Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta was more commonly known as Ibne Battuta. Born into a family of Islamic judges in the Moroccan town of Tangier, he developed a thirst for travel after going to Makkah on pilgrimage in 1325 at the age of 21. He travelled extensively, going to Anatolia, East Africa, Central Asia, China, up the Volga, down the Niger, even in the tiny Indian Ocean sultanate of the Maldives. He kept meticulous records of what he saw, what he heard and the people he met. 29 years later, he went back home and wrote about his experiences with the help of Ibn Juzay, a young scholar. He was little known when he died in 1368 as his rihlah was not respected as a scholarly piece of work.
The work is now seen to be one of the finest travelogues ever written.He was the greatest gossip columnist of them all. But Ibn Battuta’s stories were not restricted to the salacious titbits of scandal in court.. They dealt often with the complexities of governance, the battle strategies of the monarchs and his respect for the strong women rulers he had come across. While this wandering minstrel had traversed the entire Islamic world, it was in India that he set roots, at least as much as a traveller ever does. A fifth of his epic travelogue dealt with Delhi. “On the day of the new moon of the holy month of Muharram, the first day of the year 734, we came to the river of Sind.” India was on the other side. In Delhi he was welcomed by the Sultan, who symbolically offered him the city, and at a more tangible level, a salary of 12,000 dinars.
Professor Narayani Gupta was a Bangali, and after instructing me to help her student Anita get a visa to Bangladesh, she proceeded to drag us both off to lunch. Over bhelpuri she provided a string of names, rang people and gave me insider tips. S. K. Bali was the archaeologist I was to meet. Ranji was the world expert on Tugluqabad. Roshan would know good vantage points for photography. Having decided I simply did not have the competence to navigate my way round Delhi, let alone discover traces of a man based on a seven-hundred-year-old document, she charged the hapless student with being my chaperon for the rest of the day.
Anita was non-fussy, interested and sensible. She started by making sure we had umbrellas. Then we planned our journey. Having the luxury of a local guide, I decided to try the most difficult to find places first. Finding Qutb Minar would hardly be a problem. The professor had given directions for Vijay Mandal. She knew the back route. It was lucky we had her directions. Though the Vijay Mandal must have been the most imposing structure in the neighbourhood when it had been built, seven hundred years later, the grounds it overlooked had been taken over by developers and it was only when we stumbled on to the inevitable cricket pitch that we found the remains of the Octagonal citadel and the vestiges of the hall of the thousand columns.
The cave Battuta had withdrawn into, having left his worldly belongings to become a follower of an ascetic, was going to be much more difficult. Luckily, the professor had arranged for a more knowledgeable person to verify my map. A wall was in a wrong place, the distances were way off, and the position of the railway line had to be changed. Our guide redrew the map and told us where to look, but even he hadn’t heard of this unmarked cave where Battuta had spent five months. This was genuine Sherlock Holmes stuff.
Humayun’s Tomb was easy enough to find, but the real journey started afterwards. A seven-hundred-year-old unmarked grotto where an unknown ascetic had lived didn’t appear in any tour book and none of the well-versed guides had ever heard of such a place.
But we did have a rectified map, and we managed to find the strip in between the police station and the electricity depot, where our path was to begin. Luckily, we were befriended by the khadem of a nearby mazar. Walking through the bramble, looking for more familiar sites for orientation, we came across two newly whitewashed graves. The dried well at the back was also of great significance, the caretaker assured me. I was more interested in the steps leading down to a chamber beneath the graves. The motif above the stairs, nearly obliterated by repeated coats of paint, was the same as in the Qutb. The oral history that the caretakers had preserved gave an accurate enough description of the holy man Battuta had become a follower of. The architecture, even after seven hundred years, was as the traveller had described. We had found the Battuta’s lair.
Anita needed to get on with her work. Having made sure I knew enough to get back home, she left me with my new discoveries. I decided to ride my luck. Battuta had described his home as having been near the Palam Gate from where he regularly would go to the mosque. Palam was near the airport, and no one had ever heard of Palam Gate. Perhaps this was the beginning of the road to Palam. We needed something that would make the jigsaw fit. If indeed he had walked into the Qutb from the south entrance, into the Quwwat al-lslam mosque, then his home must have been somewhere near the Mehroli bus stand. Not quite the beginning of the road to Palam, but near enough to attribute the difference to some historical artefact.
The road to Palam went parallel to the old city wall. I walked past the makeshift tents of the poor and the barren meadow to climb the stony structure. The open landscape was a surprise. I could see Qutb far in the horizon, a lonely blimp against the Delhi outline. I would need to get a better view. Fat Indians with caddies in tow strolled over the gentle dunes. The clubhouse at the edge of the green had large glass walls. From here the tent dwellers could look without touching. Theirs were the green shrubs by the highway. Open to the sky. No walls, no rules. No water, no lights. “A loo with a view.”
It was inconsiderate of the traveller not to have provided post codes in his 700-year-old document. While some of the old monuments remained, much of the rest of Delhi had changed beyond recognition. Trying to retrace the steps of this intrepid explorer was not going to be easy. He was an excellent chronicler, though, and the details that he had penned gave the wispy hints I could still use as a clue. The shopkeepers pointed to the dusty staircase at the back of Mehroli bus stand. This dingy pathway in between the sweetmeat shop and the butcher’s had obviously not been used for years. My darkroom training hadn’t prepared me to for this ascent. I could sense the dust from the soft, furry fluff underneath my footsteps. I could smell the soot swirling up as I stamped on the thick carpet of sediment as I warily climbed up. The dust might not have been 700 years old, but it had certainly collected over a very long time. There was light at the very top, though, and when I did arrive at the rooftop I was dazzled by even the hazy Delhi winter light. Memories of bunking classes to go to the matinee at Balaka cinema hall flashed through my mind. We would stand blinking for a few minutes before New Market was visible across the road. When my eyes settled here, the sight was somewhat more majestic. Across the rooftops, above the dense patch of trees and the decaying ruins of monuments, rose the splendid Qutb Minar. Delhi on Viagra.
Down below was Mehroli bus stand. The narrow streets of Mehroli, the busy market place, the hawkers on the footpaths uncharacteristically making way for the Tata buses that burst into the main road expecting the traffic and pedestrians to melt away on their arrival. Behind the stands was an old housing estate. I walked past the church with the Arabic inscriptions, past the houses with the sewing machines, and a small outdoor garage. A cybercafe offered Internet connectivity for 15 Rupees an hour. A cow stood in the middle of the road, and people walked round. The narrow path at the back of the church sloped up towards the hillock in the royal park. Well before I reached the rose garden a couple huddled around a fire made out of old cartons. The green spotlights on the Qutb and the warm light of the fire meeting in the foggy darkness of the cold Delhi air. It was through here that Battuta would have made his way to the Quwwat al-lslam mosque. The next day, I sought out the Southern Entrance to the mosque. Light streamed into the portal through the honeycomb-like lattice of stone screens. The stone bench along the perimeter of the portal was pitted but smooth. Burnished by centuries of backsides that must have rested on this bench, it was soft to the touch despite the scarred stone.
As I rested against the cool walls, I could imagine one famous posterior belonging to a traveller who had penned his thoughts seven hundred years ago. Missing was the graffiti, “Battuta was here!”