Delhi teems with tombs. All across the city, tucked away in neighbourhoods, cheek-by-jowl with bustling bazaars and along busy roads, are mausoleums by the dozen, long forgotten and decrepit. Falling apart, sometimes not more than a barely-recognisable pile of rubble and stone, blackened by smoke from wood fires lit by squatters, or covered with idiotic graffiti of the "Sanjay loves Neelam" brand—these tombs are, more often than not, not a pretty sight. And such unhappy treatment isn’t restricted to the neglected graves of the poor. The tomb of Razia Sultan, the only woman to have ruled medieval Delhi, was till recently overrun by goats and cricket-playing urchins. But things are looking up, and there’s a massive drive on to restore and conserve Delhi’s monuments, and tombs are right there on the list. The splendid Tomb of Humayun (the second of the Mughal emperors), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has it been restored, and work is progressing on others too.
Considering that Delhi was ruled by one Muslim dynasty after another for nearly a millennium, it’s hardly surprising that there are so many tombs in the city. Kings, queens, princes, princesses, generals, members of the aristocracy, mystics, poets—just about everybody had a fan following that was wealthy enough to spend a few thousand rupees, at the very least, on a decent tomb for the dear departed. In some instances, where people perhaps had the foresight to fear that those they left behind either would not be able to (or would not be willing to) afford a decent tomb, they built a mausoleum for themselves before death came calling.
So what’s so interesting about tombs? A lot, actually.
Firstly, there’s the fact that almost no tombs are ever marked. If you visit a tomb, even that of an important personage like Humayun who was, after all, a very powerful emperor, you won’t find any inscriptions that tell you who is interred under all those tons of marble and sandstone. The identification of most tombs, therefore, is the result of a painful process of intensive research, and the digging up of obscure references that might help in figuring out who’s buried where.
Secondly, tombs, like birds of a feather, flock together. Walk around an old tomb, and you’re sure to stumble across many other tombs, especially if the old tomb happens to be that of a Muslim mystic. This stems from the belief that the tomb of a holy man confers sanctity on the area surrounding it. The tomb of Delhi’s most revered Sufi mystic, Nizamuddin Auliya, is a case in point. Around it, within the same courtyard, are the tombs of the poet Amir Khusro, the princess Jahanara, the luxury-loving Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah "Rangeela," and the aspirant to the Mughal throne, Mirza Jahangir. Not within the courtyard, but within walking distance, are the tombs of the emperor Humayun, the poet Mirza Ghalib, and Atgah Khan, husband of the emperor Akbar’s wet-nurse. A lot of tombs.
Thirdly, nearly all tombs have some common features. The most meagre of them will be the marks- the takhti and the kalam- that identify the grave as that of a male or a female. The kalam is a longitudinal wedge that rests on top of the grave, and it signifies that the person buried below was male; the takhti, similarly, is a flat, decorative rectangular shape on the grave that denotes a female. The tombs of people who were wealthy, powerful, or religious, have other features. The tombs of Nizamuddin Auliya, Humayun, and Nasiruddin Mahmud Chirag-e-Dehli, for instance, have full-fledged mosques next to them. Others, like the tomb of Bahlol Lodhi, do not have a mosque, but there is at least a mihrab—a closed archway that marks the direction of prayer.
Fourthly, the backdrops of tombs differ. Razia’s neglected little grave lies in a cul de sac in the narrow streets of Old Delhi. The tombs of Iltutmish and Alauddin Khalji lie within the Qutub Archaeological area, next to the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. The tombs of Safdarjung, some of the Lodhi Sultans, and Humayun, lie in individual gardens, almost along a straight line (modern day Lodhi Road). While on the topic, the typical charbagh, or "garden tomb," of the Mughals, of which the most famous is the Taj Mahal in Agra, has a few examples in Delhi. For instance, the tomb of Humayun, considered the predecessor to the Taj Mahal, is a garden tomb. It sits in a square garden, bisected by water channels. The tombs of Safdarjung and Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan are also garden tombs, though not on as grand a scale as Humayun’s. The garden tomb was supposed to be a representation of paradise, but historians differ on what a garden actually meant in this context. Some hold that beautifully manicured lawns, flowerbeds, and fountains were the order of the day, while others believe that the gardens were more like wildernesses than anything else, with trees and shrubs allowed to grow unhindered.
Wander through Delhi and you can literally see dozens of tombs. Some are plain, some are grand. Some, like Humayun’s tomb, have been carefully restored by specialist conservation architects. Many have been lovingly, but misguidedly, maintained by being renovated with the help of concrete and whitewash. But there are plenty of them to see, and they are some of the top sights in Delhi.