The Khayr al-Manazil Masjid (lit. "the most auspicious of houses") was built in 1561 by Maham Anga (d. 1562), one of Akbar's wet nurses. An influential woman in the court, folklore suggests that she ruled the Mughal empire during Akbar's childhood. A dedicative plaque on the central arch of the prayer hall in the mosque also mentions that it was built with the assistance of Shihab al-Din Ahmad Khan, then-governor of Delhi, a powerful courtier who was also a relative to Maham Anga.
The Khayr al-Manazil Masjid is an imposing two-storied structure located directly opposite the main entrance to the Purana Qila on the western side of the new Mathura Road. The new Mathura Road, as it exists today in Delhi, is considered to follow the Old Grand Trunk Road that connected the eastern provinces of Bengal to Peshawar (now Pakistan) in the west. The Khayr al-Manazil is just south of a grand arcaded avenue leading northwest to a monumental gate, one of the few surviving fragments of the city walls of Delhi in the sixteenth century as laid out by Humayun and followed by Sher Shah Suri. Historians believe this avenue to be a remnant of the Old Grand Trunk road; the monumental entrance to the Khayr al-Manazil Masjid would then have faced the Old Grand Trunk Road.
Rectangular in plan, the mosque is organized around a large rectangular courtyard measuring approximately 38.4 meters by 28.3 meters (126 feet by 93 feet) with its longitudinal axis along the east-west direction. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by two stories of dalans (rooms). The prayer hall is placed on the west side of the courtyard. Scholars suggest that the mosque was also used as a madrasa, and that the dalans were classrooms. Some scholars suggest that the mosque's high periphery wall was due to its function as a women's madrasa.
The mosque's rectangularity is modified by various corner conditions: the northeast corner contains an irregular protrusion, while the southwest corner is chamfered. The northwest and southwest corners contain octagonal towers protruding out from the plan. The lower level of these towers contains blank niches on each side, and the upper levels contain octagonal rooms. The upper level of the southwest tower is in ruins today. From the outside, the high periphery walls of the mosque are unadorned with some fenestration: small arched openings on the upper floor and a few on the lower floor. The periphery wall of the mosque is in a semi-ruined state; the upper floor of the north, south and east walls has partially collapsed. The west (qibla) periphery wall contains no openings. At its center is a slightly protruding rectangular panel with slender corner turrets. The periphery wall steps up slightly on the north and south side to accommodate the prayer hall along the west side of the courtyard. This portion of the periphery wall is lined by merlons at the top. The large angled dome of the prayer hall rises high above the periphery wall on a tall sixteen-sided drum. A bulbous finial in red sandstone rises from the inverted petals of a lotus atop the dome.
Viewed from outside the mosque, one sees the ruined walls, arches and vaults of structures that abut the high periphery wall of the mosque on either side of the main entrance gateway that leads into the courtyard on the east. This red sandstone gateway is mostly intact, and its two massive piers protrude out slightly from the rectangular plan to support a broad arched portal, deeply recessed within a flat rectangular frame. These piers are splayed on the inner surface and lead to a smaller, deeply recessed arched doorway. Once inside, one sees staircases leading to the upper level on either side of this doorway. Seen from within the courtyard, the arched doorway is likewise deeply recessed within a broad arched portal on the courtyard side.
The rectangular frame contains two parallel thick bands of white marble running up its piers and across its frieze. The spandrels of the arched portal are outlined in thin strips of white marble and contain two ornamental red sandstone medallions, each framed within a square of white marble strips.
The arched portal is supported on either side by the two massive piers of the rectangular frame. The inner corner of each pier is decorated with an ornamental red sandstone pilaster with chevron pattern along the shaft. On the inner face, the piers are splayed, leading to a deeply recessed smaller arched doorway. A large half-dome, completely clad in red sandstone, spans the distance between the large arched portal and the recessed doorway. The transition between the splayed piers and the half-dome is made by a number of short corbelled beams supported on tiny brackets. At the base of the half-dome, above the arched doorway, is a small arched window. The inner surfaces of the piers are faced by two panels each, of white marble with vertical divisions in red sandstone. There is a small square niche at the center of each panel with a red sandstone back. At the base of the rectangular frame is a plinth clad in red sandstone panels with a horizontal protruding edge that extends slightly inwards into the half-domed space of the gateway. The recessed doorway now has a large wooden shutter through which one enters the courtyard. The inner portion of the gateway structure is mostly plastered and contains traces of geometrical patterns incised into the plaster. These surfaces are painted light red.
The large quartzite blocks used in the walls are exposed on the courtyard side. Also on the courtyard side, a simple vault (rather than a half-dome) spans the distance between the portal and the recessed doorway. Within the recess, on the inner facade of the gateway and on either side of the doorway, are two staircases constructed of quartzite blocks that lead to the upper-level terraced walkway. From this level, another interior pair of staircases lead up to the roof of the entrance gateway structure. The roof of the gateway consists of two levels, a lower corresponding to the top of the inner rectangular frame and a higher corresponding to the exterior frame. As a result, the eastern portion of the roof contains an arcade-like structure with five pointed-arched bays constructed into the back of the exterior frame. Of these, the two at each extremity are the entrance archways leading out from the staircases, while the central three frame a small room at the back. Four of these arches are clad in intricately carved red sandstone and their spandrels contain medallions inscribed with the word ‘Allah’. The cladding on the fifth arch at the northern end has stripped away to reveal a round-arched profile. This upper terrace offers stunning views of the area, especially of the Purana Qila to the east.
Courtyard and dalans:
At the center of the courtyard, is a sunken octagonal ablutions pool, now dry and mostly in ruins. Just northeast of the pool, within the courtyard, is a round well which still contains water.
To the north and south, two levels of dalans define the courtyard. There are a total of 9 arched bays on each of these sides. On the east side of the courtyard, 2 arched bays of dalans flank the imposing frame of the entrance gateway on either side. Though most of the upper level is ruined the separate rooms can still be discerned. The dalans on both levels are of the same size and plan. Each consists of a square domed room extending into a smaller rectangular vaulted room at the back. Each rectangular room has an arched window that punctuates the otherwise plain periphery wall on the outside. Some of these windows have been blocked partially or completely. The windows were screened with stone jaalis, of which only a few survive. Although the dalans on both floors are the same, the dalans at the lower levels have a deeply recessed arched entrance, while on the upper floor an elevated terrace walkway, of the same depth as the lower-level recess, is used for accessing the dalans. Due to the poor condition of the structure, is not possible to say if the elevated walkway was formerly covered. In total, the broad arched two-storied courtyard elevations contain forty-four dalans, creating a highly interior space.
The arches are mostly irregular and often lop-sided with predominantly rounded and only a few pointed profiles. Dressed blocks of stone are used on the exterior, while more uneven blocks are used on the inner areas and within the rooms. Traces of plaster, especially within the domed rooms, suggests that this part (the assumed madrasa) of the mosque was built of stone rubble masonry that was plastered over.
The northeast and southeast corners of the courtyard do not form right angles, but are splayed, providing small angular accesses, each leading into a complex of secondary spaces. To the northeast, the access way splits into three narrow passages that provide three separate entrances to an octagonal room on three of its adjacent sides. This octagonal room also forms the northeast corner of the mosque and protrudes out partially from its rectangular plan to abut the adjacent avenue. There also seems to be an outside entrance to this room in its east side. The room has a central circular oculus-like opening in the roof. The southeast access way leads to a hexagonal room that also protrudes out partially to the east, creating a chamfered corner. Each side of the room contains a large recess while its south side leads to a smaller secondary room.
Along the west side of the courtyard directly opposite the entrance is the prayer hall, a large space divided into five bays of different widths and one aisle divided into chambers by broad transverse pointed arches. The space measures approximately 9.7 meters by 38.5 meters (31.75 feet by 126 feet). The central bay is the largest, and a large dome caps its square chamber. The central dome rests on a 16-sided drum, which in turn is supported on 8 large half-domed squinches in the zone of transition. Each side of the drum contains arched niches, and four small arched windows in the four cardinal directions that allow some light to filter through. Overall, is a moderately lit space, with substantial light entering from the courtyard through the three archways. The bays to the immediate north and south of the central bay are also square, but are very slightly smaller than the central bay. These bays are spanned by a shallow dome under the flat roof supported on a set of trabeate squinches.
The two bays at the end of the prayer hall are rectangular and vaulted. These two end bays do not open up into the courtyard and are hidden behind the dalans of the north and south sides. The north and south walls of the prayer hall contain central arched openings on two levels, a larger opening at the bottom and a smaller opening at the top. The prayer hall contains three mihrabs corresponding to the centers of the central and two side bays. The prayer hall opens up to the courtyard through three deeply recessed archways contained within larger arched portals facing the courtyard. The central portal and archway are both slightly taller and broader than the two that flank its sides. In the northwest and southwest corners of the courtyard, accessible from the corner dalan, are staircases leading to the upper level.
The elevation of the prayer hall across the entrance gateway reflects the monumental scale of the building. Raised from the courtyard level by a step, it contains three broad pointed arched bays recessed within tall arched portals. The central arched portal is recessed within a rectangular frame flanked by two octagonal turrets. The frame is outlined by a running band of Quranic verses in plaster relief. Above the central arch is a rectangular white marble plaque containing the dedicatory inscription. The central bay is slightly forward, broader and taller than the two flanking its sides. The spandrels of all three arched portals contain medallions with incised plaster and inlaid polychromatic glazed tiles. The elevation of the prayer hall still contains remnants of intricate patterned tile-work that would have originally adorned its entire surface. A chhajja supported on intricately carved red sandstone brackets would have shaded the two side portals; only the brackets remain today. The terrace of the prayer hall is flat except for the large angled dome covering the central bay. A short parapet ornamented with a merlon-like pattern in plaster relief lines the terrace.
The entire surface of the prayer hall is covered with plaster with a few remnants of incised plaster decoration in the outlines of arches and medallions at the center of the domes. The arched mihrab niches in each of the three bays are recessed within slightly protruding rectangular frames with ornate architraves on their friezes.
The Khayr al-Manazil Masjid displays two decorative techniques used by the early Mughals, intricate stone carving and incised plaster with inlaid polychromatic glazed tiles. The gateway is an example of the former, with its finely carved pilasters and medallions in red sandstone cladding the stone rubble structure. The rest of the mosque is decorated in plaster relief, appearing in the outlines of arches and in bands and borders on the courtyard elevation of the prayer hall. The spandrels of the three-arched prayer hall facade contain exquisite examples of this technique with ‘Allah’, ‘Ya Allah’, ‘Muhammad’, ‘Al-Mulk Allah’ and the Kalma (expression of faith) in Nakshi script incised into the medallions. Also inlaid within the medallions are yellow, green and turquoise blue glazed tiles in geometric patterns. It has been suggested that the entire elevation of the prayer hall was once covered with geometrically patterned yellow, green and blue glazed tiles, of which only fragments remain. However, a blue border around the central rectangular frame of the prayer hall has also survived.
The three mihrabs in the prayer hall are also finely decorated in the same technique. The pilasters and frieze of the central mihrab are decorated with bands of polychrome tiles, and each part of its architrave displays a different pattern. A band of Quranic verses in incised plaster frames the arched mihrab. This mihrab is also decorated with plaster painted in yellow, blue, red, and green.
The Khayr al-Manazil Masjid is an example of early Mughal architecture under Humayun, one also significant for its female patron. The prayer hall is linked stylistically to the Qila-i Kuhna Mosque, built twenty years earlier by Sher Shah Suri at the Purana Qila.
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Sharma, Praduman K. Mughal Architecture of Delhi: A Study of Mosques and Tombs (1556-1627 A.D.). New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 2000. 53-57.