilling over with nuts, bolts, cables and welding rod electrodes. The narrow door to the mosque, downstairs, punctuates the market’s congested corridor like a hole in the wall. The steep staircase gives way to an ambience that is exact inverse of the bazaar — serene, still and sky-filled.
The red sandstone structure originally had three domes. It’s the central dome, the biggest, that was destroyed by the monsoon storm.
Built in 1823, the mosque was named after one of many “bibis” of David Ochterlony, Delhi’s first British resident. Said to have started in the Mughal-era city as a courtesan, Mubarak Begum gradually came to command the respectability owed to a sophisticated society hostess. The site of the legendary Dilli ki Aakhiri Shama, Delhi’s last great mushaira, or poetry soiree, was her haveli. Forty poets were said to be present that night, including Mirza Ghalib.
Today, crammed in by commonplace modernity, it is impossible to imagine the mosque’s original setting. The dimly lit prayer chamber is currently locked, and opens only during the prescribed prayer hours. In fact, gazing upon the damaged edifice from the pavement below gives the viewer a more realistic sense of its place in the contemporary world.
From here, Mubarak Begum looks angelic, but diminished. May be because the disorderly bazaar dominates the panorama so thoroughly, the domes appear to be farther than they truly are. Gaze longer, and it is like seeing something that has already dissolved.
Edifice of loss
1. (A day after the damage)