On a pleasant October day, four men undressed and exposed their naked bodies to the Indian parliament. No government official could have seen it. The men were standing several miles away, atop a centuries-old monument deep inside New Delhi’s Central Ridge Forest. The site is invisible from the heart of India’s government—and largely forgotten by it as well.
The symbolic act was the culmination of a performance-art workshop held inside the red sandstone structure, known as Malcha Mahal. It was organized by Ajay Sharma, an upcoming artist and college instructor, and attended by Inder Salim, a veteran Indian performance artist.
Originally from a small town in eastern India, Sharma says he doesn’t much like the metropolitan city of Delhi. But he does like abandoned monuments: They’re perfect places to find peace and inspiration. (Before this arts workshop in Malcha Mahal, he held similar ones in the Begumpur Mosque, in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar neighborhood.)
When Sharma initially visited this site, months earlier, he didn’t know much about the building’s past. But he “was totally captured by the energy of the space,” and says that he could intuitively tell that it was the right venue for his workshop.
His intuition was strong: Perhaps more than any other monument in Delhi, Malcha Mahal embodies the country’s long, complicated history, from medieval times through colonial rule and Independence to the politics of present-day India. Which makes it an apt venue for artists who want to express themselves politically.
Artists like Salim. One of the four naked men on the roof, Salim says that when he “saw the parliament from that distance, I decided to undress and kick some dust at it”—a way to express his feelings about a matter close to his heart.
Salim is originally from the restive region of Kashmir, but fled to Delhi in the 1990s, after violence broke out. He recently filed a petition against the government after its controversial decision to withdraw the region’s partial autonomy. The move was squarely on his mind during the act—and Malcha Mahal brought it to the fore. “The monument itself,” he says, “motivated me to do this.”
Standing on the building’s flat roof is like standing in an open field just above the forest, overlooking a sprawling city veiled in a smoggy haze. In the middle of Delhi—one of the most populated cities in the world—it feels completely isolated.
To reach Malcha Mahal, you have to enter the Central Ridge Forest, a surprisingly dense stretch of greenery at the edge of an affluent diplomatic enclave called Chanakyapuri, in the heart of India’s capital. The same forest houses the remaining boundary walls of an ancient water reservoir and an 800-year-old dargah, or shrine on the tomb of a Sufi saint, which is surrounded by dozens of earthen pots said to imprison the spirits of bad souls and djinns. The caretaker of the dargah still holds regular exorcisms to add to the collection.
At the end of a short, bumpy ride on an unkempt pathway full of garbage, monkeys, and the occasional jackal, a narrow footpath—lined by broken barbed wire and rows of long thorny plants—leads to an imposing building with arched gateways and high ceilings.
No one currently administers Malcha Mahal, and the governmental Archeological Survey of India has shown no interest in managing it. A nonprofit called the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) filed a proposal in October to conserve it on behalf of the Delhi government.
For now the walls are occupied by bees, and the ceilings by bats. Trees are growing through the windows and staircases that lead to the roof. Centuries after it was built, the monument has become almost one with its surroundings.
Most historians say that Malcha Mahal was built as a royal hunting lodge during the rule of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, the sultan of Delhi from 1351 to 1388. “Malcha Mahal” means “Deer Palace,” and Malcha was the name of a pastoral village that used to surround the monument.
In the 19th century, the hunting lodge came into the possession of the rulers of Oudh, an independent kingdom located in today’s Uttar Pradesh—India’s largest state. The kingdom was annexed by the British in 1856, and its last king, Wajid Ali Shah, was exiled to the city now called Kolkata.
Shah, a Muslim, was accused by the British of being a debauched and dissolute ruler. But he was popular among the majority Hindu population he ruled over, due to his love of Hindu myths, arts, and deities. That made him a threat to the British colonizers, who believed in keeping their Indian subjects divided along religious lines. The annexation of Oudh had sown discontent among the native soldiers, and is considered an important factor leading to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, also called India’s first war of independence.
The Malcha villagers fought in the mutiny. Not long after, they were displaced when the British decided to move their capital to New Delhi, in 1911, and develop the Central Ridge for horse riding. At least 30 people are said to have been killed by the British for resisting colonial rule. To this date, the villagers’ descendants are still fighting for monetary compensation for their lost land.
A little over a century after Oudh’s annexation, a woman who claimed to be the last rightful heir of Shah arrived in Delhi. Calling herself the Royal Highness Wilayat Mahal, she was accompanied by her two children, an entourage of servants, and a dozen ferocious dogs. She demanded that the Indian government restore at least some of the properties that were seized over a hundred years earlier.
The family and its entourage squatted in a waiting room in the New Delhi railway station for more than a decade, causing a sensation and drawing the notice of the international press. The Indian government ultimately caved, and in 1984, Wilayat and her children, by then young adults, were offered one of the Oudh king’s previous possessions to live in: Malcha Mahal.
At that point it had already been discovered by artists. Just a decade earlier, the monument—then known as Bistedari Malcha, in reference to the columns used in the structure—had been an artists’ studio managed by the national arts academy Lalit Kala Akademi.
“It was beautiful, surrounded only by nature,” recalls painter Shanti Dave, now 89. At the time he was an internationally established artist known for his large murals, including one that he painted in 1964 at JFK Airport in New York. Photos of him standing in front of Malcha Mahal in the late 1960s show a monument not yet overgrown with brush and vegetation. There was space to stand back and take a picture of the entire structure—something that’s impossible today.
“We were young artists, trying to find out who we were after Independence,” says Dave, now partially blind and hard of hearing. His fond memories of the space include a ceiling-high painting he made there, a jackal that once occupied his studio for days, wood-fired lunches, and moonlit performances on the roof by the famous Indian classical dancer Uma Sharma.
The artists, who had moved into Malcha Mahal in 1967, had to vacate the premises almost a decade later, during construction of the Delhi Earth Station—a structure used for satellite observations by the national space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)—which was officially inaugurated in 1977.
The artists didn’t leave Malcha Mahal in shape for permanent inhabitants, though they had installed metal shutters on all the outer gates, to keep the monkeys out and to protect their artwork. Nowadays all of those shutters are broken or hanging in the nearby trees. But for years they proved useful to Wilayat and her children, who lived there, under spartan conditions, for decades.
“We had to make do without any water or electricity,” says Mohammed Kasim, one of the servants who lived at Malcha Mahal with the family. “We even dug up a well, but it remained dry. Water was scarce in the area.” Yet over the next few years, the family—with the help of guards working at the Earth Station—managed to get some water, as well as on-and-off-again electricity.
The family’s residence in Malcha Mahal ended in 2017, when Wilayat’s son—the man calling himself Prince Ali Raza aka Cyrus of Oudh—died. (His sister, known as Princess Sakina, passed sometime in 2015. Their mother had taken her own life years earlier, in the 1990s.
A recent article in The New York Times concluded that they were a family of highly convincing impostors who, for decades, fooled journalists, government officials, and much of the public. According to the Times, the prince and princesses’ names were, respectively, Farhad and Mickey Butt.
Kasim takes issue with this conclusion, agitatedly calling it “false and very wrong. Those were only their nicknames.” Walking through the ruins of Malcha Mahal, he points to some of the family’s remnants, which lay scattered about: an old, upmarket fridge; a metal trunk with “Oudh” written on it; a wooden table; torn clothing; and several single shoes—all covered in bat feces.
Kasim gets emotional when he sees the condition of his former masters’ attire. “This belonged to the prince,” he says, respectfully picking up a torn and dusty golden-colored formal jacket.
Whether they were actually royal or not, the fascinating family that lived here has given rise to a spate of ghost stories. A growing number of thrill-seekers have been visiting Malcha Mahal in recent months, filming their overnight stays in search of spectral encounters—among other local legends, the ghost of Ali Raza is said to slap intruders—and posting them online.
In one video full of special effects and spooky sounds, produced by the channel News24, two journalists discover an old fridge covered in red powder and speculate about its origins, wondering whether they’ve found the site of a Tantric ritual.
What they had actually found were the remnants of a performance-art video that Sharma had produced there, several months before he organized the workshop.
In the video, shown at a recent festival of performance art in South Korea, Sharma is seen fully naked, sitting on some of the furniture in Malcha Mahal, his face covered with a huge piece of meat. Later, as he stands in the gated archways inside the monument, his face is covered by a cow’s skull.
The work is an artistic commentary on the growing intolerance toward Muslims in today’s India—currently governed by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party—and directly inspired by a brutal, heavily publicized mob-lynching incident four years ago. In 2015, a Muslim ironsmith named Mohammad Akhlaq was killed by dozens of his Hindu neighbors on suspicion of having eaten beef. The meat of a cow—holy to Hindus—was allegedly stored in Akhlaq’s fridge.
With its “layers of history,” says Sharma, Malcha Mahal was a perfect venue for the video. The fact that the site already held an abandoned fridge only made it more conducive to his needs.
“I needed a fridge for this performance,” says Sharma. “Otherwise I would have had to find one and drag it somewhere … I like to reinterpret historical places through art, and also document them in a way we did not see them earlier.”
At the end of the video, Sharma covers his whole body with red powder, symbolizing blood. He tucks himself, and the meat, into the fridge, still naked and in a fetal position. He looks both vulnerable and at peace, ready to weather whatever comes his way—a bit like Malcha Mahal itself.
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