December 12, 2014

South Ex. Trail, Delhi

Refuge of religion! Refuge and paradise of justice!
Long may it endure!
Since it is a heavenly paradise in every essential quality,
may God keep it from calamity!"
– Amir Khusro, "Qiran al-sa'dain", 14th century

Surprisingly, if there is an area in Delhi which renews one's faith in humanity's obstinate permanence and repetitive resurgence despite recurrent cataclysms and mortality-induced banalities, it would be South Ex., the commercial heart of the city, that is intriguingly strewn with ornate monuments over half a millennium old that have weathered centuries of oppressively sweltering summers and bone-chilling winters and yet, with its fascinating hodgepodge of designer showrooms, multi-storied coaching centers, glimmering neon signs and glitzy restaurants, appears as new as a fresh idea. Amidst the serpentine, perennially crowded, maze of ubiquitous glass and cement mega-structures are scattered a few miniature, painstakingly adorned early Lodi-era (AD 1451-1526) mausoleums that each stands within a small landscaped grassy lawn of its own and are in such close vicinity to each other that one necessarily feels that they were originally intended as a cluster existential within a larger garden complex but have since become drastically estranged from each other as a result of burgeoning urbanization and commercialization of land space. Needless to say, the disproportionately minimal space around each of these structures renders photography and visual composition exceedingly difficult, but does indeed propel one to imagine what these might have appeared like in their erstwhile majesty when surrounded by vast open grassy plains as far as the eye could see.

Desolation! - Kale Khan ka Gumbad

Kale Khan ka Gumbad –

Coordinates: 28°34'12.5"N 77°13'08.2"E
Literally translating to "Tomb of the Black Khan", the decrepit (yet ruggedly elegant) square mausoleum, the first that a solitary visitor wandering into the back lanes of South Ex's otherwise glittering expanse encounters, encapsulates in itself the mortal remains of Mubarak Khan Lohani who was a nobleman during the reign of Bahlol Lodi (ruled AD 1451-89) and whom many historians consider to be the father of Darya Khan Lohani (more on him later). The crumbling yet evocative edifice, built in AD 1481 and royally seated upon a high sloping mound of its own, dominates the area around itself despite the circumstances it finds itself in presently – the small lawn that surrounds it, though landscaped with a shroud of green grass and rows of palm trees, has become an oasis for couples shopping/feasting nearby, students attending coaching classes and smokers wishing for a respite from the sweltering sun and a corner to sit around and gossip.

Externally, the tomb's walls are conceived to present a double-storied appearance wherein narrow alcoves are set on either side of the larger central arch which is itself set within an even larger arched depression which in turn is set within a projecting rectangular facade. The roof, before culminating into the perfectly executed semi-circular dome, translates into a row of "kanguras" (battlement-like ornamentation) lining also the drum (base) of the dome.

Spotted on the trail

Entrances mark three of the sides while the fourth (western), that lacks any opening, functions in the capacity of mihrab (western wall of a mosque/tomb that indicates the direction of Mecca and is faced by Muslims while offering namaz); the interiors, even more dilapidated than the exteriors which at least display some semblance of having been plastered as part of a restoration effort in the past, retain remnants of plasterwork medallions and a eight-cornered star pattern adorning the dome that might have been vibrantly painted and decorated once but at present offers not the slightest clue to its original glorious existence; there are two graves within, possibly those of Mubarak Khan and his wife. Why the tomb is referred to as that of the Black Khan is a matter of conjecture, but some suspect it might be because of Mubarak Khan's dark complexion, even though no historic records specifically refer to it. Interestingly, of all the Lodi-era monuments, it has been dated to be the earliest and represents a crucial step from pre-Lodi mausoleums (that were predominantly octagonal or otherwise built like a small forceful structure complete with buttresses and thick walls) to the innovation of highly symmetrical square structures – all the more reason for its restoration and conservation for future generations to observe, research and understand.

Hemmed in - Bhure Khan ka Gumbad

Bhure Khan ka Gumbad –

Coordinates: 28°34'20.4"N 77°13'14.9"E
Another distinctive tomb whose nomenclature perhaps invokes a reference to the complexion of the person interred even though the actual identity remains unknown, "Tomb of the Fair Khan" is similar to Kale Khan ka Gumbad in almost all aspects with the only exception that is slightly perceptibly better embellished with a smattering of decorative plasterwork patterns, tapering fluted pillars and brilliant blue tile work along its front facade, inverted lotus finial surmounting the dome and pendant-shaped medallions marking the space in the dome interiors where the larger painted star-pattern is extended so that its vertexes project to intersect the row of ornamental alcoves that adorn the base of the large dome. A large grave occupies most of the interior space and even the squinches (diagonal added between two arms of a corner so as to span space and convert a square structure successively into a octagon and then a polygon/circle to support the heavy dome) are better defined and decorated. Thoroughly filled with cobwebs and foul-smelling refuse, a narrow staircase next to the entrance leads upstairs to the roof level, however the panoramic view around is entirely impeded by the surrounding whitewashed buildings and treeline. The tiny tomb exists in a deplorable condition, wedged between towering houses that overshadow it on two sides, a parking lot turned into a dump yard-cum-cow shed on the third and barbed fences demarcating the extent of the meager confine of land surrounding the tomb on the fourth. The only possible way of entering this fenced-in space if one wishes to observe the monument close and personal is by jumping over the fence along the dump yard side at the cost of spoiling one's shoes with muck and cow shit, or worse, tearing one's trousers on the barbed wires!

Silence and serenity - Bade Khan (left) and Chote Khan (right) ka Gumbad

Bade Khan – Chote Khan Tomb complex –

Coordinates: 28°34'23.7"N 77°13'11.6"E
The only facet of the identities of Bade Khan ("Big Khan") and Chote Khan ("Small Khan") apparent today is that they were eminent noblemen in Lodi regime and possibly shared a relationship amongst themselves such as that of father-son or teacher-pupil. It is contended that originally the three architecturally and artistically similar tombs of Bhure Khan, Bade Khan and Chote Khan were included within the same larger complex but have since become partitioned into two different complexes as a consequence of glaring blunders that Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) committed in an overzealous attempt at monument conservation whereby without any prior notification they demolished buildings constructed by a certain Nahata Group of Traders and Builders who had overtime come to own the crucial land between the tombs. Following this, the Nahata Group pressed legal charges against ASI demanding financial compensation for illegal demolition and the entire area has since been fenced in with barbed wires with notices put up threatening action against trespassers. Thankfully, the remaining plot has been beautifully maintained as a garden by the ASI and there are towering trees flanking the circumference, green grass carpeting the lawns and flowering shrubbery demarcating the walkways. Young children from nearby slums and construction sites run around playing games of their own making, a few walkers stroll around the walkways and the tombs function as majestic bedrooms for a few laborers and gardeners.

Exquisiteness personified - Stucco patterns, Chote Khan ka Gumbad

Though the better preserved Chote Khan ka Gumbad is kept grilled and locked most of the time, the friendly caretaker will instantaneously open it up if requested. Lavishly embellished with an extravagant layer of incised plasterwork patterns crafted into rows upon rows of intricate Quranic inscriptions and floral motifs, the cream-pink exquisite tomb is unarguably architecturally and artistically the most delightful of the lot traversed in this particular trail. The use of vibrant blue tiles along the facades, tapering turrets projecting along the tops of the rectangular embossments that frame the arched entrances, stone latticework ("jalis") to mark the two openings which do not function as entrance gateways (the fourth side functions in the capacity of a mihrab) and hexagonal "chattris" (umbrella domes surmounted on slender pillars) mounted on the corners of the roof contrasted against the massive perfectly designed dome lend further credence to the ornamental conception of the mesmerizing structure. Where mankind failed, further charm is added by nature in the form of colorful parakeets that flutter around the tomb's chattris and sides and sleepy-eyed owls that occasionally peep through their nest holes in the walls.

Inside, the arches engulfing the squinches, the curve of the entrances and the smaller decorative alcoves that fringe the base of the dome too are layered with stucco inscriptions. The sober red sandstone mihrab is exceedingly simplistic and yet undeniably touching while the impressive star pattern adorning the roof couldn't have been envisaged more gracefully. I'll let the photographs do the talking since words fail to convey the eminence of the alluring structure.

"Hey, look! What's that bespectacled guy with the camera trying to do?!"

Bade Khan's spectacularly prominent tomb, though irresistibly simplistic and covered only with red-brown stone rubble, is literally gigantic and has been externally conceived to appear triple-storied through the assistance of narrow arched alcoves and windows on different levels. The massive tomb packs numerous intriguing surprises such as the occasional blocks of singular sculpted stones bearing calligraphic inscriptions embedded within the walls relieving the continuous monotony, corbelled doorways crafted out of red sandstone lintels artistically carved to generate the appearance of arches, small chattris surrounding the colossal dominant dome, the use of detailed stone latticework to close off two of the entrances and most interestingly, ornamental semi-octagonal pillars ("pilasters") built within the walls along the corners – a feature that is unique to this particular tomb amongst all medieval structures in Delhi. The shallow dome rises from a sixteen-sided drum (base) whose each corner is marked by a slender tapering turret. The grand interiors are relatively better preserved and the plasterwork medallions, cobblestone floor, red sandstone mihrab, star pattern adorning the roof and the five large sarcophagi are all intact. The incised plaster medallion inside the star pattern, displaying collinear bands of inscriptions and floral and geometric motifs, is amazingly well preserved and fascinatingly intricate.

Notice the unique corner towers! - Bade Khan ka Gumbad

Darya Khan Lohani's Tomb –

Coordinates: 28°34'20.1"N 77°13'00.3"E
The contrast between the tombs of Mubarak Khan and Darya Khan couldn't have been more glaring. Constructed in a three-tiered setting, one of the most unusual, although grievously neglected, tombs in the city belongs to Darya Khan Lohani, the "Mir Adil" (Chief Justice) during the reigns of Sultan Bahlol Lodi (ruled AD 1451-89) and Sikandar Nizam Khan Lodi (ruled AD 1489-1517). It today functions as a forgotten and ignored traffic roundabout in Kidwai Nagar where it delineates the urban village setting of Kotla Mubarakpur from the exceedingly posh South Extension I. What can be said to constitute the tomb proper is raised from the surroundings by an immensely high square platform which possesses remains of circular bastions along the corners – rubble slopes continue to hinge the platform to the ground around on all sides, however it is deduced that along one of the sides originally existed a regal gateway which has since been reduced to rubble by nature's fury. One wonders how much of the irrevocable damage was heaved to the fragile monument by the enormous heat, noise and material pressure exerted by the annual Dussehra festivities that saw effigies of the demon lord Ravana being burnt in its immediate vicinity till a few years back!

Unusual and beckoning - Darya Khan Lohani's tomb

Upon this pedestal and exactly symmetrical with it is another comparatively smaller pedestal accessible via staircases on three sides and crowned on each corner by a domed twelve-pillared stone pavilion (chattri/barakhamba). In the center of this second pedestal lies a moderately high circular edifice (which presently acts as a site for the locals to sprinkle grain and sweets for the birds and insects which flock to it in hundreds every day) on which in an excessively simplistic grave enclosed in white marble sleeps Darya Khan in eternal slumber. Only one of the four square chattris survives in its entirety while the rest exist miserably in different stages of ruin – the interior surfaces of the domes were inscribed with floral medallions and handsome bands of calligraphy, possibly Quranic, but that couldn't save them from destruction, the pillars are thick, perfectly carved and thoroughly unblemished, the use of squinches to successively convert the square configuration to circular is immediately notable, kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation) decorate the proportionately high octagonal bases of the domes.

Amongst ruins, here lies Darya Khan, a powerful Afghan noble

Pigeons find resting space upon the large domes and underneath meet doting couples looking for a quiet cozy corner, laymen coveting some space to doze around or play cards and locals congregating to gossip. There have been attempts to landscape the upper platform with rows of palm trees extending alongside the sides and shrouds of grass carpeting the entire area. Ashoka trees reach out from the lowermost surface and, much to the pleasure of squirrels who like nothing more than hopping around, spread their wide, crinkled branches over the domed pavilions.

In view of full disclosure, I find these ruins more fascinating than the splendid whole.

It would be fitting to end this article with words drawn from R.V. Smith, my favorite chronicler of Delhi's history and monuments, reflecting upon the neglect and ignorance faced by these tombs in particular and almost all monuments in the country in general in terms of restoration-conservation and historic appreciation –

"The gumbads (domes) of Delhi are also repositories of history which, however, are not given the attention they deserve. Domes came into prominence during the Muslim period, though there certainly were domed buildings before that time, but Hindu temples and other edifices, by and large, lacked the finesse and excellence of the domes that came up later."

Symmetry, stars and medallions - Inside Chote Khan's mausoleum

Nearest Bus stop: South Ex. I
Nearest Metro station: AIIMS
How to reach: From the Ring Road, take the street beginning immediately besides Nalli Sarees or the Louis Philippe store and you will come across Kale Khan ka Gumbad after walking less than half a kilometer. Afterwards walk straight with your back to Ring Road and ask directions for Bade/Chote Khan ka Gumbad and the locals will direct you. Darya Khan Lohani's tomb is located in the middle of a roundabout known as Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Chowk near Kidwai Nagar market/post office.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20-25 minutes per monument
Other trails in the city - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Road - Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium Trail 
  2. Pixelated Memories - R.K. Puram Trail 
Suggested reading -
  1. - Article "Heritage bylaw delay hits locals" (dated Mar 9, 2014) by Richi Verma
  2. - Article "Lodi Tombs in South Extension stand divided" (dated June 29, 2012) by Richi Verma