A mosque for a courtesan

A mosque for a courtesan

In the bylanes of Old Delhi lies an unusual house of prayer–a mosque named after a nautch girl in the early 19th century–the Mubarak Begum masjid.

Prayer house: The Mubarak Begum masjid.A two storey structure with mundane shops on the ground floor, it has recently been refurbished to look robust, youthful and visibly colourful. The inhabitants of its surrounding area--Hauz Qazi, also seem to have forgiven and forgotten its history and accepted it purely as a God’s abode. 

It is unclear from historical records if the masjid was commissioned by Mubarak Begum or later named after her. What is in the records is that it was built in 1823. Maulvi Zafar Masan, a resident of the area, informs, “Bibi Mahruttun Mubarak-ul-Nissa Begum was a dancing girl from Pune. She was born into a Hindu Brahmin family but later converted to Islam. Subsequently she married General David Ochterlony--a British resident of Delhi, infamously fond of nautch girls. She became one of his 13 wives but is said to have been his favourite.”

He adds, “As it was with nautch girls at that time, she is said to have controlled him with her beauty and sourced a lot of her power and influence in the area from his position. No wonder she was often referred to as General Begum.”

However, her past history as a courtesan made her a social pariah. The Mughals as well as the Britishers disliked her trying to portray herself as a high society lady. After David’s death, she inherited Mubarak Bagh, a garden tomb he had built formerly. But her dancing background made sure that no one used the mosque. According to records, this mosque remained fallow and dilapidated for long till time erased the stigma attached to it and people started praying here. Today it is like any other regular mosque in the Old Delhi area, except for its name which betrays its history.

It is painted rust red with decorations in white and green. The ground floor of the building is occupied by various shops while the mosque is situated upstairs. A small, creaky old door gives way to a flight of stairs which lead to the main masjid. It is quite big compared to the impression which the building gives. The first thing that meets your eye is the ablution tank in the large courtyard. People are seen washing their hands and feet here before proceeding to the prayer chamber.

The chamber has three compartments the domes of which are larger than the compartments themselves. It gives the impression of the mosque being larger than it actually is.

Zafar adds, “You will find people from all walks of life coming here in search of inner peace. The quiet prayer chamber is an oasis in the bustling and noisy environs of Purani Dilli. This obscure monument dedicated to a dancing girl is a must visit for those looking for God and a slice of Delhi’s history.”