Sultan Ghari: Tales from the crypt

Sultan Ghari: Tales from the crypt

Photo: iStock

The oldest Islamic mausoleum in India, housing the remains of Iltutmish’s son Nasiruddin Mahmud, is probably Delhi’s best-kept secret

Nupur Roopa
It was Aarti, my household help, who mentioned Pir baba’s majar (mausoleum) after taking her sick mother to visit the saint’s tomb. “You will never believe that a massive fort lies in the neighbourhood,” she exclaimed. This was the first time I heard of some ruins in the vicinity. Intrigued, I wanted to know more.
We decided to explore Pir baba’s majar one afternoon in July. The best way to reach the place is to take the Andheria More-Mahipalpur road in New Delhi, and drive towards the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre. Beyond the hospital, near a traffic light, a break in the foliage leads to a narrow path with a few roadside shops and dusty huts.
Turn right and you come to a majestic structure. This is Pir baba’s ghari or Sultan Ghari. The poorly painted signboards indicate that it is likely not on the standard itinerary.
The lofty structure is surprisingly well maintained, almost untouched by time and the seasons. It’s hard to believe that a piece of history has survived unknown near the busy, bustling city of Delhi. Ruins scattered amid shrubs, thorny bushes and rocks reverberate with enchanting tales of emperors and kingdoms that existed 800 years ago.
You lose all sense of time and space, until a car honking faintly in the distance reminds you that civilization is not too far off.
Sultan Ghari the oldest Islamic mausoleum in India, housing the remains of Nasiruddin Mahmud, the eldest son of Shams-ud-din Iltutmish (1167-1236). It lies virtually unknown in Vasant Kunj. Sultan Ghari was built in 1231-32, and the only earlier royal mausoleum in the subcontinent is Qutbuddin Aibak’s tomb in Lahore.
Located inside the southern ridge forest on a raised plinth, the tomb is enclosed within a miniature fortress built in golden brown Delhi quartzite with marble highlights. An imposing structure with massive walls and bastions, it has a distinctly military appearance.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first impression of awe and wonder transforms to speechlessness as this majestic fortress springs into sight in the middle of a forest.
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Prince Nasiruddin was a man who enjoyed power and prestige and was looked upon as the future successor to the throne. He was appointed as the governor of the eastern territories of the Delhi Sultanate in Bengal by Iltutmish, and became an efficient administrator.
However, the prince died a controversial death in 1229, while serving as the governor of Bengal, either due to sickness or assassination. (Historians disagree.)
Nasiruddin thought of himself as a sinner and wanted his dead body to be thrown into a cave with no royal funeral or any mausoleum built for him. His body is believed to have brought to Delhi was first buried at Malikpur and some years later, after the completion of the mausoleum, entombed at Sultan Ghari by his father, according to a group of locals we met at the tomb.
As the legend goes, the prince’s days might have been rough, but his nights were a “bed of roses”. Every night, he slept on a bed laid with rose petals. A slave girl was tasked with arranging the petals just so.
One day, they say, the girl succumbed to temptation and decided to see what it felt like. The prince was to return late, so she climbed into the bed, which was so comfortable that she drifted off to sleep—only to be woken up by an angry prince five hours later.
Nasiruddin dragged her from the bed and ordered her to be flogged. While under the lash, the girl laughed hysterically. The more she was flogged, the more she laughed. An irate prince commanded that she be whipped harder, but it did nothing to halt her mirth. 
Finally, completely bewildered, Nasiruddin put a stop to it and asked her what exactly it was that she found quite so funny.
Without answering, the girl continued to laugh. After repeated requests and entreaties, she said that if she revealed the reason, the prince would have her killed.
Curiosity got the better of Nasiruddin, and he promised her safety and riches to last her entire lifetime if she gave an answer.
The girl brazenly replied that if sleeping on his bed for a mere five hours could leave her feeling so vulnerable, how much weaker it must leave him, who slept on it all his life!
The baffled prince stood silent. For a man known as Malik-us-Sharq (king of the east), acknowledged for bravery and grit, to be called a weakling was outrageous. However, the prince kept his promise and rewarded the girl.
She then told him, “You will never be a king of land but will be the king of souls.”
Her prophecy eventually came true—today, centuries later, largely unaware of this story, the locals from Sultanpur, Rangpur, Masoodpur and Mahipalpur visit to offer prayers and address him as Pir baba.
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The tomb lies at the centre of the walled enclosure with colonnaded walls in the east and west and arched openings in the north and south. Bastions with shallow domes on the corners give it a fortress-like appearance.
A projecting doorway embellished with white marble leads to the interior. The inscription over the entrance tells us about the person buried inside, the date of construction and that Iltutmish commissioned the building. (Some historians believe that the site was earlier the location of a Hindu temple.)
Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

The crypt is in a the form of an octagon with stairs leading to the roof on one side and descending into the cave on the other side.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Our entry disturbs the small bats that such monuments, and they take wing in the darkness. The cave chamber is damp and eerie. Plain pillars support the roof. There are three graves in the crypt.
In the semi-dark chamber, two colours—the green of the cloth on the graves and the orange of the marigold garlands—grab the eye. Everything else is black or grey.
The largest and tallest grave, towards the western side, is believed to be Nasiruddin’s (who reigned as governor of Bengal from 1227 to 1229), son of Qutub Begum and brother of Razia Sultana (who succeeded Iltutmish to become the first female Muslim ruler).
However, there is no ornamentation or inscription to confirm that it is indeed Nasiruddin’s remains in there. All that sets it apart from the other two graves (besides its size) is a pillar next to the grave covered with a multitude of letters tied with red and yellow thread, green and pink cloth and silver foil. These are arzis, applications to the saint for blessings and wishes. 
A strange odour of milk, ghee, jaggery, incense, turmeric and flowers pervades the crypt. The floor is slippery with oil spilt from lamps, and dark with soot. The sugar balls offered by devotees invite bugs and flies. The floor is completely covered with ants.
We were the only visitors, until two auto-rickshaws pulled up outside. A group of people with flowers, coloured threads (called kalavas) and boxes of sweets alighted. A bride decked with ornaments and accompanied by the bridegroom walked towards the shrine.
While climbing the stairs, one lady from the group asked us to wait. “Wait for the prasad; we will be back in few minutes,” she said.
Later, after receiving the aforementioned prasad, I asked whether they visited the majar often.
“Yes, every week; Pir baba is our Ishtha Dev (benevolent deity),” she replied with reverence.
Brides from the neighbourhood seek the saint’s blessings before taking up the responsibilities of their new household. Every Thursday, Hindus and Muslims flock with colourful kalavas, mannats (wishes written on small slips of paper, with a lock attached) and offerings. The progression of these articles of faith through the centuries can be seen in the layers of soot, candle wax and incense sticks that coat the crypt.
Numerous ruins lie near the mausoleum, mostly residential quarters spread over a vast area now covered with thick foliage. The quarters comprise mostly of cramped individual units, suggesting that small families must have occupied them.
Towards the east of the tomb lies a ruined mosque dating back to the Tughlaq period. Built with stone columns and arches, it is similar to structures constructed by Firoz Shah Tughlaq.
A Tughlaq-era well believed to have used for wuzu (ritual ablutions) by the local people in that period lies towards the south of the main tomb. This is perhaps the oldest surviving well from the pre-Mughal period.
Other ruins include the tombs of two other sons of Iltutmish—Ruknuddin Firoz Shah and Muizzuddin Bahram Shah.
The surrounding area is covered with dense vegetation, isolated and difficult to explore. It is safe to visit only in the daytime and no one stays beyond 7pm.
***
We walk through the shrubs. Green-black butterflies flutter around with yellow and purple ones, wren warblers and white-breasted kingfishers play hide and seek while red-vented bulbuls chirp and fight in the undergrowth. The fading rays of the evening sun tell us it’s time to leave, but New Delhi seems far away.
Nupur Roopa is a freelance writer based in India.
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