October 25, 2014

Sultan Garhi, Vasant Kunj, Delhi


“This blessed building was commanded to be erected by the great Sultan, the most exalted emperor, the lord of the necks of the people, the shadow of God in the world, the bestower of safety on the believers, the heir of the kingdom of Sulaiman, the master of the seal in the kingdom of the world, the helper of the chief of the faithful, the sultan of sultans who is specially favored by the Lord of the worlds, Shamshuddin Waddin Abul Muzaffar Iltutmish the sultan, may God perpetuate his rule, as a mausoleum for the king of kings of the east Abul Fath Mahmud, may God forgive him with his indulgence and make him dwell in the center of the paradise, in the year 629.” 
– Translation of the inscription carved on the entrance to Sultangarhi 

As a child, Shamshuddin Iltutmish was intelligent, handsome, hardworking and displayed signs of understanding wisdom and a gifted intellect that often provoked the jealousy and a misplaced sense of inferiority in the neighborhood kids and even his own brothers. Such was the chagrin his inconsiderate and devious brothers experienced when faced with his piety and fine knowledge that they eventually decided to deprive him of paternal love and the noble upbringing his affluent family could afford and had him sold as one of the many slave boys to a merchant from Bukhara (Uzbekistan). The man, a dealer in slaves and fine merchandise, further sold the boy to Qutbuddin Aibak, the meritorious lieutenant and the foremost of slaves of Muizuddin Muhammad ibn Sam, the Sultan of Afghanistan (also otherwise known as Muhammad Ghuri), who later went on to become the Sultan of Hindustan. Following the death of his master in AD 1210 and the subsequent incompetent rule of his successor Aram Shah, Iltutmish decided to capitalize upon the disgruntled nobility and the disenchanted armed forces and with their aid ascended the enviable throne of Delhi. He who once was an undesired but forever grateful child, now ruled over the massive Indian subcontinent and wielded considerable influence as the “Sultan-i-Azam”, the great emperor; a formidable military commander and an unparalleled administrator, he boasted of fearsome fighting capabilities and a fiercely loyal backing of powerful armies and slaves; yet he remained a tender-hearted father when it came to his children upon whom he doted and lavished immense affection while attempting to fulfill all their demands and wishes as best as he could. Had he been able to foresee the future, he would have been shocked and appalled at how his progeny would butcher each other after his death, but we shall connect the various threads of Delhi’s often horrific and rotten history later in this article.


Sultan-i-Garhi - Seated in a forest


Iltutmish delegated the administration of the eastern territories of the subcontinent to his eldest and favorite son Nasiruddin Mahmud, entitled him “Malik-us-Sharq” (“Lord of the East”) and appointed him the Governor of the fertile and affluent land of Bengal (Lakhnauti). He always knew that among all his children only his daughter Razia was capable of inheriting and governing the colossal kingdom over which he reigned supreme, but he continued to groom Nasiruddin Mahmud as an efficient administrator-general and his heir-apparent. But it was not meant to be – following ill health brought about as a result of Bengal’s climate, Nasiruddin passed away in the year 1229, leaving behind him a distraught father, grieving siblings and mournful subjects. Considering himself to be a sinner and an inconsiderate creation of God, he decreed that his body should be thrown down in a dark underground cave and not subjected to a royal funeral and burial in magnificent mausoleum. The inconsolable Sultan did bury him in a cave, but this cave was especially custom-built above the ground for the purpose – thus came into existence Sultan-i-Garhi, “Emperor of the Caves”, an octagonal crypt enclosed within a miniature square fortress with massive walls and gigantic bastions (“burj”) that lend it an undeniably masculine, militaristic appearance. One of the least known major monuments in Delhi, the mausoleum, built in AD 1231-32, has the fantastic reputation of being the oldest existential monumental tomb in the city (and in the entire country since the only earlier royal mausoleum of the subcontinent – Qutbuddin Aibak’s tomb in Lahore – is in Pakistan) and it is so different from the later tombs and religious shrines that it superbly succeeds too in living visually the role of grand old monument. Seated, unarguably with an indisputable sense of conviction and steadfastness, upon a raised plinth (3 meters high) in the thoroughly vegetated southern ridge forests where thorny bushes and stunted trees compete for space with blasted rocks and infertile outcrops, the 800-year old tomb is enclosed by thick, high walls and built almost entirely out of golden-brown Delhi quartzite stone.


Up on the plinth and inside the enclosure - The octagonal crypt and the pyramid-surmounted mosque


The characteristic unyielding nature of the quartzite renders it highly unsuitable for sculptural and inscriptional purposes, thereby necessitating the use of an alternate construction material in combination with the former – in this case, the requirement is fulfilled most notably by white marble highlights which has been utilized in constructing the massive projecting entrance of the mausoleum as well as the interiors. In fact, after one does overcome the initial gasps of shock and awe at witnessing the inimitable majestic fortress-tomb rise from the ground in the middle of the unrelenting forest, it is the splendid beauty of the gigantic rectangular entrance, neatly carved into strips of straight lines ultimately culminating into graceful strips of calligraphy that renders visitors speechless. In an instance of unbelievable irony, shared sacred culture and peaceful cohabitation, the local population, both Hindu and Muslim, over the ages began considering Nasiruddin Mahmud a saint and venerate him despite his everlasting conviction of his status as an eternal sinner – the telltale signs of people visiting the tomb complex and offering prayers begin right at the entrance (they are observable in the ridge forest too in the form of rusted and poorly painted signboards indicating the direction to “Peer Baba” (“Revered Sufi saint”), as Nasiruddin is now reverentially referred to as) – climb up the high staircase and either side, near the bottom, the calligraphy characters have turned black as a consequence of regular lighting of oil lamps and incense. Continuing since decades, in a tradition unaffected by any political or religious attempts at introducing chasms between members of different religions and belief systems, and as a sign of heartwarming coexistence between these people of varying faiths and their mutual admiration and acceptance of each other, the mausoleum is especially visited by reverential locals in large numbers every Thursday when prayers are allowed and free food (“langar”) is distributed to everyone irrespective of any differences of faith, creed or gender. Newly-wed brides from the surrounding villages are also brought to the mausoleum by their relatives to seek blessings of marital happiness from the saint. The locals also regularly clean and take care of the shrine, without in any way making any modifications to the original structure – and this, the involvement of the locals, in my opinion, is possibly the best possible manner in which a monument can be conserved for future generations compared to either totally blocking the locals out or giving them such a free hand that they encroach upon the monument and its associated structures.


Stunning! - Details of the inscription carved into the entrance frame


The interiors are exceedingly straightforward – sheltered colonnades, composed of unadorned, simplistic rectangular pillars plundered from Hindu temples destroyed by Emperor Iltutmish, exist along the eastern (entrance) and western sides of the square enclosure, while the other two sides have arched windows built in the walls and looking down upon the vast spread of dense green forest and ancient sets of ruins surrounding the mausoleum (more on that later). Windows also pierce the eastern and western sides, but here the more dominant visual factor is the white marble entrance and the serene mihrab (western wall of a funerary zone/mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, to be faced by Muslims while offering prayers) composed of the same material – interestingly, if one observes carefully, the windows are arched only visually, but not architecturally – the unique corbelled arch technique has been employed here where stone blocks forming a wall are merely carved to resemble curved arches – the style originated immediately following the invasion of the Indian subcontinent by Turkish Muslim armies and the incessant insistence of the new commissioners of buildings and tombs for them to possess arched entrances and openings, a concept alien to the incorrigible native Hindu artists and sculptors who were only capable of constructing trabeates (where stone ledges of gradually increasing sizes are placed atop each other to span space). The splendid mosque/mihrab, surmounted by an enormous pyramidal roof that boasts of an intricate circular floral sculpture along its spellbinding interior side, is a bewitching artistic entity – the white marble has been dexterously and immensely patiently sculpted into detailed bands of floral and geometric motifs and Quranic calligraphy inscriptions. The fluted pillars, supporting the immensely heavy roof on equally heavy brackets, are constructed out of equally flawless white marble for use around the mihrab, but are composed of the same luster less quartzite in the rest of the colonnaded section. Immediately next to the mihrab’s wall is a shallow concave depression hollowed in the marble floor where devotes leave sugar balls, marigold flowers and incense sticks as a mark of faith towards the sanctity of Nasiruddin Mahmud and his boon-bestowing capabilities, but the sugar balls especially attract an enormous number of big ants and flies, the result being the entire floor area is crawling with these creepy, large insects!


Exquisitely detailed - The tomb's associated funerary mosque


The corner bastions and the towering pyramidal roof rise way above the canopy of the surrounding forest and can be seen even afar from the Mehrauli- Mahipalpur road that runs on considerably higher ground skirting the forest territory. Quell the excitement to explore the octagonal crypt just a few minutes more and head to the prominent corner bastions gracing the fortress-tomb – these too possess rather ordinary, but simplistically beautiful, carved floral medallions along the undersurface of their shallow conical domes – the distinctive domes themselves are raised from corbelled stonework and are no insurmountable feats of architectural excellence, but the view from the arched windows in these corner towers is scarily fascinating – one is so high above the ground that it is spellbindingly thrilling and shuddering at the exact same moment!

At last, one heads to the crypt, raised further almost a meter above the ground (that is, the 3 meter high plinth level) in the form of an octagon faced with white marble and possessing stairs along one side leading upstairs and along another heading downstairs – part of the octagon seems to have been constructed from the remains of desecrated Hindu/Jain temples and the same is observable from the lengthy spans of exquisitely sculpted stone fragments that compose the top edges of the octagon just inside of the marble periphery and concentric with it. There isn’t any purpose to step up the stairs to reach the crypt’s roof unless one wishes to observe the numerous pigeons that flock and flutter to feed on the grains and water left for them by the devotees and the guards (yes, the premises are ticketed, though there wasn’t another visitor except me the entire day and am sure the revenues must be disappointing to an extreme degree) – pointing to the stairs that lead nowhere, some historians contend that the tomb was never completed and a dome or roof was meant to cover the octagonal crypt later, but then the obvious question is if the entire fortress-tomb could be raised in two years, why not a small domed chamber in the next few months while the Emperor was still settled in Delhi?


Spookiest tomb I have actually been to in Delhi. This photo of the crypt has been brightened to an extent - it is several shades darker in actuality.


Stepping down into the uncomfortably dark and damp cave chamber is perhaps the scariest dreadful experience I have ever encountered in my short life – supported on extremely plain, unadorned rectangular pillars is the heavy roof of the cave under which rest three graves, each of them draped in a length of light green cloth as is suitable for the sarcophagus of any saint and garlanded with marigold flowers. The largest grave, situated along the western face of the dark cave and ensconced between two of the pillars is said to be that of Nasiruddin Mahmud, though there is neither any sign of ornamentation nor recognition – the faithful have tied numerous letters, deep red threads, pieces of cloth and silver foil, in order to beseech the prince and his family to grant their wishes and fulfill their dreams (“mannat”) upon which they shall return to express their grateful respects and remove the symbolic application (“arzi”), that is the thread/cloth/letter, from the pillars. As I already confessed, I was scared witless on stepping into the deep chamber, more so since I was the only one there and it had suddenly begun to rain and howl furiously, slamming the wooden door of the crypt against the walls – I have no qualms in expressing the fact that I did not step down the last high stair but instead went back upstairs, hoping that the door wouldn’t now slam in the other direction and leave me stranded in a pool of utter darkness and dread! The tomb complex is considered haunted and very few venture here after dark – legend goes that a saint meditating here was burned alive and his ashes scattered around much before the construction of the mausoleum (though it isn’t remembered why this violent and horrifying act was perpetrated), the saint is often spotted at night as a glowing apparition flitting between the trees and traversing the tomb, especially in and around the crypt. Spooky!

My heart thumping through my chest I stepped out of the crypt and spent a considerable few moments regaining my composure before finally deciding that a sojourn up the staircase leading to the roof of the entrance is regrettably necessary if I wish to click the standard photograph that every visitor to the mausoleum clicks – the one depicting the octagonal chamber with the colonnaded pavilion and the pyramidal roof of the mihrab in the background. Here it is –


A view from upstairs. Notice the ridge forest stretch far in the background.

An extremely jovial dog, a resident of the mausoleum, ran upstairs on spotting me there and decided that he was in the mood for a brush and a jog – it was extraordinarily hard to make him run back even after playing and patting for over twenty minutes, but probably I shouldn’t have since the guard’s companions forcefully chased him out of the tomb complex and into the forest when he ventured to sit close to them. Sad.

Adjacent to the mausoleum and towards its left is a single pavilion tomb – a rather elongated, egg-like dome surmounted on pillars – but there is no grave underneath. The dome rises from an octagonal drum (base) adorned with a row of tall kanguras (leaf motif battlement-like ornamentation) and there exist sixteen pillars in total (three to each of the eight sides) arranged in an alternating fashion such that eight are carved out of quartzite slabs and the other eight are built from dressed rubble; just below the roof along some of the sides, the tomb also features remains of wide projecting, slanting eaves (“chajja”). The unique dome, so unlike the ones that surmount the corner bastions of the mausoleum, is said to have been a replacement ordered by the architect-emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq (ruled AD 1351-88) against the original, damaged one (it is contended that the marble mihrab inside the mausoleum is also a handiwork of the formidably skilled artists and sculptors employed by Feroz, but the design patterns and inscriptions resemble those at the entrance to such an extent that they appear almost identical). Though only one exists now, there were originally two identical pavilion tombs – the first built in AD 1236 commemorated Ruknuddin Firuz Shah (ruled AD 1236) while the second raised in AD 1242 housed the remains of Muizuddin Bahram Shah (ruled AD 1240-42), the other brothers of Nasiruddin Mahmud. Their father considered them incapable of executing governmental decisions or conceiving public works and symbolic actions, therefore disregarded them when it came to governance and administration and instead decided to appoint his magnanimous daughter Razia as his successor. But soon following Iltutmish’s death (he is buried in the Qutb complex, refer Pixelated Memories - Iltutmish's Tomb), Ruknuddin, then the Governor of Badaun (Uttar Pradesh) and Lahore (Pakistan), conspired with the conniving nobility to deny Razia her claim and ascended the throne of Delhi, but as Iltutmish had projected, he proved to be a worthless ruler who spent most of his time in the company of buffoons and fiddlers and in satisfying his sexual urges. The governance was left to his ambitious mother Shah Turkan who decided to punish all the nobles and Governors who had offended her when she was just a slave handmaid – she had many of them killed, others rose in rebellion against her authority and refused to acknowledge Ruknuddin’s ascension to the throne – the final thread snapped when she had Iltutmish’s younger son Qutbuddin killed and the conspiracy to murder Razia too leaked out. The rebellious, disgruntled nobles arrested her and Ruknuddin and had them both murdered in prison. Ruknuddin was the Emperor of India for six months, seven days. It was then that, in a decision that is considered extraordinarily progressive for the age in which it was agreed upon, the Turkish nobility and armed forces accepted the ascension of Razia Sultan, Ruknuddin and Nasiruddin’s sister and the most efficient child of Sultan Shamshuddin Iltutmish, to the throne of Delhi. I have already recounted Razia’s brief reign and life here – Pixelated Memories - Razia Sultan's Grave. It is a pity that while her brothers got such magnificent mausoleums, she was constricted to remain in eternal sleep in an unmarked, unadorned sarcophagus besides the other sister Shazia. Bahram Shah, Razia’s third brother and her murderer, became Sultan after her execution but remained sovereign only in name while the real powers were appropriated by the nobility, especially the Naib-i-Mamlikat (“Commissioner”) Ikhtiyaruddin Acitigin and Wazir (“Prime Minister”) Muhazabuddin. When he began to consolidate his powers and had some of the more powerful officials executed on the pretext of ignorance and non-execution of his orders, the other nobles came together and had him murdered too. Ruknuddin’s son, Alauddin Masud Shah (ruled AD 1242-46) was placed on the throne afterwards to act the symbolic pretense of there being a sovereign.


Buffaloes for company! Who'd have thought a Sultan is buried here?!


Scattered around the mausoleum in very close vicinity to it are numerous other ruins too, most prominently residential quarters but also Tughlaq-era (AD 1320-1414) mosques. There is a small mosque immediately opposite the entrance too, just across the wide open space that separates the tomb from the forest facing it; another set of residential ruins is located further away from the tomb along the unpaved pathway leading to it from the Mehrauli-Mahipalpur road, sadly though these ruins are totally enclosed by means of walls and pointed wires in order to keep vandals/encroachments from accessing them. The other set of residential quarters, situated immediately besides the tomb and spread over a vast area but entirely enveloped by vegetation, are fascinating in terms of their historic antiquity as well as the confusing incomprehension they impart to the impartial rigidity otherwise accorded to the entire area by the militaristic mausoleum. The individualized residential units seem to indicate that several nuclear families occupied these; in certain places there are stairs too leading to upstairs apartments, these however have ceased to exist and any signs of there remains or scattered rubble have been totally obliterated by nature as if they did not even exist. Vibrantly-colored yellow, green and black butterflies flitter around while Wren’s warblers jump querulously from branch to branch even though Red-vented Bulbuls refuse to leave the secrecy of the undergrowth and only confirm their presence by intermittent chirps and quick flights in and out. Stepping through thorny bushes and interminable dense undergrowth that proves unbelievably non-negotiable at times, one has to explore the structures and their ordinary features – I was trying hard to find a pillar that bears a Sanskrit inscription commemorating the digging of a well on the occasion of a wedding in AD 1361, but could not locate it in the utterly chaotic ruins and vegetation.


Faith - Letters and threads tied by devotees beseeching the saint to grant their wishes


Behind the mausoleum and past the pavilion tomb is a immensely gigantic well – the largest I have ever seen at 7 meters diameter – dated to Tughlaq-era, the well is considered amongst the oldest in Delhi but now remains shrouded by convoluted vines threading their way in and out. Coming up near it are modern structures – a grave on a rubble platform has been recently raised to more enlarged proportions and covered with white tiles, cement pillars have already been built on each corner of the platform and are being heightened even further, possibly with the purpose of erecting a roof over the central grave and the less distinguished ones near it – am not sure what the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) people and the guard are doing, but the constructions are in complete disregard of the Monuments Act 1958 which prohibits any construction in a 300 meter radius around a monument or heritage structure. The constructions might even be a euphemism for land encroachment in the form of a religious structure and need to be restricted with an immediate effect – let’s hope the ASI takes adequate and befitting action, though they have so far failed to even acknowledge my mail (accompanied by photographs) in this regard. The tomb otherwise has been superbly maintained by the authorities, very clean and unharmed by vandals and graffiti, and I suppose they can’t either be faulted for the shrubbery overtaking the settlement ruins because it will continue to grow and turn into the thick undergrowth it was when I visited soon after every time they clip it.

This brings us to an end in the sojourn connecting the threads of essentially some of the most important and renowned Emperors and Empresses of Slave Dynasty of Delhi – another instance where numerous far flung and often relatively little known and forgotten monuments are connected to each other through strands of history and filial relationships. One has only to open one’s eyes and see all these dots connect to each other and form a vast pattern that is Delhi’s amazingly fascinating history in itself, and then even the ghastly wars and bloodthirsty massacres seem to fall in place with generous Emperors and inconsiderate military commanders. This is Delhi, the city of cities, my beloved.


Panoramic view depicting the crypt, mosque (left) and the entrance colonnade (right)


Location: Southern Ridge forest, opposite Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8 and Ryan International School, just off the Mehrauli-Mahipalpur road
Nearest Metro station: Chattarpur
Nearest Bus stop: Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8
How to reach: Buses are available from different parts of the city for Vasant Kunj and Chattarpur. If coming by metro, take a bus from the metro station to Vasant Kunj Pocket C-8 – the branching unpaved pathway leading to the ridge forest and mausoleum (rusted signboards indicate the directions to “Peer Baba”) is about a hundred meters or so prior to the bus stop on the road from Chattarpur. If unsure, ask locals for directions to “Peer Baba ki Mazaar” or “Rangpur-Malikpur pahari” (Hill ridges of Rangpur-Malikpur) since that’s how the locals identify the complex.
Entrance fees: Citizens of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, Maldives and Afghanistan: Rs. 5/person; others: Rs 100/person. Free entry to children up to the age of 15 years.
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
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