Tomb of Sultan Ghari – Delhi

Built in 1231 CE for Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud, the eldest son of Iltutmish, Sultan Ghari is the oldest known Islamic mausoleum in India. This atmospheric tomb, which is now venerated by both Hindus and Muslims, is located in the Nangal Dewant Forest not far from Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi.

Resembling a small fort with thick high walls built almost entirely out of golden-brown Delhi quartzite stone, and with four robust corner towers, the east-facing Sultan Ghari is unlike any other tomb I have encountered that dates to Islamic times.

It is also quite an isolated monument, with the nearest contemporary structures at least 4km to the east around Mehrauli Village, which means in all likelihood you will have this site to entirely yourself when you visit. I spent well over an hour at this hidden gem with only the ASI employed security guard and the obligatory flock of resident pigeons for company.

The tomb complex is accessed via a tall flight of steps that takes you through an imposing double gateway, both encased in white marble. An inscription carved on the entrance leaves the visitor in no doubt who is behind the building of this structure :

“This blessed building was commanded to be erected by the great Sultan, the most exalted emperor, the lord of the necks of the people, the shadow of God in the world, the bestower of safety on the believers, the heir of the kingdom of Sulaiman, the master of the seal in the kingdom of the world, the helper of the chief of the faithful, the sultan of sultans who is specially favored by the Lord of the worlds, Shamshuddin Waddin Abul Muzaffar Iltutmish the sultan, may God perpetuate his rule, as a mausoleum for the king of kings of the east Abul Fath Mahmud, may God forgive him with his indulgence and make him dwell in the center of the paradise, in the year 629.” 

The internal space certainly conveys a sense of calm and peace, similar in many respects to a small courtyard mosque. The big difference here is the underground octagonal burial chamber, which projects 1m up into the center of the courtyard. It’s curious to observe that this upper part of the octagonal chamber itself has stairs leading to the roof, essentially to nowhere. Some historians have speculated that perhaps the tomb was never fully completed and a more elaborate dome or roof was meant to cover the tomb at a later date.

The rest of the architecture here is quite straightforward, the external walls are regularly punctuated by arched windows, with the addition of a sheltered colonnade comprising of simple rectangular pillars on the east and west sides.

The western qibla (prayer wall) has the mihrab, made of white marble in exquisite Turkish/Afghan design with inscriptions from the Quran, surmounted by an enormous pyramidal roof. Although mihrabs are normal features in mosques, they also came to be commonly used in Muslim tombs during the Sultanate and Mughal periods.

The front elevation of this west wall has a wonderful marble façade, dating to Firoz Shah Tughlaq rule (1351–88) when he made renovations here. The fluted pillars supporting the immensely heavy roof are also constructed out of flawless white marble.

Revisiting the simple rectangular pillars that form most of the colonnade, one could draw parallels with the Qutb Minar structures in terms of the building materials used, with many of the pillars looking suspiciously like they were sourced from a nearby demolished or ruined temple. Some scholars have concluded that Sultan Ghari was in fact built on the site of a Pratihara era Hindu temple, dating somewhere between 700 and 1100 CE.

Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud was considered a humble and saintly man, who wished to be thrown in a pit after death rather than being enshrined in a magnificent royal tomb. His wishes were, in part, granted as he was buried here in a ghar, an underground crypt. The name Sultan Ghari probably derives from this cave-like burial chamber.

The tomb itself is accessed via a winding flight of ten stone steps, located on the south side of the projecting octagonal roof that dominates the courtyard. Here you enter the underworld, a dark, damp, smoke-blackened room with just four columns supporting cross beams. The photos below don’t really give a sense of just how dark and intimidating this space was, as I’ve had to manipulate them quite a bit in order to show any detail. It takes a while for the eyes to adjust, as the air becomes noticeably musty and stuffy. The graves here are considered highly sacred to both Hindus and Muslims, and are visited by local villagers every Thursday.

There are three tombs in the underground chamber,  each covered with a green chaadar with a burning candle at the head. It is assumed the western (largest) tomb wedged between two pillars belongs to Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud, although nobody is entirely sure. We don’t know the names of the other two individuals buried here, one can only assume they are of other family members.

It’s probably one of the most atmospheric places I have ever visited in India, helped greatly by the fact that I was completely alone.

Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud died in West Bengal in 1229 CE, seven years before his father who is buried within the Qutb Minar Complex not far from here. Iltutmish had two other sons; Sultan Ruknuddin Firoz (who ruled for 6 months before being deposed and murdered in 1236 CE), and Muizuddin Bahram Shah (who ruled for about 2 years before being deposed, and dying shortly afterwards in 1242 CE). Neither of his sons were as successful as their sister, Razia Sultana, who was the only female Muslim ruler of Delhi. It took 700 years for India to see its next female ruler, Indira Gandhi.

Immediately south of the main tomb complex is a chhatri (cenotaph), one of a pair that were renovated by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century. These belonged to Iltutmish’s two other sons, but nobody knows which son’s chhatri survived and which has since been completely destroyed.

250m east of the main Sultan Ghari tomb are the ruins of a 14th century mosque built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, but there are the remains of many more structures here, mostly engulfed by vegetation now and attributed to the late Mughal period circa 17th – 18th century. The long gap of three centuries between the Tughlaq and late Mughal buildings suggests that for some reason this settlement lost its status during the intervening period.

The tomb of Sultan Ghari is a revered place for devotees of both Hindu and Muslim religious communities of the nearby villages of Mahipalpur and Rangpuri, since they consider the tomb as the dargah of a saintly ‘peer’. A visit to the tomb is more or less mandatory for newlyweds from these two villages. Because of the religious veneration, the monument is perhaps maintained better by the local people than the ASI who are the formal custodians of this heritage structure.

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Categories: Delhi, India, Tomb of Sultan Ghari

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