Arab Serai East Gateway

Arab Serai East Gateway – Restored Splendour in Delhi

Also known as Mihr Banu’s gate, the Arab Serai east gateway is part of Humayun’s Tomb complex and is accessible from Arab Ki Sarai road that runs east-west to the south of the monument.

The precise origins of the Arab Serai remains a mystery. Some scholars believe it was built in 1561 by Haji Begum, Emperor Humayun’s widow, to house three hundred Arab mullas (priests) that she brought back with her from her pilgrimage to Mecca.

An alternative school of thought suggests that the Arab Serai was originally an enclosure created to house Persian (not Arab) workers and craftsmen who were engaged in the building of Humayun’s Tomb. The east gateway that we see today dates from a later period, an inscription here tells us that it was built by Mihr Banu to act as an entrance to a mandi (market) during the reign of Jahangir (Humayun’s grandson). This places the construction date of the gateway we see today to the 17th century, although it may well be on the site of an earlier structure it replaced.

Unfortunately, there is no documentary evidence to shed any more light on who Mihr Banu actually was, ironically this is one of the rare structures in Delhi to have an inscription. The market this gateway was built to serve is thought to have been constructed around 1620 A.D.

The exterior of the 13m high gateway looks impressively (or suspiciously) fresh, with vivid colours giving the impression that this building may have been constructed just a few decades ago. This is due to a considerable amount of restoration that occurred here in 2017 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC).

The five-arched gateway is topped with battlements and is two-bay deep, with chambers and a domed roof flanked by niches on both sides. The structure is highly ornamental with detailed tile work and medallions bearing Quranic inscriptions, but the ornamental elements had severely deteriorated over the years due to a combination of neglect and inappropriate repair works earlier in the 20th century, largely with the use of cement mortar.

Renovations here included :

  • Resolving the severe levels of damp and salt deposits rising from the floor
  • Repairing missing tile work, some with Quranic inscriptions
  • Repairing the profusely ornamented ceiling of the gateway, previously repaired with plain cement plaster
  • The use of historic lime plaster to repair areas where plaster has completely eroded away.
  • Making the roof water-tight using traditional materials and methods.

Entry to the Arab Serai via this east gateway is only possible with a ticket for Humayun’s Tomb itself, which I did not have. So I was only able to photograph the exterior face of the gateway and the intricate decoration within, much to the slight discontent of the guard.

It was a pleasant surprise to stumble across this gateway as I explored the lesser known monuments around Nizamuddin, and great to see a structure that was once in a serious state of decay being given a makeover, which also resolved some of the mistakes made in previous restoration attempts. The Arab Serai east gateway how joins the rest of the monuments that encompass the Humayun Tomb Complex as one of the finest specimens of Indo-Islamic architecture in Delhi.

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