Digging in

Last Updated: Sat, Jul 14, 2012 18:40 hrs

Twenty courses of bricks have been laid, and the new prayer wall is nearly complete. Young masons work five steps apart, and a human chain brings them bricks from a fresh pile in a corner of Subhas Park. Though it is a mosque they are building, the work is slapdash. The point, as everyone here knows, is not to do it beautifully but to get it done quickly. This Friday, namaaz was offered here, as more than one person on site says proudly, “for the first time in 155 years”.

Less than three weeks after a Muslim machinery operator — so the local gossip goes — on the Jama Masjid Metro station site next door came upon a buried stone wall, MLA Shoaib Iqbal and local residents have decided that the remains mark the plinth of the Akbarabadi Masjid, and resolved to rebuild it. The find is in the news because of the unusual way in which the mosque was searched for and, perhaps, found — not by archaeologists but by diggers funded by the MLA, who is the sole legislative member of the Lok Janshakti Party. The new brick wall sits atop the old stone wall.

The historical Akbarabadi Masjid was built by a wife of Shah Jahan in around 1650, about the same time as the Jama Masjid nearby. It was large and located at the point where Faiz Bazar (now Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg), bent as it neared the Red Fort. It is visible in maps of Delhi before 1857, and there is one woodcut print from 1847. That shows the mosque without its courtyard walls, and with half the north minaret missing — damage wrought in Delhi’s violent 18th century. But 1858 saw the worst damage of all. The British, after the 1857 Revolt, razed the mosque and hundreds of other buildings to create an artillery esplanade for the Red Fort.

For the last decade, says middle-aged Sultan, who is plainly of some consequence on this building site, his boss the local MLA has been searching for this mosque. Four years ago, says Sultan, he found his boss poring over a big map of Shahjahanabad. “What’s this?” he says Iqbal asked him, pointing. “It looks like a mosque,” Sultan replied. Iqbal laughed and said, “You’ve played a lot of football on this ground.” Sultan says he was surprised: “How could I have played football in a mosque?”

He could, because the stone wall was discovered beneath Subhas Park. Now the entire space has been cleared, and many from the stream of locals and the curious coming to see or lend a hand point out that the mosque, if it is one, would have extended onto what are now the main road and the petrol station nearby. The single rediscovered wall is so long that they may be right. The new mosque “will be built up the first storey”, says one young man.

In front of the arch facing Makkah, an elderly man is praying. A neatly dressed young man on a plastic chair yells at passersby to take off their shoes. “Can’t you see the Kalima,” he barks at defaulters, referring to banners carrying the Islamic declaration of the faith. A curious little girl in salwar-kameez is scolded away altogether.

Under an enormous old tree behind the wall, and next to a clear patch where another bystander says a madrasa will soon stand, a young boy named Abdus sits guard over two trunks full of finds. They include pottery and ceramic fragments, pieces of bone and stonework. He is busy cleaning, sorting and supervising, and is happy to let the small, curious crowd see and handle them. Until Sultan comes roaring up angrily to ask who has opened the trunks. In the blink of an eye Abdus has vanished — only to hop into the deep new ditch nearby to poke around for even more treasure.

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