December 13, 2013

Lodi-era Canopy Tomb, Mehrauli Archaeological Park, New Delhi

Mehrauli, which is the oldest continuously inhabited area in Delhi (it was apparently named “Mihroli” after King Mihr Bhoj who reigned several millennia back), is nowadays famous for the largest archaeological space in the city – the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. More of a necropolis spread over several acres that boasts of tombs, baolis (“step wells”) & wall mosques, the Archaeological Park also houses a lone canopy tomb not unlike many others seen in different parts of the city. Blackish in hue & retaining much of its original ornamentation, the canopy tomb dates back to the reign of the Lodi Dynasty (AD 1451-1526) & consists of a umbrella dome resting on twelve pillars. It stands next to Rajon ki Baoli, one of the finest step-wells that exists in the city; but sadly the local population, possessing but little education & being largely unaware of the heritage spreading over several millennia strewn around them, have condemned both the baoli & the tomb to the fate of a pig sty – filth (black as tar & equally thick), thorny outgrowth dense enough to prove non-negotiable & a large population of four-legged beings comprising equally of dogs & pigs & consisting of a few cows too that call this sewage & polythene filled pit their dear home are what lie in store for a visitor curious enough to brave the curving track of the Archaeological Park to reach this particular point.

Shrouded by foliage

If you still haven’t got the bigger picture, let me assure you that the path leading to the tomb is perfectly fine – a simple mud track cleared of debris & vegetation; in fact even on nearing to a certain extent the scene is pristine – the ruins of the semi-octagonal bastions at the corners of the wall that makes up the perimeter around the plinth on which the tomb stands give the appearance of a miniature fortress, a stone stronghold forgotten in this dense vegetation meant to guard the graves assigned to it for safe keep. The honks of cars & the chatter of humanity is lost on the way to this virgin corner; modernity is left behind; brilliant red birds, big black ants & vividly-colored butterflies are company here. Occasionally one might come across another person who would be as surprised on seeing you as you are on seeing them in this distant corner...
It is the stench that first reaches the visitor - the decay around cannot be ignored, not even if you put all your attention into photographing the structure!! Next comes the sight & sound – pigs grunting at you would not have been so terrifying if they were not so large & not accompanied by dogs that bared their teeth at the slightest pretext!! The pristine, virgin monument turns out to be part of a desolate, forsaken corner. Rubble from collapsed & collapsing structures is strewn around the tomb; the double staircase leading up to the plinth level is surrounded by this downpour of debris - at some places, the only way to reach the plinth is to leap over heaps of rubble collected on/around the stairs.

Protected by bastions

The dome of the tomb rests on an eight-sided drum (base) & is ornamented with leaf motif emerging from the lotus finial. The drum too displays leaf motif though of a different design while the roof of the tomb is marked by a row of kanguras (battlement-like decorative pattern). The pillars that support the dome are simplistic rough, rectangular blocks possessing ornamentation only along their top where they mutate into four-pronged brackets to support the weight of the dome. The inside of the dome reveals floral artwork in incised plaster directly underneath the finial – it appears that once the design must have encompassed most of the dome but it was lost with time & subsequent restoration work limited it to the present state. At each point where the pillars meet the dome, the brackets take a decorative form resembling a lotus bud with more curves sprouting out of it topped by an intricate design; a row of ornamental arched alcoves inlaid within rectangular niches & flanked by floral plasterwork moves around the inside of the dome dividing it into two halves horizontally - but not all the alcoves & lotus brackets are the same - many are simply shorn of all decorative features that their counterparts proudly flaunt, perhaps some conservation artist thought its better to have a plain plaster surface than display remnants of the original artwork.

Adorned by lotus brackets

Several graves are scattered underneath the canopy, more surround it, covering both the plinth & the ground around the tomb with a carpet of dead & their mausoleums – some of these are in perfect conditions with their rounded tops & sharply-defined edges, others are broken & crumbling, some even have grass sprouting through their broken faces. There must be at least a score graves here – the canopy seems to be a favorite burial spot at the time!!

Surrounded by graves

The red-sandstone plaque installed by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) close to the tomb reads –
“The colonnaded tomb stands on a rather large plinth over which are several graves. In a ruinous condition, the staircase to the plinth leads from each side of an arched opening that leads to a flat domed chamber. The corners of the plinth are emphasized by semi-octagonal bastions. Towards the east of the tomb canopy are remnants of another similar building.”

I assume it’s not just me but every heritage enthusiast-photographer who feels a strange thrill, a sudden rush of adrenaline at discovering a hitherto hidden & largely forgotten structure such as this tomb. No matter how debilitating the stench around it is, or how dangerous those big, bad dogs appear, there is a beauty in such structures that defies their surrounding & the condition they have been subjected to. If only the whole of the Archaeological Park is landscaped & beautified (much like the unbelievable conversion by Lady Willingdon of the erstwhile Khairpur Village to the splendid stretch now known as Lodi Gardens) so that more people can behold the architectural gems that the Park houses.

Framed by ruins

Some heaps of debris scattered right & left only adds to the charm of these centuries-old monuments!! Be there to see for yourself! (& while you are at it, you can also spare some time for the other monuments in the park, am adding the links at the end of this post)

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 unmarked entrance to the Archaeological Park is through an iron gate opposite Ahinsa Sthal (situated couple of hundred meters away from Lado Serai, refer Pixelated Memories - Ahinsa Sthal)
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
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.
Other monuments within the Archaeological Park -  
  1. Pixelated Memories - Balban's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Jamali Kamali Complex
  3. Pixelated Memories - Khan Shahid's Tomb
  4. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Chattri
  5. Pixelated Memories - Metcalfe's Ziggurats
  6. Pixelated Memories - Ruins, Mehrauli Archaeological Park
  7. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sahil,

    You echo my sentiments. This monument is a beauty and it must be wondering what did it do wrong when the Raja ki Baoli could be so beautifully restored but this canopy lies in total ruins. I think the bastions will also fall in the next rains.

    Wish they could do something integrated here and fence the park off and yes develop it like Lodhi Gardens.