Mubarak Begum Ki Masjid: Heavy rains damage a rare mosque built by a woman

The mosque was built by Mubarak Begum, the favourite among 13 wives of the then British Resident in Mughal court, David Ochterlony, who lived like a Nawab and was called Akhtar Lony.

Mubarak Begum Ki Masjid: Heavy rains damage a rare mosque built by a woman

Rana Safvi

Last year when I was researching for my book ‘Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi’, I climbed up to the top of Mubarak Begum ki Masjid on a Friday afternoon. Above the heads of the men praying I could see the three domes of the Masjid. The entrance is through a small and dilapidated door on the main road of the Lal Kuan area, near Qazi ka Hauz in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). The striking mosque is set on the upper storey and is also known as Lal Masjid in the old records.

The white marble tablet above the central arch reads "Mubarak Begum built this mosque, which is superior to the arched sky. Its dignity is not less than that of Jerusalem; call this a second Jerusalem."

The chronogram yields the date AH 1238, which translates to 1822–23 AD.

The mosque is of red sandstone and measures 29 feet north and 14 feet east and west. It is two storeyed with the lower storey containing shops. The mosque has three red and white striped domes and three arched entrances under each dome. It is this central dome that has collapsed in the heavy rains of July 19. It has caused much heartache to heritage lovers like me

Mubarak Begum Ki Masjid: Heavy rains damage a rare mosque built by a woman
Mubarak Begum Ki Masjid: Heavy rains damage a rare mosque built by a woman

The mosque may not be as grand as the mosque in Jerusalem as claimed in the chronogram but every mosque is holy and deserves to be maintained and looked after. As one of the few mosques built by women in Delhi, it occupies a different position and deserves even more respect and care.

First, let’s delve into a little history on the builder of this mosque.

Mubarak Begum was the common law wife of Sir David Ochterlony, the British resident in the Mughal Court. Ochterlony was a very interesting character who aped Mughal lifestyle and dressed and lived as a nawab and was extremely fond of her. A Scotsman born in Boston, Massachusetts, he joined the British East India company in 1778 and died in India in 1825. He lies buried in St John's Church, Meerut.

Ochterlony was twice resident at Delhi, from 1803 to 1806 and from 1818 to 1822.

Mubarak Begum was one of the 13 wives of the eccentric man known as ‘Akhtar Looney’ but was his firm favourite. He was famous for parading with all his wives on elephants in the evening around the Red Fort area.

Mubarak Begum Ki Masjid: Heavy rains damage a rare mosque built by a woman

Mubarak Begum was herself an extremely colourful and interesting character who started her life as a dancing girl in Pune and came to Delhi. She converted to Islam and became the favourite companion of the British resident.

Her name Bebee Mahruttun Mubarak ul Nissa Begum, Nicknamed "Generallee Begum" refers to her Marathi origins.

She received gifts and dresses of honour in her transactions with the Vacquils (ambassadors of the different Indian powers]) according to the Gardner papers, National Army Museum, Letter 87, p. 226, 10 August 1821 as quoted by William Dalrymple in “The White Mughals”.

Ochterlony made a garden tomb for himself named Mubarak Bagh after her near Azadpur. From the paintings that exist, it was a beautiful garden, very much in the Mughal style. In Imperial Delhi, an album of paintings commissioned by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, resident of Delhi, he describes it “The Mobaruck (‘happy’) Bagh (‘garden’)”.

The Mubarak Bagh or country house of Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825) was built in the north of Delhi was named after Ochterlony’s wife, Mubarak Begum, who inherited it after his death. This was destroyed in the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.

Mubarak Begum was disliked by both the British, as she wanted to call herself Lady Ochterlony, and the Indians for her past life and present pretensions. However, while the British, as can be seen from Metcalfe 's notations, called her wife, the Indians insisted on referring to her as a mistress. The chronicles of Maulvi Zafar Hasan refers to her as Ochterlony’s mistress.

Mubarak Bagum Ki Masjid was built by her in Ochterlony’s lifetime. She even had a house known as Mubarak Begum ki Manzil which is the scene of the legendary Dilli ka Aakhiri Mushaira, an imaginary mushaira written about by Mirza Farhatullah Beg based on a real event. It later became a police station.

The mosque was colloquially called Randi ki Masjid in the 19th century and shunned by men when it was initially built. It is only after some repairs were done to it in the late 19thcentury that men started going to pray there according to Maulvi Basheerudin Ahmed in “Waqeat e Darul Hukumat Dehli”. Today it is addressed by its proper name of Mubarak Begum ki Masjid and I am glad she has received her due.

She sided with the Mughals in 1857 and it is a wonder that her mosque survived the devastation that was wrought on Shahjahanabad. I hope and pray that proper restoration is done by the Delhi Waqf Board which controls the Masjid so that it is restored to its original glory, using original material and methods.

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Published: 20 Jul 2020, 9:09 PM