Most regular Indian history books normally do not contain much details about Northeastern India. I thankfully did not go through the bland, utilitarian, CBSE system but studied in the Assam State Board which surely sucked too on various counts but still gave me a better grounding on local history and geography. During the 8th standard, I’d also opted for an optional History course where I first learned about the earliest eastern expeditions of Turkik invaders from the west. But why am I talking about this now? Well, because I discovered an unexpected connection with the same during one of my usual Delhi strolls.
Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkik commander, broke free from the Delhi Sultanate and conquered Bengal without much resistance in the early 13th century. As he grew more ambitious, he planned to reach Tibet through what we now know as Assam. It did not go according to plan and he was defeated by a local king Prithu in 1206 AD1, about whom not much else is known. The details of his victory were found in Kanai Boroxi Boa Rock Inscription2, one of the early examples of modern Assamese script found somewhere near North Guwahati. The details are apparently mentioned also in Tabakat-i-Nasiri by Persian historian Minhaz-i-Siraj3. This started the process of continuous invasions into the land. Khilji’s successor picked up a fight with the Delhi again but Iltutmish‘s son Nasiruddin Mahmud defeated him, went further and then defeated and killed Prithu too by venturing eastwards circa 1228. Of course he could never consolidate his hold in the areas but remained the undisputed chief in Bengal and the worthy heir of Delhi’s throne. However, he died suddenly, details again not fully known, leaving a grief-stricken father who decided to make a grand mausoleum for his favorite son.
Sultan-e-Garhi: Mausoleum on the Edge
So, Sultan Ghari (or Sultan e Ghari or Sultan Garhi or Sultan-i-Garhi) is exactly that grand memorial that an Emperor built for his son and as far as I can see, he was the first one of his ilk to win a battle beyond Kartoa4. While I knew about this monument and also about the history mentioned above, I never connected them before with each other. Only a couple of days ago, when I was reading up a bit more before writing this post, the connection became clearer. (If somebody spots some inaccuracy, please leave a comment).
This monument was something I’d been looking to visit for ages. I am not sure when exactly I came across the name but it just refused to get erased from my memory. Even when I visited other less obscure places, it kept haunting me. One of the reasons for my inability to visit it included the problematic route. There is no direct metro line nearby, a fact that immediately affects my motivation levels due to my dislike of public buses. Nevertheless, I finally gathered my scattered bits of willpower and set out for the Sultan Ghadis Tomb last week.
The route was less complicated than I’d imagined. I took the metro to Chattarpur because it seemed closest on the map. I saw several buses and shared cars bound to Mahipalpur outside the metro. However, I was not sure how far to go and I thought the bus conductor is unlikely to know about this monument. Following the Google Maps, I decided to leave the bus near the Fortis Hospital in Vasant Kunj. It was still more than 2 kms away but I decided to walk the rest of the distance following GPS.
I crossed several landmarks. Vasant Square Mall, ISIC Hospital, TERI University, and finally Ryan International School and then took a left turn along a small road. I gradually entered an area that seemed like a post-apocalyptic wasteland with heaps of non-biodegradable garbage everywhere. There were a few dusty huts and roadside shops scattered on the barren land covered mostly with thorny shrubs. I went past the turning showed on the maps as I did not see a path. I came back to the point after a while and saw a very faint trail going into the shrubs and through those shrubs I saw the faint glimpse of some decaying structures that seemed to have suddenly conjured up. I followed the path and entered a series of eerie and dilapidated ruins, remnants of some older villages in this area. Just as I moved past these ruins, a far better-looking and better-maintained monument emerged.
This was the Sultan Ghari I was looking for and by mistake, I’d arrived at the back end of the monument rather than the front. It was supposed to be a grave but it looked more like a castle. The proverbial golden hour was near and the there was a golden hue spread all over the corner bastions made of golden orange Delhi Quartzite Stone5. They looked beautiful and surprisingly well maintained. I noticed a smaller, separately standing cenotaph, belonging to another son of Iltutmish. Two of his other sons were also buried here but the cenotaph meant for the other one has been destroyed completely.
I walked around the main structure gingerly and had a glimpse of the bright marble top through the walls and then finally I arrived at the front entrance of the tomb where a few locals had gathered for a chat. One of them was apparently the caretaker.
Now, at this point, I realized that this monument is unique for many reasons.
1. I am not an expert in architecture but I am sure the structure is completely different from anything I have seen in Delhi, and I have seen quite a few.
2. It is located a bit too far from regular archaeological clusters of Delhi, on the South Western edge of the city, thus making it easy to ignore or simply give up on. In short, not too many have seen it.
3. While many of the better-known monuments lay unattended, there is an entry fee charged for this one, which is not a bad thing at all.
So, the caretaker showed me a bunch of tickets, costing INR 100 per head. But his soul probably heard my silent curse and produced another bundle, costing INR 5. I asked what the difference is and he said there is none! He was basically trying to sell me the one meant for foreign tourists.
Anyways, after sorting out these initial hiccups I finally removed my shoes and entered the premises of the tomb and was surprised again! There was a large octagonal enclosure covering most of the courtyard, frequented by parrots, pigeons and other birds. The actual tombs are apparently inside it. There is a small entrance that takes you to dark interiors but it all looked eerie and claustrophobic to me. More interestingly, there were signs of incense sticks, oil, flowers and vermilion, indicating that it is frequented by both Hindi and Muslim devotees as it is now considered a shrine of a Sufi Saint. I am not sure when exactly this trend started but surely these people do not know of the real identity of the person buried here. Nevertheless, it seems to be another good example Delhi’s composite culture after the SurajWali Mosque I saw last month in Delhi.
What is more elaborate is the Mihrab, rich in intricate calligraphy on marble. It is supported by large large and sandstone colonnades, complete with a triangular arch. This portion looks more like Parthenon rather than a Mamluk mausoleum. The central enclosure was probably a natural cave early, which gave rise to the name Sultan-e-Garhi (King of the Cave). I spent around in hour exploring the structure and finally came out from the frontal pathway which turned out to be much simpler. However, I think I will return soon because the place gave me a feeling of being completely away from the city, a feeling that I really cherish.
Just in case anyone is wondering, I would like to provide a few pointers for further historical reading and exploration.
Firstly, Nasir’s death eventually paved way for Raziya Sultan, his sister and the only woman ever to rule Delhi. However, progressive as that moment was, turned out to be an aberration because she eventually suffered a tragic fate and her tomb is hidden in a nondescript corner in present-day Old Delhi. There is no grand structure to celebrate her out there but you can visit the grave and even locating it is an adventure in itself.
As for Assam, Prithu’s successors seized back the kingdom after the momentary setback. These invasions continued till the fag end of 17th century but never really achieved lasting success. However, this led to the earliest Muslim settlers in Assam. The invasions stopped with Aurangzeb‘s death and weakening of the Mughal Empire.
Sultan-e-Garhi Traveller FAQs
How to reach Sultan Ghari?
Chattarpur is the nearest metro station. Take a bus or shared car from here towards Airport/Mahipalpur. Get down near ISIC hospital (Indian Spinal Injuries Centre) at Vasant Kunj Sector, for the front entrance or Ryan International School a bit ahead of it for the back entrance. Both the roads are unmarked but Google Map is accurate.
What is the entry fee at Sultan Ghari?
INR 5 for Indians and INR 100 for foreigners. No camera fee.
Is it safe to visit?
The area is a bit desolated. Although not far from the main road, it is covered with thick bushes. Do not go after dark and if you are too scared then travel in groups.
1. Gazetteer of Assam.
2. Ravages of time and tide take a toll on Kanai Barashi
3. TABAQAT-I-NASIRI Digital Print
4. Karatoya or Kartoa river was the historical Western Border of Kamrup/Assam.
5. Sultan Garhi, Vasant Kunj, Delhi (For more architectural details).