Written by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Photographed by Shahidul Alam
bn Battuta’s Rihla, or Travels, is many things—among them a work of geography and ethnography, a pilgrim guide and a gossip column. It is also about as close as travel literature gets to being an epic. Ibn Battuta’s backdrop is the world, his protagonist himself. Like the hero of legend, he seems unstoppable: sweating across Arabia, freezing in Anatolia, swaying over the steppe. He pauses to cram in some lectures in Damascus, collects a wad of certificates, and off he goes again. He gets stuck with a hospitable Turkman sultan and longs to escape. Only in Makkah does he spend any length of time, but Makkah itself is in motion, its population turning over with the seasons of pilgrimage, the revolving hub of Islam with only that one still point, the Ka‘bah. Restless, rootless, footloose, Ibn Battuta might have said, like the poet Abu Tammam, “My homes are the backs of high-bred camels”—and he could have added, for that matter, a lowlier assortment of nags, wagons and coasting vessels. No traveler ever had itchier feet.
And then, in 1334, in narrative midstream, the itch suddenly subsides. The place is Delhi, and it is here that Ibn Battuta will spend the next seven years. “There are certain world-wanderers,” observed the Indian poet-historian ‘Isami not long after, “who ramble the earth, neither fixing their hearts on any country nor settling for even a month in any city. But when they arrive in the land of Hindustan, they abandon their wanderings and at last settle down.” That might be a description of Ibn Battuta—and since ‘Isami may have heard of Ibn Battuta, or even met him, there is every possibility that that is what it is.
For those seven years—a fifth of Ibn Battuta’s book and a quarter of his traveling life—his panoptic lens zoomed in on Delhi. The road movie, the big-screen epic with its fast-forward blur of places and faces, became a microscope slide. The change of focus is unexpected, but its object is less so.
Ibn Battuta was born in 1304 in the Moroccan town of Tangier (hence his surname “al-Tanji”—”the Tangerine”) into a family of qadis, Islamic judges. His full name was no less than Shams al-Din Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf ibn Battuta al-Lawati al-Tanji. He trained as a jurist of the Maliki school of Sunni Islam and, in 1325, he set off to make the pilgrimage to Makkah.
Makkah was both magnet and centrifuge, and the pilgrimage gave him a thirst for far-flung travel. In this he was not alone: Almost wherever he went—in Anatolia, East Africa, Central Asia, China, up the Volga, down the Niger, even in the tiny Indian Ocean sultanate of the Maldives—he either met or heard of other Arab travelers. What makes him unique is that he went to all of these places (and more), and then, 29 years after leaving home, went back and, with the help of a young scholar named Ibn Juzayy, wrote about them. He died in Morocco in 1368 or 1369, in the provincial obscurity from which he came.
At the time of his death, his Rihla—vast, polyhedral and, to the literary establishment, unpolished—never quite fit into the “classic” pigeonhole. Later generations, however, saw the book for what it is: the masterwork, in scale, scope and substance, of the entire rihla genre, the greatest travel book ever written.
Once past his original goal of Makkah, Ibn Battuta appeared to abandon destinations in favor of destiny. But the long looping route from his native Tangier, with its digressions to East Africa, Constantinople and the Volga, had always led toward Delhi. Way back in the Nile Delta in 1326, near the beginning of his book and his travels, Ibn Battuta dreamed of flying to Makkah and then Yemen on the wing of a huge bird: “Finally it made a long flight to the east, alighted in some dark and greenish country, and left me there.” His host that night, a famous religious scholar named Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Murshidi, interpreted the dream. The dark and greenish country, he told Ibn Battuta, was India, and “you will stay there for a long time,” he said.
As the contents page of his book—for that is in effect what it is—Ibn Battuta’s dream itinerary is vague. But as his journey unfolds, he tantalizes with hints of what that “long time” might hold: stories, heard on the road, about the wealth of the Delhi Sultanate—of one visitor literally showered with gold, of another given his weight in gold, of a third given the run of the treasury and collapsing in a heap of moneybags. By the time he arrives in India, Ibn Battuta has sold us a whole subcontinent of possibilities.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful…. On the day of the new moon of the holy month of Muharram, the first day of the year 734 [about September 12, 1333], we came to the river of Sind.” Poised on the bank of the Indus and on the threshold of the new lunar year, Ibn Battuta had reached not just a temporal boundary but a literary and geographical one too. With that invocation begins Ibn Battuta’s second sifr, or book (not safar, “journey,” as his English translator, H.A.R. Gibb, read the word, although you might say that for a travel writer the distinction is theoretical). And on the far side of the Indus began al-Hind, India.
But first Ibn Battuta keeps the reader in suspense. He swans around on the Indus and dawdles for two months in the riverside city of Multan, waiting for permission to proceed. For several pages he explores Indian botany, and he sidetracks into the practice of suttee, the self-immolation of widows. After a paragraph’s excitement about a skirmish with rebels, he travels cursorily to the capital then, diligently, around its sights. Then, in what may be the longest digression in travel literature —well over a hundred pages in the English translation and as many years of history—he ambles through the annals of the Delhi Sultanate, paying particular attention to the lurid psychological landscape of its present ruler, Muhammad ibn Tughluq. And then, just when he seems to be hopelessly lost in his own appendices, Ibn Battuta reappears with a triumphant chapter heading: “Our entry into the sultan’s presence and the gifts and offices which he conferred on us.”
Sultan Muhammad ibn Tughluq was nothing if not welcoming. “There is in my kingdom nothing greater than this city of mine,” he told Ibn Battuta once the introductions were over, “and I give it to you.” The second phrase was presumably not to be taken literally, but when he offered the traveler the post of Maliki judge of Delhi and an annual salary of 12,000 dinars, the sultan wasn’t joking. For a 30-year-old newcomer from distant Morocco, of worthy but undistinguished background, Muhammad’s legendary xenophilia had suddenly become fact.
Politically, the appointment looks like a sultan’s whim. In fact, it was part of a deliberate policy of ethnic engineering. The Delhi Sultans were Turkic soldiers, ex-nomads and Muslims ruling a settled and largely Hindu population. Muhammad’s father and predecessor had gained power in 1320 by quashing an attempted coup d’état by native Indian converts to Islam. Muhammad, who witnessed the bloody insurrection, arrived on the throne suspicious of homegrown Muslims. The result was a recruitment drive in which he sought foreign officers, particularly Arabs, for his administration and army. Some, like Ibn Battuta, came on spec. Others were head-hunted: Later, in the port of Calicut, Ibn Battuta saw a ship of the sultan’s about to set sail for the Gulf, “to enlist as many Arabs as possible…because of his affection for them.”
Today the brawn- and brain-drain carries Indian laborers and software experts west to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, but in the 14th century the human current flowed in the opposite direction. Like Ibn Battuta, the new arrivals were handsomely rewarded, and those travelers’ tales of gold were not exaggerated. In the words of ‘Isami, Arabs and other foreigners crowded into Delhi “like moths around a candle.” Like moths, not a few got burned.
Ibn Battuta, however, was drawn to India by more than the gleam of money. He was already a keen collector of the curious, and India, ever since The Wonders of India and al-Mas‘udi’s Meadows of Gold had appeared in the 10th century, was a byword for the extraordinary. To the future author of A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Traveling (to give Ibn Battuta’s Travels its full title), what country could be more wonderful than India, what metropolis more marvelous than Delhi?
The Rihla is often seen as an afterthought to the travels themselves, but I suspect that, even before his arrival in Delhi, Ibn Battuta had begun to see himself as an author: As far back as Bukhara in Central Asia, he had let slip that he was recording observations in a notebook. (It was lost to pirates off Sri Lanka.) As a rihla writer from the Arab West, he was following in the illustrious footsteps of Andalusians like Ibn Jubayr and fellow Moroccans like al-‘Abdari, but as a rihla writer in India, Ibn Battuta would be a pioneer, for almost as remarkable as India itself was the dearth of knowledge about it in Arab lands. There were travelers’ tales, and there were accounts from four centuries before, but there was as yet little that was new in the way of written descriptions. On sumptuous Delhi, there was almost nothing at all. Thus, when Ibn Battuta’s Travels appeared back in Morocco more than 20 years later, one section was debated more hotly than any other: the account of the wealth of Delhi and its sultan. This dispute made Ibn Battuta notorious, and it is what first made his name. Even if it had not been meant literally, Muhammad ibn Tughluq’s gift of his city to Ibn Battuta lasted far longer than did that 12,000-dinar salary.
Two-thirds of a millennium later, I went to see the sultan’s gift for myself, looking for survivals from Ibn Battuta’s Delhi. Some, like the Qutb Manar, I could hardly miss: It is still one of the biggest minarets in the world. Others needed searching for. At least one—the cave-hermitage where Ibn Battuta lay low when, inevitably, he fell foul of Sultan Muhammad—called for serious detective work.
The Rajdhani Express was nearing the end of its 17-hour journey from Bombay. The sun was well up, but struggling against the atmosphere: I could look straight at it as it hung, high and bleary. Perhaps the window was tinted. I went to look from the open door of the carriage: The tint was in the sky itself, a turbid pall blanketing one of the world’s more polluted cities. Things had changed since the time of Ibn Battuta when, ‘Isami said, angels swept the streets of Delhi with their wings.
Although, like Ibn Battuta, I was heading into the almost-unknown, I knew from my reading that other things had changed too. Not least, Delhi has spent the last 700 years in a state of geographical flux. Ibn Battuta listed four separate cities: the original Dihli or Dehli (“Delhi” is in fact a 19th-century slip of the pen that took root), the adjoining cities of Siri and Jahanpanah, and Tughluqabad, situated to the east. Most recently, an expanding population—currently at least 14 million and rising fast—has not only filled in the gaps between these disparate urban areas, but also overlaid the remnants of the older ones. Searching for Battutian Delhi would be like piecing together a chapter from a history that has been disbound, flung about, then buried among the pages of later books.
It was a surprise, then, when a familiar name appeared over a suburban station platform: TUGLAKABAD. “The third city [of Delhi],” wrote Ibn Battuta, “is called Tughluqabad, after its founder, the Sultan Tughluq, the father of the sultan of India to whose court we came. The reason he built it here was that one day, as he stood before [his predecessor on the throne], he said to him, ‘O Master of the World, it were fitting that a city should be built here.’ The sultan replied to him sardonically, ‘When you are sultan, build it.’” A few years later, in 1320, he did.
As far as Battutian sites went, Tughluqabad fell into the category of those you could hardly miss. From my seat in the back of an autorickshaw the following day, a gigantic wall bulging with fat-bottomed bastions hove into view. An architectural heavy brigade, it marched along a road in the semi-rural outskirts of the modern conurbation. Half a dozen bastions on, a gate appeared. I climbed up to it and entered an area of confusing and fire-blackened ruins. Among them rose a high eminence, the perfect vantage point over Tughluq’s city.
From the top, the plan became clearer: I was standing on a citadel that dominated the main part of Tughluqabad, a rectangle of walls and towers stretching perhaps half a mile to the northwest. Clearly visible at the near end of this rectangle were the remains of a large complex of buildings, Tughluq’s palace. Then I realized that the rectangle was only part of the city and that further walls continued far into the distance, forming a huge trapezium that all but disappeared in the haze. Within them a few fragments of other buildings were visible, but for the most part this vast area was totally, eerily empty. After what I had seen of the rest of Delhi, a city teeming with traffic and people, the desolation was unnerving.
Down below in the ruins of the palace, I ran into an official from the Archaeological Survey of India. He was pegging out trenches for an excavation. I pulled Ibn Battuta’s Rihla out of my bag and together we read his description of Tughluq’s gilded mansion and his treasury: “It is said that he constructed a cistern and poured into it so much gold that it became a single block,” Ibn Battuta wrote—but future fortune-seekers were to be disappointed, for “all these treasures were spent by his son Muhammad when he became sultan.” (Archeologists, though, are unlikely to be disappointed, for the palace complex has never been systematically excavated.)
The eminence on which I had been standing, the surveyor told me, was called the Vijay Mandal, “the Abode of Victory,” from the name of a pavilion which once stood on its summit. From here, Tughluq would review his troops. This must have been a favorite pastime of the old sultan, for Ibn Battuta saw an inscription of Tughluq’s in which he boasted, “‘I fought the Tatars 29 times and drove them in defeat.’” (Tughluq’s Tatars were the Chagatay Mongols of Central Asia, and they posed a very real threat: At the beginning of the 14th century, fielding 100,000 men, they raided right up to the city walls. This explained a lot about the look of his fortress city.)
Tughluqabad, however, was abandoned almost as soon as it was completed. Legend tells that the reason was a curse by the renowned Sufi of Delhi, Nizam al-Din. Tughluq had requisitioned some masons who were working for Nizam al-Din and the latter, piqued, pronounced that the new city would remain forever deserted except for a few Gujars, a caste of nomadic herders. Whatever the truth of the story, the early 17th-century Englishman William Finch noted that “the carkasse of old Dely” was indeed “inhabited only by Googers.” It remains today the hollow shell of a dead megalopolis, preserved by the Archaeological Survey.
Like his city, Tughluq also lasted only a short time. He became sultan in 1320 and died at the end of 1324 or the beginning of 1325. The historians disagree over the ultimate cause of his death. Ibn Battuta, quoting an eye-witness, wrote that it occurred when a wooden pavilion collapsed on top of him, and that this collapse was deliberately triggered by elephants on the orders of Tughluq’s son and heir, Muhammad. In his verse history, ‘Isami agreed. However, a contemporary Indian annalist, Barani, says equivocally that “a calamity occurred, like a thunderbolt from heaven,” and likewise, the historian Mahdi Husain, passing sentence 600 years after the event, absolved Muhammad of parricide. I later asked the current doyen of Indian Islamic history, Professor Irfan Habib, for his verdict. He smiled inscrutably. “My old professor used to say, ‘When you’ve run out of themes, you can always write on the question “Did Muhammad ibn Tughluq kill his father?”’”
Probably people were whispering the same question before Tughluq’s corpse was even cold. No obscurity, however, surrounds its final resting-place. The dead sultan, said Ibn Battuta’s informant, “was carried by night to the mausoleum which he had built for himself outside Tughluqabad.”
To follow that nocturnal cortege, I left the main gate of the city and walked along a slender causeway of stone which joined the mausoleum to the main fortifications. Inside this mortuary-fortress sat Tughluq’s tomb chamber, a massive, square-based block of dark-red sandstone. The walls sloped inward, giving it the shape of a truncated pyramid, or, put less architecturally, of one those giant “ONE TON” weights that drop out of the sky in cartoons. And that was the impression it gave: crushing solidity. The only light relief came from some frilly white trefoils lining the door arches—a strange touch of delicacy—and from a brilliant green parakeet that flitted across the façade.
Ibn Battuta does not mention the curse on Tughluqabad, but he does drop hints as to why Sultan Muhammad should have ditched his father’s brand new city and built his own—the fourth city of Delhi, called Jahanpanah, “The Refuge of the World.” It is clear from the Travels that, despite royal moves, the old mother-city of Delhi proper was still home to most of the population, Ibn Battuta included. Jahanpanah was, he says, “set aside for the residence of the sultan.” Tughluqabad had probably been intended to play the same role, not so much a city as a fortified royal suburb. Similarly, 20 years before Tughluq’s reign, Sultan ‘Ala’ al-Din had moved out of old Delhi after repelling a coup, and he later built Siri, the second city on Ibn Battuta’s list. Prudent rulers, it seemed, kept a wary distance from old Delhi, a metropolis of plots and revolutions throughout the Sultanate’s history.
That same history, however, had seen wave after wave of raiders from the northwest, and the sultan had to be on hand in the event of another Mongol blitzkrieg. From the tactical point of view, Tughluqabad, which lay 6.5 kilometers (4 mi) to the east, on the wrong side of old Delhi, was a monstrous blunder. Muhammad tried to make something of it and began work on a wall which, at nearly 28 kilometers (17 mi) in length, would have united Tughluqabad with the rest of the conurbation. “But after building part of it,” Ibn Battuta wrote, “he gave up the rest because of the enormous expense.” The isolation of Tughluqabad was just too splendid.
That isolation has preserved Tughluqabad to the present day. Jahanpanah, directly to the north of the original Delhi, has in contrast been almost entirely swamped by recent building. Yet something of Muhammad’s palace has survived there, a mass of ruins brooding over a piece of wasteland. Elsewhere, it might have had a visitors’ center complete with interactive video displays: It is, after all, the main monument to the most fascinating man ever to have ruled the country. But in India, with its embarrassment of archeological riches, the authorities put their limited resources into prettier and tourist-friendlier sites. Here, I was far from the world of ticket offices, eager guides and the Taj Mahal. My only guide was Ibn Battuta.
Luckily, he left a detailed account. Sultan Muhammad’s palace had three gates, each furnished with a flurry of officials presided over by marshals in caps of gold plumed with peacock feathers. The first gate was also home to the executioners. The second led into a large mashwar, or audience chamber. “The third door,” continued Ibn Battuta, “opens into the immense and vast hall called Hazar Ustun, which means [in Persian] ‘a thousand pillars.’ The pillars are of painted wood and support a wooden roof, most exquisitely carved…. It is in this hall that the sultan sits for public audience.”
The plain Arabic of Ibn Battuta’s account was harder to translate on the ground. The ruins of the palace were a three-dimensional puzzle, all ramps and courts and vaulting, and as far as I knew no one had solved it with any degree of certainty. I decided to work backward, starting from the Thousand-Column Hall. Of this, only a few column-bases are now visible, square blocks of stone with round sockets into which the wooden pillars would have fitted. Excavations some 70 years ago established that this was Muhammad’s famous Hazar Ustun, and that it was indeed immense and vast—some 97 by 66 meters (310' by 210'). Due south of this lay a rectangular room with stone columns supporting a vault—perhaps the mashwar, the outer audience chamber that Ibn Battuta placed between the second and third gates. This room opened in turn onto a terrace: Could this terrace have been the “large platform” the traveler mentioned, on which the chief marshal sat? Possibly. But then, where were the gates?
To confuse matters further, there was a gate to the north of the Thousand-Column Hall, a monumental structure heavily buttressed with sloping piers. Now collapsed at its eastern and western ends, it must originally have been a full 13 bays long. The area between this and the Hall is now occupied by a number of later tombs, but it could, I thought, be another candidate for the site of Ibn Battuta’s mashwar and the third gate. Silently, I chided the traveler for not providing compass points. With these, the puzzle might have been solved.
Then again, what was the grand octagonal structure to the west of the Thousand-Column Hall? I went back to Ibn Battuta’s text and found that he mentioned a dihliz, a vestibule, between the first and second gates. “Along two of its sides there are platforms, on which sit those troops whose turn it is to guard the gates.” And there, serendipitously, was a terrace raised on vaults and running around two sides of the domed building. I began to feel I was getting somewhere.
Beyond my putative vestibule some boys were playing cricket, and beyond the cricketers were a few courses of a gateway pierced by a double entrance. My sense of serendipity increased. Play stopped and the boys came over to chat. They knew little about the ruins, but one of them mentioned that their cricket pitch was called the Gate of Khuni Hathi, or “Bloody Elephant Gate.” Suddenly phrases from Ibn Battuta jostled into my mind: “His gate is never without some poor man enriched or some living man executed…. Outside the first gate sit the executioners…. The elephants were brought and the rebels were thrown down in front of them, and they started cutting them in pieces with blades attached to their tusks.”
One final element of the complex—an apt word in both its meanings—remained. An octagonal flat-roofed turret rose above the vaulted room to the south of the Thousand-Column Hall. Of all Muhammad’s palace, this was the best-preserved part, and the loftiest; it also had a name, the Vijay Mandal, the same as that of the pavilion which had once overlooked Tughluq’s citadel. (Despite their penchant for moving, the Delhi Sultans were less original when it came to design. At least two earlier rulers had built Thousand-Column Halls, and there may have been other Vijay Mandals, too.) I climbed up and looked down from the roof. Seen from above, the palatial puzzle now made some sort of sense. But it was impossible to conjure up the original atmosphere of this palace, once the engine-room of Muhammad’s empire. In its present state, it reminded me of a verse quoted in the Rihla. Ibn Battuta and a Delhiite friend, originally from Granada, were visiting the old Red Palace of Sultan Jalal al-Din, abandoned on his death some 40 years before. They had climbed to the top of the building and were looking down on it when the Granadan recited:
As for the sultans, ask the dust of them— Those mighty heads are now but empty skulls.
Even though it nearly killed him, as we shall see, Ibn Battuta was lucky to have known that mightiest of all the heads that ruled India. Muhammad ibn Tughluq was, according to the Indian scholar and dramatist Girish Karnad in the introduction to his 1964 play Tuqhlaq, “certainly the most brilliant individual to ascend the throne of Delhi, and also one of the biggest failures.” Some have gone to extremes to sum him up. ‘Isami painted him deepest black when he likened him to Dahhak, the Persian tyrant of legend who had a snake growing from each shoulder and lived on human brains. More recently, Mahdi Husain, presenting him as a gentle philosopher, all but whitewashed him.
The truth is neither black, white, nor even some intermediate gray but, as Karnad suggested, a glaring checkerboard of contrasts. Muhammad ibn Tughluq was an accomplished calligrapher and poet, a scholar who had memorized the Qur’an and Kitab al-Hidayah, one of the main books of the Hanafi school of thought—and he was the merciless persecutor of any scholar who disagreed with him. He unified much of the Indian subcontinent and, for a time, his authority was recognized as far away as Mogadishu in East Africa—yet in 1341, en route to the coast, Ibn Battuta would find himself under attack by Hindu rebels a mere 130 kilometers (80 mi) from Delhi. The Travels devotes a whole long section to Muhammad’s incredible generosity— literally incredible to Ibn Battuta’s later critics in Morocco, who refused to believe that any monarch would distribute gold coins by catapult, a claim that was nonetheless later validated by Indian sources. This section is followed by another on Muhammad’s no less incredible cruelties, of which being chopped into pieces by elephants was one of the more humane.
Of the sultan’s dark deeds, the most fascinating to Ibn Battuta was his short-lived relocation of his capital from Delhi to Dawlatabad, more than 1100 kilometers (700 mi) to the south, in 1327. As the Moroccan tells the story, the reason was a whispering campaign by the population of Delhi that accused Muhammad of tyranny. “So he decided to lay Delhi in ruins, and commanded the inhabitants to move out of the city and go to Dawlatabad…. Delhi was left desolate and disintegrating.”
Things are probably not that simple, for most historians now agree that only the courtly and administrative classes were relocated and, indeed, the capital officially returned to Delhi soon after Ibn Battuta’s arrival there. Soon, distant portions of the empire succumbed to rebellions—22 of them under Muhammad’s rule—and the sultan spent all the latter part of his reign fighting secessionist officers.
Yet exaggerated or not, Ibn Battuta’s secondhand account of Muhammad ibn Tughluq’s evacuation of Delhi ends with a singularly chilling image of the ruler: “The sultan mounted one night to the roof of his palace and looked out over Delhi, where there was neither fire nor smoke nor lamp, and said, ‘Now my mind is tranquil and my feelings are appeased.’” As I stood on top of the ruins myself, I couldn’t help thinking that, if there were any truth to the anecdote, it must have been here that the sultan had also stood, on the summit of this Vijay Mandal, his Abode of Victory.
Sultan Muhammad died in 1351 while campaigning near the mouth of the Indus. It is said that his last words were in extemporized rhyming couplets, according to which he departed “hunched and sunken, like the hornèd moon.” Whether the story of the poetical death is true or not, it certainly should be: To die in verse, on campaign, would have been characteristically brilliant.
Today, below the turret, Delhi is getting its own back on the sultan who once abandoned it. The octopus city now throttles his palace, and its citizens use the Thousand-Column Hall as a public lavatory. And as I looked down to the Bloody Elephant Gate, one of the cricketing boys hit a majestic six over my putative vestibule.
I needed an antidote to the melancholy of Muhammad’s palace. And there it was, rising through the haze on the southern horizon.
Describing the Qutb Manar, Ibn Battuta wrote: “In the court of the Quwwat al-Islam [‘Might of Islam’] Mosque is that minaret which has no peer in the lands of Islam. It is built of red stone, ornamentally carved…. A person in whom I have confidence told me that when it was built he saw an elephant carrying stones to the top.”
Though it reached more than 75 meters (240') in height, it was equally the minaret’s “great bulk and breadth” —the base is 14 meters (45') across—that impressed Ibn Battuta. For me, though, the Qutb Manar was remarkable less for its dimensions than for its decoration. “Ornamentally carved” was an understatement: It has one of the most exciting surfaces in Indo-Muslim architecture. From a distance, it resembles a work of nature—the trunk, perhaps, of a giant redwood tree. As you approach, the details come into focus: alternating sharp and rounded ribs, balconies melting into geometrical stalactites, thick bands of calligraphy like the embroidery on the sleeves of a caliphal robe.
The Qutb Manar, like Tughluqabad, was a monument you could hardly miss, and few visitors to Delhi have. Near it, I discovered another Battutian memorial that was rather more private. I had taken shelter from the midday sun in the ‘Ala’i Gate, the southern entrance of the mosque, built by Sultan ‘Ala’ al-Din in 1311. It is a delicious building, particolored in red sandstone and white marble, and refreshingly cool, an airy cuboid with four portals and pierced stone screens that admit the breeze and dapple the interior with shadows. I wrote up my notes sitting on a broad sandstone bench that runs around the inside of the gateway. The stone was cold to the touch and burnished by seven centuries of backsides. I realized one of them must surely have been Ibn Battuta’s.
The traveler’s account of Delhi focuses, not surprisingly, on what he assumed his readers would find interesting. He tells us a lot about the city —its history, its personalities, his own experiences with Sultan Muhammad—but little about his own day-to-day life there. (Of his working life there was in fact little to tell: His post as judge was, by his own admission, a sinecure.)
Tantalizingly, he gives us only one glimpse of the house where he lived in the original city of Delhi, describing it as “a mansion near Palam Gate.” Palam Gate has disappeared but, assuming it had faced the village of the same name, it would have stood on the southwestern side of the city, not far from the Qutb Manar. Ibn Battuta must have prayed often in this mosque, and its southern entrance—the ‘Ala’i Gate—would have been the most direct way in for him. And it is not a wild guess to suppose that, from time to time, on a hot day after noon prayers, he too would have sat on this same stone bench.
I was curious to know more about where Ibn Battuta had lived, and though I could hardly expect to find his mansion, I could still try to visit his neighborhood. The task would have been easier if Ibn Battuta had left us a full postal address; instead, all I had was that bare “near Palam Gate.” Following the ghost of the city wall along a highway that thundered with trucks, I came to the beginning of the old road to Palam. The area where the gate must have stood is now a large and very busy bus station. Between this and a neighboring bazaar was an area of old Islamic cemeteries: I remembered that, in his only other reference to Palam Gate, Ibn Battuta described the burial of his daughter there, outside the walls. I cut back from the bus station toward the Qutb Manar, and I found myself in a jumble of small brick houses. They were recent, but the lanes winding between them were paved with much older dressed stone. Clearly, nothing short of a full-scale excavation would get me any nearer to Ibn Battuta’s house. All I could say with certainty was that, appropriately for a traveler, it must have stood somewhere near the bus station.
Over the next few weeks I visited other sites where the Battutian resonances were louder. The tomb of Nizam al-Din, the famous Sufi who “cursed” Tughluqabad, is still among the city’s most important monuments, as it was in the Moroccan’s time. The huge Hawz Shamsi, a reservoir contemporary with the Qutb Manar, still contains water; however, it has shrunk in size, and the central island pavilion Ibn Battuta described is now almost aground off the southern bank. The other great reservoir, the Hawz Khass, is now dry, but its wooded fringes—a jungle, almost, within the urban jungle—are a reminder of what Delhi looked like before the late 20th century, when the city turned hungrily on its own open spaces. In Ibn Battuta’s time musicians lived along its banks, and their settlement was known as Tarababad, “Music City.” Now a sign on the gate warns, “Playing of musical instruments, gramophones or broadcast receivers, including transistors, within the Archaeological Area is prohibited.”
There was one final spot to search for. It was associated with one of the most nerve-wracking periods of Ibn Battuta’s career, nine days when his life hung in the balance between the Thousand-Column Hall and the gate of execution. If it still existed—and I doubted it—it would be a truly minimal monument.
For several years, Ibn Battuta had hovered on the sidelines of Sultan Muhammad’s court, observing his fellow courtiers, those moths fluttering around the fatal flame. Now and then one would cut it too fine, and fall. Eventually, his own turn came. He was accused of associating with a dissident shaykh, or religious scholar, who had gone underground—literally—in a subterranean house outside the city. Ibn Battuta, never one to miss a curiosity, had gone to inspect the cave dwelling. He was promptly arrested and kept under guard in the sultan’s audience chamber. “When the sultan takes this action with anyone,” he remembered, “it rarely happens that that person escapes…. I fasted five days on end, reciting the Qur’an from cover to cover each day and tasting nothing but water. After those five days I broke my fast, and then continued to fast for another four days on end, and I was released after the execution of the shaykh, praise be to God Most High.” Thoroughly unnerved by the experience, Ibn Battuta turned his back on the world, swapped clothes with a beggar and became the disciple of an ascetic called Kamal al-Din ‘Abd Allah al-Ghari.
Ibn Battuta explained that al-Ghari, “the Caveman,” earned his surname from his place of residence, a ghar, or cave. Ibn Battuta seems personally not to have lived in the cave, but he must have visited it often, since he spent the next five months in the ascetic’s company, fasting, praying and meditating. It was the ultimate gesture of rejection: He had exchanged his judge’s robe for a pauper’s shirt, and a master who lived in a Thousand-Column Hall for one who lived in a hole.
Frankly, my chances of finding the cave were slim. Ibn Battuta had left another annoyingly vague address: “Outside Delhi, near the hospice of Shaykh Nizam al-Din.” The problem was that over the centuries the landscape of Delhi had been continually eroded, and the sort of rocky outcrops where one might find caves had been quarried away long ago. I wasn’t surprised when I explored the district around the tomb of Nizam al-Din and failed to find any promising bumps in the ground. Moreover, while in the 14th century this area had lain some two miles to the northwest of the city, it now stood almost at the center of the Delhi conurbation, and it was covered with housing.
There was, of course, a chance that the cave had not been a natural one but a man-made hole in the ground. In Gordon Hearn’s 1906 book, The Seven Cities of Delhi, I had found a reference to “a tiny cell, only three feet wide, and almost filled up with soil,” which had been the abode of another 14th-century Delhi ascetic. I visited the site several times and tramped around, nose to the ground, but the last hundred years had obliterated all traces of the troglodyte’s burrow.
Disappointed, I gave up on the Caveman’s cave. Ibn Battuta’s five months with the ascetic had ended when Sultan Muhammad rehabilitated him in 1341 and appointed him to an embassy to China. His subsequent journey through India to the coast was packed with descriptions and adventures, and I wanted to move on and revisit them, too. Like Ibn Battuta, I had been stationary for too long.
Before I set out, I happened to mention my fruitless search to a historian of Delhi. Surprisingly, he offered me a new clue. “You may be looking in the wrong place,” he said. “Go and try around the khanqah [hospice] of Nizam al-Din, outside the mausoleum of Humayun.”
It was the first I had heard of it. I had assumed that the hospice of Nizam al-Din referred to by Ibn Battuta was the large complex of buildings founded by the famous Sufi, in which he was buried. But the khanqah, the historian explained, was an entirely different place—a sort of pied-à-terre where Nizam al-Din would escape from the crowds of visitors to fast and pray. Could this khanqah (a Persian term) be the same place as Ibn Battuta’s pure Arabic zawiyah, which also means “hospice”? Conceivably: In Ibn Battuta’s time, zawiyah had the additional sense, in fact its original meaning, of “a corner”—in other words, a cell into which one retreats. (The word evolved to refer to a mosque used as a “headquarters” by a Sufi group.)
I had no difficulty finding the 16th-century mausoleum of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor. It lies about half a mile east of the tomb-complex of Nizam al-Din, a palace of death soaring over a garden. To the west there was a car park filled with tourist buses; on the south, an affluent-looking suburb. This was followed at the east by a warren of tiny houses, compact as a nest of mud-wasps. Rounding the northeast corner, I passed a large Sikh temple and then spotted a green flag. A sign over a gate announced the Khanqah of Nizam al-Din.
It was a complete contrast to the ethereal grandeur of Humayun’s tomb: just a diminutive mosque and a few graves in a small garden hard by the Mughal mausoleum wall. It was also an island of silence in a noisy city: Something remained here from the time when this had been a place of retreat. I found the old imam sitting in an archway. I showed him Ibn Battuta’s passage on Nizam al-Din’s ascetic neighbor, the Caveman, “the outstanding and unique personality of his age.” He smiled and shook his head. The name meant nothing.
For the next three hours, I quartered the neighborhood: the mud-wasp village, a domed and ruinous Mughal tomb in its center, the railway line to the east, the enclosure of the Sikh temple. There were no signs of a cave. No one had heard of the Caveman.
It was now the end of the afternoon, and only one last place remained unexplored—a piece of wasteland to the north of the khanqah, sandwiched between a “Police Transmitter Station: Restricted Area” and the Delhi State Scouts and Guides Training Centre. Beyond this lay a clump of trees.
I made for the little wood. I was surprised to find that it contained another domed tomb, neglected, pigeon-filled and Mughal. Further into the tangle of trees, I discovered more decaying tombs. And then in the heart of the wood, as the light was beginning to go, I came across a little knoll of compacted dust a bit more than six meters (20') high. On top of this was a masonry platform surmounted by three simple graves, all whitewashed. The strange thing about it was that, unlike the other tombs, this place was cared for. The whitewash was fresh.
I had only just stumbled across the platform when a young man appeared from among the trees. I walked over to him, greeted him and asked—by now it had begun to seem a pointless question—if he knew of the Caveman. He didn’t. This place, he said, was the khanqah of Dada Pir. His own name was Muhammad Mustaqim, and he was the guardian of the khanqah.
“Dada Pir” is not so much a name as a title that attaches itself, with time, to half-forgotten religious personalities, and it means something like “holy old man.” I wondered how old, and I asked Muhammad when Dada Pir had lived. “A long time! Before seventy hundred years,” he replied.
I wrote “70” in my notebook. “Like this?” He added a zero: the first glimmer of hope all afternoon. Seven hundred years at least took us back beyond the Mughal period.
Almost immediately, the glimmer became a ray. On the top step of the three that led up to the platform, I spotted a frieze of repeating shield shapes: It was a motif I had noticed on buildings of Ibn Battuta’s period. And that, I felt, was as far as I would get.
We walked around the platform in silence. I was beginning to wish we had more language in common: I wanted to find out more about the mysterious Dada Pir. And then I saw something that made me stop. Six steep steps descended under the platform, into the hillock on which it stood. I followed them down and found myself in a short whitewashed passage. It was a dead end.
I climbed up again. “What is this?” I pointed down into the blocked passage.
Muhammad Mustaqim smiled. “Dada Pir original house. The door now close.”
As I walked back through a sunset din of birds, I felt that, hidden in the wood and in the anonymity of Dada Pir, I had perhaps found al-Ghari, the Caveman, and the setting of five spiritually charged months of Ibn Battuta’s life. As a monument to the traveler’s time in Delhi, that blank dead end was, paradoxically, greater than Tughluqabad or the Qutb Manar.
Of course, it was all only a possibility. But perhaps that was why I was here: not so much to see sights, as to look for possibilities. I left Delhi with a whole subcontinent of them before me.
||Tim Mackintosh-Smith ([email protected]) is the author of The Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah (John Murray, 2005), from which this article is adapted. He lives in Sana’a.
||Shahidul Alam ([email protected] drik.net) is a free-lance photographer in Dhaka. He is the founder of the Drik photo agency (www.drik.net) and director of the biennial Chobi Mela Festival of Asian Photography.