Delhi is a city that was built, destroyed and rebuilt several times. Each time culturally and architecturally some new features were introduced and added which led to development of the Delhi culture and an indigenous style of architecture.
According to historians the accepted number of cities (between 1100 AD–1947 AD) in Delhi (excluding New Delhi) now are 8. The oldest city site being in and around today’s Mahrauli (the site of the first capital of the Delhi Sultanate, mostly developed during the rule of the Mamluk (Slave) dynasty, the pre-existing forts known as Lalkot and Qila Rai Pithora were also strengthened and included in the city), the others being Siri (founded by Alauddin Khalji), Tughlqabad (built by Ghiyasuddin Tughluq), Jahanpanah (meaning Sanctuary of the World, created by the construction of two long walls connecting the Mehrauli and Siri, built by Muhammad bin Tughluq), Firozobad (built by Firuz Shah Tughluq) Dinpanah (meaning Sanctuary of the Faith, built by Humayun), on this location itself Sher Shah Sur developed or built Shergarh, Shahjahanabad (the walled city built by Shah Jahan from 1638 to 1649- present day Old Delhi).
There are many other settlements (established before, during and after the Islamic rule) also which have not been included in this list but are an important part of the history of Delhi, most of these settlements in the area commonly called the ‘Delhi Triangle,’ bounded to the south and the west by the Aravalli Range, locally known as the Delhi Ridge, and to the east by the Yamuna River.
According to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a village at the site that existed until 1913 named “Indarpat” (area in an around today’s Old Fort or Purana Qila) was the direct descendant of the Mahabharat’s Indraprastha the legendary ancient city believed to have been established 5000 years ago. This has been and is still being disputed by many historians.
The Old Fort or Purana Qila is one location where one can see remains of 3 different cities of Delhi – “Indarpat or Mahabharat’s Indraprastha (Northern Black Polished Ware (c. 700-200 BCE) have been excavated at the site, and pieces of Painted Grey Ware were found on the surface, suggesting an even older settlement, possibly going back to ca. 1000), Dinpanah (meaning Sanctuary of the Faith, built by Humayun) and Sher Shah Suri’s Shergarh.
The old fort or the Purana Qila may have had seen many structures in its hay days, but today not many structures remain. Out of the existing structures, towards the south of Qila-i-Kuhna Masjid (mosque) lies an interesting structure- the Sher Mandal.
Sher Mandal is a short and wide octagonal tower made of red sandstone with a dome or Chattri. It is situated on the highest point of Old Fort.
The external diameter of the structure is 16 m and the height from the base of the plinth to the top of the parapet is 13.5 m. The lower storey is closed from all the sides. Eight alcoves have been provided in this storey, one on each octagonal side. They are rectangular and semi-octagonal alternatively. Carved red stone nook-shafts with chevron design (Chevron is an inverted V pattern, with each side meeting at the point without interruption. The results are a seamless zig-zag pattern) at the angles can be seen at every turn. There are staircases on the south-west and north- west side leading to the upper storey but there is only one set of stairs from the upper storey to the terrace. The stairs are made of granite and are extremely steep, narrow and irregular (average tread of 15.24 cm, the rise is 30.48 cm and sometimes it is even 38.10 cm high). The staircases are extremely dangerous.
The upper floor contains the main component of the building – a cross shaped hall with a central domed space, square in plan, surrounded by 4 rectangular platforms. The upper storey too has eight alcoves, one on each octagonal side, corresponding to the lower ones, though they are much deeper. A doorway at the end of each axial alcove leads to a passageway that encircles the building and interlinks the balconies.
There used to be a balcony (chhajja) above the lower storey which has now completely gone.
On the exterior, the spandrels (the space between the shoulders of adjoining arches and the ceiling or moulding above) have hexagram (6 pointed stars or satkonas) in inlaid marble on a red stone background, one on each spandrel; there being 16 hexagrams in all. These hexagrams also appear in the tiled dadoes of the interior hall.
The intrados (the lower or inner curve of an arch) of the arches have geometrical designs inlaid with white marble. This is like a mosaic of inlaid motifs. Every angle has a carved stone nook-shaft flanked on either side, i.e., on the exterior, by a square panel which bears a geometrical design inlaid with white marble on a red sandstone slab, with a border of black slate. The design is a 12-petalled flower with a 12-pointed star as its central theme.
The terrace has an octagonal chhatri (domed pavilion) in its middle on the same level, with 6.25 metres span, its pillars set apart at a distance of 2.64 metres, one from the other making it an extraordinarily spacious pavilion.
In Sher Mandal one can see a blend of various architectural style, design elements and motifs; the chatri (domed pavilion) and chhajja (balcony) and use of red sandstone and white marble as principal building materials from Sultanate architecture which itself relied heavily on earlier Hindu architecture, the geometrical patterns, glazed tiles (traces of which can still be seen in the rooftop chatri (domed pavilion) are from Timurid architecture.
In the absence of proper records it is difficult to say who built the Sher Mandal – whether it was the 2nd Mughal emperor Humayun or was is Sher Shah Suri. The historians have a different view on the same – some say Sher Mandal was not named after Sher Shah Suri but it is a corrupted version of Saur Mandal (solar system) as Humayun used it as an observatory; some identify it as Humayun’s Library but there are no records of Sher Shah Suri’s usage of this building (probably lost in time or never recorded).
But all agree to this fact that this was the place from the roof of which Humayun fell and died in 963 AH /1556 AD. Abul Fazl, the court-historian of Akbar, gives a detailed account of the event: At the close of Friday (7th of) Rabi’al-Awwal 963 (20 January 1556), Emperor Humayun met some delegation of royals who had returned from Hijaz and a delegation from Gujarat who made reports to Emperor Humayun in Sher Mandal. There was a delegation from Kabul also. And some mathematicians too who informed the emperor that it was expected that Venus would rise on that night and the emperor wished to observe the planet. After meeting all of them, Emperor Humayun came out on the roof of the Library, and gave the people who were assembled at the chief mosque (the Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque ) paying obeisance (Kornish) to the emperor his blessings.
At the beginning of the evening, emperor started to descend and when he came to the second step, he heard azaan, sat down to pay respect, when he rose, his staff stuck in his robe, he slipped and fell down The blow was so severe that blood started coming out of his right ear (his head was hit badly). Maulana Qasim Kah and Badaoni also confirm the same. Subsequently, he died on 24 January 1556.
Another mystery is that the lower storey is entirely closed on all sides. The construction of the building is in arcuate style – a major element in Islamic architecture with the establishment of beams and arches. The structure could definitely be not filled with masonry, there would have been a small chamber inside it (similar to the upper storey probably). Then when and why it was closed. Some scholars based on details available in Akbar Nama have come up with this solution – for a few months which passed between the death of Humayun and Hemu’s advance upon Delhi, the royal corpse was kept in a place at Delhi, most probably in his own DinPanah. It seems that the lower closed storey of the Sher-Mandal was the first Supurdgah (burial place or ground where coffin is buried) of the corpse of Humayun. He died in this building, which was independent and self-contained and also looked like an octagonal tomb; most probably, he was initially buried here. When the Mughals vacated Delhi in the face of Hemu’s threat, they dug out the body and took it to Sirhind where it was deposited in a Supurdgah. According to the account of the Akbar Nama, Emperor Akbar went to pay respect to his father’s temporary tomb or shrine at Sirhind in 1558. This means that the corpse was lying there for about two years. Humayun’s tomb was not finished until 976 AH /1568 AD when Akbar Nama records that Akbar paid a visit to it and “conferred princely largesse on the attendants thereupon”. It is quite possible that the coffin was brought to Delhi soon after Akbar’s visit to Sirhind and again deposited at the place where it had been initially enshrined before its transfer to Sirhind in 1556 i.e. at Sher Mandal before it was placed in its final resting place – Humayun’s tomb which is located close by. It is possible that after the body was finally removed, the vacant chamber in Sher Mandal was closed up out of the great sanctity attached to this place.
This place with all its mystery on who was the builder and why the lower storey is like this, does deserve a visit. Today the structure is under ASI and none of the floors is open for public – no one can climb the stairs to go to the upper level or roof which in a way is good also, to protect any accidents happening due to eager rowdy and careless selfie crazy visitors. This measure would also prevent any further damages. So one can enjoy the beauty from outside.
Asher, Catherine B. The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture of Mughal India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Koch, Ebba. Mughal Architecture: An Outline of its History and Development (1526-1858). Munich: Verlag, 1991..
Nath, R. History of the Sultanate Architecture. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978.
Royal Assemblies and Imperial Libraries: Polygonal Pavilions and Their Functions in Mughal and Safavid Architecture, Farshid Emami, South Asian Studies, 2019 Vol. 35, No.1, 63 – 81