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 - 


  1. AnonymousMay 31, 2013

    Hi Sahil,

    Another masterpiece from a budding historian.
    I like your observations about the places – like you did comparing the grey stone to red stone of Humayun’s Tomb.

    The photographs look great. Which camera have you bought now?

    I think the same guys working here have shifted to Nila Gumbad. I hope they clear away the railway debris all around and recreate the garden around it.

    When i first read about Khan-i-Jahan Malik Maqbul Telangani tomb I thought you were referring to Atgah Tomb. This seems to be altogether different one. This guy built a number of mosques in Delhi including Khirki and Kali Masjid. And I thought I had covered the Nizamuddin Basti. This calls for another round to the village! But then I have not seen the Kali Masjid either. I hope it cools down a little.

    I was going to recommend Sarson Ka Khet post when I saw the link in suggested reading. You are giving a run of money to Varun Shiv Kaour who is a PhD in architecture. He has further compared Isa Khan Tomb with Adham Khan Tomb in Mehrauli.

    Great work, Sahil!


  2. Hey Nirdesh,

    As always its a pleasure to hear from you.
    I am glad you liked this post, am seriously not such a good writer as you make me to be, certainly not comparable to Varun Shiv. It takes me a long time to write a post, I often delete them if I'm not happy with the final product. & Varun is an inspiration, he's good, I myself often refer to his work to check if I missed anything.

    My secret is I take a lot of photos, sometimes I would just visit 3-4 monuments in a day & yet take 500 photos, this way there are few chances of me missing anything. I use a simple point & shoot Sony DSC-W690, earlier I used to take photos with my mobile phone. I am now replacing all photos in my earlier posts with new photos & that's why I write comparatively fewer new articles these days.

    I seriously want Nila Gumbad to be accommodated within an extended Humayun's Tomb Complex. By keeping it locked, the authorities are keeping a beautiful monument away from the public. Though I don't think people would visit it until the monuments in the whole area are thrown open - that way one can view several structures at once (the Mughal Tomb we discussed, Lakkarwala Burj, Sundarwala Complex etc). Do tell me if you have been to Chila Nizamuddin?? A gate there actually opens up to Humayun's Tomb Complex & is part of the Chilgah pavilion in the complex!! I was so amazed by the connection between so distant structures!! Would soon do a post about the pavilions.

    I am yet to see all the structures you mentioned, even Telangani's Tomb. Have only seen Nizamuddin Dargah & Ghalib's Tomb. Will be visiting the complex on this Tuesday or Wednesday again. I am ok with travelling in the sun, I'm a compulsive photographer!! :)

    Thanks once again for taking the time out to leave a comment. I'm learning from you too.


    PS: Read your Aihole post, loved the photos & the legend behind the naming of the town. Thank you for sharing it!! You should do a series on Aihole with all the individual structures you saw.

  3. AnonymousJune 03, 2013

    Hi Sahil,

    I have visited Nizamuddin Chilla twice in as many months. The second time after reading your post. And now you are telling me that there is stil something there that I missed!

    I just saw the main complex in Aihole. It will need entire day in Aihole to see all the temples there. It took a great effort to write that post. Next will be Badami!



  4. Hey Nirdesh,

    Next to the white washed portion of the Khanqah-Chila, there are some medieval structures - a few chambers & such. In one of these, there is an alcove where some photographs & prayer material are kept & it is believed that Nizamuddin used to live here while meditating. This chamber has a doorway directly opposite the first (as Nizamuddin used to say "My house has 2 doors - if a Sultan comes in the first, I'll leave from the second") that is kept locked but opens into a large garden.
    Now if you go inside Humayun's Tomb Complex & take a walk around its periphery, there are these ruins called the Chilgah pavilion exactly to the North-East of the tomb. You can tell one of the chambers is the same that you saw from the Chila-Khanqah because everything - the alcove, the prayer material & the first entrance can be seen from the locked grille. If you climb up the pillared balcony next to it (in pretty good condition given its antiquity), you will be able to see both the Chila-Khanqah & Gurudwara Damdama Sahib next to it.
    Will soon do a post about the pavilions within the Complex.

    Eagerly waiting your post about Badami. Your photos are stunners.


  5. Hi Salil,
    Very interesting narrative and images.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Greetings from Bangalore.