22 December 2012

Ghiyasuddin Balban's Tomb, New Delhi


"There is nothing more innocent than the still-unformed creature I find beneath soil,
neither of us knowing what it will become in the abundance of the planet..
This same growing must be myself, not aware yet
of what I will become in my own fullness inside this simple flesh."
– Linda Hogan, "Innocence" 

Bahauddin was one of the most successful and intimidating Sultans who ruled over medieval India and yet his story is an evocatively inspirational one – a formidable, industrious, far-sighted and energetic Turk, he had meager beginnings, being a mere water-carrier boy who was captured from his hometown by ravaging hordes of Mongol invaders and sold in the bazaars of Ghazni (Afghanistan). His master, Khwaja Jamaluddin Basra was a pious man who had him educated and imparted military training with his own sons – interestingly, in those days such training was considered an investment by slave traders since an educated slave fetched more money than an uneducated one and the word "slave" itself was a misnomer since many of them, especially those owned by Sultans, eventually rose to the enviable positions of generals and governors and consolidated immense power and material riches in their hands. Also, it was a particular honor to be a Sultan's slave since the latter was thus privy to confidential court intrigues and warfare instructions – the same honor befell the wide-eyed Bahauddin's way after he was purchased by the Sultan of Delhi Shamshuddin Iltutmish (ruled 1211-36 AD) and consigned to his slave bands. Impressed by his resourcefulness and enterprise, the Sultan later manumitted him but continued to retain him as an army officer, following which, by dint of his hard work and shrewdness, he rose from one position to another; following the Sultan’s demise, by assisting his successors in military campaigns and covert alliances and along the way getting conferred upon his own relatives dominant court positions and the offices of governors of important provinces and fiefs, he accumulated unchallengeable authority in his hands, before eventually being appointed "Amir-i-Hajib" ("Lord Chamberlain") in the court of Masud Shah (reign AD 1242-46) whom he later treacherously helped depose in favor of the unscrupulous usurper Nasiruddin Mahmud (reign AD 1246-66) to whom he later married his daughter in an undisguised attempt to further accentuate his own political, military and social standing. Soon, the entire court’s and military's influential might rested in his own capable hands and he systematically checked and eliminated all opposition to his supremacy, including the Sultan’s own mother whom he viciously had banished from the kingdom.


Remnants of an age long gone - Balban's mausoleum


After the death of Mahmud in AD 1266 under unexplained circumstances, Bahauddin ascended the throne of Delhi with the title "Ghiyasuddin Balban" – for 20 years, Mahmud had reigned but never ruled and after his demise began the iron-rule of his 66-year old father-in-law. In an unparalleled show of self-patronization and despotism, Balban began to claim descent from the mythical Turkish hero Afrasiyab, and in order to drill his divine right to rule in the minds of his subjects added the title "Zil-i-Ilahi" (“Shadow of God”) to his official title, promoted the concept of "Niyabat-i-Khudai" (Kingship as vice-regency of the Divine) and introduced the practices of "Sijda" (prostration) and "Paibos" (kissing the Emperor's feet) as the normal salutation to the King. Known for his swift action, ruthlessness and the practice of never forgetting nor forgiving, he ruled with an iron hand, crushing rebellions offered by Hindu kingdoms to his governance and revenue collection, himself marching with the entire army to punish and burn cities, slaughter whole adult male populations of the areas he was annoyed with and converting the entire woman and child populations to his slaves – such heavy-handedness was unseen before and his army left in its wake heaps upon heaps of corpses and cut-off limbs!

Besides ordering the construction and presence of several well-equipped garrisons in the important fiefs and fortresses, he also had commissioned a series of forts and watch-posts along the kingdom’s frontiers to safeguard it from Mongol invasions as well as the Hindu forces commanded by the Khokhars of Sindh – these garrisons, manned by ferocious Afghan troops feared by one and all, served as the first line of defense against any invasion and helped him rule unchallenged for two decades. He also created an unbelievably efficient espionage system and stationed spies in every district and every government department – he kept an eye on all the court nobles and was spontaneously informed of each of their actions by spies reporting directly to him – these spies were paid handsomely to ensure they do not go rogue and they were also free from control or influence of any kind exerted by the provincial governors. Nobles and officers were severely punished for their inactions and malpractices in order to keep their command in check – point in case, Malik Baqbaq, the Governor of Badaun (Uttar Pradesh), was publicly flogged for having a servant beaten to death and the spy operating in the province was taken to task for not reporting Baqbaq’s conduct to the Sultan and was hanged till death at the city gate and his body left to rot and be eaten by vultures and crows as a warning to future delinquents. As Sultan, Balban took supreme pride in his army and its might and did not believe in the principle of self-defense, but instead preferred taking the battle right to the enemy.


A saga of disintegration and decay


Sadly, it was this pride that ultimately became the cause of Balban’s demise. On the north-western frontier, he placed the distinguished and fierce General Sher Khan Sanqar as his army warden to ward off ravaging attacks by the Mongols and the Hindu Khokhars – the war-like Sher Khan was so ghastly feared by enemy forces that his mere presence at the frontier was reason enough to guarantee security and for several years the enemy attacks stopped and a period of peace and servitude kicked in. The Sultan however grew jealous of his ascending clout and fame and had him secretly poisoned. With Sher Khan’s death, another period of enemy warfare and plundering raids began which started taking a toll on the kingdom’s military and financial resources. As last resort, Balban was forced to post his favorite son Muhammad at the frontier of Multan (now in Pakistan) against the Mongols, but the Prince was killed in 1286 in a skirmish – the Sultan never fully recovered from this tragedy and wasted away in grief and pining before expiring a few months later. Such was his terror that his other son Bughra Khan, the Governor of Bengal, refused to come see him on his deathbed! Heart-broken and enraged, he declared his grandson Kai-Khusrau (Muhammad’s son) as his heir, but upon his death the “Kotwal” (police chief) of Delhi went ahead to place his 17-year old grandson from Bughra Khan, Muiz-ud-din Kaiqabad, on the throne. As Sultan, Kaiqabad wasted his time feeding his love for liquor and lust for women – merely three years later, Jalaluddin Feroz Khilji, his Commander-in-chief, murdered him and established the reign of the Khilji Dynasty (ruled 1290-1320 AD) over the vast swathe of Delhi Empire. What is more fascinating is that Jalaluddin was the brother of the Kotwal and his ascension to the throne of Delhi Sultanate is widely seen as the historic advent of the domination of India by native Indian Muslims and the end of the Turkish Muslim rule. Bughra Khan and his other descendants continued to rule Bengal till 1339 AD.

In death as in life, Balban commanded the ingenious architectural skills and indomitable financial resources of his subjects in building his mausoleum in the middle of what must have then been a flourishing settlement with bazaars, residential quarters and mosques (a subject of another post) – presently, however, the mammoth tomb and the surrounding extensive cityscape lie in miserable ruins in the wilderness-reclaimed Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Nearby stretch the desolate remains of several long-forgotten fortresses, half-remembered mosques, enchanting tombs and magnificent step-wells, all visible in various stages of excavation and restoration – in fact, the archaeological complex juxtaposes upon one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the city and boasts of buildings, religious, funerary or otherwise, built by nearly every dynasty that has ruled the region in the past millennium or so – thus the architectural heritage scattered around begins with Balban’s late 13th-century mausoleum and ends with the mid-19th century “chattris” (umbrella domes surmounted upon slender pillars) and “ziggurats” (stepped pyramids) commissioned as ornamental landscaping additions by Thomas Metcalfe, a British official in the court of the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II – a period spanning nearly 600 years! The entire area was however grudgingly abandoned and forgotten by humans and ravenously overtaken by nature after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence.


Abandon all hope (of witnessing beauty) ye who enter!


The remains of the tomb complex, rediscovered as late as mid-20th century, a skeleton of its erstwhile majesty, now bereft of all ornamentation and artistic value, still display signs of their lost grandness and immeasurable authority that he once exerted over the minds and lives of the citizens of the ruthless city he lorded over. Built at a considerably lower terrain than the surrounding city (or alternately, the rest of the ruins circumscribing the tomb complex haven’t been excavated in their entirety), the decrepit tomb complex now exists crumbling, singular and abandoned within what must have then been a beautiful garden or, at the very least, an immense green grass-shrouded plain that further accentuated its enormity and buttressed defensive features.

The entrance is through a square gateway, surmounted by a black pyramidal roof, which still displays its embellishments such as the simplistically chiseled ornamental pillars and thick lintels that span the narrow entrances. Across a vast span of barren land bursting with thorny shrubbery, disintegrating rubble and numerous ant hills, the square tomb, embedded with large arched openings on each of its sides, survives only in the form of the rubble walls which once enclosed it – the dome collapsed centuries ago and the sarcophagus too has disappeared. The walls themselves are in tumble-down condition – collapsed here, ravaged there; the plasterwork which once layered them is nonexistent and all that remains as evidence of the ornamentation are a few slender decorative pillars sculpted from sandstone of varying, although complimentary, shades of red; one of the side chambers too could not bear the fury of time and nature and has simply ceased to exist, while the other remains in a stubbornly dilapidated condition. Intriguingly, in the center of the extinct side-chamber exists a large solitary rectangular grave layered with red sandstone panels inscribed with calligraphic inscriptions – it is said to be the grave of Prince Muhammad, since then referred by the sobriquet of “Khan Shahid” (“Martyred Prince”) – for whose burial a separate sober funerary complex was envisaged and constructed only a few hundred meters away (refer Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb), but the sudden death of his doting father prompted the internment of both of them in this new larger complex built especially for Balban. Interestingly, the superstitious local population, innocent in their beliefs and ignorant of historical correctness, have come to believe the Prince to be an especially benevolent, boon-bestowing dervish whom they refer to as “Peer Baba” (“Aged Mystic”) and on whose grave they leave behind offerings of incense, currency notes, fragrant oils, sweets and marigold flowers, thereby explaining the hideously greasy layer of soot enveloping the calligraphy letters. What is even more exciting is that here Balban’s eldest son is revered as a mystic saint while in another part of the city, his master’s eldest son too is venerated as a “Peer Baba” despite his fortress-like mausoleum’s undisguised militaristic posturing and steadfast fortifications (refer Pixelated Memories – Sultan Ghari).


Glimpses of faith in wilderness - Khan Shahid's sarcophagus


The mausoleum is one of the most important architectural landmarks in the country’s – and by extension the subcontinent’s – history. It is here, in this decrepit ruined structure that the Roman arch and the “true” dome were used for the first time in the subcontinent. Prior to the introduction of these novel architectural features, the Indian Hindu craftsmen faced several difficulties while constructing buildings according to the complicated specifications desired by their Muslim overlords – and ingenious builders that they were – indigenously came up with squinch and corbelled arches to replace the native system of spanning spaces using stone/wood lintels – at the end of this article, I have appended additional links dealing with the monuments located within the magnificent Qutb Complex which can be referred to so as to deal with the progressive architectural and artistic developments and experimentation and the issues involved therein. As is apparent from its nomenclature, the Roman arch had its origins in Rome and was later adopted by Arabs and replicated throughout the Muslim kingdoms of central Asia and Europe. Hindus had never used arches or domes and consequentially the buildings constructed in the Indian subcontinent were either flat-roofed or surmounted by pyramidal projections (for instance, temple steeples) which were fairly easy to accomplish by placing stone lintel(s) panning the gap between the pillars and further mounting upon them more stones according to whichever spatial shape/vertical projection one wanted to impart the structure. The Hindus thus never understood arches and upon establishment of the Turkish Muslim rule in the subcontinent, the Sultans were compelled to bring artists, painters, masons and architects from central Asia to construct buildings according to their requirements, thereby enriching Indian architecture and design scene with their foreign, essentially contrasting and singular craft. This was also how the Roman arch, whose circular/ogee-shape is composed of two radiating arms comprising rectangular pieces of stone flanking a central inverted triangular fragment (“keystone”) which is wedged at the apex, reached Indian shores. The keystone, while itself bearing zero weight, helps support the entire arch by distributing the load more efficiently throughout the surrounding rectangular stone slabs. Remarkably however, the structure also features squinch arches along the interiors to support the weight of the massive dome that once surmounted it – one can observe how the square plan transforms, midway vertically along its length, into an octagon through the means of projections spanning diagonally between adjacent corners, although quite interestingly, the squinches too feature key-stones in their composition – contrast this with the nearby located mausoleum of Balban’s master, Sultan Iltutmish (refer Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb), where the squinches are literally red sandstone lintels projecting between the corners to span space.


"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay"


Although largely ruined with its walls shorn of all adornments and the plasterwork flaking off in its entirety to reveal the layers of rubble masonry underneath, the tomb does retain the occasional remains of its original subdued ornamentation – slender decorative pillars marking the entrances, patches of calligraphy and fragments of vibrant blue tiles – it is nonetheless near impossible to imagine the structure in its regal glory complete with a colossal dome surmounting its being. That his tomb was once adorned with such fine and exclusive artworks and ornamentation is a testimonial both to Balban’s social and financial prowess as well as the availability of skilled, possibly foreign, artist-craftsmen capable of manufacturing brilliantly hued glazed tiles that could survive for centuries. History books note that the grievously anguished citizens of Delhi tore their clothes and rubbed dust in their hair as a mark of grief upon Balban’s demise – it is therefore perhaps fitting that his mausoleum now exists in unmanageable wilderness seldom tread by many – the Sultan can confer with only a select few of his subjects and does not interact with everyone who chances his way.

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Nearest Metro station: Qutb Minar
Nearest Bus stop: Lado Serai
How to reach: The Archaeological Park's entrance is immediately opposite Lado Serai bus stop at the intersection of Mehrauli-Badarpur and Badarpur-Gurgaon roads. Walk/avail an auto from Qutb Minar metro station or avail a bus from Saket metro station. Sandstone markers indicate the routes to different monuments inside the park.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Approx. 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food or drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While you can avail food & refreshments at one of the restaurants at Lado Serai, you can only find toilets at the shopping malls close to Saket Metro Station, almost a kilometre away. The park remains deserted in the evenings and is best avoided then by female enthusiasts.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park premises –
  1. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb  
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb  
  6. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Tomb  
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri  
  8. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats  
  9. Pixelated Memories - Mughal Tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali  
  10. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli 
  11. Pixelated Memories - Rectangular Canopy 
  12. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins  
  13. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb 
Other monuments/landmarks located nearby -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal 
  2. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb 
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Kaki's Dargah 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Moti Masjid 
  5. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Unmarked Ruins
A study of Qutb Complex monuments to understand architectural evolution -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Mihrab Screens, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque
  3. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex

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