October 07, 2013

Bada Gumbad Complex, Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

"For good reason, the most popular place in the park (Lodi Garden) is the extensive lawn on the southern side of what must have been the main mosque, the Jami Masjid, built in 1494. The reason for its popularity is its dome, which is an exact replica of a young woman's bosom including the areola and the nipple. Most mosques and mausolea have domes but they have metal spires put on top of them which rob them of their feminine charm. Not the Bara Gumbad, the Big Dome. You can gape at it for hours on end and marvel at its likeness to a virgin's breast. You will notice that men sprawled on the lawns have their face towards it; their womenfolk sit facing the other way."

– Khushwant Singh, "The Sunset Club"

Radiating immense strength & magnificence, the imposing Bada Gumbad (“Big, domed tower”) is undoubtedly one of the finest structures ever erected by the Lodis – a dynasty that ruled over North India from 1451-1526 AD & left behind numerous tombs & mosques scattered throughout Delhi & its surroundings. Humongous as it is, on the outside the structure gives the appearance of being a double-storied building & has left scholars & architects baffled as to what its true purpose actually is – some surmise that it is a mausoleum dedicated to one of the Generals in the army of Sultan Nizam Khan Sikandar Lodi II (ruled AD 1489-1517), others contend that it is a gateway leading to the small mosque that exists besides it – either case the structure has its own aura, it calls for a visit on its own since no other structure within the landscaped Lodi Gardens can match it, be it in terms of proportions or grandeur. The entire structure, along with the associated mosque & a third rectangular enclosure (which is either a “mehmaan-khana” (guest house) or a “majlis khana” (assembly hall)), stand on a very high plinth that is reached by a wide flight of stairs & is visible from afar. The mosque & the guesthouse face each other & both are built perpendicular to the Gumbad. A few steps up the stairs, one reaches a landing & from here the stairs diverge in three directions – one headed to the mosque, the other to the guest house & the third to the exceedingly large square mound that is located directly opposite the Gumbad’s entrance (that is, in the center of the whole complex) & shelters grave(s) underneath. In my opinion, this elevated rubble mound is the only thing that reflects the Gumbad’s vast proportions & could therefore be construed as the center point of the complex in its heyday when it too would have been ornamented with marble & stone & would have perhaps been led to be the majestic Gumbad – interestingly, the Gumbad complex hides surprises at places one wouldn’t even expect to look at - the mound/grave was once a large water tank, later filled up to accommodate the grave. Even though all the three structures share the same plinth & have certain stylistic & ornamental similarities, they were not planned as a complex nor built at the same time – the Gumbad & the mosque were built in the year 1494 during the reign of Sikandar Lodi; the guesthouse was added later.

The Bada Gumbad (center) flanked by the Jami Mosque (left) & the guesthouse (right)

Ironically, the first structure I entered in was the guesthouse, an unornamented, rectangular building with a flat roof built with dressed grey quartzite with three arched-entrances on its front. The exteriors display lotus medallions around the entrances & a continuous chajja (“eaves”) supported by equidistant stone brackets along the roof; the interiors possess artwork in stone & medallions – all of them now in a ruinous state. The guesthouse is a remarkably undistinguished structure; the interior is divided into seven chambers separated by means of gray granite walls but interlinked by the arched openings in the walls such that the overall picture is that of symmetry & grace – highly incongruous with the ruinous state that the structure finds itself in now. Hornets & insects (the name of which I do not know) buzz around the entire structure, especially in the dark side chambers – although the patterned artwork on the roof of the side chamber has gone black & rotten with time, it is covered in a layer of white insect silk that looks terrifyingly dirty & teems with threatening-looking insects. Nonetheless the remains of the artwork on the flat roof are impeccable – graceful flowers, astonishingly well-carved geometrical motifs & other simplistic designs.

This modest enclosure is either a "Mehmaan khana" (guesthouse) or a "Majlis Khana" (assembly house). In the foreground is the aforementioned rubble mound.

The rectangular mosque, on the other hand, is a picture in contrast – it is supposedly the Friday congregation mosque of the Sultan which explains the lavish treatment that has been conferred on it during its commissioning & construction. The construction of the mosque introduced many new features that were later adopted in all such structures built during the reign of the Lodis & later the Mughals, including the extended courtyard & the simple but highly ornamented five-arch entrance. Its exteriors are decorated in stunning calligraphy & art work; the walls are etched with inscriptions from the Quran. The interiors are richly ornamented with intricate gold-painted calligraphy; the roof displays profuse paintwork in red, blue & golden. The mosque shares some of the features of the guesthouse, such as a chajja supported by stone brackets & dressed quartzite finish. A line of “kanguras” (arched crenellations/ornamental battlements) marks the roof level. A dome each surmounts the three chambers of the mosque, each dome itself topped by a lotus finial. The central dome is relatively larger than the other two domes. The base of the dome (drum) is ornamented with leaf-motif that was a characteristic of Sikandar Lodi’s reign. Five arches – the central one being the largest & the ones at the extremes the narrowest – lead within the mosque. The central arch is surrounded by a projecting rectangular frame that interrupts the chajja that is otherwise continuous along the roof.

The mosque is elegance personified, even though it looks simple from afar!!

The mihrabs (the Mecca-facing wall faced by Muslims while praying) are ornamented with arched niches bearing striking patterns & exquisite craftwork. Intricate artwork consisting of floral, geometric & calligraphic patterns in incised & painted limestone plaster lends the mosque an aura of brilliance & unmatched dazzle. A jharokha (protruding window) marks the far side of the mosque parallel to the Gumbad; the jharokha’s small curved roof too is decorated with calligraphy & geometrical patterns so arranged to form six concentric circles embedded within a larger hexagon. The backside of the western wall (mihrab) has tapering turrets  protruding through it, an architectural addition reminiscent of the style practiced by the Tughlaq Dynasty (ruled AD 1325-1414). The dressed rubble is flaking at places & boisterously displays the material that the entire structure is built with.

The mosque interiors - Now you believe me??!

The Gumbad is open on all four sides – however it can only be entered via the side facing the elevated mound or from a flight of stairs emanating from the garden level along the side facing the mosque. All entrance openings are set within a large, arched niche which is further set in a rectangular frame. Except for the side facing the elevated mound, the rest of the entrances face the landscaped Lodi Gardens, however only the mosque facing side has a double-staircase adjoining it; all the other entrances end in limbo mid-air. The Gumbad’s massiveness can be gauged by the measurements of its sides – each side is 20 meters wide & reaches a height of 12 meters. The monument is crowned by a hemispherical dome which sits on a 16-sided drum (base) – together the dome & the drum rise a further 14 meters. The entire structure sits on an equally massive plinth slightly more than 3 meters high (My height is only 1.8 meters!!).

Grandeur personified - The Gumbad & the mosque as seen from the lawns towards its rear. Notice the protruding window along the mosque's side.

The monotony of the dressed grey quartzite exteriors is relieved by the use of black stone & red sandstone along with decorative features such as arched niches & kanguras. The two sides facing the mosque & the guesthouse are extended to form a rubble backbone around the three structures. Tapering turrets & jharokhas mark this rubble extension on the mosque & guesthouse side. The sixteen-sided drum on which the dome rests is also decorated with kanguras & relieved by arched niches set in rectangular frames. The Gumbad is considered to be one of the first instances in India (& the first in Delhi) where a complete hemispherical dome (that is, forming an exact semi-circle) was used to crown a building. Turrets exist along the corners of the Gumbad as well as the corners of the rectangular frames in which the arched entrances are set. On the outside, the monument appears double-storied, divided vertically in two equal parts by projecting horizontal bands of stone. Arched niches that give the appearance of windows mark both the floors, however only the two ground-floor niches on either side of the entrance are open; the rest have been filled in with granite masonry. Another smaller window exists above each of the entrance.

Look at all the puny people scurrying around the structure!! - View from Sheesh Gumbad

The Gumbad is dark inside; the narrow windows fail miserably to illuminate the interiors. The ornamentation is sparse & consists of paintwork & plaster dressing. There is no grave within nor any inscription detailing the period & purpose of construction giving credence to the belief that the Gumbad is meant as a doorway to the exceedingly small mosque-guesthouse complex. If that’s the case then I believe the Sultan’s guests were disappointed – walking through the intimidating Gumbad they would have expected a magnificent guesthouse only to come across an unremarkable, monastic building that looks more of a horse stable than a royal guesthouse. Nay, even Thomas Metcalfe’s stables in Mehrauli were bigger than this guesthouse (refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb). But was it too once thickly ornamented with patterns & artwork & covered with cushions & carpets?? I highly doubt it – the thick quartzite walls are as plain as it could get, they never supported any ornamentation on their surface. Moreover the stylistic differences & the different periods in which the three structures were executed do not support the theory that the Gumbad is just a gateway for the mosque. Some scholars also postulate that at one time the Gumbad might have been a gateway to the entire Lodi Gardens. I’d like to believe that the Gumbad was also a tomb, an exceedingly large tomb for a man of superior birth or accomplishment – perhaps a remarkable commander in the retinue of Sikandar Lodi, confidante of the king or a favourite of the people, whose history & legacy have been forgotten but whose tomb survives the onslaught of time & nature.

Intimidatingly huge & yet so serene & inviting!! 

A walk around the plinth gives a visitor the pleasure of exploring the Gumbad from different angles & perspective. The whole structure appears ethereal, inspite of its imposing proportions it appears to be floating among the trees & shrubs that flank it & add to the beauty of the complex. Framed by the walkways, the dense trees with their heavy, overhanging branches & accompanied by its close neighbor, the Sheesh Gumbad (literally “Mirror Dome”, given that its exteriors were once decorated with mirrors), the monument stands testimony to the strength of a man who decided to leave his dignified mark on the world in the form of this majestic structure.

Location: Lodi Gardens, Beside India International Centre
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium
How to reach: One can walk/take an auto or a rickshaw from the Metro station
Open: All days, Sunrise - Sunset
Entrance Fee: Free
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30min
Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Archnet.org - Bara Gumbad Masjid
  2. Hindu.com - Article "And live to tell the tale!" (dated Jan 22, 2004) by Ajay Chaturvedi & T.N. Behl
  3. Indiatoday.intoday.in - "The Sunset Club (Khushwant Singh)" Review