Gurugram is defined by glitzy totems to power and pelf, her futuristic facades gazing firmly towards the future. Home to the offices of half the world’s Fortune 500 companies, and a thriving tech and industrial hub, the city has experienced stunning and rapid growth.
The monuments here are made of glass and steel, and the Moghuls that lord over this jagir are corporate honchos and the wealthy elite. Boasting swank malls, ultra-modern offices and swish residential neighbourhoods, 21st-century Gurugram is Millennium City.
Yet, till just 30 years ago, it was little more than a bleak and barren hamlet not far from Delhi.
But this was not just any old hamlet. Gurugram’s unique location – 30 km south-west of Delhi and situated in then Punjab and now Haryana – meant it was often swept up in some pretty historic events in the country’s history.
Look deep and you will find remnants of its antiquity. The Gurgaon (it was renamed ‘Gurugram’ in 2016) of pre-Independence India consisted of European dwellings, churches, Sadar Bazar and the old gaon with its famous temple dedicated to the ‘Goddess of Small Pox’.
Go further back and you come across a cantonment of a warrior queen and a counter cavalry unit of the British. Further back in the timeline, you discover a Mughal-era sarai and a historic mosque in a far-flung sector of Gurugram. Lastly, you will come across the fearless Mewatis led by the Khanzada dynasty, who leave their stamp here in the form of a once-glorious mosque and tomb.
It may be hard to imagine at first glance, but Gurugram has much to offer heritage and history buffs. Let’s start our journey!
Legend ascribes the name ‘Gurgaon’ to Guru Dronacharya, who was given the land here by the eldest of the Pandavas – Yudhishtira – in form of a guru dakshina or offering to the guru. The village came to be known as ‘Guru Gram’, which in time transformed into ‘Gurgaon’, and now once again, ‘Gurugram’.
There are many sites here that locals believe connect to the era of the Mahabharata – a small temple in Khandsa village (Sector 37), which locals believe marks the spot where Eklavya cut his thumb; Bhima Kund, a pond where Guru Dronacharya is said to have bathed; and a temple dedicated to the guru himself. However, the most famous of them all is the Sheetla Mata Temple visited every year by thousands of devotees and the site of a famous annual mela.
Sheetla (Sitla/Shitla) Mata Mandir
According to folklore, Sheetla Mata Mandir is dedicated to Kirpai, the wife of Guru Dronacharya, who lived in the village of Keshopur. She committed her life to the service of children suffering from small pox. After her death, a temple was built here in her memory. The story goes that the Mata once appeared in a dream of a landholder of Gurgaon named Singha, and urged him to relocate the temple to his village. Singha complied and a new temple came up in her honour in Gurgaon. To this day, she is one of the most-revered goddess among the locals.
The temple is of considerable antiquity, as is confirmed by the Gazetteer of the Gurgaon District for 1910. It quotes that 50,000 to 60,000 pilgrims used to visit the temple every year to seek blessings for their children, to ward off the evil of small pox. The pilgrims used to come from as far as Benares and the annual offering varied between 10,000 to 20,000 rupees. The current temple was built in the 18th century by Jat King Jawahar Singh of Bharatpur, to commemorate his victory over the Mughals.
When the metro line arrived in Gurgaon, the first stop was named ‘Guru Dronacharya’ to honour the popular beliefs of the place. In 2016, Gurgaon was renamed ‘Gurugram’.
The Indomitable Mewatis
The Pre-Mughal era saw the constant influence of the Mewatis, a community of Muslim Rajputs, in this region, led by the fearless Bahadur Nahar Khan of the Khanzada Dynasty. While the region officially fell under the Delhi Sultanate of Qutubuddin Aibak and his successors, the Mewatis were a persistent nuisance as they employed the method of plunder and retreat whenever the central authority weakened. Bahlol Lodhi, founder of the Lodhi dynasty, brought the region firmly under his control in 1451 but the Khanzada influence was ever-present.
It was only with the advent of Babur a century later that the Mewati influence waned. During the Battle of Khanwa, Hasan Khan Mewati, the last ruler of this dynasty, allied with Rajput king Rana Sanga but ended up on the losing side. He was killed and the Mughals took over.
Bhondsi Mosque & Tomb
Bhondsi is a small, non-descript village on the Gurgaon-Sohna road, which hides a heritage treasure dying a slow death. It is home to a 500 year old mosque and tomb complex attributed to the Khanzadas and boasts typical Lodhi-era architectural features. The mosque has elaborate, fluted domes, octagonal necks, arched niches, lotus finials and graceful minarets on the side.
The tomb is of a square plan, with kanguras (merlons) on the parapet, chajjas (covered balconies), an octagonal neck and arched niches.
The complex is abandoned, overrun by bats inside and vegetation outside. These monuments, which have lasted more than five centuries, may not last the next few years!
The Mughal Era
During the age of Emperor Akbar, Gurgaon (and its surrounding region) comes to the fore for the first time with the rise of Hemu (7th October 1556 to 5th November 1556), who hailed from Rewari nearby and went on to sit on the throne of Delhi by sheer courage. A sizeable portion of his army came from the region around Gurgaon and fought against the Mughals in the Second Battle of Panipat.
As luck would have had it, Hemu was struck by a chance arrow in his eye, taken prisoner and beheaded. The tide, which was initially in his favour, turned, and his army was annihilated. One can only wonder what would have happened had Hemu triumphed – the people of the Gurgaon region would have been the driving force behind the throne of Delhi! But that was not to be and Gurgaon had to wait for its turn in the sun, till the British arrived.
Gurgaon, under Akbar, fell under the subah of Delhi. A piao, or a public structure intended to provide drinking water for travellers called Dhauli Piao, used to exist here from Akbar’s era till recently According to Veena Talwar Oldenburg, author of Gurgaon: From Mythic Village to Millennium City (2018), this was a small, brick pavilion with classic Mughal arches where the emperor’s entourage used to stop for refreshment en route to Amber. Unfortunately, this piao, over 500 years old, was demolished to make way for the Guru Dronacharya Metro Station in 2009. How ironic!
The region finds little mention from the time of Jahangir to Aurangzeb, and with the decline of the Mughals, it fell to the rulers of the neighbouring Farrukhnagar, Ghasera and Bharatpur areas.
Since Gurgaon lay on the important route from Delhi to Ajmer, sarais, or rest houses, were constructed for the convenience of travellers. A remnant of that time still exists in the form of the Sarai and Mosque of Nawab Ali Vardi Khan, which was constructed in the 18th century during the reign of Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah.
Sarai & Mosque of Ali Vardi Khan
Nawab Ali Vardi Khan was the Nawab of Bengal (r. 1740-56) during the reign of Muhammad Shah in Delhi. He must have been the chief patron of this sarai, which was built for travellers to Ajmer Sharif. A village that grew around the sarai took its name, and is today Sarai Alawardi in Sector 110 of Gurgaon.
The sarai no more than a heap of ruined rubble but the mosque, thankfully, still exists.
The mosque has three graceful, bulbous domes topped by upturned lotuses and kalasha (translate). It has lost one of its minarets but the rest of the structure is intact. We find exquisite floral ornamentation and cusped arches on the red sandstone façade. The mosque is still in use with namazis from the surrounding areas using it.
The Age of Begum Samru
Begum Samru (ca 1753 to 1836) started as a nautch girl and ended up becoming the ruler of Sardhana near Meerut, commanding her own mercenary army. She was intimately connected to Delhi, having twice come to the rescue of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam.
The jagir of Jharsa-Badshahpur (part of modern Gurugram) was acquired by her husband Walter Reinhardt Sombre from the French. After his death, it passed on to her and she built a major cantonment in Jharsa in addition to her army in Sardhana.
The Begum, according to the Gazetteer of the Gurgaon District for 1910, used to extract one month’s donation every year from the Temple of Sheetla Mata. It is also believed that Sheetla Mata came to her rescue when her child contracted small pox and cured him after prayers were offered to the Goddess. However, this story doesn’t find mention in any official records.
The queen built the grandest monument in Gurgaon during that time. It was her palace and was situated between Jharsa and Gurgaon village. She died in 1839, after ruling Jharsa-Badshahpur for around 60 years. After her death, the palace became the residence of the Deputy Commissioner of Gurugram and her estate passed on to British.
French Memorial, Mohyal Park
Mohyal Park is located in Sector 40 of Gurugram, in the region of erstwhile Jharsa. Here, we find a memorial which Begum Samru built for one of her loyal officers, a Frenchman named Major Jean Etienne.
He served the Begum for 35 years and passed away in 1821. We find another grave here, probably of another officer.
Badshahpur Fort & Baoli
Badshahpur, in Sector 66 of Gurugram, grew around a massive fort which once covered 17 acres. However, rampant encroachment by locals and government apathy resulted in the near-disappearance of the fort. All that exists today is a part of a huge bastion and some walls.
A 100-year-old baoli or well, which existed in the vicinity till 2018, since been covered completely to make way for a new road. Badshahpur is a prime example of rampant urbanization and indifference.
The British influence began with the conquest of Delhi in 1803 by Lord Lake. To keep an eye on the Jharsa cantonment of Begum Samru, a British cavalry unit was stationed at Hidayatpur. The British then transferred their civil offices from Bharawas (near Rewari) to the Civil Lines area of Gurgaon, where they built bungalows, a church, jail, post office, two sarais and the Sadar Bazaar. Gurgaon finally became a district in 1821.
Monuments of note from this period are:
The Church of The Epiphany was built in 1863 for British officers stationed in Gurgaon. It was consecrated in 1866 by the Bishop of Calcutta. This is a quaint, intimate church with coffee-coloured wooden beams in the roof, a simple altar and stained glass windows depicting the Crucifixion.
This was one of two sarais built by the British and probably got its name from Mr R Cavendish, the first British administrator of Gurgaon. All that remains of this 19th century structure is its grand gate with the trademark cusped arches of that era. The gate stands in the busy bus stand area of Gurugram and is heavily encroached on all sides. The situation is so dire that there are shops operating even inside it. The local dialect has seen the name evolve to ‘Kaman Sarai’.
This grand hall was built in memory of John Bryne, the deceased son of Deputy Commissioner F L Brayne, in 1925. The hall was historically used for high-level meetings and administrative functions. It has been renamed to Swatantra Senani Zila Parishad Hall.
There is a need to look beyond the sheen of corporate towers and high-end neighbourhoods in Gurgaon so that what remains of the city’s glorious past is preserved.
Rameen Khan is a heritage enthusiast who loves rediscovering and documenting historic monuments, folklore and traditional cuisines.