The city of Delhi has been witness to many socio-political changes in the history of northern India. The landscape of the capital is covered with scores of historical structures, some of them well-known and celebrated while others forgotten and invisible. One such well-kept secret is the Sultan Ghari complex, which hides the oldest Islamic mausoleum in northern India, in pristine condition.
After the assassination of Muhammad of Ghor in 1206, his empire was split into minor sultanates. Out of the political turmoil, Qutubuddin Aibak became the sultan of Delhi and started the Slave 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 commander Shams-ud-din Iltutmish in 1211.
His eldest son Nasiruddin Mahmud served as the governor of Awadh and Bengal. Nasiruddin was an efficient administrator and was considered to be the heir-apparent, being groomed by Iltutmish to be his successor. However, Nasiruddin died quite unexpectedly in Bengal in 1229. His remains were brought to Delhi and buried in a grand mausoleum in honour of his beloved son in 1231, the tomb at Sultan Ghari.
At the tomb, the viewers can witness the architectural style of the early Sultanate period, a time when Indian artisans were adapting to new techniques and styles that had come into India with the Turkic conquest. There are several striking elements of the tomb which make the structure unique in its own sense. For example, there is a sunken tomb chamber like a ghar or crypt, which gives the tomb its name. The tomb has come to acquire a mystical status among the locals as it is believed to hold the remains of Pir Baba. The tomb is revered by the local community, who makes ritual offerings and visits it in large numbers.
There are several other buildings in the complex in different states of preservation, including the tombs of Ruknuddin Firoz Shah and Muizzuddin Bahram Shah, the other sons of Iltutmish. Near the structures, one can find a well from the Tughlaq period, a Tughlaq era mosque, and several residential clusters. The tomb of Sultan Ghari is enclosed within the Sultan Ghari Archaeological Park designated by the Delhi Development Authority. The complex is located about 6 km west of the Qutb Minar Complex, on the Mehrauli-Palam Road. The mausoleum complex lies in the centre of a clearing edged by wild vegetation.
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 one 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 is in the center of the walled courtyard-like enclosure and is an underground chamber or ‘cave’ covered by a flat, octagonal roof that rises four feet from the ground. The western wall of the complex is collonaded and has a qibla (prayer wall) that has an exquisite mihrab (niche) fashioned out of marble with inscriptions from the Quran.
For those looking to explore the history of Delhi off the beaten track, the Sultan Ghari complex can be an ideal site to explore.