Sultangarhi: ‘The Sultan of the Pit’

The locals—and the local signboards, when written in Devnagari—mostly refer to this little-known tomb as ‘Sultangarhi’ (सुल्तानगढ़ी), which sounds more like a fortress than a tomb. The actual, correct pronunciation, is सुल्तानग्हारी (or, if you can’t read Devnagari, approximately ‘Sultanghaari’,). If you understand what गाढ़ना (digging) is, or what a गड्ढा (a pit) is, the etymology becomes a little clearer: this is a tomb, a pit where a Sultan was buried. ‘Sultangarhi’ literally translates as ‘the Sultan of the pit’.

A view of the tomb at Sultangarhi.

A view of the tomb at Sultangarhi.

Sultangarhi is well hidden away in Vasant Kunj, very close to the Vasant Valley School, but on the other side of the main road. A lane leads through fairly deserted thorn scrub and trees, past the scattered ruins of an old Mughal-era settlement. (A word of caution: if you decide to visit Sultangarhi, make sure you don’t go alone. Someone I know went solo here, and got mugged).

While the ruins are interesting—you can still see signs of what must have been Mughal havelis, with some walls still standing, as well as other lesser-known tombs and a Tughlaq-era well—the real attraction here is the tomb itself, Sultangarhi. Ironically named, perhaps, because the man who is buried here never actually got to be Sultan.

The ruins of a late Mughal haveli, in Sultangarhi.

The ruins of a late Mughal haveli, in Sultangarhi.

A Tughlaq-era well at Sultangarhi.

A Tughlaq-era well at Sultangarhi.

Sultangarhi is the tomb of Nasiruddin Mehmood, the son of Iltutmish. Nasiruddin Mehmood was a highly accomplished and able man, so much so that Iltutmish proclaimed him his successor. Before he could ascend the throne, however, Nasiruddin Mehmood suffered fatal injuries during a military campaign, and died in 1228 CE. He was buried at Sultangarhi.

So what’s different about Sultangarhi? The very fact that it was the first Islamic tomb to be built in India. While there had been Muslim graves in the country before, this was the very first instance of a proper mausoleum being constructed. Some interesting proofs of the then-unfamiliar elements of this form of architecture can be seen at Sultangarhi. The arch over the main doorway, for instance, is not a true arch (which would have a keystone in the centre, and would consist of wedge-shaped pieces of stone). Instead, the local stone carvers used the techniques they were familiar with to reproduce the shape, if not the actual function, of an arch.

Looking towards the main arched entrance to the tomb.

Looking towards the main arched entrance to the tomb.

It’s the same with the dome here: like the arch, the dome isn’t a true dome, either. It just consists of carefully hewn pieces of stone stacked cleverly together to give the appearance, though not the solidity and durability, of a true dome.

Sultangarhi is made of a combination of different types of building materials: a local golden-brown stone, mortar, and white marble, the latter used mostly at prominent places, like the arched entrance and the mihrab.

The mihrab at Sultangarhi.

The mihrab at Sultangarhi.

The tomb is somewhat fortress-like in its construction, with bastions at its corners and high walls surrounding it. Through the gateway, a few steps lead up to a polygonal platform which stands over the crypt (the actual ‘pit’ where Nasiruddin Mehmood was buried).

Unlike most tombs, the crypt here is easily accessible, with a very dark staircase leading down to it (carry a torch if you intend to go down to the crypt). It’s visited frequently by locals, who come by to leave fruit and milk, and to light incense or candles here. Upstairs, facing west, is an intricately carved mihrab (arch), indicating the direction of prayer.

2 thoughts on “Sultangarhi: ‘The Sultan of the Pit’

  1. Lovely description of an unknown tomb once again. Very interesting to know that this was the first Islamic mausoleum in India.
    Would have liked some more fotos. Maybe you’ll put them up on FB.
    Thank you very much for this article.

  2. Thank you for reading, and for commenting, Harvey! I don’t have too many more photos of the tomb itself, because this was part of a longer walk – and I ended up taking photos of all the other monuments around too (the well, another nearby tomb, and all the ruined Mughal havelis – this place has lots of ruins). So Sultangarhi itself was only one of the monuments on my list.

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