Anyone spending time wondering around Delhi with even the remotest interest in history or architecture will be struck by the sheer volume of monuments that are scattered across this vast city. Some are of course well and truly on the tourist map, such as the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, and the Qutb Minar Complex. But the vast majority of Delhi’s monuments are far less visited, almost forgotten about, and are at the constant risk of further decay. Situated in the neighbourhood of Malviya Nagar in South Delhi, the Lal Gumbad is one such monument.
Lal Gumbad (meaning “red dome”, somewhat curious as it does not have one) is the resting place of Sheikh Kabir-ud-din Auliya, a Sufi saint who was the 14th disciple of Shaikh Chirag-i-Dilli, the spiritual successor of Nizamuddin Auliya. Almost else nothing is known about Kabir-ud-din, who lived during the reign of the Tughlaq dynasty Emperor Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq (who built Jahanpanah, considered to be the fourth city of Delhi) and died around 1397 A.D. In his book, City of Djinns, William Dalrymple calls Kabir-ud-din “an impoverished mendicant” and a “wandering Sufi”, of whom “nothing is now known”.
Architecturally one can’t help but notice the similarities between Lal Gumbad and Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb (who died in 1324), and it does seem a little curious that this is the resting place of a Sufi saint of the Chisti order. Typically such saints are buried in open ground with a chhatris over the top, but here the saint is within a structure more akin to a rulers final resting place. This has led to speculation that perhaps Lal Gumbad was originally built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq for himself, and that later it was given over for the Sufi saint’s burial. Firoz Shah died eight years earlier at Jaunpur in Utter Pradesh, where his own tomb can still be visited.
The tomb today is set within a walled complex consisting of a gateway, five ruined mosques, and several graves open to the air. The main structure is in relatively good condition, but many of subsidiary buildings and graves seem to receive far less attention to care. Access to the interior of the Saint’s tomb is not possible as the doors are locked, although you are just able to peer inside. There are nine tombs in total within, along with the usual clutter associated with the monument now also being used as a store room. The wooden doors are probably always locked and the base of them are quite severely burnt, I presume as a result of devotees burning earthen lamps and incense sticks.
Although the gardens are reasonably tended, no great effort has been made to enhance the visitor experience. With so many monuments scattered throughout the city and with no doubt limited ASI resources, it’s no surprise that we find the site in this condition. The grounds are frequented by the usual array of locals just hanging out, the chances of seeing a tourist here is next to zero I would imagine. This place is crying out for a detailed information board showing a plan of the site and some detail as to what the visitor is actually seeing.
Lal Gumbad is also known as Rakabwala Gumbad, due to a golden finial that once crowned the main shrine. It is said that this was stolen by thieves many years ago, and on the western exterior wall of the tomb you can see two iron rings (Raqaabs) still in situ. These are believed to have been set up by the thieves in order to steal the gold.
Set in the heart of Jahanpanah, the fourth great city of Delhi founded by Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq, Lal Gumbad is probably one of the finest surviving pre-Mughal structures in the capital. Seldom visited by tourists and languishing in semi-obscurity, it’s well worth seeking out.
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