Friday, July 23, 2010

The oldest tomb in Delhi

Every time I drive around Delhi, the one thing that strikes me is sheer number of old tombs. Reminders of Delhi's Muslim elite - men and women, now long dead - appear around every corner of the road.

Some of Delhi's dead lie in grand edifices commissioned by wives or sons or faithful retainers; others sleep in humbler structures. Some sleep solo; others cluster together, sharing their resting place with family or even strangers. Some tombs are famous, others have crumbled, and even the names of the occupants have been lost.

Somewhat bewildered by the number of tombs around me, I went looking for the oldest one - and found myself caught up in the strange architecture of a tomb with a fanciful name - Sultan Ghari, or The Sultan's Cave.

Iltumish, the third and perhaps greatest emperor of the Slave Dynasty, built this strange looking octagonal tomb in 1231 for his son Nasiruddin Mahmud. I don't think I've ever seen anything in this shape anywhere else in Delhi, have you?

The local name for this tomb is Sultan Ghari i.e. the Sultan's Cave. The Arabic word ghaar means cave or crypt.

So where's the cave, you ask? It is under the octagon, of course. The body of Nasiruddin Mahmud is not buried in the octagon, but below it, in an underground chamber. The "floor" that you see (on which people are walking) is not really a floor, it is a platform raised of rubble, built to give the impression that the body is under the ground. A complicated lie, basically :) The slab that covers the octagon is the ceiling of the underground chamber. Now you see why they call it the Sultan's Cave?

If the octagonal raised crypt is unusual, so are its surrounds. The crypt sits inside what can only be described as a fortress.

Entrance to Sultan's Cave. If you peer through the entrance marble arch, you can see the octagon. This photo is from Prof Mortel's great collection of Delhi photos. Head over and take a look.

I'm not quite sure why Iltumish built a fortress, really. Maybe those were troubled times, or maybe he wanted a memorial for a victorious warrior son. Nasiruddin Mahmud helped Iltutmish conquer large swathes of Bengal, and ruled for 18 months as governor of Oudh, Bengal and Bihar. He was the oldest son and the heir-apparent. Had he not died, this was the empire he would have inherited.

The Empire of the Slave Dynasty extended from West to East. Nasiruddin expanded, consolidated and strengthened his father's empire in the East.

The courtyard surrounding Nasiruddin's octagonal crypt has a corridor, in which Iltumish reused pillars from Hindu temples. During this phase of Islamic construction, it is quite apparent that the builders were in a hurry, working with material already available.

Temple pillars with decorative elements chipped away. The corridor possibly served as a college or madrasa.

In the centre of the corridor is a prayer-niche of marble. The floor of this marble prayer-chamber contains the base of a shiva-lingam, pointing to the destruction of temples during the Sultanate (the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts has photos here in case you want a closer look)

During this phase of Islamic construction in Delhi, Hindu artisans worked on the monuments, and their lack of familiarity with Islamic architectural concepts led to many compromises. For example, roofs continued to be flat trabeate structures, spanned by beams and lintels, just as in Hindu temples. Although the doorways to Sultan Ghari were arched in keeping with traditional Islamic architecture, these were not "true" arches, and the workmen used corbels to create a "fake" arch.

Corbelled arch at Sultan Ghari.
A corbel is a piece of stone that juts out of a wall to carry the weight of something that rests on top of it.

After the death of Nasiruddin, Iltumish nominated his daughter Raziya as Sultan. She ruled for 4 years, before being killed in an uprising by her nobles (who wanted to raise one of her other brothers to the throne).

Raziya's grave, though, is a far cry from Nasiruddin's fortress tomb. For one, nobody is really sure where she is buried, and there are many conflicting stories. Some believe she is buried in Kaithal, Haryana. Others say her body was brought to Delhi and buried by the brother who succeeded her to the throne.

Razia Sultan's supposed grave in Turkman, Old Delhi. See interesting story here.

The site of Raziya's grave in Old Delhi is in a little lane, hemmed in by buildings on all sides. The Archaeological Survey of India has a little tablet here, which merely suggests that this is popularly believed to be where Raziya is interred. A part of the building has been converted to a small mosque. The second grave alongside is said to be that of her sister Shaziya; but local belief is that it is of her slave and lover.

Thus it goes on, tombs and graves in every nook and corner, reminding you that Delhi is a very old city with a lot of history. Indeed, were it not for the bustling noise of 15 million people who now live in Delhi, I would be tempted to label it a giant necropolis, a City of the Dead. I'm looking forward to unearthing more stories and secrets.


Aadil Desai said...

Just my type of story!!! Love the interesting architectural details and pictures too. I wish these places could be restored to their original glory or at least prevented from decay by the elements and mostly uninformed people who only destroy them bit by bit.

Super Babe said...

And I'm really looking forward to reading those stories! Can't wait to go to Delhi one day!

Maria said...

Thanks so much for sharing this. I've just moved to Delhi from Singapore. So far, I've not had an opportunity to visit any of the monuments but I most certainly will now.

Deepa said...

Start with the Qutb Complex, Maria. That's where the story of Islamic rule in North India begins, sort of.

subbu said...

Hi... nice history! I visited a few months back, apparently it has been restored by INTACH to the state you see in the photographs. Locals (Hindus and Muslims) often pray at the shrine.

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Delhi have more lovely adventures... Anyone Indian and foreigners want to see all Delhi adventures.


Divya Shankar said...

Thanks for the brilliant, virtual odyssey ! Wealth of information shared. Kudos to your efforts !