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19.03.2010 08:06
Buraq and the Hauz-e Shamsi. Or, The Residue of Dreams.
A mobile sculpture of Buraq will float on the waters of the Hauz, the dream-horse returning to the reservoir it inspired...
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A black crow perches on a white piece of thermocol, floating on the still waters of a dream. An iceberg far displaced from northern latitudes, but what are the latitudes of a dream?

On a night twelve years after he became a Prophet, Hazrat Mohammad was resting in the mosque at Mecca. By the time morning came around, he had dreamed what is arguably the most famous lucid dream in history. He had travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem, and from there ascended to the seventh heaven, in the company of the angels and the prophets, and saw God. A winged steed known as Buraq carried him to the heavens and back to Mecca before dawn.

The Prophet came to Sultan Shams-ud-din Iltutmish of Delhi in a dream, mounted on a steed. In the dream, Buraq struck the earth with its hoof, and water started to come out. The Prophet told the Sultan that he should start digging the reservoir in the place where the horse's hooves had struck. When he woke up in the morning, the Sultan found a hoof-print in the spot where he had seen Buraq paw the ground. The digging of the reservoir commenced in 1229 AD. Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, the famous saint of Delhi, once said to his disciples that Iltutmish's place in heaven is assured not because of all the victories he won for Islam, but because he built the Hauz-e Shamsi for the people of Delhi.

Sultan Alauddin Khalji de-silted the tank in 1311, and cleaned the water channels leading into it. He also built a pavilion in the centre of the reservoir, of red sandstone. Over the centuries, the reservoir kept silting and shrinking, and now the pavilion is at the southwest edge of the Hauz. Till very recently, itinerant salesmen tired of ferrying their wares on bicycles in the hot sun, would come and sleep in the shade of the pavilion, cooled by the breezes from the water. Perhaps they would dream. But no more. The Archaeological Survey of India has built high fences around the shrunken reservoir, and around the pavilion, making access to the water difficult, if not impossible. The Hauz, once renowned for the healing powers of its water, fills with the untreated sewage of Mehrauli. In summer, people have to get their water trucked in by tankers, even in homes right next to the Hauz. Only birds can still access the pond, flying over the fence. Or a stray piece of thermocol or plastic, blown by the wind.

The reservoir of dreams has silted up.

Boredom, wrote Walter Benjamin, is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. Imagine the Hauz-e Shamsi even just a generation or two ago, with people sitting for hours in the shade of the pavilion, or in the nearby Jahaz Mahal, dozing and dreaming, watching the birds fish, going for the occasional swim. Speak to old timers and they will tell you how the waters of what they call the talab, the pond, would change colour along with the changes in the mahaul, the mood and atmosphere. To perceive the subtle shift of colours on the surface of a lake needs a form of attention, and a relationship to time, which is close kin to being bored out of one's skull. But can reverence, the deep love of a place for what it is, ever be possible without reverie?

A mobile sculpture of Buraq will float on the waters of the Hauz, the dream-horse returning to the reservoir it inspired. Visitors will be able to interact with Buraq through the phone and Internet, using their voices to move the sculpture. A web cam will capture a wider view of the reservoir, as the winged Buraq wanders among the ducks and kingfishers and floating crows of the pond. The Buraq will break through the fences that now separate the Hauz from the life-worlds and dream-worlds of Mehrauli; prompting conversations, questions, memories and a new dwelling (upon) the Hauz-e Shamsi, creating a new-old space for dreaming. 



You call Buraq and s/he glows in the dark, floating on the waters of the lake. A winged horse aglow with fairy lights afloat amidst the filth. The more you speak, the more the lights glow, tracing the outlines of a forgotten dream. From half a world away (or from the same city, which is often the same thing), on your laptop screen, you see a wide-angle webcam view. A fixed and surreal frame. A spiky iron fence in the foreground, surrounding a lake. A horse afloat on a lake beyond, glowing bright at the sound of your voice, making the dark waters around it turn to tiny, dancing flames. On the right of frame, a domed pavilion can be seen looming out the water, moodily backlit by bright mast-lights. The night has been banished by these lights, except over the shrunken waters of the Hauz-e Shamsi, where the dream-horse floats aglow. A small dark shape crosses the frame. Bird or bat?

Seen on a laptop screen, the view of the Hauz is two dimensional, a frame cut out from reality. But the surreal presence of the Buraq punctures the frame, letting in the deeps of history.

Below, not visible in the frame, three little girls go by, marveling at how beautiful Buraq's nose-stud looks, at the poetry of strategically placed LEDs glowing in the dark. The road they're walking on, above the level of the water by a few feet, is still almost ten feet below the level of the “moat” surrounding Jahaz Mahal. The Jahaz Mahal, or Ship Palace, built in the fifteenth century, once floated on the reservoir, which has now shrunk away from it. The bounty of the reservoir, its overflow was such that the Mughals dug an underground channel through a cliff to turn the spill of the lake into a jharna, a cascading spring, around which they built a beautiful garden of pools, pavilions and flowing water. The water flowing through the jharna then went on to became a naala, a stream important to all the medieval settlements of south Delhi. You can still follow its course, as it flows past Lal Kot and enters Jahanpanah through the Satpula dam, flows past Chiragh Dilli and Zamrudpur, past Kotla Mubarakpur and Nizamuddin, till it reaches the Yamuna. Of course, now the stream is a fetid sewer carrying the wastes of Delhi for its entire length, and invisible to the citizens of Delhi for most of its length. It all starts with the Hauz-e Shamsi, where the shrunken, silted talab (pond) as it is now known has become a cesspit for the untreated waste of Mehrauli flowing into it.

The Urdu words for bounty and waste, fazal and fizool, share the same Arabic root.

The kids playing cricket by the Jahaz Mahal only noticed the talab when their balls fall into its dark waters.


If wishes were horses, they would have to be fed.

It is a surreal experience to make a dream-horse real. The metal fabricator in the neighborhood, just down the road from the Hauz-e Shamsi, is busy making the shiny aluminum shells of desert-coolers, as the weather gets unseasonably warm, presaging a long, hot summer. Amidst the boxy stacks of coolers, suddenly, there emerges the graceful white-painted silhouette of Buraq, abstracted from calendar art, floating on a pair of metal pontoons of the sort used by pedal-boats. Mohammad Naseem, the chief artisan at Iram Duct Works, has never been commissioned to do a floating sculpture before, but he gamely sets his fabrication skills to the task. The workshop shares space with the whitewashed ruins of an eight hundred year tomb.

The results are electrifying. The first time Buraq is taken out to the lake, for a test-float as it were, a pied-piper crowd of children and adults follows the sculpture as it is carried the short few hundred yards from the workshop to the lake. They line the railings, cricket and badminton games abandoned, as the winged horse begins its improbable sojourn upon the lake.

What is this? What is this? What is this?

The conversations begin, and haven't stopped yet. Some of the older people remember the story of Sultan Iltutmish (or Altamash in the local Hindi/Urdu) and his dream. The children don't know it. But in the conversation that Buraq starts between the artist and the community, the story starts spreading again, unforgotten once more. The dream-horse upon the lake pulls the gaze towards it, like a magnet. This cannot be real, can it? This beautiful, alive thing drifting on our dirty backyard pond? People need to feel Buraq is tangible, real. A young boy throws a stone at it. A realistically metallic thunk ensues, but one of Buraq's wings breaks. A teenager decides to swim out to the sculpture. He touches it once, and swims back, beaming with the thrill of both transgression and touch.

The fences stay, but the fences are broken.

Vishal has to swim back and forth across the Hauz to keep fixing things, making repairs and improvements. He floats on an inflated inner tube, and pedals with his hands and legs. He becomes the messiah of lost tennis balls. He has to go bathe in Dettol every time he comes out of the lake. This in itself, the mucky part of the artistic process, attracts a large audience; redefining notions of “performance art”. Young students at the local madarsa, old local landholders, local housewives out on their morning and evening walks, the cricket-players, the shopkeepers, all flock to the banks of the lake. Buraq has become familiar, but is still enthrallingly strange. The questions change.

Are you students from IIT?

Why is this? Why is this? Why is this?

When all the kinks are worked out, and the web-cams are ready to roll, pamphlets are distributed in Hindi.

The New Glory of Mehrauli. In the Shamsi Talab!

You can call this amazing Buraq between 6 and 8 in the evening.

The number: 9873562911.

Come to the banks of the Shamsi Talab and make your call.

When you connect, speak loud and clear, and see the miracle of Buraq!

Thirty to thirty five people have been calling every night, as the sun and heat go down, and people come to see how their voices can make Buraq glow upon the lake. Husbands bring their wives with them. Fathers bring their children, and call. Hey Buraq! Look, Buraq is moving! People sing songs to Buraq. The project is expanding, growing. Perhaps a local radio show now around the Hauz? Radio Buraq? The possibilities are endless. It is magic. Your voice on the phone breaks through the fences surrounding the Hauz and makes Buraq glow. Your voice on Skype, from half a world away, does the same thing. This is magic's first principle – action at a distance. You act upon Buraq. Buraq, returning enchantment and awe to a disenchanted place, acts upon you. Standing next to the Hauz, or half a world away.

For more details on how to contact Buraq, visit

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