The Origin of Museums in India: A Walk Through History

The history, present and future of museums in India.

Rereeti - Revitalizing Museums

ashmolean museumIn this three-part series, Poulomi Das will take us through the history, present and future of museums in India. In this post, we take a walk through the origin of museums.

When you visit a museum and look at objects placed within glass cases, some observing you with a forlorn expression, you might have wondered how they landed there. Who is responsible for picking these artifacts and choosing how to display them? Who imagined that a small text was adequate to describe them? Who thought of the first glass cases and wooden cabinets? When did the idea of a museum take shape in India?

We can associate the underlying idea of a museum to human curiosity. Humans have always been curious to understand their environment and the people who are part of it. One of the most interesting ways to achieve this is to examine the objects everyone creates. Historically, the…

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An Island of Calm amidst Bustling Mehrauli : Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s Dargah

Walking through the narrow, crowded lanes of Mehrauli, you would never think that you could find a peaceful place there. But then, you turn around a corner and find your moment of serendipity – Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah. The dargah is right next to the Zafar Mahal, where Bahadur Shah Zafar had hoped to be buried (which did not happen because he died while incarcerated in Rangoon). The beautiful golden spire of the dargah can be seen from the upper level of Zafar Mahal.

The top spire of the dargah, as can be seen from Zafar Mahal

The top spire of the dargah, as can be seen from Zafar Mahal

The dargah can be entered from the side through a small courtyard, which is nearly empty, save a group of young boys engrossed in play. They however abandon their game for a moment to remind you to take off your shoes from the very moment you enter the courtyard.

Even before you go through the gate to the dargah, you can hear strains of a melodious qawwali wafting through the air. Unlike the Nizamuddin dargah, which is always bustling, this dargah seems calmer and more serene. Because of the lack of numerous other voices, the striking sound of the qawwali fills the space and soothes you; it is a wonderful way to begin your walk inside the dargah. Once you enter the main passage, you can see many people, especially women, peering through small windows on the right-hand side wall, and offering their prayers. Through the windows, the Khwaja’s dargah is visible. Women are not allowed inside this area.

The main enclosure, the Khwaja’s grave

Moving down the passage, women can enter another area, wherein lie the graves of what is believed to be the Khwaja’s wife and mother. A number of women can be found here, sitting in front of the enclosure with their eyes closed, engrossed in their worship.

A dargah has always been a place where people offer joyous prayers to celebrate momentous occassions in their lives, and it is also a place where people come to seek solace and hope when they are grieving or have suffered painful tragedies in life. Here too, you will find people in different moods, but all with the hope of receiving the Khwaja’s blessings.

Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki was doing miracles from an early age, seeing which, his mother placed him under the tutelage of Maulana Abu Hafz. The news of his spiritual prowess and stories of his keramat (miracles) travelled far and wide. He was initiated into the Chistiya Sufi order by Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, who anointed Khwaja Bakhtiyar his khalifa.

The suffix ‘Kaki’ is attributed to a certain miracle – when his wife shared her concerns about the low stock of bread (called ‘kak’) in the house and their inability to pay credit to the baker, the Khwaja told her to pick up a piece of bread whenever she needed it from one spot in the house. His wife, as promised, found a piece of bread at that spot whenever she needed. Because of this miracle of ‘kak’ or bread, the Khwaja received the suffix ‘Kaki’. The miracle stopped when the Khwaja’s wife revealed the miracle to some others.

The Mehrauli dargah becomes the center of activity during one specific event in Delhi – Phoolwalon ki Sair (read our earlier post on this festival here). The festival began in 1812, when the Mughal queen, Mumtaz Mahal (wife of Akbar Shah II), vowed to place a chadar and pankha at the dargah (and a pankha at the nearby Yogmaya temple) if her son, Mirza Jehangir returned safely from his exile. Even today, this festival is celebrated by flower vendors from around the city in a long procession culminating in the offering of a chadar at the dargah.

Photo Credit: Halla Bol

Photo Credit: Halla Bol

To know more about the Mehrauli dargah, visit the various historical sites at Mehrauli, or to know more about our Sufi Walks, drop us a mail at or visit our Facebook page.

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Post written by Sanchari Banerjee: A twenty-something girl with a mind full of curiousity and a heart full of love. She has been a history buff ever since she can remember, and exploring old monuments is one of her favourite things to do, with a special love for all things Mughal. 

Her personal blog is here.

The Fading of Mughal Painting: Ghulam Ali Khan

When Humayun came to India, he brought with himself two painters – Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad. Aided by the emperor’s patronage, these two men began what was to be a long legacy of Mughal painting – an art form which came to be recognized world over in later years, with its beautiful natural colours, intricate details in gold paint and sometimes accompanied by ornamental nasta ‘liq script.

Emperor Humayun, as depicted in a Mughal painting (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Under the reign of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, Mughal painting flourished and grew into a large school of art. Several beautiful pieces of art were commissioned under these three rulers, who were all known for their love of different art forms.

The golden era of Mughal painting began fading out once Aurangzeb came to power, and this decline continued till the art form ceased to be associated with just royalty.

Ghulam Ali Khan is known as the last royal Mughal painter. He signed off his paintings as ‘His Majesty’s Painter’, and in one of his works, he defines himself as “the hereditary slave of the dynasty, Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist, resident at Shahjahanabad.” He worked during the reign of the emperors  Akbar II, who was emperor between 1806–37, and Bahadur Shah II (the last Mughal emperor) who reigned from 1837 to 1858.

Bahadur Shah II, enthroned, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1838 (taken from here)

While Ghulam Ali Khan called himself a Mughal painter, in reality, the Mughal rulers could no longer afford to patronize painters fully, and so Khan too had to find patrons outside the palace to earn his living. Because of this reason, Khan ended up painting portraits and paintings for noblemen, rulers from neighbouring areas (such as a painting of the Nawab of Jhajjar sitting on top of his pet lion), and the newly arrived British officials. As a result, some of Ghulam Ali Khan’s most famous works were not only of Mughal royalty, but also of other Nawabs and of Britishers.

Two of Khan’s European patrons were William Fraser and Sir Thomas Metcalfe, for whom Khan painted parts of the Fraser Album and Delhi Book respectively.

The Fraser Album was commissioned by William Fraser and the works painted between 1815 to 1819. It included paintings of Mughal art at the time and was a vast collection of paintings looking at life in the Mughal empire of the time. It is seen as a masterpiece. With time, Fraser became Khan’s major patron.

William Fraser (image courtesy Wikipedia)

The Delhi Book (also known as ‘Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’) was commissioned by  Sir Thomas Metcalfe in 1844. It contained paintings of Delhi, its people and monuments. Khan was one of the few painters who painted for this book.

Thomas Metcalfe, seated on an elephant (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Another Britisher who employed the services of Ghulam Ali Khan was Colonel James Skinner. One of the paintings was of a durbar being held by Skinner, surrounded by his regiment. It is seen to be one of the most monumental works of Khan, for which he carried out individual studies of several of the noblemen and cavalrymen over a long period of time before putting those sketches together for this piece of work (picture below).

Colonel James Skinner holding a durbar, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1827 (picture courtesy here)

Ghulam Ali Khan’s final patron is thought to be Bahadur Shah Zafar’s younger son, Mirza Fakhruddin. Though he wasn’t the eldest son, he was a favourite of Zafar’s, and this following painting is believed to be his, though the painting itself bears no inscription.

Mirza Fakhruddin, seated in the middle of entertainment, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1852 (image courtesy

Mirza Fakhruddin, seated in the middle of entertainment, painted by Ghulam Ali Khan in 1852 (image courtesy

With the decline of patrons who could afford to engage painters, the tradition of Mughal painting too suffered a demise. Ghulam Ali Khan’s name lives on as the last royal Mughal painter, and his paintings continue to awe us, reminding us of the grandeur and culture that those times held.

For more information on Mughal paintings or to know about Darwesh’s walks, drop us a mail at or visit our Facebook page.

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Post written by Sanchari Banerjee: A twenty-something girl with a mind full of curiousity and a heart full of love. She has been a history buff ever since she can remember, and exploring old monuments is one of her favourite things to do, with a special love for all things Mughal. 

Her personal blog is here.

Hauz-e-Samsi ~ The Spirit of the Saints

“There is a Water that flows down from Heaven
To cleanse the world of sin by grace Divine.
At last, its whole stock spent, its virtue gone.
Dark with pollution not its own, it speeds
Back to the Fountain of all purities;
Whence, freshly bathed, earthward it sweeps again,
Trailing a robe of glory bright and pure.
This Water is the Spirit of the Saints,
Which ever sheds, until itself is beggared,
God’s balm on the sick soul; and then returns
To Him who made the purest light of Heaven.”

 ~ Jalaluddin Rumi. (Translated by R. A. Nicholson, ‘Persian Poems’, an Anthology of verse translations edited by A.J.Arberry, Everyman’s Library, 1972)

Hauz-e-samsi also known as the "sunny water tank" in 1994. Picture courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India.

Hauz-e-samsi also known as the “sunny water tank” in 1994. Picture courtesy: Archaeological Survey of India.

Nestled within the busy neighborhood of Mehrauli is what once must have been an oasis of serenity. As you sit in the park next to the Hauz-e-Samsi, tilt your head at just the right angle and squint your eyes a little, the glint of the sun on the water makes you forget about invasive water hyacinths or the plastic collecting on the edges of the lake. The sound of boys playing Cricket on the nearby field filter through the trees and if you let the mind wander a little, they can be mistaken for sounds of the small market that must have used to exist in front of the pleasure palace, the Jahaz Mahal. Now a seemingly forgotten remnant of the distant past, this “sunny water tank” was once a bustling center of religious, spiritual and recreational activity. Put it in the context of the legend of how it came to be constructed here, and warm winter’s daydream can transport you back 800 years.

Prophet Muhammad riding his winged steed al-Buraq. Picture courtesy: British Library Museum, London.

Prophet Muhammad riding his winged steed al-Buraq. Picture courtesy: British Library Museum, London.

This part of Delhi was the flourishing medieval city of Qila Rai Pithora around 1200 CE. The ruler, Iltutmish, was preoccupied with concerns of water scarcity. Legend has it that the devout Illtutmish was visited by the Prophet Muhammed in a dream. Mohammed came down to earth and said that a source of water would lie at the location where the hoof of his winged steed, al-Buraq, landed. Iltutmish recounted his dream to his spiritual leader, the soon to be Sufi Saint Khwaja Qutbuddin Bekhtiar Kaki. They walked for a short distance in what was then a forest, and saw a hoof print exactly where the dream had indicated. The two men struck the ground with a shovel and an underground fountain sprung up almost immediately.

The hoof print that was seen in the dream

The hoof print that was seen in the dream. Picture courtesy: lindsaywashere

This structure was later constructed by the Lodhis in 15th century.

This structure was later constructed by the Lodhis in 15th century.

Iltutmish had a large water tank constructed at the location between 1229 and 1230 CE.  The domed pavillion at the center, possibly created later during the Lodhi Period, contains a slab marking the hoof print. Rainwater was harvested and a collection of connected canals and other water reservoirs were later constructed. It is fabled that the Hauz once spanned as much as 100 acres and became a center of cultural and religious activity. When the fabled traveler Ibn-e-Batuta visited the area in 1334, he also described it as a recreational spot, where people enjoyed boat rides when water levels rose.

The Haus-e-Samsi is much smaller now, and it’s former glory only imaginable in daydreams. The water is sometimes dark with pollution not it’s own as the struggle to clean up is outpaced by the sheer number of humanity carving out lives on its edges.

And here's what remains of this once beautiful water tank.

And here’s what remains of this once beautiful water tank.

To know more about Hauz-e-samsi or to visit this beautiful water tank, drop us (Darwesh) a mail at Visit our FB page to know more about our upcoming walks and tours:  

Post written by Tista Nayak, a wanderlustful collector of stories and languages.

Post written by Tista Nayak, a wanderlustful collector of stories and languages.


Behrupiya ~ a dying tradition of storytelling

If you’ve enjoyed roaming about in local fairs or visited religious shrines, or even shaken hands with a person in a Mickey Mouse costume, chances are you’ve already met a Behrupiya. The people dressed as gods, goddesses or mythological characters in such places are all part of the clan who call themselves ‘behroopiyas’. We had a chance to interact with one such person, Roop Singh, in Chawri Bazar recently as part of Darwesh’s Dushamukha Walk.

Behrupiyas are part of a dying tradition of impressionist art form. The term comes from the Hindi words ‘bahu’ (meaning many) and ‘roop’ (meaning appearance or guise). They were also referred to as ‘naqal’ (the Hindi word meaning mimic) or ‘maskhara’ (a Hindustani word taken from Arabic, meaning jester or buffoon).

Roop Singh, as he usually looks

Roop Singh, as he usually looks

Shouldering a golden mace, wearing bright clothing complete with a long tail, Roop Singh enters with a loud proclamation of ‘Jai Shri Ram!’ and everyone can’t help but feel interested. Roop Singh explained that historically speaking, all behroopiyas originate from Rajasthan. During the medieval period when Rajathan was home to several royal dynasties, behrupiyas were actually court jesters and entertainers for the Kings. On the flip side, they were also sometimes spies, sent from one court to another in disguise to gather secret information which could be used against someone as part of royal disputes.

Roop Singh, in his other form, Lord Hanuman

Roop Singh, in his other form, Lord Hanuman

With time, royalty diminished, and the courts broke away. The behrupiya clan seemed to be faced with a bleak future without the patronage of any ruler. So, forced by circumstances, they moved away from their homes and migrated to other states to find employment. They saw that dressing as gods and goddesses was a lucrative profession, given the level of religious fervor in India. And so they took up disguises again, but this time not as secret agents, but as religious symbols. They also took forward their tradition of being entertainers and began performing acrobatics (rope walking, fire eating etc.).

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As the years passed, places where behrupiyas could earn money began reducing; in many places they were chased off by the police when they set up their stage in public spaces and crowds gathered there. The clan began realizing that they needed to evolve again. And this time, they started taking up the role of cartoon characters. They were hired for children’s birthday parties or fairs. “We also began getting used to the taste of good food at such parties and realized this was better than begging” says Roop Singh.

Behroopiyas have had to move on to different ways of masquerades which appeal more to the current generation (Photo courtesy: Flickr)

He says that there are still many behrupiyas who make ends meet by begging – the old lady begging for money to pay for her pregnant daughter-in-law, or the old blind man with his son – they may be behrupiyas. In fact, Singh shares an astonishing story – amongst the behroopiyas, whenever a person becomes old, develops a physical deformity/disease, or a woman gets pregnant, the whole clan comes together for an auction. These people having some physical issue are loaned to whosoever pays the highest, and then they go and beg for alms with them. The premise is that when we see a beggar who is physically affected, we are more likely to give money out of pity than if a person is physically fit.

Behrupiyas have been made a part of many movies and Roop Singh in fact claims to have been part of a film himself. The imposition of technology on all aspects of our lives has meant that other traditional forms of entertainment have taken a back seat. Also, as Roop Singh says, his son having been educated well, now does not wish to follow his father’s profession and carry on the job. Similarly, many members of the new generation are choosing to move away from this art form, which is dying out as it is.

To know more about Behrupiyas or to meet one during our storytelling walks, visit us at our Facebook page or drop us a mail at

IMG_3060 - Copy - CopyPost written by Sanchari Banerjee: A twenty-something girl with a mind full of curiousity and a heart full of love. She has been a history buff ever since she can remember, and exploring old monuments is one of her favourite things to do, with a special love for all things Mughal.

Her personal blog is here.

Phoolwalon Ki Sair

Phool Walon Ki Sair, or the procession of flower sellers, is an annual celebration by the flower sellers of Delhi. The genesis of this festival goes to the declining phase of Mughal period in the 18th century.

The British East India Company placed Officer Archibald Seton as Resident of Delhi to direct the affairs of the Mughal Empire. Seton reportedly disliked the heir apparent and second son of Emperor Akbar Shah II, Mirza Jahangir. The animosity between Seton and Mirza reached the climax when he tried to shoot Seton with a pistol, but he survived and his servant was killed. As punishment, Seton exiled Mirza to Allahabad.

It was then Mirza’s distraught mother, Mumtaz Mahal, made a vow to offer a chadar (wreath of flowers) at the dargah of 13th century Sufi saint, Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki if her son returned.

On Jahangir’s return to Delhi, the Mughal court made preparations to fulfill Mumtaz’s vow to offer flowers at the dargah. The procession began from the Jharna or waterfall, which functioned as a pleasure garden during the Mughal period, via Mehrauli to the dargah.

The Jharna, close to Jahaz Mahal

The Jharna, close to Jahaz Mahal

A large section of the local population participated in the week-long event. The celebration ended with placing the chadar at Khwaja Qutub’s dargah and a floral pankha at Yog Maya Temple.

The present-day dilapidated ruins, gardens and other remains around Mehrauli speak of the grandeur and cultural richness that  filled the area with the week-long processions of merrymaking and celebration. The gardens at that time reportedly had flowing fountains, accompanied with music and cultural performances attended by artists and richly-dressed soldiers.

Phool Walon Ki Sair

Phool Walon Ki Sair in Mughal Days. Photo Credit: Sate Museum, Patna

Phoolwalon Ki Sair speaks of a unique episode of cultural integrity. The celebration reminisces of a unifying force that assimilated the monotheistic teachings of Sufism and polytheistic practices inherent in Hinduism.

The Mughal kings turned the occasion into an annual affair and the tradition continued till 1857 when the British took over Delhi, ending the power and influence of Mughals in India. As part of the “Divide and Rule” policy, the Sair was banned by the British during the 1942 Quit India Movement.

Independent India revived the festival under the auspices of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, symbolizing a secular, modern India. To mark this spirit of secularism, India celebrates this occasion as a three-day festival, led by shehnai players and dancers bearing large floral pankhas to Yogmaya Temple and the procession winding though Mehrauli Market to reach the dargah.

Photo Credit: Halla Bol

Floral tributes at the dargah. Photo Credit: Halla Bol

Earlier the celebration and fanfare during the Sair epitomized Hindu-Muslim cultural unity and tolerance. Presently Phool Walon Ki Sair functions largely as a government-funded program rather than a spontaneous celebration by Indians.

This year, 2014, Phoolwalon Ki Sair starts from 10th of October and will continue till 18th of October.

Refer to site,, for detailed schedule of this event.

To know about the lesser-known stories on Phool Walon Ki Sair and its historical significance, join our ‘Sufi Walk’ in Mehrauli area. For more information about our history walks, drop us a mail at

Abdul Kuddus is a Delhi based passionate blogger. He is a learning solutions consultant by profession and has been writing for different websites.

Abdul Kuddus is a Delhi based passionate blogger. He is a learning solutions consultant by profession and has been writing for different websites.

Mughal Women and Architecture ~ Roshanara Bagh

Mughal emperors are well known for their contribution to architecture; everyone knows of Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri and Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal. But very few people realize the influence that Mughal women had within the sphere of architecture during their lives. It can be primarily observed to begin with Humayun’s wife, Haji Begum, who built the gorgeous tomb for her husband at Delhi. She also built several sarais and rest houses for travellers. There are many accounts of foreign travellers to India who note the numerous architectural activities carried out by the royal women. Sarais, step wells (baolis) and gardens were built by several Mughal royal ladies and are sometimes documented by the emperors too; Jahangir writes of how he walked through a garden made by his father’s grandmother, and then through one made by his own grandmother and another by an aunt of Babur.

Nur Jahan

Nur Jahan

Empress Nur Jahan, wife of Jahangir is also known to have sanctioned several well-built structures throughout the kingdom. Her most meticulously designed structure was the tomb of her father, It’mad-ud-Daulah, in which we can see a combination of red sandstone and marble, which in a way symbolizes a transition from Akbar and Jahangir’s love for the red sandstone and Shah Jahan’s fondness for pure white marble. Coming to Shah Jahan’s daughters, Jahanara was known to have good taste in architecture, and she built several mosques, at Agra and at Delhi, and many sarais as well.

Roshanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s second daughter, is best known for the building of her garden Roshanara Bagh in Delhi. Her tomb lies in the middle of the garden, which is itself laid out according to the pattern in which Paradise (jannat) is believed to be laid out (the same layout was used by Shah Jahan while laying out the Taj Mahal). Darwesh held it’s theatre walk ‘Shah Jahan’s Daughters’ at the Roshanara Bagh.

The entrance of Roshanara's Tomb also known as "Baradari"

The entrance of Roshanara’s Tomb also known as “Baradari”

Roshanara Begum (Picture courtesy: Columbia University)

Roshanara Begum (Picture courtesy: Columbia University)

The baradari (named so because of the twelve arches in the structure) was built originally by Roshanara Begum in the 1650s as a pleasure garden for herself. It’s situated in the centre of the bagh (garden) and has four pathways approaching it, one from each side. The structure is in a dilapidated condition now, though restoration work has been done in places. But remnants of the glorious past can still be seen; the arches and ceilings still have faint designs, which give an idea of the beautiful paintings or pietra dura work which must have adorned the interior. A shallow moat surrounds the structure, with Mughal style fountains in it, though they usually lay dry nowadays and are better utilized as cricket pitches by young boys living in the vicinity.

Though Roshanara built the beautiful building as a pleasure garden only, she was destined to stay there forever; after her death in 1671, Aurangzeb had her interred there, in a simple unmarked grave, open to the sky as per Islamic beliefs. The tomb is surrounded by Mughal naqqashi and jali work on all four sides, though a lot of it has broken down and suffered discolouration with the passing of time. The beauty of the work is however still discernible, and immediately brings to mind the typical Mughal architectural styles.


One of the arches at the baradari at Roshanara Bagh

It is easy to see that there are certain changes made in the complex by the British. The place was used as “a summer retreat in the colonial era, due to its location amidst dense ridge forest”. In 1923, the Roshanara Club was established nearby by the Britishers as a place where the Anglo-Saxon elite of the city could be served. The club is still known as one of the most sophisticated clubs in Delhi.

The original attention to detail which can be seen at Roshanara’s tomb tells the story of many Mughal women, who were resigned to a life of purdah and found architecture to be a way of being remembered for centuries to come. Though many such buildings have suffered at the hands of the elements and the callousness of the people living around it, these structures stand as proof that though hidden from the world behind veils, Mughal women had the same architectural talent their male counterparts are known for.

Roshanara's grave where she lay buried

Roshanara’s grave where she lay buried

To know more about women in architecture through the Herstory walks by Darwesh, contact us on our Facebook page or write to us (Darwesh) at 

IMG_3060 - Copy - CopyPost written by Sanchari Banerjee: A twenty-something girl with a mind full of curiousity and a heart full of love. She has been a history buff ever since she can remember, and exploring old monuments is one of her favourite things to do, with a special love for all things Mughal.

Her personal blog is here.