Next up on my list of occasional articles on little-known tombs of Delhi. Yes, macabre as it may sound, Delhi does have a lot of medieval tombs, mainly because—like mosques or forts—tombs were among the few buildings which could endure because they were usually built of stone; ordinary buildings such as houses were often of wattle and daub, or of brick, and therefore less likely to last long. This time, it’s Sabz Burj. Not exactly little-known, since it’s very visible: it stands on the traffic roundabout outside Humayun’s Tomb, at the intersection of Mathura Road and Lodhi Road.
Why I’m including Sabz Burj in this series of articles is that, despite being so very visible, so familiar, this tomb can’t even be identified by most people. (I had lived in Delhi for over a decade before I discovered that it wasn’t known—as almost everybody seemed to refer to it as—‘Neela Gumbad’. Neela Gumbad, if you’re interested, is another blue-domed tomb, but it’s behind Humayun’s Tomb, and is very different from Sabz Burj). ‘Sabz’ is the Urdu word for ‘green’; ‘burj’ is ‘tower’. ‘Sabz Burj’ therefore would mean ‘green tower’. The ‘tower’ part of ‘Sabz Burj’ is understandable, since the height of this structure makes it stand taller than it is wide. The ‘green’ part was also originally true: the tiles that cover the dome of Sabz Burj were originally green rather than the bright blue you see today. The blue tiles are the result of restoration and conservation work done by the Archaeological Survey of India in the early 1900s. (Interestingly, around the same time – in the early 20th century – Sabz Burj was also home to the Nizamuddin Police Station). Nobody knows who is buried in the Sabz Burj, but the tomb dates back to the early years of Mughal rule, in the 16th century. Whoever this person was, he was almost certainly someone of consequence, because the tomb is so lavishly decorated. The distinctive tiled dome is of course very visible, but the yellow, green and blue tiles that form a geometrical pattern on the ‘drum’ that supports the dome are beautiful too – and, unlike the blue tiles above, are original.
Sabz Burj is a ‘Baghdadi’ tomb: an octagonal building, but with the sides unequal (it looks rather like a square building which has had its corners lopped off). It sits on a high platform surrounded by a grassy traffic island which is closed off by a high railing. The railing has a gate which is generally kept locked, but look around for the caretaker: if you are allowed in, the outside of the tomb is worth taking a closer look at. The large recessed arches that decorate the eight sides of the tomb have some exquisitely intricate painting in black, red and white. Some of these are exceptionally well-preserved.
Inside, too, there are signs of painting – in red and blue – on the ceiling of the dome, but this is somewhat disappointing compared to the outside of Sabz Burj.