New Delhi, India
December 21, 2010
Tucked away between the Begumpuri Masjid on the one end and Khirki Masjid on the other are two medieval tombs that are worth a visit. Both are the last resting places of important Sufi saints of medieval Delhi, and both are very attractive buildings too.
The first, just off the main Malviya Nagar Road, in Panchshila Park, is known as Lal Gumbad— the ‘red dome’. This is a misnomer, because the dome on this mausoleum is the one thing that isn’t red! It’s black, a sort of conical structure covered with organic plaster that’s turned black with age (organic plaster contains lentils, yoghurt, cane sugar, greens, etc; it helps keep buildings safe from deterioration caused by heavy rain). The main structure—the sloping walls of the square tomb—is covered with a cladding of dark red sandstone.
Lal Gumbad is the tomb of a Sufi saint called Sheikh Kabiruddin Auliya, a disciple of the much revered mystic, Nasiruddin Roshan Chirag-e-Dehli. The tomb dates back to the 14th century, and resembles the much richer and ornate Tomb of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq. Lal Gumbad sits in the middle of a large garden, with lawns stretching out all around; trees; and flowerbeds. Also part of the grounds are a number of grave platforms, each studded with tombstones; and wall mosques—mosques that consist only of a west-facing wall decorated with closed arches.
The tomb itself is plain on all but one side. The entrance to the mausoleum (which faces away from the main road) is beautifully—though sparingly—carved in red sandstone, with a pretty filigree of six pointed stars, and has a plain border of white marble. If you want to explore the interior of the tomb, make sure you reach after 10 AM; the door remains locked till then. Beyond the mausoleum is a somewhat nondescript domed building made of rubble. This is believed to have originally functioned as a gateway to the tomb.
The second tomb, that of Yusuf Qattal, stands about a kilometre or so south of Lal Gumbad. To reach this, ask for Khirki Extension, and go straight down the main Khirki Extension Road: the tomb abuts the main road.
Yusuf Qattal, like Sheikh Kabiruddin Auliya, was a Sufi mystic, though he dates from the 15th century. His tomb’s a much smaller, yet more ornate one, than Auliya’s. This one’s also made primarily of red sandstone, but carved on each side, in a lovely filigree of stars. The plaster dome has a fringe of faux ‘battlements’ carved in floral patterns, with traces of deep blue tilework above—five centuries or so ago, this must have looked spectacular. You can peek in through the doorway to look at the grave of the saint (local people still come by to leave flowers, incense and offerings, so if you’re tempted to go into the chamber, take off your shoes outside). Inside, the mihrab or arch that indicates west is decorated with white marble, carving and calligraphy—the latter in an unusual angular script known as Kufic.
Abutting the tomb of Yusuf Qattal is the mosque (tombs invariably have mosques beside them, so that visitors may pray for the salvation of the departed soul). This is a small mosque, with three squat arches, its interior decorated with incised plaster.
The enclosure of Yusuf Qattal’s tomb has one more interesting feature: the remains of an unidentified tomb. All that’s there now is a grave surrounded by six pillars of grey quartzite; the dome above has vanished. What makes this unusual is the fact that it must originally have been a hexagonal tomb. Medieval tombs in Delhi were invariably square or octagonal: a hexagonal tomb is rare enough to be almost unknown.
Neither Lal Gumbad nor the Tomb of Yusuf Qattal have entry fees. If you don’t relish the walk between the two tombs, hire an autorickshaw—it shouldn’t cost more than about 20 or 30 rupees, one way.
From journal Delhi: Ten Sights to See for Free