While the poor state of roads and bridges in Delhi are a subject of constant discussion, there is a small yet almost magical bridge in a corner of northern Delhi that has survived for more than 700 years. Even though built to carry horses, carriages, pack animals and pedestrians, the old bridge, in Warizabad, has survived for so long perhaps because it was constructed by a Sultan who was a builder and a conservationist at heart.
This bridge and many other structures in this part of Delhi and elsewhere were built by Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq (r. 1351 – 1388 CE), the third Sultan of the Tughlaq dynasty (1320 – 1413 CE) and a cousin and successor of the eccentric Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlaq.
Like most other Tughlaq era structures, the Wazirabad bridge is made of rubble. It has nine arches, colonnades and screen windows, and was an engineering marvel when it was constructed in the 14th century. It still is. The Yamuna no longer flows beneath it, shrunk as it has into a nullah or a drain whose contents creeps past the arches of this sturdy little overpass.
Despite its vintage, this architectural gem has remained very low-profile. Incredibly, there has been minimal maintenance over the centuries, except for being resurfaced with tar to facilitate the movement of modern vehicles. The reason for its longevity is its robust medieval construction and use of small, load-bearing arches.
Another reason could be that most of the traffic that passes over this nullah now uses the grand Signature Bridge which opened in 2018 built right next to our modest stone wonder. One shudders to think of the damage it would have likely sustained under the weight of present-day traffic.
In the West, heritage bridges such as the Ponte Rialto in Venice are completely closed to vehicular traffic and open only to pedestrians, while Pont Neuf in Paris is closed to heavy vehicles. But, in Wazirabad, this beautiful medieval bridge is drowning in toxic waste and camouflaged by garbage at both ends.
Another vintage bridge in Delhi is the Old Yamuna Bridge, nicknamed ‘Lohe Ka Pul’. Made entirely of flexible iron girders, this giant is located and reaches right across the Yamuna River. Just like the Wazirabad bridge, this one too was quite an engineering feat when it was constructed and thrown open in 1867, for it is a double-deck, road-cum-rail bridge.
The Old Yamuna Bridge too is in dire need of a complete overhaul as it is overwhelmed by both vehicular as well as rail traffic. Every monsoon, as the waters of the Yamuna surge, this bridge is in danger of being inundated and is indeed sometimes closed to traffic till danger abates. And, every year, just when you think it is the last time you will see it standing, it miraculously soldiers on.
Like the British, who built for the long haul, Firuz Shah Tughlaq too was a master builder. He ascended the throne of Delhi in 1351 CE at the age of 45. His predecessor, Muhammad Bin Tughlaq’s policies had plunged the empire into chaos and Firuz Shah spent the next 37 years establishing order and leaving behind a wealthy and prosperous empire.
A sound administrator, Firuz Shah built a number of canals and tanks to encourage agriculture. He also built roads and caravanserais to facilitate trade across the empire. He banned torture and instituted a large number of public welfare programmes and opened colleges and schools. But he did enforce Sharia law and re-imposed the jizya tax on Hindu pilgrims to pay for all these welfare projects. He also repaired the Qutub Minar, which had been damaged in an earthquake in 1369 CE and famously even added its fifth and final storey.
Firuz Shah is estimated to have built a staggering 845 structures during his reign and founded the cities of Ferozepur in Punjab, Hissar and Fatehabad in Haryana, and Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, apart from his capital Firuzabad in Delhi, which is now known as one of the ‘seven cities of Delhi’. The palace complex of Feroze Shah Kotla was built by him and was his main residence and administrative headquarters during his reign.
Let’s return to Wazirabad, to another monument constructed by the Sultan. Standing right next to our robust little bridge is another Tughlaq era structure – the tomb complex of Sufi saint Shah Alam. Ever since the Delhi Sultanate was established in the early 13th century, Delhi has been home to a large number of Sufi saints and their followers. Shah Alam was a saint who rose to prominence during the rule of Firuz Shah Tughlaq in the14th century.
His tomb, ordered to be built by the Sultan himself, is located at the intersection of the Outer Ring Road and Loni Road, near the banks of the Yamuna River. Adjoining the tomb is a mosque with three domes. The square-shaped tomb of the saint was built in the courtyard of the mosque and rests on 12 stone pillars. There is a chamber for prayers, which is divided by five arches, and with two bays. There is even a prayer chamber for women that boasts delicate stone screens.
The entire tomb complex has been renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India, which used white cement to prevent the structure from falling apart but the use of this material has marred the beauty of the rough stones used to construct the building. Like the bridge, this monument too is rather low-profile and has unfortunately become a hangout for miscreants.
There are a number of other monuments scattered across North Delhi and that date back to Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq. One of them is Kushk-i-Shikar (Dry Hunting) or the Kushk-i-Jahan-Numa, a hunting lodge/palace built in 1351 CE that wears quite an air of mystery. This double-storey structure is made of rubble just like most other Tughlaq-era monuments. Now in ruins, it stands amid the residential complex of Hindu Rao Hospital.
Although most experts believe that the Kushk-i-Shikar was a hunting lodge used by Firuz Shah Tughlaq to divert his mind from mourning the death of his favourite son Fateh Khan, some believe it may have been an observatory. The floor and the roof of the southern apartment are pierced by a hole, which is covered by a hollow masonry cylinder. Its purpose is unknown but it is believed to have been used for astronomical observations and maybe why the structure is also called Kushk-i-Jahan-Numa (‘world-showing palace’) in contemporary accounts.
Still others believe it may have been used as a clock tower although there is no real evidence to support this. There is a baoli or stepwell next to the Kushk-i-Shikar. Sadly, it is now a makeshift toilet.
The Kushk-i-Shikar has gone down in local folklore as ‘Pir Ghaib’. The story goes that the ruins were once inhabited by a saint who mysteriously disappeared, lending the monument its nickname – ‘the saint who vanished’!
About 400m south-east of the Kushk-i-Shikar or Pir Ghaib lies the Chauburji Masjid, a double-storey structure with a central chamber surrounded by a small chamber on each side. Its name means 'mosque with four towers’ and is derived from its original four towers.
The mosque was built by Firuz Shah Tughlaq as the closest place of worship to his hunting lodge. There is a mihrab or prayer niche in the west wall of the western chamber. The upper storey of the mosque has a domed chamber in its south-west corner. It was repaired and altered in the late Mughal era and is open to worshippers on Fridays when the faithful come to pray using a gate which is locked for the rest of the week.
Sadly, restoration work has not been kind to the mosque. Just like the tomb of Shah Alam, white cement has been used to keep parts of the mosque from crumbling and this has robbed it of its charm.
Monuments are never just that – monuments. They are a living, breathing legacy of their builders and say so much about them and the people for whom they were built. Firuz Shah Tughlaq was clearly a prolific and passionate builder, which speaks to how stable his reign was for him to spend so much time and money constructing so many different types of monuments across his Sultanate.
Moreover, the variety of monuments he built in just this one North Delhi locality brings out the Sultan’s many facets – the tomb of Shah Alam reveals his spiritual side and the Wazirabad bridge shows that he had the welfare of his people at heart.
As I concluded my tour of these monuments and drove across the Sultan’s bridge in Wazirabad, a bullock cart pulled up alongside the cars also waiting on this treasure from the Tughlaq era. For just a moment, I sensed the eternal spirit of India that has endured through centuries, bridged so seamlessly by the Sultan’s magical overpass.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barun Ghosh is an alumnus of the Parsons School of Design, New York. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he’s a landscape, architecture and food photographer. He is also a heritage enthusiast and currently pursuing a degree in history (honours) from IGNOU. He tweets at @barunghosh.