The Deccan’s largest necropolis: The Qutb Shahi Tombs

‘Seven Tombs’—the name by which this tomb complex in Hyderabad, one of the city’s major heritage attractions, is known—is very deceptive. Firstly, because while the large tombs, those of various rulers of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, do total up to seven, there are dozens of other tombs, of everybody from dancers to physicians to queens. And more, making this possibly the largest necropolis in the Deccan. Secondly, there aren’t just tombs in this complex; there are also several other types of buildings.

The tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum.

The tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs complex was the first sight we visited in Hyderabad. Spread out around the base of a hill (which is capped by the Golconda Fort), the tomb complex (officially known as the Quli Qutb Shahi Archaeological Park) extends over 106 acres and is home to a staggering 40 mausoleums, 23 mosques, 5 step wells (or baolis, as they’re known locally), a mortuary bath, pavilions and garden structures.

Most of the structures within the complex lie inside a large park that’s enclosed by a low wall. Having bought our entry tickets at the counter next to the entrance, we were dropped off at the main gate—opposite which is the quiet little parking lot, deserted when we arrived. We started off towards the main gate, above which is a pictorial sign depicting the main tombs of the complex: those of Sultan Quli Qutb Shah (the 1st Sultan of the Qutb Shahi dynasty), followed by—in chronological order—Jamsheed Quli Qutb Shah, Ibrahim Quli Qutb Shah, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, Mohammad Qutb Shah, Abdullah Qutb Shah, and Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed, the 7th Sultan of the line, whose tomb remains unfinished. Also among these large mausoleums is the tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum, and this was the tomb we visited first.

1. The Tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum: Hayat Baksh Begum (died 1667 CE) was the daughter, wife, and mother of Sultans: her father was the 4th Sultan, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah; her husband was the 5th Sultan, Mohammad Qutb Shah; and her son was the 6th Sultan, Abdullah Qutb Shah. Hayat Baksh Begum, therefore, was a lady of considerable importance, enough to merit hers being one of the most impressive mausoleums in this complex. It lies to the right, just after you’ve entered the large walled area. The domed tomb, with a series of arched cells on two levels, is decorated with fine plaster work and has lovely symmetrical colonnades all around it. The doorways leading into the tomb chamber are decorated with pretty blue-and-maroon paint work (and a plaque, in Urdu and English, probably dating back to the days of the Raj, identifying the tomb). A similar plaque, prohibiting ‘dwelling in the tomb’ is on the wall beside!

In the arched colonnade of Hayat Baksh Begum's tomb.

In the arched colonnade of Hayat Baksh Begum’s tomb.

Inside, the cenotaph of the queen is covered with a red-and-green tinselled chaadar. A man whom we later employed as a guide demonstrated to us the acoustics of this tomb chamber: its high vaulted ceiling makes any sound bounce, reverberate, and get amplified in an extremely impressive way.

Just beside the steps leading up to the tomb is a small mosque where Aurangzeb is said to have offered prayers.

The big mosque to see, however, is the Janaaza Masjid—the funeral mosque—of Hayat Baksh Begum, which is a large structure beside her tomb. This is a beautiful mosque, with intricate plasterwork decorating its columns, facade and minarets. Our guide told us that prayers for the dead queen would have been offered up here at the time of her funeral, and the body then taken to the tomb to be buried underground.

The Janaaza Masjid beside the tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum.

The Janaaza Masjid beside the tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum.

At the Janaaza Masjid.

At the Janaaza Masjid.

2. The Mortuary Bath: Our guide (who had latched on to us at Hayat Baksh Begum’s tomb, and had agreed to show us the tomb complex for Rs 200) now took us along a path, past two small tombs (small, but of significant people: the dancers-turned-royal wives, Taramati and Premamati); a couple of small mosques; and various small and non-descript pavilions.

The tombs of Taramati and Premamati.

The tombs of Taramati and Premamati.

Next up was the Mortuary Bath, built by the first Sultan while he was in the process of constructing his own tomb (each of these tombs, our guide informed us, was built by its future occupant; the Qutb Shahis seemed to have little faith in the ability or desire of their relatives to do justice to their tombs!). The Mortuary Bath was where the dead body would be ceremonially bathed and enshrouded (the latter on a platform decorated with black basalt) before being entombed. It’s a sparsely decorated but quiet and rather picturesque little building, with the sunlight streaming in through apertures in the ceiling.

The ghuslkhana in the mortuary bath, where the dead body would be ritually bathed.

The ghuslkhana in the mortuary bath, where the dead body would be ritually bathed.

3. The Tomb of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah: Opposite the Mortuary Bath and separated from it by a garden—mostly lawn—is the imposing tomb of Hayat Baksh Begum’s father, Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, the 4th Sultan. The interesting thing about this tomb is that you can actually go down into the crypt below it—a dark and gloomy place where you can see the actual tombstone of the Sultan, rather than the decorative cenotaph in the tomb chamber. Our guide also took us further, to the outer edge of the crypt, where it opens out onto the lawns outside. This part, with its rough arches and rubble-strewn ground, was where the climactic scene from the film Ghajini was shot, we were told. Ah, well.

The tomb of Mohammad Qutb Shah, father of Hayat Baksh Begum.

The tomb of Mohammad Quli Qutb Shah, father of Hayat Baksh Begum.

4. The Tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed: This building, just outside the walled complex, is an obviously unfinished structure, its brickwork undisguised by any stone cladding or plaster, its dome missing. Although it’s locally known as the tomb of Abul Hasan Tana Shah, it’s actually the tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed, the eldest son-in-law of Abdullah Qutb Shah. Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed was in line to succeed his father-in-law (which is why his unfinished tomb is labelled on the local signboard as that of the 7th Sultan), but could not do so, because of the unfavourable conditions prevailing in the Deccan in the late 17th century.

The unfinished tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed.

The unfinished tomb of Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed.

5. The Tomb of Abdullah Qutb Shah: Lying outside the peripheral wall of the complex, but part of the complex—in fact, it has the distinction of being the largest building in this necropolis—is the tomb of Abdullah Qutb Shah, the 6th Sultan. This (like several of the other large tombs, which we weren’t able to visit) is undergoing restoration work at the moment, and was partly clad in scaffolding. However, we did get to see some of the intricate plasterwork that decorates the tomb, as well as signs of beautiful tiles arranged in patterns of blue, green, red and yellow.

As I mentioned earlier, since some of the other tombs (like that of Jamsheed Quli Qutb Shah) are being restored, we couldn’t see these. The restoration project—being carried out by INTACH, funded by the Aga Khan Trust—had also cordoned off a large baoli (step well) near Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed’s tomb, but our guide, in passing, mentioned that elephants used to be harnessed to draw water up from the baoli.

Near this baoli are the twin tombs of two Turkish physicians who had been taken into service by the Qutb Shahi Sultans. Smaller tombs (of course) than those of the royalty, these are also distinguished by the fact that their plastered domes have a striped pattern reminiscent of the stripes on the domes of Delhi’s Jama Masjid or Zeenat-ul-Masajid.

The tombs of the Turkish physicians.

The tombs of the Turkish physicians.

Near Abdullah Qutb Shah’s tomb is the Archaeological Park’s Site Exhibit: a well-maintained and well-curated little gallery which introduces the complex, explains its history and geography, and the conservation work being carried out here.

At the Site Exhibition in the Quli Qutb Shahi Archaeological Park.

At the Site Exhibition in the Quli Qutb Shahi Archaeological Park.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs are open on all days except Friday, from 9.30 AM to 4.30. Entry fees for Indians are Rs 5 per person; you pay extra for a camera (Rs 20 for a still camera) and for parking (Rs 20 for a car). Even though guides are available, don’t let your guide dictate where you’ll go—ours took us on a quick gallop round the complex, leaving out stuff which we ended up having to go back and see at our leisure all over again, or to see for the very first time.

To read about the other sights we visited on our tour of Hyderabad, click these links:

The fort on ‘Shepherd’s Hill’: Golconda
The mosque with a link to Mecca
Charminar, the four pillars of Hyderabad
Unfairly underrated: the Chowmahalla Palace
The Veiled Rebecca and More: Salarjung Museum

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2 thoughts on “The Deccan’s largest necropolis: The Qutb Shahi Tombs

  1. Beautiful. Reminded me of my childhood. This was once the glory of India. This was our favorite picnic spot. Like the Indian unity, looks like these buildings are dieing as well. I still feel that Hyderbadi Muslims are still very peace loving and they will not let this get destroyed because some fundamentalist said something. Half of my friends are/were Muslims. I have always got love from them. I hope this fundamentalist bug won’t destroy Islamic Heritage.

  2. Amen! I hope so, too. I have always believed that it is perfectly possible to have a deep faith in your own religion without necessarily being antagonistic to those who follow other religions. People, after all, deep down have the same sorrows and joys, the same worries and fears…

    (I also believe that this ‘fundamentalist bug’ dare not really destroy Islamic heritage. Besides, I also like to think Islamic heritage is too vast and well-rooted to fall before this).

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