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Sheikh Chilli’s Tomb: Unravelling a Mystery in Haryana

Sheikh Chilli’s Tomb: Unravelling a Mystery in Haryana

Most of us remember him as a goofy character from childhood stories, a loveable simpleton who could always turn a frown upside-down. Now it turns out, Sheikh Chilli just might have been a real-life figure, whose tomb is in the ancient city of Thanesar in Haryana!

Why does a comic-book character have a mausoleum that bears his name?

Let’s travel 160 km north-west of Delhi, to the city of Thanesar in Haryana’s Kurukshetra district. Here you will find a sprawling complex that consists of Sheikh Chilli’s tomb and a madrasa (Islamic seminary). There are also two mosques, Mughal gardens and a few other structures in the vicinity, near the fort of Thanesar. 

The view of Sheikh Chilli tomb's garden | Wikimedia Commons

The city of Thanesar itself is hugely significant in Indian history. An important Hindu pilgrimage centre today, Thanesar or the ancient Sthanishvara, was the capital of the Vardhana dynasty in the 6th-7th century CE. The Vardhana dynasty ruled major parts of North India and flourished greatly under its King Harshavardhana. 

Chinese pilgrim and traveller Hiuen Tsang visited the city in the 7th century CE and recorded the presence of three Buddhist monasteries, with hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu shrines at the site, and a Buddhist stupa nearby. Later, Thanesar was sacked by Persian invader Mahmud of Ghazni, in 1014 CE. This was followed by an invasion under Muhammad of Ghor, who fought two battles at Tarain, near Thanesar, when he invaded the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century CE.

Manuscripts from Akbarnama depicting the Battle of Thanesar. Left: Mughals slaying the Sannyasis; Right: Akbar viewing the slaying | Wikimedia Commons

During the Mughal era, in 1567 CE, Emperor Akbar’s army and the Rajputs fought the Battle of Thanesar here and the city continued to be an important centre for the Mughals, Marathas, Sikhs and the British as well.

In one of his reports, Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, mentions Thanesar and its tomb complex. He states that “the only Muhammadan remains at Thanesar that are worthy of notice are two masjids, one madrasa and one tomb.” 

The mausoleum is an impressive sight. Crowned by a pear-shaped, white marble dome atop a two-story structure, it is visible from quite a distance. The tomb actually contains two graves, one of them the grave of Sheikh Chilli and the other believed to be that of his wife. 

Wait, isn’t Sheikh Chilly just a kid?

Plan of the Tomb | B M Pandey

The tomb is built on a platform whose walls have 12 octagonal chhatri pavilions that were originally decorated with colourful tiles. It is surrounded by a large compound of galleries and courtyards, which comprise a madrasa.

Subhash Parihar, an author with works on Indo-Islamic architecture, in an article titled A Little-Known Mughal College in India: The Madrasa of Shaykh Chillie at Thanesar, says it was a tradition to attach a madrasa to a mausoleum, usually of the founder of the madrasa or of a scholar who taught there.

There are two mosques near the tomb-madrasa complex – the Pathariya Masjid and Chini Masjid. Another great element of Mughal architecture are the Charbagh-style gardens nearby.

Sheikh Chili's tomb as seen from the garden | Wikimedia Commons

So why all this fuss over a lovable kiddies’ character?

Historian and author Rana Safvi in one of her articles, notes that the Sheikh Chilli whose tomb lies in Thanesar may have been a saint who had done a ‘chilla’, or a 40-day solitary, spiritual retreat, the word ‘chilli’ being derived from the word ‘chehli’, which means ‘40’ in Persian. 

Far from the pages of storybooks, the Thanesar mausoleum is believed to be that of the pir, or spiritual advisor, of Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan. He is called Abd-ur-Rahim, Abd-UI-Karim and Abd-ul-Razak, but he is most commonly known as ‘Sheikh Chilli’ or ‘Sheikh Chehli’. 

Corridor of the Sheikh Chili tomb | Wikimedia Commons

Cunningham mentions that although he couldn’t find any written reference to such a saint, considering the style of the mausoleum, it could quite possibly have been built in the time of Dara Shikoh, around 1650 CE. So, yes, it could be that of his spiritual master.

Unlike Sheikh Chilli’s imaginary castles in the air, in the childhood stories, this tomb and madrasa are standing tall. They not only shed light on an important figure in Indian history but are also a fine example of the Indo-Islamic architectural legacy of his times.

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