January 10, 2013

Jamali Kamali Complex, New Delhi

“Qabr mein aa ke neend aayi hai, Na uthaaye khuda kare koi”
(“A blissful sleep I finally get in the grave, For God’s sake, I hope no one wakes me from this”)
– A verse penned by Sheikh Jamali and inscribed within the tomb

Poetry in stone - Jamali-Kamali mosque

It is a universal fact that Sufis, followers of a very tolerant branch of Islam, are one of the most unprejudiced and compassionate people. They are known to open their hearts and hearths to people of all faiths, religions, gender and identity. One fine afternoon, I sat down to talk to two kind Sufi mendicants at the Chilla of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi and one of the most renowned Sufi saints in the country (refer Pixelated Memories - Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin). The two mendicants prayed for my well-being without any expectation of profit – monetary or otherwise – and one of them even contentedly offered me his meager share of lunch (which he carried in a small polythene bag) when he heard that I have been going around exploring monuments in Delhi since morning and did not eat or drink all day. So, given my attachment to Sufis, it is only natural that I am disheartened and inclined to disagree with the stories that have been doing the rounds about Jamali-Kamali complex, one of the foremost Sufi shrines in the city – that it is the residence of malicious, evil-natured djinns who have taken to terrifying disrespectful visitors. According to Islamic mythology, when Allah created the world, he fashioned humans out of clay and a similar species called djinns out of fire and smoke. These latter, invisible to all humans except those who have performed penances and are blessed with the power to talk to and at times control them, are powerful spirits – if benevolent, they could turn paupers to princes, bestow all boons and bring fertility to men and women; however, if malevolent, they are known to cause loss of property and at times even life too! We are all, of course, aware of one djinn – Aladdin’s shape-shifting friend Genie in Arabian Nights. According to popular perception, the djinns at Jamali-Kamali are not so ferocious as to go to the extent of killing someone (it is accepted that they are malevolent spirits), but they have been known to appear as glowing apparitions, slap people, produce savage growling sounds, foul-smelling odours, sounds of laughter and make their presence known through the use of odd lights and/or a combination of all of these; it is also claimed that these djinns’ hands are pretty small and the marks of the slaps that they administer remain for several days. But the local villagers who are well aware of the complex’s history never said a word about the resident djinns, even though many of them are regular visitors to the complex to implore the Sufi to intercede with Allah to grant their wishes. What is out of my grasp is that the people who believe in djinns and spirits keep on forgetting God and his/her messiahs (I am an atheist yet I am repeatedly forced to invoke God! Oh India!) – after all, how can wicked spirits reside alongside kind-hearted Sufis? Unless of course hidden motives are at work here – several travel companies and paranormal societies have started offering night tours to the complex on the pretext of ghost-trails and are charging hefty fees from the patrons (Refer Hindustan Times article (dated Sep 10, 2012)). Smell something fishy?

Preserved - Jamali-Kamali's mausoleum and the graves of high officials of Lodi and Mughal empires around it

Derwesh Jamali was the pseudonym of Sheikh Jamal-ud-din Hamid bin Fazlu’llah Kamboh Dehlawi aka Sheikh Jalal Khan, a Sufi mystic poet-philosopher-scholar-traveller who came to India during the reign of Sultan Sikandar Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517) and settled in Delhi. Why did he need a pen-name if he already had such an extensive name is something beyond my comprehension. The word “Jamali” has its roots in the Urdu word “Jamal” meaning beauty/elegance, while Jalal Khan means “the fiery one”. He belonged to an affluent Sunni merchant family and was the disciple and son-in-law of the Suhrawardiyya Sufi Sheikh Samauddin. Prior to settling in Delhi where he lived and preached for the rest of his life, he had travelled extensively through Middle East and Central Asia. The courtyard in what is today Jamali-Kamali’s complex used to be his chilla once where he practiced severe penances and preached spirituality and universal brotherhood. His story is very similar to that of his contemporary Imam Zamin, another travelling priest, who too arrived in Delhi in the reign of Sikandar Lodi and lived to see the vanquishing and collapse of Lodi Dynasty and the reigns of Mughal Emperors Zahiruddin Babur (ruled AD 1526-30) and Nasiruddin Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 1555-56). But while Zamin accumulated enough wealth for himself as the officiating priest of the majestic mosque in the colossal Qutb Complex to build himself a graceful tomb adjacent it (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex and Pixelated Memories - Imam Zamin's Tomb), Sheikh Jamali became the darling of the citizens of Delhi and was soon appointed as a court poet and tutor of Persian mysticism for Sikandar’s son and successor, Ibrahim. It is said that Emperor Sikandar, himself a renowned poet, often had his works corrected by him. Sheikh Jamali is also credited with writing several important works about mysticism and religion and was unanimously bestowed with the title “Khusro-e-Sani” (“Equal to Khusro”). One of his finest works was “Siyar-i-Arifin” (“The Mirror of Meanings”), a classical hagiographic account of the notable Indian Sufis of the Chishti and Suhrawardy sects and the metaphysical symbolism used by them in divine poetry. Given his unparalleled credentials, he was retained in the royal court when Babur conquered India (AD 1556) and later he became one of the favorite poets of Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, who possibly was the major financial contributor to the construction of this complex since the architecture, except for minor artistic differences, is exactly identical to that of Humayun’s graceful magnum Qila-i-Kuhna Jami Masjid in his majestic citadel Dinpanah/Old Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). It is interesting to note that while the mosque was built following the advent of Mughal rule in Delhi, the architecture largely follows the Lodi-style of construction since the Mughal rulers and administrators were still busy consolidating the empire instead of focusing on artistic-architectural and cultural developments.

"Jewel box" - One of the highly ornamented squinches within the gorgeously bedecked tomb

Kamali’s identity, however, remains shrouded in mystery. The word “Kamali” itself is derived from the Urdu word “Kamal” meaning “miracle/excellent” which could apply to both male and female names and it has often been pointed that Kamali was possibly a contemporary Sufi of Jamali and they both were inseparable companions. Hearsay is that he/she was Sheikh Jamali’s wife/friend/servant – a recently published fictional book (“Jamali-Kamali, A Tale of Passion in Mughal India” by Karen Chase) also claims that Jamali and Kamali were homosexual partners in a very orthodox and unremitting age and country. Perhaps that would explain why Kamali chose to be referred by this name – it perfectly rhymes with Jamali and sort of completes it. Or maybe Jamali adopted the new name, he already had so many pen-names, perhaps he took up a new one to show his association with Kamali. Nobody knows. Another theory is that the person buried alongside Sheikh Jamali is his son Sheikh Abdur Rehman Gadai Kamboh (even though his name nowhere comes close to being shortened to Kamali, but then Jamali-Kamali could well be a later, easily remembered/pronounced nomenclature. There are several similar examples scattered all over the city.), a prominent theologian and the “Sadr-i-Sadur” (“Administrative General/Lord Chief Justice”) in the court of Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). Sheikh Gadai wielded immense power during Emperor Akbar’s reign and was exempted from paying homage and courtesies to the latter; he also excelled in poetic compositions, Persian mysticism and organizing musical congregations.

Stepping within the vast Mehrauli Archaeological complex, one comes face to face with the beautifully decorated but very poorly maintained enclosure walls of Jamali-Kamali complex – these are being restored as part of a massive restoration-conservation project undertaken by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in collaboration with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Gazing at the endearing floral and geometric patterns gracing the numerous skillfully carved alcoves lining the enclosure walls, one is forced to ponder if earthen lamps (“diyas”) were once lit in these and how splendid such an ethereal scene would have been. Once visitors used a small octagonal water tank located in the center of the courtyard for purposes of ritualistic ablutions before offering praying in the mosque – the tank presently is parched and a black plastic water tank stands within it from which emerge several pipes to supply water to different parts of the large courtyard. Guards employed by ASI strolled around and inside the mosque, one had even parked his motorcycle within the courtyard.

More jewels!

The massive, soothingly serene mosque was constructed in AD 1528-29 by Sheikh Jamali himself and is composed of red sandstone sparsely, but very delicately, ornamented with white marble and grey quartzite highlights. The proportional, blackened single dome, hidden behind veils of foliage offered by the numerous ancient trees gracing the compound in front of the mosque, rests on an octagonal drum (base) and is surmounted by an inverted lotus finial. As mentioned earlier, the mosque is chronologically the earliest of this architectural layout and the same was improved upon and adopted in several mosques before finally culminating in the grandly unmatched Qila-i-Kuhna mosque in Humayun’s capital (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). The facade of the mosque is adorned with dexterously sculpted rosette medallions and rows of decorative alcoves while the central of the five arched entrances, each punched within arched niches, is set within a rectangular projection that is flanked by highly ornamental pillars (pilasters) on either side. These fluted pilasters possess alternate triangular and circular flutes and the individual levels are demarcated by exquisite floral bands. The utilization of impossibly hard grey quartzite for ornamentation, especially as panels focusing the exceptional symmetry of the structure, is exceedingly praiseworthy. A “jharokha” (ornamental protruding balcony) projects from above the central entrance – legend is that once lamps were lighted every evening in this window to act as a beacon to guide weary travellers to the mosque where they could rest from their fatiguing travails – alas, today the entire area has become so thickly forested and so hopelessly ignored that a lamp would not even be seen by passing visitors. But ancient Mehrauli then was a small settlement on the highway connecting Delhi to Central Asia. The jharokha, built in traditional Rajasthani style of architecture, along with the floral medallions, which are integral to Hindu artistic expression, are some of the common Hindu motifs that were later assimilated within Islamic constructions, such as mosques and tombs, and the Jamali-Kamali mosque is said to be the first to display a fusion of these distinctive architectural and artistic characteristics (the same are absent in other constructions predating the mosque). It is interesting to note that this integration occurred in a mosque commissioned by a prominent Sufi, a proponent of unity and co-habitation irrespective of fundamental religious differences. 

Haunted? I doubt

The gargantuan interiors of the mosque, visually appearing even more colossal because of the numerous arches and the play of shadows and light creeping in through the windows and entrances, possesses five intricately carved mihrabs (alcoves in the western wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers), each uniquely sculpted, bordered by bands of calligraphy inscriptions and existing in symmetric combination with one of the entrances and therefore decreasing in size from the central (largest) to the extremes (smallest). Deftly carved and beautifully ornamented, these have at present become ideal spots for fearsome hornets, who tend to get dangerously irritated if one ventures close enough, to build nests and breed. On the inside, the dome rests on squinches (another architectural tradition that later become integral to Indo-Islamic constructions – beams extending across upper corners to convert a square structure into an octagonal one) supported by honeycomb brackets which are of course fairly commonplace in Islamic architecture. The central chamber of the mosque thus becomes octagonal towards its upper reaches and more squinches are further employed to convert this eight-sided figure into sixteen-sided figure and so on to form almost a complete circle towards the very top on which the massive dome finally rests. Octagonal corner towers exist along the backside of the mosque and a narrow gallery runs along the upper floor connecting the two, but entry to the upper floors of the towers is now prohibited. One can access the towers from narrow passages built in the corners adjacent the mihrabs and gaze at the small garden towards the back or at the exterior walls on the other side. I do not understand why entry to the garden is now prohibited – a locked iron gate keeps visitors from entering from the alternate entrance way that opens to the garden. The same also prevents me from understanding why from the tower windows located level with the mosque it appears as if the garden is set at a considerably lower topography compared to the rest of the complex. I failed to find an opening within the mosque or the towers themselves from where I could descend to the garden level. But for someone who is afraid of heights and even more of openings from where one can simply topple down if careless – it is better to avoid these towers!

Lines, arches and striking symmetry - Inside the colossal mosque

The vast courtyard in front of the mosque is divided in two by a wall with an opening. The second courtyard functions as the funerary zone – the small square-shaped mausoleum of Jamali-Kamali stands close to the further wall and there are several more unmarked and unadorned graves around it – Muslims believe that the tomb of a saint sanctifies the area around it and assures ascension to heaven to the people buried in its vicinity. Not that its presence makes much difference, a rectangular “chattri” (pavilion surmounted on slender pillars) located opposite the tomb shields a lone grave from the elements. Another entrance to the tomb courtyard exists near the chattri, but even it is gated and locked now. The walls surrounding the courtyard exhibit more ornately carved alcoves, much more intricate than the ones adorning the outer walls. The refined but small tomb, only 7.6 meter square in area and so unlike other magnificent mausoleums dotting the rest of the city, was also built in AD 1529 and Sheikh Jamali himself was its architect. Bands of brilliant blue designs mark the space between the brackets that support its eaves (“chajja”); a band resembling ornamental “kanguras” (battlement-like ornamentation) marks the roof of the tomb while the walls are carved with several small niches and arches. I am dismayed to note that the wooden gate leading within the simplistic small structure is locked as a precaution against vandals. Artists and workers struggle to restore the structure to its original state and I decide to ask them if there is any way to get within the tomb. The lady in-charge of the restoration work sat nearby listening to FM radio on her mobile phone and a quick chat revealed that she had read this blog (flattered!!) and quickly sent for the caretaker to bring the keys to the tomb. If anything, the presence of so many people here in early evening was further proof of the absence of the djinns. Just on the safe side, I did take off my shoes before entering the tomb. I had always heard of how handsome the tomb is from inside and was eager to see it with my own eyes, but as soon as I stepped within, I realized that it is not just stunning but exceptionally striking, perhaps the most gorgeously decorated tomb in entire Delhi!! Rightly has it been described as a “jewel box”.

Photos do the handsome interiors no justice!

Unbelievably beautiful stucco work (incised and painted plasterwork patterns) in blue, yellow and orange covers the arches and the alcoves while lattice work in marble (“jaalis”) on two of the sides lets in shards of light. The western wall doesn’t bear any openings but functions as a mihrab. Like the central chamber of the mosque, the tomb too makes use of squinches and the square chamber progressively becomes eight, sixteen and finally thirty-two sided towards the top. However no dome rests on the roof which is flat and decorated with copious amount of stucco and glazed tiles of numerous colors (red, several shades of blue, yellow, orange) and patterns. The tomb is the only example in Delhi where stucco and tiles are used in combination with each other rather than exclusive of each other as seen elsewhere. Again, as with the mosque, the tomb too became the inspiration for the Qila-i-Kuhna mosque which features an exceedingly marvelous use of stone inlay work instead of painted stucco/tiles to generate an equally flamboyant and vivacious exterior facade. It is interesting to note that the tomb has survived almost 500 years against the ravages of time, nature and marauders exceptionally well. Since I know I would fail to describe the ornamentation if I tried, I’ll rather let photographs do the talking. Further still, a thousand words might fall short of admiring these divine patterns hence I’m posting several photos here! The walls are inscribed with two of Jamali’s own verses, perhaps he was immensely enamored with his own work to have it inscribed on his final resting place while he had it constructed. The first of the two verses has been revealed in the beginning of this article and the second, the more heart rendering, goes –

“Rang hi rang, khushbu hi khushbu
Gardish-e-sagar-e-khayal hain hum"

(“Colour everywhere, scent all pervasive
A movement of thought, an imagination, I am”)

Of the two marble-layered graves within that occupy most of the floor area of the delicate tomb, the one in the center is that of Sheikh Jamali who passed away in AD 1536 while accompanying Emperor Humayun in an expedition to Gujarat. The second grave, a later addition since it has been just about accommodated in the space between the central grave and the wall, should belong to Kamali who is said to have expired much later. Given the excessive ornamentation of the tomb’s walls, the unparalleled explosion of multihued rococo patterns on the roof and the numerous visual compositions that can be generated as a combination of the two along with the streams of light creating patterns through the openings of the marble latticework, the narrow space that one is afforded within the small tomb proves to be a photographer’s paradise and after a point one begins to feel that the graves are hampering one’s movement and the ability to photograph/observe these fascinating patterns! I could hear myself cursing for not coming here before!

Light and colors

As with several of the mosques I wrote about in the past few days, the mosque of Jamali-Kamali too is being threatened by religious zealots – Muslims want the mosque to be thrown open for regular prayers (Notification of Monuments Act (1958) states that if a religious place of any denomination was abandoned by the local population for prayers at the time of Govt. takeover and subsequent designation as a national/state-protected structure, no prayers would be allowed to be offered there any time in future) and have been staging impromptu and forced prayers in the premises. Hindus claim that Sheikh Jamali and Sheikh Gadai were extremely vitriolic and rabidly intolerant preacher-administrators and the mosque is actually built on their religious site and hence, as a means to correcting the injustices committed by then rulers, the area should be handed over to them (I do not know if it was actually a Hindu site or not, not that I care either). But the important fact is that it is a protected monument – where were these groups when the entire region had been forgotten and surrendered to an ignominious fate, taken over by vegetation and wildlife, and reduced to ruins? Now that the Government is restoring and renovating the place everyone wants a piece of it! Utter disrespect to the Sufis who blended the practices of the two religions to create one of the first architectural amalgams in the country – I wish the djinns would appear and slap these misguided souls out of their dreadful slumber and ignorance. On a calmer note, perhaps these verses penned by Karen in her book about Jamali-Kamali would aptly apply to these individuals who somehow conclude that religion is above the country and are content to raise issues against the secular nature of the new India we ought to build –

“…our hope is that you will pity our weeping.
How could your pardon be known, had we not shown ourselves guilty!”

Delicate - One of the mihrabs within the mosque

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park, just off Lado Serai crossing
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Qutb Minar and Saket stations are both equidistant.
How to reach: Cross the road from Qutb Minar metro station and start walking towards Lado Serai – the official entrance of the archaeological complex is located midway between the two and can be identified through the slender red sandstone markers lining the periphery walls. Alternately, take a bus/auto from Saket metro station to Lado Serai and access the complex through a small opening in the periphery walls along Mehrauli-Gurgaon road just a couple of meters after Lado Serai crossing.  Parking facilities are available adjacent Jamali-Kamali complex if coming through the entrance near Qutb Minar metro station.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: About 30 min
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food and drinking water) available within the Archaeological Park. While food and refreshments can be availed at one of the roadside eateries/shops at Lado Serai opposite, you can only find toilets at Saket metro station, over two kilometers away, or the malls beyond it. It is better to be prepared.
Other monuments within the archaeological complex -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Chaumukh Darwaza
  3. Pixelated Memories - Gandhak ki Baoli
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Lodi-era Canopy Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats and Guardhouses
  8. Pixelated Memories - Mughal tombs and Choti Masjid Bagh wali
  9. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
  10. Pixelated Memories - Rajon ki Baoli
  11. Pixelated Memories - Settlement ruins
Suggested reading - 


  1. This was actually a pretty lengthy post so didn't read the last three paragraphs eith focus Now, coming to the question of Djinns, i believe instead of having any ulterior motives, its merely a fragment of history of the place. If you were to talk to people near Humayun's Tomb, they would sometimes tell you of how many ghosts haunt the tomb at night and kill anyone going there at night. It is pretty amazing of what the people think of and believe with such conviction.

    1. Thanks Shrey for the alternative view point. Many people have come to believe in the ghost & djinn stories about several places in Delhi. Though I have not been to Humayun's Tomb at night (they don't allow entry after sunset), I have been there several times during the day & never felt any paranormal presence. Ditto for Red Fort, Cantt. Area, Balban's Tomb, Jamali Kamali & several other places. If you ask me, this is just a fragment of imagination, if not any monetary &/or ulterior motive.
      PS: Do read the complete post later on & provide your feedback :)

  2. first of all, u really dont need to get to saket metro station. qutub minar...is d nearest one. u dont need to pick up any bus, just walk for a while. although u cant get anything inside the complex, but u can take ur meal n drinks inside and have em there only

  3. Hey,

    I loved this post being a history buff, if i can ask for the sources for the verses you have written because i read something different version of it.