When Prof. S. R. Sarma, an eminent authority on Indian astronomical instruments, requested me some months ago for photos of the sundial in the Jama Masjid, little did I imagine that I would be in for an exciting journey of discovery.  Soon I found myself embarked on a sundial hunting spree: from Delhi to Hyderabad, then to Mysore, to Pulicat in the far south and to Jaipur and Western U.P. Every new sundial that I came across was designed differently and required fresh understanding to decode its curves and inscriptions. Like learning a new language, slowly I began to appreciate this fine science of antiquity, helped much through my correspondence with Prof. Sarma over last many months and from his recently updated unique catalogue on Indian instruments, called ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Astronomical Instruments.’

For conducting this study, while I could take detailed photographs from Delhi, namely at Jama Masjid and Fatehpuri Masjid,  I had to seek support of friends for sites in other cities. My sincere thanks to my colleagues and friends, who had to take out precious time to visit remote places. Here is the list of friends who did the actual exploration and took photos. While photographs from Hyderabad, Pulicat, Mysore/Srirangapatna were taken by Subbarao K, Premnath M.S., and Ejaz Ahmed respectively; those from Ghazipur and Nauli were taken by Dr. Nadeem Adhami and Gurdeep Singh respectively. Photographs of the sundial from Khanqah of Maulana Ziauddin Ziai at Jaipur were shared by Syed Ziauddin Ziai, and that from Khanqah Emadia at Patna was shared by Prof. S. R. Sarma.

It was an exhilarating journey, but also a sad one because many of the sundials are deteriorating through sheer neglect. Though originally designed to tell prayer times in mosques, with the availability today of more accurate watches, these antique sundials do not serve any practical purpose. However, these are valuable historical documents and deserve proper preservation.

Before describing the various sundials, a few words are in order to explain the mandatory prayers in Islam and their relation to the sundials.

For Muslims, the day commences at sunset and lasts until the next sunset. The five mandatory prayers in such a day are: Maghrib, or sunset; Isha, or nightfall; Fajr, or daybreak; Zuhr, or Midday; asr, or afternoon.

The times of these prayers, in particular those of the two daytime prayers, zuhr and ‘asr are astronomically defined and can be indicated by a sundial. Zuhr is said to begin when the shadow of the gnomon begins to lengthen after reaching the minimum at noon.  The time to offer ‘asr prayer starts when the shadow’s length (s) equals the sum of noon-time shadow length (n) and the gnomon’s height (g); it lasts until the shadow length becomes equal to the noon-time shadow length plus twice the gnomon’s height. These two time limits are called ‘asr-i-awwal and ‘asr-i-sani. Simply put,

The first limit (‘asr-i-awwal) occurs when s = n + g

And the second (‘asr-i-sani) occurs when s = n + 2g.

DSC_0653(Clocks showing Islamic Prayer Times at Sunheri Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Delhi)

For indicating both these time-limits, the sundial is engraved with two special curves. Due to variation in the sun’s declination every day at every latitude, the times of commencement and conclusion of ‘asr vary from day to day.

To facilitate the preparation of the sundial, Muslim astronomers prepared detailed tables marking the times for each of the 365 days of the year and for every degree of latitude of the inhabited world. With the help of these tables, the two ‘asr curves could easily be drawn on the sundials.

Furthermore, Muslims are required to offer prayers while facing the Kaaba in Mecca; and the mihrab in mosques are aligned towards Mecca.  The angle of this sacred direction is called Qibla. Again, Muslim astronomers compiled detailed tables of spherical trigonometry for calculating the Qibla from every place in the inhabited world.

Scholars are of the opinion that these two religious requirements caused the development of mathematical astronomy in the Islamic world. One of important features of Islamic astronomy are the exhaustive tables mentioned above, which are called zij. There are said to be hundreds of zijes extant, which include tables for spherical astronomy and trigonometry functions, star tables and many others. In India also, Sawai Jai Singh of Amber wrote his famous Zij-i Muhammad Shahi in the eighteenth century.


1.0 Jama Masjid, Delhi

Let us begin the journey with the magnificent Jama Masjid built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. As one enters the mosque through the eastern gate, which was originally meant exclusively for the emperor and the high nobility, one is overwhelmed so much by the sight of the great domes beyond the vast front court that one does not notice the small features like sundials.  I had to ask many people until I could locate the sundials in the south-east corner, close to the outer boundary of the front court.

a1(Jama Masjid, Delhi.)


1.1   Sundials in SE

In the south-east corner of the front court, there are two pedestals: a round one with a missing top and a rectangular pedestal with a sundial occupying half of it: the other half is empty. The sundial is engraved on a 46 x 46 cm marble slab. The marble slab is 2 cm thick and sits on a 70-cm high pedestal. Its inscriptions are heavily damaged. On the lower half is engraved a semi-circular dial to show time from 6 am through 6 pm. Diameter of the dial is 33.5 cm. The dial is marked with hour marks from 8 am to 12 noon on the left and from 1 pm to 5 pm on its right in Roman numerals. But the gnomon is missing; it would have been in the shape of a right-angled triangle, the angle between the base and hypotenuse being equal to the latitude of Delhi; then the hypotenuse would point to the celestial north pole.

A basic horizontal sundial consists of two parts: the gnomon which is a vertical wedge that casts a shadow and the dial plate where the hour markings are inscribed. The gnomon is raised at an angle equal to the latitude of the place, so it is location specific and a sundial designed for one city is useless for another city on a different latitude. The point where the north axis cuts the circumference of the dial plate is marked 12 p.m. Points on its left are marked for morning hours till sunrise, i.e. 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6. Similarly afternoon hours till sunset are marked on its right, i.e. 1, 2, 3,4 ,5, 6.

In the Jama Masjid dial, four lines from the centre to hour markings of 12 noon to 4 pm are extended upwards to enclose a rectangle with 18 concentric quarter circles. The quarter circles are to measure the lengths of the gnomon’s shadow. They are numbered from 7 to 23. These quarter circles are super-imposed by two curves which indicate the starting time and the ending time of afternoon prayer time ‘asr’.



(Elevation and plan of the sundial pedestal at Jama Masjid, Delhi. All measurements are in cm)

For Delhi, start of the ‘asr (‘asr-i-avval) is calculated to range from 14:51 pm to 15:32 pm. End of the ‘asr (‘asr-i-sani) corresponds to a range from 16:22 pm to 16:50 pm for Delhi’s altitude.

At the bottom of the dial is written ‘Sun Dial’ in English and ‘Dhoop Ghari’ in Urdu. The inscriptions state that the sundial was made by Hafiz Anwar Ali Siddiqi of Rohtak under the supervision of Sayyid Ahmed, the Imam of the congregational mosque at Ajmer. The top line on the dial reads ‘asr ghadi Dihli ard balad 28 darjah 39 daqiqah’ (Asr Clock for the city of Delhi at the latitude of 28 degrees and 39 minutes).

Unfortunately, the companion slab to the sundial is missing. Similarly, the top of a circular pillar nearby is also long lost. Now it is impossible to know when they were removed and by whom.


delhi1(The Delhi Jama Masjid Sundial and its missing companion)


1.2 World-map in NE of the Jama Masjid, Delhi

Prof. Sarma also mentioned a world-map engraved on a stone slab. This one is situated on the other side of the eastern gate, i.e., in the north-eastern corner. It is engraved on a marble slab (55 x 58 cm) which is set up on a 112-cm high pedestal.  Due to its tall height, it is not so easy to take a clear image of the map. I had to ask someone to lift me up so that I could take few shots with my shaking hands.

The world map is inscribed inside a circle in an old style called ‘Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection’ as against the modern maps which are based on ‘Mercator Projection’. Moreover, longitudes are arranged in such a manner that India is nearly at the centre of the map. There is a large hole at the centre.

The long inscription below the map reads: “The figure of the earth and the southern and northern climates [with respect to] the equator with the lines of longitude and latitude of the cities …. in the reign of Muhammad Akbar Shah Badshah Ghazi, [in the] year 1247 Hijri (1831-32), by order of the prince Muhammad Salim Bahadur Shah, Qazi Shuja al-Din Ali-Khan Ghazi… built and left as a memorial (yaadgaar).”


(The world map at the N-E courtyard of Jama Masjid, Delhi.)

Prince Muhammad Salim Bahadur Shah, also known as Mirza Salim, is a younger brother of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. He must have commissioned Qazi Shuja al-Din Ali-Khan Ghazi to prepare the world-map. The Qazi must have copied this India-centric map from an English atlas, because here Australia is labelled as ‘naw wilz janub’ literally meaning ‘New South Wales’, the name of the first British colony in Australia. The outline of peninsular India is also not well formed. Other regions that are labelled on the map include qutb shamal (North Pole), frans (France), fars (Persia), bahr qutb (polar sea or Antarctic Ocean), qutb janub (South Pole), and so on.

The date inscribed on the sundial is not clearly decipherable. While it looks as 1345 Hizri in the first look, it needs a closer inspection. The second digit seems as if it is ‘3’, that is a vertical stroke to which two half circles are joined. But if it is enlarged, the second half circle can be seen not as sharply defined as the first one. Rather it is just the expansion of the corrosion as shown in below pencil sketch. The third digit can be either 2 or 4, since the difference is not clearly visible. Therefore, the year is either 1225/1810-11 or 1245/1829-30, making it a contemporary of the world map (1831-32).

expanded number


(Analysis of the digits inscribed on the sundial, courtesy Prof S R Sarma)

It can thereby be safely said that it must have been set up at the instance of Prince Mirza Salim. The Prince is also said to have made several important additions in the mosque such as the sandstone pulpit near the main entrance of mosque in 1829.  It is therefore possible that he also commissioned the sundial (1819-20) and the world map (1831-32). It can be conjectured that the two missing slabs — one on a nearby circular pedestal, and another on the companion slab of the rectangular sundial — had two more astronomical instruments simultaneously set up by Mirza Salim.

a2(The circular pedestal could possibly have had some other astronomical instrument mounted on it)

What was engraved on the missing slab on the circular pedestal and on the one next to the sundial on the rectangular pedestal? Who commissioned them and when were they removed?  More important, what was the purpose of setting up a world-map inside a mosque?  One would rather expect a Mecca-centric map which shows the direction and the distance of Qibla in a mosque, but not an India-centric atlas.  The world-map was said to have been erected as a memorial or yaadgaar.  Which significant event of 1831-32 could have called for such a memorial? Who was the Qazi who prepared this world-map? What was held in the large hole at the centre of the map?  Did it have a vertical gnomon and was it designed as some kind of a shadow-instrument?


1.3 Old Accounts of Delhi

We looked for answers to these and other queries in the old accounts of Delhi. But the sundial and the world-map are hardly mentioned anywhere. Indeed, it seems that these two artefacts had not yet been consciously analysed till Prof. S.R. Sarma’s work earlier this year.

Gordon Hearn in his Seven Cities of Delhi (1928) remarks in passing: “On a pillar in the court is engraved an old map of the world.” Carr Stephen in his The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi (1876) mentions that “In the year 1829, Mirza Salim, son of Akbar II, put up a sand-stone pulpit under the central entrance of the mosque, the congregation being at time too large to take part in the prayers offered by the Imam inside the mosque” and “In the north-eastern corner of the court of the mosque is a plain sphere cut upon marble, giving a map of the world according to the common projection of the sphere.” Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, in his Urdu book Asar ul-Sanadid (1847) briefly mentions the sundial. A short translation by Fatima Quraishi published in the Journal of Art Historiography of 2012 has the lone sentence, “In the southern and eastern courtyard are clocks to indicate prayer times.” The mention of ‘clocks’ in plural indeed gives credence to our earlier conjecture that the two missing slabs might have had additional sundials on them.

The Jama Masjid was built by Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656. The existing sundial was set up in 1819-20.  Was there no earlier sundial in this mosque or elsewhere?


2. Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad

The oldest extant sundial is in the Mecca Masjid at Hyderabad. As one approaches the Char Minar from the Musi river, the mosque is just behind the Char Minar. It is situated at 17.36° N, 78.47° E and one of the largest mosques in India.

Prof. Sarma and his mentor Prof. David King saw and photographed the sundial in 1991.  In Prof. Sarma’s photographs, the inscription on the sundial is not clearly visible; he requested for better photographs. I, in my turn, asked my Hyderabad-based colleague Subbarao, K., who promptly sent me several photographs. Therefore, our virtual journey went thither.

Muhammad Qali Qutb Shah commenced the construction of this mosque in 1616, but it was completed by the fifth ruler of Qutb Shahi dynasty, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, in 1694 under the orders of Aurangzeb. The mosque is so named because its central arch was constructed with the soil brought from Mecca. On its grandeur, Tavernier, the French traveller writes,

“It is about 50 years since they began to build a splendid pagoda in the town which will be the grandest in all India when it is completed. The size of the stone is the subject of special accomplishment, and that of a niche, which is its place for prayer, is an entire rock of such enormous size that they spent five years in quarrying it, and 500 to 600 men were employed continually on its work.”

It is here that we find the oldest sundial in India which is still extant in a mosque. The dial is a circular plate of 63.5-cm diameter mounted on a 122-cm pillar. At its centre is a hole that held the gnomon, now missing. The dial surface has undergone such erosion that few sentences can no longer be deciphered easily. Behind this unique sundial, the ornate domes of Nizamia Tibbia college can be seen in the distance.

Hyderabad1(The sundial and its pedestal at Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad. Photo courtesy: Subbarao K.)

The Hyderabad dial is a simplified version of dials using hyperbolic curves such as the world-renowned one at Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

In this image, the vertical line represents the N-S line or the meridian while the horizontal line represents the W-E line. The lower hyperbola represents the summer solstice, the upper one denotes the winter solstice and the straight W-E line represent the equinoxes. The hour lines are marked on either side of meridian as a series of 10 straight lines, but they denote ‘ghati’ of 24 minutes each instead of 60-minute hours. So, the 10 lines cover a time span of 240 minutes or 4 hours on either side of the meridian, i.e. from 8 am to 12 noon on the left and from 12 noon to 4 pm on the right.

That this sundial is calibrated in the traditional Indian units of ghatis should not surprise us. When Muslim sultans established themselves in India, they adopted the local units of time such as the ghati and pahar for everyday common usage, reserving the 60-minute hours for astronomical purposes.  Babur talks about this local units of time measurement. The Ain-i-Akbari has a description of a water clock with which ghatis were measured. Jahangir too records time in ghatis in his memoires. After the advent of the British, both Muslims and Hindus started using hours progressively.

On the right, we can see broad sweeps of two large arcs, showing the times of beginning and end of ‘asr.  They are super-imposed on a grid of 20 concentric quarter circles to measure shadow length of the gnomon.


(Mecca Masjid dial with two distinctive hyperbolas representing the two solstices. Photo courtesy: Subbarao K.)

A single straight line shoots off from the centre of the dial towards west, showing the direction of Qibla. In fact, out of all sundials still extant in Indian mosques, only the Hyderabad sundial is the unique in the sense it has a Qibla line. Calculating on the basis of longitudinal and latitude differences between Hyderabad and Mecca, the qibla line is drawn at 77.27 degrees with respect to the N-S line, or at about 23 degrees off the West. It is often considered that direction to Mecca in India is always towards West, but exact mathematical calculations based on longitude and latitude offsets of the location with respect to that of Mecca give the accurate angle of the qibla.

The simplest and therefore an approximate method for determining the Qibla postulated by al-Battani was a graphical one. On a circle laid on a horizontal plane, draw two diameters along N-S and E-W directions that intersect at the centre O. Calculate the longitude difference between the current location and Mecca (say L), and draw a parallel line to N-S with the circle cut with the angle L. Similarly find the latitude difference between the location and that of Mecca (say M). Draw a line parallel to E-W at an angular distance of M. Let the intersect point of these two lines be called Q. Then OQ is the qibla.




(An approximate method to find the qibla was shown by al-Battani as given in David A. King’s ‘Astronomy and Islamic society: Qibla, gnomonics and timekeeping’)

An inscription towards the North says ‘nisf al-nahar’ (mid-day). Towards the South, two lines of inscriptions read as:

‘By the order of His Majesty…Abu al-Muzaffar Muhy al-Din Muhammad Alamgir Badshah. Made by …Mir Qasim for the latitude of the city of Hyderabad in the blessed regnal year 36…’

While Hyderabad can boast to have the oldest sundial existing in India, to find one of later varieties, we need to travel to the eastern part of the country, to the city of Patna.


3. Khanqah Emadia, Patna

On his visit to Patna in October 1991, Prof. Sarma was shown a sundial on the roof of Khanqah Emadia, a sufi seminary and place of worship. He writes, “In Patna, there is a Sufi seminary named Khanqah Emadia. Sometimes in the second half of the twentieth century, the head of the Khanqah, Shah Faridul Haque Emadi, designed an elegant sundial and had it set up on the roof of the mosque. The dial was engraved with hour lines and two long curves to indicate the times of the midday prayer zuhr and the afternoon prayer ‘asr. I saw it and photographed it in 1991. In the course of repairs, subsequently, the sundial was removed and discarded in a store room; I understand that the dial plate is still intact, but the gnomon is lost.” The dial was engraved on an octagonal metal plate with each side measuring 152 mm. An elegant brass gnomon rose from it at an angle equal to the latitude of the city of Patna, that is 26°.

 q1_1(The only image of Emadia Khanqah sundial at Patna, now lost/unknown. Picture courtesy: Prof. S.R. Sarma)

A small vertical pin having pointed tip, with unknown intended use, stood from the surface of the hypotenuse. The hour lines were marked from 5 am to 7 pm in common Arabic/Persian numerals. The curves for zuhr and ‘asr were drawn so ingeniously that they themselves appeared as the words zuhr and ‘asr respectively.

The north point was labelled as Allah. On the east point was written al-mashriq and on the north point, al-maghrib. On the left half of the dial was engraved the 38th verse of the 36th chapter of the Qur’an: “And the Sun runs his course for a period determined for him: that is the decree of (Him), the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing.”

My attempts to locate it and take fresh photographs through my colleague was unsuccessful. He visited the Khanqah and met the caretakers there, but none could tell for certainty where exactly we could find whatever remained of the unique dial. Therefore, Prof. Sarma’s photo is the only document to show the sundial in full.

After getting to know of these three sundials of different periods in different parts of India, my interest was further aroused. I began to search for more sundials and could locate the following specimens.


4. Chinna Pallivassal Mosque at Pulicat

Pulicat (13.42° N   80.32°E) is a sea-side town that straddles across the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu at around 70-kms north of Chennai. It is famous for India’s second largest brackish water lake or lagoon after the Chilka Lake. It also boasts of a rich cultural history, beginning with the Chola Dynasty. In the 14th century, it came under the Vijayanagar empire and in the 16th century, the Portuguese made it a base followed by the Dutch in the 18th and the British in the 19th century. All along, it has been influenced by the steady presence of a sizeable Muslim population.

The Chinna Pallivasal Mosque in this town was set up in 1708 A.D. and one of the most interesting features of this small mosque is a sundial which is still in excellent condition. When I found out this, I requested my colleague Premnath M.S. if he could visit Pulicat to fetch me details of the sundial. One Sunday morning, Premnath rode his bike all the way from Chennai and I had an excellent set of clear images of the sundial.

The sundial has clear inscriptions which say that it was set up in 1334 Hijri, or 1914 A. D. at the instance of Haji Mohammad Hussain Sahib of Muthialpet, Chennai. It is mentioned that it was made by Muhammad Abdullah Ahkar and verified by Haji Mehmood Sahib.

Pulicat4(The Pulicat Sundial showing two ‘asr’ prayer lines on top right. Photo courtesy: Premnath M.S.)

The dial plate measures 25 x 20-cm, upon which a triangular gnomon is affixed. The left side on the scale starts from 6 am marked on the horizontal line and shows the morning hours of 7 am, 8 am, 9 am, 10 am and 11 am. The triangular gnomon marks the 12 noon and thereafter the semi-circular dial is marked with afternoon hours of 1 pm, 2 pm, 3 pm, 4 pm, 5 pm and 6 pm. The hours between 7 am to 7 pm are further divided in 15 minute intervals. The gnomon has a finite width (as opposed to a thin sheet of blade), and in designing it, a double-line has been used, called a substyle. After drawing the substyle with the gnomon’s width, the semi-circular sundial’s design must have been cut out and pasted on both sides of it to complete the plan. The horizontal co-ordinates in such a dial is always 6 am and 6 pm.

Two broad curves above the right-hand side of the semi-circular dial shows the beginning and end times for mid-afternoon prayer ‘asr. The first line is labelled as ‘asr awwal shafi meaning the first time-limit of the ‘asr according to the Shafi school of jurisprudence. The second curve is marked as ‘asr sani hanifi, meaning the second time-limit of the ‘asr according to the Hanifi school of jurisprudence.

Like the ‘asr curves of Hyderabad and Srirangapatna which we will see in following section, the Pulicat ‘asr prayer curves are two broad wings joined at a sharp angle midway. The shadow of the gnomon for the first ‘asr curve follows the rule s = n + g, calculated from winter solstice to summer solstice. The sharp point denotes the equinox where the shadow length is zero at midday.

The dial stands out for its simple lines and clarity of engravings, thanks to the good maintenance.


5-6. Srirangapatna, Juma Masjid & Gumbad,

Around 130 kilometres from Bangalore and 15 kilometres from Mysore lies the town of Srirangapatna, erstwhile capital of Mysore under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. And here in this historical town, we discovered the next two gems in our search for sundials in Indian mosques. Ejaz Ahmed, my colleague from Bangalore readily agreed to explore the town on a weekend, and together with his friend, managed to travel there and sent me detailed pictures and measurements of these two sundials.

Mysore1(Tipu Sultan’s sundial with concentric circles atop the Jamia Masjid, Srirangapatna, Mysore. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed.)

JM3et(Faint traces of two ‘asr’ curves on the Mysore Jamia Masjid sundial. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed)

Mysore2(The second sundial of Tipu Sultan near the Gumbad in Srirangapatna based on same design of concentric circles. Photo courtesy: Ejaz Ahmed)

The first sundial is situated on the terrace of the Jumma Masjid that was built by Tipu Sultan in 1782 and originally called Masjid-e-Ala. The dial is circular in shape with a diameter of 53.34 cm set up on top of a 2-metre tall pillar.

The dial is engraved with 19 concentric circles that are criss-crossed by four diameter lines. Its design is unlike anything we have encountered so far. There are quarter circles in Delhi and Hyderabad dials, but Tipu’s dial has the circles drawn in full. Out of the four diameters, two must have indicated the cardinal directions. The centre has a hole where the gnomon was hosted. A thick line radiates from the centre.

Two parallel broad sweeps of arcs are very faintly visible on top left of the image, similar to the ‘asr curves elsewhere. Concentric circles were used to measure the length of the shadow. Inscriptions in small boxes along the circumference are placed at the end of the straight lines. There seem to be some other inscriptions, unfortunately, none of these can be deciphered as the dial surface is severely eroded. It is sad that these important historical artefacts set up by Tipu Sultan are in such a critical condition.

The second sundial is near the Gumbad, the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan and his parents Hyder Ali and Fakr-Un-Nisa. The dial here is engraved on a rectangular slab of black stone measuring 63.5 x 48.3 cm set up on a 94-cm high rectangular pillar. The design of the sundial is exactly similar to at the mosque.  The condition is equally bad to elicit any meaningful conclusions from its inscriptions.

The rest of the sundials which we discovered were meant only to show the regular time of the day, but they did not have any ‘asr curves.  These dials are described in the order in which they became known to us.


7. Moti Masjid, Agra

For unfathomable reasons, visitors are not allowed in the Moti Masjid in the Agra Red Fort as well as in the Moti Masjid of Delhi Red Fort. The Delhi Moti Masjid was constructed by Aurangzeb while the Agra Moti Masjid was by Shah Jahan. Out of these two contemporary mosques, only the Agra Masjid has a sundial in its courtyard while there is no such dial in the Delhi Red Fort mosque. It therefore raises the question if the dial was originally installed in the mosque courtyard at Agra Fort or was later relocated there.

Capt. J. T. Boileau, of the Bengal Engineers, was the first to describe the sundial at Agra. His report was published in The Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, volume 2, edited by none other than its famed secretary James Prinsep in 1833.

Boileau writes, “Among the curiosities of this once great emporium of learning and art, which have attracted the attention of strangers, is a dial-plate of white marble, with lines inlaid on its surface of a black slate…The style, which appears to have been an upright round pin, is gone, and the inlaying has been pulled out; but the configuration of the lines is still perfect, being marked by the channels wherein the inlaying fitted.”

He says that there were no hour lines except the meridian marking of XII and the ends of the dial marked with VI am and VI pm, which is obvious as the dial’s use was for regulating prayer times only.

He then makes two interesting observations:

  • The dial surface is inclined to the south by 3/8th of an inch, making him wonder if the sundial was originally installed elsewhere and the inclination could be the result of bad workmanship while re-installing at the present location. Says he, “…which leads me to believe, that it has been removed from the place where it was originally fixed; for the inclination is too small to affect the projection of the shadow of the gnomon in any sensible degree, and I believe, therefore, that it stood originally in a perfectly horizontal position.”
  • He noticed an inexplicable wide arc and absence of prayer lines, “…but the object of the circular arc, which subtends an angle of about 95 degrees, has never been explained, although many celebrated Moulavis have visited the Masjid and examined the dial as it stands.”

We then scoured old accounts to get other perspectives of this elusive dial. In Alexander Cunningham’s ASI report 1871-72, his assistant A.C.L. Carlleyle describes the sundial as “an ancient sundial composed of a low octagonal marble pillar about 4 feet in height with no gnomon but simply two cross lines and an arc.” His description is repeated verbatim by John Murray in his 1911 book “A Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon”. Photographer Samuel Bourne passingly remarks in his photograph titled ‘Interior of the Motee Musjid, Agra’ taken in 1865 and now with the British Library (Photo 11/54, item number 1154) that “The central courtyard contains a square marble tank and a sundial in the shape of an octagonal marble pillar”. In recent times, Salim Ansari in his paper “Moti Masjid: A Real Pearl in Agra Fort” in ‘Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 73 (2012)’ provides a black-and-white image which is not very clear.

In the unfortunate restriction of access to the dial and lack of information elsewhere, we need to return to Captain Boileau who is the only person in last almost 200 years to write on the artefact.

Until further examination is done, this sundial remains an enigma with the only account by Boileau suggesting that its lines could not be fully deciphered by many Muslim scholars of his time.


8. Khanqah of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Saheb, Jaipur

We encounter the next sundial in the Khanqah of the 18th century Sufi saint Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin at Jaipur. He was born at Delhi in 1730 but later migrated and settled at Jaipur and was popularly addressed as ‘Maulana Sahib’. He came when the city was ruled by Sawai Pratap Singh (r. 1778-1803), grandson of Sawai Jai Singh, particularly remembered as the builder of Hawa Mahal. The king was deeply impressed with the miraculous powers of Maulana Sahib and became a devotee of the Sufi saint. He also allowed the saint to construct many mosques in the city. The Sufi convent or Khanqah was Maulana Sahib’s spiritual abode where he initiated his followers in various Sufi Orders. He spent his life in spiritual quest in this Khanqah till his demise in 1816. By conjecture, we can say that the sundial present here was constructed during the reign of Pratap Singh, that is, between 1778 to1803.

The sundial is set up on the Khanqah’s terrace, which is not accessible to be public. We are grateful to Syed Ziauddin Ziai, the spiritual successor of the Saint and hereditary administrator of the dargah who has kindly informed us about the sundial and provided us with its photographs. I had first met him in 2015 during a Sufi Trail led by author Sadia Dehlvi organised by Times of India. Since then I was fortunate enough to keep in touch with him and received much help from him on researching for an earlier blog. When I casually mentioned him that sundials as my latest topic of interest, he readily provided the valuable information. I think, this is the first study of this sundial done so far.

The dial is mounted on a short pillar and a triangular gnomon stands atop the perfectly round disc of sundial. The gnomon’s angle with respect to the horizontal plate must be about 27 degrees, the altitude of the city of Jaipur. Interestingly, like the sundial at the Mecca Masjid at Hyderabad, this dial is also marked with the traditional Indian ghatis of 24 minutes and not in 60 minute hours.  But here there are 17 ghatis on either side of the gnomon. No prayer lines are drawn, in fact there are entirely no inscriptions on the dial. This sundial seems to be the oldest Islamic sundial at its original position with its gnomon intact.

Jaipur(The unusual sundial on the terrace of Maulana Saheb’s Khanqah at Jaipur showing measurements in traditional 24-minute ghati. Photo courtesy: Syed Ziauddin Ziai, Gaddi Nasheen of Maulana Saheb’s mosque and Khanqah)

The dhoop-ghadi at Delhi’s Jama Masjid has the hours marked in hours of 60 minutes.

The horizontal line perpendicular to the triangular gnomon is the horizon line from East to West, marking the sunrise and sunset respectively. Two more lines radiate below the horizontal line on both sides, indicating that the counting started two ghatis before sunrise and ended at two ghatis after sunset.

On careful observation of this dial, we find two faint crosses marked at two points on its rim, intended purpose of which is unknown. Counting from the horizontal line, the x-marks are at the 7th ghati from sunrise and sunset, i.e. 2 hrs 48 minutes after sunrise and 2 hrs 48 minutes before sunset.


9. Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur

Ghazipur in eastern UP, also known also as Ghauspur in historical accounts, boasts of several monuments, including the tomb of Governor-General Lord Cornwallis who died here in 1805, a forty-pillared hall or ‘Chihil Sutun’ built by the eighteenth century Mughal governor Abdullah Khan, an opium factory built by the British in 1820, and the Aastana Masjid and Khanqah of the Sufi saint Hazrat Syed Shah Junaid.

IMG_5625(Dhoop ghadi on the terrace of Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur, overlooking the Ganges. Photo courtesy: Dr. Nadeem Adhami)

Syed Shah Junaid (1520 – 1581) was the son of an influential noble man of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi of Delhi and enjoyed a lavish childhood. Afterwards he denounced the worldly luxuries and chose to follow the spiritual path and went abroad to Baghdad. There he got the status of ‘khilafat’ or spiritual successor from Saiyid Abdul Qadir Al-Jilani, who had established the Qadriya Order of Sufism in Iraq. He came back to India and established the Khanqah and mosque at Miyanpur in Ghazipur (25°34’36″N   83°34’55″E). His tomb or dargah is at the same place. It is here that we discovered our next sundial.

IMG_5627(The well-maintained Dhoop ghadi on the terrace of Aastana Masjid, Ghazipur, overlooking the Ganges. Photo courtesy: Dr. Nadeem Adhami)

When I learnt of this dial, I was looking for friends who could visit the mosque and help me with its photographs and details. I am grateful to Dr. Nadeem Adhami, Director of Shah Faiz Public School at Ghazipur whom I contacted after getting his details on internet. He quickly provided me with a fine set of images. My colleague Gurdeep Singh could arrange detailed measurements of the dial. These were enough to study the dial.

The octagonal sundial is mounted on a short pillar on the terrace overlooking the river Ganga. The thick slab of the pillar top makes the dial plate. The East-West line marks the sunrise and sunset while hour lines are highlighted in white. The gnomon and the dial surface are brightly painted in red and green. There are no inscriptions or labels and hours are not further subdivided.

The 76.5 cm high pillar is shaped like a flower vase, at the top of which is the dial plate of 5.5 cm width, each side measuring 25 cm. The E-W horizon line measures almost the same as the N-S polar axis, both about 55 cm. The green coloured gnomon measures 23 cm as its base and 11 cm as its height, thus giving an angle as Tan(x) = 11/23 = 0.478, or x = arctan (0.478) = 25°55′ which is the altitude for Ghazipur.

Boats can be seen anchored on the mighty Ganges below. A bench is thoughtfully provided for the observer to sit.


10. Nauli Sharif, Nauli

About 25 kilometres from the city of Ghazipur lies Nauli (25°29’33″N   83°42’48″E) where we find our next sundial at the Mazar of Ayyube Ali Shah, popularly known as Nauli Sharif. It is an interesting dial. My thanks once again to my colleague Gurdeep Singh, who could arrange its images and measurements.

The dial plate measures 75-cm along the horizon line that forms the base of the semi-circular dial and 65-cm in width. Its triangular gnomon is freshly painted in red with few drops of colour dripped on the dial plate. The hypotenuse of the gnomon measures 20-cm and it has a vertical projection of 9-cm. The dial has hour lines from 6 am to 6 pm while the hours from 7 am to 5 pm are marked in 15 minute divisions. The hour marks on both sides of the noon mark are prominently labelled, signifying its main use for regulating prayer times.

A line of inscription at the bottom has faded and can no longer be deciphered. Probably an attempt can be made to decode it by putting a paper on the surface, and rubbing it with fine charcoal or pencil.

 2(Nauli Sharif sundial, Ghazipur. Photo courtesy: Gurdeep Singh)

5(Undecipherable inscriptions on Nauli Sharif sundial, Ghazipur.)

1(The dhoop-ghadi in front of the Nauli Sharif, Ghazipur. Photo courtesy: Gurdeep Singh)



11-12. Fatehpuri Masjid, Delhi

After exploring the span of the entire country, we decided to have another look at the various monuments in Delhi itself. Despite our best efforts, we found no sundials: neither in the Lodi Gardens, Safdarjung Tomb, Firoz Shah Kotla, nor in the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, Humayun’s Tomb, the Chilla or Khanqah of Nizamuddin Auliya. We scoured the lanes of Old Delhi, exploring old mosques such as Mubarak Begum Masjid as well as both the Sunheri Masjids – one on Chandni Chowk and another near the Delhi Gate of Red Fort, all without success. But to our utter surprise, we found two interesting items in the Fatehpuri Masjid.  Starting from the Jama Masjid of Delhi, we returned to the Fatehpuri Masjid, making a full circle like the hands on the dial of a clock.

DSC_0661(A vertical sundial mounted on the electric pole and a horizontal sundial kept below, at Fatehpuri Masjid, Delhi.)

The history of Fatehpuri Masjid is the history of Shahjahanabad itself. It was built in 1650 by one of Shah Jahan’s wives Fatehpuri Begum, so named because she hailed from Fatehpur Sikri. Standing at the end of Chandni Chowk, it stares back at the majestic Red Fort on the opposite side of the moonlit street of yesteryears, symbolising the status and power of royal women in the Mughal societal hierarchy. After 1857, the British sold off the mosque to a private merchant Lala Chunamal under whose custody it remained for 17 years. And, in the courtyard of this famed mosque we found two very remarkable dhoop ghadis.

At the centre of the courtyard is the ablution tank or hauzi, in the unusual shape of a circle in the middle and two long strips on each side, akin to a wrist-watch with a band. Around this clean tank where fishes swim unhindered, many small octagonal marble seats lie scattered for the devotees to sit and wash themselves before offering their prayers. Among these marble ‘stools’, on the side facing the mosque, lies an ancient sundial tossed in a similar manner.

It is a circular sundial made of marble, with a diameter of 30 cm. It is embedded in a circular sandstone slab with a diameter of 60 cm and a thickness of 13 cm. A line marking the true north is inscribed on the stone itself and extends onto the marble sundial, along the marks of the now-missing gnomon. There are no inscriptions, nor the hours are marked. The dial is from 6 am to 6 pm with the hours divided with two concentric bands. The inner-most band divides the hours into 15 minute intervals, whereas the outer band slices it further in 5 minute divisions. The gnomon must have had an appreciable thickness, for a small band is reserved in the centre of the two concentric rings.

a13(Horizontal sundial at Fetehpuri Masjid.)

The second sundial can easily be equally overlooked. Bolted to an electric pole, it is a south-facing vertical sundial. Its rectangular black dial plate is a sheet of 35 x 35 cm hung at a height of 240 cm from the ground to its lower side. It has a triangular gnomon at 28 cm from the bottom of the plate, around which the hour lines radiate down to cut a semi-circular ring that marks sunrise (6 am) to sunset (6 pm). In fact, this is the first instance that we have encountered a vertical sundial in a mosque.

A vertical sundial has two distinct features:

-Morning hours (6,7,8,9,10,11) are plotted on right and afternoon hours (1,2,3,4,5,6) on the left of the noon-mark (opposite to a horizontal dial)

-Hour lines in a vertical dial are calculated using the same formulae but using the co-latitude. Since Delhi’s latitude is 28.7 degrees, calculation of a vertical sundial should be made for (90-28.7) or 61.3 degrees.

An Urdu inscription at the top of the dial reads as follows, essentially meaning that since Delhi’s time lags behind the standard time, a correction must be added to the sundial’s readings whose values can be referred from the table below.

d2(The only vertical Islamic sundial found in India so far – at Fatehpuri Masjid.)

‘Delhi me dhoop ghadi ka waqt standard times se peeche rahta hai. Iski tafseel naqsha zel me mula khat karein ke angrezi ki kisi mah ki kisi tarikh me kitne minute peeche hota hai. Naqsha me hali qalam se minute ka hindsa hai, aur khafi qalam se satar se upar mahine ka, aur neecha tarikh ka. DHOOP GHADI MASJID FATEHPURI. DEHLI.’

According to the Shahi Imam Dr. Mufti M. Mukarram Ahmed, both these sundials were the labours of love of his late grand-father Mufti Muhammad Mazharallah (d.1966) whose scientific, religious and spiritual knowledge was unparalleled. He was a courageous man who refused to leave the mosque during the disturbances in the aftermath of partition. Authorities such as the Nawab of Hyderabad Mir Usman Ali Khan (d.1384/1967) and government officials both in the pre-partition British Government and post-partition Indian government extended invitations to felicitate him, but he never showed much interest in official engagements.

a4 - Copy(Table on the sundial showing time offsets to be added to the dial reading to get the IST.)

excel1(The decoded table, yellow highlighted numbers denote minutes to be added to the sundial’s reading to get the IST, Reds denote months, and Greens denote Dates. For example, the first entry means 33 minutes need to be added on Jan 24 and March 4. Transliteration of Urdu numerals by courtesy of Basharat Khan)

On the scientific front, he always pondered over the relativeness of local time and the standard time and devised various calculations to regulate prayer times. He made a universal table that shows the eight prayer times irrespective of the year. It is framed and hung near the mihrab. He seemed to have designed the vertical dial after drafting the table. Regarding the circular dial, the Shahi Imam fondly remembers that it was originally installed on top of a small pillar at the centre of a small tank or ‘hauzi’ that no longer exists. He said that there was a third sundial designed by his grandfather which no longer survives. The grave of Mufti Muhammad Mazharallah is located inside the courtyard of Fatehpuri Masjid.


A Brief History of Sundials

The oldest sundial extant today is believed to be an artefact in the Berlin Museum that dates to 1500 B.C. It is believed that the sundial was introduced in Greece by astronomer Anaximander around 600 B.C. Roman dramatist Plautus who died about 184 B.C. lamented that a wretch had chopped his days into pieces by installing a sundial in the market place. Probably at that time, loud announcements were made at each hour boundary. Plautus says,

“The gods confound the man who first found out

How to distinguish hours – confound him, too,

Who in this place set up a sun-dial,

To rub and hack my days so wretchedly

Into small pieces! When I was a boy,

My belly was my sun-dial – one more sure,

Truer, and more exact than any of them.

The Dial told me when ‘twas proper time

To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;

But, now-a-days, why even when I have,

I can’t fall to, unless the sun gives leave.

The town’s so full of these confounded dials,

The greatest part of its inhabitants,

Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the street.”


The scientific knowledge was passed on from Greeks to Romans and then to Muslims. Muslims came into contact with the Greco-Romans in 7th century A.D. and transformed the entire science of gnomonics to suit their religious requirements. It was a happy coincidence of religion and science. The Umayyad Caliph ‘Umar ‘ibn ‘Abd al-Aziz of Damascus was known to have used a sundial around 700 A.D. and in the 8th century we know of al-Fazari and Ya’qub ibn Tariq who worked on the science of shadows, though they did not write any books or treatises. From the 9th century, we come across a steady flow of Muslim astronomers who wrote books and almanacs, calculated tables for regulating prayer times using complex computational and graphical methods. It was then that the use of sundial was first used to predict prayer times.

Al-Khwarizmi of 9th century Baghdad is credited with the first known astronomical tables to construct horizontal sundials. Baghdad was the centre of such innovations till the 10th century, producing at least seven known early Islamic astronomers. Then it was followed by Cairo, Yemen, Damascus and Istanbul in subsequent centuries. Ibn al-Shatir from 14th century Damascus is believed to be the father of ‘polar horizontal sundial’ where the gnomon is oriented to North. His iconic huge sundial complex on a 2 x 1-m plate in Damascus made in 1371/2 A.D. is the most well-known sundial, which was broken during restoration and was replaced with an exact replica in 1876 A.D. by al-Tantawi. His design of ‘polar horizontal sundial’ then spread eastward to India and westward to Europe. In Europe, it became a popular garden decoration, and in India it was absorbed in Sanskrit astronomy and was called the ‘palabha-yantra’.

These scholars devised formulae that could be used to predict prayer times, calculate the time since sunrise, the hour-angles, hour-angles at the afternoon prayer time ‘asr and so on. Tables were published so that sundials could be constructed anywhere in any mosque just by referring these tables, without the need for complex calculations. Tables were provided for every type of requirement in a mosque, such as, when the muezzin should call for prayer, how much time the faithful still had till the muezzin would call, what time the lamps on minarets during Ramazan were to be extinguished, etc. Calculations were done for each degree of longitude for duration of daytime, duration of night time, start and end of the ‘asr and so on.

Before the 13th century, the muezzin in a mosque was given the responsibility of timekeeping apart from his usual duty of announcing the prayer times. Although he was chosen mainly for the quality of his voice and knowledge of religious rituals, he was also required to know the basics of ‘folk-astronomy’, the times of daytime prayers, shadow lengths at zuhr and ‘asr and so on. From the 13th century onwards, a new class of professional astronomers were attached to mosques for scientific regulation of time and were called ‘muwaqqit’.



Here is the list of sundials presented in the study, arranged as per their locations from north to south


This is a brief survey of this highly interesting topic. But it can hardly be termed as comprehensive, considering that there may be many more such sundials in the country – known as well as un-noticed. I would be grateful if you discover any other such sundials in Islamic places of worship and share the details so that the short survey initiated here can be further expanded.


1.4 Preservation

Being exposed to all kinds of weather in open air, these ‘dhoop-ghadis’ suffer extensive corrosion of stone inscriptions. Conservation initiatives such as putting glass cases above them, or retiring them to museums while re-constructing exact replicas on fresh marble or stone slabs with steel or brass fittings at their original positions will trigger public interest in this lost science.

It is important to locate and preserve these scientific artefacts before they are lost in obscurity.




  1. Ansari, 2012 | Salim Ansari, ‘Moti Masjid: A Real Pearl in Agra Fort’ published in ‘Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Vol 73 (2012)’
  2. Berggren, 2001 | J.L. Berggren, ‘Sundials in Medieval Islamic Science and Civilization’ published in ‘The Compendium – Volume 8 Number 2, June 2001’
  3. Boileau, 1833 | Capt. J.T. Boileau, ‘Description of a Sun Dial in the Court of the Moti Masjid, in the Fort of Agra’ published in ‘The Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal – Vol. II’, Ed. James Prinsep, Calcutta, 1833
  4. Cunningham, 1874 | Alexander Cunningham, J.D. Beglar, A.C.L. Carlleyle, ‘ASI Report for the year 1871-72, Volume IV’, Calcutta
  5. Fanshawe, 1911 | H.C. Fanshawe, ‘Murray’s A Handbook to India, Burma and Ceylon’, London, 1911
  6. Gatty, 1872 | Mrs Alfred Gatty, ‘The Book of Sun-Dials’, Enlarged and Re-Edited by H.K.F. Eden and Eleanor Lloyd, 1900
  7. Gent | Robert van Gent, ‘Sundial’ published in Epact: Scientific Instruments of Medieval and Renaissance Europe
  8. King, 1996 | David A. King, ‘Astronomy and Islamic society: Qibla, gnomonics and timekeeping’ published in ‘Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science’, Vol 1, Ed. Roshdi Rasheed, 1996
  9. Mazharallah | Biodata of Mufti-i-Azam Shah Muhammad Mazharallah,
  10. Private, 2017 | Private Correspondence with Professor S.R. Sarma, who kindled my interest in the topic.
  11. Quraishi, 2012 | Fatima Quraishi, ‘Asar-ul-Sanadid: a nineteenth-century history of Delhi’
  12. Sarma, 1987 | Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma (Edited & Translated), ‘Yantraprakara of Sawai Jai Singh’, published in ‘Supplement to Studies in History of Medicines and Science, Vol X & XI -1986,1987
  13. Sarma, 2017 | Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Astronomical Instruments’ (
  14. Savoie, 2014 | Denis Savoie, ‘Sundials in Islam’, 2014
  15. Singh, 2015 | Khushwant Singh, ‘Delhi through the seasons’, 2015, Noida
  16. Stephen, 1876 | Carr Stephen, ‘The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi’, 1876, Ludhiana
  17. Waugh, 1973 | Albert E. Waugh, ‘Sundials: Their Theory and Construction’, 1973, New York
  18. Xavier, 2010 | Xavier Benedict, Anameka Architects and Designers, ‘Pulicat & Sadras: Confluence of History, Culture and Environment’, commissioned by the Embassy of The Netherlands in India,





Whispering Stones of Qutb Complex: Forgotten Calligraphy and Hidden Symbols

The word ‘calligraphy’ is derived from the Greek word ‘Kallos’ meaning beauty, and ‘graphe’ meaning writing. The literal meaning of calligraphy as ‘beautiful writing’ is a bit shallow transliteration of the Arabic word ‘Khatt’ which is derived from three components – ‘line’, ‘design’ and ‘construction.’

Islamic calligraphy is strongly associated with the beautiful reproduction of chapters or verses from the Quran. It was and still is the main medium for artistic expression, since figurative art is prohibited on the suspicion of idolatry because the representation of human forms was considered a Christian iconography.

During the seventh century, when the Islamic community spread its wings to cover a vast area from Egypt and North Africa to Iran and beyond, two major Arabic scripts were developed. They were called Kufi and naskh. Kufi is believed to be linked to a small town in Southern Iraq called Kufa, while naskh was used as a copying script. Inscriptions on the coins, tombs, and monuments required Kufi script to become more square-ish and formal. Copying of sacred texts onto parchment, papyrus, and paper allowed ‘nashk’ to become more cursive. However, over the ages, both were simultaneously used on paper, coins, metal, and woodwork as well as on tombs and monuments. The first stone-inscribed Kufi scripts were found in Egypt. At the Qutb complex, you can see the simultaneous use of both scripts.

(north gate-vert

(Kufic inscriptions on the northern gateway. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The earliest copies of the Quran found to date back to the seventh century were written in a script that is considered a precursor to the Kufi Script. It had no vowels and its slanting lines were angled at 45 degrees to the right. There were only 17 letters without any vowels or dots, which were added later on after its discovery.


(10th century ceramic bowl with Kufic calligraphy, Brooklyn Museum, source: Wikipedia,_10th_century.jpg)

By the eleventh century, Kufi was not only well established, it also had three distinct varieties. They were the foliated Kufi, where leaves formed the decoration of the letters, floriated Kufi, which had letters ending with flower motifs, and plaited Kufi, which had geometric or mathematical calligraphic forms which were designed by weaving together individual characters.

Ibn Muqla is considered the innovator of the cursive naskh script. He died in 940 AD in prison and his right hand was cut off by his enemies before that. Even with the cruellest punishment that could have come down on a calligrapher, he taught and passed on his skills to a group of students. His masterly skill is praised by Abu Hayyan at-Tauhidi who believed, “Ibn Muqla is a prophet in the field of handwriting; it was poured upon his hand, even as it was revealed to the bees to make their honey cells hexagonal.”


(Well-defined calligraphic inscriptions at the entrance of Imam Zamin’s tomb. Decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

As many as six sub-categories of naskh were listed by Ibn Muqla: sulus, naskh, rayhan, muhaqqaq, tawqi, and riqa. The whole calligraphic study of naskh became very complicated due to the large amounts of varieties of design variations. For example, nothing could be more confusing than to name a sub-category of naskh as naskh. The word sulus meant ‘third’ perhaps because third of every letter was inclined. It was also the root script for the rest of the naskh’s sub-categories. The Sulus is also referred to as Thuluth, because in Arabic the first ‘S’ is pronounced as ‘th’, and orientalists tried to imitate the Arabic pronunciation. But Persian and Turkish speaking people pronounce the first letter as ‘S’ and so it is written as ‘Sulus’ as well.


(Southern face of Alai Darwaza. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

In the thirteenth century, as calligraphy spread from Iraq to Iran, it led to addition of two more scripts: ataliq and nastaliq. Ataliq means ‘teacher’ and had characters almost overlapping each other. Nastaliq was a very difficult script to read and was a hybrid made from the combination of ‘NAS’kh + a’TALIQ’.

Two centuries later, Turkish calligraphers introduced a new script called diwani. It was a font that was very pleasing to the eye and, as its name suggests, it looked like a majestic script. Turkey had another innovation in the field with the introduction of tughra, which was formed by arranging holy verses in the shape of animals. It was a creative technique used to disrupt the ban on drawing animal shapes. One example is an Arabic verse written in the shape of an elephant, complete with a howdah and a couple of people sitting inside the howdah. This tughra was written by Dara Shikoh and is part of the calligraphic collection of the Hamdard University Library, near Batra Hospital in Delhi.


                                               Architecture of Qutb Complex


By the time Delhi became the farthest outpost in the Islamic empire, the Saracenic art forms had already been developed in the Middle-East. With the Indian conquest by the Turks, a new template for architectural vocabulary was created by consciously incorporating both Hindu and Islamic elements, which is now known as Indo-Saracenic architecture.

In the Delhi Sultanate, spanning across the five dynasties of Slave, Khilji, Tughluq, Sayyid and Lodi, the monuments in the Qutb Complex were constructed and expanded only during the reigns of three sultans: Qutb ud-din Aibak, Iltutmish, and Allauddin Khilji from 1192 to 1316.

The Qutb Complex was built in three distinct phases. The first construction was done by Qutbudin Aibak from 1191 to 1200. The area was then enlarged by his successor, Iltutmish, until 1230. The last phase of expansion was by Allauddin Khilji during his reign from 1296 until 1315 AD.

These structures are the earliest Islamic architecture in India and offer an insight into the culture’s unique building style. Although there had been similar conquests by Arabic tribes in Sindh since 8th Century AD, there are hardly any monuments left behind to refer to and compare.

east gw2

east gw3-vert

(English transliteration of Arabic inscription panel on the inner lintel of eastern gateway by Zafar Hasan, published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

An inscription on the inner lintel of its eastern gateway reads, “The materials of 27 temples, on each of which 2,000,000 Deliwals had been spent, were used in (the construction of) this mosque.” In this construction overhaul, one must admire how the local craftsmen had skilfully assembled pieces of fallen temples to meet the new demand by stacking them to achieve a common height,  re-using corbelled domes of temples, smoothing or chiselling off sculptured figures or turning them inwards. No wonder that the naskh characters on Aibak’s great screens, inscribed by local Rajput craftsmen by copying the strange alien letters from their new masters, look less authentic than the similar inscriptions on Iltutmish’s great screen extensions. This was because, as soon as mass immigration of skilled workmen would have commenced from Persia, the motifs became more and more accurate. With the passage of time, as the Qutb Complex was extended, we see less of Hindu elements and more of the Saracenic influences. Newer architectural experimentations that involved designers picking and choosing fewer local elements while dropping or rejecting others.  Therefore, there is no better place than the Qutb Complex at Delhi to study how the first hesitant steps were attempted by the Turk masters, who were initially totally dependent upon local artisans to carve out their songs on stone, and how they developed a new style over the time.

The entire complex was built in three phases overlapping each other in the shape of nested rectangles, most of which are already gone and can only be conjectured. As we walk past the Mughal-era scalloped gateways at the entrance and turn left to enter the mosque, we must be aware that perhaps two more gateways would have stood in our way before we could reach the eastern entrance to the oldest mosque in Delhi.

Qutb image2-page-002

(‘Bird’s Eye-view of the Qutb’ by Gordon Sanderson, Plate XI, “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The monument is full of inscriptions which are partially gone and even those remaining are not fully legible. It was Syed Ahmed Khan, who helped with the translations; as a young man, he seated himself in a basket on a rope-swing and hung it from Qutb Minar’s balconies in order to record its inscriptions. He did this prior to 1847, when he published his book Asaaar-us-Sanaadeed’ or “Delhi’s Remains.”  Sir Syed, as he was called later, founded the Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College that would become Aligarh Muslim University in 1921. The English translations of the inscriptions were published in 1922 by Zafar Hasan of ASI in his ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments- Vol 3’, and in J.A. Page’s 1926 ASI publication of ‘A Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi.’


                                                          Mosque Gateway


Today, the eastern gateway marks the entrance to the mosque enclosure, which was part of the innermost structure of the three nested rectangular layouts. The arched doorway gives the first example of such an amalgamation of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built into the heavy low lintels under the arched gateway, stands out a plaque with a line written in curiously sharp and angular Arabic fonts. Its striking characteristics are the long strokes, shooting out from the line of text below. This a typical Kufi script that is named after a place in Southern Iraq called Kufa where it originated.


(The arch entrance showing kufic inscriptions and decorated with a ‘kirtimukh’ and a row of hanging temple bells and flower garlands. Inscription decoding and English translation is by Zafar Hasan, and published in “An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi”. Reproduced with permission of A.S.I.)

The Arabic inscriptions in the entire Qutb complex are either verses from Quran, eulogies written for the king, or records of historical events. The brief line in Arabic – whose few last words on the left have disappeared – must have been the only instruction from a Turk overlord to a group of local artisans to reproduce on stone and beautify the rest of the space around it as per their own creativity. The translation of the line reads:

“This mosque was built by Qutbu-d-din Aibak. May God have mercy on him who should pray for the faith of this good builder.”


(Ferocious-looking ‘kirti-mukh’, a talisman to ward off evil, decorated on Aibak’s columns in the mosque.)



The panels below it are equally interesting and highlight how the Hindu sculptors reverted back to their temple art practised over the ages to beautify the empty space around the line written in Kufi calligraphy. At the centre of the panel below the Arabic script, we see a fierce looking face. This is called a ‘Kirti Mukh’ and used in Hindu temples and even homes to ward off evil. In the panel below the Kirti Mukh, we see a row of flower garlands with temple bells hanging in between. Surprisingly, this Hindu motif must have looked adorable to the Turks, because this was one of the very few Hindu styles that was repeatedly used throughout later constructions, including the Qutb Minar and Alai Darwaza.



(Concentric circular stones, sometimes ring-segments, making up the interiors of these early domes.)

At the top of the doorway sits a curiously conical dome. From its inside, it can be seen as a series of concentric rings of progressively lesser diameter stacked on top of each other till the gap is closed. It is obvious that an attempt to build a dome was made without the skills to make a true arch or true dome that requires a keystone. There are several of these types of conical low domes created from temple spire design with corbelling architecture. ”The shallow corbelled domes (were) taken bodily from some wrecked Hindu shrine,” says J.A. Page in his ASI memoir in 1926. In fact, the absence of keystone in the pointed arches of the gigantic mihrab screens must have been the reason for their collapse, even if we discount man made destructions over nine hundred years.


                                                                 Arched Screens


The profusely decorated majestic screens that once stood as entrance to the prayer hall behind them shows a similar study of merging styles. Over the ages, Kufi script became more rounded and a new font called Nastaliq came into the picture, where taliq literally meant ‘falling’. The letters in this font look as if they are hanging or falling down. The Quranic verses on two sides of the screen panel are written in this font. The letters and sentences depicting Quranic verses to praise the God are superimposed on a bed of vines, lotus buds, and ten-petal blooming flowers. The naturalistic imagery of plants and flowers must have been chosen to invoke a sense of purity and devotion because sacred texts were historically associated with perfume, rose-water, saffron, and the likes.


(Calligraphy entwined with vines and creepers, from Aibak’s mihrab screen.)

Besides reproducing the beautiful calligraphy in Arabic, the sculptors were probably allowed to use their own creativity that was suitable for a religious structure. The panels in between the calligraphic bands represent a scroll-like pattern and is a common representation for Goddess Ganga. The wavelike pattern next to it similarly represent River Yamuna. Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted along with their mounts, or vahanas, in temples. The mount for Ganga is a hybrid animal called Makara with a body of a crocodile and the tail of a fish. The repeating serpentine pattern on the panel represents the tail of Makara. The waves on the next panel represent River Yamuna. Both Ganga and Yamuna are often depicted together at the left and right of temple doorways and are considered auspicious and good-luck charms. Together they define the boundary which the devotee must cross in order to enter the religious space. Both of the two rivers are considered very sacred and bathing in river Ganga is believed to wash away all the sins. So, in this medieval architecture, we see an attempt was being made to accommodate and merge different imagery for a syncretic idea of India.


(Goddess Ganga and Yamuna depicted on Aibak’s screens by scroll-like pattern of Ganga’s mount ‘makara’ on the left and wave-like pattern of Yamuna)

Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb could not have a better or more literal representation. As the word signifies, both rivers run parallel, maintaining their unique identities before merging together, and it is a synonym for secular co-existence and tolerance.

Continuing our study on the arched screens, they were expanded on either side by Aibak’s successor, Iltutmish. One of the features that was introduced for the first time in Indo-Saracenic architecture in the Iltutmish’s screens were the attached pillars on both sides of the arch. This decorative feature was then carried on through Iltutmish’s tomb, Alai Darwaza, and later throughout Pathan period and also into Mughal era architecture.


(Attached mutakha-columns at the recessed corners on both side of the arch is first introduced in India in Iltutmish’s screen extensions -1225 A.D.)

The curiously small s-shaped curves at the apex of the arches in Aibak’s screens are done away with in Iltutmish’s screens, but they re-appear in Iltutmish’s tomb. Constructional activities at the site came to a halt after the death of Iltutmish in 1236. Then, exactly sixty years later, from 1296 to 1315, Alauddin Khilji resumed construction for the last time at the complex with great frenzy.


 (Qutbuddin Aibak’s giant mihrab screens built in 1197 A.D. Note the slight s-shaped ‘ogee’ counter curve at its apex, and absence of a keystone.)

Poet Amir Khusrau describes Alauddin’s ambitious work at the Qutb Complex in his Tarikh-I Alai as below. He planned to completely dwarf all his predecessors’ constructions by building something so gigantic in proportion that the Qutb Minar would have become a miniature version of his planned new tower.

The Sultan determined upon adding to and completing the Masjid-I Jami of Shamsu-d din. “and upon the surface of the stones he engraved verses of the Kuran in such a manner as could not be done even on wax; ascending so high that you would think the Kuran was going up to heaven, and again descending, in another line, so low that you would think it was coming down from heaven.

He then resolved to make a pair to the lofty minar of the Jami masjid, which minar was then the single (celebrated) one of the time, and to raise it so high that it could not be exceeded. He first directed that the area of the square before the masjid should be increased, that there might be ample room for the followers of Islam.

He ordered the circumference of the new minar to be made double that of the old one, and to make it higher in the same proportion, and directed that a new casing and cupola should be added to the old one.”



Despite such explicit intentions and planning, the new casing and the cupola was never added to the ‘old minar’. The gigantic ninefold arches that must have really looked as if going to heaven and coming down, are all gone, except the stumps of masonry identifying its foundations. His signature tower lies unfinished at its first floor, but looks ambitious enough in its design. The only remaining edifice of the great sultan is the exquisitely beautiful southern gateway called ‘Alai Darwaza’.

Calligraphy on the bands of Qutb Minar highlights yet another phase of architectural progression. Tower construction commenced with Aibak, “the Commander of the Army… of the Sultan Muizzu-d-din Muhammad Ghori,” and Aibak completed the first level of the tower. Iltutmish built an additional two stories and began a fourth, and the remainder of the fourth and fifth stories were built by Firozshah Tughluq, the prolific builder king.


The main features of Qutb Minar are the calligraphic bands encircling its plain, fluted exterior in naskh characters and the unique stalactite decoration under its balconies. The stalactite feature was introduced for the first time in India on the Qutb Minar, but its origins are largely unknown. Contemporary designs exist in Cairo, Algiers, and elsewhere, but the origin and development of this Saracenic architectural form seems to have been perfected elsewhere a few decades earlier because the mature “honeycomb” designs could not have appeared at different places at the same time. One wonders whether the design could be from the city of Ghazni, where the prototype of the Qutb Minar is believed to have been first erected, however, any such possible links is beyond proof, as the city was totally destroyed in 1155 AD.

The tower’s decoration is almost entirely Saracenic in theme except the rows of flower garlands and hanging temple bells. Also, a row of flowers, each encased in small discs has two levels of eight petals, as if suggesting spokes in the chakra or rotating wheels of time. The bands of the majestic tower have mostly Quranic inscriptions and a few historic references to the builders who commissioned the tower. Although many of these stones have been rearranged without consideration to the correct order, it is quite easy to find the word ‘Allah’ written in bold Arabic letters in a few places.




(‘Allah’ written on the calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar)

In pictorial calligraphy, there is no right or wrong interpretation. It is said that just as humans grow, calligraphic letters also evolve – they are like living entities. No two strokes of the same character by a calligrapher are the same in meaning. Grids are often created by repeating a single letter to make abstract patterns that appeal differently to observers. So, whatever is interpreted, depends on how that person views the pattern. In those times, it was very contemporary to incorporate abstract designs on monuments, whereas now they are considered more traditional.

For example, when we want to represent the term ‘bujurg’ or ‘old man’, there are different things we think of.. To some, an image of a pair of spectacles may come to mind, whereas to others it may be a walking stick or even a banyan tree, which symbolizes a wise and grounded person.


                                                              Alai Darwaza


Even the pierced stone screen at the entrance of Alai Darwaza can be perceived differently. These types of jaali works made with repeated geometric patterns are very common in monuments. While the endless repetition is said to represent the Infinite, without beginning or end, signifying the God,   there are other interpretations as well. Here, the pattern is based on a six-pointed star surrounded by six hexagons. However, if the observer focuses not on the empty spaces but on the latticed frame, each of these holes can be interpreted as dots implemented in various forms. The tiny dot has profound significance in Islamic philosophy; a dot represents the Unity of Knowledge in an infinitely compact state.  Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet said, “Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.”


(Jaali perforations can be viewed as repeated manifestation of the ‘dot’ in various designs. After all, ‘Knowledge is but a point. It is the ignorant who increased it. I am that point.’)

Interpretation of calligraphic patterns takes on a new dimension in the beautiful Alai Darwaza built by Ala-ud-din Khilji. The structure was built almost a hundred years after Aibak-era constructions and, therefore, exhibits a mature level of Indo-Saracenic confluence. Rounded lotus buds and sinuous tendrils co-exist with beautiful arabesque decorations. Considered as the most beautiful structure of Delhi, its entrance is fronted by columns of flowery motifs.


 ( ‘Alif’ written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick seem to be beautifully integrated as these engraved marble flower petals.)


(Mere flower patterns? The central band can be viewed as a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’, while the right most panel has a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’, the two constituent letters of ‘Allah’.)

While its left most columnar panel is a design of stacked kalash motifs, the middle and right panel are more interesting. The design on the central panel may look like petals; however, from a different angle or interpretation, the pattern seems to come from a beautiful repetition of the Arabic letter ‘Lam’. The letters ‘Lam’ (=L) and ‘Alif’ (=A) are the constituents of the word Allah and are often repeated throughout Islamic architecture with endless style variations to invoke God. ‘Alif’ is written like ‘L’ while ‘Lam’ is written like a reverse-L, or a hockey-stick. In a Kufi inscriptions, these two letters ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’ are designed to be tall and determine the width of the calligraphic band as a whole. Knots, plaits, flowers and plants have been innovatively used to extend the abstract design based on these two letters. So, on the rightmost panel, we can see a plaited calligraphic design of ‘Alif’ and ‘Lam’. Here the actual letters are less important than the intricate geometric knot that weave them together.

It is said that the more obscure and incomprehensible the texts are, more devotional the calligraphy is. The text woven in complex mathematical patterns is considered amulets or magical lucky charms.


(A pattern of fishes, birds or circles of life. Notice how each unit is integrated to others by a knotted pattern.)

Another abstract pattern that is prominent on its eastern entrance is a beautiful art that can be interpreted in more than one way. While it may seem a never ending repetition of wheels of time rolling and moving for the eternity, others see the basic building block of the pattern as like four beautiful bird heads joined at the centre by their long beaks. It can also be interpreted as patterns of fishes – another metaphor for dynamics of life.

The texts on its southern entrance are inscribed with very sophisticated calligraphy. In calligraphy, it is said that every stroke of a character represents one lifetime. As the calligrapher dips his bamboo reed-pen in the ink and makes the lines and curves to create one single character, its width becomes more at the beginning when there is more ink and thinner as the ink reduces. It is akin to the statement “More ink – Less Clarity,” and “Less ink- More Clarity.” As one ages in life, his energies may come down, but maturity and understanding increase.


(A character depicted on stone with varying thickness as if written on a paper. Same is attempted with a reed pen on a paper. The style was chosen on stone as if to highlight ‘More ink – Less Clarity, and Less ink- More Clarity.’)

It is perhaps easier to understand this by copying a character on a piece of paper, but to represent the same on stone requires varying thickness at various points of a character. The same character could have been inscribed on stone with an equal width throughout, but the architects have chosen to represent a real-life scroll as if written by a reed-pen on paper or parchment.


                                                     Amalaka and Finial Motif


The arched doorways of the Alai Darwaza are fringed with lotus buds, but is not the only Khilji-era architectural innovation. Its red dome is another story in experimentation. The centre of the dome has a small gap which is covered by another dome – much smaller in size. This kind of a dome surmounting another dome has no parallel in Delhi at least.


(Amalaka-Finial motifs on top of Alai Darwaza built in 1310 AD) and Imam Zamin’s tomb built in 1539 AD. The finial on Alai Darwaza no longer exists.)

Once we step outside, we can see the top of the dome surmounted by a typical amalaka and the now-missing finial. This flat-disk motif in the shape of a cogged ring stone is known as an ‘amalaka’ after the ‘amla’ fruit (emblic myrobalan) or ‘Indian gooseberry’. The amla-fruit is considered sacred to all the three Gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. As per Skanda-purana, it is the first tree that grew in the universe. As per the text, Brahma resides at the bottom of the amla-tree, Vishnu at the middle, and Shiva at its top. It is also believed to be derived from the word ‘amla’ which means stainless or without impurity, thereby giving its synonym of ‘pure-stone’ or ‘Amala-Shila’. It is commonly used in Hindu temple shikhars such as Orissan temples and Khajuraho group of temples.

It is believed that the capping design of amalaka has two major interpretations. Since ancient texts relate temple parts with parts of the human body, the amalaka at the top is likened to the head. It is also believed to signify the passage from the material world and entrance into the world of Ether or Space. The compressed disk like stone design is also interpreted as the ‘amrita-kalasha’ or the vase containing the elixir of life. Above the amalaka, stands the finial or ‘stupika,’ containing a round body akin to a kalasha or pot. The kalasha here is interpreted as the Sun and the temple is the ‘the Mountain, where the Sun rests at midday.’ The same motif was not only used in the Alai Darwaza built in 1310, but also in the neighbouring tomb of Imam Zamin that was built during Humayun’s reign in 1539.


(The ‘bell’-capital along with amalaka-elements at the top of the Iron Pillar from 4th century A.D.)

In order to understand the finial on a dome, we must reflect upon the domes built from different eras – starting from the Slave dynasty up to the Mughals. Khlji architecture is showcased in the dome of Alai Darwaza commissioned by Alauddin Khilji, followed by the tomb of Ghiasuddin Tughluq from the Tughluq period, then by the Lodi tombs, and finally by the domes built by Mughals, such as the tomb of Imam Zamin. Throughout this 300 years, the Indian mason has been restless in perfecting the dome and has been experimenting on decorating the finial on all sorts of things. It is therefore the most appropriate situation to find the two tombs at the two ends of the historical spectrum, standing adjacent to each other- Alai Darwaza built in 1310 A.D. and the tomb of Imam Zamin built in 1539 A.D. After all these years of experimentation with the domes, the masons seem to have decided to borrow the kalash motif from the temple shikars as the final design element in the dome finial, which is seen in the Imam Zamin’s tomb.




On its western entrance, the pair of Kalash in typical dual tone colours of white and red signifies yet another accommodation of a Hindu motif. While few of the pillars in Aibak’s mosque had the ‘Purna-Kalash’ in entirety – the pillars being sourced from ransacked temples as building raw materials – its adoption in Alai Darwaza, which was built almost a hundred years later, is yet another example of how elements of Indo-Saracenic architecture were being experimented with an open mind. The pot decorated with overflowing leaves and even a coconut on top is called a ‘purna-Kalash’ and is a holy talisman symbolising prosperity that is still used in Hindu homes during ‘grih-pravesh’ (house warming), child naming, or daily worship. It is kept at the entrance as a sign of welcome.


(Purna-kalash motifs in Alai Darwaza.)

The ‘kalasha’ or the pot, also called ‘purna-kalasha,’ ‘purna-kumbha,’ ‘purna-ghata,’ or ‘mangala-ghata,’ is a Vedic symbol from the Rigveda, where it is described as the ‘overflowing full vase.’ It is believed to contain the ‘amrit’ or the elixir of life and is decorated with a coconut placed on its top with 5, 7, or 11 mango leaves hanging out of it, but touching the water inside. The ‘kalasha’ or the pot symbolises the womb that nurtures life, the mango leaves symbolise Kamadeva – the god of Love, the coconut denotes money and prosperity, while the water in the pot symbolises Nature’s life-giving ability. Another interpretation of the motif is that it denotes the five elements of nature: its base represent the Earth, its expanded centre denotes Water, its narrow neck is the Fire, and its opening at the top is the Air, while the coconut and the mango leave-decoration represents Ether.


( ‘Puna-kalash’ with mango-leaves sticking out and embossed with ‘Alif’ patterns in Iltutmish’s Northern screen extensions.)

The Kalash has been a part of our architecture since ancient times. The earthenware is used to store seeds for the next harvest and hence is a symbol of continuity. It is used to store water, the essence of life. Hence it is used in fertility rituals and in weddings even today. Kalash is considered a pious symbol, a representation of purity in India; so, local masons studded the new structures with kalash motifs, a symbol they venerated.

Ashes of the dead are also kept in a kalash. Over the time, it therefore came to represent the continuity of life and death. So when mausoleums were first built, the Kalash motif was used in the buildings for its supposedly connection with the ‘hereafter’.




The last symbol in the same building is worth deeper observation. The tops of the square building’s three horse-shoe shaped arched doorways are decorated with six-pointed stars on either side. While the origin of the six-pointed star remains unknown, it has multiple meanings in almost all religions, signifying that the symbol is beyond any particular religion and contains a message that is universal in meaning.

Its first representation in a monument is found in a 3rd to4th century synagogue in northern Israel. The symbol is profusely used in later-day Mughal monuments as well like Purana Qila and Humayun’s tomb. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, the Freemasons, as well as followers of occultism all use this ancient symbol. In Hindu Yantra, it is known as the ‘satkona Yantra’ and represents ‘Shiv’ and ‘Shakti’. Shiv is represented as the upward pointing triangle “Λ” meaning ‘Purusha’ or the Supreme Being, while Shakti is denoted by ‘V’ meaning ‘Prakriti’ or mother-nature, or Yoni-Yantra. The superimposition of two symbols denotes the Cosmic Creation.


(Double Hexagram patterns on both sides of three horse-shoe arched doorways in Alai Darwaza.)

The symbol is also said to represent the combination of basic elements: the upward triangle denotes Fire whereas the downward pointing triangle symbolises its elemental opposite, the Water. Air is also denoted by an upward triangle, but with the horizontal line through its centre, like the letter ‘A.’ Its opposite element Earth is a downward pointing triangle but with the horizontal line at its centre. The combination of Air and Earth again gives rise to a six-pointed star. When all four elements are simultaneously represented, it makes a double hexagram. The two triangles of the hexagram are also contained in the ‘damru’ or the drum in the hand of Lord Shiva, signifying the eternal cycle of creation and destruction. If we allow a smoothening of its edges, we can see the ‘infinity’ symbol consisting of the two triangles.

The same symbol is also known as the Star of David in Judaism, and depicted on the Israeli flag. The symbol is also used in Islam as Najmat Dawud (Star of David) or Khatem Sulayman (Seal of Solomon), which has the same roots as Christianity and Judaism. Even the modern Indian sage Sri Aurobindo uses the symbol as the union of the Man and God: the upward pointing triangle denoting the seeker calling out to the Divine and the downward triangle symbolising the descent of the Divine in response to the caller.


(Notice a hexagram on Aibak’s giant screen along with other complex decorations.)

David in Christianity is the same person as Dawud in Islam, as are Abraham and Ibrahim, Jesus and Isa, and Joseph and Yusuf. Mary came from a place called Nazareth near Jerusalem where Jesus was born. When the story of David spread to Arabia, the symbol was adapted in Islam while referring to the divine beginning. So, with the spread of Islam, the Star of David was further carried eastwards as the ‘Najmat Dawud’ to Arabia, followed by to Central Asia and then further to India. The common beginning of the three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is further exemplified by the letters INRI inscribed on the crucifix. It is the initials of the Latin title, ‘Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm’, where the word ‘Jesus’ is written as ‘Iesvs’ by replacing ‘J’ with ‘I’ and ‘U’ by ‘V,’ bringing a close resemblance between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Isa’. The title means “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of Jews.” So, on a Christian Cross, we see Islamic references of ‘Isa’ while referring him as the Jewish King. This means Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have the same root and beginning, and therefore the Star of David is not exclusively a Jewish symbol, which is wrongly believed.


(“Allah” written in kangura-decorations on the wall around Imam Zamin’s tomb.)

The symbol’s antiquity really dates back beyond religions, from history to the folds of pre-history. In the ancient Egyptian pantheon of Gods, the triangle pointing down is considered as Goddess Nut, or the Goddess of the Sky, while the upward triangle -like a pyramid shape- symbolises her husband Geb -the God of the Earth. This is the first symbol of divine marriage and the Goddess is the cosmic creator.  The same symbol is also found in ancient native Indians of Mexico. Therefore the symbol is totally unrelated to religion, and it is only recently that religious interpretations have begun to be offered.

What is then its universal message? An equilateral triangle is the most stable of forms, as all its angles are equidistant from each other with no force between its components. It is the geometric representation of the ‘Triple Three or 333’ – the Trinity of God, as it embodies the three elements as ‘Creator,’ the ‘Creation,’ and the ‘realisation that both are one and the same.’ The hexagram is like a simultaneous representation of a centrifugal and centripetal force: both require each other. Like yin and yang, the two triangles represent the duality of nature: the complementary forces of the Law of Spirit, or Life, and the Law of Matter, or Resistance.

The Law of Spirit is selflessness while the Law of Matter is inward-looking. In the whole cosmic creation, only the human being is able to consciously balance the two Laws: the human body is matter while the consciousness is Spirit. Like the two overlapping triangles supremely in balance, the human being is the bridge between the two worlds. The two are complementary. Without the resistance of matter, the spirit cannot manifest itself. Without the body of the man, life cannot exist. Without the gravitational resistance of the earth, nothing can stand firm on it and the inert matter becomes a living body only when the Divine Spirit clothes itself in it.


The hexagram is the symbol of supreme unity of matter and spirit within ourselves. For example, we can take a blank sheet of paper and use it to represent “nothing.” When we draw a shape with a coloured paintbrush, the shape is something that has manifested out of the “nothingness” of the pure plain paper and we can say that the shape was always there inside the paper, only invisible to us. Only the true unison or balance of our consciousness with its counterpart of matter within our-self represents the fulfilment of attaining God, because we are just the manifestations of God & the Supreme Energy lives within each of us.

Before ending, let us revisit the concept of the point or ‘dot.’ In order for the dimensionless spirit to manifest itself in the universe, it needs a point of departure. A point is dimensionless and has not yet departed from the ‘nothingness,’ but is required for the manifestation of life.




In those early days of architectural experimentation, building motifs were never considered either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Islamic’ in character; they simply were art forms and that is why we find such a composite design evolving with time. Designs were finalised from the practicality and aesthetic points of view, rather than religious undertones. A roof covering a tomb was simply a roof, whether it was constructed with trabeate, squinched dome, true dome, horseshoe arches or Roman arch – they all were experimented till a mature and stable design materialised. From that perspective, isn’t the term ‘Hindu-Islamic architecture’ a misnomer?



The tomb evolved out of the arch, which was first built in Rome, much before the birth of Christianity. The biggest dome today stands at the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The arch and dome design were borrowed from the Romans by Islamic architects. The European domes are known neither as Christian architecture nor Islamic. Architecture has no religious colour attached to it. Therefore, calling these architectures as Islamic is a wrong representation. For example, there is nothing called as Christian architecture, although there are all sorts of different styles that existed – Renaissance, Gothic, Greek, Roman, French, etc. .


A dome is built upon a square roof, which is preferred in low rainfall areas. A slanting roof is preferred in heavy rain or snow fall areas. If the domes are considered Islamic in theme, all the mosques throughout the world would have been designed alike. But, it is not so. Mosques in Indonesia, Malaysia and even in Kashmir were built without domes – the so-called Islamic architectural symbol.

Similarly, the architecture styles prevalent in temples belong to different eras, and should be termed as Indian architecture, and not Hindu style of architecture. The use of common motifs, in both temples and mosques – be it the amalaka finial, purna kalash or the overflowing pot, the flowing scroll like Ganga-Yamuna patterns, the ferocious looking ‘Kirti Mukh’, flower garlands, hanging bells, or the lotus buds and vines – throw open a vivid insight into the minds of those builders and designers. Experimenting by hits and trial, – mixing and matching myriad design features from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds -, they were successful in bringing forth a composite cultural form – a beautiful manifestation of ‘Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb’.



(Un-deciphered details from lintels at the Northern gate interior and at south-west corner behind the mihrab-screens.)

Another viewpoint is that the early invaders came from areas around Afghanistan that was culturally identified with Gandhara not many centuries ago. So, were their architectural styles influenced by Buddhist iconographies such as lotus motifs, finial and amalaka designs, and motifs which we attribute as purely Indian styles? Profusely used lotus flowers  as well as finial shapes can also be seen in Buddhist motifs such as those used in holy caskets to keep the remains of Buddhist teachers, such as hair and teeth. Hence, in the establishment of Muslim rule in Delhi, were the Turks negotiating and adapting only with Hindu architectural styles or were they experimenting  novel contemporary designs by mixing diverse variations that existed those days – be it of Indian, Persian, or Buddhist origins? These are questions which we perhaps will never be sure of.




                                          Sidenote#1: Qutb’s master-builders


Whereas Muhammad Ghori took the daring gamble to rule India with an alien power, it was his trusted general Qutb-ud-din Aibak who can be considered the real founder of the Delhi Sultanate. Some say his name ‘Aibak’ meant ‘moon-face,’ although as per Siraj, he was certainly not a handsome man. Aibak could also mean he had an ‘aib’ in one of his hands and, therefore, he was referred to as ‘Aibak’ or ‘the six-fingered.’ He was bought by Ghori in a slave market in Ghazni.  With the fall of the Rajput kingdom in 1192, a new class of elite Turks started ruling over the Hindu and Jain population. As if to signal the change, the new rulers embarked immediately on erecting a grand mosque and a victory tower in Delhi, their chosen seat of power.


(Entrance doorway of the Qutub Minar with inscriptions saying, ‘He who builds a mosque for God, God will build for him a similar house in paradise.’)

Coming in quick succession as India’s second Turk ruler, it was not unexpected of Iltutmish to complete and expand the grand monumental project which was started by his predecessor. Iltutmish was another slave known for his beauty and intelligence who was rejected by Muhammad Ghori in the slave market of Ghazni, due to the high asking price. Instead, he was purchased by Aibak in Delhi for one lakh chital coins. The construction of Qutb Minar was started by Aibak who could not complete it beyond its first level, whereas it was Iltutmish who finished the structure. Historians are still divided in their views about whether Qutb Minar was named after its builder Qutubuddin Aibak, or if it was named after the great contemporary Sufi master Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Or if it was so named as to indicate the ‘axis’ or ‘qutb’ around which the new kingdom or religion was supposed to hinge around.

After the death of Iltutmish in 1236, there was a sudden lull of architectural activities in Delhi. His successor was his eldest son, Rukn ud-din Firuz, who was quickly dethroned and succeeded by Raziya Sultan, India’s first woman ruler and daughter of Iltutmish. “She rode on horseback as men ride, armed with a bow and quiver, and surrounded by courtiers and she did not veil her face,” writes Ibn Battuta. However, her reign was only three years and six days. Her successor was Iltutmish’s third son, Muiz-ud-din Bahram, whose two year term ended with his murder. The powerful group of nobles then placed Iltutmish’s grandson. Ala ud-din Masud, in charge until he was bound and thrown into the prison by those very nobles, who then placed Iltutmish’s youngest son Nasir-ud-din Mahmud on the throne. It was a period of rapid political flux, in which Delhi was ruled by as many as five descendants of Iltutmish – one daughter, three sons, and one grandson. All except Mahmud – the last one in the series, seventeen years of age and spending much of his time in copying the Quran and delegating the entire administration to another slave Balban – were murdered and thrown out by the powerful group of nobles, collectively called as ‘The Forty’.


(Calligraphic bands on Qutub Minar are bordered by eight-petalled flowers encased in circles and bands of temple bells hanging along with flower garlands.)

This was not the time when a new monument or architectural enhancement of the existing Qutb complex could have been carried out. But then, Balban’s rule of forty years – twenty years as sultan’s regent and twenty more as the sultan himself – was also strangely void of any of his fingerprints on architectural space. Balban, a slave purchased in Delhi by 1233, was of “short stature and mean in appearance” as characterized by Ibn Battuta, quickly rose in the echelons of power. He stabilised the Sultanate rule until 1287, when he died of shock of losing his son to the Mongols. Eighty year old Balban’s shock was perhaps more for losing an able successor to his throne, for which he has been grooming his elder son and “loved him more than his own life,” says Barani. He could see that the administration that he had firmed up during the last forty years carefully and dedicatedly going soon to the dogs. He was not wrong. Another period of intense chaos – interesting only in history books perhaps – saw two of Balban’s descendants, a grandson and even a three year old infant great-grandson sultan propped up to the throne but were quickly tossed out till Delhi had altogether an entire new regime. It was beginning of Khilji empire, established by Jalal ud-din Khilji in 1290.


Six years later, in 1296, Delhi’s architectural space became livid once again with yet another megalomaniac sultan: Ala-ud-din Khalji. The Qutb Complex, untouched since 1236 when Iltutmish died, had a new patron after sixty years. It was also the last of constructional activities at Qutb complex, 1296 to 1315 to be precise, because new capital cities were then established by subsequent sultans, starting with Alauddin’s Siri.

An illiterate, but ambitious man, Alauddin was soon drunk on his military successes. He dreamt of a grand scheme to establish a new religion altogether and to conquer the world like a second Alexander. “Bad-tempered, obstinate, hard-hearted… he had no consideration for religion…” as Barani  describes of one of the most unusual and successful sultans of India. He did not visit any Friday mosque and all that mattered to him was the administration and military expeditions. These qualities may be considered as virtues today, but in those days, chroniclers and political commentators like Barani did not find them impressive. It is still a bit strange that he took upon the reconstruction of Delhi’s grand mosque at Qutb complex, expanding it and commissioning a new tower designed to be of double the height of the existing Qutb Minar. His megalomaniac mind could not have thought of a better way to imprint his name on the cityscape.


(Alai Darwaza, built by Alauddin Khilji in 1310: Note the mutakha-columns set in the recessed angles of the pier-jambs on both side of arched windows.)



Sincere thanks to calligrapher Qamar Dagar, walk leader of Times Passion Trails’ ‘Calligraphy Trail and Workshop’ for her artistic interpretations; to Sohail Hashmi, for sharing his immensely interesting insights into common symbolisms from different cultures and religions; and to historian Dr Swapna Liddle, walk-leader of INTACH’s ‘Symbols and Motifs of Qutb’ for bringing out the commonalities with temple motifs in the monument complex.


Further Readings


* A Brief Introduction to The Arabic Alphabet, by John F. Healey, and G. Rex Smith, 2009, London

* Initiation, by Elisabeth Haich, 2000, Santa Fe

* An Historical Memoir on the Qutb: Delhi, by J.A. Page, 1998 reprint (1926), New Delhi

* The Muktesvara Temple in Bhubaneswar, by Walter Smith, 1994, Delhi

* The Hindu Temple, Vol II, by Stella Kramrisch, 1946, Calcutta

* God’s Hexagram, by Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, 3 July 2014,

* Styles of Calligraphy, by Annemarie Schimmel, 14 October 2011, Islamic Arts & Architecture:

* The Age of Wrath: A History of Delhi Sultanate, by Abraham Eraly, 2014, Gurgaon

Tree Spotting at Qutb Complex – Delhi’s First Settlement

Exploring Qutb complex is like un-layering the very root of the city of Delhi. When exactly the city began here, no one is quite sure. Some say its antiquity dates back to the times of the Mahabharata as Indraprastha—its legendary capital. When the Turks, led by Muhammad Ghori, descended here in 1192 to establish the seat of Delhi Sultanat, an exotic architecture style sprung up with the amalgamation of the creative prowess of local Hindu artisans and the Turkish newcomers. Among the strange architectural features carved out in stone, the repetitive symbolism of vines and creeper plants, flowers encased inside chakras, lotus bud fringes etc. creates imagery which represents nature. Today therefore, is it not unusual to spot some of the rare and exotic plants surrounding the ancient world heritage monument, as if cocooning it in the greenery of nature.

As we enter the scalloped gateways at the entrance of the monument, we follow a circular path around it, spotting old friends who have been standing here for a long time. We start along the path curving leftwards towards the entrance of Quwaat-ul-Islam mosque, saying hello to the Fiddle Leaf Fig on the left and the one-and-only Badhara Bush on the right, taking our path by the neem tree through the colonnaded corridor and exiting the Alai Darwaza. We explore the trees in the eastern sector of the compound and cross over to the western side, passing by the un-missable Australian ‘Reid River Box’. We walk behind the madrasa, meeting the Bilangada and Pilkhan standing as brave sentinels personifying some unknown characters from the layers of history buried here, before coming out to see the half-finished Alai Minar of grandiose design, silhouetted by the equally strange tree called Kanju which is considered home to ghosts and spirits. There cannot be a better place for this tree than in Mehrauli perhaps, where we fail to discover the details of the gory stories of grave after unknown grave, no matter how hard we try. As we exit the monument complex by the same scalloped gates, we see a row of palms with their arched leaves swaying in the wind, as if trying to say good-bye!


Fiddle Leaf Fig – The African Beauty (Ficus lyrata)

An exotic import from West Africa, it is marked by its large violin or fiddle shaped glossy leaves with prominent white veins on its underside. Its figs grow in pairs and are stalk-less.




Badhara Bush – Thicket of Thorns (Gmelina asiatica)

The large, spiny shrub-like tree is the only one in the whole of Delhi, and is native to SE coastal areas. The thorny bush is characterized by the shape of its leaves which change to a three-lobed shape. Its flowers grow in long bunches of canary yellow, often giving its name as Nag Phul.



Ashok – The Cemetery Tree (Polyathia longifolia)

Native to the moist forests of Sri Lanka but very commonly planted in Delhi, it remains evergreen throughout the year. Around fourteen varieties of Ashok are found in India alone. It is often planted as a sound barrier, but its intricate root system sucks the water from far below, thereby lowering the water table. For this reason, its widespread use in a place like Delhi is now being contested. It is identified by its long, narrow leaves which have wavy margins and due to their distinctive shape, its leaves are used in marriage celebrations for decorating gateways. The startlingly white wood inside its trunk is used for making pencils and even drums. A single flower produces a cluster of eight to twenty fruits from one common stalk.



Khabar (N) – Lively canopy on an Ancient Trunk (Salvadora oleoides)

Found exclusively in Mehrauli, this twisted bush-like tree that is also called ‘bada pilu’ has smooth green olive-like leaves with absolutely no elasticity and breaks with a thud. Its lifeless and old-looking trunk is in sharp contrast to its evergreen foliage.



Ber (N) – The Poor Man’s Fruit Tree (Ziziphus mauritiana)

Also called a desert apple tree, ber has been widely cultivated in India for its fleshy olive-like fruits. Its leaves are oval in shape and a beautiful dark green in colour. The bark seems as though it’s peeling off the tree trunk, and the jewel-like fruits are visible from outside the canopy but not from the inside. Its leaves are curled inwards as if to cover the fruits.



Dhak (N) – Upholding The Spirit of Friendship (Butea monosperma)

Known by many names such as tesu, palash, and ‘flame of the forest’, it can grow in almost any inhospitable terrain—be it frost, heat, water-logged poor soil or drought. It is also known as a pioneer tree as it is the first to regenerate in a forest clearing. Due to such qualities, it is used to colonize grounds by growing forests. Its velvety leather compound leaves of three leaflets is often cited in the proverb ‘dhak ke tin patte’, meaning ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. It is also called ‘parrot tree’ as its fiery orange flowers are shaped like a parrot’s beak. It is used to rear lac insects to produce shellac which is secreted by the female lac. Making jewellery such as bangles from shellac is quite popular in India. The orange flowers are used to make a dye used in the Holi festival, while dry flowers are often soaked in water in villages for new mothers to bath due to their disinfectant properties. Its inner bark is used to make ropes, while a rural eco-industry has sprung up to make plates by stitching together its broad leaves.



Ronjh (N) – The Acacia with a ‘Sick-Skin’ (Acacia leucophloea)

Known as white-barked acacia, it is distinguished by its cream-coloured bark with black patches like the skin of a diseased person. Its small leaflets close at night to conserve moisture. Its heart-wood or the non-living older wood-core is used to make beams and rural furniture.




Jand (N) – The Golden Tree of Deserts (Prosopis cineraria)

Deeply revered in deserts, this thorny tree is marked by an extremely fissured bark. Although it does not require much watering, its long roots extend up to ninety feet to search out water from great depths, thereby impacting the already low water table in arid areas. Its drooping branches are often seen with fruit-like growths called ‘galls’, which are not fruits but are in fact produced by insect infestation. During the 1868 Great Rajputana Famine, its sweetish bark mixed with flour saved a lot of lives.



Kareel (N) –The Leafless Tree (Capparis decidua)

This amazingly hardy plant is not found anywhere else in Delhi. It has a trunk like a crocodile’s skin, and a dense foliage of leafless green twigs. Small leaves remain for only a month, requiring the twigs to take over photo-synthesis which is why they are green in colour. Webs can be seen in this large bush-like deciduous tree, highlighted by brick-red flowers. Its leaves and tender shoots are powdered to treat boils, while its fruit is used to treat cardiac diseases.



Bistendu (N) –The Tree that Stupefies (Diospyros cordifolia)

The smallish deciduous tree has a spreading canopy of rich foliage whose leaves are velvety with a slightly heart-shaped base tapering to a thin point. Adivasis often mix its fruit pulp in water to stupefy fish.




Peelu (N) – The Toothbrush Tree (Salvadora persica)

A typical desert tree found from Arabia to Baluchistan to Patna, it has dark foliage with drooping branches and somewhat fleshy leaves. It is known as the mustard tree and is mentioned in the Holy Bible. Three trees are considered for the use of their twigs in brushing teeth: meswak, neem and babul. Peelu is the meswak tree and is often called the toothbrush tree. Such a use is believed to have been in practice since ancient Islamic times. Its leaves are considered to be an antidote to poisons.



Reid River Box – Landmark of Another Kind (Eucalyptus brownii)

A very rare tree from Australia and the only one in Delhi, Reid River Box is included in the landmark group of trees. It belongs to a box group of eucalyptus—an evergreen medium-sized tree with a flaky or fissured trunk. In early March, the flower callypts or ‘caps’ fall off and the white stamens pop out.



Chamrod (N) – The Musical Tree (Ethretia laevis)

Chamrod or the ‘desi papdi’ is a native tree with a knobbly pale-coloured trunk. It is known as the musical tree because bees, butterflies and migratory birds descend upon it in large numbers to eat its bright-orange berries which hang in clusters. White star-shaped flowers cover its canopy of oval-shaped green leaves.



Bilangada (N) – The Native Beauty (Flacourtia indica)

A smallish, native bush-like deciduous thorny plant, it has short, straight spines bearing flowers and leaves. The flowers have no petals, and the leaves have blunt tooth edges.



Pilkhan (N) – The Mufflered Tree (Ficus virens)

A common strangler tree, its aerial roots wrap around trunks like a muffler. It is used as a common avenue tree as its spreading canopy makes an excellent windbreak.



Kanju (N) – The Ghost Tree (Holoptelea integrifolia)

This is the tallest tree native to Delhi and is called the Indian elm, chilbil, and chudail papdi because dark spirits are said to reside in it. At night, a typical whooshing sound emanates due to the activity of bats, giving it further reason to be considered a place of paranormal activities. Its fruits are round papery disks, brown in colour when mature.




Wild Date Palm (N) – The toddy tree (Phoenix sylverstris)

A tree commonly found in lithographs of Old Delhi, the wild date palm with a stepped bark and curled trunk is related to the true palm of North African oases. Its roots are exposed almost a foot above the ground, and its leaves are used to make floor-mats and brooms, while the sugary sap collected from beneath its arching leaves is boiled to make palm jaggery (gud). Un-boiled juice is left to ferment to make toddy.

wild date palm1


The walk to observe these exotic and unique trees was led by the amazingly knowledgeable environmentalist Kavita Prakash of ‘Sausage Tree Nature Walks.’ The walk was part of ‘Delhi Walk Festival’ organised by ‘Delhi, I Love You’ and curated by ‘Delhi Dallying.’



1. Trees of Delhi: A Field Guide, by Pradip Krishen, 2006, New Delhi

2. Landmark Trees of India:

1857 Uprising, “The Sigh of the Oppressed”: Exploring Kashmiri Gate

Early in January 1857, at the Dumdum cantonment near Calcutta, a Brahmin sepoy was walking down to his post to prepare his food with a lotah or brass water-pot, when a low caste khalasi asked if he could get some water to drink from the pot. The soldier refused to share his pot, saying that the touch of low-caste khalasi would defile it. The khalasi retorted, “You think so much of your caste today, but you don’t mind biting cartridges soaked in cow and pork fat.” When the startled Brahmin inquired the meaning of the accusation, he was told that the cartridges given out for the new Enfield rifles were coated with animal fats. The story spread like wildfire, and within just three months of the khalasi’s rebuttal, the issue had become the central theme to ignite the struggle by a conquered race to cast off the foreign yoke of British rule.


(Six portrait-miniatures with watercolor on ivory in delicate bracelet design, showing Dost Muhammad Khan, ruler of Afghanistan 1826–1863; Bahadur Shah Zafar, ruler of Delhi from 1837–1857; and Gulab Singh, ruler of Jammu and Kashmir 1792–1857; the three female figures are  typical Mughal portraits, rather than actual ones. Courtesy: The Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, USA ( Creative Commons License/Public Domain.)

Still, the refusal of 85 troopers out of 90 of the Third Cavalry at Meerut to use the new cartridges on that fateful Saturday of 24th April, 1857 could perhaps have passed off as just another incident, but for the manner in which the punishment was meted out. Kaye, the great historian, writes of the 9th May incident when those 85 sepoys were paraded to an open ground with both native and European onlookers present.

“Under a guard of Rifles and Carabineers, the eighty-five were then brought forward, clad in their regimental uniforms –soldiers still; and then the sentence was read out…their uniforms were stripped from their backs, then the armourers and the smiths came forward with their shackles and their tools…in the presence of that great concourse of their old comrades…There was not a Sepoy present who did not feel the rising indignation in his throat. But in the presence of those loaded field guns and those grooved rifles, and the glittering sabres of the Dragoons, there could not be a thought of striking….”

Defending the decision, H.H. Greathed, Commissioner of Meerut writes in his letter, “The carbine men of the 3rd Cavalry being ordered to parade to learn the new movement, which substitutes tearing for biting the cartridges, refused, to the number of eighty-five, to handle them, although they were the same they have always used, and have, of course, nothing to do with Enfield. The only reason they could give was, they feared to get a bad name with other regiments. The whole body is to be tried by court-martial, and no doubt a severe example will be made of such flagrant disobedience….”

khanjar (Khanjar or dagger obtained by Major William Hodson at Delhi, 1857 : Hodson probably took this beautiful dagger from one of the Mughal princes, whom he stripped and shot dead on 21 Sept 1857 after their surrender. Alternatively, he may have obtained it later on at the sale of treasures organised by Delhi prize agents. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission)

The first sign of revolt was in February in Berhampur, where soldiers refused to accept the Enfield cartridges, followed by Barrackpur in March, and finally in Meerut in May, where, 85 soldiers were court-martialed and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment for refusing to accept the new rifles. It was then that full-scale mutiny broke out. On the quiet Sunday afternoon of 10th May, 1857, when most of the Europeans were at the church, the rebel sepoys rose up in open defiance, shot dead John Finnis, Lieutenant of 11th Bengal NI and brother of the Lord Mayor of London, killed every European they could find, burnt down bungalows and residential quarters of the officers, and broke open jails where the mutinous troops were being held. The newspaper Englishman published the following account of the Meerut massacre from a correspondent, “On all sides shot up into the heavens great pinnacles of waving fire, of all hues and colours, according to the nature of the fuel that fed them, huge volumes of smoke rolling sullenly off in the sultry night air, and the crackling and roar of the conflagration mingling with the shouts and riot of the mutineers.” [Ref 33]

In the following days, about a third of the Bengal Army, in excess of 100,000 men, quietly but firmly separated themselves from the services of the East India Company, and enrolling as subjects of the Mughal Emperor of Delhi, thereby revolted against their commanders.

As many as 41 jails were attacked and 28,000 prisoners freed by the rebels. One by one, other garrisons –armed with all available artillery- rose against their British overlords: Ferozepur, Aligarh, Lucknow, Bareilly, Jullundhar, Sitapur, Cawnpur, Allahabad … the rebellion spread like a forest fire in a high wind.


(The brass carriage clock was posted from Calcutta in early 1857, and reached Delhi Post Office in May 1857. It lay there undisturbed throughout the siege, and was recovered later and forwarded to the addressee. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission.)

The morning after the Meerut incident, between 7 and 8 a.m. on 11th May, the troopers from 3rd Light Cavalry of Meerut crossed over Yamuna by the Bridge of Boats, assembled under the waterfront Jharokha of the Emperor.  Within hours it had started – the hunting and butchering of the British in Delhi. The personal doctor to Zafar and a “star native convert” to Christianity, Dr. Chaman Lal, was the first victim, killed in his Daryaganj clinic. This was soon followed by the murders of Delhi resident Simon Fraser and, Captain Douglas, commandant of the palace guards. The chaplain, Rev. Mr. Jennings, personally responsible for many religious conversions, was killed, along with his young daughter Annie, and her 18-year old friend Miss Clifford – both choirmasters at the St. James Church. While Dr. Chaman Lal was shot dead at point blank range, Reverend Jennings, Captain Douglas, Fraser and the two young ladies were cut down with swords. The editor of the “Delhi Gazette” and his family were similarly murdered.

For the British, it soon became “the degradation of fearing those who were taught to fear us’’.

The 54th regiment, under Colonel Ripley, was asked immediately to march down to the Kashmiri gate with two guns, but as soon as it reached there, the local sepoys deserted the officers and joined the rebels, killing all the British, including their commander. The 38th and 74th were then ordered to suppress the rebellion, but both refused to act.

flagstaff tower

 (Felice Beato Flagstaff Tower Picket, Delhi 1858, albumen silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2007. Reproduced with permission.)

By 5 p.m., a bullock cart arrived at the Flagstaff tower, where the Europeans had taken refuge, hoping that the troops would soon quench the uprising. However, it became amply clear that each one must now save himself or herself from the impending mass annihilation. Panic spread when they noticed a hand of a dead European protruding out of the heap of corpses covered by a cloth on the bullock cart, and Brigadier Graves signaled for immediate dispersal to Karnal and Meerut.

Officers, coming under fire from their own troops, escaped the cantonment that was engulfed in a blaze, crouching like frightful hares in the night, running and hiding as fugitives, while voices and shadowy figures stalked them. On their way, some of them were helped by random villagers and zamindars with food and shelter, only to be robbed and stripped by ruffians a little ahead. Braving the burning summer wind of May, hiding in grasses, and swimming across the river, some of them escaped, while many others perished – either from natural causes and hunger, or murdered in the most barbarous manner. Theo Metcalfe was one of the lucky people to escape safely to Hansi after meandering in the jungle for ten days.

In Delhi, Prince Mirza Mughal was appointed by Zafar as the commander of the rebel sepoy force.



What could have gone so wrong as to turn the same White Mughals – so enamoured with India and the Indian way of life – against the very Mughal Court which had granted them authority to do trading in India in the first place?

After 1803, Shahjahanabad came under British control, except for the palace-fortress, which still was ruled by the Mughal Emperor. By that time, the British officers in Delhi were commonly adopting native identities as “White Mughals.” No one would give a second look to the “Mughalized” Delhi Resident David Ochterloney, who used to take out all his thirteen Indian wives, each on her own elephant, in evening processions along the Yamuna. Neither would one see anything out of place in his successor William Fraser’s close friendship with Urdu poet Ghalib, his patronization of miniature paintings, or his scholarly commissioning of the Fraser Album. Intermarriages between the British and Indians became very common.


( Portrait of Zafar, from the first picture)

Successive British generations in India began to see its great Oriental heritage at close quarters and acted as cultural ambassadors to Europe.

In 1784, the British established the Asiatic Society of Bengal at the initiative of Sir William Jones and his assistant, Charles Wilkins. Regarded today as the Fathers of Indology, the duo translated numerous Sanskrit epics into English for the first time, namely Bhagvat Gita (1784), Hitopadesa (1787), Sakuntala (1789), Gita Govinda (1792), and the Lawbook of Manu (1794). After Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron translated Upanishads in 1786 into French, L’ecole des Langues Orientales Vivantes was set up by the French government in 1795. There, Alexander Hamilton, from the Asiatic Society of Bengal, became the first European to teach Sanskrit. Formal Sanskrit courses were started in England for first time in 1805, at the training college of the East India Company at Hertford.  Instruction in Sanskrit was initiated at the universities in Oxford, London, Cambridge, and Edinburgh.  The French Societe Asiatique was established in 1821 in Paris, followed by the Royal Asiatic Society in London in 1823. In India, Alexander Cunningham, considered the Father of Indian Archaeology, singularly conducted a thorough study of ancient material remains.  James Prinsep decoded the long-dead script of Brahmi, enabling deciphering of the Ashokan pillar inscriptions.


As Cunningham put it, “But now a new era dawned on Indian archaeology, and the thick crust of oblivion, which for so many centuries had covered and concealed the characters and language of the earliest Indian inscriptions, and which the most learned scholars had in vain tried to penetrate, was removed at once and for ever by the penetrating sagacity and intuitive perception of James Prinsep.”


Around the end of the 18th century, Sir William Jones wrote – rather romantically and in part incorrectly that “the Indian Zodiac was not borrowed mediately or directly from the Arabs or Greeks or Mughals or any other nation of Mlechchas as the proud Brahmins call those who are ignorant of the Vedas.” When the astronomical tables of India were introduced in Europe, a terrible excitement gripped the scholars. Jean Sylvain Bailly in 1787 concluded that the Hindus were the inventors of astronomy and published Traite de l’astronomie Indienne et orientale. In 1792, Playfair urged an exhaustive and thorough search by British and Hindu scholars for works on Hindu astronomy, and an actual examination of the heavens, as well as that of old drawings of astronomical instruments.  S. Davis in 1789 analysed Surya Siddhanta to deduce that the tilted axis of the earth at 24 degrees was a Hindu observation dating back to 2050 B.C.


( Three Mughal portrait from the bracelet – Picture#1. On close examination, the three seem to have very similar facial features. )



So, among all these scholarly adulations and interests in India, what could have gone wrong? Let us see it from the very beginning. Were the events of 1857 the result of a greedy corporation’s territorial ambition and their aggressive drive for Christianity? Was there any secret conspiracy between Zafar, with the Sepoys, and even with Persians and Russians, – as he was subsequently charged with –, to overthrow the British that resulted in the out-burst?

A mere 82 years after Babur set up the 332-year long Mughal reign in India by overthrowing Ibrahim Lodhi, William Hawkins commanded British East India Company (EIC)’s first ship Hector to land at the port city of Surat in 1608, desirous of trading with the world’s richest country.

The Mughal Empire, after rising to the pinnacle of glamour and luxury, quickly faded after Aurangzeb’s death to become a total non-entity.

After the death of Quli Khan, – the last Viceroy of Bengal under Aurangzeb in 1727 – his successors ruled the united provinces of Bihar, Bengal and Orissa until one of their own governors, Alivardi Khan of Bihar, deposed his masters and  ruled in their place. Seventeen years later, Sirajudullah, Alivardi’s grandson, ironically faced the same fate as his own general, Mir Jafar, plotted to seize power. But what Mir Jafar did in his quest to rule changed the country’s history forever — he invited the EIC as his (literal) partner in crime. Subsequently, after his success in the Battle of Plassy, he became a mere tool in British hands. Mughal Emperor Shah Alam tried to salvage the situation by leading three military expeditions into Bihar, but each time he was thoroughly defeated by the British.  Finally, he had no option but to grant the EIC in 1765 the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa in – making the British the Mughal Court’s authorized revenue collector, in return for an annual fee of 26 lakh rupees that Warren Hastings stopped paying after 1772. Shah Alam was allowed to rule Allahabad under British protection, but he always dreamt of returning to the seat of his royalty in Delhi. Meanwhile, the Marathas had captured Delhi, and successfully bargained with Shah Alam to restore him to the throne, in return for money and cessation of territories. Thus, on 6th January, 1772, Shah Alam and his court rode their choicest elephants from Shahdara to his Red Fort palace in a short procession through the streets of Delhi, with thousands of onlookers on each side.

IMG_1156 ( The chance discovery of Zafar’s grave – from Zafar’s tomb, Yangon, Myanmar. Photo courtesy by friend Sushil K Rath)

Since Aurangzeb’s death, Shahjahanabad’s fluctuating fortunes had changed its course in 1739, only to rebound later, in 1803. Province after province was falling away from the Empire. By 1758, the Mughal emperor had to personally lead military campaigns to extract tributes from neighboring villages, which by then had shrugged off all allegiance to the crown.

From the northwest, Afghan forces under Ahmad Shah Abdali imitated their predecessor Nadir Shah’s 1739 plunder of Delhi with alarming regularity in 1748, 1756, and 1760. From the South, Deccani and Maratha forces were now claiming territories further northwards, and were the real rulers of Delhi from 1771 to 1803. The Eastern part of the empire saw Oudh and Bengal gone under the control of EIC.

Delhi – a city described as “a cage of tumultuous nightingales,” had totally collapsed by now. Ali Mardan Khan’s engineering marvel – the famed moonlit canal – where imperial children had once played with abandon, was clogged and dried up.

2-vert-horz ( Images from the Zafar’s tomb at Yangon, Myanmar. Photo courtesy – by friends Mudit Mathur/ Somendra Nath)

As if these long series of attacks on Delhi did not produce sufficient misery, there was a severe famine in 1782 that killed nearly half of Delhi’s population. That was the year when the great poet, Mir Taqi Mir, abandoned Delhi to settle down in prosperous Lucknow in the eastern province of Oudh, ruled under British alliance.

Hundreds of beautiful mosques built in every mohalla by the great Amirs and the Emperor’s family were unlit and deserted; its lovely mansions and fine buildings were tottering wrecks. The great poet Mir writes, “The scene of desolation filled my eyes with tears….The houses were in ruins. Walls had collapsed. Cloisters and wine-shops alike were deserted … whole bazaars had vanished. The children playing in the streets, the comely young men, the austere elders – all had gone.” In his verse, he wrote:

Here in this city where the dust drifts in deserted lanes,

A man might come and fill his lap with gold in days gone by.

These eyes saw only yesterday house after house

Where here and there a ruined wall or doorway stands.

poem-Mir1 (Mir Taqi Mir’s couplets on Delhi’s devastation, from ‘Three Mughal Poets’ by Khurshid Islam and Ralph Russel. Ref.19. Reproduced with permission of Oxford University Press India © Oxford University Press. Unauthorized copying is strictly prohibited)

1 (The City of Delhi Before the Siege – The Illustrated London News Jan 16, 1858, Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons –

In 1788, the Rohilla warlord Ghulam Qadir Khan Rohilla attacked and captured a poorly-defended Delhi. Demanding that the supposedly hidden treasures from the royal palace to be handed over to him, he threw Emperor Shah Alam II into prison. On 10th August 1788, the Rohilla invader –lounging on the royal throne in the Diwan-i-Khas– ordered the emperor to be brought in front of him. After torturing the royal ladies in front of the ill-fated ruler, he cut out Shah Alam’s eyes with a dagger.

Within a few months, the Maratha army reached Delhi and restored the blind emperor to his throne, after driving out the Afghan intruders. Ghulam Qadir Khan had been captured while attempting to flee, and was subjected to an act of macabre retribution. His eyes, nose, and ears were cut off and sent in a casket to the emperor, in an “eye for an eye” style of brutal justice.

11v2 (A rare map of Delhi by London cartographer Edward Weller. Public Domain / Wikipedia Commons –

With the Mughal Empire fast disintegrating, the Marathas — with effective control over large parts of Southern and Northern India – were considered the likely successor to the Mughals. Napoleon had attacked Egypt, and it was being foretold that he would soon advance to India like a second Alexander and turn the tables in favour of the French East India Company to drive out the British.

However, the British, superior in both military might and strategic thinking, turned out to be the winners in this “great game.” Lord Wellesley’s diplomatic master-stroke of “Subsidiary Alliance,” which involved yielding total power on provinces without taking any responsibility by means of a “double government,” was successfully followed up by Lord Dalhousie’s “Doctrine of Lapse” in taking away the kings’ “divine right of succession” by annexing state after state. Native provinces began to seek British military help in localized fights against their neighbours.

unknown pic    (Unknown Photographer not titled [group of nine Indian men and British Officer seat having their photograph taken], c.1875, albumen silver photograph, water colour, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2013. Reproduced with permission)

By that time, Mughal Delhi, under Shah Alam, was practically in French-trained Maratha hands. In 1803, Lord Wellesley ordered the French forces to be driven out of Delhi, and General Lake appeared in Patparganj village with the 27th Dragoon and the 76th Foot, totaling 4900 men.

Exactly 54 years before the British crushed the 1857 uprising, on 14th September 1803, the British forces entered Delhi and drove away the Marathas. In the Diwan-i-Am, Lord Lake was received by the blind Emperor Shah Alam, who in gratitude conferred on him the title of “Samsam-ud-Daula, Ashgah-ul-Mulk, Khan-Dauran, General Gerard Lake Bahadur, Fateh Jung”.

Lt. General Ochterlony, whose troops won the battle of Plassey, was appointed as the Resident of Delhi after Lord Lake’s dramatic entry in Delhi in 1803. Afterwards, peace and prosperity slowly returned to Shahjahanabad. The British began re-building the bazaars; founded a printing press, hospitals, etc; Dara Shikoh’s mansion was turned into the Resident’s house; a cantonment was set up in the Ridge area expanding the city boundary; construction of St James’ church near Kashmiri gate was started; Ali Mardan Khan’s canal was cleared by Lieutenant Blane and water again flowed in the streets of Delhi; and most importantly, the British fostered an economy where private traders started playing a greater role.

IMG_1141 (‘Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar’ at Yangon, Myanmar where Zafar (died 7 Nov 1862) and Zinat Mahal (died 17 July 1886) are buried. Photo Courtesy – by friend Sushil K Rath)

By 1805, a monthly allowance of Rs 60,000 was fixed for Shah Alam by EIC, an additional Rs 10,000 as festival gifts, and an agreement was reached to take the King’s approval before meting out capital punishment to any of the city’s residents.



Or was 1857 just yet another localized rebellion like the 1806 Madras Mutiny over sepoys required to shave off their beards and wear leather cockades in place of their traditional turbans; or like the 1824 Barrackpore and 1825 Assam Mutinies after refusing to travel overseas for the first Burmese war; or like a dozen odd Mutinies over pay and allowances – but one that went out of control?

In 1837, Zafar became the Mughal Emperor, in the same year, when Queen Victoria rose to the British throne; amid Lord Wellesley’s pan-India territorial ambitions playing out in its full glory.

Very soon, the succession planning of the Mughal Empire in Delhi was discussed, and in 1852, a document was signed by Lord Dalhousie declaring Fakhr-ud-din as the next successor after the death of Zafar, with his agreement to vacate the Red Fort and relocate to the Qutub Area.

reinforcements(‘Reinforcement proceeding to Delhi’, 1857: The lithograph by William Simpson, E Walker and others depicts the advance of Punjab reinforcements under the command of Brigadier-General John Nicholson to Delhi. ©National Army Museum, London. Reproduced with permission.)

These terms were not at all agreeable to the Mughal Empress Zeenat Mahal, who asked her husband to modify the contract with the British to declare her son Jawan Bakht as heir-apparent. While this uneasiness was prevailing between the British and the Mughal court, Thomas Metcalfe died on 3rd November 1853, due to suspected vegetable poisoning ordered by Zeenat Mahal. A couple of years later on 10th July, 1856, the heir-apparent Fakhr-ud-din also died from poisoning believed to have been ordered by Zeenat. The game was becoming murkier.

If the EIC’s first metamorphosis was from its trading role to a military and political avatar with ambition to rule India (which was beginning to materialize slowly but quite successfully), it appeared to have developed yet another mission to accomplish in this part of the East Indies.

Between 1830 and 1850, the British took upon themselves the “religious duty to uplift the locals to the light of Christianity.” The Bible began to be read out to sepoys during military formations, and numerous little white churches sprang up across the cities and the countryside. The Delhi College became a mere apparatus in this motivated aspiration, fueling the general public’s fear of forced conversion to Christianity and prompting suspicion of the institute’s intentions in this regard.

627 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

If the EIC’s territorial ambition was a kind of hard blow that created the first wave of murmuring against the British, the seemingly softer agenda of introducing Christianity took that anxiety to a new level.

“Happy will it be, if our conquests should open the way for a farther introduction of the Gospel, and for the extension and enlargement of Christ’s Kingdom…. What a luster would such an accession give to British conquests in the Eastern world! ‘– Dr Glasse. (Quoted in “The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858,” by Penelope Carson)

Curiously, some of the arguably best British initiatives like the introduction of Westernized education, imposition of peace and order over anarchy, introduction of railways, telegraphs and post offices, abolition of suttee, and legalizing re-marriage of Hindu widows were viewed by many orthodox Indians as indirect attempts of religious interference and conversion. William Bentinck’s replacement of Persian by English as the official language, granting right of inheritance to religious converts, etc., could not become well accepted

Very high revenue demands pushed the zamindars into the clutches of moneylenders and changing trade patterns, with an increase in imported finished goods, made the weavers and artisans jobless. These created large-scale societal discontent against the Company. In fact, the land records were the first to be intentionally destroyed in the uprising, impacting British revenue to a large extent once order was restored.

626 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

The mistrust between the rulers and the ruled became so great that the British expected an outbreak anytime. James Thomason, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West provinces famously said of a sentry who saluted him, “There stands our future enemy.”

In July 1857, renowned Islamic scholar Fazle Haq Khiarabadi prepared a Constitution to run an Independent and parallel Mughal administration, consisting of 10 members of the Council under Zafar. He also issued a fatwa against the British, signed by 35 Ulemas and the Chief Qazi, proclaiming “If the English will be victorious, they would not only destroy the Timuri Dynasty, but also the entire Muslims.” The British were perceived as a political force actively planning to dislodge the Mughal Emperor, by the same citizens who had earlier seen their kings and kingdoms untouched and unmolested even by barbarians like Nadir Shah of 1739.

In the midst of this metaphorical powder magazine, where any single spark might trigger rebellion, the EIC inadvertently began playing with matches, thus bringing about the most violent frontal encounter ever between the two empires and drawing the final curtain over 332 years long Mughal Empire, as well as  the 258-year-old long East India Company.

625 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

In 1856, EIC introduced the shorter Enfield P53 rifle in the army to replace the old Brown Bess muzzle-loading musket. However, the new waxed cartridges were rumoured to be greased with pig or cow fats, perceived by the sepoys as a forced attempt to defile their religion and convert them. The Bengal Infantry had 74 regiments, manned entirely by high caste fine, handsome Hindus from Oudh and the east, who refused to touch the new cartridges on religious grounds.

As if this was not enough, rumours of bone powder being mixed with flour started making the rounds of the cantonments. It was also being foretold that the rule of old “John Company” will end on 23rd June 1857, on the centenary of Lord Clive defeating Siraj-ud-daulah in the battle of Plassey.

The epicentre of this clash of civilizations was Delhi, at the very doorsteps of the reluctant leader of the mutiny, the great Mughal Emperor Zafar. Although a British pensioner,  he was still an epitome of refined culture – a sad nostalgia for a bygone age of glory, living in his Red Fort long reduced to a crammed and dusty palace, heavy with long-decayed fine Persian rugs spread around lusterless rooms, neglected for many generations now.

624 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

As poet Agha Shahid Ali writes:

“I step out into Chandni Chowk, a street once Strewn with jasmine flowers

For the Empress and the royal women Who bought perfumes from Isfahan,

Fabrics from Dacca, essence from Kabul, Glass bangles from Agra….

I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor, Being led through this street

By British soldiers, his feet in chains, To watch his sons hanged.”

(From the book, ‘Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems’ by Ali, Agha Shahid,  ©Penguin India. Reproduced with permission. Ref.18)

Delhi fell after four months of epic struggle, and was deserted by its residents almost immediately. For the British, however, it was the time to start a methodical looting, after forcefully escorting out those half-starved old men, women and children hiding in tai-khanas who had been unable to join the mass exodus from Delhi through the Lahore Gate. Each street was heaped with debris of household items, while the houses themselves were in a state of wholesale destruction. Dead bodies lay rotting in the sun, giving out an unbearable stench, as cats, monkeys, and pet birds in cages looked on.


(An old photograph of the Kotwali or police station in Chandni Chowk,  Picture © ASI, New Delhi, from their publication, ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments of Shahjahanabad, Vol-I, illustrations, Calcutta, 1915.’ Reproduced with permission.)

On 21st Sept 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor as a British prisoner, was sitting cross-legged on a cushioned charpoy on the verandah of the former residence of Begum Samru, with two attendants waving peacock-feather fans against the heat. He was guarded by a British officer with two sentries, who had an express order to personally kill the king if any attempt was made to rescue him. Zafar sat not a great distance from the Kotwali in Chandni Chowk, where the bullet- ridden naked bodies of two of his sons were laid in the open on stone slabs for three days. The next month, in October, two more sons of Zafar were also shot dead.

The Mughal Empire had thus been exterminated.

623 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

Despite General Wilson’s order to refrain from looting, unofficial plunder of the fallen city was blatantly carried out, in search of jewelry from dead bodies and concealed wealth from deserted houses. Jewelry and antique shops in London were soon flush with the unofficial loot brought back by the British officers and soldiers. Prize agents would set out every day on their plundering expeditions with hammers, spades, pickaxes and two coolies, sometimes with local guides, to pick through cemented floors of Muslim houses and plastered walls of Hindu dwellings, and even temples in Chandni Chowk, to look for hollow-sounding concealments that could contain valuables. Precious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls as large as hen’s eggs, gold mohurs, tiaras, chains and bracelets, along with hundreds of fine miniature paintings, gold brocades and innumerable items of exquisite eastern workmanship dazzled the prize agents. A conservative estimate puts the collected amount that time to ‘half to three-quarters of a million sterling.’ [Ref. 12]

622 ( From Skinner Family Burial Ground, St. James Church)

However, the troopers of the British Delhi Field Force were in for a rude shock if they were expecting a good percentage of the collected booty as prize money. “Delhi taken and India saved, for 36 rupees and ten annas” was the cruel joke among the soldiers, who received just that amount as compensation.



Telegraph Office Memorial

Today, a twenty-foot obelisk made of grey granite that was erected to commemorate the Delhi Telegraph Office stands at the apex of a long triangle formed by two merging roads. It is said that the actual wooden telegraph office stood near the old Flagstaff tower; however, the obelisk was erected near the Kashmiri gate. The memorial was erected in 1902. The whole structure is not so accessible for a close inspection as it is surrounded by a patch of land covered with untended shrubbery and as it is freely used by passers-by as an open urinal. However, if you can get up close, you will see that the four sides of its base are severely faded and are difficult to read, and in reality the inscription can only be read by cropping and magnifying a high definition photograph of the etched writing sentence-by-sentence. The most important engraving on one face of its base reads:

“Erected on 19th April 1902 By Members of the Telegraph Department to commemorate the loyal and devoted services of the Delhi Telegraph Office staff on the eventful 11th May 1857. On that day, two young signallers WILLIAM BRENDISH and J.W. PILKINGTON remained on duty till ordered to leave. And by telegraphing to Umballa information on what was happening at Delhi rendered invaluable service to the Punjab Government. In the words of Sir Robert Montgomery,



The inscription references an important event in the history of Delhi. The Telegraph Office was an important communication point, with a single telegraph line extending through Delhi to Ambala and Peshawar, with branches to Agra and Meerut. On 10 May 1857, Officer Charles Todd and his two young assistants, Brendish and Pilkington, were chatting in the telegraph office with their counterparts in Meerut about the uprising, and at 9 am they left for a break. When they came back at 4 pm, they found that the communication link to Meerut was not working. On the next morning on the 11th of May, Todd left Delhi to investigate the failure, but was captured and killed by the sepoys, who were beginning to mutineer. Brendish and Pilkington stayed at the station to the last possible minute despite the rising danger they were in from the advancing sepoys and continued to transmit a series of crucial telegraph messages to Ambala.


Ambala forwarded the messages to other stations almost instantaneously, and alerted the British. After their chief Telegraph Officer Charles Todd did not return, and when the burning of bungalows and the killings started, Brendish and Pilkington sent out two more SOS messages before fleeing the telegraph office, first to the Flagstaff tower, and then to Meerut.

At that time, the Suez Canal was not yet opened and it took 36 days for news of the mutiny to travel by the overland route to Alexandria, and by steamer to Trieste, from where it was telegraphed to reach England on 27th of June.


(Hon’ble E.I. Company’s Electric Telegraph. Message from Delhi -11th May. -Ref#7:

“Cantonment in a state of siege. Mutineers from Meerut 3rd Light Cavalry: number not known , said to be one hundred and fifty men : cut off communication with Meerut : taken possession of Bridge of Boats. 54th NI sent against them, but would not act. Several officers killed and wounded. City in a state of considerable excitement. Troops sent down, but nothing certain yet. Further information will be forwarded. Copy to be sent to Brigadier in Command.”)

However, the SOS telegram sent out by Brendish and Pilkington was hand-delivered more quickly to Gen. Anson in Shimla, who ordered the immediate mobilization of three European regiments to Delhi. On the 8th of June, Gen. Barnard – with 2500 infantry soldiers, consisting mainly of English, Sikh and Gurkha troops from the Kumaon battalion, 700 cavalry, and 22 guns – successfully captured the Delhi Ridge.

Meanwhile, five Companies of the 61st battalion from Firozepur were immediately ordered by Lahore HQ to proceed to Delhi and to join the ‘Delhi Field Force’ of 2,000 men under Sir Henry Barnard, constituting a force of 2000 men, who reached Delhi on 1st July after travelling 350 km in 17 days. However, the British camp was beset by problems and soon a post-monsoon spell of cholera descended on the camp, claiming many lives, including that of Sir Barnard himself. With cholera claiming the lives of both Gen. Anson and Gen. Barnard’s, ‘old and feeble’ General Reed took over the British force, but resigned in a mere two weeks owing to bad health, leaving General Wilson to took over command of the Delhi Field Force. However, with so many leadership changes and with only a 4000-strong British force in the Ridge pitted against a 20,000 strong rebel force, the results would have been very different indeed had the rebels had a good General in charge.


(“ We must leave office. All the bungalows are burnt down by the sepoys from Meerut. They came in the morning. We are off : don’t roll to-day. Mr. C. Todd is dead I think. He went out this morning and has not returned yet. We heard that nine Europeans were killed. Good-bye. (Sd.) H.W.Barnard, Major-General”)

The two opposing forces were engaged in constant fighting that raged almost every single day, with bullets like a swarm of hornets flying from every direction in and around the Ridge area, i.e. Metcalfe House, Hindu Rao House, Ludlow Castle, Sabzi Mandi, Qudsia Bagh and Flagstaff tower. The British force was being depleted very fast – both from the incessant gunshot firing from the sepoys, as well as from the cholera outbreak. However, for the soldiers there was no option but to pass time in whatever manner possible. Whenever a sepoy was killed, there was a wrangle among the soldiers to divide the booty recovered from the dead body. The whole force nursed the idea to grab as much prize money and untold jewels as possible, once Delhi – once the richest city in Hindustan – fell.

Whenever there was a ceasefire, the soldiers spent their time fishing, even holding lotteries as to who would catch the first fish, joking and merry-making, and the military band played tunes in the evenings, with good food available due to the large flock of fat sheep brought in to the camp by the 61st battalion.

During these initial days of siege, the British force attempted to blow up the bridge of boats used by the rebels as their supply lifeline, but failed miserably.

1r-horz ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)


Nicholson’s Cemetery

Nine acres of an eerie, alternate world are separated from the chaotic city traffic by an old cross-shaped gate. These lands, an enchanting place of serenity, are populated by dilapidated tombs and cenotaphs entwined in vines, some abandoned for almost one hundred fifty years. Low growing shrubs and a solitary old towering tree or two are the only undercurrent of life in the otherwise deathly silence of this place.


The cemetery was set up by the British just after 1857 to bury their dead, and was previously known as the “Old Delhi Military Cemetery.” It is still being used, and was renovated in 2006 by INTACH and the British High Commission. As one goes around the area, one is struck by the poor life expectancy those days – cenotaphs of young men and women in their thirties, along with those of little children, are in abundance, along with their haunting and evocative inscriptions, half covered in a carpet of weeds.

It is difficult to trace tombs specifically from 1857 in the thick vegetation; for instance, even the grave of Prof Yasudas Ramachandra, one of the first to convert to Christianity in Delhi, is hard to locate and lies in a pathetic condition among overgrown shrubs. However, a listing of a few of the graves can be found online at, (Ref.25) and it can be seen that many of these date back to the early 20th century.


One grave that can be identified is that of General Nicholson just to the right of the entrance gate. In fact, it is the only grave that is easy to locate in the entire cemetery. The epitaph, written on a large marble stone slab taken from the Red Fort, reads, “The grave of Brigadier General John Nicholson who led the assault of Delhi but fell in the hour of victory mortally wounded and died 23rd September 1857 aged 35.” When Nicholson died, the brave Pathan and Punjabi soldiers of his Multani Horse regiment wept like children and fell upon his grave, as they had considered him a demi-god of sorts.

607 ( Tablet on Nicholson’s grave)

On the contrary, Nicholson was a man who detested the locals with a passion and executed them with the violence of a stone-hearted maniac. However, for the British, in those days he was considered such a hero that the brief sentence below by Lord Edwardes summarizes him perfectly:

“My Lord, you may rely upon this, that if ever there is a desperate deed to be done in India, John Nicholson is the man to do it.”          -Sir Herbert Edwardes to Lord Canning, March 1857.

That “desperate deed” was presented soon enough in the form of the Siege of Delhi, and allowed Nicholson to prove his mettle, but before coming to that, let us reflect upon who this man was.

John Nicholson was born in 1822 in Lisburn, near Belfast, Ireland, as the eldest of seven children to a doctor-father, whom he lost at the tender age of nine. Described as “a precocious boy almost from his cradle: thoughtful, studious, and of inquiring nature,” he was helped with his recruitment into the East India Company by his influential uncle, Sir James Hogg, Member of Parliament, and a Director of EIC.


(Portrait of Brig. General John Nicholson 1867 by Dicksee, John Robert 1817-1905. © Armagh County Museum, Northern Ireland, U.K. ARMCM.21.1951. Reproduced with permission.)

Nicholson, armed with the blessings of his uncle and mother, reached Calcutta after sailing for five months in the Camden, and soon was directed to proceed to Ghazni in Afghanistan to subdue the revolt by Dost Mohammed in 1841. It was not an easy expedition, and along with a few fellow British citizens, he was held captive by the Afghans for five months. Somehow, he escaped the captivity but found his younger brother Alexander had been killed in action in a most barbarous manner. During the following year, another one of his younger brothers, William, was also killed in action.

604 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

In 1842, he was appointed as assistant to Colonel Henry Lawrence in Lahore. A man of abrupt speech and curt manners, Nicholson would never be popular, but he proved himself countless times through his bravery. In the following years, he successfully subdued rebellions in Rawalpindi, Jalandar, Kapurtala, Amritsar, Sialkot, Jhelum, and elsewhere, thus driving fear into the Punjabi heartland.

Curiously, despite his high-handed manner of stamping out lawlessness, the man known as “Nikalsyen” was elevated to the rank of a deity by sects of Sikhs. Believing him to be a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, his followers would prostrate at his feet in open adoration, an act despised by Nicholson himself.

1 (2)


(1. Enthusiastic worshippers calling themselves ‘Nikalseyns’ at the feet of Nicholson;           2. Portrait of John Nicholson Courtesy: Ref.6 via- The Gutenberg Project, Public Domain.)

Ten years later, as the Deputy Commissioner of Banu in North West Frontier Province, he once cut off the head of a noted warlord and kept it on his table, as if to highlight the maxim, “the punishment of mutiny is death.” Legend has it that he did not have ‘mercy’ in his vocabulary and he never took any prisoners.

It was when he was posted in Peshawar that the news of Delhi’s capture by the sepoys came and dazzled everyone.

Nicholson, drawing on his close relationship with the Sikhs, formed a movable column comprised of carefully chosen native fighters. He had a strong sense of instinct, and would purge any native whom he suspected of being untrustworthy.

609 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

He was ordered to proceed to the Mughal Capital of Delhi on the 25th of July with his movable column. Captain Trotter noted that when his men would be taking rest in the shade of some trees, Nicholson stood “in the middle of the hot, dusty road, sitting bolt upright on his horse in the full glare of that July sun, waiting, like a sentinel turned to stone, for the moment when his men should resume their march.” Nicholson’s 52nd Regiment had some Multani horses, 1200 Sikhs and Punjabis, along with Europeans. The total reinforcement was of nearly 3000 men, 1100 of whom were Europeans.

After the reinforcement, the size of the Delhi Field Force swelled to 8000 men, although only 2000 were on active duty in the Ridge because the rest were sent away to Ambala due to sickness or wounds.

1b ( “Passing Stanger Call not this, A place of Dreary gloom; I love to linger near this spot, It is My Husband’s tomb.” – at Nicholson Cemetery)

Nicholson arrived at the Ridge on August 7th, 1857 as head of his forces. His Punjab movable column followed him into the camp on the 14th of August to the welcoming music of the 8th Foot. It would be exactly one month later, at 3 a.m. on the 14th of September, that his forces fanned out to assault the city of Delhi.

Nicholson’s first offensive was on August 25th with nearly 2500 men and eight guns in the Najafgarh village. He lost 25 men and killed about 500 sepoys. As congratulatory messages poured in, Sir John Lawrence telegraphed Nicholson from Lahore, saying, “I wish I had the power of knighting you on the spot!”

1c ( Weep not for me my Parents dear, I am from trouble free; Remember that your time is short, Prepare to follow me.”- at Nicholson’s Cemetery)

Nearly three months had passed since the siege began in Delhi, and the augmented British forces felt it was time for the final assault on the city.

On September 4th, the siege-train arrived at the camp with 24 heavy guns and 400 European infantries along with the savage-looking Baluchi Battalion. Additionally, a party of Sikh horsemen was sent by the Rajah of Jhind. On September 7th, another regiment of Punjabis, led by Wilde, arrived. A Kashmir contingent of 2200 men also joined the Field Force.

600 ( From Nicholson’s Cemetery)

After the re-enforcements arrived, British engineers immediately entrenched forty-five heavy guns and mortars in positions in a mere four days’ time.

While the British anticipated breaching the city wall to be the foremost challenge, the Sepoy strategy was to lure the British into the narrow lanes of the city where they could take them down easily. Surprised to see their strategy not working once inside the city, the British force fell in disarray. When Nicholson tried to salvage the situation, the Bareilly troops gained the upper hand,and he was shot in the chest. He was immediately pulled out of action and taken to the hospital tent in the Ridge.



( 1. Nicholson shot in the back by a sepoy’s musket. 2. Nicholson – assisted by Theo Metcalfe – unperturbedly leading the army column to Najafgarh even when water was flowing above the back of his horse,.   Courtesy: Ref.6 via- The Gutenberg Project, Public Domain.)

Though full of pain and heavily sedated with morphine shots, he still had the strength to threaten to shoot his Commander Wilson when word reached him that Wilson was considering a retreat from Delhi.

For the British, it was a sad sight to see his fatally wounded younger brother, Charles, also brought into the same tent. Two brothers in the prime of their youth were exchanging sorrowful last words while holding each other’s hands. Nicholson was shot through his lungs, and as per Dr. Maclier it was a case of utter surprise as to how he survived for so long.


Brigadier John Nicholson died on the 23rd of September at the early age of 35, three days after the British captured the city. While the British forces were celebrating by lighting a victory fire next to the holy mihrab in Jama Masjid, and a dinner of ham and eggs was being served in the famed Diwan-i-Aam, his last words were, “It was my desire to see Delhi captured before I die.” It was told that he would have been conferred with the ‘Knight’s Commander of the Order of Bath’ (KCB) had he survived.



Master Ramchandra’s Grave

Almost hidden in the wild bushes of Nicholson cemetery lies the gravestone of Delhi’s famed intellectual, who took great initiatives to popularize western knowledge in everyday Urdu. His simple gravestone, inscribed in fading English and Persian, reads:

“Sacred to the memory of YASUDAS RAMCHANDRA. Professor of mathematics at the Delhi Govt College from 1844 to 1857, afterwards for some time the Tutor to H.R.H. the Maharaja of Patiala and Director of Public Instruction in the State.”


The grave of his wife, Seeta Ramchandra, lies nearby.

Yasudas Ramchandra was one of seven sons of a north Indian government official. Born in 1821, he was well versed in Persian, as it was a prerequisite for middle-class Kshatriya families to secure official jobs at both native princely states or even with EIC. When his father moved to Delhi, young Ramchandra was admitted to Delhi English School, which later became Delhi College. The college had two wings: one western section built to “uplift the uneducated and half-barbarous people of India” and an oriental section, or madrasa. From 1844 to 1857, Ramchandra was a professor of science and mathematics at its madrasa division. He was the editor of two journals, Fava’idu ‘n-Nazirin (‘For the benefit of Readers’) and Muhibb-e Hind (‘Indian Patriot’). He translated many books in medicine, mathematics, science, law, economics, literature, and history from English to Urdu. He championed Urdu to be the national language, instead of Persian or English, because of its widespread use.


In July 1852, his conversion to Christianity triggered an uproar. At that time, secret Bible classes started being introduced in the college, and respectable families began removing their children from the college for its perceived “Christian propaganda”. The circulation of his magazine also dwindled. The man who convinced him to convert was Padre John Jennings.


Despite being called “duplicitous” by Thomas Metcalfe and a “bigot” by Theo Metcalfe and despite being chased and driven out by Naga Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela for his dogged zeal to convert the “morally corrupt Indians” to Christianity, Padre John Jennings, then the chaplain of Delhi, had his share of successes. Jennings believed that “a strong attack must be made by the British to elevate the local people from ignorance, in return for the favour of ruling Hindustan and also the Koh-i-noor.” He and his beautiful daughter, Annie, together with her friend Miss Clifford, who were choirmasters at the St. James church, pulled off a major coup. This occurred when Zafar’s personal doctor, Dr. Chaman Lal, and talented mathematician Master Ramachandran, converted to Christianity.


It is ironic that the first casualty of the Uprising on May 11th, 1857 was not a British officer or soldier, but the unsuspecting Dr. Chaman Lal, who was killed by the sepoys while attending to patients at his Daryaganj clinic. On the same day, Master Ramchandra fled the city only to return after the British victory, expecting to be welcomed as a hero as a ‘star-convert’. However, if it was his religion before, now it was his skin colour that made him an outsider. Although appointed as an assistant to Prize Agents, he was continually harassed and humiliated by the British.

601 (Nicholson’s Cemetery) 


Kashmiri Gate

Today, it is one of the four surviving gates of the 14 original gates that surrounded Shahjahanabad. A moat, which can be seen in old photographs, no longer exists. The gate’s fortified facade is pock-marked from heavy artillery fire during 1857. Two huge arched entrances puncture the wide gateway, which lies in the direction of Shahjahanabad to Kashmir, leading to its name. Its looping designs, crenellations, and the inner wall have been significantly modified and added upon over the years. Recent renovations can be identified by pinkish portions of the wall, as a result of mixing lime and crushed bricks used as the binding material. A narrow staircase leads to its roof, which offers a view of the angular bastions jutting out at both ends. Hinges for the gate’s massive doors can still be seen on its arched entrances.

kashmiri Gate

(Samuel Bourne Kashmir Gate, Delhi 1860s, albumen silver photograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2007. Reproduced with permission.)

Kashmiri Gate was chosen by the British as the point of attack to enter Delhi. Ironically, the thick city walls, surrounded by a moat, were specifically strengthened by the British to guard against Holkar-like attacks in 1804. Previously, there were crumbling mud walls without any parapet or ditch and it was the hardest for the same British forces who rebuilt the walls to break now.


With the re-enforcements, the Delhi Field Force now consisted of 12,588 men, whereas the sepoy force was estimated to be over 40,000. Here’s a breakdown of the British Force:

  • Europeans: Artillery – 580, Cavalry – 514, Infantry – 2672
  • Natives: Artillery – 770, Cavalry – 1313, Infantry – 3417
  • Engineers, sappers, miners, etc. – 722
  • Kashmir Contingent – 2200
  • Cavalry of Jhind Rajah – 400

Total: 12,588

‘Seize-guns’ arrived on the 4th of September, drawn by elephants, and the attack started from September 7th onwards. After continuous heavy artillery firing for four days from 18-pounders and 24-pounders, they achieved their first milestone on September 11th when the gate was successfully breached. The Kashmiri bastion was silenced, its ramparts and wall curtains shattered, and a large breach appeared on the wall. Rebel forces attacked back quite successfully, directing their field-guns, firing volley of rockets, and streams of musketry that caused a loss of almost 350 men in the British Force.

669-1-horz ( Note the original thin Lakhauri bricks on the left of the tablet and thicker modern bricks on right introduced in later restorations)

The attack strategy was drawn up by General Wilson:

“No quarter should be given to the mutineers; at the same time, for the sake of humanity and the honour of the country they belong to, he (Major General Wilson) calls upon them (the British force) to spare all women and children that may come in their way…indiscriminate plunder will not be allowed; (and) prize agents have been appointed.”

General Nicholson was appointed the overall commander for the assault, with immediate command of Columns 1, 2, 3, and 5.

  • Column 1: Brigadier General Nicholson with 1000 men to storm the breach at the Kashmir bastion
  • Column 2: Brigadier W. Jones with 850 men to storm the breach near the water bastion
  • Column 3: Colonel Campbell with 950 men to assault the Kashmiri Gate
  • Column 4: Major Reid with 1000 men to attack Kishenganj and enter the city through the Lahore Gate, and meet Column 1 and 2 there
  • Column 5 or the “Reserve:” Brigadier Longfield with 1300 men to cover Nicholson column’s advance as a reserve


Early on the morning of the 14th, the British Force assembled on the slope of the Flagstaff Tower, with Nicholson inspecting each of the column formations. The sudden silence from the ceaseless firing at this time might have convinced the rebel forces in the city that something ominous was being planned in the British camp. Once the attack started again, the ramparts and the roof of the walls became alive with sepoys directing hailstorms of bullets onto the British force (who were trying to cross the 25 feet broad and 20 feet deep ditch). As if on a suicide mission, some of the British forces carried powder-bags at the Kashmiri Gate and ignited the match, blowing up the Gate and giving free passage to the columns.

Columns 1 and 2 united as one, whereas 3 was guided by Theo Metcalfe to march towards Jama Masjid.

673 ( From the top of the Gate – angular bastions projecting outwards from the city and  a  green patch now covers the area originally used as a ditch)

The British entered into the city hoping for an easy over-run of a demoralized rebel force after the fall of the Kashmiri Gate. However, Bakht Khan and Mirza Mughal had made their preparations quite well and, once the British force crossed over into the city and were within the narrow city lanes, they immediately came under unexpected spirited attacks from rooftops, buildings, and street corners, inflicting very heavy casualties. The musketry poured like rain, combat started between both sides, cutting, bayoneting, and hacking the soldiers in front of them in order to move even an inch forward. The streets were suddenly alive with citizens and rebel forces in the labyrinth of its passages, field guns and howitzers pouring grape and canisters onto the columns, and turning the whole attack into a street-fight that went on till late in the night.


By the evening, the British had paid a heavy price; they managed to occupy just a quarter of the city, but almost one third of the attack force was dead or wounded, including General Nicholson and Major Reid. Attack Columns 1 and 2 could not advance beyond the Kabul gate, 3 had been checked near Jama Masjid by the rebels, and 4 completely failed. Altogether, 1200 men of the British Force were killed and wounded on that single day. Dead bodies lay in the streets and open spaces. The rebel forces suffered similarly high casualties.

On the 15th and 16th, the British and the Mughal forces were equally demoralized and were broken down with anxiety. To add to the misfortune of the British, they stumbled upon a huge cache of liquor just inside the city gates, resulting in the whole British force drowned in a state of drunkenness until all the remaining liquor was destroyed by General Wilson’s order. At this point, had the Mughal forces mounted a coordinated counter-attack on the British during those two days, it would have been a decisive victory for Zafar. Even General Wilson began considering withdrawal to the Ridge and awaiting further re-enforcements, a decision that was denounced by Nicholson lying on his death bed.

676 (Notice the original marking of the crenellated arches of the wall, over which later day additions have been made)

On the morning of the 16th, sensing the inevitable, around 70,000 people – common citizens and the fighting soldiers – gathered in front of Red Fort and appealed to Zafar to lead them to the final offense against the British. Some of them were quoted as saying things such as, “Why die a coward’s death? Lead us in the fight and leave an imperishable name.” This was the moment of truth for the Last Mughal; however, it was unrealistic to expect a feeble 82-year old man to lead a military expedition against the British army. On the morning of the 17th, Zafar slipped out of the river gate, took a boat, glided down the Yamuna, and reached the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya to hand over the sacred relics of the Prophet. Joined by his wife, Zeenat Mahal, he moved into the Humayun’s tomb, playing into the hands of Hodson who was too eager to be the great Imperial hero in capturing the Royal party.


When the people saw what the King did, they could foresee that the end was near and started fleeing the city. On the 18th night, there was a heavy rain, with reports that the Bareilly and Neemuch rebel brigades had left the city. On the forenoon of the 18th there was a partial eclipse for nearly three hours, astonishing everyone with the unusual darkness. It was considered as the ultimate ill omen and divine displeasure. On the intervening night of the 19th and 20th, a mass exodus by the citizens and soldiers took place through the bridge of boats, nearly everyone deserting the city.

On the 20th, the British captured the Red Fort by blowing up its massive gate with powder-bags. Soon, Salimgarh and Jama Masjid too were captured with virtually no resistance to face.

The loss of the British Force from 30th May to 13th September was 2,490 men, the loss on 14th Sept was 1200 men and between 15th and 20th September, they lost about 200 men, bringing the total loss to 4,000 men. This was apart from the 1,200 who died from cholera and other diseases.



British Magazine

On the same traffic triangle where the Telegraph Memorial is located, two isolated gateways stand today – remains of probably the largest arsenal of arms and ammunition that existed in India. A marble tablet that is fixed at the top of the entrance gateway to the structure reads:


“On the 11th May 1857, Nine resolute Englishmen Lieut. Geo. Dobson Willoughby, Bengal Artillery, in command, Lieutenant William Raynor, Conductor Geo William Shaw, Conductor John Scully, Sergeant Benjamin Edwards, Lieutenant Geo Forrest, Conductor John Buckley, Sub Conductor William Crow, Sergeant Peter Stewart defended the magazine of Delhi for more than four hours against a large numbers of the rebels and mutineers until the walls being scaled and all hope of succor gone, these brave men fired the magazine – five of the gallant band perished in the explosion which at the same time destroyed many of the enemy.”



The date was 11th May 1857. Between 7am and 8am, Theo Metcalfe had asked guns to be placed overlooking the bridge of boats. However, it was too late; as the mutineers had already crossed into Delhi. Zafar was bestowing his hesitant blessings on the rebel army when Willoughby found himself surrounded by a sepoy army at the magazine.


Soon, the palace guards also arrived and demanded to have the magazine handed over to the rebels. Willoughby barricaded the gates, lay a trail of powder from the store, and asked Conductor Scully, who volunteered, to light the fuse once Willoughby signaled him. At this point, the whole of the local staff deserted the magazine and joined the sepoys who were trying to capture it. Willoughby made the decision to blow up the magazine in order to prevent the vast cache of arms falling into the rebels’ hands. The explosion was so great that as many as 500 rebels were blown up with it. The sound of the explosion could be heard as far as Meerut. Several ceilings made of plaster came down in the Red Fort, a half a mile away. Although Lieutenant Willoughby escaped the explosion, he was soon captured by the sepoys and put to death.


James Skinner and His Architectural Patronage

James Skinner (1778-1841) was the son of a Scottish mercenary named Hercules Skinner. Hercules began his military career in 1771 with the 19th Native Infantry, and married a Rajput woman from Benares. James was one of six children the couple had – three boys and three girls. He was only twelve when his mother committed suicide because she felt her Rajput honour was violated when her three girls were sent to school. James was trained with a printer and then with a lawyer, but he lost interest in both of his apprenticeships. In 1799, he joined Madhoji Scindia’s army under the celebrated French general de Boigne. When de Boigne’s successor, Perron, launched a military expedition against Irish general George Thomas, it was James who liquidated Hansi, the Irishman’s stronghold that became the country home of James, the conqueror, in later days.


(Watercolor Portrait of Colonel James Skinner, a.k.a Sikandar Sahib ‘re-incarnation of Alexander the Great’ in his cavalry uniform,  by Indian painter Ghulam Murtaza Khan, 1830. © The British Library Board, ADD. 27254 f4r. Reproduced with permission.

1800 was the year when James Skinner returned miraculously from the brink of death. It was in a battle where he was fighting that he and his forces were thoroughly defeated. They lay wounded in the field, and hunger and thirst brought darkness to their eyes and made them yearn for death rather than to linger on. He lay surrounded by his unconscious or dead comrades, jackals tearing away pieces of flesh from their bodies. It was in those hopeless hours that James Skinner made a vow (some say he made three vows) which he promised to fulfill if he was given a second chance at life. His battlefield vows have been presumed differently, but the most popular one is that he vowed to build a church, a mosque, and a temple. It was perhaps an appeal to all the Gods of the heavens, but it could also be due to his association and respect for all three religions – his father being Christian, his mother Hindu, and his wife a Muslim. It is said that a village woman suddenly appeared, offering water and a second life to a man who would soon rise to be one of the most powerful in the sub-continent.


(From the catalogue, ‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

Begum Samru was senior to James by almost twenty-five years, but he was one of the very few men who commanded her rare respect. Following the inevitability of an Anglo-French war, Scindia had dismissed all Eurasians from his army, as he believed that half-English people could not fight wholeheartedly against the EIC. James was amongst those. At the same time, Begum Samru started influencing him to join the British forces. Skinner finally switched sides under the condition that he was never to be forced to fight against his ex-commander, Frenchman Perron; a condition that was accepted by Lord Lake, but with a comment that, ‘The Scindia is a lucky man.’


(‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

He was eulogized as a re-incarnation of Alexander the Great and thus was called Sikandar Sahib. The Mughal emperors bestowed upon him, for his mercenary services, a rather elaborate title of ‘Nasir ud-Daulah Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jang’. Due to his mixed blood, he was barred by the British to join as a commissioned officer. However, when Lord Lake wanted to raise a cavalry corps and asked the soldiers to name their choice for the Commander, ‘Sikandar Sahib’ was the unanimous victor. Thus, on September 10th, 1803, he took up a regiment of irregular cavalry known as “Skinner’s Horse” or “Yellow Boys,” under the motto of “Himmat-i-Mardan, Madad-i-Khuda,” meaning “Bravery of Men, Help of God.” Only four days after, Skinner’s horse would prove its mettle in Lord Lake’s successful capturing of Delhi.

Often derided as a “half-caste” with 14 wives and a “heap of black sons,” James is best remembered as a dashing soldier, a kind of Anglo-Indian warrior prince.


(‘The 1836 Tazkirat al-umara of Colonel Skinner’ – London, Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 2014. ©Bernard Quaritch Ltd. Reproduced with permission.)

Between 1830 and 1836, he commissioned six luxuriously illustrated Persian manuscripts, totally unexpected of a daredevil cavalryman known for his halting English. ‘Tashrih-al-Akvam’ and ‘Tazkirat-al-Umara’ are the works, the latter being a pictorial description of princes of India.

James died on December 14th, 1841 at Hansi. He was buried there, but his wish was to be buried at the very entranceway of the majestic church that he had built at Delhi, so that “all entering might trample over the chief of sinners.” On January 17th, his coffin was brought to Delhi with great fanfare – a sixty-three gun salute, one for each year of his life – and was lowered under the high altar of the church.


St. James Church

Unfortunately, early records of the first church of Delhi were all lost during the events of 1857. We do not know when the construction of this magnificent church began, who the planners and builders were, nor who its first priest was. However, it is presumed that James Skinner’s wish to fulfill his vow must have been rekindled by Begum Samru’s commissioning of a great church at Sardhana in 1822 – as he did not start the construction as soon as he settled in Delhi. His church became ready in 1836, the same year when Begum Samru died, and was entirely financed by Skinner, all without accepting a single rupee either from the EIC or from any missionary society. The church was named after Saint James, perhaps keeping in mind the coincidence with the patron’s name.


Although the early records regarding its construction are all lost, historians credit Major Robert Smith and Captain de Bude of Bengal Engineers with the architecture of the building. Regarding its first priest, there are no records up until Rvd. H.A. Loveday served from 1842 till 1848. The most illustrious priest in those days was Rvd. John Jennings, who took charge in 1851 and served until he was murdered in 1857. Jennings made Delhi the center of Christian activity based out of it’s first church, St James. In 1852, two notable people, mathematician Ramachandra and surgeon Chiman Lal, were baptized in this very church. In 1854, the first missionaries from England arrived in Delhi.



(A representative floor plan of Stanford Memorial Church at Stanford University, USA, showing different parts in a typical Gothic Church with Cruciform architecture. The unusual and distinct layout of St. James Church can be compared with respect to this standard layout: A- Altar, B-Chancel, C- Crossing, D-Naive, E- Aisles, F-Narthex, G-Arcade, H – East Transept with Transept Galley above, J-West Transept/Side Chapel with Transept Gallery above, K-Round Room. CC-BY-SA-3.0. Creative Commons.

In a traditional Gothic cruciform church layout design, the entrance generally opens to a longer side of the cross, called the naive. The shorter arm lying across the naive is called the transept. The naive and the transept are normally used as the sitting space for people. The head of the cross-styled architecture plan has a dome over the altar and the chancel. However, in St James church, an unusual majestic dome stands atop the structure’s centre and covers the entire congregational area, which is otherwise situated at the naive and the transept. This imposing eight-leafed dome is surmounted with a metal ball and a cross, supported on eight short pillars.


The metal ball and the cross are not the original ones. During 1857, the originals were targets for rebel sepoys, who tried to destroy them. After its restoration post 1857, those were replaced by a new pair and the originals were installed on the ground in the church courtyard. The metal ball and cross remained there until 1947, when they were stolen.


As per the records by a soldier named Fred Roberts, the scene in 1857 was such that the church was ‘riddled with cannonballs, filled with dying men, and made a magazine for shot and shell.’ In recent years, major restorations have been done by INTACH and the UK Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, including the restoration of the beautiful stained-glass windows that are placed on either side of the altar, depicting the Crucifixion and Ascension. Other restoration measures by INTACH include arresting water seepage, complete electrical re-wiring, and strengthening the dome to prevent its collapse.

633 ( Tomb of William Fraser, at St. Jame’s  Church)

The church’s surrounding garden has many memorials and graves. A small enclosure on the north side has a large number of beautifully crafted tombs that belong to the Skinner family. Many of the grave inscriptions are in Persian, the official language of Skinner’s times. It is interesting to note that the man and his two closest friends lie buried in its small compound, as if united in death as well: James Skinner, Thomas Metcalfe, and William Fraser.


The tomb of William Fraser lies in the garden, just opposite to its main entrance. Its beautiful tombstone was destroyed in 1857. A large marble plate stands affixed the top of a raised platform and reads a eulogy to Fraser, who was killed on 22nd March 1835. William Fraser was the Resident Commissioner and Agent of Delhi territory to the Governor General of India during the reign of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was the successor to David Ochterlony and the predecessor to Sir Thomas Metcalfe as the East India Company’s Delhi Resident. He was very much an Indianised, white Mughal who adored Indian dresses and had six or seven Indian wives.

1g ( Tomb of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, at St. Jame’s  Church)

He was a close friend of poet Ghalib and is best remembered for commissioning almost ninety paintings by local Mughal painters, together known as the Fraser Album. He was killed by an assassin hired by the ruler of Loharu, Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmed Khan, for his interference in a property dispute. Today, his palatial bungalow is known as the Hindu Rao hospital in the Delhi Ridge. The grave complex of the Nawabs of Loharu can be found inside the Dargah of Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli.

Behind his tomb stands a huge grey cross that commemorates the Christians killed in Delhi during the uprising.


(For the memory of those who were killed- at St. James Church)

The Church complex also has the grave of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, EIC Resident at the Mughal court, who died mysteriously of food poisoning a few years before the 1857 uprising. The poisoning was carried out ostensibly by the orders by Zafar’s wife, Zeenat Mahal. Metcalfe is best remembered for commissioning a beautiful book of paintings titled “Dehlie Book: Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi” in 1844. He had a farmhouse in Mehrauli that he called Dikusha, or the “delighter of hearts”— a pleasure retreat built by extending Akbar’s wet-brother Quli Khan’s tomb. The exquisite stone screen that once surrounded his grave and a tombstone were destroyed in 1857.




Renovated and restored by James Skinner in his estate grounds, it was originally built in 1728 by a Fakr al-Nisa Khanum, wife of Nawab Shuja’at Khan. Literally meaning the “pride of mosques,” it has the main mosque on the first floor and shops occupy the ground floor. This arrangement was meant for the regular maintenance of the mosque to be financed from the shop rentals. Its bulbous striped dome and minarets topped by chhatris is the typical architecture style of the late Mughal era. The mosque is often cited as one of the three religious structures that James Skinner constructed or restored to fulfill his death-vows. Since this mosque preceded Skinner by almost a hundred years, we can only presume that only a major restoration was carried out by him.




Dara Shikoh’s Library/Old Residency

Dara Shikoh Library

(An old photograph of the Residency building , Picture © ASI, New Delhi, from their publication, ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments of Shahjahanabad, Vol-I, illustrations, Calcutta, 1915.’ Reproduced with permission.)

               The building was part of Shahjahan’s scholarly son Dara Shikoh’s estate and library until 1659, when he was killed by the orders of his brother, Aurangzeb. Thereafter, it was owned by a Portuguese lady named Juliana who then sold it to Safdarjung, the prime minister in the royal court of emperor Muhammad Shah, during the first half of the 18th century. It was bought by David Ochterlony, the first British Resident in Delhi in 1803, and continued as the official British Residency till 1844, when the Residency was moved to Ludlow Castle.


The building is believed to have been commissioned as part of Dara’s haveli around 1650, when the Shahjahanabad was built. Its ground floor constituted the Qutub Khana, or the library where his collection of books were kept. We can still see some old Mughal architecture such as cusped arches and baluster columns in the building behind its outer facade and verandah with Roman pillars. There are many terracotta and bone items, belonging to the late Harrapan era and from first century BC to fourth century AD, arranged in glass cabinets around its verandah. On its rear side, a series of Mughal arched structures co-exist with a row of Roman arched chambers, believed to have been used as stable houses.

640-1 (Although the building’s outer facade is colonial in looks, its interior still has original Mughal-era arches and pillars)

640-3 (Colonial and Mughal era  stable houses on the backside of the building)

640-2 ( Harrapan  artifacts on display inside the protected building. An original Mughal pillar can be seen on the left)

Currently, the building is under the protection of Delhi government’s Department of Archaeology. As per a proposal by INTACH, the building is to be converted into a museum.


Old St Stephen’s College

The building today houses the office of Chief Electoral Officer of Delhi. Colonel Samuel Swinton Jacob, the chief proponent of Indo-Gothic, or Indo-Saracenic architectural style, designed this unique building. He implemented architectural features like overhanging Chattris, domed chajjas, and eaves on cantilevers projecting from the walls, of Mughal style; co-existing with balustrades, semi-circular aches, arched colonnades, and a majestic square porch of Western design. The two-story building has half-octagonal turrets around circular staircases on its north side.


St Stephen’s high school was founded by Rvd. M. J. Jennings in 1854 in Chandni Chowk area; in 1876, it was allowed to introduce university classes. In 1889, Samuel Scott Allnut proposed a new college building either at Kashmiri Gate or outside the Lahori Gate. The former site was chosen and a new building – designed by Swinton Jacob, Chief Engineer of Jaipur – was constructed in 1891 at the cost of Rs. 92702 and 10 paise. Allnut was the founder and first principal of the college with 3 teachers and 5 students, which increased to 99 students by 1899, when he retired. He was nicknamed “the Giraffe” and rode about Delhi on his tricycle.

The cricket ground of the college was the site where the British troops gathered in 1857 for the final assault on Delhi; now the Inter State Bus Terminal occupies that site. The college boasts three Heads of State as its alumni: Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (India), Gen Zia Ul Haq (Pakistan), and Selim-e-Selim (Tanzania).



Sultan Sing’s Haveli and Estate

In the Chabi Ganj area stands a stately 19th century building called Sultan Singh’s haveli. Built in the 1890’s, it now houses the National Cadet Corps (NCC) office. Sultan Singh’s grandson, Virendra Singh, was one of the founders of the NCC.



A sweeping staircase leads up to the house, whose façade is a mix of Mughal and Colonial style. On both sides, projecting balconies supported on slender circular pillars stand above doors framed in Roman arches. Two arched windows with decorative keystones puncture the wall on either side of the door. Two beautiful decorative frames of Chinese glazed tiles in plasterwork frames are on either side of the staircase, believed to date back to the original structure. On its backside, the projecting jharokhas are enclosed with antique-looking wrought iron grills and wooden frames. It is believed that all decorative wrought iron grills in those days were manufactured entirely in England and were assembled here. A taikhana, or underground room, can be seen in the structure, whose ventilator projects out just above ground level.


The entire area surrounding the haveli was once his estate. Even the line of market in the street from Fakr-ul-Masjid on the left-hand side is called “Sultan Singh Market.” Dilapidated and faded ancient shop fronts with old Mughal styled pillars and traces of stylized grills and wooden planks mark the first floor of this market.

1d-horz The area originally belonged to James Skinner. In 1902, Sultan Singh donated one of his buildings to the Hindu college, which then shifted to the location it is in now from its original location in Kinari Bazar. The college operated here from 1902 to 1953. Juxtaposed with the old St. Sephen’s college, it acted as its academic counter-weight and fueled healthy rivalry in education. During the freedom movement, the college played an important role in intellectual and political debates.


Bengali Club

The Bengali Club was constructed in 1925 as a cultural institution for the swelling Bengali population in Delhi after the Capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912.   Many illustrious personalities like Subhash Chandra Bose and Rabindra Nath Tagore were associated with the Club. The first Durga Puja of Delhi started from here in 1910.


It is a two-story building, currently proposed for renovation by INTACH. The Bengali Club occupies two rooms and the lobby in the first floor, and the rest of that floor is converted to a hotel. The ground floor houses shops.


Finally, a brief timeline of the series of major outbreaks against the British, outlining the popular character against the British authority that may be regarded as the background and pre-cursor to the great revolt of 1857.

Year Reactions against British conquests
1792 Revolt by Raja Verma of Kottayam, Kerala
1794; 1830-32 Fighting by Raja of Vizianagaram
1798 Outbreak in Ganjam, Orissa
1800 Rebellion by Dhundia Wagh of Mysore
1800;1835 Revolt by the Bhanjas of Gumsur, Orissa
1805 Rebelleion following second Maratha War, specially at Ajaygarh & Kalanjar forts
1813 Revolt by Gujjars
1824;1829 Revolt in Belgaum
1824 Fighting in Bijapur
1826-29 Revolt in Poona by Ramosis
1830;1839 Fighting at Sadiya, Assam valley
1830;1832;1836 Revolt at Savantvadi on Konkan coast
1835 Fighting with hill tribe Kapaschor Akas
1840 Uprising at Badami Fort
1842 Revolt by Talukdar of Kunja near Roorki
1844 Revolt by Kolhapur
1844 onwards Revolt by South Indian states(Tinnevelly, Bellary, Anantpur, Cuddapah, Kurnool, north Arcot)
1844 Rebellion by Gadkaris of Kolhapur
1849 Revolt by Naga tribe
Revolts due to Political Causes
1781 Rebel by Chait Singh of Benares
1799 Rebellion by Awadh
Revolts due to Misrule in British Protected States
1804;1808 Revolt by Travancore
1815-18 Revolt by Rajput Baji Rao II of Kathiawad
Uprisings due to Economic causes
1767;1770;1773 Revolt by Raja of Dhalbhum, Bengal
1770;1799;1800 Rebellion of Chuar tribes in the hills of Ghatsila and Barabhum
1783 Revolt by Peasants of Rangpur
1783 Fighting in Tinnevilly by the Poligars
1789 Revolt in Bishnupur
1802 Revolt in Malabar
1807;1817 Rebellion in Aligarh at Dayaram’s fort
1816 Outbreak in Bareilly
1817 Revolt by Paikas of Orissa at Khurda; joined by Khonds from Gumsur
1817 Outbreak at Puri
1842 Outbreak in Bundelkhand
1852 Revolt by cultivators in Khandesh at Savda and Chopda
Religious Rebellions
1772 The Sanyasi rebellion in Bengal
1799 Uprising at Cachar, with help of Naga Kukis
1810 Revolt by Imam of Meerut
1821 Start of Wahabi movement in U.P.
1825 Uprising by Pagla Panthis in North Bengal
1831 Battle by Wahabis in Bengal
1838 Faraidi Movement in Bengal
Tribal Resistances
1783 Rebellion by Khasi tribe in Garo and Jantia hills
1787;1789 Rebellion by Khasis of Laur
1795;1825;1829 Khasi Rebellion
1809 Revolt by Jats in Bhiwani, Haryana
1818-19; 1820-25; 1831; 1846 Revolt by Bhils in Khandesh
1820 Revolt by Mers in Rajputana
1820 Rebellion by the Hos of Singhbhum
1824;1839;1844 Rebellion by Kolis in Western Ghats
1831-32 The Kol uprising at Ranchi, Hazaribagh
1832 Rebellion of Bhumij in Manbhum at Barabazar, and Barabhum
1846 Uprising by the khonds of Orissa
1855 Uprising by the Santal tribes in Bhagalpur
Outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny
6th Feb 1857 34th NI, Barrackpore: Open rebellion, setting fire to officers’ bungalows
19th Feb 1857 19th NI, Berhampur: Sepoys Excited but not violent, shouting against officers; 19th NI disbanded
29th March, 1857 34th NI, Barrackpore: Mangal Pandey shoots Lt Baugh; Mangal Pandey executed & 34th NI disbanded
End of March, 1857 Similar incident at Amballa
3rd May, 1857 Lucknow; sepoys threaten to murder their officer
9th May, 1857 Meerut: Full scale uprising by Third Cavalry, joined by 20th and 11th NI
11th May,1857 Meerut Sepoys capture Delhi, epicentre of the “Clash of Civilisations”



  1. The Last Mughal; by William Dalrymple, New Delhi, 2007.
  2. Video and Transcript of William Dalrymple’s lecture for ‘City of London Festival’ at the Gresham College:
  3. The Sepoy Mutiny and the revolt of 1857; by R.C. Majumdar, Calcutta, 1957.
  4. The Siege of Delhi; by Charles John Griffith, 1910; Photographically reproduced, Delhi, 1995.
  5. The Indian Mutiny to the Fall of Delhi; compiled by a Former Editor of the “Delhi Gazette.”; London,1857.
  6. John Nicholson, the Lion of Punjaub; by R.E. Cholmeley, London,1908. Courtesy: The Gutenberg Project (
  7. Mutiny Records, Correspondence Part I, Punjab Government Publications,1911, Lahore.
  8. Letters written during the siege of Delhi; by Hervey Harris Greathed, Elisa F. Greathed; London, 1858.
  9. The Seven Cities of Delhi; by Gordon Hearn, 1928, Calcutta and Shimla.
  10. Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, by Swapna Liddle, Delhi, 2011.
  11. The Tazkirat Al-umara of Colonel Skinner:
  12. The looting by British Prize Agents and Zafar’s crown-cap:
  13. History of St. Stephen’s college :
  14. Timeline map of Mughal Empire:
  15. Timeline map of British Empire in India:
  16. Hindu Astronomy, by G.R. Kaye; 1998, ASI, New Delhi.
  17. The Wonder That Was India, by A.L. Basham, London, 1954.
  18. The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems; by Agha Shahid Ali
  19. Three Mughal Poets; by Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russel, New Delhi, 1991
  20. ‘Princess and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857’ : Exhibition by Asia Society New York, Feb 7 to May 6, 2012, William Dalrymple and Yuthika Sharma:
  21. INTACH Delhi Newsletter, Vol 1, Issue 2, September 2015:
  22. Delhi, A Thousand Years of Building, by Lucy Peck, 2005, Delhi.
  23. Grave Secrets of Yangon’s Imperial Tomb, 09 February 2014, Myanmar Times,
  24. ‘When telegraph saved the nation’; 18 November 2012, Indian Express,
  25. Find A Grave at Nicholson Cemetery:
  26. Restored cemetery raises ghost of colonial brutality in India, October 28, 2006, Financial Times,
  27. Master Ramachandra of Delhi College: Teacher, Journalist, and Cultural Intermediary, by Gail Minault:
  28. History of Hindu College:
  29. Graves of empire tell of India’s troubled past:
  30. God’s Acre, by R.V.Smith; October 28,2006, The Hindu:
  31. The Victorian Blogs of John Nicholson:
  32. A Living Witness – An account of St. James’ Church and its builder, Nirendra Kumar Biswas, St. James Church, 1999, Delhi.
  33. India, Mutiny Amongst the Bengal Native Troops (From the Sydney Herald, July 11.)
  34. Maulvi Fazle Haq Khairabadi & 1857:


The sites were explored during heritage trails led by Kanika Singh of Delhi Heritage Walks and Jaya Basera of INTACH Delhi. Thanks to both of them for making my study interesting and insightful.

Sufi Soul of Delhi and Beyond


The tourist triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra is probably the most popular in the country – thanks to seven world heritage sites in their cradle, all within a short distance from each other. The grandeur of these majestic monuments notwithstanding, something more sublime and invisible is in the air around them. This is the very heart of Sufism not only in India, but entire South Asia. The blessed courtyards of the Sufi dargahs here offer a unique spiritual pull for pilgrims of all religions and faiths to come and bath in the divine showers.

( Video: Introduction to Sufism, by Sadia Dehlvi : duration 3 mins)

In Delhi, we have the dargahs of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia.

A short distance from Jaipur, at Ajmer, the dargah of Khwaja Mu’in-ud-din Chishti beckons to us as the oldest Sufi shrine in South Asia, from where flowed down the silsilah of Chishti tariqah. In Jaipur, the dargah of Moulana Ziauddin Sahab is a beautiful and serene shrine.

m8 ( Offering a handful of red rose petals, author Sadia Delvi at the mausoleum of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib in Jaipur )

And, in the outskirts of Agra at Fatehpur Sikri, bringing up the splendid image of an erstwhile imperial capital from a long-lost ghost-town – stands the tranquil tomb of Salim Chishti– an emblem of an emperor’s tribute to a Sufi dervish.

Together, these Sufi shrines offer a syncretic religious heritage that has transcended the divisions of faith over centuries. The invisible canopy of faith spreads across these shrines, welcoming people with a divine aura – drenching them with a magical fragrance and countless rose petals.

Sufism – called tasawuuf in Arabic – refers to a spiritual path. It is the art of awakening to a spiritual consciousness by complete surrender to the Divine Essence, and is referred to as ‘to die before you die.’

Farid Ahmed Nizami, Gaddi Nashin of Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia summarizes the allure and magic of Sufi dargahs.  “People from all religions and walks of life – Hindu, Muslim, Christian, King, or Poor –come to Sufi dargahs as if it were their own. Devotees come here to pray and seek solace. The syncretic identity of the Sufis attract people from even far-away countries simply to come and offer a few flowers and a chadar at the tomb of their beloved Pirs, whereas those of kings and emperors remain as empty shells – architecturally attractive but devoid of any emotional attachment.”

One cannot agree more, seeing the devotees lining up to do qadambosi or ‘kissing the tomb on the side of the feet’, tying pieces of thread or dhaga around the jaalis in its balustrade, collecting few rose petals from the tomb, draping the tomb with a chadar – and hoping to come back soon for thanksgiving or shukrana, once their prayers are granted.

The origin of the word ‘Sufi’ has many possible sources. Some say it originated from the Arabic word ‘Suf’ meaning wool, which was the simple dress or the ‘jama’l suf’ of early Islamic mystics. The word is also attributed to ‘Saf’ – row or line – because the early mystics always placed themselves on the first row in congregations around the Prophet. Symbolically, it also refers to the first row of the people of spirituality.

1415818_10153784958538682_346943247_n ( Paintings by fellow Sufi seeker and painter Bindal Shah. For more Sufi themed artwork, contact at )

The word is also traced to the word ‘Suffa’ or bench, because the early 45 practitioners used to occupy the bench at the entrance to the Prophet’s mosque at Medina. They sat on those benches offering incessant prayers and fasting. They were called Ashab-e-Suffa, or the People of the Bench. The bench area is visible to this day in the Prophet’s chamber in that mosque. They also became known as Al-fuqara, which is the plural of the word faqir or the poor. The Persian equivalent of faqir is dervish. Safa also means purity, and Sufis are called Auliya Allah, or the friends of Allah.


Major schools of Sufism and the Big Five

‘There is only the Creator and his creations and one should not differentiate between the creations. In order to serve the creator, one should serve the creation.’ Says Haji Syed Salman Chishti, Gaddi Nashin of Dargah Ajmer Sharif.


 ( Video : Concepts of Sufism, by Haji Syed Salman Chishty – Gaddi Nashin at Dargah Ajmer Sharif, duration : 5 min )

There are many major Sufi orders, but their common essence is ‘love for humanity’. There is no monastic life in Sufism. The dervish does go to seclusion for days or months to meditate, but ultimately the enlightened soul comes back to the society to serve people. Sufism does not differentiate among the seekers, an example of which is the importance of langars in Sufi dargahs. Everyone sharing the same langar food signifies that all are same, perhaps distinguishable only by their sanctitude.

Author Sadia Dehlvi explains the founding principles of Sufism as laid down by Khwaza Mui’in-ud-Din Chishti: “River-like Generosity, Sun-like Bounty and Earth-like Hospitality.”

The Qadiriyyah order was established by Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166) of Baghdad. Chishtiyyah order was initiated by the Syrian Shaykh Abu Ishaq Shami (d. 940 AD) from a small village of Chrisht Sharif, about 125 kilometers from Herat in Afghanistan. Shadhiliyyah order was set up by Shaykh Abu’l Hasan al-Shadhili of Morocco (d. 1258), the Mevleviyyah order was by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (d.1273) of Konya, Bektashiyyah order by Hajji Bektash ( d.1338) of Khorasan, while the orthodox Naqshbandiyyah order was by Shaykh Bahaudin Naqshband of Bukhara ( d. 1390).

1 (2)( Another painting by Bindal Shah. Contact at for more Sufi themed artwork)

The ‘Big Five’ of Chishti silsilah refers to  Khwajah ‘Uthman Chishti Haruni, Khwajah Mu’in-ud-Din Chishti of Ajmer (d.1236), Khwajah Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiar Kaki of Delhi, Shaykh Farid-ud-Din Shakarganj, or Baba Farid of Pak Pattan (d.1265), Hazrat Nizam-ud-Din Auliya of Delhi (d.1325) and Shaykh Nasir-ud-Din Muhammad or ‘Chirag-i-Dihli’ or the ‘Lamp of Delhi’ ( d.1356).

There are many later Sufi saints throughout the country. It spread to the Deccan when Muhammad-bin-Tughluq shifted his capital to Daulatabad. One order called Sabiris take their spiritual lineage from Hazrat Makhdum ‘Ala-ud-Din ‘Ali Ahmed Sabir of Piran Kaliyar near Roorkee.


Shari’ah, Tariqah and Haqiqah

To inherit the sacred knowledge, a Sufi aspirant entrusts his inner awakening to a spiritual master called a Shaykh, or Pir. In the early days, the Shaykh would sit in a secluded corner of a house or a cave, surrounded by his murids, meaning disciples. Such a place was called zawaiyah or corner in Arabic, Khanaqah in Persian, and tekke in Turkish. Later on, the Kanaqah became a monastery built around the tomb of the Pir who founded it. The residents were either ‘dwellers’ who stayed in the Khanaqahs, or ‘travelers’ who would go out to villages to collect gifts.

Similar to the ‘Guru-Shishya’ tradition of handing down the sacred knowledge, ‘piri-muridi’ system was based on the murid or wayfarer being guided in the spiritual way, or tariqah, through the practice of ritualistic observance, or dhikr, through stages of progress, or maqamat, for the final unison with the God, or wasl.  The final illumination is achieved by progressing through various stages, or maqamat. A Sufi’s journey in reality is into the unchartered depths of his own mind and soul, traversing from the outer world through mere ritualistic routines he wages a war against his own ego, ultimately aspiring for the surrender and merging with the God within.

The mystical knowledge imparted to the early Sufis from the Prophet is kept different from the publicly shared knowledge. This duality of approach to understand the world is one of the key concepts of Sufism.

12434406_10153784959253682_563229227_n   ( Paintings by fellow Sufi seeker and painter Bindal Shah. Contact at for more Sufi themed artwork)

The essence of Sufism is purification of the heart through constant self-observation. Sufism is more demanding and requires deeper understanding than merely discharging customary religious obligations.

The Sufi’s path to awakening is based on the three concepts of Iman, Islam and Ihsan. Iman refers to the faith in the heart, Islam is complete submission to the Divine Will, Ihsan refers to worshipping God as if you saw Him, leading a spiritual life and killing one’s ego.

One’s journey from the external world to the inner soul is similarly defined by three stages. While Shari’ah refers to obeying the laid down religious laws, Tariqah refers to the spiritual way and the final stage of Haqiqah is recognising the inner truth.

The Shahadah says – La ilaha illa ‘Llah, Muhammadun rasuluALlah, meaning ‘There is no god except God, Muhhamad is the Messenger of Allah’. The juxtaposition of negation and affirmation in the same sentence can be seen in ‘there is no divinity’ (negation) followed by ‘except God’ (affirmation). The same concept is often conveyed as ‘There is no guide except The Guide’, ‘there is no truth except The Truth’ etc.

( Video: Life Story of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, by Farid Ahmed Nizami – Duration : 23 mins )

The dhikr practiced by murids can either be aloud or silent. While dhikr jahri (Zikr-e-Jehr) is reciting aloud so as to shut out wandering thoughts from mind, dhikr khafi (Zikr-e-Khafi) is a quiet recitation.

A better refined form is just sitting idle, shutting eyes, closing the lips and concentrating only on exhalations and inhalations. The devotee throws his head downward to the right while exhaling and focusing on ‘La ilahah’ or ‘There is no God’, while he brings his head back and throws it downwards to the left, inhaling and focusing on ‘illah Allah’ or ‘Except Allah’.

The dhikr can be practiced either alone or in groups, till exhaustion brings about a state, or hal, in spiritual ecstasy, or wajd. The methods to achieve wajd vary from country to country. Whirling dervishes, howling ascetics, qawaali renditions all highlight the wonderful ways for ‘Divine Submission’. In contrast with the perceived harsh religious laws of Islam – poetry, dance, art, calligraphy and a universal love define the heart of Sufism.



Sufi traditions have generally been adapted to the local cultures, so that people can express their devotion in their own languages and own style. So, while whirling may be common in countries like Turkey, it is the qawaali that is prominent in India. It is the listening to Mehfil-e-Sama or qawaali that differentiates Chishtis from other Sufis. It is said that qawaali is too dear to a Chishti Sufi for him stay away for more than three continuous days. In India, qawaali renditions are regularly performed in all prominent Sufi dargahs. Devotees sit on both sides of the qawaals, keeping the centre path free for djinns and visiting souls. It is believed that heavenly showers, called sharrab-e-maarifah or ‘wine of gnosis’ and sharaab-e-mohabbah or ‘wine of love’ pour over such gatherings to nourish the souls.

p1 (2) ( Enjoying getting drenched with heavenly showers pouring down on a Mehfil-e-Sama at the dargah of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib in Jaipur )

During a qawaali rendition, if someone goes into the state of ecstasy, the qawaal always repeats the same lines until the person comes back to his normal state. Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki passed away in such a ‘hal’ or ecstatic state while listening to qawaalis for three days, in the lap of Hazrat Qazi Hameeruddin Nagauri. It is said that once the hand of the Shaykh slipped out of his grave while a qawaali rendition was being performed at his dargah!

( Video: Qawaal brothers Sultan and Osman Nizami at the Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya: Duration 11 mins )

Modern day qawaali is attributed to Amir Khusrau who created the fusion of Arabic, Persian, Khari Baoli and Brajbhasha music to bring novelty in the mehfils of his beloved peer, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The innovation was a semi-classical form of music that allowed poetry of other poets or ragas to be included as long as they were thematically matching.


Chaap Tilak Sab Chini Re

One of the most popular qawaali by Amir Khusrau is “Chaap Tilak Sab Chini re” whose interpretation is explained beautifully by Sufi singer Dhruv Sangari. When Amir Khusrau was a boy of about nine or ten years of age, his mother took him to the house and khanaqah of their family Pir Hazrat Nizamuddin which today stands behind Humayun’s Tomb near  Arab ki Serai. Stubborn as he was, Khusrau said he will only go in if Khwaja Saheb answered one of his questions. He wrote a couplet there itself and posed it to Khwaja Saheb: “You are a King and I have come to your palace. And I have heard that those who come here as a pigeon, go back transformed as a falcon. I have come to your doorsteps afflicted with poor knowledge. Will I be invited inside, or will I be shooed away?” Then a slip came back from the house, apparently written by Khwaja Nizamuddin Saheb, saying, “Come in, O seeker of truth and knowledge. You too become privy to the sacred knowledge.”

Then Amir Khusrau went inside and met Hazrat Nizamuddin and in just one glance he surrendered himself completely. Later he recited the qawaali in the praise of Hazrat Saheb that interestingly explains the entire path and stages of tasawuuf.

Chhāp tilak sab chīnī re mose nainā milāike

Bāt agam keh dīnī re mose nainā milāike

Prem bhakī kā madvā pilāike

Matvālī kar līnhī re mose nainā milāike

Gorī gorī baīyān, harī harī chuiyān baīyān paka har līnhī re mose nainā milāike

Bal bal jāūn main tore rang rajvā

Apnī sī rang dinhī re mose nainā milāike

Khusro nijaam ke bal bal jaiye

Mohe suhāgan kīnhī re mose nainā milāike

Bāt agam keh dīnī re mose nainā milāike


( Videos: Chaap Tilak by Dhruv Sangari, duration : 9 mins)

Loosely translated, it reads as:

You’ve taken away my identity (‘Chhap Tilak’ in Brajbhasha means identity), by just a glance.

You’ve said something very deep and immeasurable with your glance. From the kiln of love, you have given me a cup to drink, And you have made me ecstatic;

‘Nazar’ or glance is a Sufiana way to describe ‘seeing with the heart’, imagining as if one is receiving positive divine blessings. Khusrau says that in the bazaar or market of love, the transaction or ‘sauda’ happened eye-to-eye with the exchange of glances with his Pir Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. In the next stanza, Amir Khusrau describes himself as seeker, a student, a maiden of knowledge, or someone who is spiritually not initiated by using the simile of a virgin.

I have come to you with my pale arms with green bangles, And you took me in your arms by your glance.

Next, he uses ‘Rang Rajva’ which is Hindi-ized Persian, or an eastern way to describe a professional dyer in a sweet native dialect. The Sufi path is often personified as a woman and it perhaps comes from the Arabic word of Divine Essence, ‘Dhat’, which is feminine in gender. Amir Khusrau often compares himself as Radha and his Pir as Lord Krishna in the imagery of the Holi celebration where he is coloured with the gulal of Sufism. Even Holi, though an agrarian celebration, is considered a syncretic festival with the colours and pichkaris coming from Persian New Year celebrations ‘Nawruj’.

I am beholden by you, Oh cloth-dyer, You’ve coloured me in your own Chishti colour with just your glance. Khusrau has given his whole life to you, Nizam has made me his bride,, You’ve uttered the deep and immeasurable with just your glance.

(  Video of Interpretation on Amir Khusrau’s Chaap Tilak Sab Chini Re by Singer Dhruv Sangari, duration – 10 mins)

In the poem, Khusrau has described the complete Sufi philosophy of Shari’ah, Tariqah and Haqiqah as it progresses. The journey starts from normal regimented life going through truth, transcendence, which leads to ecstatic union, before the final merging of the self with the Divine Will.

It is interesting to note that Khusrau who was of mixed parentage – his mother being Indian and father of Turkish descent – played a major role in developing the early idea of India. He told that in his mind, Khorasan and Hindustan have become one. He welcomed the best of Khorasan but as a ‘Parrot of India’ he vowed to use the sweet tongue of Hindi. So, some 800 years ago, a secular and syncretic image of India was beginning to emerge and people like Khusrau were at the forefront of this Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb. This type of inclusiveness contributed to the success of Sufism in India.

In Sufi renditions, the verses of Jalaluddin Rumi, Amir Khusrau are set to lilting music. Whirling dervishes meditate in the tradition of the Sufi master Rumi. Even Kufic style of calligraphy, introduced by the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin Imam Ali of Kufa, became prevalent in writing Quranic verses in enchanting styles. While Arabic was the language of the Qur’an, Persian language started prevailing around the twelfth century as the language of Sufi poetry and art. The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam and verses by Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) established the early directions to the openness in Sufism. Qasida or formal ode, ghazal or lyrics, ruba’I or quatrain, mathnawi or rhyming couplet, divan or a collection of poetry soon became engrained as musical constructs.


Popular Metaphors in Sufism

The popular story of Layla and Majnu is considered a representation of a murid’s love for his Pir. Long time ago in Arabia, a boy called Qais and a girl named Layla, belonging to two different tribes in a village, fell madly in love with each other. The boy became so obsessed with Layla that people started calling him Majnu or a mad man. However their love and longing for each other was not acceptable to the tribal seniors, and Layla’s father barred her from meeting him. Time passed by and one day Majnu decided to have a glimpse of his beloved at any cost. He donned himself in a sheep skin, joined a horde of sheep and went down on his fours and marched towards her house. He could hardly get a proper glance at Layla but his heart was delighted beyond imagination. He continued to wear his sheep-skin dress for days. They were away from each other, but her mind and heart was dedicated to Majnu only. Very soon, Layla breathed her last and the dying word that she whispered was ‘Majnu’. The news reached him and the devastated Majnu mourned for days in the mountains and ultimately he too died of sorrow. The villagers buried him besides her, and both were united in the after-life.

In this story, the metaphor of sheep-skin clad by Majnu is interpreted as the woollen dress of a Sufi seeker. His longing for a glance of his beloved is akin to ‘seeing with the heart’. The ultimate union refers to the merging of the self with the Divine Essence.

12404668_10153784958988682_1161151771_n ( Paintings by fellow Sufi seeker and painter Bindal Shah. Contact at for more Sufi themed artwork )

In Sufism, the divine love for God and the ecstatic enlightenment is often described in few other popular similes as well. While a murid or an individual is often described as a drop of water, the Divine Unity is referred to as the Ocean. The ecstatic Sufi is often described as one in an intoxicated state, helped by the cup-bearer or the Sufi Shaykh with the wine of the beloved, who is lost in a different state of drunkenness or spiritual ecstasy.



Khwajah Mui’in-ud-Din Chishti

‘This is a centre for lovers. Anyone who is incomplete visit here and find themselves complete’, says Haji Syed Salman Chishti of Ajmer Sharif. There is a pull that attracts pilgrims to the Ajmer Sharif dargah. People’s wishes and prayers are granted, the magical atmosphere gives inner peace and completeness.

Khwaja Haruni, the Pir of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer did not come to India, and is buried in Mecca, while Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din Chisti was the first to come to South Asia.

aj1( The entrance to Dargah Ajmer Shareef )

Chishti is the oldest Sufi dervish order that was introduced in our country by Khwajah Mui’in-ud-Din Chishti of Sistan in southern Afghanistan. Born in 1142 AD, he was the disciple of Khwaja ‘Uthman Chishti Haruni at Nishapur in Khorasan for twenty years at a time when Mongol invasions were in full swing. During this tenure, he was granted the title of Gareeb Nawaz by his Pir. While travelling to Mecca and Medina through Iraq and Persia, he came in contact with ‘Abd-ul-Qadir Jilani and Khwajah Qutb-ud-Din Bakhtiyar Kaki.  Khwaja Haruni advised him to travel to India to settle there and spread the faith. He travelled to Herat, Balkh and Ghazni before coming to India in 1192, where he was warmly welcomed.

aj5 ( “Allah Muhammad Chaar Yaar, Hazi Khwaja Qutb Farid Haq Farid Ya Farid” at Ajmer Shareef )

At the age of 50, he went to Ajmer in 1195 AD, which was the erstwhile capital of Prithviraj Chauhan. He quickly became known as a guide unto the unguided and voiceless for people from all religions and adapted the Chistiya colour of ochre yellow that was the colour of spirituality in India.

aj2 ( Faith is in Air: The lighted dome of Ajmer Shareef )

Emperor Akbar was a devout follower of both Shaykh Salim Chishti and Khwajah Mu’in-ud-Din Chishti of Ajmer. The mosque at the dargah as well as the palace was built by Akbar for the pilgrims, while the madrasah was built with the grant from the Nizam of Hyderabad. Akbar even gifted one gigantic cauldron that is still used to cook food for langars. A second cauldron was gifted by his son Jehangir. Even while food is cooked in these, the outer surface remains surprisingly cool and are a major attraction for pilgrims.

aj3 ( The huge cauldron at Ajmer Shareef that was gifted by Akbar )

Akbar had taken a vow that if he managed to capture Chittor, he would walk on foot from Agra to Ajmer for thanking God. After his dream was achieved in 1568, he continued the practice of visiting Ajmer by foot as an annual pilgrimage for almost ten years till 1579.

 aj4 ( A beautiful old candle stand at Ajmer Shareef )



Khwaja Qutbuddin Kaki

It is said Delhi – which became the heart of Sufi movement after incessant Mongol attacks on Central Asia and Iran – will exist as long as the dargah, where Khwaja Qutub lies buried in Mehrauli, is there. Khwaja Qutbuddin was awarded the honorific title of ‘Qutub-ul-Aqtaab’, or the ‘Central Pole’ by his Pir Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, who advised him to settle in Delhi. His wish was to stay at the Kilokhri mosque close to Yamuna, but at the request of Sultan Iltutmish, shifted to Mehrauli.

DSC_0010 ( The beautiful dome over the grave of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki )

The village of Mehrauli grew around his shrine over centuries, adding layers onto the area’s history as Delhi’s oldest settlement of Lal Kot was founded here about two centuries ago in 1060 AD. Over time, as sultans shifted their capitals to other parts of Delhi, Mehrauli ceased to be the seat of power, but continued to flourish nonetheless as the city’s oldest continuously inhabited area.

The name of Kak of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhiar Kaki comes from a popular anecdote that God provided bread, or ‘kak’ in Persian, for him.  He lived as a poor man and gave away all the gifts he received in charity. His wife used to take groceries on credit and one day the ‘baqaal’– or grocer – told her arrogantly that the Khwaja’s family will be starved if he did not give things on credit. When she narrated it to Khwaja Sahib, he forbade her from buying groceries on credit and instead instructed her to recite ‘Bismillah’, in the name of Allah, and take out bread from a niche in the wall whenever needed.  This continued for many days, but the bread stopped appearing when she told this secret to the grocer.

DSC_0026 ( The strikingly beautiful Kufic scripted calligraphy on an unknown tomb in Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah. Mehrauli )

Khwaja Qutub was very fond of Sama, or music assemblies, with whatever string instruments that would have been in use in those olden days. However, many orthodox clerics in the court objected to the sama mehfils and created hindrances. When Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din knew this, he came to Delhi and advised Khwaja Qutbuddin to accompany him to Ajmer. However, as soon as they both started out from Delhi, the entire population came after them, including emperor Iltutmish who kissed the feet of Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din and begged Khwaja Qutub to stay back at Delhi.

DSC_0016 ( The grave of Qazi Hamiduddin Nagauri, on whose lap rested the head of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in his final moment. )

He and his close friend Qazi Hamiduddin Nagauri were both passionate about sama mehfils. Qazi Hamiduddin –who belonged to a royal family from Bukhara – tutored Khwaja Qutub on Islamic studies and had authored many books, including a lost treatise on Sufism called Lawa’ih, or ‘Flashes of Light’. Both of them believed that sama ignites love in the hearts of lovers. It was during one such mehfil, that Khwaja Qutub went into a state of ecstasy and asked the Qawaals to recite the lines over and over again. After four days, he passed away, with his head rested on the lap of his friend – Qazi Hamiduddin Nagauri.

Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din had instructed his devotees coming to Ajmer to first visit Mehrauli and pay their respects to Khwaja Qutub there. The same practice continues till date.

Grave-MaulanaFakhruddin ( Grave of Maulana Fakhruddin at Dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Delhi )

His grave remained an undecorated mound of earth for almost three hundred years, till a noble in emperor Sher Shah Suri built a marble enclosure around it in 1541. Various gateways were added upon by later Mughals and the present beautiful dome was constructed in 1945 by Imam Hafiz Jafar, after he could convince the British authorities to do so. The area around the dargah became a popular final resting place for emperors. Even ‘Phoolwalon Ki Sair’, or the festival of flowers, was associated with the dargah. The last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who used to shift to the adjoining Zafar Mahal during monsoons, wished to be buried in a small graveyard enclosure adjoining the marble Moti Masjid built by emperor Bahadur Shah, son of Aurangzeb, who ruled from 1707 to 1712.

Khwaja-Abdul-Aziz-Bastami ( Grave of Khwaja Abdul Aziz Bastami at Dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Delhi )

12oldGandhijipic ( Gandhiji at Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah in the aftermath of 1947 riots. “I recognise no God except the God that is to be found in the hearts of dumb millions.” How this quote of Gandhiji echoes the very philosophy of Sufism. )

The dargah was widely vandalized in post-Independence riots in 1947. Gandhiji visited the shrine and oversaw the first Urs in Independent India. He also ordered the low marble balustrade to be built around the grave, since the original one was destroyed by rioters. After the partition, the shrine was filled with refugees from Pakistan, till alternate arrangements were made for them.

Farrukhsiyar-inner-gateway1-horz ( The Inner and outer gateways at Dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki – built by Mughal emperor Farruksiyar )

Many emperors and noblemen wanted to be buried near the divine shrine. Few notable graves include that of Mughal emperors Bahadur Shah I (r. 1707-12), Shah Alam II (r. 1759-1806), and Akbar II (r.1806-37). Other notables include Mualan Fakhruddin ( d 1807), Khwaja Abdul Aziz Bastami ( late 19th or early 20th C), Mu’atmad Khan ( a famous eunuch in Aurangzeb’s court), Bibi Hambal ( wet-nurse of Qutb Saheb, only women are allowed inside his grave enclosure), Hazrat Qazi Hameeduddin Nagauri ( 18th C),  Zabita Khan and his wife, Nawabs of Loharu (built in 1802), etc.

Grave-Nawabs-Loharu1 ( The quaint little grave complex of the Nawabs of Loharu – at Dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Delhi )

 13Nizamuddin's prayer stand ( The prayer stand at the entrance of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah where Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya used to pray without going inside because of his respect. )



Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

It is a magical experience to listen to an evening-full of qawaalis in the blessed courtyard of Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in the centre of Delhi while bathing in the invisible showers of divine radiance, or nur. Standing under the lighted dome, with the entire dargah awash with red rose petals, wisps of incense stick and that magical fragrance lingering around, the murid forgets the worries of the world as he bows forward to tie a thread in the marble trellis around the tomb.

DSC_0009 ( The Lighthouse of Faith: Dargah Nizamuddin Auliya )

In his lifetime, Hazrat Nizamuddin believed that though there are many paths to the God, none is as effective as serving the poor and bringing happiness to the destitute – which is far more valuable than merely following religious practices.


Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia’s grand-father Syed Ali Bukhari had migrated from Bukhara to India and settled down at Badaun in Uttar Pradesh, which was a holy centre that time. Both his father and Hazrat Nizamuddin were born in India at Badaun. He lost his father at the tender age of five and his early days were spent in great difficulty.

His mother, Bibi Zulekha, took up residence in a thatched house in Delhi’s Adchini in order to educate her son with the best tutors. Faced with continuous periods of hunger and starvation, she died soon too. The young Hazrat Nizamuddin by that time was qualified to become a Qazi, but was persuaded by Shaykh Najeebuddin to meet his brother at Ajodhan, Baba Farid, to have a deeper perspective of life. Once he went to Ajodhan, there was no coming back from the spiritual path.

DSC_0072 ( A Thousand little threads: At Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi )

He visited Ajodhan three times in his life and during his second visit there, Baba Farid declared him to be his spiritual successor. In his last visit, Baba Farid prophesized his own death, which came true soon after and at that time Hazrat Nizamuddin was in Delhi.

At Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin was offered a temporary residence by the maternal grandfather of Amir Khusrau, where he put up for two years till it was required to be vacated. He then shifted to Ghiyaspur on the banks of Yamuna, set up a khanaqah with makeshift wooden walls. Word soon spread about his prophetic blessings. His popularity increased by leaps and bounds, but the Pir and his disciples still had to live in abject poverty. Once a dervish visited his kanaqah and forcefully crushed the very pot where a handful of rice was being cooked for everyone, including all the inmates, remarking that he was breaking the symbol of the saint’s poverty.

DSC_0295 ( Tying a thread on the marble trellis around the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi )

Immediately thereafter, donations started pouring into the khanqah. Over time, heaps of gold and silver coins started to flow in as gifts, but it was his instruction to donate away every single coin among the poor. He always believed that tomorrow would be taken care by the Almighty’s blessings, so there was no need to hoard rations. He himself ate very sparingly and said that he could not swallow food if a single person in the neighbourhood remained hungry.

At one point of time, as much as seventy maans (one maan is approximately 40 kilograms) of salt were used in cooking food for langar. He was aware of many poor people who did not have the courage to openly ask for money, so he hid coins in the food distributed in his langars so that people could collect them anonymously. Historian Barni mentions about the sea of people coming to the langar at his khanaqah. The traffic of bullock carts and horses around his khanaqah was so large that it prompted officials to demand that he shifted out of the city.

DSC_0281 ( The Grave of Mirza Jahangir at Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi: With Whom Was Started the ‘Phoolwalon Ki Sair’ )

Soon, sultans started becoming envious of his rising popularity. Delhi saw many sultans coming and going during the lifetime of Hazrat Nizamuddin. While some like Alauddin Khilji were in awe and wanted to be his disciple, some like Ghiasuddin Tughluq remained hostile throughout.

When Mubarak Khan ascended the throne, he was in a fierce succession battle involving his brothers. Unlike Mubarak Khan, his brothers had been initiated by Hazrat Nizamuddin, and on his ascension to the throne, he immediately ordered their execution. When asked what they gained by associating with the saint, the brothers replied that they were saved from the sin of bloodshed. Mubarak Khan also threatened Hazrat Nizamuddin of dire consequences if he failed to appear before the court to pay respect to him on the eve of next new moon. As it turned out, that very night, when all his disciples were nervous with the possible consequence at day break, news emanated from the palace that sultan Mubarak Khan had been decapitated in yet another power struggle.

DSC_0282-1 ( The ‘mis-aligned’ grave of Khwaja Abdur Rahman at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya – the only grave not aligned to the customary north-south directions, as he wished his head to point towards the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya  )

There was a special love and respect between Hazrat Nizamuddin and Amir Khusrau, who was not only a poet par excellence, but also a musician, author, a businessman and above all a devout disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Once, a poor man visited him at his khanaqah and asked for help. Hazrat Nizamuddin requested him to wait but the visitor became impatient. The saint then took out his pair of slippers and gave him as a gift. The man was hugely disappointed on such a gift that Hazrat Nizamuddin gave him. However he could not say a thing.

On his way back to home, he spent a night at an inn where Amir Khusrau was also staying after returning from an expedition. When Amir Khusrau found the grieving man, he came to know of his complaint. He immediately asked him not to despair and bartered his horse load of wealth in exchange for his Pir’s slippers. At Delhi, when Hazrat Nizamuddin received Amir Khusrau and asked him what he had brought from his trip, he respectfully placed the pair of slippers and narrated the whole story. A bemused Nizamuddin told him that it was after all a cheap bargain!

DSC_0039 ( Spreading the Faith at the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya )

He passed away in 1325 at the age of 82. He had altogether stopped taking food for almost 40 days prior to it and told his disciples that he could see the Prophet awaiting him eagerly in the heavens. The Chishti Sufi order which had reached its peak during Hazrat Nizamuddin’s lifetime, slowed down considerably after his death.

On the eve of Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi to celebrate the day symbolising renewal and birth, when the Prophet Muhammad came into the world as well as left it, few sacred relics are displayed at the dargah. When the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar surrendered to the British in 1857, he had deposited these relics here. These include the Qadam Mubarak – the footprint of the Prophet Muhammad on a stone slab and Mu e Mubarak – strands of his hair.

DSC_0276 (2) ( Here sleeps historian Ziauddin Barni in the blessed courtyard of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi )

His dargah is full of graves of his disciples – from emperors to poets to nameless believers. These include that of his chief disciple Amir Khusrau, emperor Muhammad Shah and his family, the Sufi princess Jahanara, Mirza Jahangir (son of emperor Akbar Shah II – the frivolous young man for whose release from the British prison the famous ‘Phoolwalon Ki Sair’ festival was established by his mother), historian Ziauddin Barni, Atgah Khan (husband of Akbar’s wet-nurse Jiji Angah), Mirza Aziz Kokaltash (son of Jiji Angah and Atgah Khan), poet Ghalib, amongst many others.

One interesting grave is that of Khwaja Abdur Rahman which is not aligned to the customary north-south direction as mandated in Islamic burial practices, rather lies at an angle. It is said that he wished to be buried so that his face would remain towards the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Another interesting grave is that of Mirza Jahangir, who infuriated the British Resident Mr Setton into arresting him. His grave has a ‘takhti’ – a customary emblem of a woman’s grave. It is said that the grave originally belonged to a woman, but the prince was buried there afterwards.

1 ( “Let nought cover my grave save the green grass, for grass well suffices as a covering for the grave of the lowly.” Thus reads the tombstone of Princess Jahanara in Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya )

The tombstone of humble Sufi princess Jahanara has the following famous words written on it:

“Let nought cover my grave save the green grass, for grass well suffices as a covering for the grave of the lowly.”



Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib

Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib was born in 1730 at the Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi and was a renowned Chishti dervish around late 18th century. His father Khwaja Mir Rafiuddin was a renowned calligrapher titled Nadir-e-Raqqam in the service of Nawab Ayazuddin Khan.

m1 ( The magnificent shrine of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib in Jaipur )

The wide spread of Chishtiya Order in India is chiefly attributed first to Khwaja Ghareeb Nawaz, i.e. Khwaja Mu’in-ud-Din Chishty and then to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. During his time, as many as 1400 palikis were sent to south India by his khaleefas or spiritual successors to spread the Sufi teachings and the Order became known as Chishtiya Nizamiya.

Centuries after him, the popularity of Chishtiya Nizamiya started again in South India by Hazrat Nizamuddin Aurangabadi towards the seventeenth century. His son Hazrat Maulana Fakhruddin Dehlvi revived and popularised it further and a new Order known as Fakhariya started as the off shoot of the original order in the sub-continent. And, Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Jaipuri was the chosen spiritual successor or khaleefa of Maulana Fakhruddin Dehlvi for Dhundaar, Rajputana.

o5 ( The holy mihrab lies enveloped at the centre of the five bays in the mosque at Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib’s shrine in Jaipur )

He first came to Jaipur (then Jaynagar) when the city was ruled by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh. Legend says that at that time there was a rule for any visitor to the city to seek permission from the king to stay beyond three days. After three days, when the saint continued to stay in the city, soldiers approached the dervish in order to evict him. But a strange thing happened when they went there: they saw tigers guarding the tent of the humble saint. The king became curious and wanted to visit the dervish. It is said that the king became so impressed with the saint that henceforth began to consult him every day even before sitting at his darbar.

o3 ( The graceful mosque’s designs are a study in symmetry in Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib’s shrine in Jaipur )

He had received the authority from his Pir to teach various Orders, including Quadriya, Chishtiya, Soharwardiya, Naqshbandiya, Kubrawiya, Gaazrooniya, Firdosiya, Shuttariya, Hamdaniya and Noorbakshiya, but primarily he used to spread the spiritual messages of Quadriya and Chishtiya Sufi Orders.

Maulana Sahib was very fond of greenery and would say, ‘Demolish a Building! But do not cut a tree, because a building can be reconstructed within a few days but a tree takes a long time to grow up and mature’. He built a garden that was called Bagh-e-Subha Saadiq. There is an interesting story behind the land on which the dargah stands today. Many years ago, he liked a patch of land belonging to a farmer and wished to purchase it for the purpose of laying a garden on it, but the farmer refused to sell him.

m3 ( The mausoleum of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, constructed in 1929 by Nawab Fayyaz-ud-Daula, the Wazir of Jaipur. )

The thought was bothering Maulana Sahib continuously but he finally left it to the will of Allah. Once, one of his disciples travelled to Buland Sheher and spent a night near the holy grave of a saint known as Shah Kallu Faqeer. In the night, he saw a dream of Basharat, i.e. a dream disclosing a spiritual message, where Shah Kallu Faqeer came to convey the grant of the land to the traveller’s Pir by the Holy Prophet Muhammad. The disciple hurried back to Maulana Sahib and conveyed the strange happening. Soon after, the farmer came to meet Maulana Sahib and pledged his land for whatever money he could get.

o8 ( Florets and Vines: perennial beauties )

In 1798, Maulana Sahib constructed a beautiful garden along with a Mahfil Khana, hoz and a mosque on it. Every week, he organized Sama mehfils and Zikr there and said that prayers of visitors to this place would always be granted because the land had Divine blessings.

In the khanaqah, Maulana Sahib would arrange daily assembly for Zikr, or remembrance of the God. While new-comers were assigned vocal Zikr, or Zikr-e-Jehr, experienced practitioners conducted silent Zikr, or Zikr-e-Khafi.

o1( The stunning designs of perennial flowerets budding from the entwined creepers on the walls of the 200 year old mosque at the dargah of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib,  Jaipur )

DSC_0273( Superlatively beautiful Buland Darwaza at Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, Jaipur )

Mehfil-e-Sama or Music assemblies were organised at the kahnaqah once a week for his selected group of disciples, where they enjoyed the ecstatic drinks of the God’s divine love. He would address the public in daily Darbar-e-Aam, or ‘general assemblies’ held at Gulabi Dalan. Spiritual discussions and sharing of experiences among his disciples were held at Sandali Dalan in ‘Majlis-e-Khaas’, or ’special assemblies’.

Maulana sahib was known for his generosity and the langar food was cooked in his khanaqah kitchen for distribution among the guests, resident murids and hungry people. Today, as one enters the majestic gateway called the buland darwaza, a huge cauldron can be seen which is similar to the pair inside Ajmer Sharif. It is still used to cook for langar in the annual Urs ceremony of Maulana Saheb.

DSC_0142 ( The dome over the grave of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, Jaipur )

The small mosque inside the complex is exquisitely decorated with mother-of-pearl inlays of floral designs. Built in 1798 in Mughal style, its holy mihrab is at the centre of five bays in perfect symmetry, in the sawal-jawab architecture. Even the marble on the floor once mirrored the floral designs on its roof, but now has been replaced with plain marble during restoration. The whole structure with its monochromatic fine design is a photographer’s delight. The mausoleum was constructed in 1929 by Nawab Fayyaz-ud-Daula, the Wazir of Jaipur.

DSC_0185 ( The mosque at Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, Jaipur )

During his lifetime, Maulana Sahib constructed more than twenty mosques throughout Jaipur as well as the first madarsa of the city known as Madrasa Zia-ul-Islam.  The school continued to remain quite popular till Independence and even had few Chinese students.

There is a popular incident depicting the humility and hospitality of Maulana Sahib. One day, a man called Turab Ali Shah came to his khanaqah and started to interrupt and talk disrespectfully to him. The disciples were shocked with the visitor’s violent words and tried to restrain him, but Maulana sahib asked them to allow him to speak everything that he wanted to say. When the assembly was finished and the visitor stopped his outbursts, Maulana Sahib presented him with a plateful of sweets and said that he acknowledged all of his shortcomings. He told Turab Ali that he was aware of his own deficiencies and it was only a part of his defects that he had said in the assembly in front of all his disciples. He thanked him, invited him for future meetings while maintaining that he was even worse than all the criticism the visitor had shared of him.

DSC_0279( Floral details on the Buland Darwaza at Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, Jaipur )

Turab Ali was blown away by the humility in the words of Maulana Sahib and instantly tendered his apology. Once he was gone, Maulana Sahib told his disciples that all visitors to this place were sent by the God and therefore each of them commanded respect and hospitality. No visitor, he told, must go back from this house of a faqeer with empty hands or with a broken heart.

Syed Ziauddin Ziai – Janasheen at the Dargah beautifully summarizes the universal spiritual appeal and ever increasing popularity of the shrine. “His Urs ceremony is organised every year on 24th Zi Qada at Bagh-e-Subha-Sadiq, where his Dargah is situated today. The Urs Celebration includes Quran Khwani, Milad Sharif, Mushaira, Mehfil-e-Sama and ends with Fateha Qul Sharif on 25th Zi Qada.


Sufis from different parts of the country including several thousand devotees visit the Dargah irrespective of caste, creed and culture with their deep love and respect at the Holy Grave of Maulana Sahab. Till now, two centuries have passed but the numbers of the lovers and visitors of Dargah of Maulalan Sahib Rh are ever increasing. Even today people from different places could be seen visiting the mausoleum of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Rh, where the seekers of spirituality receive peace and the sufferers of the worldly troubles get a hope of surety for the remedy of their problems. Whoever comes to the holy shrine of Maulana Sahib Rh at least once never left without feeling love and attractive peace. This is the reason that the people of Jaipur and from rest of India, come to visit the holy shrine, being his staunch devotees.”

o2 ( Shooting up from simple flower vases, the plants cluster inside framed panels, on the mosque wall in Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib’s shrine in Jaipur )

DSC_0275 ( Ceiling of the Buland Darwaza at Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahib, Jaipur )



Shaykh Salim Chishti

Shaykh Salim Chishti (d.1572) of Sikri near Agra was one of the later saints in whose house Jahangir was born. The Chishti movement had been forced south by Muhammad bun Tughlaq and Chishti khanaqahs virtually disappeared in the north for almost 200 years. Then in the late 18th century, it had an indigenous revival by Khwajah Nur Muhammad Qiblah-i-‘Alam who was of Rajput origin.

j0 ( The marble-clad dargah of Shaykh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri )

At the peak of his power, Akbar was still impatient for a male heir to the Mughal empire and he sought the blessings of a Chishti saint living in the non-descript village in a rocky barren land, called Sikri. The saint blessed him that he would have three sons and just a year after – in 1569 – his first son was born. The grateful emperor named him as Salim (later titled Jahangir) as a tribute to the Sufi saint Sheykh Salim Chishti. Prince Salim was brought up by the daughter of Sheykh Salim Chisthi, his wet-nurse.

j0-1 ( White in Black: dargah of Shaykh Salim Chishti at night )

He even built a whole new capital city at Sikri and called it Fatehpur Sikri, or the ‘Sikri-the City of Victory’ after he conquered Gujarat. Built between 1571 and 1585, it became the first planned city built by the Mughals. In the city that he built in reverence to a Sufi dervish, Akbar created a unique new faith called Din-i-llahi or the Divine Faith, by combining the religious teachings of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. It was indeed a Sufiana way to look at religion.

j14 ( Pillar Shaft shooting up from a vase of flowers )

Intricate marble screens based on arabesque patterns of polygonal design are the highlights of this beautiful Dargah. Repeated geometric patterns represent a theme without beginning or end – to represent ‘infinity’, a metaphor of spiritual significance. Variety is often introduced by introducing complex geometric patterns in this saracenic art form. All the tomb facades use different patterns and serpentine brackets adorn its pillar tops.

j13 ( Entrance to dargah of Shaykh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri )

The tomb situated within a large courtyard is Akbar’s tribute to the Chisthi saint. On the west side of the courtyard stands the Jama Masjid. A grand entrance way – the buland darwaza- on the north is reached by a flight of 42 stairs. The badshahi darwaza on its east is the closest to Fatehpur Sikri palace compound, and was used by the emperor to enter the mosque and dargah. The vast courtyard measuring 110 x 130mt was planned as an open-air prayer place.




j1 ( Intricate geometric patterns in the marble screens: dargah of Shaykh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri )

j15 ( Ornately Carved Serpentine brackets dargah of Shaykh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri )



Side note#1: Fatehpur Sikri –A City for a Dervish

Though it resembles a ghost-city now, it is not difficult to imagine it populated with the royal life, with people from every walk of life assembled at the great imperial engine house that ran Mughal India. Calligraphers, musicians, poets, scribes, architects, generals, scholars, holy men, artists, merchants, visitors from faraway lands, translators, scribes, painters, economists – all of them and more, mingling and blending together, while their patron emperor discussed with his ministers and ‘navratnas’ the innovations in governance, taxation, religious practices, arts and foreign affairs.

anoop talao

(Anoop Talao, at Fatehpur Sikri)

The nine elite connoisseurs called the navratnas assembled by Akbar to run his administration were  chronicler Abul Fazl; poet Faizi; singer Tansen; jester Birbal; economist Raja Todar Mal; Raja Man Singh of Amber; poet, linguist and general Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khan; advisors Mullah do Piaza and Fakir Azia-ud-din.

Today, we can only presume the way of life around these half-broken skeletal buildings, by theorizing the intended use of some of them.

Diwan-i-Aam: Akbar would sit in this graceful pavilion surrounded by 111 colonnaded bays every morning for three hours where he dispensed justice and addressed the gathering in the large courtyard. Tethered to ground were state elephants, used to crush the condemned persons to death.

diwan-i-aam( Diwan-I-Aam at Fetpur Sikri )

Diwan-i-Khas: With a faux-double storey facade and topped with marble cupolas, the hall for private audience has a dramatic setting inside for the emperor and his ministers to sit. Inside the Diwan-i -Khas, sat the throne of Akbar the great on a central pillar with 36 serpentine brackets. His ministers were seated around him in the four corners reached via passages with impressive balustrades.

diwani-i-khas( Diwan-i-Khas at Fathepur Sikri )

throne( The dramatic interiors of Diwan-i-Khas, at Fatehpur Sikri )

Anoop Talao, or the ‘incomparable pool’ is a square tank measuring 30m on each side, with a central pavilion-island reached by four causeways supported on short pillars. As per Abul Fazl, the pool was once filled with gold, silver and copper coins in April 1578 for charity.

Khwab-gah, or the Chamber of Dreams, once decorated richly with mural paintings, housed the emperor’s sleeping quarters, a library stocked with 25000 books, dining hall as well as a window for Jharokha darshan.

khwab-gah( Khwab-gah or the Chamber of Dreams at Fatehpur Sikri )

Paanch Mahal: also known as Badgir or Wind-Catcher: A five-storeyed structure, with 84 pillars in its ground floor, 56 in first floor, 20 in second floor, 12 in third and 4 in its fourth floor. The size decreases as it rises to its apex of a chhatri surmounting the top floor barricaded by a latticed balustrade. It was designed perhaps for the emperor as well as the royal women as a viewing gallery and to catch the higher wind, or to enjoy a moon-lit evening.

panch mahal( Paanch Mahal, known as Badgir or Wind-Catcher at Fatehpur Sikri )

Chaupar Courtyard: The marking of two intersecting arms divided into squares can be seen on the floor of central courtyard for playing the game of Chaupar, or Chaupad which is a variant of Pachisi (twenty-fiver) from which Ludo is derived.  Akbar was very fond of this ancient dice game that finds mention as early as in the Mahabharata and his pawns were slave women from the harem.

DSC_0040 ( A courtyard for playing Chaupar at Fatehpur Sikri )

The Harem-Sara consisted of palaces surrounding a huge courtyard. Prominent among them are Jodha Bai’s palace and Maryam ki kothi, used by his mother. Jodha Bai’s palace is a misnomer since it housed the living quarters of all the queens, and not just hers. The double-storied entrance to the Harem-Sara, or the Imperial Women’s Wing is accentuated by chhatris, chajjas and jharokhas. The entire complex was guarded by eunuchs.


entrance to Jodha Bai palace ( Entrance to Jodha Bai Palace, at Fatehpur Sikri )

DSC_0060 ( Harem-Sara at Fatehpur Sikri )

DSC_0057 ( Jodha Bai’s temple at Fatehpur Sikri )

A private temple for Jodha Bai, said to be Akbar’s Hindu wife, with hanging garland designs on the pillars is in the same area. Another interesting feature is a structure popularly known as Jodha Bai’s kitchen, which has bands of jhumka drops or ear-ring like designs on its richly carved walls.

DSC_0050 ( Jhumka-drop designs on the richly carved walls of Jodha Bai’s kitchen, at Fatehpur Sikri )


My sincere thanks to ‘Times Passion Trails’ for organizing this unique spiritual Sufi trail led by author Sadia Dehlvi and including me as one of the participants.

Thanks for their invaluable inputs and interactions: Sadia Dehlvi – author, Haji Syed Salman Chishty – Gaddi Nashin at Dargah Ajmer Sharif, Farid Ahmed Nizami – Gaddi Nashin at Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, Syed Ziauddin Ziai – Janasheen of Dargah Maulana Ziauddin Sahab – Jaipur, Qamar Dagar – Pictorial Calligrapher, Dhruv Sangari – Sufi Singer.

Thanks to Sanjay Lal, Jatin Kapoor, Jamal Ayub of Times of India and  Manoj from for the seamless organization  and to all fellow participants for the lively and lovely company as an extended Sufi family. My gratitude to Syed Ziauddin Ziai for sharing his published articles as referenced below, as well as to fellow participant and talented painter Bindal Shah for sharing her beautiful Sufi-themed paintings.



12434343_10153784956573682_1478502171_n  ( Paintings by fellow Sufi seeker and painter Bindal Shah. Contact at for more Sufi themed artwork)



  1. The Sufi Courtyard, Dargahs of Delhi, by Sadia Dehlvi, 2011, New Delhi
  2. The Essence of Sufism, by John Baldock, 2004, London
  3. Sufism, Heart of Islam, by Sadia Dehlvi, 2009, New Delhi
  4. Fatehpur Sikri, DK Eyewitness Travel – The Monuments Series, 2008, New Delhi
  5. Early Sufis and their Sufism, by Prof. A.M.A. Shushtery, 2009, New Delhi
  6. The Best of Speaking Tree: A Sufi Selection; The Times Group, 2015, New Delhi (launched on 17th Nov 2015 on the eve of the Sufi Trail)
  7. Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahab (Tarikh ke Aaine mein), by Syed Ziauddin Ziai, Janasheen of Dargah Sharif at Dargah Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Sahab Rh Fakhri Nizami Chishti. Jaipur
  8. Aina-e-Ziai: A Short Biography of Hazrat Maulana Ziauddin Rh, by Syed Ziauddin Ziai, Janasheen of Dargah Sharif
  9. Mehrauli Village, by INTACH Delhi Chapter and World Monuments Fund
  10. A Guide to Nizamu-d Din, by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, Memoirs of Archaeological Survey of India, 1922 (Reprinted 1998), New Delhi.






A Breath of French Air for the Blind Emperor of Delhi


Where with right pomp the stately domes arise: In yon dark tower an aged monarch lies,

Forlorn, dejected, blind, replete with woes: In tears his venerable aspect shews;

As through the lonely courts I bent my way: Sounds struck my ear, which said, or seemed to say…,


“Lo, the dire tempest gathering from afar: In dreadful clouds has dimmed the imperial star;

Has to the winds and broad expanse of heaven: My state, my royalty and kingdom given;

Time was, O king, when clothed in power supreme: Thy voice was heard and nations hailed the theme;

Now sad reverse, for sordid lust of gold: By traitorous wiles, thy throne and empire sold.”

(Beginning of a poem written by Shah Alam after the loss of his sight, Ref.3, the first three lines were added by Francklin in 1798)


The town of Najibabad lies some 200 kilometres from Delhi in the district of Bijnor and it is the last town in the plains before the hills of Garhwal start. Known as the Gateway to the Himalayas, the only significance of this small dusty town today is its vicinity to the quiet hill station of Lansdowne and the town of Kotdwara, famous for Sidhbali temple and Kanva-ashram. This was the location of the hermitage of the sage Kanva, who lived there with his adopted daughter Shakuntala and her son Bharata, after whom India is named as Bharat.

(*For the mythological story of Bharata, please see Sidenote#2.)

However, Najibabad’s strong relevance to the Mughal Empire is often forgotten. Najibabad was established by the Rohilla warrior Najib Khan, or Najib-ud-Daulah, in the 1750s. He later became the governor and effective ruler of the Mughal Empire, succeeding the famed Safdarjung of Oudh. At the height of his prosperity, he built Najibabad as his new capital, replete with a Jama Masjid, a mansion known as the Rohilla Palace. He also built a strong fort there, called Pathar-garh, which is now popularly known as Sultana Daku ka Qila (Bandit King’s Fort), so named after a Robin Hood styled dacoit of the early 20th century. Najibabad has three historic monuments that are mostly in a dilapidated condition and off the popular heritage routes. They are the Pathargarh Fort, baradari and the cemetery complex of Najib-ud-Daulah.

(*For the monuments of Najibabad, please see Sidenote#1.)

Najib-ud-Daulah: Governing Delhi with Blessings from Kabul

After his decisive victory at Panipat in 1761, where he heavily slaughtered the Marathas, the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali visited that city. Dressed in a glittering robe adorned with the Koh-i-Noor diamond itself, he decided to enter Delhi, the heart of Hindustan. In Delhi, unleashing terror and plundering beyond imagination, he and his family lived in the very palace chambers that were once the abode of Shah Jahan. They even began to conduct their affairs from the blessed Diwan-i-khas.


(An Ethiopian architect was employed to design the grand mausoleum. Safdarjung Tomb, Delhi)

Three months later, Abdali imposed an annual entitlement of forty lakh rupees (lakh is the equivalent of 100,000) due to him from the government in Delhi and decided to return to Kabul. His parting instruction was to declare Shah Alam II as the emperor, Najib-ud-Daulah as the Mir Bakshi (Chief of Army) and Imad-ud-Daula as the Wazir (Prime Minister). Soon, Najib-ud-Daulah became the unofficial suzerain of Delhi ‑ a figurehead position that represented a combination of the Army Chief, the Governor (faujdar) and the regent (Mukhtar). His son Zabita Khan was employed in the city administration. Historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes, “In the whole city, Najib’s men were installed in the offices of tax collection, control of the grain market, etc. His agent was posted at the gate of the palace-fort as its commandant. He also employed his brother Afzal and his son Zabita Khan in governing the city.” Najib-ud-Daulah was well on his way to controlling the entire city, both directly and indirectly.

From 1761 till 1772, when Shah Alam came back to Delhi, the Mughal Empire was virtually run by Najib-ud-Daulah. In Delhi, he lived in his official residence at Safdarjung’s mansion (which was once Dara Shikoh’s residence), while Imad ruled the city as the Grand Wazir – mightier than the emperor himself. The two would often ride together, sitting on the same elephant to roam around the city streets and presenting a powerful, united front.


(The profusely decorated plastered and painted ceiling of the central chamber, Safdarjung Tomb)

Until 1770, Najib energetically and enthusiastically vanquished all enemies and adversaries – be it liquidating the Jat army and its leader Suraj Mal, or safeguarding the city against the waves of Sikh armies, or flattening the villages that refused to pay tribute to his royalty. Beginning as a poor, illiterate migrant,  who came as a grown man with a son and finding employment as a foot-soldier and then ascending to be the most powerful governor of Delhi, the rise of Najib-ud-Daulah was miraculous. His determination, as well as his military and administrative acumen, had no equal except perhaps that of his Afghan master, Ahmad Shah Abdali.


Shah Alam II: An Emperor without a Seat

The eldest son of Mughal Emperor Alamgir II was Mirza Abdullah, better known in history by his titles of Ali Gauhar and Shah Alam II. For more than twelve years – while Delhi was under the administration of Abdali’s nominees – the unfortunate prince Shah Alam wandered from place to place as a rootless vagabond from 1759 until 1772, when he finally returned to recover his capital. In those twelve years, it appeared as though the Mughal Empire established by Babur had finally disintegrated and the Afghans would soon re-establish themselves at Delhi, whose rule had been seemingly interrupted by the fall of Lodi dynasty.

The young prince Shah Alam was described by the French commander Jean Law, as, “The Shahzada passed for one of those who had the best education and who have most profited by it.. He is familiar with the Arabic, Persian, Turki and Hindustani languages. He loves reading and never passes a day without employing some hours in it…He is of an inquiring mind, naturally gay and free in his private society, where he frequently admits his principal military officers in whom he has confidence.”


(Decorated ceiling of a side chamber. The architecture of Safdarjung’s Tomb is said to be ‘The last flicker of the dying lamp of Mughal architecture.’)

Going to the neighbouring provinces, one by one to seek support, Shah Alam contacted Najib-ud-Daulah, Shujaa-ud-Daulah – son of Safdarjung and the Nawab of Oudh at Lucknow and Mohammad Kuli Khan – the Nawab of Allahabad. He was attempting to strengthen his own claim of power by receiving the promise of backup from the men who were already unquestionably powerful.

During this period, the prince Shah Alam got married to Mubarak Mahal. His efforts to seek support from the powerful men like Najib-ud-Daulah unfortunately did not bear any fruit, as Najib did not want to risk his own position in Delhi by supporting the struggling prince. Fortunately, Shujaa-ud-Daulah and Mohammad Kuli Khan did offer their support. Shah Alam would have help in his efforts to regain his power.

Shujaa-ud-Daulah was described by Jean Law, the French Commander, as, “Shuja is the most handsome person that I have seen in India. He towers over the wazir by his figure, -the latter being small, – and I believe also by the qualities of his heart, but he has to yield to him in all that relates to the spirit. He is occupied in nothing but pleasures, hunting and the most violent exercises.” As per an English observer, “His harem was filled with wives and concubines, to the number, it is said, of eight hundred, from whom were born to him fifty children.”

Shuja’s Grand Edifice 

In Delhi, Shuja-ud-Daulah erected a grand mausoleum for his father known as Safdarjung’s Tomb. Safdarjung died in 1754 in Faizabad, but his body was brought to Delhi for burial. Today an airport, a hospital, a road and residential enclaves all commemorate the name of the great man, a sort of widespread memorial that can be attributed to the stunning edifice built by his son. The majestic grand tomb stands at the centre of a Persian chahar-bagh styled Mughal garden divided into four squares.


(Safdarjung Tomb stands on a raised platform in the middle of a Chahar-Bagh patterned garden, with a number of cells beneath the platform.)


(Details of ornamental painted net-vaulting under the entrance arch, done in purple on the gateway ceiling, at Safdarjung Tomb)

The garden is entered through an exquisitely painted double storey multi-cusped arched gateway on its eastern wall. A well-proportioned striped mosque sits on the same wall to the right of the entrance way.

Created and commissioned by Shuja-ud-Daulah, the monument is  often considered the last of the great Mughal mausoleums in classical architectural rendering. Designed by an Ethiopian architect, its highlights are ‘a Persian Chahar-Bagh garden (often abbreviated as char-bagh, Chahar in Persian means Four) with the mausoleum in the centre, a ninefold floor plan, a fivefold façade and a large podium with a hidden staircase.’ It stands on a raised platform with a series of arched cells sunken below.


(The ornamental painted ceiling of eastern gateway, Safdar Jung Tomb complex)

The ninefold plan is based on the famous Persian ‘Hasht Bihist’ (Eight Paradise) architectural concept used in mausoleums, such as in Humayun’s Tomb, as well as in the Taj Mahal. Here, a central octagonal domed hall is surrounded by eight chambers. Four square rooms are placed in its cardinal directions in the shape of a (+) while the four octagonal rooms are in its cross-axial diagonal directions in the shape of a (x). These eight rooms surrounding the central chamber of the mausoleum are the eight Heavens, or the hasht Bihist.

The pishtaqs (huge arched niches in rectangular frames) on its four facades are framed by two free standing guldastas (flower-vases). A row of nine small marble cupolas fills the space between the two guldastas, closing the central facade and hiding the drum’s neck. The tomb is surmounted with a somewhat out-of-proportion bulbous marble dome sitting on a sixteen-sided drum. Beautiful polygonal towers in red sandstone and white marble stand at the four corners of the tomb and are topped with chhatris, that are opened with a pillared gallery. The base of each chhatri is surrounded by a low balustrade filled with a stone-screen, or jali.


(The structure is said to be planned with Rococo, or ‘late Baroque’ style that uses asymmetrical designs. Safdarjung Tomb)

The duality of colour-scheme is quite evident here. Precious white marble is reserved for the central dome, that represents the extension of the celestial heaven under which the cenotaph lies. White colour signifies purity in architecture and its use in the dome makes it the central feature of the monument. The rest of the structure is designed in both red sandstone and white marble, to break the monotony and accentuate its lines. The terrace is marked by floral crenelations of standing-bud design in between the four corner minarets.

The cenotaph of Safdarjung lies under the beautiful, intricately designed vaulted roof of the central chamber. The ceilings of the central vault and the half-vaults outside are decorated with qalib kari, or mould work: so named because the pattern was pressed into wet plaster. The cenotaph stands atop a stepped plinth, with beautiful curled-back flowing motifs radiating down from large leaves in its bottom-most tier. The top level is similarly designed with overlapping curled-up leaves flowing up in the opposite direction. The north side of the cenotaph is lavishly decorated by a peculiar projecting ‘head rest’ draped in a symmetrical foliage motif.



(The graves of Safdar Jung and his wife are in an underground chamber of the mausoleum)

A subterranean chamber below the cenotaph contains the actual tombs of Safdarjung and most probably, his wife. The access to the lower cenotaphs is blocked to visitors. As per Islamic burial practice, the cenotaph is laid with north-south alignment, with the head  to the north and the face turned towards the west, which is the direction to Mecca. This is as per the belief that when the Trumpet will be blown on the ‘Day of Last Judgement’, they can rise in the correct position.


(The cenotaph in the upper central chamber.)

It is said that the marble and red sandstone used in the tomb were sourced by stripping the material from the tomb of Abdu’r Rahim Khan-i-Khanan. He was one of the ‘Navaratnas’ or ‘Nine Jewels’ in Akbar’s court and was a great general, statesman and scholar who had translated the Baburnama into Persian. His now-bald tomb lies at the far end of the Lodi Road near Humayun’s tomb and is currently under restoration. One explanation for this use of materials that were already in use elsewhere is that Shuja-ud-Daulah was making an effort to save costs in a rapidly depleting empire.



When the British Truncated the Mughal Empire

In 1759, the East India Company of Calcutta was beginning to unfurl its political colours in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Later that year, the prince determined he would wrench the Mughal Empire from the clutches of the British traders of Calcutta, attempting to salvage what was left of it. With the support of Shujaa and Kuli Khan, he set out on a military expedition to Bihar, the eastern theatre of action.

While on the march, news of his father Alamgir II’s demise reached him. The old man was tricked by his Wazir Imad, who claimed that a dervish had arrived at Delhi from Lahore and was residing at Firuz Shah Kotla and the emperor visited him to seek his blessings and experience his miracles. At the old Kotla, the emperor was carefully allowed to enter with only one slave and once inside, he was stabbed to death and his corpse was thrown down the fort onto the banks of Yamuna. News spread that he had fallen to his death accidentally, just as Humayun fell two centuries earlier. The prince immediately declared himself the next Mughal Emperor, under the new name of Shah Alam, “sovereign of the known world.“ He announced Najib-ud-Daulah as the Chief of Army and Shujaa as his Grand Vazir.

In Bihar, Shah Alam received the support of French military commander Chevalier Jean Law and his French troops and together they moved on to counter the Anglo-Bengali army led by Captain Knox, under the direct supervision of Lord Clive.

The Imperial Army was thoroughly routed by the British. Shah Alam had to retreat back from Bihar, ultimately being forced to camp in Oudh. Shah Alam led three attacks on Bihar – in 1759, 1760 and 1761 – and each time he had to face defeat at the hands of the well-organised British forces. In the meantime,  Mir Kasim succeeded Mir Jafar at Calcutta in 1760. However, Mir Kasim soon fell out of favour with the British.

In 1763, a Franco-German, called Walter Reinhardt entered the scene quite dramatically. Reinhardt was the son of a stone worker from the small village of Silbertal in the Montaufon valley of western Austria near the Swiss Alps. He later moved to Treves near Luxemburg. Reinhardt came to India as a sailor in the French Navy. He later left the French to join the British Navy and then returned back to the French Navy under Chevalier Law. Reinhardt eventually deserted Chevalier Law to work with Mir Kasim, alongside his Armenian General Gregory, or Gurjin Khan.


(The dome of Najib-ud-Daulah’s dargah, Najibabad)

In the Mir Kasim-British rivalry, Reinhardt butchered the British resident and his followers at Patna; after this battle, both Mir Kasim and Reinhardt fled and took shelter with the Nawab of Oudh, Shujaa-ud-Daulah. The British, of course, struck back; in the battle of Buxar in 1764, they defeated the combined forces of the two Nawabs: Shujaa-ud-Daulah and Mir Kasim. The massive victory left the British too pleased with themselves and full of gratitude. On 16th August 1765, the ‘treaty of Allahabad’ was firmed up between the British and Shah Alam to legitimize their victory: Shah Alam was allocated the districts of Allahbad and Kora as a British pensioner, receiving a little more than two lakh rupees as monthly pension (twenty six lakh rupees annually) and remaining under British protection. Shuja-ud-Daulah was allowed to retain Oudh except Allahabad and Kora, with the condition that he payed fifty-three lakh rupees to the British as war indemnity. The British benefitted because they were now legally authorized to directly collect revenue from Bihar, Orissa and Bengal, increasing the legitimacy of their power.

Delhi Calling: Return of an Emperor

Seven years after pulverizing the Marathas, the Afghan invader Abdali came back to India in 1767 to salvage his nominee Najib-ud-Daulah’s position, as well as to crush the attacking waves of Sikh armies. That was the last time he visited Hindustan. Soon after, the Marathas made up their mind to avenge their loss. Under the command of Mahdoji Sindia, they crossed over the Chambal, laid siege to Jaipur and Bharatpur and issued threats to Delhi. By 1770, the whole of the Upper and Central Doab regions were under control of the Marathas. The very next year, they stormed into Delhi and occupied the entire city, including the palace fortress.


(Graves of three Mughal Emperors, still a space for the fourth, at Zafar Mahal, Mehrauli: 1. Grave of Akbar Shah II, 2: Shah Alam II; 3: Empty Space that was reserved for the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar; 4: Grave of Alam Bahadur Shah-I; The grave of Mirza Fakhru- the heir apparent of Mughal empire who died a year before the 1857 uprising – lies next to no.4 and is not in the picture frame)

Shah Alam always nurtured the hope of returning to his ancestral capital of Delhi. Although this dream was acknowledged and eventually promised by Lord Clive for more than five years, it never came to fruition. With the Marathas in place as the new masters of Delhi, Shah Alam’s natural desire to return to Delhi was re-kindled and he began negotiations with them, working to have Delhi restored to him. On 15th February 1771, after a long negotiation between Yakub Ali and Ramchandra Ganesh, the following four points were agreed upon:

  1. The Marathas would escort the Emperor from Allahabad to Delhi within two months and vacate the palace on his arrival;
  2. Shah Alam would cede Karra (Jahanabad) and Kora to the Marathas, or its equivalent territory near Delhi;
  3. Meerut and seven other mahals (estates) would be granted to the Marathas;
  4. Shah Alam would pay forty lakh rupees to the Marathas in the following form: Ten lakh rupees in cash in twenty days, Mahals worth of fifteen lakh rupees after Shah Alam is escorted back to Delhi and the remaining fifteen lakh rupees to be cleared in seven months’ time.

On 25th December 1771, Shah Alam finally entered Shahdara and paraded in a short procession to the new Delhi of Shahjahanabad. He must have felt extremely elated that day–sitting on his elephant, looking down at the happy faces of citizens lined up on the streets to welcome him and to show their loyalty to the Mughal Emperor. It was something he had worked for and dreamed of for years and it was finally here.


(Here sleeps Shah Alam II: son of emperor Alamgir II and Lal Kunwar, a.k.a Zinat Mahal. Died on 19th Novemeber 1806. At Mehrauli)

Mighty Marathas: Successors to the Mughals?

After barely three weeks, the Marathas pressed the Emperor to lead a 90,000-strong military expedition to Shahranpur and Muzaffarnagar to punish the devious Zabita Khan, son of Najib-ud-Daulah. After his father’s death, Zabita Khan had stopped paying his tributes and had fallen out of royal favour. Shah Alam tried to excuse himself by pretending to be ill, but to no avail. Zabita Khan fled the scene, leaving his family, including his eldest son, Ghulam Qadir Khan, to fall into the hands of the Mughal army and endure the maltreatment suffered commonly by fallen royalty. Little did anyone know that the same Ghulam Qadir Khan would lounge in the Diwan-I-Khas in Delhi someday (July to October 1788, to be exact) to incite mayhem in the city and extract a most unrestrained and savage retribution on Shah Alam himself.


(The small marble enclosure with lattice screens of the royal graves in Zafar Mahal, adjoining the Moti Masjid in Mehrauli. The Moti Masjid with three white domes crowned with marble finials is in the background.)

The royal forces captured all the forts of Shahranpur, as well as the Pathargarh fort at Najibabad, except the Ghausgarh fort where Zabita Khan’s family resided. Vast sums of money and treasure were seized by the Marathas from the Rohilla fiefdom.

The fall of the Rohilla fiefdom was now complete, as recorded in the passage below:

“..he (Zabita Khan) found himself possessed of nothing except the clothes he stood in. All his property and treasure, all his wives and sons had been left behind in Ghausgarh and all these passed into the hands of imperialists in the course of a week. The destitute Ruhila chief and his vanquished Sikh allies fled fast from Doab and retired to [the] Sikh settlement in Karnal…To cement their alliance Zabita made a public profession of [the] Sikh religion, being baptized as Dharam Singh. To such a depth had fallen the heir of the champion who held aloft the banner of Islam in Northern India for thirteen years.” (“Fall of the Mughal Empire,” Vol III, by Sir Jadunath Sarkar).


(A marble headstone once stood here, – believed to be destroyed in 1947 riots-, bearing the inscription as, “He is the forgiver and pardoner. And may God make paradise his residence. The year 1221. He is merciful. (1) Alas, the sun of the zenith of the royal dignity has been concealed below the earth by the gloom of the eclipse of death, (2) That is to say, Shah Alam, the protector of the world, departed from the world to the pleasure-ground of paradise, (3) O Sayyid, my miracle working pen has written a verse, each line of which is a chronogram thereof, (4) He was a sun on the face of the earth before this event. Alas, that the sun is buried under the earth. The scribe Mir Kallan. The year 1221.” ( 1221 A.H. is 1806 A.D., the year of Shah Alam’s death.)

Within the vast Doab territories of Zabita Khan that fell into the hands of the Mughal-Maratha army was Sardhana, for which Samru received a sanad from the emperor in 1776. Samru, or Reinhardt, is a name that we will encounter shortly in far more detail.

However, soon after, Zabita Khan reached an agreement with the Marathas in exchange of huge money. This followed a fierce encounter near Shahranpur between the forces of Najaf Khan and Zabita Khan in 1777. On 30th January 1779,  Shah Alam pardoned Zabita, restored his rule in Shahranpur district and was assigned to the exalted Amir-ul-Umrah’s office in the royal court, which his father had occupied before him. He enjoyed peace for the last few years of his life and died in 1785. His tomb is situated in the dargah of Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli.


(The graves of Zabita Khan and his wife, in the blessed courtyard of Khwaja Qudbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah in Mehrauli, opposite the Majlis Khana and near the grave complex of Nawabs of Loharu. A marble low balustrade once surrounded both the graves. Most of the graves in the compound are believed to have been vandalized during 1947 riots.)

After the death of Zabita Khan, his son, Ghulam Qadir Khan, took up his mantle. Scindia’s army was raised by the French Commander Benoit de Boigne, whose General was the Maratha Appu Khandi Rao. De Boigne was a regular in the French army, but upon reaching India, he deserted the French and joined the British EIC in the Madras 6th NI. Soon after, he deserted the British as well and joined Scindia with the task of enlisting officers from other European countries into the army. In 1787, Scindia’s army faced an onslaught of attacks by a combined army, including the Rajput kings of Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur and the forces of Ghulam Qadir Khan. Scindia had to retreat to Gwalior and, taking advantage of the Maratha vacuum in North India, Ghulam Qadir Khan occupied Delhi as well as the palace. The Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, was helpless until aid arrived from Begum Samru and her European Army, who drove away the Rohilla intruders.


(Zabita Khan was the son of Najib-ud-Daulah and was the father of Ghulam Qadir Khan who blinded Shah Alam II. Zabita Khan was the Umara/Chief of nobles and was driven out by Shah Alam II when he returned to Delhi from Allahabad, but was re-instated on the advice of Marathas.)

At this time, the Marathas entered into a form of compromise with Ghulam Qadir Khan and the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam was forced to reinstate Khan under the influence of the Marathas. In the Diwan-I-Khas, Shah Alam placed a jewelled fillet, called Dastur-u-Goshwara, on Ghulam Qadir’s head.

The Crime and Punishment of Ghulam Qadir Khan

Perhaps eager to avenge the insult that he had faced as Zabita Khan’s son, Ghulam Qadir Khan set out to Delhi in 1788 with his aide, Ismail Beg and captured the defenceless city easily. The long-awaited reinforcements from Begum Samroo and Scindia were still too far from the city. Emperor Shah Alam had no option but to bestow the invader with the gift of a richly jewelled shield in the hallowed hall of Diwan-I-Aam.



(Details of the adjoining grave, belonging to Zabita Khan’s wife. Fanshawe however quote the dargah’s caretakers stressing that the adjoining grave belongs to his son Ghulam Qadir Khan and not his wife.)

Ghulam Qadir Khan was subdued for several days and then he shifted his residence to the inside of the palace fortress itself and demanded that Shah Alam provide him with money so that he could drive out the Marathas.

The royal treasurer, Lal Sital Dass, was consulted and advised the emperor that the royal treasury could not be spent on an outsider’s war that was of no significance to the Kingdom.

During this time, Ghulam Qadir Khan proposed an alliance to Begum Samru, promising a share of the treasure in the Mughal palace, but the lady rejected his tempting offer. Qadir Khan, unable to secure Begum’s support, ordered the emperor to immediately remove Begum Samru. But, Shah Alam, emboldened with Begum’s rebuttal to the Rohilla, ignored his demand.


(The grand eastern entrance to the tomb of Safdar Jung – the Prime Minister of Mughal emperor Ahmed Shah)

Ghulam Qadir Khan was becoming restless to acquire the supposedly hidden treasures in the palace and put Shah Alam and his family under house arrest without food for three days; he then declared Bedar Bakht the Mughal Emperor, while the emperor was confined in the Salimgarh prison.

Towards the end of July and the beginning of August, Ghulam Qadir lounged on the royal throne along with Bedar Bakht, spewing insults and abuses at him and torturing Shah Alam and the royal ladies of Imtiaz Mahal. His mind was preoccupied with the search for the palace’s hidden treasures and he directed that the floors be dug up and the silver plating melted, while his aide, Ismail Beg, began a systematic plunder of the city’s bankers and wealthy citizens.

82(The three domed mosque with distinctive stripes on the right of Safdur Jung tomb’s main gateway)

The incident on the tenth of August, 1788 was perhaps the defining moment when a Mughal Emperor was stripped of his power so ruthlessly and publicly, apart from that which faced Bahadur Shah Zafar some 70 years later in 1857 in the same palace. That day, Ghulam Qadir sat as usual on the royal throne in Diwan-i-Khas and ordered Shah Alam to be brought before him from his confinement in the Salimgarh prison. Once again, he interrogated Shah Alam about the hidden treasures and once again, the hapless emperor communicated truthfully his inability to produce it. Ghulam Qadir then ordered the emperor’s family members to be tortured in front of him. As Shah Alam cried out in protest, Ghulam Qadir sprung off the throne onto the bosom of the fallen emperor and, with a quick stroke of his dagger, put out his eyes.

Seven days later, the first advance squads of the Maratha Army appeared in Delhi’s neighbourhoods. The Maratha build-up carried on slowly, stretching till the last day of Muharram on the eleventh of October, when the city was engaged in the festivities. That was the day when the French Commander Lestonneaux pounced upon the palace fortress with his ferocious Telinga Battalion. First, the powder magazine was blown up by the Franco-Maratha army and, faced with the imminent capture of the city, Ghulam Qadir Khan set the palace ablaze and escaped on a solitary elephant with all of the treasure he had plundered. The Marathas doused the fire, restored Shah Alam to his rightful throne and planned the capture of Ghulam Qadir Khan.


( Poem written by Shah Alam after losing his sight, in Persian, Ref 3)

Khan took shelter in the Meerut Fort, but the Maratha army soon confronted him. On the twenty-first of December, Ghulam Qadir Khan quietly loaded all his plunder onto a horse and decamped. However, not long after setting out on the treacherous route, the horse died and the Rohilla was caught by villagers and brought before the Maratha general, Rana Khan.

Scindia ordered an excruciating and grotesque death for Ghulam Qadir: in the city of Mathura, he was seated on a donkey facing its tail and was led from house to house to ask for a cowree from each. However, he soon became irritated and abusive, at which point, his tongue was cut out. His ears, nose and eyes were also removed and were sent to Shah Alam in Delhi in a casket, in a literal “eye for an eye” expression of revenge.



(The highlights of Safdar Jung Tomb are: a Persian Chaharbagh garden with the mausoleum in the centre, a ninefold floorplan, a fivefold façade and a large podium with a hidden staircase.)


De Boigne: The Ablest Son of France to Land in India

It is said that the jewel-laden horse of Ghulam Qadir Khan fell into the hands of the French Commander Lestonneaux, who suddenly announced his retirement from Scindia’s service and proceeded to France in 1789. Rumours persist that these jewels—including the royal Mughal crown—must be somewhere in France. With the sudden departure of Lestonneaux from Scindia’s army, Benoit de Boigne was promoted to the now unoccupied position. Lestonneaux’s exodus from Scindia’s army, no matter if it was jewel-motivated or not, proved to be beneficial for both de Boigne and the service.

Hailing from Savoy in France, de Boigne organised his force into three brigades, each with eight battalions of seven hundred sepoys, along with five hundred cavalry and forty field pieces of artillery. In tribute to his homeland, his army marched under the flag of the White Cross, the national colours of Savoy.

de Boigne 1

(La Fontaine des Elephants, in the city of Chambery, built in 1838 to honour Benoit de Boigne whose life-size statue stands atop a tall column, surrounded by four half-elephants: Wikimedia/Public domain:

At that time, France was sending the best and bravest of her sons to India; it was said that a Frenchman was worth his weight in gold. Of all the armies active in India, French officers occupied the most important positions. The French passion for equality was evident in the courtesy and generosity of such gallant fighters as Law, de Bussy and de Boigne.

Henry Keene writes, “.. one can fancy them (the French in India) of an evening at a table furnished with clumsy magnificence and drinking bad claret bought up from the English merchants of Calcutta at fabulous prices.. Discussing the relative merits of the slopes of the Alps and the cliffs of the Atlantic; admitting sorrowfully the merits of the intermediate vineyards, or trilling to the bewilderment of their country-born comrades, light little French songs of love and wine.”

De Boigne was born in the beautiful city of Chambery in the French Alps, surrounded all around by breathtaking mountain ranges like the Mont Blanc, crystal clear lakes—including Lac du Bourget, the largest lake of France—and numerous meadows and streams. Presently, the town is known more for its scenic location at the crossroads of the Alps and nearby charming ski resorts like Chamonix, Val d’Isere; it is also famous for the quaint thermal spa-towns of Evian and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.


(A view to the sky: balcony view of the Safdar Jung mausoleum)

However, the symbol of the town’s strong historical linkage with Delhi is quite unmistakable. In the centre of the quaint town, the  full-length statue of Benoit de Boigne, its son-of-the-soil, stands on a tall column, surrounded by four Indian elephants. The Fontaine des Elephants is the most famous landmark of the beautiful town.

De Boigne reached the pinnacle of his military career when he captured Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur, defeating the combined armies of Rajputs and Ismail Beg. The Savoyard general operated from his headquarters in Aligarh and his territory extended from Mathura to Delhi and the whole of Upper Doab. The credit for the upkeep of the Taj Mahal in those turbulent times is often given to de Boigne alone, as he passionately requested both the East India Company and Scindia to release funds for this effort. Some even go so far as to insist that the Taj Mahal would not be here today if not for the care of de Boigne.


(Another ceiling, another design: too good and beautiful, Safdar Jung Tomb)

In 1792, the Savoyard general de Boigne fought the most difficult battle of his life with his compatriot du Dernec, who represented Holkar, Scindia’s arch-rival. Holkar’s army was defeated by de Boigne and his general du Dernec deserted Holkar to join Scindia’s army under du Boigne. This was only a small example of how powerful and far Scindia’s reach actually was.

Scindia’s rule extended from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas and from the Sutlej to the Ganges. There were three pillars of this vast empire: Scindia placed himself in Mathura, de Boigne at Aligarh and Begum Samru at Sardhana. Scindia was a master in statecraft as well as a military strategist, earning him the title of Madar-ul-Maham, ali Jah, Bahadur, or the “exalted and valorous Centre of Affairs” from the blind Emperor Shah Alam. Obviously, he thought of himself as playing a far more important role in the heart of Hindustan in Delhi than at his native Puna, where his master, the Peshwa, resided. After Mahadji Scindia, his far less influential nephew and adopted son, Daulat Rao Scindia, took over his role in 1794 at the age of fifteen and based himself at Puna.


(Details of Safdar Jung Tomb)

De Boigne, in 1796, decided to enjoy his lifelong earnings in the solitude of his native Savoy and he planned to retire there with an amassed fortune of half a million sterling. After leaving India, he first settled in London for few years before retiring to France. He loaded his Indian treasure-trove onto a vessel called Cronberg and departed for London, heading from the shores of India that was his home for more than two decades. However, the ship sank off the coast of Denmark, but de Boigne successfully employed divers who miraculously salvaged the entire cargo.

In Savoy, he lived his days under the title of Count de Boigne and regularly entertained Indian visitors who happened to visit France. He literally re-built his hometown of Chambery with personal earnings from India by ways of mercenary services for the Marathas and from his investments in  Indigo business.


(Safdar Jung Tomb’s upper storey)

He funded a number of establishments in the town: a college, a theatre, a school, a workhouse for the destitute and a hospital for contagious diseases and sick foreigner travellers. He also set up an entire new street from his stately mansion of Chateau de Buisson-Rond to the Boulevard. He died in 1830 and was cremated with full military honours.

In India, his place in Scindia’s army was taken up by compatriot Perron, while du Dernec was in charge of the army brigades.


(Four polygonal towers with kiosks adorn its corners, highlighted by the interesting interplay of red and white colour. Safdar Jung Tomb)

Siar-ul-Mutakharin depicts an interesting contrast of styles between the French officers and their English counterparts, “ Bussy always wore embroidered clothes or brocade. He was seen in an immense tent, about thirty feet high, at one end of which he sat in an arm chair embroidered with his King’s arms, on an elevation covered with a crimson cloth of embroidered velvet; over against him his French guard on horseback and behind those his Turkish guard; his table was covered with three and sometimes four services of plates….Governor Hastings always wore a plain coat of English broadcloth and never anything like lace or embroidery; his throne a plain chair of mahogany, with plenty of such thrones in the hall; his table sometimes neglected; his diet sparing; and always abstemious; his address and deportment very distant from pride and still more from familiarity.”


The Delhi Gazette of 5th June 1874 describes the residence of French officers in Aligarh, “ de Boigne lived in his famous mansion, called Sahib Bagh, between the fort and the city and on leaving for France, he gave it to Perron, who considerably improved the building and garden, which was well laid out with all descriptions of fruit trees procured from distant climes. He so adorned the place that it was said by the French officers that the garden was next to that of Ram Bagh, on the Agra river, so beautiful was the scenery. Perron had a number of officers in his army, English, French and Italian. Next to Perron was Colonel Pedron, who commanded the fortress of Allygurh; this officer had his mansion in an extensive garden, which at the British conquest was converted into the Judges’ Court and the site is the same where it now stands. …” – History of Coel. Aligurh by an Old Resident.


Flamboyant Samru ki Begum with her Hookah and Horses

Despite Scindia’s best intentions, it seems that the Mughal emperor, Shah Alam, always nurtured the secret ambition to shake off the Maratha influence, even if that meant accepting support from the nearby Hindu states. So, when the Rajput kings of Jaipur and Ajmer sent an invitation to Shah Alam in 1788   to take possession of the Ajmer fort, he set off on a march immediately. Assisting him in his expedition was Begum Samru and her army, led by the Irish general, George Thomas, who originally hailed from Tipperary in Ireland.


(South & North view of Begum Samru’s haveli from ‘ Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi’ , 1843, with the accompanying text by Sir Thomas Metcalfe (1795-1853) © The British Library Board, Add.Or.5475. Reproduced with kind permission.(

On the way, Shah Alam decided to launch an attack on Najaf Quli at the Gokalgarh Fort. However, in the fierce encounter, the Emperor was nearly slain by the enemy, but for the timely intervention of Begum Samru and her Irish general. This was the second time the lady had saved the Emperor and in recognition he conferred on her the title ‘most beloved of my daughters’. This was not the first time that she was bestowed with such a decoration. In the eyes of the emperor, she already was a lady who had eclipsed all of her sex and was titled  ‘Zeb-un-Nissa’, or the ‘ornament of her sex’, for supporting him during Ghulam Qadir Khan’s extortion attacks.

Often compared to Ahilyabai of Indore and Mamola Begum of Bhopal, the Begum had been described quite contrastingly: the British referred to her as ‘Her Highness Begum Samru’, while the Mughal emperor Shah Alam of course profusely described her as the ‘most beloved of my daughters’ and the ‘ornament of her sex’ and the general population referred to her as ‘Samru’s concubine’ or even, ‘the Witch of Sardhana’.


(Exploded  View of Begum Samru’s haveli from the BL image as referenced in previous picture)  

Whatever her identity, she was an intriguing personality who had lived through every phase of the ‘Gardi ka Waqt’, or the ‘troubled times’, as referred to by the Dilliwallahs to describe that part of 18th century  triggered by Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739 and followed up by a series of punishing attacks from Kabul by Ahmed Shah Abdali.

Born in 1751 as Farzana, the Begum was abandoned as a young girl on the busy streets of Delhi by her dying mother in 1760, but was rescued by a tawaif called Khanum Jan of Chauri Bazar. The 18th century contemporary historian William Francklin says that the Begum was the daughter of an impoverished Mughal noble. He wrote that she was the “… daughter of a Mughal nobleman, whose family, from the unsettled state of the times, had fallen into distress…”. The young Farzana grew up as a favoured dancing girl, much in demand by the nobles and connoisseurs of the city.

She grew up amidst the rich spectacle and heady city life of Shahjahanabad’s gallis, kalans and bazars, as well among the broad vistas of Chandni Chowk, where the nobles and amirs roamed on gorgeously caparisoned elephants and horses. She immersed herself in the nuances of the city’s katras, enjoying shopping trips to buy betel and spiced tobacco, listening to dastan-gohs and savouring delicacies from a kababia or perhaps from one of the many Mughal sweetshops. Standing amazed at the steps of Jama Masjid, she must have looked a thousand times at that grand edifice of the Red Fort – the powerhouse of Hindustan – imagining perhaps the palace intrigues going on behind those thick walls.


(Exploded  View of Begum Samru’s haveli from the BL image as referenced in previous picture)  

Time flies and it was not long before the young beauty with sparkling eyes was whisked away from her accustomed surroundings of Chauri Bazar and the tawaif’s kotha. The person responsible for whisking her away was none other than the mercenary soldier Walter Reinhardt Sombre – the distinguished visitor ‘Somra Sahib’– at the kotha of Khanum Jan. We know nothing of the subdued but animated negotiations that might have taken place between the smooth-tongued Khanum Jan and the fleshless, putty-coloured and grim-faced Austrian in his military costume, who must have looked like an old fighting bird of prey swooping down on the delicate young Farzana. We can only imagine them in the dimly lit room of the kotha – standing in a semi-circle of light, coming filtered through the heavy velvet purdahs of the adjoining hall. The rising crescendo of her golden voice, accompanied by the tunes of sarangi and the beats of a tabla, perhaps filtered through the intoxicated air of wine, perfume and glittering oil lamps. The swaying frame of a svelte Farzana, adorned in a bright muslin dress and strings of ghungroos, dancing, unaware of the business-like dealings going on in the next room. Neither do we know how many gold mohurs passed from the hands of Somra Saheb to the folded hands of Khanum Jan to secure the young Farzana.

When the young Farzana left Shahjahanabad in a curtained palanquin in 1760, little did she suspect that one day she would return as a gallant warrior and furthermore, as an influential wire-puller in the power-politics of the region – indeed, a king-maker to command the respect of the Mughals, the mighty Marathas and the British alike – and that she would be instrumental in writing the history of Hindustan on her own flamboyant way.

bank of delhi

(‘Bank of Delhi’ or the Begum Samru’s haveli, after it was damaged by mortar and gunfire in 1857; photographed in 1858 by Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife, Harriet. ; © The British Library Board, Photo 193/(12), reproduced with kind permission. (

After the death of her husband Reinhardt, she became known as Samru ki Begum. For reasons still unclear, she converted to Christianity under the new name of Joanna Nobilis Somer at Agra in 1781. She also started construction of the largest cathedral in the entire north India on her estate and as per her request to the Pope, soon a chaplain arrived from Rome at Sardhana.


(A corner tower of the Badshahpur Fort, once used by Begum Samru. At Gurgaon)

The Begum took on Sardhana’s state affairs with an iron hand and with due attention to agriculture, ensuring the small area yielded as much as ten lakh rupees of revenue per year. One incident though showing the Begum’s strong side that is often cited, albeit with possible embellishments, relates to the case of two slave girls who had set fire to estate properties and caused widespread arson. She concluded a quick investigation and the girls were found guilty and sentenced to death. The punishment was immediately carried out by the Begum herself. The two were flogged and buried alive in pits dug into the ground, over which the Begum pulled up a bed and sat calmly smoking her hookah, while the muffled cries of the two slaves slowly died out in the earthen pits.

Often she is painted as the ‘witch of Sardhana’, such as by Baillie Fraser, who described her as, “The people in the Dekhan, who knew the Begum by reputation, believed her to be a witch, who destroyed her enemies by throwing her chadir at them; the word chadir meaning chain shot as well as woman’s veil”.

During that time, European officers hailing from different countries were popular, even in Begum Samru’s army. Her two chief officers were the Frenchman Colonel le Vaisseau, whom she later married and the Irishman George Thomas. She had five battalions of soldiers and about forty pieces of field artillery. However, the Begum’s force consisted mainly of uneducated European ruffians, whom even le Vaisseau refused to admit to his dinner-table. After a few years’ service, Thomas left the employment of Begum Samru and was adopted by the Maratha general Appu Khandi Rao as his son.

Thomas was so Indianised from his time spent in India that when later, the Governor General Lord Wellesley asked him to prepare a report on the country’s affair, he sought his permission to pen it in Persian, as he had totally forgotten the English language. Also, according to rumours at the time, it was Begum Samru’s illegitimate daughter born before her marriage with Reinhardt, that she later arranged to be the wife of Thomas.


(Begum Samru’s haveli at Chandni Chowk)

In 1795, when England was at war with the French Republic, Begum Samru was faced with the exodus of her men to the Maratha camp and finding no other option, she and her husband contacted the Governor General directly and a secret agreement was reached between the British and Scindia to allow the couple safe passage as prisoners of war. However, the proposed plan fell apart and so they made a desperate attempt to flee – pursued by their own soldiers.

They set out on the road to Meerut but first agreed with each other on a suicide pact in case either of them was captured, in order to avoid the indignity of an execution. They had hardly journeyed three miles, when the traitorous sepoys of Sardhana set upon hounding them – with le Vaisseau on his horse brandishing his pistol to the palanquin bearers carrying the Begum to urge them to hurry them up. Suddenly loud cries emanated from the female attendants of the Begum and he noticed the Begum’s white dress dripping with blood.


(An interesting haveli interiors, in village Badshahpur, Gurgaon)

It is said that the Begum inflicted the dagger wound herself to her chest, but it struck her chest bone and she did not have the courage for a second attempt. Some even say that the Begum did this intentionally to deceive le Vaisseau. When le Vaisseau saw the blood-soaked Begum in her palanquin surrounded by wailing attendants, he pointed his pistol at his own head and pulled the trigger. Surprisingly, the Begum survived her suicide attempt and soon, she sought the support of her bête noire George Thomas. Ultimately, her estate stretching from the neighbourhood of Aligarh to north of Muzzafarnagar was restored to her and she continued to rule over it till her death in 1836.


(An interesting haveli interiors, in village Badshahpur, Gurgaon, near an ancient fort used by Begum Samru)

George Thomas, the Irish general in her army, describes Begum Samru as, “small and plump; her complexion fair, her eyes large and animated. She wore the Hindustani costume, made of the most costly materials. She spoke Persian and Urdu fluently and attended personally to business, giving audience to her native employees behind a screen. At darbars she appeared veiled; but in Eurpean society, she took her place at the table, waited on exclusively by maidservants. Her statue, surmounting a group in white marble by Tadolini, stands over her tomb in the Church at Sardhana.”

Begum’s Mansions

She based herself at Sardhana, where she built her palace, as well as a convent, school and a cathedral. Apart from Sardhana, two of her more palatial bungalows were set up in Chandni Chowk and in Gurgaon. A white European-style building in Chandni Chowk, with an imposing porch and Greek-styled high pillars, was built on land given to her by the emperor Akbar Shah II in 1806 on a Mughal garden named Khas Bag.

After her death, the mansion was sold to ‘Delhi Bank’ in 1847, but during the 1857 uprising, it suffered major damage, including from mortar fire. Indeed, the bank’s British manager and his family were killed on the very roof of the building in one such attack in 1857. From 1857 until 1922, the building was held by Lloyd’s Bank, whose name can still be seen in a faded signage on top. Thereafter, trader Lala Bhagirath acquired it in 1922. Today, it is tucked behind the main thoroughfare of Chandni Chowk; its once-majestic southern façade housing the rather unimpressive Central Bank, while its once beautiful lush-green garden is occupied by a collection of flimsy electrical and medical stores, known as the Bhagirath Electrical Market, right up to the garden-mansion’s sweeping staircase.


(Begum Samru’s Haveli at Chandni Chowk, Delhi)

Once the dusk had fallen and the house was illuminated with hundreds of tiny, bright lamps and lanterns, it was not hard to imagine that the Begum, surrounded by an army of her uniformed attendants who lounged up and down the curve of the avenue, was waiting on these very stairs for some European or royal Mughal guests to arrive for dinner.

She was gifted the villages of Jharsa and Badshahpur in present day Gurgaon. It is possible that she built or used many structures in that area.  As per Haryana Tourism [Ref. 16:], a bungalow in Civil Lines, Gurgaon, that is presently being used as the residence-cum-‘Camp Office’ of the District Collector, was built by her.  A beautiful building of limestone blocks, it was built on a higher ground elevation than the surrounding area. With due permission, I was allowed to inspect it thoroughly. The main features are its huge ceilings of more than 20 feet high, walls of thickness more than two feet and a wide surrounding verandah with large semi-circular arches.  The balcony roofs are strengthened with I-shaped iron beams similar to those used on rail tracks.  A flight of stairs from inside the residence section leads to its terrace. The roof is waterproofed with a kind of textured net-cloth applied throughout. The view from the terrace allows an unobstructed view of the surrounding garden, with a couple of peacocks ambling about.


(Begum Samru’s Gurgaon mansion in Civil Lines: now used as District Collector’s residence-cum-‘Camp Office’.)

However, after going around the building, it seems more of a colonial-era structure, than a late Mughal one.

As per other reports [Ref.17], an ancient fort in Badshahpur in Gurgaon is said to have been used by the Begum. The site lies in the village. A flight of stone stairs leads to an elevated ground, which must have been the original fort level.  Only a corner bastion of the ancient fort exists today, while the entire structure of the fort is now lost to encroachments. Modern houses are built over the entire area.


(Stairways to the erstwhile fort in Badshahpur Village in Gurgaon, that was once used by Begum Samru)

However, while exploring the village, one cannot miss a nearby strikingly beautiful Haveli. With permissions of the residents, I was allowed to inspect the three-storeyed Haveli. A narrow staircase leads to its different levels from the inside of the house. On each floor, a narrow balcony is supported on a series of curved brackets. Old wooden doors are framed by arched niches in the first two floors, while the top level seems to be a later addition, with simple workmanship. The building probably dates back to the early 20th century.


(Haveli interiors in Badshahpur, Gurgaon)

George Thomas and Perron: The Irish and French Sailor-Kings

George Thomas had an almost independent reign of a vast stretch of land consisting of fourteen parganas and nine-hundred and fifty villages. His transformation from a common sailor into the head of a large province was truly remarkable. He based his administration at Hansi, in the province of Haryana, somewhat an arid area, ironically named Harri-ana, or the “Green Land.”

Of his achievements, he wrote, “I established a mint and coined my own rupees, which I made current in my army and country…cast my own artillery, commenced making muskets, matchlocks and powder…”

Thomas then set out to snuff the rebellious elements in Begum Samru’s army, which was under his command after he restored Begum. It was a common practice during his predecessor Reinhardt’s reign that the sepoys would tie Reinhardt to a heated cannon to extract money. When Thomas took charge of the army, he immediately identified those ringleaders and blew them off from the mouth of a cannon.

Murad Bakht

(Grave of Murad Bakht, wife of Shah Alam II, lies next to the Mughal tomb and is now a part of a private residence. At Bakhtiar Kaki’s Dargah, Mehrauli)

However, Thomas—the Irish “sailor-turned-Raja of Hansi”—could not get away with running a parallel country so close to Delhi and his formidable antagonist and national enemy (another “sailor-Raja,” the French commander General Perron) soon crossed his path. Perron was the acknowledged master from the shores of Sutlej to Narmada, with an income that almost rivalled that of the British Governor General and Commander-in-Chief put together.

Perron summoned George Thomas to Delhi and asked him to join Scindia’s army under him, which the Irish Raja did not agree to. A strong Franco-Maratha force under the command of Louis Bourquien then attacked Thomas and completely routed his capital city of Hansi. Thomas reached an agreement for safe passage to British-occupied territories along with his accumulated fortune at the end of the battle and, on January 1, 1802, he set out to Calcutta riding a fine Persian horse. He died on his way, breathing his last at Berhampur.

While Perron and Thomas were engaged in a battle in the name of their national honours, a bigger game soon unfolded in the Indian theatre.  On January 1, 1803, the “Treaty of Bassein”  the Peshwa of Pune and the British was signed to ultimately keep the French influence out of India and to buy peace for the Peshwa at Pune. The treaty did not acknowledge either Scindia or Holkar, the two warring Maratha chieftains. The British received a portion of Bundelkhand, the entire west coast and command of the Indian Ocean. Emboldened by this, the British prohibited Scindia from proceeding to Pune and launched a military campaign against Holkar.

By that time, British rule was already imposed on Gorakhpur, eastern and central Doab and a large part of Rohillakhand. The frontier territories of Oudh were ceded to the British by the Viceroy Saadat Ali Khan in lieu of the maintenance fees due them for their military assistance.


(District Collector’s Residence, Gurgaon, built by Begum Samru)

The “Peace of Amiens” treaty between England and France was on the verge of breaking down and war was imminent between the two.


Flickers of the Final Face-Off

At that time, the French General Perron of Scindia’s army was dissatisfied with his commander and wished to retire. In 1802, Perron was directed by Scindia to surrender all estates (mahals) in his possession and decided then to relinquish his command. However, until his last day in the army, his preparation for the imminent war with the British was meticulous indeed. Perron’s army consisted of 15,000–20,000 horses led by three hundred European officers, among whom more than two hundred and fifty were French. There were also a number of mixed-race officers, such as the two Skinners, Lucan, Ferguson, Stewart, Carnegie, Scott, Birch and Woodville (who were the Eurasian offspring of British fathers and Indian mothers). Perron discharged them from service immediately, as he believed they could not fight whole-heartedly against their fellow British.


(The wide fort walls of Pathargarh and the parapet with loopholes, Najibabad)

The French strategy was to continue Shah Alam’s rule with the full support of the French Republic. As Lieutenant Lefebre’s August 6, 1803 memoir at Pondicherry stated, “… The English Company, by its ignominious treatment of the great Moghul, has forfeited its rights as Deewan of the Empire.” This was of course a debatable opinion, as it was the French under whose confinement the emperor was living, after he returned from Allahabad to Delhi despite the opposition of the British.

On 6th July 1803, Lord Wellesley received news that the war with France was to be renewed. The very next day, he wrote to General Lake, his commander-in-chief as, I wish you to understand, my dear Sir, that I consider the reduction of Scindiah’s power on the north-west frontier of Hindostan to be an important object in proportion to the probability of a war with France. M. de Boigne (Scindiah’s late general) is now the chief confidant of Bonaparte; he is constantly at St. Cloud. I leave you to judge why and wherefore.”


(Not the Sultan’s horse, Baradari, Najibabad)

Wellesley had planned a two-pronged strategy to subdue the Franco-Maratha influence over the subcontinent: while the Deccan encounter would be fronted by General Arthur Wellesley—his brother and the future conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815—Delhi and upper India would be attacked and wrested back by General Lake.

Delhi, as per Lord Wellesley’s words, had become a part of the “French State of the Doab,” and subjugating it would be the crowning glory of British conquest.

General Lake and His Occupation of Delhi

General Lake had at his command some 10,500 troops, including eight cavalry regiments (of which three were European), eleven sepoy battalions and three hundred British artillerymen, while the Franco-Maratha force that assembled in Delhi was 35,000 strong. Despite their numerical and the strategic advantage of fighting on their home ground, luck definitely favoured the British. As the British forces pounded the Aligarh fort and arrested French Lieutenant Colonel Pedron, General Perron reached an agreement with the British for his safe passage to British territories, along with his family and properties. The Maratha forces in Delhi did not accept the authority of their new commander, Bourquien and it was this leader-less and chaotic group that the disciplined 27th Dragoons and the 76th Foot of the British forces pushed back on that fateful day of September 11, 1803, after slaying more than 3,000 native sepoys. General Bourquien and four other French commanders surrendered, as did du Dernec.


(Unknown inscriptions on the stone platform of graves, Najibabad)

When the blind emperor, Shah Alam, heard the news, he immediately sent the heir-apparent, Mirza Akbar, to escort General Lake in a grand procession watched by thousands of curious citizens who lined the streets leading up to the palace fortress. In the famed Diwan-i-khas, the emperor—sitting on a poor caricature of the great Mughal throne, which retained only a sorry reflection of its former glory—received General Lake and conferred on him the title of “Khan Dauran.”


(One side of the gateway, showing panels of multi-cusped blind arches, Najibabad Qila)

The emperor’s sovereignty was withdrawn by the British, who allowed him to retain authority only in the city and a small surrounding area. The Mughal emperor’s decisions were subject to the approval of the British resident and he remained a mere pensioner, receiving 90,000 rupees per month.

As per Thorn, one of the officers of General Lake, ‘The descendant of the great Akbar..was found, an object of pity and seated under a small tattered canopy, the fragrant of royal state and the mockery of human pride.’


(The Staircase opens to the terrace, Pathargarh Fort, Najibabad.)

The note “The Governor-General in Council to the Secret Committee of the Honourable The Court of Directors” signed by Wellesley, G.H. Barlow and G. Undy, at Fort William, dated June 2, 1805, gives the details of the emperor’s privileges:

“..That to provide for the immediate wants of his Majesty and the Royal household, the following sums should be paid monthly, in money from the treasury of the resident at Delhi, to his Majesty for his private expenses, Sa. Rs. 60,000; to the heir-apparent, exclusive of certain Jagheers, Sa. Rs. 10,000; to a favourite son of his Majesty named Mirza Izzut Buksh, Sa. Rs. 5000; to two other sons of his Majesty, Sa. Rs. 1,500; to his Majesty’s fifty younger sons and daughters, Sa. Rs. 10,000; to Shah Newsanze Khan, his Majesty’s treasurer, Rs. 2,500; to Syud Razzee Khan, British agent at his Majesty’s Court and related to his Majesty by marriage, Sa. Rs. 1,000; total per mensem, Sa. Rs. 90,000. 

That in addition to the sums specified, the sum of Sa. Rs. 10,000 should annually be paid to his Majesty on certain festivals agreeably to ancient usage.”

The day was  Sept 11, 1803, when the Oriental dreams and ambitions of the French were so decisively quenched and annihilated by the British, at the very heart of India, in the city of Shahjahanabad.

However, little did Lord Wellesley know that some fifty years later, in 1857, the same grounds of Shahjahanabad would once again rise to rebuff and repudiate the British flag and once again the guns and canons of the natives and the British would co-mingle to give yet another dramatic spin to the history of the sub-continent.


(The arched entrance to the mosque-cemetery complex of Najib-ud-Daulah, in Najibabad)

“Bright northern star from Cabul’s realms advance: Imperial Timur poize the avenging lance.

On these vile traitors quick destruction pour: Redress my wrongs and kingly rights restore;

Thee too, O Sindiah, illustrious chief:  Who once didst promise to afford relief;

Thee I invoke, exert thy generous aid:  And over their heads high wave the avenging blade.

And ye, O faithful pillars of my state:  By friendship bound and my power elate,

Hasten, O Asuf; and ye English chiefs: Nor blush to sooth an injured monarch’s griefs…”


( Part of Shah Alam’s poem, Ref.3,  where he appeals to the following to come to his aid and avenge his cause: Timur Shah – son of Ahmad Abdali, king of Kabul, who had married Shah Alam’s daughter; the Maratha chief Mahdaji Sindia ; Asaf-ul-Daula who was the son of Shujaa –ul-Daula; and finally  the East India Company)


Sidenote#1: Forgotten Monuments of Najibabad

Pathargarh: Known popularly as the Qila (Fort), or Sultana Daku ka Qila (Fort of the Bandit King), the name is somewhat of a misnomer, because all that exist here, is only its strong wall with majestic gateways.


(Majestic gateway to Pathargarh Qila showing its outer and inner chambers, Najibabad)

A series of three arched entrances mark its entrance. The first  to encounter on its outer facade  is a cusped arch with eight small semi-circular lobes on either side joined together at its pinnacle. It is  lined with a twisted-rope moulding, with a creeper vine with large leaves running along it. A single blooming flower adorns its top, with its eight curled-back petal lips incised with sharp lines. The petals surround the flower’s delicate ovary and two filaments terminating in little anthers. Around this flower motif at the pinnacle of the entrance archway, the entire gateway structure is perfectly divided into two exact mirror-symmetrical halves.


(The flower with eight curled-back petal lips, at the apex of the cusped entranceway with a twisted-rope moulding and a creeper plant with large leaves running along it)

The entrance-way is flanked by a set of three blind-arches on both sides – cascaded in a three-tier setting. These three large niches are once again flanked on either side by a series of  smaller niches in the shape of blind arches, arranged in columnar frames. The same design is repeated with minor variations in the gateway interior, as well on its back side.


(The double-storeyed inner chamber of the gateway, Qila, Najibabad)

There are two chambers in the gateway, framed by three majestic arches. As one enters from outside into the fort premises through the wide gateway, the two come in sequence. The outer chamber is a simple rectangular compartment enveloped between the entrance archway on the outer wall facade and the middle arch. It then opens into an inner vaulted chamber that is the heart of the gateway. It is framed between its middle archway on one side and the arch on the back facade of the gateway. The centre of this striking compartment is highlighted by a beautiful 32-petalled flower design adorning the gateway’s vaulted roof. Two tiers of platforms are fronted by an arcade of three rectangular columns on each floor. They flank both sides of the gateway, with the surrounding wall decorated with small niches. It is designed in the form of a naubat-khana or a drum-house, where a group of musicians could have been placed on the first floor.


(Vaulted-roof of the inner chamber with four sides and four squinches and decorated with a 32 flower petals radiating out, Najbabad Qila)

On the back side of the fort-wall, the main thoroughfare is again flanked by six niches on either side, in sets of two vertical panels of three niches each. The lowest of these three vertically arranged niches on the leftmost and rightmost panels open into two stairways, whereas the rest of the five niches are walled up as blind arches.


(Back facade of Najibabad Qila gateway with staircases and blind arches, image taken by Deepak Kumar)

The staircases lead to the upper chamber and then on to the terrace. The terrace wall is marked with four huge lotus capitals – two on either side and the wall between them is punctured with numerous sloping square loopholes for discharging arrows. The lotus petals are surrounded by a narrow series of sepals, while its penducle is covered with two bands of overlapping curled-back leaves.


(Small loopholes for arrows, Najibabad Qila gateway terrace)


(Lotus capital on the Qila terrace with curled-down petals on its ‘stem’, along with loopholes, Najibabad)


(Sloping loophole in Najibabad Qila’s terrace)

A flight of stairs leads down to its massive wall, that is wide enough for a pair of horses to move side by side. The wall has a raised parapet facing the outside that is similarly provisioned with arrow-holes. Local villagers say that there were some structures inside the boundary wall in olden days, but today, only a huge ground lies in it.

Baradari: The strikingly beautiful site stands in the middle of a village, with its four tall turrets standing around a heap of collapsed rubble. The name ‘baradari’ might have referred to a 12-door central chamber that no longer exists.


(The four turrets of the baradari, Najibabad)


(One of the three-tiered baradari turrets topped with a bulbous dome, Najibabad)

Each of the four towers is made of three storeys, with the ground level serving as the entrance. They are octagonal in shape, with round bulbous domes adorning their tops. The terrace at the uppermost level is provisioned with eight multi-cusped arched openings for a beautiful view all around. The whole structure is made of thin Lakhauri bricks. The name ‘lakhauri’ for these types of thin bricks has not been fully explained by historians. As per some, its name origins from ‘lakh’, or the unit of 1,00,000, because these bricks were very common in building structures, starting from the late Mughal period.


(Winding Stairway inside the tower, Baradari, Najibabad)

A circular winding staircase leads to the top floor and once at the top, one can see the beautifully engraved ceilings, which is the only remaining decorative feature of this otherwise dilapidated structure. Two concentric bands of geometric pattern mark the top of the eight arched windows.


(Two bands of ‘plaster-work’ decoration touching the apexes of eight multi-cusped arches in the airy top floor of a tower, at Baradari, Najibabad)

It seems that the four towers were joined together with the central structure in its original design. From the local villagers’ account, the structure was supposedly built by the daughter of Najib-ud-Daula.

Cemetery Complex of Najib-ud-Daulah: Out of the three monuments, this one is relatively easy to locate, as it lies within the main market of the town. The structure is rectangular-shaped and entered through an arched gateway. Four decorative turrets mark its corners.


(The dargah wall with five rows of blind arches, Najib-ud-Daula’s cemetery complex, Najibabad)

The outer wall has five rows of decorative recessed niches. The gateway opens into a spacious courtyard, surrounded by a series of rooms and prayer chambers and a continuous covered balcony with arched openings. The platform of the balcony is fronted by an arcade of rectangular columns supporting the multi-cusped arches. In the centre of the courtyard, lies a raised platform – with the graves of Najib-ud-Daulah and his wife. Towards the right, there is another raised platform having seven smaller graves believed to be of his family and descendants. All the graves are aligned on a north-south direction. On closer examination, a series of undeciphered texts can be seen engraved on a cornerstone of the main platform.


(Tombs of Najib-ud-Daula and his wife, in Najibabad)

The rooms are normally closed, but can be opened upon request. The main prayer chamber has a deep recessed mihrab towards the customary qibla, or the westerly direction to Mecca. A flight of stairs leads up to the terrace, where a bulbous dome with an inverted-lotus filial with two side-chambers stand. From the terrace, a number of dilapidated graves can be seen lying in the surrounding grassland.


(Prayer chamber in the Najib-ud-Daula’s cemetery complex, Najibabad)

The son of the caretaker, or the khadim, explains that all the rooms in the complex remain cool despite the outside heat. For the locals, he explains, the site is an important landmark, since it has the tombs of the town’s builder.


Sidenote#2: Kanva Ashram – Where the Country Got Its Name

The rich heritage and history of the area is filled with many mythological narratives. Kanva Ashram is located around 14 kilometres from Kotdwara, the last rail head on way to Lansdowne and next to Najibabad. It is said that the place was once the abode of Sage Kanva (his hermitage) and the site was a major educational centre where thousands of students lived in the ancient past.

Kanva was a wandering Yogi (Ramta Yogi) and he set up his ashram here on the banks of Malini river, while he was on the way to Badrinath. Once he visited a prosperous hermitage of another Yogi near Narmada river and wished he too had such a permanent and beautiful setting and as he prayed to God, he received the blessings and the divine instructions that he should set up an ashram there, on the first stop on his way to Badrinath. His ashram was a major centre to impart both Vidya and Gyan (Knowledge and Enlightenment).


(The Stairs leading to Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Sage Vishwamitra was his contemporary and once when he was in deep meditation on the banks of Malini river, the king of Gods Indradev sent down the beautiful celestial nymph, or Apsara, Menaka to break his concentration, fearing that he might become too powerful with his meditation. Sage Vishwamitra married her and a daughter was born to them. However, after the childbirth, Menaka disappeared from the earth, as her mission was successful. Sage Kanva was wandering in the forest, when he saw the infant surrounded and protected by Shakun birds. He brought her to the ashram and named her as Shakuntala, or ‘one-who-was-saved-by-Shakun.’


(The Path to the Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Once King Dushyant of Hastinapur was travelling in the area with his troops and was chasing a herd of deer. The students of the hermitage requested the king not to harm the animals as they belonged to them and invited the curious king to visit the ashram. Since Sage Kanva was travelling, he met his daughter Shakuntala. Both fell in love and got married in a Gandharva Vivaha, but Shakuntala could not go with the King as her father Kanva was not in the ashram.  Dushyant left the hermitage and presented her a ring as a parting gift.

One day, sage Durvasha visited the hermitage and being lost in her thoughts, Shakuntala could not give him due attention. The infuriated sage cursed her that the person in her dreams would forget her. Two of Shakuntala’s aides – Priyambada and Anusuya pleaded with the sage to pardon her. The sage relented a bit and said that the person would recognize her only if she exhibits some token or present. Shakuntala and her aides were relieved that they had the king’s ring as his token of love.


(Kanva Ashram in Kotdwara- marks the place where the country got its name)

When Kanva came back, he came to know about her marriage and sent her off to Hastinapur. On her way, when they were crossing the river Ganga on a boat, she absent-mindedly ran her fingers on the tranquil blue waters of the river and dropped the ring, which was eaten by a fish.  At Hastinapur, the king could not recognize her and with no other options, she took shelter in Sage Kashyap’s ashram, where her son Bharat was born.

In the meantime, many months later, a fisherman found the ring and on seeing the mark of the king on it, gave it to King Dushyant. The king suddenly remembered Shakuntala and longed to find her. Once Dushyant was going through the area of Sage Kashyap’s ashram and found a small child counting the teeth of a tiger. This impressed the king and he inquired his name and parentage and the little boy told him that he was the son of King Dushyant and Shakuntala. The family was re-united, but Bharat grew up in Sage Kanva’s ashram, which was a major educational centre.


(A small temple in Kanva Ashram, Kotdwara)

Pandavas and the Kauravas were the 16th generation in the line of King Bharata. The country was named as Bharat after his name. Swami Ramanand ji who manages this quaint ashram today, laments the lack of tourist infrastructure and also people’s awareness about the place considered to be the root of the country’s name.

The place lies roughly 14 kilometres from Kotdwara and does not appear on any tourist itinerary. Public transport to the place is non-existent and one has to walk a bit to reach the ashram. Swami Ramanad ji told that ancient stone statues are often found here during landslides, such as those that happened in 1990 and in 2012.


Many thanks to friends Deepak Kumar and Arvind Kumar for helping and accompanying me in exploring the hidden monuments of Najibabad, and also Kanva Ashram, Kotdwar. Thanks to the District Collector, Gurgaon for kindly allowing me to thoroughly inspect the official DC’s residence building, which is said to have been built by Begum Samru.



  1. The Fall of the Moghul Empire: 1760-1803; by Henry George Keene, 1876, London.
  2. The Fall of the Mughal Empire: Volume 2; by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, 1934, Calcutta
  3. The History of the Reign of Shah Aulum; by W. Francklin, 1798, London
  4. From Savoy to Agra: The cross-cultural Narrative of Benoit De Boigne, by Christopher Rollason :
  5. Monuments of Delhi, by Archaeological Survey of India, 2010, New Delhi.
  6. Begum Samru: Fading Portrait in a Gilded Frame, by John Lall, 1997, New Delhi.
  7. List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments, Vol III, by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, J.A. Page & J.F. Blakisston; A.S.I., 1922, Calcutta
  8. The Complete Taj Mahal, by Ebba Koch, 2006, London
  9. Delhi, A Thousand Years of Building, by Lucy Peck, 2005, Delhi
  10. British Library Blog:
  11. ASI set to restore ‘forgotten’ fort: Sept 19, 2014, Times of India:
  12. Lost to history: Najib-ud-Daula fort : Dec 8, 2014, Times of India:
  13. TOI blog on Najibabad – ‘When monuments go missing!’ :
  14. Poor Mausoleum of a Powerful Man, by Basishali Adak, Nov 21, 2012, Deccan Herald:
  15. Sec 15 residents clean up 150-year-old Jharsa dam: Oct 9, 2014, Times of India:
  16. Begum Samru’s Palace: Haryana Tourism:
  17. Begum Samru’s mahal in jeopardy in Gurgaon: August 10, 2009, Mail Today:’s+mahal+in+jeopardy+in+Gurgaon/1/55903.html

Qudsia Begum: The Matriarchal Ruler of Delhi and a Story of Diamonds

In the heyday of her unusual sway over the Mughal empire, Qudsia Begum — wife of the emperor Muhammad Shah, and mother of his successor-son, Ahmed Shah — laid out a beautiful garden complex adjoining the west bank of Yamuna. A palace, a summer-house, pavilions, and a mosque were set amidst rolling greens of rose and fruit gardens and murmuring waterfalls. Huge gateways punctured its surrounding wall.

Now, the sprawling greens have been taken over in part by one of the most un-romantic quarters of Delhi: the Inter State Bus Terminus. For the remaining part, one can still enjoy the bountiful well-maintained greenery, home to beautiful birds, resident squirrels, and an exotic splash of lush foliage; but this greenery exists in the unexpected neighbourhood of the bus terminus, from which emanates the incessant growl of modern machines.

Of the original structures, only a few remain today: the main western gateway, a mosque, and a garden pavilion. These too carry the scars of damage inflicted during the 1857 war.


The first remaining structure to encounter upon entering the complex is a building called Jamuna Hall, which houses a dispensary and, according to its signage, a Masonic lodge of the Freemasonry Society. Mostly a colonial-era building, it was built around the ancient nucleus of an original Mughal pavilion, and it is said that the original stable house for the horses of Qudsia Begum once stood here.

Next inside the gardens stands the lofty gateway of Lakhori brick masonry, flanked by two chambers with arched openings on either end of its longest side. A winding staircase at its northern end leads up to its roof, offering a beautiful view of the surroundings. The highlights of this gateway building are its finely-carved red sandstone panels with floral designs, and its four huge semi-detached corner columns topped with lotus adornments.

A little farther, a garden pavilion stands in the rolling grass of the gardens. Its strikingly sweeping staircase and stone-walled rooms are colonial-era additions to the building.

A short walk from the garden pavilion is a handsomely-built mosque, sitting on a raised platform and built of thin Lakhori bricks with plastered finish. It is characterized by three bulbous domes topped with sandstone lotus finials and surmounted upon an equal number of bays (iwans) that are punctured with arched openings. An inscription on its northern wall indicates that it was repaired by Bahadur Shah Jafar in 1833-34. The mosque lies adjacent to a busy road, which was once the course of the river Yamuna.

Qudsia Bagh BL(‘North East View of the Cotsea Bhaug, on the River Jumna’ by Thomas Daniell, 1795, © The British Library Board, P913, plate 3. Reproduced with kind permission.

The leisurely riverside garden palace — where the royal family spent a considerable time — was commissioned at some distance to the north of the official residence of the palace fortress. The juxtaposition of both the palaces in the same city was perhaps the manifestation of the ambiguity of a dissipating empire viz-à-viz an escapist fantasy. The original grandeur of this magnificent palace, of which not a single brick is now standing, can only be imagined through the eyes of the great uncle-nephew landscape artist duo of Thomas and William Daniell, who visited Delhi in 1789. In their painting, one can see the beautiful screens of pierced stone on the north-eastern corner tower of the magnificent three-storied palace, with the palace fortress visible in the distant background. It would have been a pleasant feeling to stand in one of those corner rooms up in the turret, catching the wind from the Yamuna flowing below, and forget the sordid affairs of the state for a moment or two…


        Part A : The Life and Times of Qudsia Begum


The ‘Ever Youthful’ Who Ruled Delhi for Decades

After the death of Muhy-ud-din Muhammad Aurangzeb, the fall of the empire started in earnest. If Aurangzeb was the sixth Mughal emperor whose 48-year rule ended in 1707, as many as six more emperors would sit on the Peacock Throne in the next 12 years, some for as short a time as three months. In late 1719, Muhammad Shah ascended the throne, calling himself by the melodramatic sobriquet of ‘Sada Rangila’, or ‘Ever Joyous’. Perhaps he had seen it all: the quick coming and going of his predecessors, the senseless power politics, and the loosening grip of the emperor’s power, all of which were played out in his early life. During his three-decade-long rule extending to 1748, he succeeded in bringing about a complete metamorphosis of the supposedly solemn and self-restrained Grand Mughal culture.

DSC_0018(Remnant of an unknown old structure: enwrapped in the lush greenery of Qudsia Bagh.)

A new cultural Renaissance triggered by Muhammad Shah’s earnest interest in a state-sponsored artistic innovation livened up the literary, artistic, and linguistic flavour of society. From adopting a public dance-girl as his queen, to commissioning painters to depict him playing Holi with courtesan Gulab Bai while looking enamoured in his kohl-contoured languidly dreamy eyes, he certainly lived up to his colourful nom de plume of Rangila.

It was indeed a beautiful veil that cocooned and enwrapped him from the harshness and violence of those turbulent times.

Sadarang,Descendant_of_Naubat_Khan( Sadarang, or Niyamat Khan, the chief musician at the court of Muhammad Shah’s court. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain, CC-BY-SA-4.0;,Descendant_of_Naubat_Khan.jpg )

Poets, painters, singers and accomplished maestros of art and culture became attracted to the Mughal court, like birds to a lighthouse. Miniature painters such as Nidha Mal, Kalyan Das, Bhupal Singh, and Muhammad Faqirullah Khan flourished and became famed. Urdu’s popularity became widespread as it was elevated from a language of common men to that of his royalty. Musicians like Niyamat Khan, and his nephew Firoz Khan (also known as Sadarang and Adarang respectively) made the free and flexible classical singing form of Khayal (literally meaning ‘imagination’) popular. Qawwali became accepted in the Mughal court, and prevailed far and wide.

DSC_0048( The handsomely built Qudsia Bagh mosque with three deep iwans; damaged significantly during the 1857 war.)

He is credited with the withdrawal of the controversial Jizzya tax that was enforced by Aurangzeb as well as the pilgrimage tax at Gaya. Sawai Jai Singh, his governor of Malwa and Agra, established the city of Jaipur during his reign. Once, after a passionate brainstorming session of the court, Muhammad Shah asked Jai Singh to work towards establishing accurate astronomical tables for deciding auspicious occasions, based on eclipses and other celestial events. Shortly, between 1727 and 1734, Jai Singh constructed five astronomical observatories known as Jantar Mantar at Jaipur, Delhi, Mathura, Benares, and Ujjain. Two other major cities of Bhopal and Hyderabad were set up during his reign, the latter established by ‘Nizam-ul-Mulk’ Asif Jah.

On the administrative front, however, Muhammad Shah had little interest in these ‘mundane matters’. Immersing himself in the intoxicated world of wine, poetry, and pleasure pursuits, he lost the command over the amirs who were quick to seize upon the welcome scene, and stopped paying their taxes and tributes to the royal treasury. Contemporary chronicler Rustam Ali gives a sketch of Muhammad Shah in his work Tarikh-e-Hind, “The Prince was a lover of pleasure and indolence, negligent of political duties, and addicted to loose habits, but somewhat of a generous disposition. He was entirely careless regarding his subjects.”

DSC_0019( Jumna Hall: Largely a Colonial Era building housing a dispensary and a Freemasonry Lodge. It is said that the hall is built upon an ancient stable house of Qudsia Begum.)

Little could he envisage, that merely 20 years on, he would be pulled out from the very Peacock Throne he was sitting on, and the beautiful bubble of the cultural life wrapped around him would be so mercilessly shattered by the piercing daggers of an invading army. Nadir Shah in 1739, crossing half a continent on horseback, arrived in Delhi like a sudden calamity, accompanied with howls of uproar and mayhem that have been reverberating since then in the pages of history.

But, more of Nadir Shah and his sack of Delhi – a little later.

Ahmed Shah: The New Emperor

Almost nine years had passed since Nadir Shah had descended on Delhi, and now the Persian himself had been slain by his own bodyguards. However, these events could hardly be any solace to Muhammad Shah. Not only was Shah physically wrecked and holding on to a tottering empire, but another dangerous figure soon appeared on the scene: Ahmad Shah Abdali from Kabul, who had chosen to attack the western frontiers of the Mughal Empire at Lahore.


Abdali was one of the chief lieutenants of Nadir Shah, who had praised him as, ‘I have not found in Iran, Turan, or Hind, any man equal to Ahmed Abdali in capacity and character.’ After Nadir Shah’s demise, he had declared himself the successor, and ruled Kabul and Kandahar. This was his first attack on Hindustan in 1748, that continued till 1761.

The emperor ordered his generals to lead the Mughal army there immediately. The force was commanded by Safdar Jung of Oudh (the son-in-law and nephew of Saadat Khan), Raja Isri Singh of Jaipur and Amber (the son of Sawai Jai Singh), Muhammad Shah’s own son, Prince Ahmed Shah, and the maternal uncle of the prince. Safdar Jung had been assigned the overall command of the Indian army while the invaders from Kabul were directed by Abdali himself. Fierce fighting broke out in Sirhind on March 3, 1748, killing scores of men on either side. Soon, the Mughals extended the battlefront to checkmate the Afghans, who were completely routed.

DSC_0025( The main western gateway of Qudsia Bagh )

While the battle was raging on the western frontier, Emperor Muhammad Shah breathed his last on April 15, 1748. Unable to speak, he was carried on a litter to the Masjid Sangi Gate inside the fort. There, he became senseless and expired in front of his nobles and attendants. Per Tarikh-I Ahmed Shah [Elliot & Dowson], in order to conceal the news from the people until the prince returned, the emperor’s body was quickly put into a long wooden case that had formerly contained a European clock. This box was wrapped in a cloth hastily obtained from the kitchen darogha and was buried in the Hayat Baksh Garden. It can, therefore, be safely assumed that the emperor’s body was subsequently interred in the tomb that had been built during his own lifetime inside the Dargah complex of Nizamuddin Auliya.

A communication was sent to the prince, asking him to hurry back to Delhi and, at Panipat, he was received with the royal emblems of a procession bearing the Golden Umbrella. This had been sent by Safdar Jung as a symbolic gesture in acceptance of the crown’s authority. The prince knew at once that his father was no more.

DSC_0028( Beautiful floral patterns on red sandstone panels of the Qudsia Bagh gateway.)


DSC_0030( One of the corner columns with a large lotus capital, and zigzag surface patterns.)

DSC_0037( Northern side of the gateway, showing thin Lakhori bricks underneath its plastered surface, and the winding stairway to its top.)

Throughout his early life and youth, Prince Ahmed Shah had been confined within the harem; his suspicious father was reluctant to pass on any kind of authority to him. The prince did not enjoy the benefits of education, nor was he exposed to royal administration. His movement in public had been greatly restricted, and he was not encouraged to participate in royal sports such as hunting, animal combats, or chaugan (polo).

Major Pollier wrote in 1777 that, after becoming the emperor, Prince Ahmed “gave himself up entirely to the drinking of wine, bhang, charas, and other intoxicating liquors and left a eunuch, the gallant of his mother, the sole disposer of everything.”

Qudsia Begum and Eunuch Nawab: Proxy Rulers of the Mughal Empire

Emperor Ahmed Shah made Safdar Jung his chief Wazir, the position previously held by Nizamul Mulk. He delegated the entire administration to the illiterate eunuch chief of his harem, Jawed Khan, who had an intimate relationship with the Queen Mother, by elevating him to the position of Nawab Bahadur (Vicar of the Emperor). On Qudsia Begum’s recommendation, Jawed Khan was honoured with a mansab of 7000. The highest title of court (mahi-o-maratib) was granted to him along with the position of Superintendent (darogah) of the Water-House (Abder-Khana), the Perfume Office and the Bath.

DSC_0032( A view from the top of the gateway: Two of corner columns.)

Mir_Miran_001( Queen Udham Bai being entertained by actors in Portugese costumes, by painter Mir Miran, 1742. Photographic Reproduction of Original.  Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain:

DSC_0036( The zigzag surface pattern on the columns )

The Mughal Empire had already begun to shrink. To the east, Alivardi Khan independently ruled Bengal, and Maratha Peshwa had a similar hold in the south. Gujarat had gone to the Marathas. Only Agra, Oudh, Lahore and Allahabad remained with the Mughal crown.

The Queen Mother, originally named Udham Bai, was a public dancing girl who had been introduced to the Emperor Muhammad Shah by Khadija Khanam. The emperor had become so enamoured with her beauty that he at once admitted her into the royal harem as his third wife.

Though she remained the favoured queen for some years, fortune deserted her fast. Eventually, it came to pass that she was not allowed to see her own son, even inside the harem.

However, after the death of her husband, due to her proximity to Jawed Khan, she was elevated to a nominal mansab of 50,000. Honorific titles like Bai Jiju Sahiba (“the Parent of the Pure, the Lady of the Age, Sahib Ji Sahiba, on whom be peace!”), Kibla-i-Alam and Hazrat Qudsia were heaped upon her. Even her brother, a vagabond who used to perform in dancing troupes, became a high-ranking officer.

She began to conduct the state’s business from behind a screen. There, officials passed her petitions in envelopes, and eunuchs read them aloud for the Begum to listen and deliver her approvals and judgments. At the zenith of her power, she displayed levels of magnanimity and charity unheard of in those times. She provided regular pensions to all of the children and begums of her husband and gifted large amounts of money to her own children and grandchildren. Any person who could manage to get his or her case heard by her was sure to get some benefit or help.

DSC_0042( Qudsia Bagh Garden Pavilion with its sweeping staircase.)

Qudsia Begum and Nawab Jawed Khan became the rulers of the empire. Ahmed Shah, meanwhile, was a mere puppet engaged in petty pleasures. While his vicar was ruling the empire, Ahmed Shah retired entirely to a large pleasure garden that he had built. He had extended this zenana for more than a mile, and for months on end he would spend his days in the garden, ignoring state affairs.

Although Nawab Jawed Khan was virtually the reigning sovereign, he soon lost the trust and respect of the citizens and soldiers. One day, a number of his troops assembled at his house and, demanding their pay and arrears, tore his clothes and manhandled him. He then collected some money from Qudsia Begum for distribution to his troops, but the soldiers never got any of it. In the meantime, the starving troops started deserting, and the army was reduced to a bare minimum. Recurring mutinies were staged in which soldiers blocked the gates of the palace and mansions.

Arms, books, utensils, carpets, dinner plates and all sorts of articles in the imperial palace were sold off to shopkeepers and middlemen to raise money for soldiers’ salaries, which ran into years of arrears. Sometimes, the troops would forcibly enter amirs’ mansions and take their valuables.

Despite the fact that funding even a standing army was posing difficulties, Qudsia Begum celebrated her birthday with great fanfare, at a cost of two crores of rupees, on January 21, 1754.

DSC_0041( The structure has been significantly modified during the Colonial era, including new rooms and walls of stone.)

The Challenge of Safdar Jung

Safdar Jung was the nephew and son-in-law of Saadat Ali Khan – the famed governor of Oudh, who had died during the Persian occupation of Delhi. Saadat Khan had paid thirty lakh rupees to Nadir Shah, against a demand of one crore rupees. Safdar Jung then paid the balance amount to Nadir Shah to retain Oudh’s governorship. Though he was undoubtedly the ablest among his peers, his end was similar to what Bairam Khan faced in trying to become the lord to his master.

Due to sectarian religious divide, Jung was unable to get sufficient support from either the amirs and nobles, or the royal court. The emperor-eunuch duo had developed a dislike for the strong wazir and devised ways to oust him from his position. The emperor’s mind was poisoned by the idea that Safdar Jung wanted to dethrone him and install the late emperor’s brother as the new sovereign. Numerous foul plots were woven to discredit Jung. This led to open animosity between the trinity of Qudsia Begum, Ahmed Shah, and Jawed Khan on one side and Wazir Safdar Jung on the other.

Within five months of his taking over the position of wazir, an anonymous attack with a volley of matchlock and pistol balls was made on Jung as he was making way homewards from an Idgah to his residence, which was once the mansion of Dara Shukoh. He was passing through the markets at Nigamabodh when the attempt on his life occurred. His horse and servants were fatally wounded, and he narrowly escaped death.

illustration( Watercolour painting of Safdarjung Tomb in urban sketchier style, by N.Ghanapriya)

From 1749 to 1752, Jung remained outside of Delhi. He went on military expeditions in Rohilakhand, where he suppressed the Rohillas with the help of Maratha and Jat armies.

On August 27, 1752, Safdur Jung made perhaps the gravest mistake of his life: in order to finally settle the score against Jawed Khan, he invited the Nawab to his mansion for a discussion at lunch and, taking him to a corner of his massive mansion, knifed to death with the help of his Jat supporters.

On hearing the news, the shocked Qudsia Begum, just like a widow, discarded her jewels and put on a white robe. The emperor stripped Safdar Jung of his governorship of Oudh and Allahabad, and confiscated his estates. Safdar Jung called for his Jat allies, and for one year from March 1753 to November 1753, civil war broke out in Delhi. The loot and plunder of old Delhi by the Jat forces, and the massively chaotic scene thereafter, was depicted as ‘Jat-Gardi’. On the other side, the emperor sought the support of Najib Khan’s Rohilla army, who joined in the conflict with full force. Finally a peace agreement was reached. Oudh and Allahabad were restored to Safdar Jung, but he had to leave the capital. In December 1753 he left Delhi for Oudh. After two years of settling down there, he died at the young age of 46. In Delhi, his son Shuja-ud-Daulah erected a grand mausoleum for his father known as the Safdar Jung’s Tomb, and his body was interred there.

DSC_0049( The center bulbuous dome of the Qudsia Bagh mosque with sandstone finial.)

End of the Dowager Queen

In 1748 Nizam-ul-Mulk died, and the fight for Deccan’s governorship started in full fury. While his eldest son was stationed in the Mughal court under the emperor Ahmed Shah, his two younger brothers laid claim to the seat of power at Hyderabad one after another. In 1752, the eldest son -armed with a farman from the Ahmed Shah, and with a large Maratha force- captured Hyderabad, but he too died soon, possibly of poisoning.

His son, “Imad-ul-Mulk” Ghazi-ud-din Feroz Jung III, – grandson of Nizam-ul-Mulk -, was appointed by the Mughal Emperor as the “Noble of Nobles” (Amir-ul-Umara). Later, when the fight started with Safdar Jung in Delhi, he emerged as a hero in the Mughal camp.

However, a bitter squabble started between the cash-strapped Imad -who had incurred significant expenses in suppressing Safdar Jung’s revolt- and the emperor. By now, the Maratha forces under Malhar Rao Holkar, which had been waiting on the fence to see who would come out victorious in the Ahmed Shah – Safdar Jung civil war, had arrived in full force in Delhi, and were virtually in control of the city. The Maratha army was engaged in the plundering of the city, while the helpless emperor looked on. Finally, a suggestion to promote Imad-ul-Mulk as the Wazir, was given to the emperor, in return for the promise that Imad and Malhar would not trouble his empire.



On 30 May 1754, the helpless emperor made Imad the Wazir under an oath of the Quran. Immediately after assuming his new office, Imad sprang a surprise coup, and announced the Mughal prince Alamgir II as the new emperor. The new emperor ordered his predecessor to be arrested and brought before him.

Ahmed Shah had remained emperor for merely six months since the end of Safdar Jung’s revolt. Little did the new emperor Alamgir II know, that in only a few years’ time he would be mercilessly stabbed to death by the same Imad-ul-Mulk’s men, while Ahmed Shah would still be alive, albeit behind prison bars.

Ahmed Shah and his mother Qudsia Begum were captured hiding in a garden in front of the Rang Mahal. Ahmed Shah, perhaps his face livid with fear and astonishment; and voice coarse with emotion, cried in disbelief to be given some water. He was made to drink from a broken piece of an earthen pot lying on the ground.

Thus narrates the anonymous chronicler of Tarikh-I Alamgir-Sani, “Up to this time Ahmed Shah knew nothing of what was passing until the kettle-drums roused him from his heedlessness. Soon afterwards Ghaziu-d din (Imad-ul-Mulk)’s men, with some harem attendants, arrived, brought out Ahmad and his mother Udham Bai, and were about to make an end of them, when he implored them to send him to the abode of the princes, and there confine him. So, they placed him and his mother in one litter, threw a sheet over their heads and took them to the dwelling of the princes.”

Ahmed Shah was blinded and thrown into Salimgarh prison along with his mother, for the rest of their lives.

It is sad to not find a single tomb built that has been traced to this unusual matriarch who once ruled Delhi and the Mughal Empire.

DSC_0043( Decorative stucco work on the Qudsia Bagh Garden pavilion.)


Part B: Flashback to Nadir Shah – Rise of the Second Alexander


One event that is invariably invoked with any narrative of Muhammad Shah is the attack on Delhi by Nadir Shah. So, let us turn back the clock a bit – from 1754 to 1739 – to dwell upon the conqueror and his audacious conquest.

Nadir Kuli Shah (“Nadir” meaning “wonderful” in Turkish, and ‘Kuli’ meaning “Slave”, i.e. the “Slave of the wonderful”, or  “Slave of God”) was born as a son of an Afshar tribe chief in a small province in Khorasan (“Khor” meaning Sun, the name meant “Land of the Sun”). His father was the chief of a strategically located fortress, that overlooked a narrow mountainous pass, through which Ousbeg Tartar intruders could easily be desisted from entering Khorasan. In those times Khorasan was but a small area; its eastern areas including Isfahan had been captured by Afghans, the western provinces were under the control of the Turks from Constantinople, and the northern areas bordering the Caspian Sea -known as Hyrcania- were controlled by the Russians.


( Inside Muhammad Shah Rangeela’s tomb complex at the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya: 1: emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela; 2: his wife Sahiba Mahall; 3: wife of Nadir Shah’s son; 4: infant daughter of Nadir Shah’s son’s wife; 5: grandson of Muhammad Shah – Mirza Jigru; 6: Mirza Ashuri.)

Nadir Shah became orphaned as a young boy, and soon saw his birthright to the small province usurped by his wily uncle. With no other choice left with him, he abandoned his home and was admitted as an army commander in the neighbouring Masbad province. Soon, the time came for Nadir Shah to prove his mettle, when, in 1720, a large army of Ousbeg Tartars launched an attack on tiny Masbad. Young Nadir Shah displayed unusual bravery and, taking control of the small army of Masbad, he defeated the much bigger Tartar force.

After proving his military acumen, he aspired to join the Persian army as the Lieutenant General. However, none of his prayers could convince the Shah of Persia. When he pestered repeatedly with his request, the indolent Shah ordered him to be bastinadoed (a punishment of canning the soles of the feet) till his toenails came off, and dismissed him from service. Shunned by family and the Kingdom alike, Nadir Shah roamed in the wilderness, slowly gathering a small gang of armed men. Soon, in 1726, he was successful in capturing his home province after killing his uncle.

d in law2

( Tomb of Nadir Shah’s daughter-in-law)

The Persian King could no longer ignore his requests in the face of unceasing attacks by the Turks and Afghans, and invited him to join as the Lieutenant General of the Army. In a couple of years Nadir Shah recaptured the territories of Herat, Isfahan, and Shiraz from the Afghans on the east; and both Hamadan and Carmanshah from the Turks in the west. He then disposed of the king, and declared his infant son as his successor. Soon he led his victorious army to capture Baghdad, and recovered Georgia, Armenia and the whole of the Silk Road countries from the Russians.

In 1736, he declared himself Persia’s Shah, or Emperor; an occasion commemorated by issuing coins with the inscriptions:

Sikka bir Zir Kurd nam e Sultani dir Jehan; Nadir e Iran zemmi v Khosro e Geti Setan

(Coins and Money have proclaimed through the Earth, the Reign of Nadir of Persian Soil, and the King who conquers the world.)

Shahjahanabad in the Crosshairs

During these days, when the Mughal Empire was starting to fall apart, Muhammad Shah recognized the need for some strong amirs to manage the administration. For this he asked Nizam-ul-Mulk, Deccan’s governor, to come to Delhi and join him in the leadership. Nizamul Mulk reluctantly arrived at Delhi after much delay, but soon found that the coterie around the emperor would not let any of his suggestions be implemented. Soon he returned to Deccan, and there he roused the Marathas to march northwards to take advantage of the weak emperor. The Marathas had already started to sweep over the Mughal provinces of Malwa, Gujarat, Gwalior, and Agra, forcing the governors there to pay tribute of a quarter of their revenue to the Marathas. Once they even reached the Kalka locality in the outskirt of Shahjahanbad, looting a religious congregation. Only in Oudh (now Ayodhya) did they face defeat at the hands of its governor Saadat Khan.

Both Nizamul Mulk and Saadat Khan were not happy with the Mughal emperor losing his grip, and the Marathas gaining power. Nizamul Mulk then opened parleys with Saadat Khan, and they decided to dislodge the emperor by inviting a strong force from outside. Who could have better fit the bill than Nadir Shah of Persia, whose name had become synonymous with victory, and was known as the “Second Alexander?” Both of them were of Central Asian origin, and Saadat Khan was a Persian by birth.

When Nadir Shah set out to capture Kandahar, the letters from Nizamul Mulk and Saadat Khan reached him, describing the sorry state of affairs in Hindustan and requesting him to attack Delhi. Though he had not been defeated in his military career to date, the prospect of venturing into the plains of Hindustan was not a welcome one. Hindustan lay beyond numerous mountainous passes and rivers, and he had to subdue Kabul, Peshawar, and Lahore on the way to reach Shahjahanabad, while the Mughal army would definitely offer him a fitting resistance.

While in Kabul in August 1739, he sent a letter to Muhammad Shah, saying, “Be it clear to the enlightened mind of your high majesty, that my coming to Kabul, and possessing myself thereof, was purely out of zeal for Islam, and friendship for you. I never could have imagined that the wretches of Deccan should impose a tribute on the dominion of the king of mussulmen. My stay on this side of the Attock is with a view, that when these infidels move towards Hindostan, I may send an army of the victorious Kuzzlebash to drive them to the Abyss of Hell. History is full of friendship that has subsisted between our Kings, and your Majesty’s predecessors.”

door2( Floral designs on the marble door to the tomb enclosure)

Towards the end of August another emissary of Nadir Shah arrived in Delhi, asking for four crores of rupees and four provinces from the Mughal emperor. Contemporary history chronicler Khwaja Abdul Karim Khan of Kashmir narrates in his Bayan-I Waki that Nadir Shah sent two emissaries to emperor Muhammad Shah, laden with gifts of elephants and gold-handled swords. After an exchange of royal pleasantries they gave a verbal request from the Persian to Muhammad Shah to arrange a handsome fund. Pressing financial needs at home were quoted but the contentment of the unquenchable hunger of the “Second Alexander” was still doubtful, even if this amount were arranged. Muhammad Shah was no visionary in military matters, and the two emissaries returned back with the choicest gifts from Hindustan but not with the money. Nadir Shah then set his vengeful eyes to hunt down the unfortunate emperor of Delhi, in order to punish him for his recalcitrance. By some accounts, he was also miffed with Muhammad Shah for not sealing off his borders at Kabul, as requested by Nadir Shah, to prevent war fugitives from Kandahar fleeing into the Mughal territory and taking sanctuary there.

At last he set out to Hindustan with an army of 1,25,000 Kuzzlebash (an elite Persian army unit called the “Red Hats”), Georgians, Turks, Khorasanis, and Balkhis. Soon he subdued Jalalabad – a place famous for its pomegranates- and crossed the Khyber Pass to reach Peshawar, crossed the river Attock, and reached Lahore. The hardy Afghans raised enough resistance to break the unhindered march of the Persian invaders, but ultimately failed. If, at this time, a strong army would have been dispatched by the Mughal Emperor, perhaps history would be telling a different story today. At the famed Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, his army rested for a week before resuming their march towards Delhi.

During the marches Nadir Shah conducted himself as a common soldier, sleeping on the ground in the open air; wrapped in his cloak and with a saddle as his pillow. He was extremely generous with his men, but he would always mete out death as a punishment for major transgressors, while cutting off an ear was his penalty for minor offences. He never indulged in pleasurable pursuits in daytime, but after sunset he did not like business to be discussed. Once a few of his comrades started advising him in a private evening gathering, and he immediately ordered them to be executed, commenting that, ”Such fools were not fit to live, who could not distinguish between Nadir Shah and Nadir Kuli.” 

door3( Heavy marble doors of the tomb enclosure; built during the reign of Muhammad Shah. )

Carnage in Karnal and the Collapse of the Mughal Order

In Delhi, as the news of Nadir Shah crossing the Attock River reached the emperor, the first thing he did was to summon the superintendent of boats to inquire how many days it would take to flee to Patna or Benares by the riverway. Dissuaded from such thoughts by his amirs, he asked all the provinces to assemble their armies in Delhi at the Shalimar Gardens. Nizamul Mulk did not waste much time, however, in poisoning the minds of the commanders on the futility of defeating Nadir Shah.

After wasting a month in Shalimar Gardens, the Mughal army finally marched out and settled at the riverfront near Karnal. They formed a battle encampment there because of the sufficient water supply required for a large army. An earthen wall was raised around the camp, while 5,000 cannons and artillery were installed in position. The entire Mughal command, including the emperor and his son, rested and waited for the dust clouds from the stamping hooves of enemy horses to appear from a distance. The Mughal army consisted of 2,00,000 men on horse and foot.

On February 11, 1739, the first advance guards of Nadir Shah were spotted in the village Tillauvri, near Karnal. The next day, the full force of the Persians rose up from the horizon—a force of 1,60,000 robust young men who were completely armed and mounted on camels, horses, and mules. Not a single person was on foot. Even the approximately 7,000 captive women were dressed like men: fine cloth pieces covered their faces, small cloths were tied around their heads like turbans, and they were booted and armed as men riding on Persian horses.

DSC_0247( Muhammad Shah and his wife: how much Qudsia Begum must have hoped to have her own tomb here – among the royals)

Simultaneously, the delayed army of Saadat Khan from Oudh reached the encampment. Suddenly, a fierce battle flared up wherein the Indian forces were led by brave Afghans, Sayyids, Shaikhs, and Rajputs. On the first day, the setting sun saw the martyrdom of Indian men numbering in the thousands; by some accounts the count was 17,000, but by others it was 5,000. The Oudh governor, Saadat Khan, was taken prisoner by the Iranian forces. Many of the Indians who survived did so by fleeing from the scene in the night.

On 16 February, Nadir Shah ordered Saadat Khan’s men to shift to the Persian camp. The Indian camp had become very thin, and it became clear that its defeat was certain. The next day, the cunning Nizamul Mulk requested a meeting with Nadir Shah, where he was welcomed with a glass of sherbet. He promised Nadir Shah a tribute of 20 crores of rupees at Delhi, and it was decided that Muhammad Shah should visit the Persian the following day.

The Emperor Muhammad Shah decided to blink his eyes and on 19 February, he proceeded to the tent of Nadir Shah sitting on a mobile throne of gold, where he was received by the Persian King’s son. The two emperors entered the audience tent holding each other’s hands and sat down for a discussion, with all the attendant formalities of both Persian and Mughal royal etiquettes.

infant( Tomb of the infant daughter of Nadir Shah’s daughter-in-law )

Nadir Shah was a well-built man of more than six feet high, of ruddy disposition and inclining to be fat. He had black eyes and eyebrows, and had a loud strong voice. He was more than fifty-five years of age.

Once inside the royal tent, Nadir Shah rebuked Muhammad Shah on his failure to seek reconciliation with him. “Even when I entered your empire, you seemed under no concern for your affairs, nor so much as sent to ask who I was, or what was my design. When I advanced as far as Lahore, none of your people came with a message or salutation.” However, he added that since the royal Timurid house had always been friendly with the Persian people, he had no ambition to take away his power. But as his army was tired, they needed to rest at Delhi, and also the tribute money as promised by Nizamul Mulk must be arranged.

To commemorate his victory at Karnal, coins were struck with the inscription below:

 “Hist Sultan, bir Salatin Jehan; Shab e Shahan Nadir Shaheb e Keran.”

 (Nadir, Fortune’s Master, and King of Kings, is the most powerful of the Princes of the Earth)

Chronicler Warid narrates in his Tarikh-I Chaghatai that Nadir Shah presented coffee to Muhammad Shah in his own hands, saying, “Since you have done me the honour to come here, you are my brother, and may you remain happy in Hindustani empire.” The emperor dined with Nadir Shah, and returned back to his camp.

Muhammad Shah did not commit his agreement to the invader. By 20 February, the Mughal camp was reeling under acute shortage of grains. Wheat was sold at 1.5 seers per rupee, while in the Persian camp, it was being sold as cheap as 12 seers per rupee. On 25 February, Nadir Shah ordered Muhammad Shah to appear in his camp before proceeding to Delhi.

king1( Here lies Muhammad Shah Rangeela: in the blessed courtyard of Nizamuddin Dargah.)

Unthinkable Massacre at Chandni Chowk

On March 8, 1739, Muhammad Shah and Nadir Shah entered Shahjahanabad with much fanfare—the emperor on his choicest elephant, followed by the conqueror on a horse. Nadir Shah occupied the Diwan-i-Khas and the Garden of Hayat Baksh for his own accommodation, and relegated the emperor to an outer quarter of the fort in the Ayesh Mahal in Suliman’s Burj (Solomon’s Tower). Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ became a prisoner in his own fort.

On March 10, Persian soldiers reached the Pahar Ganj market. After forcing the granaries open, they mandated a selling price of 10 seers of wheat per rupee. This unprofitable price caused a market brawl. It was the festival of Holi and people were intoxicated, in an excited state. In the narrow lanes of the city, a few Persians were seized and killed. Some Persian soldiers were locked inside a room and set afire. A rumour spread throughout the city that Nadir Shah had been fatally wounded by a gunshot from a female guard within the fort. He was thought to be dead. The citizens of Delhi sprung upon the Persians immediately, and as many as 3000 were butchered in a day.

king2( Elaborate motifs on Muhammad Shah’s tomb: dirtied by the oil soot and unkempt maintenance)

The next morning, Nadir Shah rode from the fort. When he reached Chandni Chowk, he ordered the rioters to be cut up. The inhabitants suddenly climbed their terraces and started throwing bricks and stones. They next used fire-arms and arrows, and one of the guards next to Nadir Shah fell to a gunshot. Nadir Shah—silhouetted against the three beautiful golden domes of the Sunheri Masjid, built by Roshan-ud-Daula,—ordered the mass slaughter of Shahjahanabad’s citizens. Chandni Chowk, Daribah-bazaar, Pul-Mithai (a bridge populated by confectioners), the fruit market, Khanum Bazar, and areas around Jama Masjid were set afire, and everyone in sight was slaughtered. Streams of blood flowed from every house. Even women and innocent children were not spared. In a mere nine hours, not less than 30,000 people had been massacred.

Sonheri Masjid(An old photograph of Sunheri Masjid in Chandni Chowk, from where Nadir Shah ordered the Shahjahanabad massacre in 1739. Picture © ASI, New Delhi, from their publication, ‘List of Muhammadan and Hindu Monuments of Shahjahanabad, Vol-I, illustrations, Calcutta, 1915.’ Reproduced with kind permission.)


An eyewitness to the massacre, Anand Ram Mukhlis writes in Tazkira that, “The author beheld these horrors from his mansion, situated in the Wakilpura Muhalla outside the city, resolved to fight to the last if necessary, and with the help of God to fall at last with honour. But, the Lord be praised, the work of destruction did not extend beyond the above-named parts of the capital. Since the days of Hazrat Sahib-kiran Amir Timur, who captured Delhi and ordered the inhabitants to be massacred, up to the present time, A.H. 1151, a period of 348 years, the capital had been free from such visitations. The ruins in which its beautiful streets and buildings were now involved was such that the labour of years could alone restore the town to its former state of grandeur.”

Anand Ram continues, “For a long time the streets remained strewn with corpses, as the walks of a garden with dead flowers and leaves. The town was reduced to ashes, and had the appearance of a plain consumed with fire. All the regal jewels and property and the contents of the treasury were seized by the Persian conqueror in the citadel. “

mom&child1( Mother and Child: Tombs of Wife and daughter of Nadir Shah’s son. It is not known how or when they died.)

On the 13th of March, when a group of beggars and fakirs sought permission to go out of the city and continue their begging elsewhere, their noses and ears were cut off as punishment. In the city, corpses lay like the planks of a bridge, heaped in mounds like observatory platforms. By March 14th, the stench of dead bodies was unbearable and heaps of carcasses were burned with the timber of ransacked houses. A great many of them were simply thrown down the river.

An interesting anecdote about the fate of the two unfortunate governors is described by Rustam Ali in his Tarikh-e-Hind. One day Nadir Shah heaped abuse and insults on Nizamul Mulk and Saadat Khan, threatening execution. Perhaps he read the dubious character of Nizamul Mulk, who had negotiated a tribute of twenty crore rupees from a pauper Mughal emperor. Or perhaps he guessed the real intent of the duo to lure him to Hindustan was to gain kingship of the empire as his agents by disposing Muhammad Shah. Both came out of Diwan-i-Khas, and once outside, Nizamul Mulk proposed that since there can be no relent expected from the new master, both should consume poison and end their lives.

“After this, the chief of deceivers went to his house, and, having expressed his will to his relations, drank a cup of water mixed with sugar, covered himself with a sheet, and went to sleep. As soon as he heard this, Burhanu-l Mulk (Saadat Khan)—a true soldier who was unaware of his perfidy—drank a cup of poison and went to the next world.”

Saadat Khan committed suicide on March 9, two days before the Chandni Chowk massacre.

Tomb of Muhammad Shah and Royal Family

On the 27th of March 1739, Nesr Alla Mirza – the second son of Nadir Shah – married the great granddaughter of Aurangzeb and daughter of Lesdan Baksh in a glittering ceremony on the banks of Yamuna, illuminated with fireworks. A few days later, Nadir Shah sent her jewels worth five lakh rupees.

Today, in the tomb of Muhammad Shah at Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah, we can find the tombs of Nadir Shah’s son’s wife and her infant daughter. It can therefore be conjectured that Nadir Shah left his daughter-in-law, who later gave birth to a daughter, in Delhi while returning to Persia. The circumstances of their deaths are not recorded anywhere.

Muhammad Shah’s tomb enclosure at the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya is enclosed with pierced marble screens, 7’2” in height. Visitors enter through a marble door, which is beautifully engraved with floral designs. Corners of the enclosure are marked by sculptured guldastas. At the centre of the enclosure lie the graves of the royal family: Muhammad Shah, his wife Sahiba Mahall, his daughter-in-law, her infant daughter, Muhammad Shah’s grandsons Mirza Jigru and Mirza Ashuri, and one unknown grave in the northeastern corner which is believed, due to its small size, to be of a child. 

Extracting the Tribute Money

On March 30, 1739, auditors were appointed to roam from house to house, noting how much money should be extorted from each person and family. The amount was decided according to the person’s look and appearance. A month earlier in Karnal, Nizamul Mulk had promised a tribute of twenty crore rupees in Delhi. However, the emperor had a maximum amount of three crores, separate from the sealed off vaults in Mughal chambers. Nizamul Mulk arranged 1.5 crores himself, while one crore was given by Saadat Khan, and, after his suicide, by his nephew Safdar Jung.

unknown( An unknown grave at the north eastern corner of the complex: almost detached from other tombs.)

From the citizens, money was extracted in the most vicious and inhuman way. Families were ruined; many took poison or stabbed themselves to death. Even the adopted son of the Kotwal, Folad Khan, committed suicide by stabbing himself, because he was unable to face the extortion tortures. This continued for more than a month until the very last day of Nadir Shah’s departure on the fourth of May. No barbarity or atrocity was left un-practiced on the hapless citizens. They lived in perpetual fear, waiting for officials to come extract the ‘peishkash,’ or tribute money.

Leaving Behind the Plundered City of Delhi

Then, Nadir Shah prepared to return from Delhi. Tazrika, by Anand Ram Mukhlis, describes a grand farewell dinner, followed by a call from a Persian officer to his troops: “On the 29th of Muhamrram, the glory of the realms of Hind proceeded to partake of an entertainment given by the ruler of Iran. A quarter of the day passed in rejoicings. A hundred and one pieces of cloth, within which were precious objects from foreign countries, and several trays of jewels, offered by the Shah, were accepted by the royal visitor, who then took his departure.”

During his farewell function, Nadir Shah placed a golden jewel-encrusted crown on the head of Muhammad Shah with his own hands, apologising at the very same time for his intrusion. His lofty parting advice was to secure the army by appointing one officer called a deh-bashi for every ten soldiers, one officer called a sudival for every ten deh-bashis, and one hazarri for every ten sudivals. He then summoned Nizamul Mulk and other amirs, and threatened them with dire consequences if they ever revolted against Muhammad Shah. He allowed khutbah to be read again in the name of Muhammad Shah, and sent farmans to Maratha Generals Baji Rao and Rajah Sahu to obey Muhammad Shah as the emperor.

It is said that Nadir Shah had two regrets while leaving Delhi, which he could not avoid as he had already promised accordingly: the first was to allow an unworthy emperor to retain Hindustan; the second one was to spare the cunning Nizamul Mulk.

The commander of the Persian Army announced thereafter, “Soldiers, the King of Kings and Lord of beneficence, our master, the protector of the world, conquered the country of Hindustan and restored it. Tomorrow, our victorious banners move towards Irak. Be you prepared!”

While finally leaving Delhi, he gave his final instructions to Hajee Folad Khan, Delhi’s Kotwal, “that if any of his soldiers were found in the city after his march, to cut off their ears and noses, and then send them to him.”

wife( Elaborately done design on the tomb of Muhammad Shah’s wife.)

Chronicler Warid informs us that after Nadir Shah left, Muhammad Shah imposed a strange restraining order that prohibited any historical account to be written. Warid says while ending his book: “After the departure of Nadir Shah, a Royal Order was issued in the following effect: ‘all public officers should occupy themselves in the discharge of their ordinary duties, except the historians. They should refrain from recording the events of my reign, for at present the record cannot be a pleasant one. The reigns of Imperial or Supreme Government have fallen from my hands. I am now the viceroy of Nadir Shah.’ Notwithstanding that the nobles and great officers of the Court, hearing these melancholy reflections of the Emperor, in many complimentary and flattering speeches recommended him to withdraw this order, His Majesty would not be satisfied. Consequently, being helpless, all the historians obeyed the royal mandate, and laid down their pens.”

Fraser [Ref.3] estimates that 70 Crores of wealth was carried away by Nadir Shah from Delhi:

Jewels from Emperor and Amirs: 25 Crores

Utensils and Handles of Weapons set with Jewels, with the Peacock Throne, etc.: 9 Crores

Money Coined in Gold and Silver Coins: 25 Crores

Gold and Silver Plates which he melted into coins: 5 Crores

Fine Clothes and rich stuff, etc.: 2 Crores

Household Furniture, and other commodities: 3 Crores

Weapons, etc.: 1 Crore


       Part C: The Priceless Treasure Trove of the Mughals


The legendary treasure trove of Hindustan has changed hands en masse on two occasions, once in 1739, when it was taken by Nadir Shah, and then again in 1857 by Prize Agents of the East India Company. Apart from these two conquests, a great many priceless gems and jewels were acquired by the early European traders in India and sold in Europe.

Today, many of the world’s famous diamonds have been attributed conclusively to the 1739 sack of Delhi. The most well-known jewels and artefacts among them are listed below—the little toys of compressed and crystallized charcoals that have wended their way through a labyrinth of mankind’s violent history.

1( A lithograph by Emily Eden showing one of the favourite horses of Maharaja Ranjit Singh with the stables officer, along with the collection of jewels, including the Koh-I-Noor which was given to him by Shuja Shah Durrani of Afghanistan. 1844. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain: )

During Nadir Shah’s homeward march from Delhi back to Persia, he had ordered all the acquired jewels to be decorated on a tent. The tent is described in great details by an eyewitness Abdul Kurreem, who accompanied Nadir Shah on his return journey, in his memoir:

“ The outside was covered with fine scarlet broadcloth, the lining was of violet coloured satin, upon which were representations of all the birds and beasts in the creation, with trees and flowers, the whole made of pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, amethysts, and other precious stones: and the tent poles were decorated in like manner. On both sides of the Peacock Throne was a screen, upon which were the figures of two angels in precious stones. The roof of the tent consisted of seven pieces, and when it was transported to any place, two of these pieces packed in cotton, were put into a wooden chest, two of which were a sufficient load for an elephant; and the screen filled another chest. The walls of the tent, the tent poles and the tent pins, which latter were of massy gold, loaded five more elephants; so that for the carriage of the whole required seven elephants. This magnificent tent was displayed on all festivals in the Dewan Khaneh at Heart, during the remainder of Nadir Shah’s reign. After his death, his nephew Adil Shah, and his grandson Shahrokh, whose territories were very limited, and expenses enormous, had the tent taken to pieces, and dissipated the produce.” 

  1. Peacock Throne

Ten years after Nadir Shah returned from India with unimaginable treasure in 1739, he was assassinated by his own guards. Immediately, the famed Peacock Throne was dismantled, and its gems and stones were cut out and dispersed in the world market, though the entire lot can never be accounted for.

The Peacock Throne, or the Mayurasan, has been described by many, including historians Abdul Hamid Lahori, Inayat Khan, and French travellers Bernier and Tavernier, but Tavernier’s account can be considered most authentic, as he was officially allowed to inspect it in the Mughal court by Aurangzeb.

JB-Tavernier( French gem trader Tavernier in Oriental costumes. 1679.  Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain: {{PD-US}} )

Tavernier was a French gem merchant who travelled to Persia and India six times between 1630 and 1668.

According to him, the throne was of almost the size of a bed, being 6 ft x 4 ft in dimension. There were four horizontal bars connecting its four legs, upon which 12 columns stand to hold a canopy. At the center of each of the 12 columns, a cross design was made of a ruby surrounded by four emeralds. There were 108 large rubies (100-200 carats), 116 large emeralds (30-60 carats), innumerable diamonds and gemstones were studded in the throne made of solid gold. Its paraphernalia included cushions, swords, a mace, a round shield, umbrellas – all studded with gemstones and pearls. The underside of the canopy was covered with pearls and diamonds.

Abdul Lahori describes the throne and its well-known stones, such as Koh-i-Noor, the Akbar Shah diamond, the Shah diamond, the Timur Ruby, and the Shah Jahan diamond.

      2.   Koh-i-Noor

This diamond – known as ‘Babur’s Diamond’ before 1739 – was acquired from the Kakatiya dynasty by Allauddin Khilji. When Ibrahim Lodi was defeated by Babur, it was apparently handed over to Humayun by the mother of Ibrahim Lodi to guarantee the family’s safety. However, other sources say that it was gifted to Humayun by the Gwalior Royal Family. Thereafter, it was presented by Humayun to the Persian Shah Tamasp (to garner his support to regain Hindustan), who then gave it to the Deccan Kingdom as a gift. It came back to the Mughals during Shah Jahan’s reign – via a Persian diamond dealer, Mir Jumla –and remained with the Mughal emperors until 1739.

Dalip_singh_winterhalter( Duleep Singh (1838-1893) in 1854, Oil on canvas portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, commissioned by Queen Victoria. The British East India Company acquired the Koh-i-Noor from Duleep Singh in 1843. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain:{{PD-US}} )

It is rumoured that Nadir Shah was tipped off that the emperor Muhammad Shah was hiding the diamond in his turban. Nadir Shah then invited the emperor to a customary turban-exchange ceremony to foster eternal supportive ties between the two empires. He could not believe his eyes when he found the diamond concealed within layers of the turban, and exclaimed, ‘Koh-i-Noor!’ (‘Mountain of Light!’). Since then, it has been known by that name.

After Nadir Shah was assassinated ten years later, the diamond fell into the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali of Kabul. After Abdali, it was ceded by the Afghans to Sikh King Ranjit Singh of Punjab. On his death-bed in 1839, Ranjit Singh willed the Koh-i-Noor to the Jagannath Temple at Puri. The British East India Company acquired it from his son (Duleep Singh) in 1843.

Croquis_du_Koh-i-Noor_d'après_Tavernier(Tavernier’s illustration of the Koh-I-Noor. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain: )

It is said that the diamond was kept by John Lawrence, who had absent-mindedly put the box in his coat pocket. When Governor General Dalhousie asked for it to be sent from Lahore to Mumbai, Lawrence asked his servant to find it; while rummaging through his wardrobe, the servant replied, ‘There is nothing here, Sahib, but a bit of glass!’

The Koh-i-Noor was transported to England aboard HMS Madea, with Dalhousie carrying it personally. It was cut and put in a crown by the crown jewellers Garrard & Co.; Queen Mary wore this crown to the Delhi Coronation Durbar in 1911. 

    3. The Orloff:

Prior to 1739, this unusual half-egg shaped diamond was known as the Great Mogul. After Nadir Shah’s murder, one of his soldiers sold it to an Armenian merchant, and it was acquired subsequently by the Russian nobleman Grigorievich Orlov. Orlov presented it to his lover, the Grand Duchess Catherine, who mounted it in the Imperial Sceptre during her reign between 1762-96.

orlov( The Orloff diamond in the Imperial Scepter, now part of the Diamond Fund, Moscow. © Elkan Wijnberg. )

Another version of the diamond’s history states that it was one of the eyes in a temple in South India, which was stolen by a French army deserter who had converted to Hinduism solely to gain access to the sanctum Sanctorum of the temple to remove the diamond.

    4. The Shah Diamond:

This diamond remained in Iran for nearly a century until 1829, when the Russian diplomat and writer, Alexandr Griboyedov, was murdered in Tehran. Fearing a backlash from Russia, the grandson of the Shah visited Moscow and presented the diamond as a gift for Russian Tsar Nicholas I.

    5. The Great Table Diamond:

Darya-i-Noor( The Daria-e Noor (Sea of Light) Diamond from the collection of the national jewels of Iran at Central Bank of Islamic Republic of Iran. Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain CC-BY-SA-4.0: )

Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French traveler to India, mentioned a huge diamond of more than 400 carats that was set in the Peacock Throne, and called it the Diamanta Grande Table. After Nadir Shah’s murder, the diamond was cut many times and scattered throughout the world. Researchers are still trying to locate all of the pieces of this diamond, but only three have been confirmed to date: the Darya-i-Noor (Sea of Light), Noor-ul-Amin (Light of the Eye), and Shah Jahan Table Cut. The former two are among the Iranian Crown Jewels, as confirmed by a Canadian team from the Royal Ontario Museum who conducted a study on Iranian Crown Jewels in 1965. The Darya-i-Noor is the most celebrated diamond among the Iranian Crown Jewels, and has a status similar to that of the Koh-i-Noor in the British Crown Jewels. The Shah Jahan Table cut appeared mysteriously at a Christie’s auction in 1985, and was acquired by H.H.Sheikh Naseer Al-Sabah of Kuwait. It is assumed that it was not sold thereafter and remains in his family.

Table Cut( Drawing of the Great Table Diamond by Tavernier, 1676. [Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain: )     

6. Timur Ruby:

After Nadir Shah, Ahmed Shah Abdali of Kabul acquired a huge ruby along with the Koh-i-noor diamond, and later the Afghans ceded it to Sikh King Ranjit Singh. The British later acquired this mammoth 361 carat ruby from Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab. The names and dates of its six original owners are inscribed on the stone, as follows: Timur, Akbar (1612), Jahangir (1628), Aurangzeb (1659), Farrukhsiyar (1713), and Ahmad Shah Durrani (1754).

The ruby may be the one that was mentioned in Jauhar-I Samsam while describing its acquisition by Nadir Shah from Muhammad Shah: “His Majesty bestowed on Nadir Shah, with his own munificent hand, as a parting present, the Peacock throne, in which was set a ruby upwards of a girih (three fingers’ breadth) in width, and nearly two in length, which was commonly called khiraj-I alam, or ‘Tribute of the World’.”


Below is a list of those few invaluable translucent rocks that are sprinkled around the world, whose heritage we are aware of, thanks to the researchers and historians. Till date, these are the only jewels that could have been conclusively traced back to Nadir Shah’s sack of Delhi in 1739. An unknown vast majority of the precious stones that Nadir Shah took with him from Delhi, is simply untraceable, and most are probably lost in the passages of time. Few may be lying in private collections, and then also, it is doubtful if their historicity are known even to their owners. In this context, it does not really matter in which museum, or which city of the world these are located and preserved. The important thing is that they are well conserved by experts, to be passed down for generations and generations to cherish and appreciate these priceless items.

Name Characteristics Info
Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) COLOUR: Finest White


CURRENT LOCATION: British Crown Jewels, London

Was known as the ‘Babur’s Diamond’ prior to 1739
Orlov or Orloff COLOUR: Finest White with a faint bluish-green tinge


CURRENT LOCATION: Diamond Fund, Moscow

Was known as the Great Mogul diamond. It is also referred as one of the eyes of the Srirangam Temple idol, Tamil Nadu
Golconda d’or diamond COLOUR: Golden Yellow


CURRENT LOCATION: Dunklings Jewellers, Melbourne, Australia

Darya-i-Nur (Sea of Light) COLOUR: Pale Pink


CURRENT LOCATION: Iranian Crown Jewels, Central Bank of Iran, Tehran

ALTERNATE POSSIBLE LOCATION: As per some other experts, a diamond by the same name is in Sonali Bank, Dhaka ( Ref. 16)

Cut from the Great Table diamond originally of more than 400 carats ( Diamanta Grande Table, as described by French traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier)
Noor-ul-Amin (Light of the Eye) COLOUR: Pale Pink


CURRENT LOCATION: Iranian Crown Jewels, Central Bank of Iran, Tehran

Cut from the Great Tablet diamond originally of more than 400 carats (Diamanta Grande Table)
Taj-e-Mah (Crown of the Moon) COLOUR: Colourless


CURRENT LOCATION: Iranian Crown Jewels, Central Bank of Iran, Tehran

Considered to be the sister stone of the Darya-i-Noor
Shah Diamond COLOUR: White with a yellowish tinge


CURRENT LOCATION: Diamond Fund, Moscow

Shah Jahan Diamond COLOUR: Pale Pink


CURRENT LOCATION: H.H. Sheikh Naseer Al-Sabah, Kuwait

Akbar Shah Diamond COLOUR: White with light green hue


CURRENT LOCATION: H.H. Samarjitsinh Gaekwad of Vadodara Royal Family

Also called Shepherd’s Stone
Timur’s Ruby COLOUR: Red


CURRENT LOCATION: British Crown Jewels, London


Thanks to Aradhana Sinha, of INTACH Delhi Chapter for leading the exploration of ‘Civil Lines and Qudsia Bagh.’


  1. The Fall of the Mughal Empire: Volume 1; by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, 1934, Calcutta
  2. The History of India, as told by its own historians (Volume VIII) by Sir H.M. Elliot & John Dowson, 1877, London
  3. The History of Nadir Shah, by James Fraser, 1742, London
  4. The Memoirs of Khojeh Abdul Kureem, A Cashmerian of Distinction, by Francis Gladwin, 1788, Calcutta
  5. The Taj, The Magazine of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, Volume 33, No 2, 2nd Quarter, 2004, Mumbai
  6. Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857, Asia Society Exhibition,
  7. Old Delhi – 10 Easy Walks, by Gaynor Barton and Laurraine Malone, 2005, New Delhi
  8. A Guide to Nizamu-d Din, Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India ; by Maulvi Zafar Hasan, 1922 (Reprinted 1998), ASI, New Delhi.
  9. Koh-i-Nur: A Diamond’s Incredible Journey, by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar:
  10. Qudsia Begum – The Tale of an Empress, in Fame and Notoriety, by Madhu Singh:
  11. Delhi – The Built Heritage, by INTACH:
  12. Mughal Empire in India, Vol 3, by S.R. Sharma, 1999, Delhi.
  13. Garden glory no more, The Hindu, July 14,2012:
  14. Delhi; 14 Historic Walks, by Swapna Liddle, 2011, Delhi
  15. Civil Lines and the Northern Ridge, Heritage trail brochure by INTACH Delhi Chapter & World Monuments Fund
  16. Meet Daria-I-Noor, the Koh-I-Noor’s little Known Sibling, by Shyam Bhatia:

Sunken City Siri: Alauddin Khilji’s Dar-ul Khilafat

The now-disappeared city of Siri has a somewhat grim and frightful legend behind it: its name ‘Siri’ is believed to have come from the word ‘Sir’ or head, since the heads of 8000 Mongol invaders were buried in the foundation of this fort. Another legend says the heads of captured Mongol invaders were regularly hung from its walls, leading to its name becoming Siri. Built by Alauddin Khilji during 703 A.H. (1303-04 A.D.) in an area presently occupied by Shahpur Jat, Shaikh Sarai, Hauz Khas, Green Park and Panchsheel Enclave, it was raised to defend against the waves of Mongol invaders. At that time, the three-decade long Khilji dynasty had just been established in 1290. The Saljuq Empire in Western Asia was breaking up, being under constant attack by the Mongols, and Delhi was their next target.

Jalaluddin Khliji: The ‘Mild’ Emperor Who Founded a New Dynasty

After nearly 80 years of rule by the Turkish Slave dynasty, Sultan Jalaluddin Firoz Khilji ascended the throne in 1289. Aware of the pockets of resistance to the change of royal dynasty still existing in Delhi, he made his capital on the outskirts of Delhi at Kilu-ghari (* for Kilu-ghiri , please see side note 1). He made Alauddin, his brother’s son as well as his son-in-law whom he had brought up from infancy, an amir.


p44 ( Green starts showing the cities of Siri and Kilughari, from the map of ‘Ruins of Delhi’, Alexander Cunningham’s Report, Ref 2, plate XXXV, Reproduced with kind permission of Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi.)

However, a nephew of Sultan Balban of the erstwhile Turkish Slave dynasty, Malik Chajju, decided to raid Delhi with a few of his supporters and descendants of Balban. The two armies engaged each other near Badaun, and the new sultan, Jalaluddin, was victorious. The great poet Amir Khusrau was present when the generals of the invading army were brought before the sultan with their hands tied behind them. Jalaluddin, on seeing the sorry state in which the prisoners were brought to him, immediately ordered them to be freed, and treated them with wine and food while consoling them that their action was understandable since they were fighting for their dynasty. Alauddin was entrusted with the governorship of Karra, which was previously held by Malik Chajju, where he came into contact with the generals and noblemen of his predecessor who hinted that, given enough money, Delhi could easily be captured. Alauddin was on bad terms with his wife and his mother-in-law, and started to nurture a dream to capture the kingship sooner or later.

In Delhi, the mildness and clemency of the new sultan was evident in day-to-day affairs. Whenever any thief or mischief-monger was caught and brought to the sultan, he freed them on the condition that they would not repeat their deeds. Everywhere, noblemen started discussing the ineffectiveness of the new sultan, and conspiracies were hatched in secret gatherings on how to eliminate and get rid of him. The sultan was made aware of the plotting, but he always turned a blind eye, saying people tend to talk lightly when drunk. Perhaps, he was quite confident that his good deeds in forgiving people would earn him enough goodwill to tide over the occasional bursts of discontentment.


It is said that bad fortune descended on his kingdom the day he ordered the execution of the famed darwesh, Sidi Maula. He was a disciple of Baba Farid at Ajodhan, and had a large khanqah (convent) where he distributed large quantities of free food every day to the poor and to travellers. In the evenings, many noblemen used to assemble in his khanqah, and as was usual in Jalaluddin’s regime, their discussions often veered around ways to depose the sultan. One such discussion dwelt on the possibility of making Sidi Maula the next emperor. This information reached the sultan, and all the plotters as well the saint were brought before him. While the noblemen were sent off to faraway provinces after he had confiscated their property, the saint’s fate was deliberated. Despite the vehement denials of the darwesh, and in spite of the sultan’s past record of lenient justice in similar cases, the poor man was trampled to death by an elephant. Barni says he remembers that day clearly when suddenly the sky became downcast with dark clouds. Famine hit the country that same year, and the price of grain shot up to one jittal per ser.


In 1292, there was a huge Mongol invasion by fifteen tumhans (or 1,50,000) Mongols but the sultan’s army was victorious. Here again, the sultan displayed exceptional clemency to the invaders, and they were allowed to go back home after exchanging gifts and rounds of buying and selling. However, thousands of the invading army sought the sultan’s permission to settle down in Delhi. New settlements at Kilughari, Ghiyaspur, Indarpat and Taluka were set up. The Mongols were rechristened as New Muslims, royal subsidies were extended to them, and even one of their areas of settlement was designated as Mughalpur (present day Mongolpuri).

Alauddin meanwhile proceeded to Deogir on a military expedition, without informing the sultan, and returned with a huge booty of gold, silver, jewels, elephants and horses. The news reached the sultan, and he became even more anxious to meet and congratulate his nephew. Alauddin seized the opportunity for finally eliminating his master. He invited him to Karra, giving the impression that he was afraid of being punished in Delhi for his supposedly defiant act of attacking Deogir. He asked the sultan to come down personally to bless him and accept all the war booty. The sultan thus induced, crossed the flood-ravaged plains with his army, and camped en route to Karra.


One of Alauddin’s accomplices met him there and asked him to leave his armed escorts behind and board a boat to cross the river. The gullible and kind sultan agreed to his son-in-law’s request, and as he alighted on the other side of the river, he embraced Alauddin, saying, “I have brought you up from infancy, why are you afraid of me?” Suddenly, on Alauddin’s signal, a few waiting men overpowered the old king and cut off his head. It is said that Ikhtiyaruddin, who cut off the head, very soon went mad, and often hallucinated that he was seeing Jalaluddin standing over him with a naked sword.

On hearing of her husband’s murder, Malika-I Jahan, the sultan’s wife, proceeded to the Green Palace in Old Delhi, and declared her youngest son, Ruknuddin, as the heir to the kingdom. However, his rule was very short, and they had to flee to Multan when Alauddin reached Delhi to ascend as the next Khilji sultan of Delhi.

Alauddin Khilji: The ‘First Real Emperor’ of India

Alauddin proceeded to Delhi with a great army, amassed through liberally scattering gold after covering every short distance, to attract people to join his march. On reaching Delhi, he again distributed purses full of jittals and tankas among the citizens, and soon he was accepted wholeheartedly by the noblemen and the population. Though he was an illiterate, soon he established himself as an able military leader, and victories over the Mongols and neighbouring provinces came in quick succession. By nature, he was a violent and cruel man, but certainly, success was inseparable from him. Caskets and boxes of gifts and jewels overflowed in the city. There were as many as 70,000 horses in the royal stable.

As success touched his feet, he thought of two grand schemes to make his name immortal: first, he wanted to promulgate a new religion and second, he wanted to go on a world-conquering expedition like a second Alexander. However, he shelved both these plans, and instead set out to subjugate Ranthambor, Chittor, Chanderi, Malwa, Dhar, Ujjain, Lahore, Dipalpur, and other provinces.


The ruthless trampling of thousands of captured Mongols by elephants, the decorating of fort walls and specially erected towers such as the Chor Minar with the severed heads of Mongol attackers, and the building of pyramids of heads, allowed him to reign for twenty long years, even under such a chaotic and unpredictable atmosphere.


Amir Khusrau’s poetic descriptions on  such military expeditions against invading Mongols in his “Tarikh-I ‘Alai” using fanciful analogies of a chess board and the battle field, deserve to be quoted in full:

“He dispatched the late Ulugh Khan, the arm of the empire, with the whole of the right wing ( hand) of the army…The Khan sped swift as an arrow from its bowstring, and made two marches in one until he reached the borders of Jaran Manjur, the field of action, so that not more than a bow-shot remained between the two armies. That was a date on which it became dark when the day declined, because it was towards the close of the month, and the moon of Rabi’u-l akhir waned till it looked like a sickle above the heavens to reap the Gabrs. Arrows and spears commingled together. Some Mughals were captured on Thursday, the 22nd of Rabi’u-l akhir, in the year 695 H. ( Feb. 1296 A.D. ). On this day the javelin-head of the Khan of Islam fell on the heads of the infidels, and the standard-bearers of the holy war received orders to bind their victorious colours firmly on their backs; and for honour’s sake, they turned their faces towards the waters of the Sutlej, and without the aid of boats they swam over the river, striking out their hands, like as oars impelling a boat.”…


…“The field of battle became like a chess-board, with the pieces manufactured from the bones of the elephant-bodied Mughals, and their faces ( rukh ) were divided in two by the sword. The slaughtered hoggish Mughals were lying right and left, like so many captured pieces, and when thrust into the bag which hold the chessmen. The horses which filled the squares were some of them wounded and some taken; those who, like the pawns, never retreated, dismounted, and, advancing on foot, made themselves generals (queens). ‘Ali Beg and Turtak, who were the two kings of the chessboard, were falling before the fierce opposition which was shown by the gaunt bones of Malik Akhir Beg, who checkmated them both, and determined to send them immediately to his majesty, that he might order either their lives to be spared, or that they should be pil-mated, or trodden to death by elephants.”

Mutinies and the Sultan’s Four Bold Regulations

In early years, he faced as many as four revolts from his own men. The first was started by the Mongols, or ‘new Muslims’, in his army while on a military campaign to Gujarat. The following three revolts were equally serious in nature, occurring when the sultan was away at Ranthambhor. One was launched by his own nephew with the intention of killing him. After these four insurrections and military coups, he discussed ways to prevent similar mutinies in the future with his wise men and laid down four new regulations:


  1. Property confiscation: The population was subjected to many types of taxation and money extraction. Villages were brought under the state exchequer. People were so busy earning their livelihoods that no one could afford to harbour any plans for a mutiny.
  2. Increased surveillance: Spies religiously conveyed information regarding happenings among the amirs, general gatherings and the marketplace to the sultan, and severe punishments were meted out to suspected plotters.
  3. Banned wine: He prohibited wine drinking, dicing and wine parties, and he abstained from wine. Jars and casks of wine from the royal cellar and all china and glass vessels from the fort were brought out and broken near the Badaun Gate of the city, where the wine formed a muddy river. If any wine-sellers were caught, they were lowered into and buried in pits dug in the ground outside the Badaun Gate. Most of those punished in this way died in the holes, creating a strong deterrent. A few people who could not abstain travelled past the city borders beyond Yamuna, where enforcement was less strict.
  4. Prohibited the assembly of amirs: The great men and the nobles were prohibited from visiting each other’s’ houses and gossiping in the serais and other general assemblies.

Establishment of the New City – Siri:

The Mongol invader Targhi, when learnt that Allauddin was away from Delhi for a military campaign to Chittor, marched towards Delhi with twelve thousand cavalry, and camped near Jumna. The invading army seized all ingress and egress of Delhi and prevented any ration or reinforcement to reach the city. The sultan had just returned from Chittor, while his other generals were still away in another military campaign to Arangal.


Ziaud din Barni describes in his “Tarikh-I Firoz Shahi”: “The Sultan, with his small army of horse, left the capital and encamped at Siri, where the superior numbers and strength of the enemy compelled him to entrench his camp…The Mughals came up on every side, seeking opportunity to make a sudden onslaught and overpower the army. Such fear of the Mughals and anxiety as now prevailed in Delhi had never been known before. If Targhi had remained another month upon the Jumna, the panic would have reached to such a height that a general flight would have taken place, and Delhi would have been lost.”


However, the invaders withdrew after two months of siege.  Legend has it that, when the Mongols were looting the granaries and the suburbs, the sultan had no option but to entrench himself. One day he visited Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, and in the same night, commander of the invading army Targhi Beg panicked and withdrew from Delhi.

Here the ‘capital’ refers to the old city of Kila Rai Pithora, and suggests that the sultan encamped at a plain land called Siri which was outside the city, but a proper fort or city was nonexistent.

Barni says, “After this very danger, ‘Alau-d din awoke from his sleep of neglect. He gave up his ideas of campaigning and fort-taking, and built a palace at Siri. He took up his residence there, and made it his capital, so that it became a flourishing place. He ordered the fort of Delhi to be repaired, …”


The city was built at a distance from the older settlement of Kila Rai Pithora, and the space between the two was a suburb called Jahan-panah. Jahan-panah was originally unprotected, and a strong stone wall was built later on only  by Muhammad-bin-Tughluq in 1326-27. Siri had seven gates, Old Delhi had ten, and Jahan-Panah had thirteen gates.

Timur describes the three localities of Delhi as on 1398  in his autobiography ‘Tuzak-I Timuri’ : “By the will of God, and by no wish or direction of mine, all the three cities of Delhi, by name Siri, Jahan-panah, and Old Delhi, had been plundered…Siri is a round city. Its buildings are lofty. They are surrounded by fortifications, built of stone and brick, and they are very strong. Old Delhi also has a similar fort, but it is larger than that of Siri.“


Finally, to quote Ibn Batuta, who was one of the Delhi’s magistrates thirty years after Alauddin’s death : “Dar-ul Khilafat Siri was a totally separate and detached town, situated at such a distance from old Delhi as to necessitate the construction of the walls of Jahan-panah, to bring them within a defensive circle; and that the Hauz-i-khas intervened, in an indirect line, between the two localities.”


As per Ain Akbari, when Sher Shah Suri constructed his new city of Dinapanah, he ransacked Siri and used the building materials to raise his new city.  Araish-i-Mahfil records that Sher Shah also pulled down the famed “Green Palace”, or Kushak Sabz inside the ‘Old City’  of Kila Rai Pithora,  in order to build Dinapanah.

It is said that the pride of the new city was the celebrated palace of Qasr-i-Hazar Sutun, or “Palace of One Thousand Pillars”,   built outside the fort premises. But, it has not yet been possible to pinpoint a location where this exquisite palace once stood, leave aside finding any of its remaining. It is also not clear if the same building is being referred while recalling the similarly-named building by Muhammad-bin Tughluq, and described by Ibn Batuta.

After the decision to erect the Siri Fort was made, Alauddin also planned to raise a large, well-horsed, mounted permanent army to guard against the Mongols, at a fixed salary of 234 tankas, which was a meager amount in those times. The wise-men of his court were then consulted, and it was decided that in order to maintain a large army at a low cost, the market prices must be strictly regulated, so that even this low salary would be sufficient for a citizen.


It is said that Alauddin’s successor Qutbuddin later erected a new mosque inside  Siri, and as per prevalent customs, he required all the saints and learned men of Delhi to come and offer prayers at the new mosque on its opening day. However, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya turned down the invite saying that he has his own mosque to offer prayers. He also refused to go to the sultan’s court to greet him on the first day of the lunar month, as per the customs, and in stead sent his assistant to the court. The sultan was infuriated, and declared that the saint would be punished if he fails to turn up on the next lunar month. It so happened that on the very morning of the first day of next lunar month, the sultan was killed by his favourite slave, Khizr Khan. Presently, only ruined stretches of the rubble wall that once surrounded Siri, along with  collapsed bastions, are all that exist.  Out of its original seven gates, only one on the south-eastern side  has come down to us. 

Banking and Coinage System

The sultan then promulgated a number of regulations to control prices in the markets, so that he could maintain a permanent mounted army at an affordable cost. He fixed the prices in market as

wheat at 7.5 jittals per maan,

barley at 4 jittals per maan,

rice at 5 jittals per maan, etc.

The prices for slaves were fixed as:

serving girls at 5–12 tankas each,

concubines at 20–40 tankas,

domestic slaves at 17–18 tankas,

male slaves at 100–200 tankas, etc.

During Alauddin’s rule, Jains played a major role in minting, banking, exchanging money and assaying. Assaying is used when exchanging money. There were many types of coins issued by various sultans and kingdoms, but there were no official exchange rates for the different currencies. The assayers or money changers used to facilitate the exchange by determining the amount of gold or silver in a coin. This was done using a touchstone (kasauti in Hindi) or by melting. When a gold or silver object is rubbed against a touchstone, it leaves behind a streak of fine powder whose colour varies depending on the purity. The colour of the streak is compared to a set of gold or silver reference bars with varying purity, and the worth of the coin is then determined.

Coins-RBI ( Coin samples from Slave and Khilji Era, Courtesy – RBI Monetary Museum, Mumbai, Reproduced with kind permission)

Thakkura Pheru, belonging to a Jain family from Haryana, was the assay master at the Delhi Mint. He wrote that he had direct experience of examining gems “during the victorious reign of Alauddin,” and had “seen with his own eyes the vast ocean-like collection of gems in Alauddin’s treasury.” He authored a number of books, of which Dravya-pariksha written in 1318 in verse form in the Ap