May 31, 2013

Quli Khan's Tomb, New Delhi

History is a strange subject – it deals with myriads of personalities, millions of events & thousands of ifs. Shades of grey intersperse its extremes time & again – there is no such thing as a good or bad person, the only thing that matters to history is perspective & outcome. Such is the fickle nature of history & historians that often a powerful character is lost in the reams of pages, other times even a minor character is exposed to the scrutiny of the future generations due to the flick of a single action or event. There is perhaps not an iota of doubt that Mohammad Quli Khan, the subject of this article, perhaps never did anything that warranted his exclusion from the layers of history – he was not your ordinary guy next door, but a powerful general in the army of the Mughal emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605), at one time his powers must have been vast considering he was the foster brother of the emperor himself. & yet, nobody knows who our hero was, what his capabilities & achievements were, if he ever fought in any major battle to win territories for the emperor, if he ever vanquished the enemies of the land or if he was a beloved of the people. On the outset of this article, one can also debate if he passed on to the dark side & was corrupted by power, if the people disliked him & wanted him dislodged from his position of authority. We do not know that either. Did he fall out with the emperor & the latter had him killed?? After all, history does remember his blood brother Adham Khan, that powerful general whose very name brought terror to the hearts of his enemies, who brought rape & plunder to the territories he was asked to subdue,& who was finally brought to his end by the orders of the very emperor he had grown up with & pledged his unflinching loyalty to.

Growing up as a child, Akbar did not stay much with his father Emperor Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 & 1555-56). Humayun was defeated by the armies led by the Afghan warlord & Governor of Bihar Sher Shah Suri in AD 1540. As a precaution against future complications, Sher Shah chased Humayun out of the country & the latter was forced to seek asylum with Shah Tahmasp, the Sultan of Persia. During this period, Akbar was raised by his wet nurses Jiji Anga & Maham Anga – the two brought him up like their own child, Jiji’s husband Atgah Khan became a second father to the young prince, Maham Anga’s sons Adham & Quli became Akbar’s playmates & brothers. In 1555, Humayun returned to India assisted by the Persian forces & displaced Sikandar Suri, the last of the Sur Dynasty rulers & the then emperor of India. Humayun passed away a year later as a result of injuries suffered in a fall & the young prince was crowned emperor at the tender age of 14. He elevated Quli Khan, Adham Khan & Atgah Khan to the position of army generals & they rose further on account of their unflinching loyalty to the empire & battle worthiness.

Mohammad Quli Khan's Tomb

Sadly, there are no records to tell us anything about Mohammad Quli Khan. His mere existence would have been lost to the tricks of history were it not for one single structure that refuses to cease to exist almost 400 years after his death – his tomb, built somewhere in early 17th century. The structure, relegated to a pristine, forgotten corner of Mehrauli Archaeological Park, is one of the most stunning tombs in the entire city of Delhi. Its magnificence is matched only by its seclusion, its brilliant stucco work & vibrantly-colored tiles that could have been the treat of the city hide their secrets well. The tomb, part of a larger complex, is built in a splendid manner with great effort having been taken for landscaping – it stands on a high plinth while the entire complex is built in a multi-layered manner, the lowest level being that of the Archaeological Park where it shares space with scores of other tombs & mosques, including that of the mighty emperor Ghiyasuddin Balban & the mystic Sufis Jamali & Kamali. It is not known who built the tomb – it could have been commissioned by Quli Khan himself, or emperor Akbar (provided Quli died before Akbar’s demise in AD 1605) or his successor Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-28), or even by his mother Maham Anga who possessed great power & command on account of being a second mother to the emperor.

As one follows the trail within the Archaeological Park & traces one’s steps towards Quli Khan’s tomb, one reaches the first level of the complex which is defined by a raised path snaking its way through dense vegetation, the stone margins that flank it interrupted b hexagonal bastions at regular intervals. One comes across a small irregular structure, built in such a manner that it looks as if several rectangular boxes of different sizes are stacked against each other – this is the entrance to the tomb complex that was added by Sir Thomas Metcalfe, a British officer of Scottish descent who acted as the British Agent (negotiator) at the court of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II from 1835-53 & had bought the entire complex from the emperor, had it remodeled & converted into his country estate for use during the monsoon season & christened “Dilkhusha” (“Delighter of the heart”). It has often been claimed that Metcalfe removed Quli’s sarcophagus from the tomb & had it replaced by a billiards table, but it can be dismissed as a myth & an exaggeration of the amount of change that Metcalfe wreaked on the tomb complex – in all probability, Quli was buried deep underneath his tomb’s central chamber. Metcalfe did of course make several additions to the octagonal tomb & its surroundings – large cells (annexes) were built on two of its sides to accommodate him & his guests (it is said that he rented the place to honeymooning British & Anglo-Indian couples, what did they feel like sharing their “honeymoon suite” with a dead general??), he had canals dug around the complex & a Lodi-era dove coat near the above mentioned entrance to the estate was converted into a boat house, servants were hired for the upkeep of the place, a large stable was built close to a large rubble wall that is said to be the original boundary of Lal Kot/Qila Rai Pithora (the original citadel of Delhi) on the other side of the tomb. & then there are the most impressive additions that Metcalfe did to Mehrauli landscape – his quintessential ziggurats (stepped pyramids) & chattris (large hemispherical domes surmounted on thin pillars) where he would sit for hours & adore the towering Qutb Minar in the background. The reason usually given to explain Metcalfe’s refurbishing this tomb is not so exciting & romantic however – he wanted to keep an eye on Zafar when he visited his summer palace Zafar Mahal nearby. I have previously written posts about another of Metcalfe’s chattris that graces a small hillock opposite the Jamali – Kamali Complex & his ziggurats which you can access from here – Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri & Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats.

Metcalfe's Chattri (foreground), Quli Khan's Tomb & Azim Khan's Tomb (right side, background)

The entrance Metcalfe built now opens up to a large compound so thickly covered with vegetation that you almost expect a dinosaur to jump out from amongst the trees, little blue flowers sparkle with the rain drops that just fell, green grass beckons a visitor to come lie in its soft embrace, a few puppies loiter around with not a care for the world. The places is beautiful, so are the ladybugs that come flying out of nowhere & land suddenly on dead logs waiting to decay & mix with the dark wet soil, & so too are the white flowers that have sprung up in the bosom of shadows & in the thick of decay to prove that life always finds a way. The boat house is medium-sized & composed of two concentric cylindrical structures – the outer one is slightly shorter in height & consists of several arched entrances & small square holes on its inside surface to house pigeons, the inner cylinder has square entrances & square alcoves built into its walls – the only thing common to the two is the scribbling that they have been subjected to, apparently some youngsters decided to celebrate the birthday of the singer Bohemia & release of Akon’s new album here. It’s a pity that a singer today has become more important than our country’s architectural heritage dating back several centuries. The streams & canals that Metcalfe built are gone now, buried under layers of earth & overgrown with vegetation. In fact, it comes as a surprise now that this boat house was used for the purpose of keeping boats & swimming – the area is totally landlocked & it is a bit difficult to imagine that at one point in time, someone could have swum here!!

The first level & the abundant vegetation around it

Up the staircase that leads to the tomb, the strikingly peaceful & enchanting tomb comes as a surprise, it stands in a sprawling open ground, once a garden but now covered with dry grass & wild bushes. College kids were practicing a play they are supposed to enact in their college’s drama event next to the tomb’s entrance, on the expanse next to the tomb another group of local kids were busy at a game of cricket with stone blocks as wickets. The tomb stands on a high plinth & its yellowish walls seem inviting enough. Each side of the tomb is inset with an arched niche, alternate sides have an entrance built into the niche. Exquisite bands of calligraphy border the niche, the medallions are either inscribed with Quranic calligraphy or floral patterns, the entrances are surrounded by a profuse tile work in blue & yellow, while the non-entrance niches are surrounded by intricate stucco work mirroring complex floral patterns. Both the roof of the tomb & the drum (base) of the dome is ornamented with a row of kanguras (leaf-motif supposed to look like battlements but purely for ornamental purpose). The dome is topped by a lotus finial which is surmounted by a lightning conductor that looks more like a cracker rocket & lends a unique character to the entire structure. The tomb has been recently restored as part of the run up to Commonwealth Games 2010 which were hosted in Delhi, it is stunning enough to blow one away, its seclusion & quiet charm guarantees to impress one into believing that this is one of the most charming, if not the most charming, tomb in Delhi. In fact, this is one of those few structures where words failed me in describing the wonderful monument that now stood in front of me. As part of the tomb’s restoration, most of the additions made by Metcalfe were removed, ruins of a single arched chamber stands next to the structure now, perhaps to give an estimate of what the tomb looked like with the additions. Metcalfe was so impressed with the structure & the surroundings that he wanted his daughter Emily to come stay with him here & had built a room for her too. It is said that one of the extensions was furnished with cupboards & housed Metcalfe’s personal library. During the 40 years he spent in Delhi (“Dehlie” as he would have called the city), he preferred to spend most of his time here. Sadly, most of the treasures housed here were either moved to other places following Metcalfe’s death in 1853 (apparently as a result of being poisoned by Zafar’s senior queen Zeenat Mahal) or were lost in the revolt of 1857 (were Metcalfe alive in 1857, he would have been heartbroken at the plight of his beloved city). After the British takeover of Delhi, Mehrauli was relegated to the background & this whole area, teeming with medieval tombs, mosques & baolis (stepped wells), was reclaimed by nature & dense vegetation & only a monument or two that would bob up from amidst the tree cover were spared the ignonimous fate of being lost & forgotten. It is only recently that the presence of so many of these structures came to light, & as the present condition of the park illustrates – most of the structures are still in different stages of excavation & conservation. Quli Khan’s Tomb is no exception. From close to the ruins of Metcalfe’s additions, one can climb down a flight of stairs to reach the lower levels where a few chambers exist, but these have been barred & locked with iron grilles, rightly so to keep out vandals & inebriated fellows in this mostly lawless park complex.

The tomb & the ruins of Metcalfe's annexes - View from Metcalfe's stable

Towards the top on the inside, the corners of the octagonal structure are lopped off to convert it into a sixteen-sided structure on which the dome rests. The base of the dome is marked by arched niches, all decorated in brilliant blue & red paint work that guarantees to dazzle visitors. Similar art work is used to embellish the arched windows, the recessed corners & the roof too, though much of the central artwork on the dome is now gone & only the medallions remain. Pigeons flutter about in the place, the whole structure resonating with their coos which are magnified several times by the silence the place affords.

The profuse paint work inside the tomb

A quick run around the complex promises to yield even more treasures, photographing the chattri against the tomb or the Qutb Minar that never seems to take its eyes off you is exhilarating. So is chasing butterflies in the large complex in a bid to photograph them. Through the vegetation, one can see Azim Khan’s Tomb peeping down from the high hill it sits upon (refer Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb). Azim was apparently the guy who helped Akbar defeat & subdue Quli’s brother Adham after the latter went on a rampage in Malwa, the kingdom in central India that he besieged & conquered on Akbar’s orders. Sadly, contemporary documents are also silent on Azim’s history & credentials – why is that Adham, who was corrupted by power still finds mention in history books, but the (apparently) good guys Quli & Azim are forgotten?? That’s a question that would always haunt visitors to the tomb of Quli Khan.

Once a Lodhi dove coat, then Metcalfe's boat house, now its just another set of graffiti-covered ruin

Next I headed to the stable where Metcalfe housed his prized horses, a large rectangular structure complete with arched entrances & divided into inner & outer chambers. There is a small tank towards the back which too was once perhaps used for swimming purposes, given the presence of stairs leading down near one of its corners. Another set of stairs close by (beware of the cobwebs) lead up to the upper levels of the stable from where one can have an unhindered view of Quli’s Tomb as well as look at visitors going past Smith’s cupola or the small wall mosque in the Qutb Complex next door that is separated by just a rubble wall. The Alai Darwaza appears quashed from this point, the Qutb Minar seems even thicker & mightier, one begins to appreciate the proportions & design of the wall mosque. From here, you can also see the tank behind the stable which was perhaps once filled by Metcalfe’s retinue of servants for his horses. They must have thought their boss (“Matka” as they pronounced his name) was mad to live next to ruins & tombs while his spatial mansion in Old Delhi’s Civil Lines area gathered dust (The city house is now under the auspices of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) & remains out of bounds for visitors).

Metcalfe's stable

After the more famous structures, you can have a peek at the Lal Kot wall & be amazed by the fact that it has been standing here for more than a thousand years, watching dynasties come & go, contemplating upon the development of newer & finer techniques of art & architecture, observing humans at close & feeling them betray their kindness & barbarianism by turns. A small gap in the corner where the wall comes in contact with the enclosing wall of the Qutb Complex (built recently, but made to look like the older wall) is from where you can cross over to the outside of the Archaeological Park & observe modern settlements coming up close by. One wonders if these settlements too would encroach upon these lands & destroy these wall fragments & tombs like it has been done elsewhere in Delhi, most notably the destruction of the fortress of Siri to make way for newer cities to come up (refer Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains). Close by, another gap in the complex wall leads one out on a cemented road that is flanked by a small dump yard. There are a few structures standing here too – a bastion that could be an addition to the original Lal Kot wall at a much later stage, a large trapezoid gateway with thick tapering walls & arched openings on all its sides, thick lamp posts that were definitely added by Metcalfe given their odd shapes & apparently ornamental function. Trucks & tractors make a beeline for this extended compound, dumping & carrying away debris & construction material at regular intervals, the juice cartons, polythene bags, water bottles & potato chips wrappers come as a bit of a shock since very few tourists, if any, would come in this corner of the complex. Does this mean that the Govt. agencies in-charge of the adjoining Qutb Complex, a World Heritage Site, are responsible for this mess (refer Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex)?? Thankfully, residents of the area around the park have taken it upon themselves to keep the park clean & free from encroachments – a daunting task given that the complex is almost 100 acres with numerous entry & exit points, an open drain running through it & the amount of waste that is being generated & dumped here is humongous. But then they say, a spark is all that is needed!!

An ornamental lamp post, in all probability built by Metcalfe

In case you are interested, you can pay a visit to the tomb where Quli Khan’s brother Adham Khan & mother Maham Anga were laid to rest by emperor Akbar. It stands close to the bus terminus, in another part of Mehrauli but very close to the Archaeological Park & can be reached by flagging down a bus or an auto going to the bus terminus & asking your way to Bhool Bhulaiya (as it is locally called). Adham’s Tomb is not as eye-opening as Quli’s Tomb considering the emperor was pissed at him for having murdered Atgah Khan in a fit of rage & jealousy & had him thrown off the ramparts of his fortress in Agra. One can also visit the Old Fort of Delhi which was the citadel of Akbar’s father Humayun & where Maham Anga commissioned one of the most magnificent mosques of Delhi, Khair-ul-Manazil (refer Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque). The whole family’s history could be traced through the streets of Delhi, wish the books were not so silent on Quli’s life & times!!

Fluttering around

Location: Mehrauli Archaeological Park
Open: All days, Sunrise to Sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Saket
Entrance Fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
How to Reach: After getting down at Saket Station, one can walk to Lado Serai Bus Stop. Buses are available from different parts of the city for Mehrauli & one can alight from the bus at Lado Serai stop itself. The Lado Serai stop is situated at a crossroad & at one side, one can see a large domed-structure seated on a high hill (Azim Khan’s Tomb) rising high behind the trees & the traffic. Walking towards this structure, one comes to a recreational park called Ahinsa Sthal (“Abode of Non-Violence”), marked with a large signboard (or simply ask for Ahinsa Sthal from the locals & shopkeepers, check if they are aware of its location - they weren’t when I visited the area in December 2012). The unmarked entrance to Mehrauli Archaeological Park is through an iron gate opposite the Ahinsa Sthal, a few metres back in the direction of the bus stop.
Time required for sightseeing: About 1 hr
Note – There are no facilities (toilets, food & 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 kilometer away.
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal
  2. Pixelated Memories - Alai Darwaza
  3. Pixelated Memories - Azim Khan's Tomb
  4. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  5. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  6. Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque
  7. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  8. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats
  9. Pixelated Memories - Old Fort
  10. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Complex
  11. Pixelated Memories - Qutb Minar
  12. Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains

May 25, 2013

Isa Khan's Tomb Complex, New Delhi

India has always assimilated within itself the multitudes of travelers, invaders & refugees who thronged to its shores & frontiers in huge numbers in search of knowledge, wealth, peace & fame. These visitors brought with themselves knowledge & traditions, their own culture often at loggerheads with the existing Indian belief system, their art & architecture seemingly unique & entirely different from Indian art, & yet India acknowledged & accumulated their wealth of knowledge, their individuality in terms of art & technique, & the immutability of their culture & traditions. Often these new groups went on to rule Indian territories – the earliest example being the Aryans who arrived from Central Asia, perhaps the Russian confines, & pushed down the original Dravidian population of the country. Much later, the followers of Islam showed up on the frontiers guided by both religious & monetary motives. The Hindu rulers had always confined themselves from South India to Delhi & Rajasthan, considering Punjab & Sindh as frontier towns. The Muslim invaders who came settled in the country, soon becoming part of its soil & stories. They forgot their origin & became one of the people, & went on to include even Punjab, Sindh & the north-western portions of modern-day Pakistan into the country’s administrative reach. Fed up with recurrent Mongol raids from Central Asia, Sultans like Balban (ruled AD 1266-86) & Alauddin Khilji (ruled AD 1296-1316) adopted aggressive frontier policies & even brought large swathes of Afghanistan under their control. The Afghans & the Turks too, like the previous waves of settlers that had come in, began considering themselves Indians in due course of time. Mongols too came & settled in the country. All the races, religions & tribes began to intermingle & an exchange of ideas & beliefs ensued – at times the different groups would work in tandem, at others they would be at loggerheads. Soon the Mughals arrived on the scene & displaced the Lodi Dynasty - the then sovereigns of India. The Mughals & the Afghans shared common culture & possessed no dislike for the native Indian Muslims like some of the initial settlers displayed, yet they entered into a battle for control of territories & resources. It wasn’t just a battle for territorial supremacy, it was also a fight for cultural & artistic dominance – even though the lines between native Hindu & Islamic arts had ceased to exist by then & the fusion form of Indo-Islamic art & architecture had been created. When it comes to comparing tomb architecture, the Afghans, like their predecessors the Sayyids & the Lodis, specialized in building octagonal tombs, a tradition for which the death knell was sounded by the Mughal technique of building square tombs laid out in a square garden (“charbagh”). Like in life, so in death, they had to share common land & resources & often come together for the ultimate good – the tomb of Isa Khan, the last of the octagonal tombs in India of its kind, stands right at the entrance of the complex renowned for the Humayun’s Tomb, the first of the square tombs built in the Charbagh pattern that ultimately annihilated the octagonal tomb architecture.

Isa Khan's Tomb

Azam-e-Humayoon Masnad-i-Ali Niazi was born in the year 1453 to Niyaz Aghwan, the Amir-i-Hajib (“chief chamberlain”) to the Afghan Governor of Bihar Sher Shah Suri. An Afghan warlord, Isa Khan belonged to the same tribal group as Ibrahim Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1526) who had previously reigned over the vast lands of the Indian subcontinent. This genealogical background & the proximity to the who’s who of the Afghan administrative hierarchy saw Isa Khan rise his way to power & soon became one of the most powerful Afghan nobles in early 16th century. In AD 1540, Sher Shah defeated Mughal emperor Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 & 1555-56) & chased the latter out of the country, Isa Khan became one of his most trusted lieutenants & was given the governorship of Mianwali (in modern-day Pakistan) as a reward for his unflinching loyalty & battle-worthiness. Following Sher Shah’s death, Isa Khan served his successor Islam Shah Suri (ruled AD 1545-54) & ensured that Islam Shah retained his throne against the advances of his brother Adil Shah. Isa Khan concentrated great power & influence in his hands in the process. He built his tomb in the year 1547-48 while he was still alive. Tombs in those days were built in large gardens, complete with walkways, fruit-bearing & shade-giving trees & artificial water bodies – they were generally commissioned by the person who wanted to be buried there & were used as retreats by the said person while he was alive & later by his children. Isa Khan was buried in the tomb in the year 1548 when he died at the ripe age of 95 after having enjoyed the fruits of success, power & reputation.

Here lies Isa & his family

There exist a number of firsts that can be claimed by Isa Khan’s Tomb – it is one of the first tombs that came up in what is today the Humayun’s Tomb Complex, a World Heritage Site & supposedly sacred land close to the Dargah of Delhi’s beloved Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). Isa Khan’s Tomb also has the honour of being surrounded by a sunken garden, the first in the country & built in such a manner that the garden within the tomb enclosure is about 1 meter below the level of the central raised pavilion on which stands the tomb. The exquisitely designed Taj Mahal was a culmination of several architectural practices developed over several decades – though it is built in the Charbagh pattern mastered in the construction of Humayun’s Tomb, the sunken garden that surrounds it is drawn upon Isa Khan’s garden. Interestingly, the very first of the five octagonal tombs of this type that exist in Delhi belongs to Khan-i-Jahan Malik Maqbul Telangani, the prime minister of Feroz Shah Tughlaq (ruled AD 1351-88) & is located in the teeming narrow lanes of Nizamuddin Basti just across the road. Isa Khan’s tomb was the culmination of several centuries of architectural & artistic innovation & the inclusion of Hindu motifs in Islamic structures – the lotus finial that tops the tomb being the most glaring example of all. Lotus appears throughout history in Hindu art & buildings. The octagonal tomb also features chattris raised on the parapet above each of its sides – chattris (domes mounted on slender pillars) too were a distinct Hindu architectural motif, adopted by the Muslim architects, especially those belonging to Lodhi, Suri & Mughal dynasties. Isa Khan’s Tomb is also the first monument in India to be restored by a private organization – the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

The octagonal tomb is surrounded by a wide verandah featuring a tapering pillar at each corner which support the roof & the eave (“chajja”). The roof is marked by a line of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation). The pillars rise higher than the roof level, thereby giving an appearance that the roof possesses slender minarets standing on each corner. The dome rests on a 32-sided drum (“base”), which too features similar slender minarets on each corner. Large chattris exist on the roof above each side of the tomb, the overall effect is that of striking symmetry & grace. Each face of the tomb consists of three arched entrances decorated with blue, red & white plaster work in impeccable geometrical & floral patterns. Blue glazed tiles also ornament the tomb elsewhere. The verandah is reached by climbing a flight of five stairs & as one steps into the verandah, one notices the fine jaalis (“stone latticework”) that have been incorporated into three of the walls of the tomb. One does not fail to admire the captivating patterns that adorn the recessed niches that are built into the roof of the verandah – painted with white & grey, these incised patterns in plaster add a subdued flamboyance to the otherwise solemn structure. 


Inside the tomb, the red walls seem inviting, the six graves are led to somber rest – two of them are incredibly large & built with marble & red sandstone, the rest are comparatively smaller & constructed out of stone. Although three walls of the tomb are marked by latticework, the one on the west is marked by a mihrab (western wall of a mosque/tomb that indicates the direction of Mecca & is faced by Muslims while praying) embossed with several patterns & flanked by calligraphic Quranic inscriptions. However, the most bewitching feature of the tomb is its ornamental ceiling – the mesmeric floral design is done in brilliant shades of red, blue & green & surrounded by a band of inscriptions. The patterns are colossal, gorgeous & radiant. I kept clicking the roof in a bid to get the perfect photograph that would do justice to its enthralling nature. The ceiling had suffered decay as a result of water seepage & neglect & had been spoiled rather badly – apparent from old photographs that AKTC had displayed outside the Tomb enclosure while the repair work was still on. The AKTC has done brilliant work on the ceiling – employing & training master craftsmen to recreate the original patterns, carrying out repairs & reconstructing collapsed & damaged portions. Unlike its geographical relative Humayun’s Tomb, Isa Khan’s Tomb appears more human, its grandness muted & the grey of its wall appears more at peace with itself than the crimson red of Humayun’s Tomb’s. 

The tomb's mesmerizing roof - painstakingly restored by the AKTC

Close to the tomb & down the central plinth stands the associated mosque, itself mounted on another wide platform. The prayer chamber is entered by means of three arched entrances, each of them ornamented with glazed tiles of blue, green & yellow color in a number of interesting patterns – the central arch is however more grand & is flanked by red sandstone borders themselves ornamented with arched niches. The medallions too are crafted admirably & some of them too are covered in blue tiles. The central chamber is surmounted by a huge white dome while the other two are mounted by large chattris. The dome sits on an octagonal drum & is topped by a lotus finial, its interiors are dressed in grey Delhi quartzite stone. Though the chattris have turned black over time, perhaps once they too were decked with tiles or plaster. A deep well, now closed by means of iron grilles, exists right outside the mosque & shares the wide platform – it must have been once used to serve the purpose of ablution before prayers. 

Isa Khan's Mosque

While externally the mosque is built of dressed grey quartzite stone ornamented with red sandstone, the interiors are simplistic in design & the ornamentation has been kept to a minimum & confined only to the dome & the mihrabs. A passageway in one corner leads upstairs to the level of dome, however the staircase was dark & dank & one could make out several bats cooped up inside – I did try to get in once, but ran away as soon as some of the bats got agitated by my presence & began flying around!! The staircase is so dark that even light from mobile phone torch could not suffice in lightning it up & actually failed miserably.

Inside the mosque

The sunken garden that surrounds the tomb is enclosed by a series of small cells. The enclosure (called a “Kotla”) thus formed comes into view on the right as soon as one crosses the ticket counter of the Humayun’s Tomb Complex. The dome of Isa Khan’s Tomb can be seen rising behind the cell arcade. A symmetrical, though ruined, rubble gateway leads to the enclosure & one can have a clear view of the tomb, the mosque, the surrounding enclosure & the sunken garden from the steps of the gateway. Stairs on the side of the mosque lead up to the roof of these cells, but climbing up the roof is sadly not allowed (One can climb up when the guards aren’t around though). Most visitors content themselves with strolling around the enclosure on newly mowed green grass, listening to the sounds of peacocks that appear to be just around the corner but can never be seen. Sitting in one of these cells, away from the scorching heat, looking up at their curved roofs & the alcoves or admiring the tomb is also a good way to wile one’s time while wondering what to do next.

Hiding treasures behind - the entrance to Isa Khan's enclosure as seen from Humayun's Tomb Complex

As part of the meticulous restoration drive, the AKTC craftsmen repaired & restored the tomb, mosque & the surrounding sunken garden. Numerous archaeological discoveries were also made & the broken finial of the tomb was also found buried close by. AKTC made repairs, plugged leaks, restored the plaster & also the marvelous pattern on the inside of the dome. Artists were specially trained to create ceramic tiles as it is still done in parts of Uzbekistan in order to give the original glazed tile finish to the structures. A new finial was built for the tomb correct to its original specifications & hauled up to be installed atop the dome. Apart from this, the structures were studied using modern, state-of-the-art techniques like Laser-assisted 3D scanning & documentation was done. Soil was removed from the sunken garden, the whole area was landscaped & citrus plants were planted (since the original garden had them). The only thing that looks out of place is the newly built wall that emerges from near the entrance to Isa Khan’s Tomb & demarcates the garden just after the ticket counter & Bi Halima’s enclosure – it appears discolored compared to the original wall in whose continuation it has been built. However the wall’s construction was important for restoring the original plan of the area which was manipulated when the British brought down the walls to build carriageways & laid roads & railway lines (The Government recently gave permission for razing down another road that separates Humayun’s Tomb Complex & Nila Gumbad, although I reported on the state of the Gumbad several months back, AKTC-led conservation work has started full swing a few days back. Hopefully the Gumbad too would be a part of the larger complex soon enough!! Read more about the Nila Gumbad & its pitiful condition here - Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad). Apart from monument conservation, AKTC is also helping improve the socio-economic conditions in the Nizamuddin Basti area, one of the most densely populated localities in Delhi, by building schools, providing holistic education & training to youngsters & developing skills for artists & craftsmen. My last encounter with AKTC artists at Ghalib’s Tomb - Chausanth Khamba Complex was indeed a great experience. Seeing them work diligently & with surgical precision on marble was impressive. I have already written a post about Ghalib’s Tomb which you can read here - Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb

One of the placards designed by AKTC as part of their restoration campaign

Isa Khan’s enclosure was thrown open for visitors in a grand event on the World Monuments Day (April 19) & was attended by thousands of school children in addition to the members of the bodies that helped bring Isa Khan’s Tomb back to life – Indian Government’s Ministry of Culture, AKTC, World Monuments Fund (WMF), Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) & New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). The event was also attended by a direct descendant of Isa Khan. A fitting tribute to a powerful Afghan I would say. 

Location: Humayun's Tomb Complex
Open: All days, 8 am - 6 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs 10 (Citizens of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, Afghanistan Thailand and Myanmar), Rs 250 (Others) (Children up to 15 years free)
Nearest Metro Station: Jangpura
Photography charges: Nil
Time required for sight seeing: 45 min
Relevant Links - 

May 16, 2013

Diwan-i-Am, Red Fort, New Delhi

Indian history is replete with instances of so many intriguing & interesting personalities that most historians studying it have often been forced to ignore or relegate to obscurity some of the relatively minor characters. Nevertheless, it has never been a source of disappointment to those who wish to find enchanting stories & plots woven in its many schemes. Boasting of numerous sultans, princes & princesses, generals, nobles & warlords, saints, priests & mendicants alike, the scope & expanse of Indian history is enough to confuse even those who claim to be masters over it. & yet one does not understand why many of our historians - both native & foreigners alike - felt compelled to distort historical narratives & introduce scenes & players in order to alter the storyline or prop up new theories that are seemingly absurd to begin with but gain wide currency caused by these misinterpretations & false premises. One such personality that keeps cropping up when one is dealing with the reign of Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58) is the Florentine goldsmith Austin de Bordeaux. Modern historians are no longer sure if Austin actually existed or was a fragment of imagination of those Europeans who took it upon themselves to define & pen medieval & ancient Indian history.

The Diwan-i-Am hall

Austin has been credited with the construction of three of the most widely acclaimed architectural achievements of Shahjahan’s reign – first is the famed Taj Mahal of Agra, some historians, especially the European ones, claim that Austin had a role in laying out the design & the plan of this magnificent mausoleum, but most historians concede that if Austin did exist, his role was merely limited to designing & executing the silver doors of the mausoleum. Second, Shahjahan granted Austin with several kilograms of gold & numerous precious jewels & gems to build a splendid seat for the emperor. The final craft was christened the “Peacock Throne”, you can read about the throne’s history in one of my previous articles here - Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort. However, even this theory seems largely unlikely as Austin is considered to be one of the greatest frauds alive in 17th century Europe & it is said that he escaped to India after conning several European kings & princes out of their family heirlooms. It would be very stupid of Shahjahan to keep such a person on his payroll & given charge of gold & pearls worth millions of rupees. Given Shahjahan’s shrewd nature & bargaining capabilities, & the intelligence capability of his army – it is not possible that Shahjahan did not know the past of a man he was harbouring in his court & instead of condemning the fraud’s existence & activities, had granted him the position of court jeweller, the title of “jewel-fingered” & a monthly pay of two thousand rupees. Shahjahan is also said to have commissioned Austin to design & execute the pietra dura work on the wall of the Diwan-i-Am palace hall in Delhi’s Red Fort. The Peacock Throne was carried away by the Persian invader Nadir Shah when he overran Delhi in AD 1739. The Taj Mahal’s silver doors were looted & melted in AD 1764 by the Jat invaders who took to plundering Delhi & other neighbouring provinces after the later Mughal rulers proved too weak to retain command over the massive empire bequeathed to them by their forefathers. The only remain of Austin’s superior craftsmanship is the pietra dura work in Diwan-i-Am & even that has come under great scrutiny lately as a result of a series of discoveries of manuscripts & records that actually whitewash the existence of Austin & instead credit native Hindu & Muslim artists for several of the designs & creations that have been attributed to him. One again wonders what reasons could have compelled Shahjahan to retain a man of dubious character & questionable integrity in his court, entertain him & even allow him to conceive & build enchanting artworks in stone & marble when native craftsmen & stonemasons far excelled in the craft of pietra dura (Pietra dura, locally called “Parchin kari”, has been traditionally used in Indian jewellery & construction industry). Moreover what were the previous achievements of Austin that prompted Shahjahan to hire him?? He isn’t even known in France or Florence & no records or remains of his impeccable craftsmanship exist, then why did Shahjahan employ a fraudster with no real skills to boast of?? Furthermore, I am at loggerheads with the accepted belief because of one simple doubt - why don't contemporary writers mention Austin if he was such a skilled (& notorious!!) goldsmith. Court gossipers & sycophants wrote almost everything about their sultan - why not mention that the sultan found an artist in a crook??

Shahjahan loved arches!!

Nonetheless, here is a primer about the Diwan-i-Khas or the “Hall of public audience” – Built with red sandstone, the striking palace was Shahjahan’s idea of a lavish court room where he could meet his subjects, listen to their grievances, take note of petitions & pass judgements & grants. The impressive hall was once covered with a layer of ivory & shell plaster giving it marble-like finish & boasts of nine arches on its front face & three arches on its sides, all supported on sturdy pillars. Chattris (small umbrella domes supported on very thin pillars) adorn the front of its roof. Its stateliness is further spelled out by the arches that give it an appearance of curves & waves. The hall boasts of chajjas (hanging eaves), an Indian architectural innovation that was combined with Islamic design elements by the Mughals. During the reign of Shahjahan & his son & successor Aurangzeb (ruled AD 1658-1707), the hall used to be draped with heavy curtains & was decked with stunning stucco work that incremented its opulence manifolds.

The throne - not made of gold, but impressive nonetheless (Photo courtesy -

At present, the most attractive part of the hall is the niche in its back wall where a canopied marble throne (called a "baldachino") rests. The emperor would sit on the throne & listen to his subjects’ grievances, the wazir (prime minister) would sit on a four-legged marble pedestal kept in front of the emperor’s throne. At one time, both the throne & the wazir’s pedestal were inlaid with jewels & designed in such a way that they sparkled & glittered in the daylight. The throne pavilion was referred to as Nashiman-i-Zil-i-Ilahi or “the seat of the shadow of God” & is an impressive piece of craftsmanship with its fluted pillars & curved Bengali roof. The marble wall at the back of the canopy throne is the one supposedly crafted by Austin. The white marble is inset with precious black stone & several stones of different colours are used to create exquisite patterns within the black stone. This is the renowned pietra dura artwork of Diwan-i-Am – the inlay stones are used to create replicas of several birds, flowers & foliage that are worth mentioning. Over 200 types of birds have been depicted in these panels, including numerous mythical birds - the most realistic being the parrot & the crows, but all of them being breathtakingly stunning. Since figurative workmanship is very unusual in Islamic buildings, this sort of pietra dura work is not seen anywhere else in India & this is the sole reason that gives weightage to the theory about the presence of European artists & their influence in Shahjahan’s court. But the most widely renowned panel amongst these is not that depicting any bird – real or imagined, it is another panel, much smaller than the rest, that sits on the very top of the arched niche & depicts the Greek minstrel Orpheus sitting under a tree & playing violin to a charmed audience that sits near his feet & consists of a lion, a hare & a leopard. Orpheus was the son of King Oeagrus & Calliope in Greek mythology – he possessed a melodious voice & was taught to play the lute (& not violin as the panel shows) by the Greek God Apollo. With his songs he could even make inanimate objects obey him. His voice facilitated his inclusion in several mythical adventures & he even travelled to the netherworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from death. However in the context of the Diwan-i-Am, not many people are aware of the image’s history nor has it ever been determined who conceived it & what its purpose was, but most scholars hold that the decontextualized image was meant to serve as a commentary about the just rule of Shahjahan where the mighty (lion) & the weak (lamb) would lie down together & pay obeisance to the king.

Pietra dura artwork behind the throne - Who designed these?? (Notice the small Orpheus panel in the center, top)

After the defeat of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ II (ruled AD 1837-57) at the hand of the British during the Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857 & the subsequent takeover of the fortress by the British military, the fort’s riches were confiscated & even those items were taken away which even the previous barbaric plunderers would never have thought of looting – several of the pietra dura panels were damaged, & 12 of these, including the Orpheus panel, were removed from their niches & carried away to be displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They were returned to their respective places in 1903 following concerted efforts by the then Viceroy Lord Curzon. What would be interesting to know would be if the story concerning Austin’s employment & position in the Mughal court came into existence before or after the return of these panels. Sadly I could not find any books/sources on the internet that deal with the subject. The Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) accepts Austin’s existence & credits him for the construction of the ornamental marble wall on its website. The A.S.I. put up an iron railing around the emperor’s throne & the accompanying pedestal to prevent visitors from touching the same, but I still don’t understand the point of covering the two & the marble wall with thin synthetic net – it actually perplexed me to see a net thrown over the entire baldachino but then my friend Adil at DHPC explained to me that the net is used to keep the pigeons out. There are actually too many pigeons in the complex if you did not notice already!! The photo of the throne I uploaded here is an old one sourced from another website - here the throne is not covered with the net - having visited the fort complex several times over the past few years, I can say that the net is seldom taken down.

The emperor would enter the hall from the verandah on the first floor towards the back of the hall & follow a passage that opened up on the side of his marble throne. The stairs that the emperor would have climbed to reach his throne from the passage’s exit can still be seen inside the hall, however entry to the passage or the other rooms that exist towards the back of the hall is now prohibited. Although today the back of the hall & the verandah are in a run-down condition with the plaster peeling off & the walls getting blackened due to exposure to the elements, once even these were coated with plaster mixed with shell dust. At that time even the announcement of the emperor’s arrival would have caused all mutterings & whisperings to cease & hush up his subjects, today the hall continuously abounds with the incessant chatter of the visitors. The French traveller Francois Bernier describes his travels through India during the reign of Aurangzeb in his memoirs & recounts how the hall would become the site for many extravagant & majestic ceremonies & how the gifts to the emperor, which often included elephants, oxes, rhinoceros & leopards, would be paraded in front of the hall. The elephants would be decked up with jewels, colours & embroidered clothes & would often steal the show. The emperor would then indulge in a hearty chat with his astrologers, dream interpreters & physicians regarding illness, dreams & other (supposedly ominous) happenings in the kingdom. The nobles would entertain him with anecdotes, stories & debates. Then the emperor would proceed to hear petitions & matters related to day-to-day administration of his empire, he would often impart justice on the spot – often causing an aggrieved party to be compensated, or an oppressor to be whipped or even beheaded. The subjects held the emperor in awe, for them he was the Zil-i-Ilahi, the “shadow of God” , a concept conceived by the mighty Sultan Balban (ruled AD 1266-86) but carried forward by all the later Sultans of India, including the Mughals.

This (now shabby) side was where the emperor entered the hall from.

Visiting the Diwan-i-Am now, one can only wonder with astonishment & disbelief mixed in equal measure at the might & grandness of the Mughal court, but never can be the brilliance of the court & the nobility of gestures be surpassed or even re-achieved. The Mughals brought a certain lavishness to the country, of which the Diwan-i-Am is a prime example. It might be battered & ignored now, but what still matters even today is that once European historians invented figures such as Austin to claim their land’s association with the Mughal structures!! These stories aren’t going anywhere for they too have become a part of the record & been assimilated in the collective Indian history just like the thousands of invaders, travellers & refugees who came to the country & got intertwined in its enchanting life & culture.

Location: Red Fort
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Station
Open: All days except Monday
Timings: 10 am - 4 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort
  2. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort

May 05, 2013

Kos Minar, Faridabad, Haryana

Ever conscious of ensuring the availability of public amenities in order to improve the living conditions of their subjects, the Mauryan rulers (ruled BC 322-185) often thought up of ingenious ideas to ensure the presence of several facilities & conditions for their well-being. The chief among these was the establishment of a major highway that connected the furthest frontiers of eastern India to Central Asia as far as Afghanistan & Iran via Delhi, Agra & Punjab. The highway curved & slithered its way through various megacities & small townships & helped maintain trade & diplomatic relationships with several nations including the far-flung Greek states. Dynasties of rulers came & went, first the Hindus lorded over the country, then came the Muslims, but the trade route maintained its status quo. In AD 1540, the Afghan Governor of Bengal, Sher Shah Suri overthrew the rule of Mughal emperor Humayun, became the Emperor of India & established the Sur Dynasty rule over the subcontinent. The five years that Sher Shah ruled over India were characterized by an overhaul of the administrative, financial, military, communication & postal system, as well as the provision & betterment of several civic facilities. Among one of the most popular & essential steps taken by Sher Shah was the construction of the Sher Shah Suri Marg aka the Grand Trunk (GT) Road which overlapped with the Mauryan trade route & connected Chittagong (in modern-day Bangladesh) to Kabul (in modern-day Afghanistan). Unlike the Mauryan road which was built simply by leveling mud, the GT Road was sturdy & usable in all weather conditions. Serais (inns) were built along the road for the convenience of the travelers, toll taxes were abolished & trees were planted on either side of the road to provide shade. Later in 1555 AD, when Humayun again gained control of India, he continued with Sher Shah’s policy of maintaining these arterial roads through state financing & protection. However it was Humayun’s son, Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) who understood the advantages these roads conferred to an emperor & began taking an active interest in their upkeep & ensuring that they remained free of brigands & bandits. The road was levelled out, its cursive bends were removed & replaced by straight stretches, shade-giving & fruit-bearing trees were planted for the convenience of travelers & merchants.

Most importantly, Akbar (& later his successors Jahangir & Shahjahan) continued with Sher Shah’s system of marking distances with Kos Minars (mile markers) & ordered their construction in 1574 AD. Kos Minar were 30 feet tall conical towers (a few were cylindrical too), very thick at the base, & were constructed every 1 kos (approx. 3 kilometer  along the routes that connected Agra (then Mughal capital) to Ajmer (via Jaipur) in west, Lahore (via Delhi) in north, Mandu (via Shivpuri) in south. Later this network of minarets was extended as far as Peshawar in the west & Bengal in the east & connected the provinces of Burhanpur, Agra, Amritsar, Multan, Lahore, Delhi, Jodhpur & Chittor. Fortified caravnserais furnished with fresh water reservoirs were built at every eighth Kos Minar. Trade flourished because of the establishment of these highways & the mile markers, soon the country side prospered too. Akbar’s chronicler Abu Fazl writes about these minarets in his magnum “Akbarnama” & tells us that Akbar decreed the construction of many of these minarets & these were primarily meant for the convenience of travelers & merchants, & were to act as beacons to lost & fatigued travelers.

The Kos Minar at Badarpur

The minarets must have been a magnificent sight for the weary travelers who would have been equally amazed by the minaret’s size & the Mughal’s & strength & reach. It was along the Kos Minars that military check posts & communication outposts were established, thereby boosting the efficiency of communications & surveillance. The outposts were meant to counter the threats of rebels, bandits & renegade generals & nobles. Official message-carriers & horses were kept stationed at Kos Minars. The rider carried an urgent message from one minar to another traversing several kos this way & finally breaking off his journey at one of the minarets where he either stopped to have rest & refreshments at the nearby serai, or passed on the message to another courier stationed at the Kos Minar who then carried it forward. The emperor as well as his generals changed horses at Kos Minars when travelling far & wide – a man sitting on top of the minaret spotted the incoming party even when it was still far away & had the horsekeepers prepare the horses for the exchange. Huge distances could be covered in short periods of time – it is said that the system was so efficient & extensive that once, to the surprise of his enemies, Akbar covered the distance between Gujarat & Delhi on horseback in 11 days & defeated his half brother Mirza Hakim & several other relatives who were plotting against him. In 1607, Akbar’s son & successor, Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-27) ordered the Zamindars of the area covered by the Agra-Lahore route to plant shade-giving trees such as mulberry at regular intervals. In 1619, he ordered Baqir Khan, the Faujdar of Multan, to establish Kos Minars in his city. Jahangir also had wells dug up every 3 kos distance on the highways & bridges constructed across rivers. Aurangzeb’s rule (AD 1658-1707) saw the number of serais to increase manifolds & there was one serai situate alongside every fifth minaret. The serais however were not always maintained by the emperor, but were often patronized by the royal family, powerful nobility, philanthropic individuals & wealthy merchants.

At the height of the Mughal empire, the highways spanned almost 3000-kilometers in total & boasted of hundreds of Kos Minars, however very few of these survive now - about 49 in Haryana, 10 in Punjab, 5 in Uttar Pradesh & only 2-3 in Delhi, a few have also been maintained beyond the border in Pakistan. Most of the minarets were lost over time to natural forces, disrepair, encroachments, wanton destruction & industrial & public space requirements. Many have been broken down & refurbished to act as godowns or shops. All the minarets broadly follow the same design – built of bricks & stones & plastered over with lime, they generally stood on a masonry base. For half of their height they were tapering octagonal in design, above that they were tapering conic topped by a hemispherical knob-like formation. The whole network of minarets was an impressive initiative, but individually the minarets were bare structures, possessing none or very little ornamentation or inscriptions along their circumference – red bands & mouldings with geometrical patterns demarcated the octagonal base from the conic portion, a similar pattern existed just below the top knob. They were meant to serve practical purpose & were certainly not the architectural beauty or visual delights that the other Mughal structures exemplified. The Kos Minar at Badarpur is no exception. Located on one of the road dividers close to the Badarpur Bus Stand, the minaret can be best understood by the following lines by from the poem “Ozymandias” composed by the English poet P.B. Shelley

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Dwarfed & obsolete..

The 30-feet tall minaret dates back to Jahangir’s time & is now no more than 4 feet in height as a result of the repeated layering of the road around it. The minaret is one of the very few survivors of its species, & to ensure that it is not vandalized an iron-grille enclosure has been constructed around it. Gensets buzz nearby, the serais & the outposts that must have once existed close by have disappeared, there place has been taken up by a metro station, an auto stand & rows of shops. Buses, cars, trucks & lorries now ply instead of horses, camels & elephants on the road next to the minaret. A metro line & a flyover stretch across on either side of the minaret, marking perhaps the point where its vertical reach once extended to. More importantly, the people who pass the Kos Minar everyday do not seem to even give it a second thought, most of them are unaware of its purpose & cannot even begin to imagine that there were once hundreds more of its kind. The Government or the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.) never executed a formal study of the Kos Minar’s locations, function or history, so I do not know their exact number (the British administration of pre-independence India did declare the Kos Minar as protected monuments in 1918 & carried out some restoration work, but it was soon abandoned after independence & the minarets left to fend for themselves. The British also actively repaired & maintained the GT Road). Even it is not clear how many of these minarets survive now & where. The minarets that were supposed to be repaired were given such a makeover that their historical character was lost to the layers of paint & plaster. This lackadaisical attitude of the authorities & the obscurity to which these minarets have been relegated becomes even more pronounced when one notes that with the exception of a few places, most of India & Pakistan’s major highways essentially run along the road that the Mauryas built & the Surs & the Mughals maintained. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"