When I moved to Delhi a few years ago, I spent the first few months in the ‘new industrial areas’ of Noida and Gurgaon, much like the countless other ‘immigrants’ to Delhi. Shortly my job would send me globetrotting for months on end…and the end effect was that even though I was a resident of this great-big-ancient-yet-modern-metropolis, I had seen nothing of it! (save the childhood trips to Red Fort and Qutb Minar of course). Well, so much for context- setting…
On an exciting weekend exploring New York I was exhilarated by its massive Central Park. Lawns, lakes, flowers, woods, joggers, bikers, skaters, tourists and street-performers….this was one big breath of fresh air in a city of skyscrapers jostling for a piece of sky. What a contrast they made- Manhattan vs. Central Park! It took me hours to explore…and yet I’d walked only a fraction of its 10km-long walks.
Then there was the only slightly smaller Hyde Park in London, where I spent many Sundays on a 6-month-long visit to the city soon after. In summer it was a glorious place, the golden sunshine casting lovely shadows on its pristine green lawns, and water-fowl cackling with happiness along the Serpentine, the channel that snaked through the Park and cut it in two. The most exciting part of Hyde Park was of course the Speakers’ Corner….any weekend I felt lonely or had nothing much to do, I could always count on entertainment from that quarter! All I needed to do was join one of the huddles at the north-east corner of the Park, and get regaled by speeches and debates that would range from the hilarious to the incendiary. This historic corner is the site where many speakers have exercised their right to speech since the late nineteenth century, prominent among whom were-hold your breath- Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and George Orwell!
Back in Delhi, before I got bitten by the bug for exploring all things ruined (and before I started to fall for this city), I ached for the open green spaces of London. Then a friend told me about the Lodi Gardens. “Fantastic picnic spot”, was the way she’d described it. So off I went, scarcely expecting much more than a pretty lawn. I was humbled! Although puny in comparison (90 acres to Hyde Park’s 625 and Central Park’s 843 acres), this was really the green lungs near the heart of Delhi. Beautiful lawns, flowering plants, walkers’ trail, water channel, even a bonsai park! Suddenly the world outside had been eclipsed out. The honking vehicles of central Delhi had been unbelievably masked by the chirping of birds. Any worries I had about walking into a shady park in Delhi during twilight also ebbed away…this place was alive with people! People walking their dogs. Families relaxing on the lawns. An instructor training people in physical exercise. Photographers scouting for good views. Joggers running past with ipods stuck firmly in ears. How ignorant I felt at not having heard of this happening place before!
But I haven’t even come to what makes Lodi Gardens so ‘happening’. Not the greenery, not the flowers. Not even the ice-cream and sweet-potato vendors near its gates…though all of these have their own sweet charm. What really makes Lodi Gardens so special, and to me, even more so than the renowned Central Park of New York or the Hyde Park of London….are its tombs. This is no average joggers’ park. This is a royal necropolis of old. Mideaval-age tombs lie scattered around the lawns….lit up in mellow gold after dark, lending the place an eerie yet serene feel. The gardens we now walk in are actually the surrounds of the dead Sayyed and Lodi kings of yesteryear…perhaps their souls still wander here!
The gardens around these historic tombs were landscaped in the early 20th century by Lady Willingdon, wife of the then Governor-General of British India, the Marquess of Willingdon. When inaugurated in 1936, the park was named ‘Lady Willingdon Park’, but after independence the name was changed to ‘Lodi Gardens’. I have to mention here, that ASI and SAIL have done a fantastic job of conserving these picturesque monuments and maintaining these gardens.
The path that veers left from the Lodi Road entrance leads to the oldest of the tombs in the enclosure- that of Muhammad Shah, the last Sayyed ruler of Hindustan, who was interred here in 1444. This tomb is visible from the road, and is a beautiful eight sided monument, with three arches piercing each side. Inside are eight tombs, mostly unknown….the central one is believed to be that of the emperor. The stately mausoleum is bordered suitably by tall, stately palm trees.
Towards the center of the park are the twin monuments of Bada Gumbad (Big Dome) and Sheesh Gumbad (Glass Dome). Both of these are Lodi period monuments. The Bada Gumbad is built on a raised plinth with what looks like a ruined grave platform in the center. On one side is a three-domed mosque, intricately carved with plaster decorations. Beautiful jharokhas (windows) project out of its sides. On the same platform is the actual ‘big dome’ which lends the structure its name- there is much debate among historians whether this is a mausoleum or just a grand gatehouse leading to the mosque.
The Sheesh Gumbad (which we saw earlier in this quiz) is so called because of the lovely blue tiles which at one time supposedly covered much of the exterior of the building. A few pieces of brilliant blue still remain above the arches. The Sheesh Gumbad is sometimes confused with the tomb of Ibrahim Lodi (the last Lodi ruler, who was defeated by Babur in 1526 in the Battle of Panipat, which paved the way for the creation of the Mughal Empire in India). But Ibrahim lies in a tomb in Panipat today, and inside the Sheesh Gumbad are actually a multitude of unidentified tombs, perhaps belonging to an important family of the Lodi period. Standing alone surrounded by graves in this dark chamber does give me the creeps!
At the far end of the garden is the large mausleum of Sikander Lodi (buried here in 1517), surrounded by its own walled enclosure, almost like a mini-fortress. The mausoleum itself is another octagonal chamber surrounded by an arched verandah and a bed of bright poppies swaying in the March breeze. The lone grave of Emperor Sikander Lodi lies at the center of this mausoleum. He sleeps a peaceful sleep within his private enclosure; the only disturbance is caused by some parrots and squirrels.
An artificial creek flows infront of Sikander Lodi’s mausoleum, through clumps of greenery, and under the ‘Athpula’ (eight-tiered bridge), a later Mughal bridge which once spanned a tributary of the river Yamuna. This bridge was probably built much later, during the reign of Emperor Akbar, one of the few surviving structures of Akbar’s time in Delhi. It is a beautiful curving structure, placed diagonally across the creek. It is not known which road went over the bridge in Akbar’s time, but an old mosque and the remains of a Mughal garden nearby suggest that this area was once an important resting place. This little mosque really completes the picture of the Lodi Gardens, an abode of peace and serenity, and a wonderful living specimen of the rich history and heritage of Delhi.