December 24, 2013

Muhammad Shah Saiyyid's Tomb, Lodi Gardens, New Delhi

"The black, pensive, dense
domes of the mausoleums
suddenly shot birds 
into the unanimous blue"
– Octavio Paz, late Mexican diplomat-poet-writer,
in his poem "In the Lodi Garden"

The year was 1434 AD. The whole country was aware that Wazir Sarwar-ul-Mulk had some nefarious designs in his mind even before he had conspired with rebel nobles to have the Sultan coldly murdered. Sultan Mubarak Shah Saiyyid is dead, long live the Sultan. Mubarak (ruled AD 1421-34) had efficiently safeguarded his domains against dangers both within & without while he lived but he could not foresee his own men conspiring against him, primarily because he had managed to break their influential hold over the kingdom through the newly devised system of frequent transfers to different parts of the country. The most able & resourceful sovereign of the Saiyyid Dynasty died leaving behind no heir to continue his lineage. The unscrupulous Wazir (Prime minister) was now openly involved in court intrigues over the choice of a successor for the deceased Sultan. That the Wazir had accumulated vast power & influence in his hands through his cunning & treachery was no secret – even the Sultan knew of it & had tried to check the same by appointing several nobles over the Wazir leading to open hostilities & eventually resulting in his own grisly murder - and now when one after the other the Sultan’s favored nobles began falling to their death, the power & cold-heartedness of the Wazir was most apparent. Worried, the nobles conceded to allow the Sultan’s nephew Muhammad Shah to succeed his uncle in the hope that he might be able to rein in the deceitful Wazir. Muhammad proved to be a pitiful excuse of a Sultan – he was fully aware of Sarwar-ul-Mulk’s involvement in his uncle’s murder yet failed to take action against him - his loyal nobles kept getting murdered or exiled & he was unable to stop it. Losing his patience over this long drawn out process, Sarwar-ul-Mulk decided to take forward action & made arrangements to murder the Sultan himself; only he did not reckon that the palace guards were still obedient to their real master – they seized the Wazir as soon as he made his intentions clear & finished him off real quick. With the last thorn in his side gone, the Sultan embarked upon a life of luxury & debauchery – displeased with his lax attitude & unconcern over administrative affairs, many of the nobles who once stood by him revolted. Muhammad’s sorry reign – one that saw inefficient governance, his enemies getting stronger, nobles & generals revolting & power accumulating everywhere except in the hands of the Sultan – came to an end in mere 10 years with his natural death. His son Ala-ud-din Alam Shah (ruled AD 1444-51) took the throne & embarked upon the construction of a massive mausoleum for his father.

Muhammad Shah's final resting place

The brief Saiyyid reign (AD 1414-51) saw a relaxation in the architectural austerity measures that were the hallmark of Tughlaq-era (ruled 1325-1414 AD) construction before the Saiyyid’s began their rule – the fusion of Hindu elements in Islamic construction details came in vogue – floral patterns, lotus finials & chattris were motifs drawn from Hindu iconography. But the Saiyyid reign had begun after another phase of Delhi’s fall – the Central Asian plunderer Timur had just invaded India & ravished the northern provinces including Delhi, spreading rape, destruction, death & plunder wherever he lay his eyes (AD 1398). The Tughlaq Empire fragmented into pieces following which Delhi became the battlefield as Tughlaq prince Nasir-ud-din Mahmud & the fearsome noble Mallu Iqbal clashed for control over the remaining wealth & power of Delhi. Khizr Khan (ruled AD 1414-21), Muhammad Shah’s grandfather & Timur’s vassal in-charge of modern-day Punjab capitalized on the situation & advanced to capture Delhi & its war-depleted treasury. Though the Saiyyids claimed direct descent from Prophet Muhammad, they did not fail to admire & adopt Hindu artistic features such as representation of floral designs which till some decades back was a taboo for Muhammadan artists. However, the Saiyyids lacked the capital to commission captivating palaces & splendid fortresses – they stuck to tombs (therefore earning Delhi the reputation of a necropolis during that period), & even here the artistic compositions were muted & the architectural features less flamboyant. 

Mr Saiyyid surrounded by his relatives

One of the finest Saiyyid-era structure in Delhi & the only one in Lodi Gardens, Muhammad Shah Saiyyid’s mausoleum is built in the architectural style favored by the Saiyyid & Lodi dynasties. It consists of a large octagonal chamber surmounted by a high graceful dome & surrounded by a spacious pillared veranda running parallel to each side. Among the features displayed by the tomb are – a continuous eave (“chajja”) along the roof supported by equally spaced brackets, chattris (domes mounted on slender pillars) raised on the parapet above each of its sides, strong tapering pillars dressed with grey Delhi quartzite stone along each corner of the octagon (to afford enhanced structural stability), three-arch entrances on each side along the edge of verandah & inverted lotus finials atop the central dome & the smaller chattri domes. The squat but well-proportioned structure sits on a rubble plinth & can be noticed from afar. The parapet, the sixteen-sided drum (base) of the dome & the eight-sided drums of the smaller dome – each is distinguished by a row of kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation). Slender ornamental pillars emerge from each corner of the drum of the central dome – portions of the pillars & the kangura ornamentation have been turned brilliant red, perhaps a result of recent restoration work. Each of these adornments work in tandem to generate a cumulative effect of striking grace & symmetry. The verandah is reached by climbing a flight of stairs & one cannot fail to notice the captivating patterns that adorn the recessed niches that are built into the roof of the verandah – the four-pointed stars were once painted white; the straight lines, arches & embossments complement each other to form solemn symmetrical patterns; in the center of the star & embossed within an octagon is a graceful eight-petal flower pattern bearing in its center an intricate incised plaster design that puts to shame modern artistic compositions. 

Incised plasterwork in the roof niches along the verandah

Originally each side of the chamber bore jaalis (stone filigree screens), however these were lost with time & the western side was filled in to function as a mihrab (enclosure wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering Namaz). With the loss of the lattice screens, each face came to possess an arched doorway leading into the chamber – each doorway is partitioned near the top with a heavy lintel beam so that the entrance becomes rectangular with an arched window slightly above it. The pillars that support the lintel beam curve near the top & flower into curves.

Inside the tomb, the quartzite walls ornamented with white plasters & medallions appear well proportioned. Eight graves – each covered with a layer of somber white plaster – line the chamber in three rows, the central one belongs to Muhammad Shah, the rest are construed to be those of his family members. Towards the top, the corners of the chamber are spanned by stone wedges to convert the eight-sided interior into a sixteen-sided figure in order to better support the weight of the massive dome. The dome & the chamber are separated by a line of arched alcoves set within rectangular niches topped by a span of quartzite stone & a band of calligraphic inscription. 

Dome interiors

The dome is massive (diameter 10 meter) & displays a central medallion set within two concentric four-pointed stars which touch to form an eight-point star at the circumference of the medallion. The sides of the two stars have been extended to touch the periphery of the dome & each of the eight polygonal quadrants formed were once adorned with a smaller medallion motif (with tails emerging radially from the center-facing sides), however only one such medallion exists now. The intricate designs are done in incised plaster painted in vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow & green to generate a mesmerizing picture consisting of floral artwork embossed within a circle of calligraphic inscriptions embossed within a larger circle of bewitching floral designs. The patterns are colossal and gorgeous, sadly though the photographs don’t do it much justice. The dome had suffered extensive deterioration due to water seepage & cracking of the plaster layers; however the same has been rectified recently (along with the fixing of cracks, repainting of discoloured walls & replacement of broken/missing tiles) by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) & Indian National Trust for Conservation of Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in a conservation drive sponsored by Steel Authority of India (SAIL). My favorite part however remains the floral patterns etched in the stone brackets supporting the lintel beams (the pillar bursts I mentioned earlier), here’s a photo of the one decorating the mihrab –

Chiseled perfection

Even though Lodi Gardens is considered one of the most charming landscaped gardens of Delhi, the area around this particular mausoleum has been given a touch of finesse – the grass-blanketed surroundings give the impression of a grand structure standing atop a sloping hill with palm trees forming a large square enclosure around the hill & massive trees looming in the not-so-distant background. Had Alam Shah not been in a hurry to surrender his kingdom to Bahlol Lodi in 1451 AD & shift to Badaun (modern-day Uttar Pradesh), perhaps he too would have thought that his father’s tomb would one day be a picnic spot for couples, a rendezvous point for lovers & a hide-and-seek corner for children (Tombs those days were commissioned as family retreats & were built in gardens complete with walkways, fruit-bearing trees & artificial water bodies). Well-maintained shrubs lead up to the worn-out stone steps that lead to the plinth level; a dog finds refuge next to the Sultan’s grave while its counterparts are being chased away by a gardener as couples sitting on the benches & on the grass look about. Delhi winters, when the city’s inhabitants retreat to their warm blankets & even the monuments wear a blanket of fog around them is perhaps the best time to visit Muhammad Shah’s Tomb – the beauty lies in observing the cream-grey structure in the mist while at the same time drifting into thoughts of one’s beloved & wishing they were here besides you. That’s what I was thinking, drop a comment & let me know what you thought !!

Seen around

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
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