THE QUEST FOR MUHAMMAD’S FOOTPRINT

According to tradition, in the middle of the 14th century Fateh Khan, the son of Firoz Shah, third ruler of the Tughlaq dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, was asked by his father what object in the imperial treasury he thought was most valuable. This was to be given to Fateh Khan as a token of Firoz Shah’s affection for his beloved offspring. But when Fateh Khan made his selection, the sultan refused to part with the object that had been chosen.

This was a large oval slab of marble with a shallow indentation in the middle which was claimed to be the miraculous footprint of none other than the prophet Muhammad. It had been acquired by an emissary of the Tughlaq court on a mission to Mecca and is said to have been a present from the caliph made in return for substantial gifts from Firoz Shah.  Such was the importance placed on the relic that when it was brought back to India the sultan and all the nobles of the Tughlaq court travelled a distance of 15 miles from Delhi to intercept it. They then reentered the city with the slab at the center of a great procession, and Firoz Shah placed the artifact within the imperial treasury with much pomp and ceremony.  

And so, when Fateh Khan chose the imprint of Muhammad’s foot, the slab was deemed to simply be too valuable for the sultan to relinquish. But Firoz Shah made a compromise with his son: that the slab would be installed in the tomb of whichever of the two of them died first. Lamentably for the sultan, his son passed away in 1374, nearly a decade and a half before his father, and so the slab was sent to Fateh Khan’s resting place.

By the time of Fateh Khan’s death, Firoz Shah had already begun to build a tomb for himself to the north of what was then the city of Delhi. But now the project was given over to house Fateh Khan’s body, and the imprint of Muhammad’s foot was installed in the tomb, resting just above the prince’s heart.

Firoz Shah ruled an empire in decline—though it was a decline that he effectively delayed, though failed to reverse, during his reign. Within a mere decade of his death in 1388, the Tughlaq Sultanate would fall into a violent civil war before it (and much of the rest of north India) was eliminated during Tamerlane’s brief but disastrous invasion.  

But Fateh Khan’s tomb, and the slab, remained, and over time became a place of pilgrimage, coming to be known as the Qadam Sharif, or “Shrine of the Holy Footprint.” Later rulers, especially the Mughals, both made pilgrimages to the site and built additional structures in and around it, including a madrasa and a well. Due largely to the relic of Muhammad, the shrine continued to be a major pilgrimage center through the centuries.

The complex was once surrounded by an extensive wall which, after the fashion of many of the surviving buildings of the Tughlaq era, seems to have been a fortification meant to protect the shrine from the depredations of the various central Asian invaders that regularly swept through North India during the period (and of whom the Tughlaqs themselves were a notable example). But the wall, like many of the historical structures within the compound, is rapidly being completely hidden by new building in the immediate vicinity.

When it was first constructed, the shrine was well outside the walls of Firoz Shah’s Delhi. But since then the city has advanced, and the Qadam Sharif has been encroached upon by a sea of modern buildings. While the area around the shrine formerly had a large Muslim population, after Partition much of this population left Delhi, and many of the people living around the site are relatively recent migrants. Now the fading remnants of the Qadam Sharif complex exist in a dense warren of houses and shops about three quarters of a kilometer northwest of the New Delhi railway station.

I first heard of the Qadam Sharif in Lucy Peck’s Delhi: A thousand years of building. There she describes the site as “one of the most challenging historical places to visit in Delhi, being at the heart of one of its poorest and most congested areas,” (pg. 93). Perhaps the advent of smartphones and GPS navigation has made locating the site moderately less difficult, though it’s still no easy feat.  

While I was staying in a cheap shady backpacker hotel next to the New Delhi Railway Station with a few days to kill, it occurred to me that the Qadam Sharif was, theoretically, well within walking distance. Mind you, it wouldn’t be an easy walk, given that the shrine was deep inside the truest form of urban jungle. Google maps did show the location of the Qadam Sharif, but the nearby buildings were simply too dense to get a clear idea of how to walk to it.

When I left my hotel room that chilly February morning and headed north, I had few expectations other than that I was in for an adventure. It didn’t even occur to me that I might actually clap eyes on Muhammad’s alleged footprint. Even reaching the Qadam Sharif at all seemed unlikely. I was probably just going to get lost, so if I managed to obtain even a glimpse of a bit of 14th century masonry, I’d consider the expedition a success.

I started out by leaving my hotel room and then making my way to the front of the New Delhi Railway Station. There, I turned north onto Chelmsford Road, followed that under the overpass for Desh Bandhu Gupta Road, and then continued straight north on Qutb Road (nowadays referred to as Babu Ram Solanki Marg) as it paralleled the railway tracks.

The first landmark I was looking out for were two old buildings, one probably a mosque and the other a tomb, that face each other with the road running between them. These likely date from the Tughlaq period (though the tomb is sometimes claimed to date from the Lodhi era). There seems to be almost no historical information on the buildings, so their age has to be determined from architectural features—they look Tughlaq to me, but I don’t claim to be an expert.  

The old mosque as it appeared in February 2019

I’d seen these two buildings several times before, though only from the window of a moving vehicle as I was getting a ride to the train station. I clearly remember once seeing the structures in the middle of the night and being just able to make out a few crumbling domes and decaying walls, the buildings having obviously been long occupied by squatters. The medieval architecture was falling to bits, and had been altered so much in recent decades that when I first saw them in the dark I wasn’t even sure if they were ruined historical buildings or just dilapidated modern ones.

(For a look at how these structures appeared as recently as 2012, check out these pictures from Varun at Sarson ke Khet.)

As you can probably tell from my pictures, the municipal authorities in Delhi had intervened by 2019, and had removed the squatters, stripped away the various modern additions to the buildings, and covered much of the stonework in plaster. The results are…decidedly mixed. That plaster really doesn’t look good, though I suppose it’s better than having the buildings completely disintegrate or get permanently transfigured (and then completely disintegrate) in a few years. After all, the plaster is of such poor quality that it can apparently be easily removed at a later date. But while there are some examples of restorations of historical buildings in Delhi working quite well (Humayun’s Tomb comes to mind), these tend to be at famous sites where the organizations doing the restoration had more funds to work with. But the Tomb and Mosque on Qutb Road are not famous…

On Google Maps it looked like there were some fairly significant pathways through the urban jungle to the west of Qutb Road starting just north of the old Mosque which led, sort of, in the direction of the Qadam Sharif. So, after looking around the Tughlaq era structures a bit, I simply picked the nearest opening in the buildings to my left and plunged in. The concrete soon closed around me, the sky was blocked out, and the alleyways bifurcated many times. Google Maps was no use. Even with satellite navigation, here just asking directions was the best way to go.

After about half an hour of wandering (I made a wrong turn down one of the random alleyways, which is not reflected in the map above), reaching anything other than more alleyways was beginning to seem pretty doubtful. But then, out of the narrow concrete canyons loomed an unmistakable 500-year-old arched gateway.  I had made it to the outer wall of the Qadam Sharif.

The east gate of the Qadam Sharif, rapidly on its way to getting swallowed by shops and concrete and wires
Once you pass through the outer gate, there is a more impressive inner gate a few meters ahead. In the picture you can really see how this structure is simply being absorbed by the nearby development, and how a multitude of new buildings, including several small Hindu shrines, seem to be growing out of it
Through the inner gateway

After passing through the inner gate there was some more confused wandering among the recent houses that had built up inside of the old walls. But after asking directions a few more times, I saw light up ahead, and found myself in the middle of a peaceful open space occupied by several goats, along with another old wall which looked more 18th or 19th century than Tughlaq. It took me a few seconds to realize that I had made it to Fateh Khan’s tomb…or at least the outside of it. Other than the goats, who happened to be peculiarly clothed in sweaters, there was nobody around. The door to the tomb was locked.

Goats in sweaters. Also, note what appear to be the remnants of Islamic gravestones and other bits of old masonry that are lying on the ground. The blue wall in the background is the outside of Fateh Khan’s tomb. The stone pillars behind the goats are (I believe) part of the original structure, though the top of the wall seems to be a recent addition, as is the red masonry structure to the left of the photo

Fortunately, I stood outside the building for a little while, and after some time a local kid strolled by who knew the caretaker inside the tomb and happened to have his cell number. The kid called the caretaker, and then informed me that the man had just woken up and would open the Shrine of the Holy Footprint to the public in about half an hour. Following a lonely dreamlike thirty-minute interval in the company of sweater clad goats beside the shrine, the caretaker manifested as promised and let me in.

Floral paintings on the roof of a small dome at the entrance of the tomb. These are likely from the early 19th century as they feature in illustrations from that period

Fateh Khan’s tomb has been much altered since the 14th century, with many modern, and rather chintzy, additions having been made in the last two centuries. These, along with the brick and concrete buildings of the dense urban area looming outside, make the tomb feel quite claustrophobic. They also make it seem all the more unlikely that this would be the place that would hold a relic of the prophet Muhammad that had been solemnly venerated for over half a millennium.

Inside Fateh Khan’s tomb, as it appeared in 2019

After strolling around the tomb a bit, I asked the caretaker about the stone that supposedly bore the prophet’s holy footprint, not expecting that an unbeliever such as me would be allowed to see it. But much to my surprise, the caretaker immediately disappeared into a back room and then came right out again with a metal box, inside of which was the holy relic Feroz Shah’s emissary had retrieved from the caliph 650 years before.   

Muhammad’s holy footprint at the Qadam Sharif

Now, upon seeing the piece of marble with the vaguely foot shaped impression, my first thought was that I would like to know more of the history of the object itself. Which Caliph gifted the footprint, and how much importance did he place on the relic to begin with? Why was this viewed as Muhammad’s footprint? When did he step there? How big were Muhammad’s feet? There’s clearly a very long story here, and if anyone knows any more about the history of the relic itself, I’d be happy to hear from you.

The caretaker of the Qadam Sharif. The relic is in that metal box on the chair

A note on sources: Most of the historical information that is readily available on the Qadam Sharif derives ultimately from an annotated illustration in Sir Thomas Metcalf’s Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi. Thomas Metcalf was a British civil servant who lived in Delhi for much of his life and, notably, dealt with the Mughal court during its twilight years. He’s quite a colorful and controversial character, what we would today describe as an ‘orientalist,’ who comes up whenever one is looking into early 19th century Delhi.

‘Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’ was an album of illustrations of various historical buildings in the city that Metcalf commissioned to send to his daughter, with descriptions written by him and the paintings being done by a local artist by the name of Mazhar Ali Khan (some of the paintings might also be by other local uncredited artists).

Metcalf appears to be the primary written source for the story of how the holy footprint got to Delhi in Feroz Shah’s day. But the British administrator seems to be piecing the tale together from folk traditions that he’s gathered by himself and is not writing for a scholarly audience. In short, the man is probably not a bulletproof source. Still, it’s clear that the tomb is Fateh Khan’s, and that the relic inside is venerated as Muhammad’s footprint and has been for quite some time. Whether or not the details of the story of how the marble slab came to Delhi are strictly true is an open question.

A good modern source for information on the Qadam Sharif can be found in a 1997 journal article entitled The Shrine of the Holy Footprint in Delhi by Anthony Welch. This goes into quite a bit of historical and architectural detail and includes several illustrations of how the Qadam Sharif looked as of the late 20th century. Importantly, Welch also notes that there is a documented mention of the Qadam Sharif holding a relic of the Prophet Muhammad during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

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A farewell goat

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