Most of the early settlements of Delhi, including its first city at Qila Rai Pithora (around the Qutb Minar), are to be found not in “Old Delhi” but in South Delhi, the area south of Lutyens’ carefully planned boulevards, where the rapid expansion of suburban Delhi has swallowed up what was previously countryside. Whole villages have been embedded within it, and the area is littered with monuments from the past. Meanwhile, as the centre becomes more and more congested, South Delhi’s housing enclaves and colonies are increasingly home to the newest shopping centres and the most happening locales.Read More
Close to the medieval Muslim centre of Nizamuddin and 2km from Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb stands at the crossroads of the Lodi and Mathura roads, 500m from Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station (one stop from New Delhi Station on the suburban line), and easily accessible by bus, or by pre-paid auto from Connaught Place. Late afternoon is the best time to photograph it. Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum, it was constructed to house the remains of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, and was built under the watchful eye of Haji Begum, his senior widow and mother of Akbar, who camped here for the duration, and is now buried alongside her husband. The grounds were later used to inter several prominent Mughals, and served as a refuge for the last emperor, Bahadur Shah II, before his capture by the British in 1857.
The tomb’s sombre, Persian-style elegance marks this as one of Delhi’s finest historic sites. Constructed of red sandstone, inlaid with black and white marble, on a commanding podium looking towards the Yamuna River, it stands in the centre of the formal charbagh, or quartered garden. The octagonal structure is crowned with a double dome that soars to a height of 38m. Though it was the very first Mughal garden tomb – to be followed by Akbar’s at Sikandra and of course the Taj Mahal at Agra, for which it can be seen as a prototype – Humayun’s mausoleum has antecedents in Delhi in the form of Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq’s tomb at Tughluqabad, and that of Sikandar Lodi in Lodi Gardens. From the second of those it adopted its octagonal shape and the high central arch that was to be such a typical feature of Mughal architecture – you’ll see it at the Taj, and in Delhi’s Jama Masjid, for example.
Within the grounds southeast of the main mausoleum, another impressive square mausoleum, with a double dome and two graves bearing Koranic inscriptions, is that of Humayun’s barber, a man considered important because he was trusted with holding a razor to the emperor’s throat. Nearby but outside the compound (so you’ll have to walk right round for a closer look) stands the Nila Gumbad (“blue dome”), an octagonal tomb with a dome of blue tiles, supposedly built by one of Akbar’s nobles to honour a faithful servant, and which may possibly predate Humayun’s Tomb. On your way round to the Nila Gumbad (depending on your route), you pass the tomb of Khan-i-Khanan, a Mughal general who died in 1626; unfortunately, the tomb looks rather ragged as the facing was all stripped for use in Safdarjang’s tomb, and the garden that surrounded it has mostly gone. The blue-domed structure in the middle of the road junction in front of the entrance to Humayun’s tomb is a seventeenth-century tomb called Sabz Burj – the tiles on its dome are not original, but the result of a recent restoration.
Just across the busy Mathura Road from Humayun’s Tomb, and now engulfed by a busy road network and plush suburbs, the self-contained mahalla (village) of Nizamuddin, with its lack of traffic, ancient mosques and tombs and slow pace of life, is so different from the surrounding city that to enter it is like passing through a time warp. At its heart, surrounded by a tangle of narrow alleyways lined with shops and market stalls, lies one of Sufism’s greatest shrines, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, which draws a constant stream of devotees from far and wide.
The marble dargah is the tomb of Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din Aulia (1236–1325), fourth saint of the Chishtiya Sufi order founded by Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer, and was built the year the sheikh died, but has been through several renovations, and the present mausoleum dates from 1562. Lattice screens and arches in the inner sanctum surround the actual tomb (closed to women), which is surrounded by a marble rail and a canopy of mother-of-pearl. Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din’s disciple, the poet and chronicler Amir Khusrau – considered to be the first Urdu poet and the founder of khyal, the most common form of north Indian classical music – lies in a contrasting red-sandstone tomb in front of his master’s mausoleum.
Religious song and music play an important role among the Chishtiyas, as among several Sufi orders, and qawwals (bards) gather to sing in the evenings (especially on Thurs and feast days). Comprising a chorus led by solo singing accompanied by clapping and usually a harmonium combined with a dholak (double-membraned barrel drum) and tabla (paired hand-drums), the hypnotic rhythm of their qawwali music is designed to lull its audience into a state of mast (spiritual intoxication), which is believed to bring the devotee closer to God.
The oldest building in the area, the red-sandstone mosque of Jamat Khana Masjid, looms over the main dargah on its western side. It was commissioned in 1325 by Khizr Khan, the son of the Khalji sultan Ala-ud-Din. Enclosed by marble lattice screens next to Amir Khusrau’s mausoleum, the tomb of Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, is topped by a hollow filled with grass in compliance with her wish to have nothing but grass covering her grave. Just east of the dargah compound, the elegant 64-pillared white marble Chausath Khamba was built as a mausoleum for the family of a Mughal politician who had been governor of Gujarat, and the building, with its low, wide form and elegant marble screens, bears the unmistakable evidence of a Gujarati influence. The compound containing the Chausath is usually locked, but the caretaker should be on hand somewhere nearby to open it up if you want to take a closer look.
The tomb of Safdarjang, the Mughal viceroy of Avadh under Muhammad Shah (1719–48), stands at the junction of Lodi Road and Aurobindo Marg, 5km southwest of Connaught Place; from Ajmeri Gate or Connaught Place (Kasturba Gandhi Marg), or from Connaught Place by pre-paid auto-rickshaw. Constructed between 1753 and 1774, the double-storeyed mausoleum, built of red and buff sandstone and relieved by marble, rises on a dramatic platform overlooking the adjacent airport of the Delhi Flying Club. It was the very last of India’s great Mughal garden tombs, dating from the period after Nadir Shah’s sacking of the city, by which time the empire was reduced to a fraction of its former size and most of the capital’s grander buildings lay in ruins. Emblematic of the decadence and degeneracy that characterized the twilight of the Mughal era, the mausoleum sports an elongated, tapered dome and absurdly ornate interior filled with swirling plasterwork. In City of Djinns, William Dalrymple aptly describes its quirky design as “blowzy Mughal rococo” typifying an age “not so much decaying into impoverished anonymity as one whoring and drinking itself into extinction”.
Fifteen kilometres southeast of Connaught Place on the Mehrauli–Badarpur Road (the entrance is a kilometre east of the junction with Guru Ravidas Marg), a rocky escarpment holds the crumbling 6.5km-long battlements of the third city of Delhi, Tughluqabad, built during the short reign of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughluq (1320–24). After the king’s death the city was deserted, probably due to the lack of a clean water source nearby. The most interesting area is the high-walled citadel in the southwestern part of the site, though only a long underground passage, the ruins of several halls and a tower now remain. The grid pattern of some of the city streets to the north is still traceable. The palace area is to the west of the entrance, and the former bazaar to the east.
The southernmost of Tughlaqabad’s thirteen gates still looks down on a causeway, breached by the modern road, which rises above the flood plain, to link the fortress with Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughluq’s tomb. The tomb is entered through a massive red-sandstone gateway leading into a courtyard surrounded by cloisters in the defensive walls. In the middle, surrounded by a well-kept lawn, stands the distinctive mausoleum, its sloping sandstone walls topped by a marble dome, and in its small way a precursor to the fine series of garden tombs built by the Mughals, which began here in Delhi with that of Humayun. Inside the mausoleum are the graves of Ghiyas-ud-Din, his wife and their son Muhammad Shah II. Ghiyas-ud-Din’s chief minister Jafar Khan is buried in the eastern bastion, and interred in the cloister nearby is the sultan’s favourite dog.
The later fortress of Adilabad, built by Muhammad Shah II in much the same style as his father’s citadel, and now in ruins, stands on a hillock to the southeast.
- Qutb Minar Complex