'The first Tughlaq Capital': Interview with Nalini Thakur

in Interview
Published on: 13 March 2018
Transcript of an audio interview by Mr. S. Gopalakrishan and Vaibhav Chauhan, in Delhi in 2012

S. Gopalakrishnan: Would you give an overarching perspective on rediscovering Indian architecture through your ‘knowledge system approach’?


Nalini Thakur: So, I have a strategy called 'rediscovery' of Indian historical architecture. The fact is that our architecture is totally unknown except for what British scholars have mentioned in their little history books. And these historical structures are standing right in front of you. For me as a teacher, a professor in an institution, I had to develop another way of getting information. So, I worked on this whole method called the ‘knowledge system approach’ for rediscovering Indian historical architecture, or the historic city. In this I make my students conduct research on the historical architecture of Delhi. For instance, one student has carried out research on Firoz Shah Tughlaq as an architect, looking at Tughlaqabad which is one of the best historical structures in Delhi and perhaps in the country. Firoz Shah Tughlaq had a whole Public Works Department. He knew that God had given him the talent for constructing beautiful buildings. Similarly Shahjahan was aware of his inclination and talent for construction. They always trained themselves to realize the potential that they had. So, Firoz Shah Tughlaq created the public works department and he had a talented minister Khan-i-Jahan Maqbul Telangani who helped him with this department to build all the mosques in Delhi.



S.G.: In your opinion, what are the unique features of the monuments built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq?


N.T.: When Firoz Shah Tughlaq took over the kingdom he did not have much money. All he knew was that he had the talent. He set up his own Public Works Department to execute this work. He ordered the building of a lot of mosques which are very experimental. There could be more than the seven mosques which were counted during 19th century and credited to Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Like there is a masjid in Khirki, one Kali Masjid in old Delhi, there is one double-storeyed mosque in Kalu Sarai, Jami Masjid in Firoz Shah Kotla and others. Even today you can possibly explore further. Mosques were built where pious kings and people lived. Building mosques was one of the duties of the emperors which also helped in their religious policies. So, there are lots of mosques. The mosque built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in Khirki would be quite big even for a huge congregation and would have been made on the basis of the population of this area. These are all mentioned by people. We can actually rediscover these architectures.


The kind of style and visual vocabulary Firoz Shah Tughlaq introduced are quite unique and you can recognise these. The Hauz Khas group of monuments is one of his best creations. For instance, he used the locally available Delhi grey quartzite for his buildings, introduced ‘chhajja’ and ‘bracket’. The early British scholars referred this as pro-Hindu. Rather, the inclusion of these features in Sultanate and later Mughal architecture was based on their regional and local architectural popularity with artisans than their religious associations. They used it not because they thought it was Hindu. It is 19th-century people who are talking in terms of architecture as Hindu and Muslim. And then another story is that Firoz Shah Tughlaq was very pro-Hindu. These stories are incorrect. His mother was probably an Indian who converted to Islam. He himself was a devout Muslim. 



S.G.: How do you see the architecture after Firoz Shah Tughlaq?


N.T.: Architecture by all three rulers of the Tughlaq dynasty is very distinctive and they were all equally good. Firoz Shah Tughlaq left behind a lot of buildings. He was something of a class apart from the others. Hisar and Tughlaqabad were being built almost at the same time. There is variety seen in his constructions, like citadels, water structures, etc. And from renovations to conservation everything was done during his period. In the case of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, there is confusion, with some buildings that were built by him being attributed to Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Begumpuri Mosque is one which was, without any doubt, built by Mohammed Bin Tughlaq. If you look at Begumpuri Masjid it is very different from any of the Firoz Shah Tughlaq buildings.


It is a different kind of architecture. It has other Tughlaq-period features like a sloping wall and a big opening in front of the mosque. But there are distinctions which you can identify. Similarly, there are some distinct features in Ghiyas ud-din Tughlaq’s tomb.  That is where the knowledge system approach comes in, to recognize the differences. We should learn how to do it for architecture. But we are not doing that. On the other hand, we are blocking them together into categories which are again underdeveloped. We have to change this and the only way to do is through looking at these structures and original sources.



S.G.: Are there any manuals from this period which were referred to while constructing these buildings?


N.T.: Not many. But one will not be able to understand and interpret the ones we have without language proficiency. Also, you have to be very careful while someone else is reading and interpreting it for you.



S.G.: What are the major architectural characteristics of Tughlaqabad city?


N.T.: Tughlaqabad today is one of three citadels of the Tughlaqs built in the 14th century in Delhi. It was all built within 1320–24. Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq became Sultan in 1320 and in 1325 he was killed. So, what remnants you see today are from his fort. The fort has an enclosure wall; a considerable population lived in the citadel area. The city lay beyond, at a lower height. The village of Tughlaqabad is what survives of it. You also see the ruins of a Jama Masjid here. An interesting feature of the city of Tughlaqabad is its water system. One student who worked on a project on Tughlaqabad came to the conclusion that an ancient channel was diverted from the area of Qila Rai Pithora to make an artificial lake around the moat  of the fort. We can work this out by studying maps and topography. Water was carried from Rai Pithora to Ghiyaspur (where Nizamuddin Auliya had established his khanqah), after passing  through Jahanpanah, Siri and Chiragh Dilli. An eastern channel went up to Tughlaqabad. You can see the depression  all along the Badarpur Road. The channel, together with the first one, joined the Jamuna near where much later Emperor Jahangir built the Barapula bridge. You know how dirty it is now. We have to change it back to what it was. Instead,  we are closing it by building roads and shopping centres on it. 


These rivers were actually navigable. It is only logical that these capitals in the interior were in fact easily accessible by water. Because at that time water was important: all trade and movement was through water, not through road. All those streams in Delhi were very important, now you can’t trace them. These are the conclusions that one draws from research. It was a brilliant piece of engineering by Firoz Shah Tughlaq.



S.G.: There is enough evidence for these, like the Satpullah, a dam, which is also from the Tughlaq period.


N.T.: Yes, it is a dam and from that one can imagine that a river used to flow from there. Satpullah can still function as a dam because the sluice gates and other features are there. It is one of Firoz Shah Tughlaq’s most brilliant pieces of engineering. He has made a huge reservoir with that water.



S.G.: …which is still used and you can still see the depression there.


N.T.: Yes, you can. I remember when I first came to Delhi all that area was highly vegetated and you could really see the depression then. 


So, I make my students rediscover this historical architecture. And I have got a lot of thesis projects from all over India. From wherever the students come, they are asked to rediscover something related to its history. In the years 1995 and 1996, we did a one-year campaign on historic Delhi as a world heritage city and this was at the India International Centre (IIC), Delhi. It was the Conservation Society Delhi with the IIC, and you can read about it in IIC's records and annual reports. It redefined Delhi’s heritage. Every third Wednesday of the month, we did one programme on one heritage component of Delhi at 6:30 pm. So, during these years we had programmes on dargahs of Delhi, villages of Delhi, Lutyens Delhi, imperial capitals of Delhi, historic housing of Delhi, forts of Delhi, etc. And what did we do? We just introduced these components along with some pictures. If you want to make Delhi a world heritage city, you have at least to recognise the components of its heritage. And you have to take all the components into consideration.


There is no doubt about Delhi being a world heritage city. This year, in the first semester, I am planning to take up another historical city of Delhi―Shahjahanabad as an imperial capital. Then we will zoom down to a technical project there, for which I am going to select Ghalib’s house. We have not really recognised any of these buildings yet.



S.G.: Can you please talk about the issues regarding conservation―the philosophy of conservation—taking Tughlaqabad as a reference point?


N.T.: The conservation work which has been done in Tughlaqabad is not very good. I think we will look into the matter of conservation this semester just by taking photographs and then discussing the theory and philosophy of conservation. It is as if when you have a necklace of diamonds, you keep replacing every diamond with a fake one while repairing it, so that after ten years what you have is not a diamond necklace. It is important to keep the original. And even if there is a need to carry out any repair work, there should be some visible difference that can demarcate the historical material and what was introduced during conservation for the onlooker.



S.G.: But they have matched it to the original thing.


N.T.: You are actually not supposed to match it like that, but if you talk to an architect he/she would explain very subtle ways of doing it. Now we do not see the kind of mind to get this done, and to ensure quality. 



S.G.: Because actually they outsource the work.


N.T.: That is another matter. According to the Monuments Act, we are not supposed to outsource work because this is not a thekedari.



S.G.: Why do you think Tughlaqabad is still a very little known monument though it has got a lot of historical importance?


N.T.: Did you know about it? How much did you know about it?



Vaibhav Chauhan: I live three kilometres from this place. When I was a kid, I used to go there daily and play cricket but never went inside. I do not know why I did not go inside. I was playing cricket there right in front. Then the whole controversy of the village and the Air Force station took place. When I read about it in the papers and also when I did my course on tourism I got interested and went there. But there was not even a board saying what exactly it is. So possibly it was not on priority.


N.T.: There should be no question of it not being priority. At least in the city of Delhi it should be recognized that we have around us historical structures that we should know about. And it has to be a priority of the government to develop and organise a way of doing serious work.


For me, I have this other concept of a historic city as a playground for learning. The first thing is to rediscover historic architecture. A person like you will know what a historic city is because it becomes a playground for learning. There is a level of information and communication that has to be available. So, this is the government’s responsibility to get good people to work and make the information available. This archaeological park has done very little if you consider how much they have spent.



S.G.: Has anybody made a map of Delhi showing just the Tughlaq monuments scattered all over?


N.T.: No, I do not think so. It is not really something one person can do. If you are like Shokoohy who was mad about Tughlaqabad for his own reasons, then you can do it. You are not going to find people like that. He is one in a million. If this has to be done in an organised way where there are people who supervise, who ensure quality and are informed, you will be able to achieve what you want.  


Nalini Thakur is founding Professor of the department of Architectural Conservation at the School of Plannning and Architecture, New Delhi. She was a founding member and afterwards President of the Conservation Society Delhi.