A Greek mythical hero behind the Mughal throne

One of the most striking buildings in the Red Fort in Delhi is the grand, pillared Diwan-e-Aam.

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

The Diwan-e-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, was where ordinary people could get an audience with the Emperor. They would come to air their grievances, settle disputes and complaints, and the Emperor would proclaim his judgment.

The Emperor would be seated on a grand throne on the huge marble platform in the centre of the hall (at the back).

Marble Throne

Marble Throne

If you observe the wall at the back of the marble throne, there are some beautiful Pietra Dura motifs. They aren’t clearly visible though, because of the protective glass.

You can see birds on trees, flowers and one very peculiar motif – what seems like a very European-looking youth playing a stringed instrument, with some intently listening animals at his feet!

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

We have enlarged that picture for you:



That is Orpheus – the legendary Greek musical hero whose beautiful singing and playing were supposed to soothe all animals.

But wait – what was a Greek mythical hero doing in the palace of a 17th century Mughal ruler?!

Well, the simple answer is that this was the influence of European artists working under Mughal patronage. But still, why choose such a foreign-looking motif?

This question intrigued one particular European architectural history student – her name is Ebba Koch (and she’s now acclaimed as a leading authority on Mughal architecture) – and she decided to do her entire PhD thesis on this one symbol!

The key message of her thesis is this: If you look closely at the animals in the Orpheus motif, it conveys something surprising – both wild animals and their prey are sitting with each other in peace and harmony.
And that was the message that Shah Jahan wanted to convey to his subjects: that in his reign, everyone – the powerful and the weak – can live with each other in peace.

Think of it as the then ruler assuring his subjects, that with his rule, “Achhe din aane waale hai” 🙂

*Orpheus (Public domain, accessed from British Library, Online Collection:
Images of Gods*

Whats the big deal with this symbol?

Here’s a quiz question. Observe the images on your screen.

Images of Gods*

Images of Gods*

What is one common factor across all these pics?

Another clue: India’s prestigious national civilian awards are named after this, as is the election symbol of the current ruling party.


You’re right, that’s way too easy – the lotus flower. But why is it so prominent in these pics, and in Indian life in general?

Ah, time for some botany. The lotus is usually found in muddy ponds and swamps. The flowers or the leaves do not get affected by the wet and muddy environment; instead they offer their beauty and fragrance to everyone, regardless.

This behaviour fascinated the ancients in India and the lotus became their favourite to symbolise certain desired principles and attributes. Especially one particular principle: detachment.

In Hinduism, the theme of detachment features profusely in the Bhagwad Gita (one of Hinduism’s holiest books). And the lotus was a favourite analogy. For example in this succinct verse:

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord,

Is unaffected by sins, just as the lotus leaf is untouched by water”

In Buddhism too, the lotus represents purity and renunciation, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.

So the lotus (which is now India’s national flower) was not just a big deal to Hindus and Buddhists since ancient times, it was a defining symbol.

Perhaps recognising that importance, and the underlying message, Islamic architects began using the lotus across structures.

And now, observe the top of the Taj’s main dome, or the domes on the mosque or mehman khana on the other side, or most other domes in Islamic monuments… All of them have one distinctive feature – an inverted lotus placed on its apex.

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Perhaps the next time you see a lotus, you would be reminded of its simple message – of detachment and focus on your karma!

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*Goddess Lakshmi: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Buddha By Alexander E. Caddy (The British Library – Online Gallery) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sheshashayee Vishnu: By Ramanarayanadatta astri ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

If you get lemons, make lemonade

Even when viewing the Taj from afar, apart from the white marble beauty, there are two features that are distinct. One is the calligraphy band on the face of the doorway.

The other are the colourful patterns of inlaid stone (known as Pietra Dura) on the spandrels of the arch.

Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

Arabesques on spandrels (the almost triangular space at the top, between the arch and the calligraphy band)

The pietra dura creates beautiful flowing patterns on the spandrels. These patterns are known as arabesques and usually consist of rhythmic formations of flowers, leaves, creepers and foliage.

It is used commonly in Islamic architecture as a decorative technique. In fact it’s the high-point of symbolism that is permissible in Islamic architecture. Why is it the high point? And why is it used so frequently? Because they can go no further…

For us to appreciate Mughal art, we have to understand their constraints first.

They could not visually depict any animal or human forms in public art or architecture, since these are regarded as God’s creation in Islam.

Imagine – no paintings like that on the Sistine Chapel, no intricate sculptures like those in Hindu temples.

In an imaginary competition between the three, it would be almost as if the Mughals were competing with Hindu and Christian art with one hand tied behind their back!

Hierarchy of symbols

Hierarchy of symbols

And so, they decided to make the remaining hand count. A lot. Their redeeming subject: botany.

In the 2015 Hollywood movie, ‘The Martian’, Matt Damon plays a botanist (coincidence!) who gets accidentally left behind on Mars, and vows to make the most of his meagre resources, saying ‘I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this’.

With their restrictions on display of human or animal forms, it’s almost as if the Mughals decided to (excuse our language) ‘art the s#!t out of botany and geometry!’

And so, you will find an absolute profusion of flower, leaf and plant forms all over the monument, including those stunning arabesques on the spandrels.

You gotta hand it to the Mughals, for making the best of their constrained situation!

Isa Khan Niazi's Tomb#

My Tomb is way cooler than yours

Tombs were status symbols in medieval India. Houses could be demolished, but a tomb, given its sacred nature, was a permanent structure. So rulers and noblemen strove to leave a lasting legacy by building grand tombs for themselves and their dear ones.

But how did they differentiate? How did they showcase their tomb as cooler than the others? Let’s find out!

The era of tomb building in India began with the arrival of the Muslim rulers in the late twelfth/early-thirteenth century. The first tomb was built in Delhi in 1231.

The initial tombs – think of them as Version 1 – had a typical design: a semi-circular dome mounted on a square base. There were some variations, but it was broadly similar.

Version 1 Tombs - Dome on Square

Version 1 Tombs – Dome on Square*

In this design, the square base represented earth and the circular dome represented heaven – symbolising the soul’s ascent from earth  to paradise.

By the late fourteenth century, this standard ‘dome-on-cube’ structure – our version 1 – had become really common and ubiquitous! The ‘status-symbol’ was losing its value.

Along came a set of rulers who decided to shake things up a bit. And sometime in the late 1300s, India’s first octagonal tomb was built – in the Nizamuddin locality. Some believe that the inspiration for this was from the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

These eight-sided tombs were preferred by the Sayyids and Lodis (both pre-Mughal dynasties) and you can see some great examples in Lodi Garden in Delhi.

Version 2 Tombs - Octagonal

Version 2 Tombs – Octagonal**

Another stunning example is the tomb of Sher Shah Suri in Sasaram (Bihar).

Sher Shah Suri's Tomb

Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb***

During this period, the octagonal tomb design (our Version 2), was reserved only for kings. Other noblemen could only use the Version 1 dome-on-cube design.

One such nobleman from Sher Shah Suri’s court was Isa Khan Niyazi. Despite not being a king, he must have felt entitled to build a Version 2 for himself (perhaps because, by that time, there was no strong ruler to stop him!). And so he built this striking octagonal tomb in 1547 (which lies within the Humayun’s Tomb complex).

Isa Khan Niazi's Tomb#

Isa Khan Niazi’s Tomb#

And then came the Mughals. Their reaction must’ve been like “Alright boys and girls, you’ve had your fun. Now we’ll show you how it’s really done”!

(Quick history recap: Babur was the first Mughal who captured territory in India in 1526. His son Humayun was driven out by Sher Shah Suri in 1540. Later, the Mughals regained their empire and Akbar became the emperor in 1556. Famous buildings of Mughal architecture as we know them, essentially began under Akbar.)

The first major opportunity to showcase the Mughal style was Humayun’s Tomb (which commenced in 1565). Desiring to build a grand, never-seen-before monument, Akbar got in expat talent – a Persian architect called Mir Mirak Ghiyas.

Ghiyas ditched the octagonal tomb design, in favour of a radical new design – hasht-behisht (or eight paradises) –  our Version 3 tomb.

In previous tombs, there would be only a single chamber inside. In Humayun’s Tomb, however, the central chamber, (itself shaped like an irregular octagon) has eight ancillary structures surrounding it. There are four octagonal rooms at the corners and four arched niches in the cardinal directions. These eight rooms are supposed to evoke the eight gates or levels of paradise in Islamic belief.

Humayun’s Tomb Floor Plan; By Ebba Koch, in ‘The Complete Taj Mahal’

Humayun’s Tomb Floor Plan; By Ebba Koch, in ‘The Complete Taj Mahal’


It is an incredibly sophisticated design that achieves the objectives of having eight rooms surrounding the central octagonal chamber; with passageways connecting to the central chamber and to other rooms too. Just imagine – this achievement of sheer architectural genius was executed without any CAD or 3D imaging software, in the 16th century!

And guess what, when Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal seventy years later, he took the same hasht-behisht concept and modified it for his masterpiece.

And from then on, no one could say, ‘My tomb is cooler than yours’ – the Taj had settled that question once and for all.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal



*Dadi-poti ka Gumbad by By ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons ; Bada Gumbad By Anupamg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

** Mohd Shah Tomb By Lucido22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sikander Lodi’s By Tanmay Kumar Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

*** Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb at Sasaram, By Nandanupadhyay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

# Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb in Delhi; By CaptivaTour
Qutub Minar

Medieval Meritocracy

The Qutub Minar was built during the Delhi Sultanate period. A stone plaque in the Qutub complex says that the first 90-odd years of this era is known as the Slave Dynasty, since the most prominent rulers then were former slaves.

Wait a minute. You mean slaves – like bonded labour – were being given a chance to rule an empire? Was this some crazy medieval social experiment?!

Um, no.

The word ‘Slave’ here (translated from the Arabic word Mamluk) is a bit of a misnomer – it doesn’t mean the slavery of ‘Django Unchained’ or ‘Amistad’. It refers to a fascinating practice that was prevalent in Central Asia for centuries – that of the slave trade for military & administrative purposes.

Normally in history, (especially in the US) slaves were used for labour-intensive tasks like farming and mining. They had abysmal rights and led a sorry existence.

However, there was a different need in the rich trading cities (like Bukhara, Samarkand) of medieval Central Asia, on the old Silk Route. The merchants wanted reliable soldiers for guarding their goods caravans. And so, they encouraged the practice of buying child slaves from the nomadic tribes of the region (the Central Asian steppe had always been an area of nomadic tribes, since it supported grazing and not settled agriculture).

Over time this practice morphed to form extensive slave markets across cities. These markets would be patronised by royalty, who would ‘buy’ the best slaves.

They would then do something that you would never expect to be done for a slave – groom them for leadership positions in their army and administration!

Remember how you may have heard that cliched line from HR in interviews – “We have a great career path for new entrants – anyone can become the CEO!”

Well in this case, the ‘slaves’ could and did become the CEO! This was meritocracy at work in medieval times. A modern equivalent would be an ‘Early Talent Identification and Grooming’ program (with a fancy acronym, ETIG) to get gifted kids onto a fast-track.

And these medieval kids did get onto the fast track! Let’s get back to our Delhi Sultanate story.

The Sultanate was established when Mohammed Ghori defeated Pritiviraj Chauhan in 1192. After conquering Delhi, when Mohammed Ghori left for Afghanistan, he left one such Turki slave, Qutub-ud-din Aibak in charge here.

But hang on, you may ask – what happened to family? What about handing over the throne to your descendants or close family members?

In Ghori’s case, he had no children. But even otherwise a key factor that drove the preference for slaves by royals was their distrust of family. A saying in Persian captures the thought succinctly:

‘One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons;

for the former desires his master’s glory; the latter, their father’s death.’

So it was a ‘slave’ who started rule as Delhi’s first Sultan. All right, but one Sultan does not a dynasty make! Why was this called the Slave ‘Dynasty’?

That’s because the Sultan after Aibak was not a son, but a slave of his – Shams-ud-din Iltutmish.

Now, Iltutmish had an interesting story. Apparently he was known for his good looks and intelligence as a boy, making his brothers jealous. One day they enticed him away from their home in Central Asia, on the pretext of a horse show, and sold him off to a slave trader!

After being resold a few times, he ended up in front of Mohammed Ghori. Ghori rejected him as he found the asking price too high. Qutubuddin Aibak however took a fancy to him and purchased him.

From that time, Iltutmish steadily rose up the ranks – he even married Aibak’s (i.e. his boss’) daughter. (Ah, the perks of being on the fast track)!

Iltutmish ruled for around 25 years. After him, the next few rulers were his descendants. But soon enough, another slave (of Iltutmish) named Balban ascended the throne. No wonder the Slave Dynasty name stuck.

Slave Dynasty

Slave Dynasty


Anyway, after the ‘Slave Dynasty’ period, normal service resumed. Family became supreme again (perhaps the practice of buying child slaves too discontinued).

After that we have had an almost uninterrupted line of family dynasties (save for the British period!) ruling Delhi – the Khaljis, the Tughluks, the Sayyids, Lodis, the Mughals, (Brits – brief interlude) and the Nehru-Gandhis (at least till recently)!

Be that as it may, the Slave Dynasty remains a brief and interesting experiment in medieval meritocracy!


To know more, listen to our Qutub Minar Guide 🙂

Delhi's Location

Delhi’s Secret – Location, Location, Location

For most of Indian history before Mohammed Ghori’s invasion in 1192 AD, Delhi didn’t really figure as a significant city on India’s map. (Some may point out to the theory of Delhi having the site of  Mahabharata’s Indraprastha – but that is uncertain, and even that was never the capital of a vast empire like that of the Mauryas or the Guptas).

Other cities such as Patliputra, Ujjain, Kannauj and Mathura had been the major seats of power in north India.

Delhi attained some importance under the Tomar Rajputs from around 1050 AD (they built Lal Kot and later Prithviraj Chauhan built Qila Rai Pithora). But it had never been a place from where the entire subcontinent’s fate would be decided.

That started to change after Ghori. Delhi was adopted as the formal capital of the new rulers. And under powerful later rulers like Alauddin Khalji, Delhi’s influence reached deep into South India.

Since then, Delhi has always been the most important city in India (barring a couple of centuries in between, when Agra – under the Mughals; and then Calcutta – under the British, held that honour).

What made this city, which was an obscure hamlet for close to three thousand years, such an enduring choice for the capital of this vast country?

Like most things involving real estate, the answer is: location, location, location.

It’s useful to see Delhi’s position vis-à-vis India.


Delhi’s location in India


India is geographically bounded on three sides – the Himalayas on the north and north-east, and the seas to the east, south and west. The main entry point, historically, has been through the Khyber Pass in the north-west – on descending from which you encounter the Indus river, which gave India its name.

North India has three major geographical features – the Indus river system with its five major rivers – forming the Punjab; the Gangetic river system that flows in India’s heartland; and the Thar desert which kind of divides these two major river systems.

The Gangetic plains are a fascinating piece of world geography. Nourished by a tropical climate and by rivers fed by the melting snows of the Himalayas, these plains are an agricultural paradise.

And where you have agriculture, you have the capacity to support people – who can grow food and pay taxes.

In fact it is so conducive to human settlement that the area of the Gangetic plain (comprising the five Indian states of Delhi, UP, Bihar, Haryana, and West Bengal; and the country of Bangladesh) accounts for a current population of 605 million. That is almost 9% of world population, for a piece of land that is less than 0.5% of the world’s area!

There’s an interesting graphic tweeted by an Oxford researcher, comparing the population density of this part of the world with a few other regions.

5% of the World's Population

5% of the World’s Population


So the Indo-Gangetic plain, with a density of almost 900 people/square kilometre (as against the world average of around 50) is not just another crowded place – it is the world’s most populous piece of real estate. Basically, a great target if you wish to start a land-revenue-funded medieval empire.

And guess which place is ideally located to control this crucial piece of real estate – you’re right, it’s Delhi.

Delhi is located at the western end of this river system, on the banks of the Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganga. With the Thar desert forming a natural barrier to its west, Delhi is a great location to control the Indo-Gangetic plain.

But hang on, they could’ve chosen any site that was situated on the bank of the Yamuna – why specifically this one?


Delhi's Micro Location

Delhi’s Micro Location

If you look at the relief map of Delhi, you will see the reason for the site location – the Ridge and the River. The Ridge is a northern extension of the ancient Aravalli mountain range. These hills form a broad ‘C-shaped’ barrier on the west – with the Yamuna river acting as a natural border on the east. Almost all of the early development of the city took place in the zone lying between the ridge and the river, given the natural protection on all sides.

So let’s recap – for control over India, it’s important to have control over India’s most populous region. And the location of Delhi is ideal for doing so.

It was almost as if India’s rulers experimented with multiple cities and sites before stumbling upon Delhi, and realised ‘Hey, we may be onto something here!’

And that’s how Delhi attained its status as India’s pre-eminent city and has pretty much retained it ever since.

To read more, download our Qutub Minar Audio Guide for Delhi