City Monument – Mubarak Begum Masjid, Hauz Qazi
The mosque of the whore.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Machine-part shops overflowing with nuts, bolts, cables, and welding rod electrodes. And amid these sights soars the infinitely graceful Mubarak Begum masjid.
Situated in a congested Old Delhi bazaar, the mosque stands on an upper floor. A flight of steep stairs leads to the courtyard, the sudden openness of which comes as a pleasant surprise.
The red sandstone mosque has three domes; they increase in size towards the center. The parapets are prowled by cats.
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 and Indian costumes. Mubarak Begum, originally a dancing girl from Pune, 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 said to be 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 i crudely nicknamed Randi ki Masjid; randi is an Urdu slang for prostitute.
The dark prayer chamber inside the mosque can barely accommodate more than a dozen worshippers. Its smallness emphasizes the theatricality of the giant domes under which it stands. The floor is of marble, and the Mecca-facing mihrab is in glossy green. The sounds of the world 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, is even more full of feeling. There it gives a fairy-tale feel. Perhaps because the bazaar is so banal, the domes get infused with a special rounded sweetness. Stare longer, however, and the aesthetics of the modern world dampen the mosque’s delicate beauty. It’s like looking at something that is already gone. That’s why this is one of Delhi’s most poignant monuments.