The autorickshaw to the zoo left me on the wrong side of the very busy street, uncertain how to cross. Perplexed, I looked around and saw a red stone facade. Fitted to its arched opening was a large heavy wooden gate, painted dark green. In the gate was one of those small box-like doors, a metre high, just big enough to climb through if you lift your leg high and duck. It looked like it would be quiet inside, where I could at least relax and think about crossing the street. It was.
I was in a large enclosed square courtyard. On the far side, opposite the gate, was the view above. The dome and three archways led into a long high shaded colonnade running the full width of the structure. The sides, partly in ruins, were a series of very small rooms, similar to the side chapels in a cathedral.
Perhaps I toured too many European ruins in my youth, or have lived
too long in young countries where only the landscape speaks of time.
For whatever reason, I no longer enjoy savoring the sheer age of an
old structure. (Only when I sat down to write this did I do the
necessary googling to identify this as Kharul Manazil mosque, built in
1561, and even now, I'm not sure what that adds to my experience.)
But I do stop for the sacred, or for some sense of human company over expanses of time. Sometimes an ancient structure really does store human energy like a battery, so that it continues to reverberate. Ancient Greek theatres did this for me, because I could feel how their structure directed me to sit, face this way, have this kind of view, and I could know that they had this same effect in Sophocles' day.
Of course, I was a theatre scholar in those days; I knew how to read a Greek theatre. But I'm utterly ignorant of the medieval Islamic architecture, such as this seemed to be. I knew this was an important space, but even the word "mosque" had not yet formed in my mind. Something more than a word was needed.
I needed signs of humans using the place today, evidence of people
who knew how to find company across the centuries here. Soon I began
to find them, each as minimal as a talisman. Four pairs of sandals in
a row, lined up against the
edge of a long seam in the paving stones, spaced out as though they were once part of a larger multitude.
Two small white cups, memories of an espresso-strength beverage, idling on a ledge.
A long carpet runner partly unrolled in the colonnade, directly beneath the dome.
(After taking the picture, I felt the happy opportunity to contribute: Knowing how important symmetry was in this place, I unrolled the carpet a bit further on the left.)
Finally, I traced the source of a pungent smell in the air, which stood out against the usual smoky haze breathed in Delhi. Way back in one of the dark recesses on the side, some kind of incense was smoldering.
Now the place felt sacred. Now too, I began to wonder if I was intruding, but as though in response to the thought, there in the courtyard was a bearded man of about 60, in Islamic dress, bustling from one side-chapel to another. When he saw me I gave the little nod-with-fingers-touching that I'd seen used in greeting here, hoping the gesture wasn't seen as excessively Hindu. He responded with a much different bow, a sweeping one-handed gesture, but nothing so elaborate as would be done to entertain a tourist, and went on his way. Now I felt welcome here.
By the time I was ready to cross the street to the zoo, I'd completely satisfied any need to explore the monuments of the Mughal era (1526-1857) that are scattered all over Delhi. It's surprisingly common to come around a corner and see a Mughal dome, or go for a drive on a suburban road, lined with grim low apartment blocks, and suddenly sense a red vastness of battlements looming beyond them in the smog. The larger ones are tourist attractions, with souvenir-hawkers, admission fees, and airport-style security checks. Thanks to the rickshaw driver who took me to the wrong side of the street, I can now avoid them all. And when I wander into one of the smaller Mughal buildings that are still not barricaded and commodified, such as the small tombs and memorials in the Lodhi Garden, it is as though the same man is inside each of them, welcoming me in passing while getting on with his sacred business.