Tiny but exquisite: the Bada Gumbad Mosque

Some days back, I’d written about one of Delhi’s large but little-known mosques, the massive Begumpuri Masjid, near Malviya Nagar. In a turn-around, this week’s (or fortnight’s, whatever) interesting medieval mosque is one that’s much more visible, even though most people who come by here are probably not too keen on admiring the architecture. The Bada Gumbad mosque, in the Lodhi Gardens.

The facade of the Bada Gumbad Mosque.

The facade of the Bada Gumbad Mosque.

The Bada Gumbad (‘large dome’, literally) is one of the largest and most visible tombs in the Lodhi Gardens (an easy way to identify it is by the fact that it stands right opposite the Sheesh Gumbad, a very similar tomb in size and appearance, which has traces of bright blue tiles above the doorway). Nobody knows who is buried in Bada Gumbad, though the building—a large square one, topped with a dome—is impressive enough to imply that this was someone important and wealthy. It dates back to the Lodhi period, the 15th-16th century CE.

Bada Gumbad, seen from a distance.

Bada Gumbad, seen from a distance.

Bada Gumbad, while imposing enough as far as size is concerned, is not extremely ornate. It’s made largely of grey Delhi quartzite, which is so hard, it’s difficult to carve. There is some ornamentation in the tomb—the doorways, for example, have carved red sandstone, and there’s more red sandstone in the jharokhas (oriel windows) on the outside. The exterior is pleasant—strips of stone and narrow arches marked in stone give it the illusion of being a double-storeyed building—but the Bada Gumbad’s best-kept secret is hidden away behind a surrounding wall.

This is the Bada Gumbad Mosque, a tiny little five-arched mosque that stands just behind the tomb, abutting it. It’s not huge—all of it could probably easily fit into one bay of the Jama Masjid—but it’s the exquisite beauty of it that is breathtaking. Because the Bada Gumbad Mosque is, in my opinion, the finest example of incised plaster (for which, incidentally, the Lodhi period is well-known: if you see ornate incised plaster in an old monument in Delhi, you can probably safely assume it’s from the Lodhi period).

Inside the Bada Gumbad Mosque.

Inside the Bada Gumbad Mosque.

Incised plaster used to be made by slathering a lime-based plaster thickly onto a surface, and then, before the plaster could dry, carving patterns into it. This, obviously, made for a far cheaper and less labour-intensive option than stone carving. It also allowed much more intricate work, making for what is known as the ‘horror vacuii’ technique: literally, work that’s so intricate and so filling-every-available-space that it shows a ‘horror of vacant spaces’.

… and the Bada Gumbad mosque is almost ethereal in the intricacy of its incised plaster decoration.

The arches are outlined with bands of incised plaster, carved with floral designs and verses from the Qu’ran:

A view of the mosque's interior.

A view of the mosque’s interior.

There are niches (also known as pishtaqs) with incised plaster:

Incised plaster on a niche at the mosque.

Incised plaster on a niche at the mosque.

More incised plaster on a niche.

More incised plaster on a niche.

The squinches, too, are not merely squinches; they’re works of art.

Incised plaster decorating the squinches in the mosque.

Incised plaster decorating the squinches in the mosque.

The ceiling under the main dome of the mosque too has a circular design of incised plaster, and this has the added attraction of still having some of the original paint—mostly in red and blue—intact.

A circular pattern of painted incised plaster on the mosque's ceiling.

A circular pattern of painted incised plaster on the mosque’s ceiling.

If you go to Lodhi Gardens (and this is a good time to visit, what with Delhi’s weather still not unbearably hot), do have a look at the Bada Gumbad mosque: it’s stunning.

14 thoughts on “Tiny but exquisite: the Bada Gumbad Mosque

  1. I have seen this one but a long long time ago. Thankyou for the description. Yeas, it is beautiful and feels so left alone. Wonder what it have been like with people of that era. Once a hain, I echo your readers sentiments, the narrative ended :(

    • Thank you, Neeru! I’m glad you liked this. :-) Yes, it must have been a good deal different back then. Most of the incised plaster would probably have been covered with paint, and – at least in the tomb – there would probably have been carpets, drapes, and so on.

  2. At last a place, which I know. I loved our visit there. It was wonderful to be there with you and see this amazing structure under your guidance. I could have just listened to you for hours together. I was jsut fascinated my the monument AND your knowledge!
    Thank you once again for the nice time we had there.

    • Yes! :-) I was remembering our walk here when I was writing this. I’ve been to Lodhi Gardens countless times (in fact, for a picnic just last week too), but that walk of ours was especially fun. I enjoyed being with all of you – and you were all so flatteringly attentive! Thank you.

  3. “even though most people who come by here are probably not too keen on admiring the architecture.”
    You hit the hit on the nail with that one. Lodhi garden is just a couple of minutes (ok make it ten) from where I work. From the outside it looked so good and peaceful I came one weekend with my wife and daughter (then nine years old) . Bad idea.
    Strewn everywhere were young and not so young “couples” engaging in PDAs. My daughter’s eyes rolled up and she started speaking when my wife just grabbed her by the hand and turned toward the ducks or was it swans waddling about.
    The couples weren’t a bit bothered . except may be I saw an arched eyebrow in one nubile young thing which would nor be out of place in Aunt Agatha ( the arch i mean)
    A similar thing happened in Purana Qila . There there I wander. The result of all this is i have not taken a trip to Safdarjung Tomb nor have revisited Hauz Khas ruins.
    Archaeological term of the day learnt :incised plaster.
    Even if I do not comment on each one of your mosque series I do read them … my loathing of all institutional religions notwithstanding.

    • You know, I’ve been to Lodhi Gardens dozens of times – but always as part of a heritage tour, even if it’s only with my sister. Always I have been with someone else who’s as passionate about heritage architecture as I am – so I’d actually not even noticed all the PDA going on, until last week, when I was here for a picnic (on Valentine’s Day, of all things!) and my friend pointed it out. I can imagine it could be quite embarrassing if you had children along.

      “Even if I do not comment on each one of your mosque series I do read them … my loathing of all institutional religions notwithstanding.

      This series actually has very little to do with religion – in fact, my appreciation of mosque architecture (or church, temple, whatever architecture) is completely to do with the architecture, not the religion aspect of it. I am equally passionate about the Red Fort or Mehrangarh or Rashtrapati Bhawan.

      • Yes yes don’t get me wrong I do love going to the ancient temples (specially the ones in south have lot of exquisite granite carvings) , the ancient forts and the Taj or Sikandra .
        Problem is we have so much of them is that we don’t bother or appreciate them . We take them for granted . Wish our history texts had lot of audio visual stuff.

        i had taken my close relatives to Thuglagabad some years back and they were amazed and the sheer size of it… or what is left. The only sounds were the thuds of the bullets from the nearby shooting range. Thankfully it is too far away for PDAs.
        Reg Lodhi Gardens though I bet you were an early bird …. I think in the afternoons it becomes a haven even heaven for the Romeo-Juliets. You almost feel sorry that you have invaded into their privacy before it strikes you that they are invading your (public ) space. Then you do get irritated.

        • You’re right, I’ve usually been to Lodhi Gardens pretty early in the day – occasionally just after sunrise. But I’ve also visited later on, even sometimes in the afternoon – but have always been too busy focussing on the monuments to pay attention to anybody else around!

          Tughlaqabad Fort is a very interesting area (and yes, thank goodness it’s too distant for the Romeos and Juliets of Delhi!). The last time I went there was with my sister, when she was researching her book – we even saw a neelgai there that time.

    • Yes, the combination of greenery and monuments make it a lovely setting. And the good thing is, it’s such a vast stretch, even when there are loads of people around, one doesn’t end up feeling hemmed in.

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