October 30, 2012

Iltutmish's Tomb, New Delhi

Shamshuddin Iltutmish (AD 1211-36), aka Altamash, was one of the most important rulers of the Slave Dynasty that ruled over Indo-Gangetic Plains from late 12th century onwards. When Muhammad of Ghur invaded India (1192 AD) & defeated the mighty forces of the Rajput ruler Prithviraj Chauhan, his slave & army general Qutbuddin Aibak decided to build the Qutb Minar as a victory tower & the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque as a symbol of the might of Islam. Qutbuddin went on to establish his own rule on the Indian plains after the death of his master. When Iltutmish ascended the throne, he made significant additions to both the Qutb Minar & the Quwwat mosque. In 1235, he decided to build his own tomb alongside the extensions he made to the Quwwat mosque. Until now, the Muslim rulers of India depended on the pillaging of Hindu & Jain temples for construction material, Iltutmish’s tomb marked a shift from this aspect. His tomb is built from material sourced entirely from quarries & carved & adorned with calligraphy by skilled artisans according to the ruler’s specifications. It is important to note that only five years earlier, Iltutmish had buried his son at the nearby complex called Sultan Garhi, which too was constructed using material plundered from pre-existing temples. This was a result of the stability that the Slave dynasty brought to India to some extent, & hence the rulers could spend considerably more time & capital on construction works rather than wars, & could even bring architects & artisans from regions as far as Uzbekistan & Persia. But the tomb does show various Indian motifs & architectural features since most of the artisans working on it were Indian & not foreigners.

Iltutmish's Tomb

Iltutmish started the tradition of tomb-building in India – first building a tomb for his son, then for himself. Hindus had no such system as they cremated their dead, & it was an odd architectural (as well as religious) practice for them to bury the dead in such decorated & ornamental enclosures (This tradition finally culminated into what can be called as India’s most majestic tomb – the Taj Mahal).

A close up of the engravings on one of the walls

A square enclosure, which looks very simple from outside, the mosque is a very delicate example of craftsmanship. On the outside, only a portion of one of its walls is inscribed with Quranic inscriptions & geometrical patterns. However on the inside, the tomb is very intricately carved, all its walls filled with such patterns & intricate calligraphy. The white marble sarcophagus rests on a plinth in the centre, now facing the open sky since the dome that surmounted the tomb has not survived. The Hindu architects of that period had never used domes since most Indian palaces & temples featured flat or pyramidal roofs. Some accounts also talk of a second dome that was built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq (the guy who built the mighty city of Kotla Feroz Shah, see Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla), but even that dome has not survived the ravages of time & weather. Either of the dome was perhaps constructed by placing huge concentric rings on top of each other, this has been ascertained by pieces of circular masonry found nearby.

Hey, turn back!!

The red sandstone tomb stands on a raised platform & is reached by a small flight of stairs (or a walk up a ramp – one of the best things about the Qutb Complex is that it is very disabled friendly, & there are ramps next to every structure for wheelchair access). It is pierced on three sides by arched gateways, while the third serves as a mihrab for indicating the direction of Mecca to the faithful for prayers. The mihrab is ornamental, featuring three arches – the central one made of white marble, while the two side arches are composed of red sandstone, Fine patterns & borders mark these arches & speak greatly for the skills of the Hindu craftsmen who carved out this fluid poetry in stone.

It is more stunning than what it looks in the pictures

Iltutmish’s Tomb is the first structure in India that employed the use of squinch arches. The question that architects of that time faced was how to convert a square structure into a circular one so as to surmount a dome on top of it. They decided to add small arches on the chamber’s upper corners as a means of converting the corner into a two-sided structure, & thereby converting the square chamber into an octagonal one towards its roof.

So this is the Squinch-arch

Iltutmish’s Tomb (& the Qutb Complex by extension) is a place simply worth visiting, if not for its historical & monumental value, then to witness the catatonic shift in Indian architectural designs & planning. The accuracy of the patterns & the calligraphy are stunning enough to leave one flabbergasted, I don’t think many of us would even be able to replicate those same geometrical patterns on paper, but the artisans worked them in hard stone. Salute to their skills!!

The central mihrab

Location : Qutb Complex, New Delhi
Open : Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee : Indians - Rs 10, Foreigners - Rs 250
Photography charges : Nil
Video charges : Rs 25
Nearest Metro Station : Saket Metro Station & Qutb Minar Station are equidistant.
How to reach : Taxis, buses & autos can be availed from different parts of the city. The structures are quite a walk from the metro stations & one will have to take bus/auto from there on.
Time required for sightseeing : 30 min


  1. Great photographs. Like the fact that you add additional nuggets of info in brackets/captions

  2. Well written. Appreciate that students like you are doing their part for the country..