Among ruins time was never meant to do anything other than stand still, inveigling the visitor into standing still alongside.
Many, many years ago on my bicycling trips across Goa I would lean the bicycle against the tree on spotting a hill and clamber up for a view from the top.
There wasn’t much to be seen from the top except for more trees and even more hills sweeping along in the direction of the Western Ghats mountain ranges, eventually disappearing into the featureless blue in the distance where folds of mountains seemingly overlapped to infinity.
From atop the hill I found the skies bluer than usual and the breeze stiffer. And if I was lucky to find trees as I made the crest, I would catch my breath against a tree taking in the landscape before it was time to hit the paddle again, free-riding along, passing hamlets and villages. The roads were not to be found on any map and I sought those roads more than any other.
Loose gravel made descent tricky but slipping and sliding was part of the charm, including bruises resulting from missteps on my way down the hill. Moreover they lent authenticity to the story at school the next day.
In time as years went by cares of the world took over and it was many years later on a chilly winter morning in Delhi that I was once again enthused on spotting a gentle hill, more of a landscaped mound really, surmounted by a stone canopy or chhatri in Mehrauli. It was my first view of Metcalf’s Folly.
Visitors sat in silence on the closely cropped grass carpeting the rolling hill, their backs warming in the feeble Sun. They sat still, like statues awaiting deliverance from the chilly winter morning.
While the hills from my cycling sojourns along Goa’s interiors were much steeper and higher than the gentle curvature that was barely a stone's throw away from Muhammad Quli Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli, I couldn’t wait to get to the top for a view of the countryside from Metcalf’s Folly, a stone pavilion (canopy) affording splendid views of the skyline above the tops of trees, all the way to Quli Khan’s tomb and beyond, to the Qutb Minar.
Surely, Charles Metcalf must’ve had a good reason to fashion it amid the ruins of Delhi’s long and often bloody history now etched for posterity in the surviving tombs and mosques scattered among kikar trees covering a considerable expanse in Mehrauli’s old quarters said to date back to before 700 A.D. The Folly is of recent construction, dated in the 1850s, and is clearly architected to fit into its setting among tombs and mosques of an earlier era.
The tombs and mosques that abound in the vicinity of the stone canopy predate it by several centuries, each marking many a tumultuous chapter in Delhi’s history, beginning with the ruins of Delhi Sultanate’s ruler Ghiyas ud din Balban’s (1200-1287) tomb a few metres from the canopy.
Charles Metcalf is said to have set the stone canopy so it could be seen from the southern opening of Quli Khan’s tomb that he used as a retreat of sorts. As Toshi and I walked under the shade of trees along Metcalf’s bridge to Quli Khan’s tomb we came upon three groups of local youth enjoying a game of cricket in each of the three empty expanses surrounding Quli Khan’s tomb. It seemed that each time we turned a corner chances were we would come upon a group of children at a game of cricket, a block of stone for wickets, and under the watchful gaze of the Qutb Minar peering over the trees.
A detachment of the Indian Military lolled about on the platform surrounding the octagonal Mughal structure while an armed lookout atop Metcalf’s retreat, formerly Quli Khan’s tomb before Metcalf refurbished it as his summer retreat, kept watch. The Qutb rose in the background. There's nary a spot in Mehrauli from where the Qutb Minar cannot be seen. Like the North Star the Qutb Minar enjoys a majestic permanency in the Delhi skies over Mehrauli, the residents navigating their lives in its backdrop.
An officer sat on a makeshift table and chair set up on the platform in front of the octagonal structure holding the remains of Quli Khan, the brother of Adham Khan, the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s notorious and brutal foster brother and at one time a General in Akbar’s army before Akbar ordered him thrown to his death from the Agra fort as punishment for killing his Prime Minister, Ataga Khan, in 1562.
Eventually the sixteenth century tomb of Quli Khan came to function as Metcalf’s retreat in the nineteenth century after he took over the tomb and turned it into a retreat, even converting the central hall of the tomb into a dining hall, and adding two annexes one of whose ruins is still visible. The officer was busy at the table making notes while the other soldiers sat on the edge of the platform, their legs over the side and talking among themselves.
The soldier manning a gun atop the structure kept an eye on us as we walked around the octagonal structure, even calling out to his colleagues in uniform to not let us come up to where he was manning the gun. His colleagues cast curious glances at us, one of them telling fellow soldiers within earshot that we were probably tourists, pointing to the camera in my hand.
I made a conscious attempt to not look at the detachment to avoid being drawn into a conversation and possibly awkward questions and went about seeing the monument though not at the gentle pace I might’ve preferred if left to my own devices!
Though we had passed and briefly explored Metcalf’s Folly the first thing in the wintry morning after exploring Balban’s tomb, we had kept it for last, instead setting off to explore the rest of Mehrauli’s architectural heritage before returning to the Folly for a spot of leisurely loll on the grassy slopes.
It was past noon when we finally made our way up the gentle incline, the Qutb rising in the backdrop as we neared the stone canopy. The stone pillars supporting the canopy were bereft of carvings. A nip and a tuck and they were a perfect foil to the canopy.
Resting on the stone platform portions of the Mehrauli architectural landscape meshed with the trees in the distance, occasionally revealing itself in breaks between trees. Two employees of the Archaeology department rested on the gentle incline after lunch, a mandatory lathi (stick) inert in the grass by its master.
I left Toshi gazing at the Qutb Minar from under the canopy as it rose above the treeline in its signature red sandstone before making my way to a patch of shade on the grassy slope. There I settled down in the grass, resting on my knees stretched behind me.
I could have sat there for a long time.
Time was never meant to move among ruins and nor were wandering footsteps of a meandering traveller.