Introducing Asar-us-Sanadid

by Rana Safvi

Asar-us-Sanadid by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan is an important book for many reasons. It was the first time that a book on this scale describing Delhi’s monuments had been written. The first volume was published in 1847 and a second volume in 1854. Though both had the same name and were about Delhi, they were very differently written. The first was an anecdotal description of the buildings, while the second took a more scientific approach with historical references, and the dimensions of the monuments.

It was also the first time in India, that a book had lithographically produced illustrations. As many as 130 illustrations of Delhi’s monuments were drawn by Faiz Ali Khan and Mirza Shahrukh Beg. The drawings were probably based on rough sketches provided by Sayyid Ahmad Khan himself. He made many sketches – a fact he mentions in the book – and also copied the inscriptions on each of the monuments, often at great risk to life and limb, as in the case of the Qutub Minar, where he hung down from the top of the minaret in a basket held by ropes. It was the first time that inscriptions on the buildings were noted down.

Asar-us-Sanadid is an invaluable work. Both editions – Asar-1 and Asar-2 (published in 1847 and 1854, respectively) – were written before the Uprising of 1857. As is well known, much of Shahjahanabad changed during and in the aftermath of the events of 1857. The British broke down many structures to make governance easier and there was massive restructuring, in particular, of the Red Fort.

Later, when Lutyens’ Delhi was being built, many more changes were brought about, not to mention the changes that are still taking place today. Thus, in his descriptions of the buildings and monuments of Delhi prior to 1857, Sayyid Ahmad Khan gives us a glimpse of lost glory. For students of history and heritage this is where its greatest importance lies.

The partition and transfer of population in 1947 meant that the landscape of medieval Delhi was changed further. Today urban development has resulted in encroachment and destruction or alteration of many more monuments.

Mehrauli is the first documented city of Delhi and it was from here that the Tomaras, Chauhan and early Delhi Sultans ruled. As it was a hilly and wooded area it become a favourite of the Mughals too, with the last two emperors shifting here during the monsoons. The last Mughal building is the Zafar Mahal, situated in Mehrauli, which was the royal residence during those months.

A unique festival called Phool Waalon ki Sair was also celebrated in the monsoons under the last two Mughal emperors.

The excerpt below describes some of the buildings in Mehrauli.

The Bagh e Nazir is now Ashoka Mission. According to some monks I spoke to there, the family of Nazir Roz Afsun fared very badly in the riots which took place during the partition of India in 1947, and the lone survivor, a young boy, migrated to Pakistan.

In 1948 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave the land as a gift to the famous Cambodian monk Dharmvara Mahathera on behalf of the Indian state for the purpose of opening a Buddhist institute. It was he who founded the Ashoka mission there. It is now the Official Buddhist Mission in Delhi, known as Ashoka Mission.

The Hauz e Shamsi is a poor reflection of what it was, and though the pavilions of the Jharna still stand forlorn, they are desolate. The water is a dirty and stagnant pool and gone are the diving competitions or sliding stones. The mango orchard has disappeared and there are only residences in the area. One can only thank Sir Sayyed for a glimpse into that era when emperors and their consort picnicked here.


This is a beautiful, attractive, verdant and luxuriant garden near the waterfall of Qutub Sahib [in the Mehrauli area]. It is still very well maintained, with blooming flowers and green trees. The buildings around it are still intact and thousands of people come here during the Phool Walo’n ki Sair procession, to enjoy its beauty. The spectacle is as entertaining as though one were at a fair. This garden was built by Nazir Roz Afzun during the reign of Muhammad Shah Badshah. I will write down the verses inscribed on the entrance as they give the date of the construction and name of the builder:

By the orders of Muhammad Shah Adil,
Whose head bears the sacred crown.
He founded this garden near [the shrine and tomb of] Qutub Sahib,
And has adorned it with the flowers of paradise.
It should remain green till the Day of Judgment,
By the Grace of the Holy Quran.
The year of its construction,
Was found to be the blessed date,
AH 1116 in the thirty-first regnal year of Muhammad Shah.

Bagh-e-Nazir | Courtesy: National Archives of India, New Delhi

A wall surrounds the garden and there are red sandstone buildings of great attraction built all around, within the wall. There is one building in the middle of the garden that is the biggest and best of all the buildings there. Thus I am attaching its sketch here.

This is a place for recreation and pleasure; it is exotic and unearthly, elegant and refined, interesting and delightful, happiness-bestowing and heart-pleasing. Qutub Sahib’s waterfall [jharna] is famous for its verdant green trees and reminds one of heaven. Initially, Sultan Firoz Shah had constructed a dam here and the wall of the waterfall is that dam. It is still intact.

He had diverted the excess water of Hauz-e-Shamsi reservoir into Naulakh canal [nala] towards the moats of Tughlaqabad Fort. After some years however, the fort was abandoned and water stopped going to that area. The excess water from the Hauz-e-Shamsi then started flowing into the jungles from this dam and was wasted. Nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Khan Firoz Jung built a tank, water channels, and chutes for the water to flow through. The waterfall is an awesome spectacle and pleases the heart, causing the spectator to involuntarily exclaim in delight. There are various buildings around this waterfall which I will describe here.

Jharna | Courtesy National Archives of India, New Delhi

Pavilion on the western side
On the western side, adjoining the wall of the dam stands a pavilion at an elevation of 11 feet and 5 inches. It has three arches, and the waterfall cascades down on it. There is an attractive tank in front of it, into which people jump from the roof of this building. During the Phool Walo’n ki Sair festivities people diving into this tank and swimming in it, make for a huge spectacle. They use various diving styles including somersaulting into the water, they also make a pyramid by climbing onto the shoulders of men standing below until the man at the top of the pyramid reaches tree-branch height. Then those at the bottom dive into the tank and all those on their shoulders plunge into the tank. This is called a “tree dive” [darakht ka kudna] or a “wild growth dive” [jhad-jhankar ka kudna].

There are thirteen small water pipes under the roof of this building and water from the waterfall flows down through these, via the pavilion, and into the tank. There is a 3.2-feet wide water chute inside the pavilion which falls from a height of 4.3 feet into the tank. There are niches built under the chute in the pavilion wall, and water flows over lighted lamps that are placed within the niches.

This 25-feet square tank has an opening of 1.7 feet for water to flow into it and is 7.6 feet deep. There is a 22 feet long, 6 feet wide and 3.6 feet deep water-channel, which flows out of this tank in a 5.6 feet cascade and is joined by two smaller cascades from the north and south. There are beautifully carved stone chutes [salami pathar] measuring 3 feet 7 inches, to receive the cascade. The water winds its way down the carvings on the chute creating a mesmerising effect.

The water channel in front of this pavilion is 26 feet long, 6 feet wide and 2 feet deep, while the water channel in front of the smaller cascades is 15.3 feet wide, 2.9 feet wide and 8 feet deep. All the water collects at this point and flows into the jungle. The waterfall passes over all these pavilions and the water channel, and in reality it is a truly spellbinding sight. The sound of the flowing water mingles with the singing of the nightingale, the chirping of doves, peacocks dancing and the sounds of merriment of finely attired men and women. It is a mesmerizing scene, which could put Raja Indra’s assembly in the shade.

Pavilion on the northern side
There is a very attractive double pavilion on this side. Muin-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar Shah Badshah built the double pavilion in his reign, around three years ago. These are the most attractive buildings in the place.

Pavilion on the southern side
There is a three-arched pavilion in this area, with two smaller pavilions on its sides which gives it the impression of being five arched. In addition to this there are two doors next to it, thus making it seven arched. This pavilion was built around 50 years ago in the reign of Shah Alam by Shahji’s brother, whose name was Sayyid Muhammad.

Pavilion on the eastern side
There are only mountains on this side and no buildings, but Muhammad Shah Badshah built a stone slide [phisalna pathar] 18 feet 3 inches long and 7 feet 7 inches wide.

The mango orchard
There are many mango trees in this area. People tie swings to the branches and have fun swinging on them. Numerous dancing and singing girls gather here to enjoy themselves. In short, this place is magical and the mind boggles at its attractions. There is also a grave here with the following verse inscribed on it:

Abid who was wise, learned, pious and man of intellect,
Was martyred by a dishonest robber.
The invisible crier told me the chronogram of his death,
The soul of Abid, the martyr entered paradise [in] AH 1209.

This reservoir [hauz] was one of a kind. Sultan Shams-ud-Din Altamash built it during his reign and that is why it is famous as Hauz-e-Shamsi. Once upon a time this reservoir was made of red sandstone but now all the stone has been torn off and it is just a simple reservoir and that’s why people call it Qutub Sahib’s reservoir, while some still call it Hauz-e-Shamsi. The water from here feeds the waterfall and also fed the moats of Tughlaqabad in olden days.

It is difficult to imagine there is a reservoir of this size on the face of earth. It is spread across 276 bighas [a land measurement] and its water reaches eight provinces [subahs]! The pavilion has been built around the mark of a hoof which people call the hoofprint of the Prophet’s celestial steed Buraq, but to me it seems a made-up story. God alone knows the truth.

Auliya Masjid
On the eastern side of the Hauz-e-Shamsi is a platform and on it another smaller platform about a gaz or so with a small wall. According to legend, Hazrat Khwaja Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki and other Sufi saints undertook their spiritual retreat/penance [chillah] on it. They built the mosque with their own hands, bringing baskets [of mud from the reservoir] and that’s why it is called Auliya [The Saint’s] Mosque. Now people have plastered it with mortar and lime.

Excerpted with permission from Asar-us-Sanadid, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, translated and edited by Rana Safvi, Tulika Books.