India’s oldest Islamic tomb

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 21, 2010

I’ve written in my reviews on IgoUgo about Delhi’s many historic monuments (the city has over 1,200 listed heritage buildings), but this one takes the cake. It is one of Delhi’s most important historic monuments, yet very few people—other than the villagers who live in close proximity to it—know about it.

Sultanghari (pronounced ‘sool-taan-ghaa-ree’, though just about everybody in Delhi pronounces it incorrectly as ‘sool-taan-gurr-ree’) is the tomb of a 13th century prince named Nasiruddin Mehmood. Nasiruddin Mehmood was the son of the Sultan Iltutmish, the second of the Muslim rulers of Delhi. By all accounts, Nasiruddin Mehmood was a very accomplished and able man; his father, at any rate, was convinced of his prowess and had declared Nasiruddin Mehmood his successor. Unfortunately, Nasiruddin sustained serious injuries on a military campaign and finally died in 1228. He was buried here, and his tomb, Sultanghari (‘the Sultan of the Pit’) became the first Islamic monument tomb in India. There had been isolated Islamic graves in India before, but this tomb, with a proper mausoleum built above it, was the very first tomb.

Like many other later tombs (the Taj Mahal, for example) Sultanghari lies within a walled enclosure of stone (in this case, brownish-gold), and houses a mosque. The surrounding thick wall has circular bastions at its corners, which make it look a bit like a miniature fortress. In the centre of the wall facing the road is a high rectangular gate covered with white marble into which inscriptions from the Qu’ran, and a basic introduction of the building—whose tomb it is, when it was made—are carved. This gate offers an interesting insight into the evolution of Islamic architecture in India. The arch, which is an integral part of the gate, was a new concept for Indian stonecarvers and masons of the early 1200’s. The Turkish invaders probably showed them what an arch looked like (drawings?), but since the Indians didn’t know the concept of the keystone, they merely replicated the shape of the arch, without its structural basis. The arches at Sultanghari all look like arches, but are not really true arches: the stones are carved and fitted incorrectly, with the keystone being replaced by an elongated stone that is more like the lintel Indian masons used to support weights.

A flight of steps leads up to the interior of the tomb, a small square courtyard that’s dominated by a hexagonal platform. This covers the ‘pit’ in which Nasiruddin Mehmood was buried—in other words, the crypt. A flight of stone steps on the south side of the platform leads down into the crypt. It’s dark and can be pretty claustrophobic, but local villagers throng the place in the belief that the resident ‘spirit of the Sultan’ will be an intercessor who will help grant their prayers. The villagers leave offerings of milk, rice, incense, flowers etc on the grave of Nasiruddin Mehmood (it’s the grave at the far western end of the crypt, though there are a couple of other graves—possibly of relatives of Nasiruddin—also in the crypt). We went down into the crypt because we were curious; if you suffer at all from claustrophobia or are squeamish about bats, avoid this. Even if you’re curious and want to descend, make sure you go carefully—the steps end abruptly at the turn—and mind your head. It’s best to take a torch. Also, remember to take off your shoes at the top of the stairs: local villagers, who regard this as sacred ground, may be offended if you don’t.

Even if you don’t go down into the crypt, Sultanghari has more to offer. Above the crypt, directly opposite the main gate to the tomb, is the mihrab or decorated arch that points to the west, the direction of prayer. The mihrab here is a beautiful one carved from white marble, covered with inscriptions from the Qu’ran in two different calligraphic styles, interspersed with typically pre-Islamic Indian motifs: the lotus and the kalash, a rounded, coconut-like stylised representation of a metallic pot.

If you’re intrepid, you can also go up the short flight of stairs onto the ‘ramparts’ surrounding the tomb: the view is interesting, since Sultanghari is surrounded by other ruins, some of which date back to the 13th and 14th centuries.

Of these, the one nearest Sultanghari is the Tomb of Ruknuddin Firuz Shah, a small domed pavilion right next to Sultanghari. Whereas the domes of the bastions at Sultanghari are false domes (you can’t make a proper dome unless you know how to make a true arch; early Indian masons made a ‘dome’ by putting increasingly smaller circles of stone atop each other), the dome of Ruknuddin’s tomb is a true dome, made on the basic principle of an expanded arch. Rukdnuddin Firuz Shah was a brother of Nasiruddin Mehmood’s, and after Nasiruddin’s untimely death, their father Iltutmish nominated Ruknuddin as his successor. Ruknuddin too died before Iltutmish, and the actual successor became Ruknuddin and Nasiruddin’s sister, Razia Sultan, Delhi’s only woman Sultan.

Ruknuddin’s Tomb is pretty nondescript (especially when compared with Sultanghari). If you walk a little beyond this, off towards the south, you’ll come to a very imposing Tughlaq period (14th century) well. This is a massive well, and very deep. It’s dry now, but if you peek over the edge, you can see right down, and it’s a scary depth. Don’t think of attempting this if you’re even slightly prone to vertigo.

Sultanghari has other ruins around it. If you go west of the Sultanghari tomb, you’ll come to the ruins of an old haveli, a mansion that probably dates back to the 14th century but may have been expanded as the years went by. You can see arches (true arches) and walls still standing, though the roofs have all fallen in. Of considerable interest here is a low column of grey stone, engraved with an inscription in plebeian Sanskrit, to the effect that a well was dug in the vicinity of the mansion, on the occasion of a wedding in the family.

The area in front of Sultanghari is a largeish patch of clear earth which is used as a parking lot. If you walk towards this, away from Sultanghari, following a south-eastern course, you’ll find yourself walking along another ruined wall on your right. This is what remains (and very little, too) of what had once been a mosque. The qibla—the mihrab that points west—is relatively intact, but nearly everything else is gone.

Beyond the mosque, the dirt track turns left, and leads to a much later structure: a 17th and 18th century Mughal haveli. The Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s era is synonymous with a number of architectural features—Shahjahan was an aesthete, best known for his building of the Taj Mahal, and also otherwise a keen lover of good architecture. Of the architectural features of his reign, the cusped arch (or Shahjahani arch), an arch with a scalloped edge, is among the most prominent. You’ll see plenty of these in the ruins of this haveli. You’ll also see the remains of a room whose walls are covered with niches, originally used to hold lamps or vases of flowers, and if you go around to the front of the haveli, you’ll see a three-arched verandah-like daalaan, which was where the master of the house would entertain male guests.

All of these ‘ruins’—the havelis, the well, etc—but not including Sultanghari itself, have recently been through a conservation project. They make look dilapidated, but the objective behind the project was to prevent them from deteriorating further, rather than to attempt a restoration of what they may have been a few centuries back. Explanatory plaques about each monument have also been set up as part of the project.

When the Archaeological Survey of India’s caretaker is around (which is seldom), a fee may be charged; we, for instance, didn’t find anyone there, so didn’t pay anything. The ruins can be visited free of charge. Do remember to wear walking shoes and keep your legs covered—there are thorny bushes and heavy undergrowth in this area. And if you intend to go down into the crypt at Sultanghari, carry a torch.

Sultanghari (Sultan Ghari) Tomb
Vasant Kunj
New Delhi, India

© LP 2000-2009