City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road

City Monument – Maham Begam’s Tomb, Mathura Road

City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road

A Mughal landmark.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Looming tall on a traffic circle, outside the Humayun Tomb complex, it is one of Delhi’s most overlooked monuments.

The Mathura Road landmark is colloquially known as Neela Gumbad — for neela (blue) tiles adorn the dome. The 16th century building’s actual name of Sabz Burj comes from the sabz (Persian for green) tiles on its neck. Among the earliest Mughal monuments in India — older than even Humayun’s tomb — it has long been believed to be a tomb. Who built it and for whom has remained a mystery.

We now have answers never reported before in the news media. Conservation architect Ratish Nanda of Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which executed an ambitious four-year-long conservation project on the monument, says: “Our work on Sabz Burj revealed a painted ceiling that lay hidden under 20th century cement layers. It is pure gold and pure lapis, a privilege accorded only to buildings associated with royalty. This rich embellishment, as well as the Timurid architectural style, and the monument’s proximity to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s sufi shrine, led renowned Mughal architectural historian Professor Ebba Koch to conclude that Sabz Burj was a tomb built by second Mughal emperor Humayun for his mother Maham Begam, wife to Emperor Babar, the first Mughal.”

Vienna-based Ebba Koch made the startling suggestion last year in her book The Planetary King: Humayun Padshah, Inventor and Visionary on the Mughal Throne. “Its (Sabz Burj) elegant and sophisticated design and the precious building decoration suggest that the building was a royal commission. Who but Humayun would have been able to afford such a fine vault… His mother, Maham Begam, had died in 1533, and after the 40 days of mourning, he came to Delhi to found his new city, Dinpanah, near the dargah of Nizamuddin. Could it be that he took Maham Begam’s body with him to bury her in a tomb he constructed for her close to the dargah, so that she could benefit from the blessings and spiritual powers associated with the resting place of the great saint of Delhi?”

The tomb, however, doesn’t have any grave within. Ratish Nanda says that it was most likely stolen by antique hunters in the distant past, a fate common to many other mausoleums. The grave must have been of marble sculpted with floral patterns and religious calligraphies, he says.

In the colonial times, the British turned the tomb into a police station, before the garden around it was razed down to make way for a busy road. Whatever, in the light of new insights. this monument ought to be seen as the cradle of all the Mughal monuments. Being the possible burial place of the first Mughal matriarch from whom came the rest of the Mughals.

Subz Burj scoop

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City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road

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City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road

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City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road

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City Monument - Maham Begam's Tomb, Mathura Road