Sultan Ghari:  India’s Oldest Islamic Tomb



Not far from one of Delhi’s most-visited monuments is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets. Almost 800 years old, it is also the oldest surviving Islamic tomb in India – the mausoleum of Prince Nasiruddin Mahmud (r. 1227-1229 CE), brother of Razia Sultan and eldest son of Sultan Iltutmish, the third ruler of Delhi’s Slave Dynasty.

The capital city of India has been a witness to the history of the country since many ages. It has seen civilisations prosper and decline, dynasties come and go, great rulers born and die, and monuments built and broken down. And in all of this, a small player was the Mamluk Dynasty, also known as the Slave dynasty. It was the first of the five dynasties that together formed the Delhi Sultanate.

In 1191, Mu'izz ad-Din Muhammad Ghori of the Ghurid Empire (in present-day Afghanistan) led his army towards the Indian subcontinent in view of expanding his empire. He successfully captured Bathinda fort in on the northwestern frontier of Prithviraj Chauhan's kingdom. But soon, he was faced with a battle called the First Battle of Tarain in which the Chauhan forces defeated the Ghurids. In a few months, Muhammad Ghori returned with a larger army and attacked Prithviraj Chauhan’s kingdom again. Unfortunately, in the Second Battle of Tarain, Prithviraj Chauhan faced defeat and was forced to surrender his kingdom to the Ghurids. In the coming few years, the Muhammad of Ghor conquered parts of northern India as far as Bengal.

In 1206, Muhammad of Ghor was assassinated. Since he had no children, his empire split into minor sultanates led by his former Mamluk generals. A Mamluk was a soldier of slave origin who had converted to Islam. Taj-ud-Din Yildoz became the ruler of Ghazni, Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji got Bengal and Nasiruddin Qabacha became the sultan of Multan. Qutubuddin Aibak became the sultan of Delhi, and that was the beginning of the Slave dynasty or Mamluk dynasty.

Aibak also initiated the construction of Delhi's earliest Muslim monuments, the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar. However, his reign as the Sultan of Delhi was short-lived as he died in 1210 and his son Aram Shah rose to the throne, only to be assassinated by his slave-commander Shams-ud-din Iltutmish in 1211.

While Aibak and his son ruled from Lahore, Iltutmish shifted the capital to Delhi. His forces further captured Bihar in the 1210s and invaded Bengal in 1225. His eldest son Nasiruddin Mahmud served as the governor of Awadh and Bengal. An efficient administrator, Nasiruddin was the heir-apparent and Iltutmish was grooming him to be his successor.

But unfortunately, in 1229, Nasiruddin died quite unexpectedly in Bengal. Historians differ as to the reason for his death - was it assassination or sickness. He was brought to Delhi and his remains buried. Iltutmish built a grand mausoleum over it in honour of his beloved son in 1231.

The surroundings of the tomb, amidst ruins
The surroundings of the tomb, amidst ruins|Wikimedia Commons

While his father’s tomb is just 8 km east, in the magnificent Qutub Minar complex, Nasiruddin’s mausoleum known as Sultan Ghari is in Malakpur Kohli village on the Mehrauli-Palam Road, near the upscale enclave of Vasant Kunj. Despite its antiquity and significance, you won’t find the monument listed on popular itineraries of Delhi, yet it is visited by hundreds of people every week.

No one knows how or when it happened but, over the centuries, Nasiruddin’s tomb acquired the status of a dargah (a shrine atop the grave of a saint) and locals believe it holds the remains of their Pir Baba. Such is their devotion that Muslims as well as Hindus from the nearby villages of Sultanpur, Rangpur, Masoodpur and Mahipalpur regularly visit the tomb to offer prayers. Newlyweds come here to seek the blessings of ‘Pir Baba’; new home-owners come here to give thanks; and the multitudes flock to the ‘dargah’ to seek deliverance from pain and suffering.

The exterior of the fort-like tomb
The exterior of the fort-like tomb|Wikimedia Commons

Although situated so close to Delhi, not far from the heritage zone of Mehrauli and right across from one of the capital’s posh residential localities, Sultan Ghari could be literally in the middle of nowhere. The mausoleum complex lies in the centre of a clearing edged by wild vegetation that stretches as far as the eye can see, and can be approached only by a dirt track that veers off the main road.

The marble gateway
The marble gateway|Wikimedia Commons

The Sultan Ghari complex is a square, walled enclosure built of sandstone, which gives it a beautiful, burnished hue. The enclosure has stout bastions topped by shallow domes in each of its four corners. The entire complex sits on a raised plinth and appears more like a small fortress than a tomb. A doorway embellished with white marble leads inside. The inscription over the entrance mentions the name of the individual buried inside, the person who commissioned the tomb, and the date of its construction.

The tomb lies under the octagonal roof
The tomb lies under the octagonal roof|Wikimedia Commons

The tomb is in the centre of the walled courtyard-like enclosure and is an underground chamber or ‘cave’ (ghari) covered by a flat, octagonal roof that rises four feet from the ground. The western wall of the complex is colonnaded and has a qibla (prayer wall) that has an exquisite mihrab (niche) fashioned out of marble with inscriptions from the Quran. This is probably a later addition.

The marble <i>mihrab</i>
The marble mihrab|Wikimedia Commons

Nasiruddin’s grave, and two others, are located in the underground chamber and can be approached by winding stairs made of stone. After your eyes grow accustomed to the partial darkness, you can clearly see the three graves, all of them unmarked. While it is believed that the tallest tombstone is that of Nasiruddin, there is no inscription or other marker to confirm this. No one knows who is buried in the other two graves.

The three unmarked graves&nbsp;
The three unmarked graves |Wikimedia Commons

The chamber is a site of deep devotion and is steeped in the aroma of incense, burnt oil and candle wax. The floor is covered in oil, turmeric, jaggery, flowers and other ritual offerings. The walls of the chamber are covered in soot given off by candles over time. The air hangs heavy and you can almost hear the prayers of the faithful.

After you emerge from the crypt, it takes a couple of minutes for your eyes to readjust to daylight. Step outside the complex and, all around the tomb complex you will see ruins scattered across a large area, most of them built in later times. Nearby, covered in brambles that have curled around the stone are cramped residential quarters. The other ruined monuments include a Tughlaq-era mosque and a well that must have been used for ritual ablutions, also possibly built in Tughlaq times. There are many more ruins, all in stone, but their dilapidated condition makes it hard to figure out what they are.

A little distorted, but a panoramic view of the entire enclosure
A little distorted, but a panoramic view of the entire enclosure|Varun Shiv Kapur

If you’re up to braving thorny vegetation and uneven ground, you will come upon a handsome cenotaph or chhatri not far from the Sultan Ghari complex. It is one of a pair, the other having fallen to the ravages of time. These chhatris marked the graves of Sultan other Iltutmish’s sons, Ruknuddin Feroze Shah and Muizzudin Bahram Shah.

A cenotaph in the Sultan Ghari complex
A cenotaph in the Sultan Ghari complex|Wikimedia Commons

Sultan Ghari is a monument trapped in time, its rustic and rugged surroundings adding to its air of antiquity and mystery. Was Prince Nasiruddin assassinated, as some historians believe, or did fate simply have other plans? It appears the unfortunate Prince took the answer to his grave.

Cover Photo Courtesy: Nilesh Korgaokar

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