Is this really the work of human hands? That is all I could think as I gazed up at the magnificent rose-pink and dove-grey edifice towering above me. I was in the courtyard of a 12th century Sufi saint’s khanqah and the sight in front of me would not have changed much in the past five centuries. I whispered to myself, lest I break the spell with my own voice: See, how wrong you were!
I have a confession to make, Dear Reader.
When I was putting together my travel bucket list for India, I had decided to demarcate it State-wise. Next to Haryana, I wrote ‘nil’ which translated to: there was nothing to see. Almost as if to prove me wrong, and that too with a vengeance, I got to explore four of its towns in recent weeks, towns which overflowed with historicity, heritage, and charm.
The most recent was Narnaul. Over the course of the day, I traversed stunning monuments spanning a millennium: tombs, stepwells, havelis, gateways, and palaces. The sheer number, their grandeur, and remarkable state of preservation seemed to mock my ignorance.
Welcome to India’s best kept secret, Haryana, and Haryana’s best kept secret Narnaul. A story of all-powerful medieval nobles and their immense unimaginable wealth. Wealth which would put the uber-rich today, a tad bit to shame, for remnants of the former’s lavish lifestyle still stand tall.
One of them, a governor, was so important he dwarfs the rest. All because he was at the right place at the right time. His name was Shah Quli Khan, the man who revived Mughal fortunes. If it wasn’t for him, there may not have been a Mughal Empire, post an early-shaky start by Babur and Humayun, or an Akbar the Great or a Taj Mahal.
SHAH QULI KHAN, THE REASON THE MUGHAL EMPIRE SURVIVED
It was the 5th of November, 1556. Humayun had died in a freak accident earlier in the year in Delhi, leaving a disjointed and weak empire to his 13-year-old son Akbar. Chances of the Mughal Empire surviving this catastrophe were slim to say the least. To top it, the Hindu King Hemchandra Vikramaditya, popularly known as Hemu, an able administrator and brilliant military strategist, had taken over Delhi a few weeks ago.
In a defining battle at Panipat, the two factions met that day to decide the future of North India. By all accords, Hemu had the upper hand. However, just when it seemed that Mughal defeat was eminent, an arrow struck Hemu’s eye. Blinded, he fell off the horse and was instantly captured and then put to death. The rest as they say is history. The primary competitor now taken care of, Mughal rule revived itself and survived for the next 300 years.
History has conveniently forgotten the soldier who shot that defining, albeit fluke, arrow. But Akbar didn’t. He raised the gentleman to governor’s post [of Narnaul] and showered upon him titles and privileges for the next 42 years, making him the highest ranked noble in his court. The gentleman’s name was Shah Quli Khan.
With so much wealth at his disposal, Shah Quli Khan adorned Narnaul with Aram-E-Kauser, a private garden complex in which stood Jal Mahal, a palace floating amidst a lake, and tombs for himself and his family. There must have been many more such marvellous edifices, but these few have made their way through time, perhaps just to ensure his role in the big picture is not forgotten.
Jal Mahal was known as Khan Sarovar back in 1591, when it stood in the middle of a large square water tank, accessed by a 16-arched bridge. Exquisite frescoes decorate its ceilings. Shah Quli Khan would have spent many an evening under one of the chhatris on the roof, a favourite past-time of the rich in those days.
Shah Quli Khan had this tomb made for his father in 1575. After his own death some 25 years later, he was interred here as well. Top left: Detail, ceiling fresco.
Aram-E-Kauser, once Shah Quli Khan’s private garden complex, is now a stretch of farmlands. To the left is his own-cum-father’s tomb. To the right, that of his brother Islam Quli Khan. I found the tree in the tilled lands almost symbolic; a representation of the re-flowering of the Mughal Empire flanked by the man, and his family, who made it possible.
Tripolia Gate  served as an entrance to Shah Quli Khan’s Tomb. Decorated with frescoes on its ceilings, steep steps lead to the upper floors and rooftop which offer stunning views of the two tombs and farmlands.
NAWAB MIRZA ALIJAN AND HIS UNUSUAL STEPWELL
Deeply atmospheric, Nawab Mirza Alijan Ki Baoli, is akin to literally stepping back in time. Say, 450 years? The grave at the site is purported to be that of the Nawab [governor] himself.
Stepwells are few and far between in Haryana, unlike in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The handful that Haryana does possess make up for this architectural wonder’s absence through sheer innovative design. Mirza Alijan Ki Baoli [stepwell] is one such case.
Mirza Alijan was a Governor of Narnaul during Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign [1556 – 1605]. Not much remains of his building endeavours except for his stepwell, a poetic grey stone edifice distinguished by a huge arched gateway, under the dense shade of verdant trees.
High on the gateway’s roof is a takhat or throne in the form of a rectangular pillared chhatri to augment the structure’s uniqueness. It faces the three-storeyed stepwell carved deep into the earth at one end, and a well on the other which provided the stepwell its water.
The site, hidden away in the north-west corner of Narnaul, is dotted with unmarked graves, two of which sit on a platform and are believed to belong to the man, Mirza Alijan, himself. No one is really sure of it, but incense sticks are burned next to the grave for his soul’s peace.
BAL MUKUND DAS KI HAVELI, HOME OF NARNAUL’S SOLE HINDU GOVERNOR
The monumental stone ruins of Bal Mukund Das’ seven-storeyed haveli. Four floors lie above the ground, three are sub-terranean.
Narnaul’s governors were all Muslims, except for one: Bal Mukund Das. He was a Hindu and a local resident of Narnaul. He is also the only governor in Narnaul whose home still survives.
Or should I say palace. It is a gigantic building rising four storeys high above the ground, and three sub-terranean floors deep underneath, with large courtyards and pillared halls in stone and wood. The stone has ensured it still exists; the wood has collapsed, caving in the ceilings.
Designed on Mughal lines, the wonderful mix of arched and trabeated architecture was built in the 17th Century. Mukund Das used to work for Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s brother-in-law. When Shah Jahan [1628 – 58] succeeded to the throne, a glowing recommendation from his ex-boss helped Mukund Das clinch the post.
You don’t need much imagination to visualise how the haveli must have been like in its heyday. Even in its partly collapsed state, it is magnificent. Add to it, Persian carpets, damask drapes, and hundreds of fluttering lamps and scurrying servants. Here in Narnaul, the governors were ‘emperors’ of nano-empires comprising lanes, bylanes, and the surrounding farmlands.
Factoid: Google Maps calls this site Birbal Ka Chhatta. Birbal, one of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s nine navratnas, was from Narnaul. Beyond that, please note there is no connection between the haveli and Birbal. 🙂
NARNAUL’S LANDMARK: JAMAL KHAN’S TOMB AKA CHOR GUMBAD
Deceptive appearances. The two floors of verandas around the building are only on the outside. Inside, it is a soaring single chamber.
Perched on a rocky mound, welcoming the intrepid traveller to Narnaul, is the 14th Century Jamal Khan’s Tomb. Its prominent location, right at the entrance of the town, has earned it the present-day privilege of being the symbol of Narnaul.
If you wondering about its moniker Chor Gumbad, meaning Thieves Tomb, no, Jamal Khan was not the thief. In fact, very little is known about him except that he was an Afghan and a powerful noble in Narnaul during the rule of Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq [1351 – 88] of the Delhi Sultanate. And that he had elegant tastes.
The tomb is a marvellous symphony of a square, majestic structure with two floors of verandas lined with tall arches on all four sides and minarets snuggled to its corners. Inside, a single chamber, sans a grave, stands under a soaring single dome. What one sees today, though, is a much-renovated version; it was in a rather dilapidated state till quite recently.
So, to get back to the thieves. In later years, the ruins became a favourite hangout for thieves, and the new ‘living’ occupants’ profession, well, just stuck.
IBRAHIM SHAH SUR’S TOMB, A FITTING TRIBUTE BY HINDUSTAN’S RULER FOR HIS BELOVED GRANDFATHER
At the beginning of this blog post I wrote about a fantastical monument which literally took my breath away. I was referring to Ibrahim Shah Sur’s Tomb. Post my excursion and having explored Narnaul’s many treasures, if someone were to ask me again what was my favourite site in Narnaul, it would still be this one.
Ibrahim Shah Sur was the grandfather of Sher Shah Sur, the ruler of Hindustan, as the Indian sub-continent was then called, who ousted the Mughals in 1540 and never lost a battle. In his five years of rule, he left a legacy which still endures. These range from the introduction of Rupee, the Indian currency, to setting up the Indian postal system, to the extension of the Grand Trunk Road to include Chittagong in Bengal and Kabul in Afghanistan.
No surprises then that the tomb he built his grandfather was intricate in its detailing, and yet magnificent as a whole. Not many know that Narnaul was also Sher Shah Sur’s birthplace. Ibrahim Shah Sur came to Hindustan all the way from Afghanistan and made this little town in Haryana his home.
Ibrahim Shah Sur passed away in 1518. His grandson Sher Shah Sur, ruler of India from 1540 to 1545, later commissioned the finest architects to build this structure over his grave.
PIR TURKMAN: HE WHO CAME TO NARNAUL WITH JEWELS IN ONE HAND AND A SWORD IN THE OTHER
Way before the Mughals, in fact, even way before the Delhi Sultanate, a soldier and Sufi saint rolled into one, made Narnaul his home. His name was Shah Wilayat. He’d fought against the Rathore Rajputs and is said to have arrived in Narnaul with “jewels in one hand and a sword in the other”.
Shah Wilayat soon came to be known as Pir Turkman, set up his Khanqah or Sufi centre here, and when he died in 1137, an unadorned grave marked the spot.
Two hundred years later, Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq [1351 – 88], India’s first prolific conservator, decided to cover the grave with an edifice and add a madrasah to it. The Mughals and later rulers, including British, all contributed further to the structure. A mosque here, a pavilion there, in the hope to beget blessings of the saint.
An aura of peace pervades the whole complex today, with fresh flowers and chadars [coverings] on the grave, jasmine trees in the crumbling courtyard, and Ibrahim Shah Sur’s Tomb hovering over the walls. The Afghan chose this location on purpose for his burial so he could be assured a place in the heavens. Perhaps for us living, a stop at the complex will suffice.
Mughal-era mosque in Pir Turkman’s Tomb Complex. How does one date it? The scalloped arches, called Shahjahani arches, were an architectural feature developed during Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign.
Look who I found, nestled in the walls of Pir Turkman’s Tomb Complex!
Time at World Cities? Nope. These are offerings at Pir Turkman’s Tomb. I wonder what the devotees were praying for. And why a wall clock? Were these to help get over bad times? They are a common sight in Narnaul’s shrines, which I came across more than twice.
Sometimes there are facts and figures. Sometimes stories. And at other times, declarations of beliefs. Travel, you will always be the finest and eternal teacher. 🙂
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P.S. I explored the historical city of Narnaul in Haryana on a full day excursion from Delhi with Sair E Hind. They specialize in heritage walks and tours to off-the-beaten-path historical sites in India.
You may also like to read my other posts on Haryana.
Travel Shorts: The Taj of Haryana
The treasures of Farrukhnagar and Jhajjar no guidebook tells you about
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