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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Nizamuddin, Lodi Gardens, and Safdarjung

This file includes three clusters of tombs arrayed along an east-west line about two miles long and about two miles south of Connaught Place. The tombs were built between the 14th and 18th centuries, though the earliest of the tombs have since been extensively modified. The most striking difference between them today is that the first (centered on the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia) is still an active center of worship, the second (centered on the Sikander Lodi mosque) is embedded in the popular Lodi Gardens and daily draws hundreds if not thousands of people seeking refuge from the city, and the third (the tomb of Safdar Jung) has been sanitized into an archaeological monument.

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This is the dargah or shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, which is to say Saint Nizamuddin, who died in 1324. His status was appraised almost 150 years ago by Carr Stephen: "None equalled him in the hold he acquired on such varied classes of his co-religionists. Of his own fraternity, the well known Chistis, there are three names before whom royalty has humbled itself, and which still hold a place in the daily thoughts and feelings of thousands of believers. The first being that of M'uin-uddin, the founder of the Chistic sect in India, who has made the place of his burial famous as the "Sacred Ajmer;" then comes that of his friend and successor, Qutb Sahib, who has given his name to all that is interesting in the ruins of Mahrauli and its environs; the third, but not the least, is that of the disciple of Qutb Sahib and a worker of miracles, the famous Farid-uddin Shakr Ganj of Pak Patan, who conferred the gift of divination on Shaikh Nizam-uddin Aulia. Last, but in many respects the greatest, of the most renowned Chisti saints was Nizam-uddin, who combined the piety of a saint with what, in those days, was considered the wisdom of a politician" (The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi, 1876, pp. 102-03).

The original tomb has been almost entirely replaced by later additions. The veranda, for example, was added in 1652; its sandstone pillars were replaced by marble ones in 1820. Three years later the sandstone dome was replaced by one of marble.

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Attention is still being paid to the tomb, even if the latest improvements will strike many as anything but. Stephen in the 1870s wrote that "on a cloudy day the light in the room is not sufficient to shew the walls and the grave to advantage" (p. 105). That's no longer a problem. You can always find the time, too, and check the local files. Nineteenth century descriptions report that the pillars were of red sandstone, while the grave was enclosed by wood railings from whose corner posts a red cloth canopy was suspended over the grave.

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Stephen wrote: "While living, he [Nizamuddin] drew the pious allegiance of eager multitudes, and after his death, down to the very date of our description, pilgrimages are made to his tomb from all parts of India, and miracles are still worked there for the believing" (p. 103). It's still true, especially at night, when things get hopping.

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The Chistis are Sufis; the order arose near Herat and stresses love and toleration, not always the qualities demonstrated by Nizamuddin in his own shrewd life. Nonetheless, the jury is in. As Henry Fanshawe wrote, "the Dargah or shrine of Sheikh Nizam-ud-din-Aulia, ...is with the other Chisti shrines at Ajmir, the Kutab, and Pakpattan, one of the principle places of Muhammadan reverence in all India" (Delhi: Past and Present 1902, p. 235).

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Next to the dargah or shrine is the Jama'at Khana or congregational place, built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq about 1353. Despite the red paint covering the red sandstone, it is probably closer to its original form than is the shrine.

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The interior, trimmed with Quranic quotations.

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The site almost at once became a popular burial ground, and having a tomb close to Nizamuddin's was a mark of high status. The roofed tomb on the left is that of Amir Khusrau, a close friend of Nizamuddin and who died a few months after him. Khusrao is described on an inscription added in 1530 as the "king of the kingdom of words." He was not only a poet of lasting fame but the founder of the ecstatic musical form known as qawwali. In front of his tomb are two lattice-screen enclosures. The larger one, on the left, holds the tomb of Muhammad Shah, the highly cultivated Mughal emperor who beheld the sack of Delhi at the hands of the Persian invader, Nadir Shah. Carr writes: "Few reigns have proved so disastrous to the Moghul Empire..." (p. 110).

The smaller enclosure holds the tomb of Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan. Siding with him rather than her brother Aurangzeb, she was confined for the rest of her life, which extended for 16 years beyond her father's. Carr translates the inscription on her tomb: "Let nothing but the green [grass] conceal my grave. The grass is the best covering for the tombs of the poor in spirit; the humble, the transitory Jahanara, the disciple of the holy men of Chist; the daughter of the Emperor Shah Jahan; may God illuminate his intentions. In the year 1093 {1682]" (Stephen, p. 109).

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Muhammad Shah's enclosure, the mosque, and the edge of the shrine.

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Marble doors on the tomb of Muhammad Shah.

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At night, the courtyard fills, with musicians at the center.

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More interesting than any of the tombs surrounding the shrine is this one, the tomb of Atgah Khan, which is nearby but approached by a separate path. Atgah Khan was a soldier who saved the life of Humayan and was taken into the emperor's service, where he rose in Akbar's time to become governor of the Punjab. In 1562 he was murdered. Akbar had the murderer killed and then ordered the construction of this tomb. It fell into disrepair, so that Fanshawe (1902) refers to its "present half-ruined state." It was subsequently restored, although it is once again in need of maintenance.

The dome resembles Humayun's, but the cubic form is much older and is characteristic of the oldest tombs in India. The first instance is the tomb built in 1231 by Iltutmish for his son and known now as Sultan Ghari; Iltutmish himself has a cubic tomb near the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, a few miles from here. The form was most prolific during the Lodi dynasty, when it was used not only by kings but by powerful nobles.

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White marble and red sandstone.

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There are lots of simpler tombs in the neighborhood.

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This "baoli" or pool is close to the shrine but not obviously accessible from it, as it once was. Pools like this are normally found in Chisti dargahs, and Fanshawe in 1902 wrote of this one that "the tank, or Baoli, into which men and boys dive from the surrounding buildings, is named "chashma dil Kusha," or the "heart-alluring spring" (p. 237).

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There are no divers now, and the tank is much smaller than originally, when it measured 180 feet by 120. Its waters were then considered curative.

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The neighborhood is densely residential.

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Very densely.

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The pilgrims attract plenty of businesses, too. They not only line the lanes leading to the shrine but invade the shrine's enclosure.

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We've come a mile and a half west along Lodi Road and are peering over the fence at the tomb of Muhammad Shah, part of the short-lived (1414-1451) Sayyid Dynasty, successor to the Tughlaqs. The fence encloses the Lodi Garden, which takes it name from the succeeding Lodi (or Lodhi) Dynasty (1451-1526). The garden was not a creation of the Lodis, however. In 1930 this was the village of Khairpur, which engulfed this and at least two other tombs. (Fanshawe's 1902 guide says that "every one who can spare an hour should certainly visit the Khairpur buildings.") By the wish (that is, the command) of the viceroy's wife, the inhabitants were relocated (that is, kicked out) so that a park might be created. It opened in 1936 as Lady Willingdon Park but in 1947 was renamed Lodi Garden. Don't feel too bad for Maria Brassey, Lord Willingdon's wife: there are plenty of schools and hospitals in India (and Pakistan) that still carry her name.

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Muhammad Shah, the last of the Sayyids, did not have a happy reign, but you'd never know it from his tomb. Fergusson writes that the veranda is "ornamented by three arches of the stilted pointed form generally adopted by the Pathans [the Sayyids, like the Lodis that followed them, were Afghans, or Pathans], and it is supported by double square columns, which are almost as universal with them as the form of arch" (II, 217).

The octagonal shape contrasts with Atgah Khan's square tomb and is unusual, though not unique. The earliest octagonal tomb is from ninth century Samarra, though that tomb echoes the still older Dome of the Rock. The first in India was in Multan (now Pakistan). The Delhi pioneer was the tomb of Malik Maqbul (alias Khan-i-Jahan Tilangani), which is ruinous but nearby, in Nizamuddin.

The chhattris or small pavilions on the roof are a feature of Hindu architecture and a reminder of India's fusion of cultures.

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The band at the base of the dome carries a list of the 99 names or attributes of God, while the floral disc above carries perhaps the best known Quranic verse, the Ayat al-Kursi (2:255, conventionally translated as The Throne Verse), which ends with the lines: "His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them, for He is the Highest and Most Exalted" (Kabir Hilminski translation).

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Three hundred yards away, there's a a U-shaped building, seen here from beyond one of the arms.

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Here's the view from the center of the U and focussing on the so-called Bara Gumbad, or Big Dome. Behind the camera is a tomb to which the Bara Gumbad may have been the entrance.

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Here's that tomb, the so-called Shish Mahal. It was probably intended for the first Lodi Sultan, Bahlul, and in a testament to the power of oral tradition the displaced villagers of Khairpur told Henry Sharp, the designer of the park, that it was so, though he was skeptical. (See Simon Digby, "The Tomb of Buhlul Lodi," in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1975.) Fergusson was a passionate admirer of these tombs and wrote, "If it were not that the buildings of the earlier Sultans are so completely eclipsed by the greater splendour of those of the Mughal dynasty, which succeeded them in their own capitals, their style would have attracted more attention that has hitherto been bestowed...{They possess] a stern simplicity and grandeur...appropriate...to the spirit of the people.... [and embody] one of the completed architectural styles of the world" (II, 221).

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The name Sheesh Mahal, or Mirror Hall, comes from the glazed tiles, of which only fragments remain.

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Entrance to the Bara Gumbad, with Quranic quotations.

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The west side of the U contains the Mosque of the Bara Gumbad. Its internal ornament has drawn rave reviews for a long time.

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The decoration is in cut plaster and mostly contains quotations from the Qur'an, though the discs contain the shahada or declaration of faith.

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Only one of the mosque's inscriptions is factual. It is dated 1494 and states that this is the mosque of Sikandar Shah Lodi, son of Bahlul Shal Lodi.

Writing about the profusion of inscriptions, Muhammad Ashraf Husain wrote, "The Muslim rulers of India loved to ornament their mosques and tombs with inscriptions consisting of Quranic texts, traditions of the Prophet, Muslim creeds, moral teachings and messages of a religious character from standard authors. The monuments of the Pathan period are more profusely decorated than those of the Mughal period. Under the Slave, Khalji and Lodi kings..., inscriptional decoration was the chief characteristic of a building."

See the Record of All the Quranic and Non-Historical Epigraphs on the Protected Monuments in the Delhi Province ASI Memoir 47, 1936, p. 1). Of all the monuments Husain described, none had as many inscriptions as this mosque, where he counted 130.

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Stephen believed that the plaster was originally painted, and he laments that "the desecration by the villagers of the neighbourhood, for the last many years, has left little or no trace of the coloring" (p. 197).

Fergusson commented that the profusely ornamented pendentives were "even more remarkable than the arches for elaborateness of detail. Their forms are so various that is impossible to classify or describe them" (II, 220). He noticed, however, that unlike the pendentives in Muslim Spain, which are curved, these have flat brackets.

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Noting that this mosque was "beautifully decorated with plaster," Fanshawe in 1902 called it "the most splendid specimen of this work in all India." (Some editions of Murray's famous guidebook carry the same sentence, but it's not exactly plagiarism, because Fanshawe edited several editions of Murray and so was quoting himself, without attribution.) The pendentives carry miniature versions of the Bara Gombaz.

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We've moved on a kilometer to the west to the grounds of Safdarjung's tomb. This is the last of the succession of fabulous Mughul tombs, and it was built for Abul Mansur Khan, better known by the title Safdarjung, "brave in battle." Chief minister to Muhammad Shah, Safdarjung died at Faizabad in 1754, some three centuries after the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties and at the end of the long sequence of great Mughul emperors--Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb--most of whom had tombs that Safdarjung's emulates. Despite the scale of the tomb, Stephen writes of Safdarjung himself that "he was a man of ordinary administrative capacity, but by the incapables who then advised the king [Ahmad Shah], he was regarded as a man of genius.... compelled to abandon the post of honour in Delhi... [he] lived in a hot-bed of intrigue till his death" p. 278).

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Modelled mostly on Humayun's tomb, which is less than three miles to the east, Safdarjung's is the last example of a Mughal garden-tomb complex. Like most of the others, it has been heavily restored.

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Fergusson wrote that the tomb "looks grand and imposing at a distance, but it will not bear close inspection" (II, 323).

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It seems that what bothered him most was the decoration. Murray's Guide picks up the theme and declaresw that "the marble decoration inlaid on the corner red towers greatly spoils the general effect."

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Tacky? Cheesy? Not compared to some of the "improvements" we've seen elsewhere.

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Fergusson sniffs that the cenotaph is "somewhat florid."

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It's the ceiling that comes in for the roughest treatment. Here's Fanshawe writing in Murray's guide: "The plaster decoration of this chamber and the rooms round it is perhaps the weakest feature of the building."

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Maybe so, and those of a leftist inclination will wonder at how many peasants died to create this place, but it still can be impressive. Or maybe it's just the setting sun that makes it so.


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