New Delhi, India
December 21, 2010
Let’s begin at the first one. If you’re at Green Park Main Market, with the Costa Coffee outlet on your right, head down the street, keeping a lookout on your left. Just past the market, a lane goes off to the left, forming a sort of periphery around a square park in the centre of which stands a large domed tomb made of stone. This one’s known as the Biran ka Gumbad, and it dates back to the time of the Lodhi dynasty of Delhi, around the 15th century. The day my sister and I went visiting the tomb, a small family—a couple of women and a gaggle of small children—was having a picnic on the steps of the tomb. In most other monuments in Delhi, this would’ve seemed intrusive; at Biran ka Gumbad, the subdued conversation, the giggles of the little girls, and the aroma of home-cooked breakfast being shared on the steps just added to the charm of the place.
Like many other early Islamic monuments in Delhi, the Biran ka Gumbad is square and topped with a dome. It’s made of what’s known as ‘random rubble masonry’—rubble and large stones, bound together with mortar. From the outside, tall niches in the walls make the tomb look as if it’s double-storeyed, but when we stepped in (through a pair of painted wooden doors—very new and very out of place), we realised that it isn’t double-storeyed, just very tall. There’s nothing much to be seen here, except for some beautifully incised plaster medallions, all repeating the name of Allah.
After you emerge from the Biran ka Gumbad, continue to walk down the main road, away from the Green Park Main Market. A couple of minutes’ walk, and you’ll come to another road, perpendicular to the one you’re on. If you turn right on this road, you’ll reach Hauz Khas. But to see two more interesting but unidentified tombs, you needn’t go that far; just at the intersection, on either side of the road, are the Sakri Gumti (the ‘narrow dome’) and the Chhoti Gumti (the ‘small dome’). These are exactly what their names indicate—one is a small tomb (in comparison with the other), and the other has a strange, somewhat disproportionate appearance: it’s a tallish, narrow building that looks as if someone compressed it from the sides. Strangely, sometime perhaps during the early 1900’s, when the Archaeological Survey of India was drawing up a list of Delhi’s historical monuments, the Sakri and Chhoti Gumtis got listed as each other—the narrow one as the small one, and vice-versa. Even more strangely, that’s how they’re been marked ever since in nearly all listings, though you’d think anyone with eyes and common sense would know. A move to have this corrected is in the offing.
Both these tombs are interesting only on the outside, and because they look intriguing (or rather, the Sakri Gumti looks intriguing; the other is fairly commonplace as far as proportions go). Once you’ve had a peek at them, turn to your left on to the main road and walk a little further on, until you come to two tombs, one large and one small, in a common enclosure. These are known collectively as the Dadi-Poti ka Gumbad (the ‘tombs of the grandmother and granddaughter’). If you thought that meant these are the tombs of two noblewomen, allow me to disillusion you: the tombs are of men (Islamic tombs in Delhi can be identified as those of male or female by the presence of either a wedge—for a man—or a slab—for a woman—atop the cenotaph). The ‘grandmother’ and ‘granddaughter’ appellations are rather because of the relative sizes of the two tombs. Another equally quaint name for the tombs is the Bibi-Baandi ka Gumbad (the ‘tombs of the mistress and the maid’), again a nod to the large and the small tomb. The two tombs, however, don’t even date back to the same period. The smaller, Poti ka Gumbad (or Bandi ka Gumbad) is from the late 1300’s; the other is from about a century after. The latter, besides being larger, is more ornate, with arched niches on the façades, pilasters, open archways and a parapet of faux battlements along the top. The smaller, older tomb is less ornate, and has a rather unusual (and cute!) lantern atop its dome.
Cross the road from the Dadi-Poti ka Gumbad, and you’ll enter the enclosure that houses the Barakhamba. Delhi has a number of barakhambas; the name literally means ‘twelve pillars’, and since a square pavilion with three arches on either side was a common type of tomb, a twelve-pillared tomb was no rarity. This barakhamba is like the others, in that it has four sides, each with three arched doorways. It’s unusual, however, in that it has no mihrab, the decorated arch traditionally indicating west, the direction of prayer. Nobody’s quite sure about the age of the Barakhamba, but it may be from the 14th century or so. There is a shallow, dry well sunk into the side facing the road: another oddity that I’ve never seen in a Delhi tomb.
None of the tombs in the Green Park area are ticketed monuments; the gates are usually open between sunrise and sunset, and though larger monuments like the Dadi-Poti ka Gumbad may sometimes have a caretaker around, the others are usually deserted except for a couple of people from the neighbourhood, perhaps having a picnic or a siesta.
From journal Delhi: Ten Sights to See for Free