Time Travel Through Tombs in Delhi

By: Namrata Bhawnani

November 11, 2014

It may sound terribly morbid, but a wonderful way of gleaning the essence of this sprawling city is to go on a tour of the shrines and tombs in Delhi. The capital city has donned and discarded several avatars over the centuries and this self-styled tour is about revisiting the stories of the men and women who shaped Delhi’s destiny. Some tombs are placed in tranquil and serene settings, others rest within monuments of an epic scale. And then there are those who spend eternity in a modest resting place, all but forgotten save for their place in the history books.
Tombs in Delhi | Iltutmish
The tomb of Iltutmish, son-in-law and successor of Qutbu’d-Din Aibak, lies to the north-west of the Quwwatu’l-lslam mosque and was built in about 1235 by Iltutmish himself © Yogesh Sarkar

We’ve selected some of the most interesting tombs and shrines of colourful emperors, saints, poets and courtiers, for those looking to uncover a new perspective on this city’s glorious but also bloody and eventful past. The tombs also mark different architectural styles, customs and practices. The earliest of the surviving tombs in Delhi is Sultan Ghari’s Tomb, built by Sultan Iltutmish for his son Nasiruddin Mahmud in 1231. Behind the Qutb Minar mosque, Iltutmish’s own tomb is the first where there is a separation between the burial chamber and the cenotaph above.


The tomb of Ghiasuddin Tughlaq, built in 1320, is evidence of the Indo-Islamic style of tomb building introduced to Delhi during the Tughlaq rule. The focus was on minimalism and the architecture was more refined, if a little austere.

Tombs in Delhi | Lodi Gardens
Lodi Gardens are home to the tombs of Mohammed Shah and Sikader Lodi, Sheesh Gumbad and Bara Gumbad © The History Hub

The Sayyed and Lodi dynasties were prolific in the tomb-building arena and some examples of the Sultanate style can be found at Bare Khan ka Gumbad, Chote Khan ka Gumbad, Bara Lao ka Gumbad, Gol Gumbad, Sheesh Gumbad, Dadi ka Gumbad, and the Poti ka Gumbad. The gumbad (dome) was linked to the Islamic conception of heavenly structures. Bade Khan ka Gumbad in South Extension is unique for its heavy columns at each of its four corners. These columns, similar to the Qutub Minar, are carved in the form of vertical ribs, where the circular alternates with the angular but the man buried here remains anonymous. Under the rule of the Lodhi sultans, Delhi earned itself the title of ‘necropolis’.


Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin dargah and Ghalib’s Tomb

Tombs in Delhi | Humayun's Tomb
The mausoleum of Humayun’s Tomb inspired many architectural innovations, including the Taj Mahal © Arian Zwegers

Built 14 years after his death by his wife, the sandstone mausoleum of Humayun’s Tomb can be found in Old Delhi. The grand garden tomb of the second Mughal Emperor of India inspired many architectural innovations, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Many members of the royal family were buried here; containing approximately 150 graves, it has been described as the necropolis of the Mughal dynasty.


Nearby, you will find the shrine of the 14th century Sufi Saint of the Chishti order, Nizamuddin Auliya. He was legendary for his generosity, humanitarianism, wit, and personal frugality. People throng to this dargah in their thousands as it’s believed to be a place where wishes are fulfilled. The shrine of famous Urdu poet Amir Khusro, the disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin, is located beside the Sufi saint’s shrine.

Tombs in Delhi | Nizamuddin Dargah
People of every religion visit the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah. His disciple Amir Khusro’s shrine is located beside the Hazrat’s shrine © Varun Shiv Kapur

One of the most loved Urdu poets, Mirza Ghalib, died in extreme poverty. His white marble tomb next to the dargah in Hazrat Nizamuddin basti was actually built 100 years after his death in 1869. A lover of wine and women, his verses find a place in popular culture even today. Adjacent to the grave, you can visit the Ghalib Academy – the academy has a museum on Ghalib and provides research facilities for scholars and academics.


Safdarjung Tomb

Built by his son in 1753-54 and smaller in scale than Humayun’s tomb, the mausoleum of Safdarjung, the viceroy of Awadh under the Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah, is one of the most interesting tombs in Delhi and offers a fantastic example of late Mughal Architecture.

Tombs in Delhi | Safdarjung's Tomb
The exaggerated ornamentation and lack of proportions renders the monument less grand than its predecessor Humayun’s Tomb © Geoff Stearns

Opposite the tomb, in the neighbourhood of Jor Bagh and Aliganj, are some more tombs, including Najaf Khan’s Tomb. Najaf Khan was a courtier who rose to prominence during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II. Visit the tomb for its ‘char bagh’ or ‘four-square garden’ style, typical in Mughal as well as Persian architecture. The absence of the dome is also an interesting feature – the roof is covered with a flat base, which is unique to the era.

In Aliganj, the Karbala Enclosure is a memorial to the martyrs of Karbala. The enclosure, a large graveyard surrounded by low walls, is home to both, old and new graves.

Tombs in Delhi | Najaf Khan's Tomb
Najaf Khan was a Persian adventurer who became a courtier of influence in the Mughal Court © Sahil Ahuja

On the banks of the Yamuna: Raj Ghat, Shantivan, Vijay Ghat

At Raj Ghat, a simple black marble platform marks the cremation spot of Mahatma Gandhi after his assassination in 1948. His last words ‘Hey Ram’ are inscribed on the black memorial stone. It is surrounded by a beautiful park (with trees planted by world leaders and dignitaries who paid homage to the Father of the Nation) and two museums dedicated to Gandhi.

Tombs in Delhi | Raj Ghat
Mahatma Gandhi was cremated at Raj Ghat where you see an inscribed black memorial stone with his last words Hey Ram © Delhi Metro

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was cremated at Shanti Van in 1964. Between Raj Ghat and Shanti Van, is the memorial of his daughter Indira Gandhi at Shanti Sthal. The formidable first woman Prime Minister of India was shot by her bodyguards and later, her son Rajeev Gandhi was assassinated in the middle of a heated election trail in 1991. He has been commemorated at Vir Bhoomi, north of Raj Ghat.


There are several more monuments and tombs in Delhi that one can explore, and most of these spaces offer a brief sanctuary from the chaotic streets of the city. Discover Delhi through the centuries – it’s a great way to travel through time and imagine the lively scenes at a Mughal court, the enduring love stories and the faith in the saints of the time that is palpable even today.


Header Image: Safdarjung’s Tomb © Jorge Láscar

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Have you visitied the shrines and tombs in Delhi? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Namrata Bhawnani


Namrata Bhawnani

Namrata Bhawnani is a London-based freelance travel writer and the co-founder of the ecotravel web magazine

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