Controversy in the Lodi Gardens: when Delhi was termed a necropolis

Delhi Darshan
The History and Monuments of India’s Capital
Book Excerpt 

Among the few groups in Delhi who were left unmolested by Timur were the Sayyids, members of families of Arab origin who claimed direct descent from the Prophet. As a Shia, Timur believed in the hereditary (rather than elected) succession of the caliphate and therefore held Sayyids in high esteem. One man in Delhi who claimed such a status was Khizr Khan. Modern historians doubt his claim (it seems highly unlikely that he was even Arab, never mind a Sayyid), but he appears to have persuaded enough of the right people at the time. In 1414, after the death of the last Tughluq, he seized the throne and ruled nominally as a deputy of Timur’s descendants. Indeed he established a dynasty of four rulers, known as the Sayyids, which lasted for thirty-seven years until 1451.

This dynasty is generally written off. One historian refers to them derisively as people who ‘called themselves sultans of Delhi’. Another asserts that they ‘did not make any worthwhile contribution to the political or cultural life of medieval India’. The architectural historian Percy Brown, writing in the 1940s, noted that the Sayyids lacked the resources to build forts, cities, palaces and mosques on the scale of their predecessors and that all that survives of their work is their tombs. He then unfairly suggests that this was really a matter of choice: ‘almost the only form of monument that appealed to the rulers and their subjects at this juncture, were those expressive of dissolution—they excelled in memorials to the dead’. Indeed they built so many tombs that Delhi ‘was converted into a vast necropolis’. For good measure he adds that the Arabic word maqbara—used in India to mean cemetery or tomb-garden—is the source of the English word ‘macabre’. He was wrong about that (‘macabre’ is derived from old French), but his comments have been seized on by later writers wanting to depict the Sayyid era as a time of gloom and despondency.

In truth it was a time when the former empire was much diminished in size, its regional provinces having all broken away as independent states. Delhi was rather less important politically than the neighbouring sultanates of Jaunpur, Malwa and Gujarat, or the Rajput kingdom of Mewar. Putting a more positive gloss on this, one might say that the fifteenth century was a period when India’s numerous regional states flourished to an unprecedented degree, politically and culturally. The centre meanwhile witnessed a series of palace coups and the ever-dwindling authority of the sultan. The second ruler of the dynasty, Mubarak Shah, was assassinated in 1434. The fourth and last of them bestowed on himself the regnal title Shah Alam (meaning ‘king of the universe’). Whether or not he intended to invite ridicule, he certainly received it. The standing joke was that ‘from Delhi to Palam is the realm of Shah Alam’. Palam, later the site of the city’s domestic airport, was then a village, five miles to the north-west of the Qutb Minar.

Even this was too much for Shah Alam to handle, plagued as he was by a duplicitous prime minister named Hamid Khan. In the end Shah Alam abdicated in favour of one of the nobles, Bahlul Lodi, who disposed of Hamid and—with the cooperation of other nobles whose confidence he won—slowly began to rebuild the empire.

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Of Afghan descent and humble beginnings, Bahlul Lodi (r. 1451–89) took a pragmatic approach to governance, sharing power with loyal supporters and not insisting on the trappings of monarchy. Rather than using a throne, he sat on a carpet with the nobles and refused to allow any discrimination between himself and them or his former fellow officers in the army. He had a fixed daily routine, rising early, spending the morning on official business, the afternoon in the company of religious scholars and the evening in his harem.

After a reign of nearly forty years, he was succeeded by his son Sikander Lodi (r. 1489–1517) and grandson Ibrahim Lodi (r. 1517–26) who continued the process of reconquest and consolidation. Sikander seems to have kept up the austerity to some degree. One contemporary observer reports that he wore simple clothes and refused to wear new ones unless the old were torn. Ibrahim had a reputation for piety but, with a penchant for dancing girls and astrologers, was perhaps beginning to let things slide. There were always factions at court, and in the end one of these brought the Lodis down. They wrote to Babur, a descendant of Timur, to suggest that he might like to come to India and claim his rightful inheritance.

As with the Sayyids, no great forts or palaces are attributed to Lodi patronage. A few elegant mosques date from the later Lodi period, but mostly what survives are tombs—as pointed out by the merciless Percy Brown. In fact, tombs became even more numerous and conspicuous because the nobles built theirs as grandly as the sultans. The fine octagonal tomb of Sikander Lodi stands close to, and stylistically resembles, that of Muhammad Shah Sayyid. They compete for our attention in one of Delhi’s finest parks, now known as the Lodi Gardens.

There are several layers to this space. There is evidence that it really was a garden in Lodi times (so the current name is perfectly just) but all trace of it vanished long ago, and by the nineteenth century it was the site of a village called Khairpur. When New Delhi was first laid out in the 1920s, the city stopped just short of the village, to the north; but in 1936 the poor villagers were evicted and the whole area was landscaped in English picturesque mode to create a London-style urban park, named (after the then vicereine) Lady Willingdon Park. Her name survives, carved in a stone gateway on the northern side. But only there. In the 1960s, Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned the architect Joseph Allen Stein to adjust the landscaping. The pond was added and the gardens were renamed after the Lodis, the original proprietors.

There is a puzzle about this place. If the picnickers, walkers, joggers and furtive lovers who make up the transient population of today’s Lodi Gardens give little thought to scholarly disputes about its monuments, few would blame them. But the news that one of Delhi’s sultans has generally been assigned to the wrong grave might cause them to pause momentarily.

A learned argument has long festered over the most central and conspicuous of the park’s buildings, known as the Bara Gumbad. The question is whether it was originally intended as a tomb or as a gateway. The building’s form alone does not supply an answer since formally sultanate gates and tombs are often similar: a big square box with arched openings surmounted by a dome. The Bara Gumbad clearly fits this general format, but which was it meant to be? Opponents of the gate theory pertinently ask: gateway into what? Being so large it is out of proportion as an entrance to the elaborately decorated but modestly sized mosque and the simple mihman-khana (guest hall) that are attached to it, one on either side; while it is well known that a mosque and a hall are often found near major tombs (a later example being the buildings flanking the Taj Mahal in Agra). So it must be a tomb. On the other hand, the argument against it being a tomb is simply that there is no grave, nor any evidence of there ever having been one. Both arguments seem sound. Stalemate.

As it happens, a solution was suggested many years ago by the scholar and antiquarian Simon Digby. In an article in an academic journal, he pointed out that before the whole area was re-landscaped to form a park in 1936, there was evidence that the Bara Gumbad had served as the entrance, not to the mosque, but to a large walled enclosure which included the further building now known as the Sheesh Gumbad. And this is the building we ought to be focusing on, because it is the tomb of Bahlul Lodi, the founder of the dynasty. Unmarked, unrecognized, noticed only for its flaking tile work, the Sheesh Gumbad turns out to be the nub of a whole complex dedicated to the first of the Lodis.

Anyone in Delhi who noticed this suggestion might have been surprised, because the Archaeological Survey of India has long designated a different building, situated in the dargah of a sufi saint, in the suburb of Chiragh Delhi, as Bahlul Lodi’s tomb. Digby’s conviction that they have got the wrong building was based on a range of Mughal sources, the most convincing of which is a comment in Babur’s memoirs where he records making a visit to the tombs of Sikander and Bahlul Lodi. It is important to note that Babur’s memoirs were not composed by a court historian long after the events described, but a daily diary written by the emperor himself. So if he tells us that he spent a particular afternoon visiting two tombs, we may give it credence. The passage clearly implies that the two lie close together. There is no dispute about Sikander Lodi’s tomb, one of the other monuments in the Lodi gardens. It would be an odd sightseer’s itinerary to start from there and then hotfoot it all the way down to Chiragh Delhi, south of Siri; but the easiest thing in the world to stroll across to the Sheesh Gumbad, a few hundred yards away.

A slightly later text, a history of Delhi’s early sultans composed during the Sur period, mentions that Bahlul Lodi ‘lies buried in his Jor Bagh’. the name means ‘royal garden’, and it tells us a great deal: in the first place that Bahlul Lodi was indeed buried in a garden not in a dargah; and secondly that it was indeed this very garden, because the name Jor Bagh survives even today as that of the housing colony on the south side of the modern Lodi Road, covering ground that was once part of the larger complex.

There’s more. When Henry Sharp wrote a guidebook to Delhi in the late 1920s, the area of the gardens was still occupied by the village of Khairpur. He questioned the villagers about the historic monuments in their midst and found to his delight that they knew all about them. ‘That one over there is Sikander’s tomb,’ they said confidently, ‘and this one here, with the pompous great gateway, is Bahlul’s.’ Surprised by this evidence against the accepted version, sharp went down to the dargah in Chiragh Delhi and asked the officials there about the building standing in the corner of their complex, the alleged tomb of Bahlul Lodi. ‘Who?’ they asked, blank-faced. ‘Never heard of the fellow.’

Oral history and folk memory are usually treated with caution by professional historians, but in this case the testimony of the locals lends support to the evidence from literature, and from architecture. For the unimpressive building in Chiragh Delhi is anyway unconvincing, not being grand enough to serve as the resting place of the founder of a dynasty, even one with the egalitarian principles of Bahlul Lodi. It would be much more satisfactory to think of him lying in the elegant Sheesh Gumbad.

[Excerpted from the chapter 'Death in the Park: Sayyids and Lodis']

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