The Isa Khan Niyazi Tomb Complex in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi was built in 1547 for Isa Khan Niyazi, a noble in the court of two rulers of the Suri dynasty, Sher Shah Suri and his successor, Islam Shah Suri. The Suri dynasty (1540-1556) was founded by Sher Shah (1540-1545), a general from Bihar, who successfully challenged the Mughal court in 1540, after which the emperor Humayun fled India. Although their reign was short-lived, the Suris were prolific builders. Not only did the Suris establish road networks, sarai networks, and palace/fort complexes throughout the empire, they also developed a distinct style for funerary architecture.
Sher Shah’s own tomb in Sasaram (Bihar), built ca. 1545, became an important stylistic precedent, marking a development in methods of Afghan-style tomb construction from the Lodi and Tughluq dynasties. The octagonal ambulatory tomb-type was adopted, featuring the extensive use of chhatris and finials atop the superstructure and a walled garden enclosure around the tomb. The Tomb Complex of Isa Khan Niyazi belongs to this type: it consists of a walled octagonal garden, approximately 120 meters in diameter, with an octagonal domed tomb at its center. A three-bay mosque is built along the western edge of the octagonal garden periphery wall projecting outwards to the west in the direction of the qibla. The octagonal complex lies approximately 200 meters (656 feet) to the west of Humayun’s Tomb. The garden today consists of a well-maintained grass cover with a number of trees along its periphery. Since the complex predates Humayun's Tomb by approximately twenty years, its location can be explained by its proximity to the Sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
Today, the Isa Khan Niyazi Tomb Complex is accessed from the forecourt of Humayun's Tomb Complex, south of the tomb garden of the unknown Bu Halima, through a monumental gate in the northern edge of its garden periphery wall. The tomb is mostly invisible from outside of this wall, because of the height of the wall and the trees surrounding it. The mosque itself is accessed from inside the enclosure. The garden wall, constructed of rubble stone masonry, is unornamented on the outside and rises to a height of approximately 4.6 meters. It is lined at the top with merlons and features projecting circular towers at each corner.
Raised to a height of 1.2 meters (4 feet), the complex is entered along a short flight of steps through an entrance portal in the northern gateway. Now mostly ruined, this gateway is a three-bay vaulted structure with the central bay free for access and the two side bays containing rooms. It protrudes slightly into the enclosed garden and rises up to a height of approximately 11.5 meters with the garden periphery wall, stepping up in four stages to meet its high vaulted structure. On the inside the garden periphery wall is lined by a series of vaulted cells recessed within its thickness. The wall forms an open elevated walkway at the top. The main tomb is raised a couple of steps on another low octagonal level extending approximately midway from the tomb to the entrance gate. A short parapet with a merlon-like pattern plastered in relief lines this plinth. It contains four breaks for entry in the four cardinal directions.
The tomb comprises an octagonal walled tomb chamber surrounded by an octagonal ambulatory or veranda. Each side of this octagonal ambulatory contains three pointed arches supported on rectangular piers with a slanting stone buttress at each corner. The arches are covered in a thick layer of stucco plaster, while the piers are composed of twin columns filled in between with bands of red and grey stone. The buttresses are built in dressed local grey quartzite stone blocks. A combination of vaults and domes span the ambulatory space. A large protruding chhajja (overhanging eave) supported on ornamental stone brackets rests on the arched superstructure. Atop the chajja cornice is a parapet lined with merlons.
The tomb chamber is capped by a large pointed dome supported on a high octagonal drum. The dome has a lotus finial and the drum has pinnacles with bulbous heads at each of its angles. Flanking the dome, at the center of each side of the octagonal ambulatory, above the chajja cornice, is a chhatri (domed pavilion). Each chhatri is octagonal in plan, comprising eight red sandstone columns supporting a small dome ornamented in incised plaster with a band of blue glazed tiles around its drum. The buttresses are also crowned with pinnacles. This composition of pinnacles and chhatris crowning the tomb structure places it within the Suri dynasty tomb-type, a designation further emphasized by the octagonal ambulatory around the tomb chamber.
The entire structure rests on an octagonal plinth with a protruding coping course. A short flight of steps on the west side of the tomb leads up to the ambulatory. The massive walls of the tomb chamber are entered through a rectangular doorway at the center of its west side. The doorway consists of two portals, one at the outer face of the massive wall; both are spanned by a stone lintel supported on either side by ornamental stone brackets. Above the lintel is a small arched window containing a screen carved in stone. Between the two portals is a series of steps leading up to the roof; these rise east within the thickness of the wall. The tomb chamber itself contains screened openings at the center of each side except the west, which contains the mihrab. Each opening consists of a low rectangular window and a smaller arched window above similar to the entrance doorway. The windows are also recessed into two planes. Small arched openings in the drum of the dome above allow light to enter the chamber. The dome is covered in a thick layer of incised stucco plaster. An inscription on the mihrab in the west wall of the tomb records the date of construction as 1547 by Masnad-I Ali Isa Khan, son of Niyaz Aghwan. The mosque within the tomb complex is believed to have been constructed at the same time.
The mosque is found along the western side of the garden's periphery wall, from which it protrudes. As with the tomb, it is preceded by a raised plinth (this plinth has a rectangular profile). The mosque consists of three equal bays and a single aisle. The space of the prayer hall is accessed through a three-arched façade towards the east opening up to the raised plinth. The broad, pointed arches are recessed in two planes, composed within a rectangular frame, and supported on stone pilasters. The arches are lined with blue and green glazed tiles and their spandrels contain round medallions of floral and arabesque patterns in intricately incised plaster. The central arch is composed within imposing rectangular frame in red sandstone that scales the height of the building well over the roof terrace. It contains a composition of small arched niches surrounding the archway. The top of this frame is lined with merlons with its two ends flanked by octagonal finials.
Directly above and behind this frame is the large pointed dome of the mosque, which is flanked on either side by chhatris marking the centers of the two side bays. The dome rests on a tall octagonal drum ornamented in bands of red and grey stone. The two side bays are comparatively plain, built in dressed grey quartzite stone blocks with a red sandstone chhajja shading the archways. The tops of these bays are lined by similar merlons. There is no chhajja over the central bay. The chhatris are octagonal and capped by domes that are smaller versions of the central dome.
At the south end of the mosque, a small rectangular doorway leads to a stairway up to the roof terrace. The entire mosque building serves as one prayer hall, although three distinct bays are clearly defined by the arches spanning the space in the east-west direction. The central bay is spanned by a single dome above small squinches, while the two side bays are vaulted. The roof is supported on a set of massive pointed arches recessed in two planes and spanning both directions of the prayer hall. Each bay in the west wall contains an arched mihrab of similar size, recessed in two planes and supported on twin pilasters, framed within a rectangular recess. The rectangular frame is lined at the top by a merlon-like pattern in relief. Above each mihrab is a small arched niche; small rectangular niches flank it on either side. The central mihrab contains more elaborate ornamentation of the arches and pilasters and a deeper niche covered by a half-dome. The spandrels of each of the mihrabs contain round ornamental medallions. The north and south walls have a central arched doorway of similar proportion to the mihrabs that leads to a stairway up to the roof.
Construction techniques in the tomb complex include stone masonry, decorative tilework, and plasterwork. The buildings are predominantly constructed with a rubble masonry core and faced in dressed local grey quartzite stone blocks. While the columns are monolithic stone, the arches and their spandrels are plastered. Red sandstone is used sparingly as for decorative accents such as the niches and chajjas, or as bands along the plinth and cornice. The exception to this is the imposing red sandstone framing the central bay of the mosque. A striking feature of the Tomb Complex are the chhatris and finials, of the kind found in the Tomb of Sher Shah at Sasaram, arranged around the dome.
The entire tomb complex is ornamented on the exterior with blue and green glazed tiles. The arches of the tomb and mosque are framed within a rectangle composed of light and dark blue glazed tiles. The outlines of the arches themselves are adorned in floral and arabesque patterns in blue glazed tiles. Bands of similar patterned tiles decorate prominent surfaces such as the parapet and the octagonal drums of the main dome and chhatris. These glazed tiles are often used in combination with intricately carved plaster. Spandrels of each of the arches have finely incised round medallions in plaster.
The interior walls of the buildings are faced in dressed grey stone blocks. Vaults and domes are plastered and their soffits adorned with incised floral motifs. The soffit of each chhatri dome contains eight large flower petals radiating out from the center, which itself has an intricately medallion carved into the plaster. Door and window jambs are carved in grey stone supporting ornamental brackets. The windows in the tomb contain exquisitely carved stone jaalis.
The Tomb Complex of Isa Khan Niyazi is, as a whole, one of the earlier examples in South Asia of the tomb-in-a-walled-garden type. The octagonal ambulatory type tomb is also an example of the Afghan style tombs built in Delhi since the Tughluq dynasty in the fourteenth century. The earliest tomb of this type is the Tomb Complex of Khan-i Jahan Tilangani, a noble in the court of Firoz Shah Tughluq, built in 1369 located in nearby Nizamuddin. It is believed that the ambulatory is specific to the ritual circumambulation that became popular at the time. These tombs also express the importance of nobles in the courts of Delhi sultans and the development of an elaborate bureaucracy for maintaining dynastic style in architectural works.
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