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


  1. Sahil, good going .. enjoyed reading :)

  2. Thank you Rakesh. I'm glad you liked it

  3. AnonymousJune 03, 2013

    Hi Sahil,

    Again a fabulous post. You have this ability to put life into lesser known monuments and the people who built them.

    The photos have come out real good. Maybe it was the cloud cover that which enabled you to take photos from all sides. I have been finding the sun shining directly into lens very frustrating. So it means either taking photos from one side only or coming to the place again at different time of the day! Which I had to do at Purana Qila. Do you use some software also? I liked the photo with the Metcalfe canopy, Quli Khan Tomb and Azim Khan Tomb all together. On a normal day with the dust in the atmosphere Azim Khan Tomb would be hazy. Here it is sharp and seems to be sitting next to Quli Khan Tomb. It is probably because the rain washed all the pollutants and the dust. This is a perfect time for Delhi photography.

    Though Akbar lived in Agra and built his palaces and forts there, all the people who mattered to him are buried in Delhi.

    The paintwork indeed is beautiful inside. It is difficult to imagine there was a stream flowing at the bottom next to Lal Kot walls. Maybe in the near future, ASI decides to dig out the silt and renew the river. I doubt it. All we have are the sewers flowing in the park with trash. The Metcalf bridge is half buried like few other structures in the park.

    We missed seeing the circular building. Is it next to the boat house? You really have this thing to find out every possible structure.

    I was told that the Metcalf’s Stables next to Qutb walls was his Guesthouse with a small bathing pool inside. It also housed his harem including native wives.

    Great Work!


  4. Hey Nirdesh,

    Thank you for your generous compliments. It is always a pleasure to know that people read & like my articles.

    When I reached the tomb, there was a big hailstorm - more than taking photos I was afraid I would be hurt by the hailstones falling or in the worst case, my camera would get wet!! But it subsided in little less than an hour, all that while I chatted with the gardeners in their little shed next to the rose estate. At least, the ASI/INTACH people are maintaining the rose estate very well, even if the monuments are left uncared for. I do hope that all the structures here would be out of muck in 2-3 years & steps taken to ensure that they aren't encroached upon or brought down by the locals.

    I try to avoid visiting a place again unless I absolutely like the place or I am somewhere in the vicinity - there are over a 1000 monuments yet to be covered in Delhi alone. Its going to take me years to document them all!!

    Though now that I think of it, I did get some good photos. I do process them with Photoshop, but I know very little of it - layer adjustments, straightening & such.

    The circular building is the boathouse, it is very close to the odd entrance that Metcalfe built (the one at the peak of the bridge-like level I posted a photo of here). You have to peek closely since it is surrounded by thick vegetation. I could not independently verify what function the stable served - there is indeed a small pool in there as I mentioned, there are no proper rooms though - just an outer & an inner chamber. Perhaps it was a guesthouse as you say, though I read several times that one of Metcalfe's annexes was his guesthouse.

    I think the people are buried in Delhi because they belonged here - it was Akbar who shifted the capital from Delhi to Agra. He was brought up in Delhi & so must have been the generals, relatives & other people close to him.Maybe they wanted to be buried close to Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin (like Khan-i-Khanan, Atgah Khan & Kokaltash did) or Hazrat Kaki (Adham Khan, Azim Khan, & later Mughal rulers did). Muslims believe that the tomb of a holy man purifies the area around it for several kilometers.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  5. Jayshree ShuklaSeptember 09, 2014

    Thank you for your wonderful blog. I agree. The tomb is a secluded gem. I remember visiting the place on a very hot morning and the serenity I experienced there was incredible. And it was several degrees cooler.

    1. Thank you Jayshree Mam. You should visit it sometime during the monsoons, it looks amazing then with all the vegetation around recently washed.

  6. One of the best photographs and very well written journal