Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

Top Attractions In Delhi – Old Delhi

Red Fort (Lal Qila)

If you have limited time in Delhi and are looking to do only one sightseeing excursion, choose between this and the Qutub complex. This is a monument with a tumultuous past that has seen dizzying heights of power followed by a steep fall from grace and terrible tragedy.

The Mughals ‘headquarters’ was at Agra (the city of the Taj) for most of their rule but in 1638, Shah Jahan felt that Agra’s cramped streets were too narrow for his grand processions. By then, Delhi had already been the site of 6 earlier habitations, or ‘cities’ – but instead of using the previous sites, Shah Jahan decided to build a whole new city on the bank of the Yamuna river.

And thus, in the year 1648, a new city, rather modestly named Shahjahanabad, was unveiled. At its heart was the towering Red Fort palace complex. It was called Qila-e-Mualla or Qila-e-Mubarak – the Auspicious Fort. The imposing and regal edifice pays testament to the vision of its creator, Shah Jahan, the same man who built the Taj Mahal.

Before it fell into ruin, the Red Fort was an ultra-luxury palace complex and the residence of one of the richest persons on the planet. However, the name was utterly inappropriate. It was neither auspicious – given the tragedies that were to unfold here; nor was it a rugged Fort. Rather ironically, however, the name Red Fort (given by the British), with its connotation of the color of blood, would become a more appropriate name.

Red Fort – Key Information

Expected time spent:
Allow for a minimum of 1 hour if you intend to cover only the highlights
Opening days:
Open daily expect Monday
Opening hours:
Sunrise to sunset (typically 7 AM to 6 pm)
Entry fee/ Ticket price:
Indians (INR 30)/ Foreigners (INR 500) and free for children under 15 years
Still camera allowed for free
Netaji Subhash Marg
Off Netaji Subhash Marg, opposite Chandni Chowk
Closest metro station:
Chandni Chowk
How to get there:
At the Chandni Chowk Metro Station, take the exit towards the Fountain/Gurudwara Shishganj Saheb. After existing, walk east past the Gurudwara (Sikh Temple) towards Netaji Subhash Marg. The Red Fort is across the Netaji Subhash Marg. The entrance and ticket counters are on the left of the imposing central structure with the national flag.

Jama Masjid

Jama Masjid - via Wikipedia

Jama Masjid – via Wikipedia

Across the road from the Red Fort and at the center of the erstwhile capital city of the Mughals, Shahjahanbad, stands Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Built in red sandstone and marble, Jama Masjid is one of the last architectural works of the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan.

Jama Masjid is approachable from any one of three gates, though the one near Dariba Kalan is the usual entrance. The Jama Masjid has a huge courtyard, capable of holding 25,000 worshippers & usually fills up on Fridays, Eid, and other important festivals.

Eleven arches form the façade, a set of five each on either side of the large, central arch. Bands of calligraphy and inlay work in white and black marble form most of the decoration, mainly intricate carvings with verses inscribed from the holy Koran. Three massive white marble domes, with fine black lines of inlay, top the mosque.

Climb the 122 steps up the narrow southern minaret for a bird’s eye view of the city around. If you are interested in attending a prayer session, be there before 7:45 am when non-muslims are allowed. Visitors should be fully clothed & must remove their shoes before entering while women need to cover with a tunic that is provided & accompanied by a male (“guides” are available for a tip).

Jama Masjid – Key Information


Best time to visit:
Less crowded in the morning
Expected time spent:
Allow for 45 minutes to an hour
Opening days:
All days of the week
Opening hours:
7 am to noon, 1:30 pm to 6:30 pm (tourists are not allowed during prayer hours)
Entry fee/ Ticket price:
INR 200 (Fee must be paid even if you carry a phone with a camera or don’t intend to photograph anything!)
Netaji Subhash Marg

Off Netaji Subhash Marg, West of Red Fort, near Chandni Chowk
Closest metro station:
Chawri Bazaar
How to get there
You can walk from the Chawri Bazaar metro station (1.2km), or take a 5-10 minute cycle rickshaw ride to the Jama Masjid

Old Delhi Markets

Chhatta Chowk: India’s first shopping mall

As you see the shops on either side, you’d be forgiven for berating the Indian government – after all, why would they allow such a historic monument to be desecrated with these shops selling trinkets of dubious authenticity? But wait, you are actually walking through a 17th Century market, which was built by Shah Jahan as part of the Fort Complex. Why build a market in a Fort complex? There was a large retinue of women in the Mughal palace, who were relatives of the Emperor and other nobles. Shah Jahan was keen that the ladies have a place to hang out, gossip and basically have a blast. The natural choice: A nice market to shop in. But Mughal royal women seldom ventured outside, to visit public markets; so, Shah Jahan decided to build the market within the Fort walls. But, with an innovation as markets in India in the 17th century were open air. But Shah Jahan was inspired by the great covered markets in Persia. And thus, the Chhatta Chowk Bazaar was born (Chhat means roof) – the vaulted arches giving a regal look to a market that would be frequented by royalty. In fact, you know what? This was India’s very first shopping mall! Today, the market has 40-odd shops selling artificial and semi-precious jewellery, embroidered bags, hand-painted wall hangings and ‘antiques’ with dubious authenticity.

Chandni Chowk: Experience the sights & smells of India along with a bit of souvenir shopping!

From the main entrance to the Red Fort, head down the principal street to the Chandni Chowk market, one of the oldest & busiest markets in India. This chaotic market built in the 17th century and designed by Jahan Ara (Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter) was once visited by merchants from Turkey, China and even Holland. During Shah Jahan’s reign, a tree-lined canal ran down the market’s centre, shimmering in the moon light, hence the name Chandni Chowk, or ‘moonlight place’. Best explored on foot, Chandni Chowk’s specialty is its variety: roads/ bazaars with many shops specializing in certain types of products/ goods – sarees with chikan & zari work (Kinari Bazar), spices & dry fruits (Khari Baoli), jewellery/ gold & silver shops (Dariba Kalan), shops selling books & stationery (Nai sarak), brass/ copper & paper products (Chawri Bazaar), Daryaganj (Sunday book market), clothing (Katra Neel), electronic, consumer goods (Bhagirath palace), shoes and leather goods etc. Most shops do not accept cards so keep cash handy and take care of your belongings as it gets really crowded.

Chandni Chowk: A microcosm of India’s different religions

Along this busy commercial street, you can experience a microcosm of India’s different religions – mosques, a church, and a number of temples. First up, opposite the fort, is a Digambar Jain Temple, established in 1656 by Agarwal Jain merchants invited by Shah Jahan to come and settle in the city. This temple is the oldest of its kind in Delhi and easily recognizable by its red sandstone material. It is surprisingly simple compared to other Jain temples, which are renowned for the intricacy of their carvings but has some attractive paintings related to Jainism. If you visit this temple please make sure you do not carry anything related to leather as leather goods (purse, valet, belts) are not allowed inside. Photography is strictly prohibited inside the temple. However, you can take snaps outside the temple. Also attached is a bird hospital established in 1929, where injured birds brought in by locals are treated before releasing them again.

If you’re pressed for time, skip these and proceed to vibrant Gauri Shankar Temple (built by a Maratha general Appa Gangadhar in 1761), which has an 800-year-old lingam. You have located it if you see mounds of marigold being sold to worshippers. Or stop at Sisganj Gurudwara, an unassuming but superbly atmospheric and welcoming Sikh temple, which marks the spot where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Sikh guru and his followers were executed by Aurangzeb for refusing to convert to Islam. The Gurudwara in the form of a memorial was built in 1783 when the then Mughal capital Delhi was captured by the Sikhs. You need to wash your hands and feet at the cheap taps plumbed right at the temple entrance. You are then briefed on what is and is not permitted in the temple. All visitors, both male & female are required to cover their heads. Before leaving the site, do take time to visit the community kitchen which feeds thousands of people across religions/ communities three times a day. Then, either turn left into Kinari Bazaar or head the length of Chandni Chowk to Fatehpuri Masjid, designed by one of Shah Jahan’s wives and built in 1650.

Chandni Chowk – Key Information

Best time to visit:
Less crowded on Sundays when most shops are closed

Expected time spent:
Allow for at least 2-3 hours

Opening days:
Monday to Saturday

Opening hours:
10 am to 7 pm, except eateries which are open late

Entry fee/ Ticket price:


Near Chandni Chowk Metro Station

Closest metro station:
Chandni Chowk

How to get there:

The best way to reach the markets is by Metro either to Chawri Bazaar or Chandni Chowk stations, and then explore on foot.

Dariba Kalan

This is a 17th-century street in Chandni Chowk area of Old Delhi or Shahjahanbad connecting the market to Jama Masjid. The street witnessed the bloody massacre of Delhi, ordered by the Persian invader Nadir Shah, when hundreds of innocent civilians and soldiers were killed and the gold shops were looted. The year was 1739 – it was 33 years since Aurangzeb’s death and the throne had already seen 7 occupants. The well-oiled military machine of Nadir Shah easily defeated the much larger, but ineffectual Mughal army in a battle near Delhi. The triumphant Nadir Shah entered Delhi with the captive Mughal emperor, and took residence in the Khaas Mahal in Red Fort. While Nadir Shah and his generals were inside the Red Fort, there was unrest in the city streets outside. In the unrest, some Persian soldiers were killed by a mob. The next day, an enraged Nadir Shah showed up at the main market, Chandni Chowk, to enforce discipline. He may have carried his battle axe, which now is displayed in Delhi’s National Museum! Apparently, when Nadir Shah was addressing the crowds, some mischief-makers shot at him from the rooftops, injuring a soldier standing by him. Nadir Shah completely lost it, and ordered a total, merciless massacre. The soldiers went berserk in their annihilation of the ordinary citizens, slashing and burning everything that came in their way. Today, Dariba Kalan is famous for costume jewellery – make sure you bargain hard for the gorgeous baubles.

 Kinari Bazaar

Turn into the jam-packed street, adjacent to the Gali Paranthe Wali, near Gurudwara Sisganj and stop to admire the zari, zardozi trimmings, lacework and cheap gold (mostly tinsel). This bazaar is known for its wedding shopping – all kinds of Indian wedding dresses like Kurtas, Sherwanis, Lehenga Dupatta, Salwar Kameez & groom’s turbans are available here. During the wedding season, there are hordes of eager shoppers flocking in locally as well as from far & distant places. After shopping here, you can try the famous Paranthe Wali Gali for some piping hot fried Paranthas and Natraj for its thick ‘n’ creamy Dahi Bhalle chaat.

Khari Baoli: Asia’s biggest spice market

Situated adjacent to Fatehpuri Masjid and operating since the 17th century, Khari Baoli sells all kinds of spices, nuts, herbs and food products like rice and tea. Reputed to be Asia’s biggest spice market — the colors, textures, and aromas are worth the side trip for a different experience. As an added incentive, though it is a wholesale market, you can buy smaller quantities of any item with great choice, quality & price unmatched anywhere else in the city.

Chawri Bazaar: Wholesale market for brass, copper & paper products

Chawri Bazaar, originally known as Chawdi (wide road) Bazaar, was established in 1840 and runs along a long stretch with Hauz Qazi Chowk at one end and the backyard of the Jama Masjid at the other. Chawari Bazar’s paper market is said to be the biggest paper mandi in the world and has grown from 7 paper merchants who set up shop in 1911, to over a 1000 merchants today with some of them tracing their lineage as paper suppliers to Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. In the 19th century, Chawri Bazaar was a promenade of the Walled City, a place for the rich and the young to enjoy their evenings. The ground floor comprised shops occupied by merchants and the floors above were kothas, a place where courtesans lived and performed mujras (a dance form). As the British rule became stronger, particularly after the 1857 mutiny, the mujra culture faded away and the upper floors of Chawri Bazaar were reduced to brothels. Eventually, even these were closed down by the British including five other “red light” areas of Delhi. Cluttered with electricity wires today, the market is famous for its hardware shops and paper market that sells wallpapers, decorative/ gift wrapping paper, office stationary and more. You can also head up to Nai Sarak, a popular book shopping and stationery destination in Old Delhi. Back then, this market was popular for watchmakers and tailors. Even today, a number of tailors have their shops in this market, also popular for showrooms of lehenga-chunni, salwar suits and second-hand books.

Churiwali Galli: Lane of Bangle sellers

Ask for the Churi Walan Chowk where most of the bangle shops are, dismally few in number though, as compared to the ancient times where the bangle sellers were known to have accessorized even royalty! Make a final stop at Karim’s to sample the authentic Mughlai cooking that has kept patrons coming back for over 100 years.

Isa Khan Niazi's Tomb#

One Day Itinerary for Delhi

By Krokodyl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19013587

Arriving in Delhi

Delhi is most likely your point of entry into India, and you are probably flying into the bustling Indira Gandhi International Airport, which will welcome you with a warm Namastey.

If flying in from abroad, you will reach the swanky Terminal T3, built in 2011. The airport offers a wide range of duty-free shopping facilities (should you want to stock up on your favourite tipple for the journey ahead) as well as currency exchange counters (ideal for changing just a bit of currency for immediate needs – airport exchange counters don’t give the best rates).

New Delhi Airport T3 - via Wikipedia

New Delhi Airport T3 – via Wikipedia

If you arrived late at night, as many international flights do and expect your hotel to check you in only mid-morning, you you can head straight to the little rooms or the ‘sleeping pods’, chairs that recline up to 180 degrees, to sleep off your jet lag. You can also choose to indulge your taste buds from the wide variety of restaurants offering various cuisines.

The airport is also a good place to get yourself a local mobile sim card from the airport store so you can continue using your cell phone in India. It is important to have a legal local sim card issued in your name against proper documentation during your visit.

You should have your hotel booking sorted before you step out of the airport – that way the various scams and tricks you have read about will not bother you much. If possible, have your hotel arrange a pick up for this one trip – nothing wrong in slowly easing into the chaos of Delhi one step at a time.

If catching a connecting domestic flight, check the terminal number on your ticket. Terminal T3 has both an international and a domestic wing. If however, your connecting flight is to leave from terminal T1D, you will need to take a connecting shuttle bus to T1, a terminal located 8KM (5 miles) from T3.

If you are heading out to the city from the T3 terminal, there are several modes of reaching your destination. You can read in more detail about the options in our Getting Around in Delhi article.

Pre-Paid Taxi

Prepaid Taxis

Prepaid Taxis

You can book a pre-paid taxi from inside the arrival lounge as well as from a booth outside in the taxi bay. Right after your customs check, you can go the extreme left of the arrival lounge to find the pre-paid taxi booth. Since this is run by the government, there is no chance of a rip off and it is comparatively safe to avail this service. Although out of fashion, these black and yellow color taxis have a certain old world charm about them. Besides, they have to pass through the traffic police check post where they need to submit their details along with your name and destination. For further security, you may want to avoid the taxis with tinted glasses and ask for a change of vehicle if you feel unsafe. The rates start at Rs 25 for the first KM and then INR 16/KM, with a 25% surcharge at night. There are a few additional surcharges as well but you pay in advance.

Metered Taxis

You can also travel by metered radio taxis run by private operators like MERU CABS, EASY CABS, MAGIC SEVA etc. which are more expensive at about INR 23/km but will allow a more comfortable ride. You can choose a later model car with air-con through this service by shelling out a bit extra

Radio Cabs

If you use Uber in your country, and if you have taken a local data connection for your mobile, you can try calling an Uber to take you to your destination as well. A local alternative to Uber – Ola Cabs, have a similar service too.


DTC Bus - via Wikipedia

DTC Bus – via Wikipedia

To the extreme right of the arrival area, you can also find A/C local buses which stop at major railway stations and bus stops. However, it is better to avoid this if it is your first visit to Delhi and you are unsure about the route to your destination.

The Delhi Metro

Airport Express - via Wikipedia

Airport Express – via Wikipedia

Last but not least, there is the Delhi Metro Airport Express Line which will take you directly to the New Delhi railway station with just a couple of stops in between. The efficient metro service connects the entire city as well as the suburbs. You would however want to first refer to the Delhi Metro Map and spot your destination before changing lines at the New Delhi metro station.

Indian Rupees

Currency Exchange in Delhi

These are your options for changing currency in New Delhi

At the airport

Only exchange currency to meet immediate needs!

The currency exchange rate at the airport is always poorer (you could lose up to 2-5% on the rates offered depending on the currency) compared to what you can get in the city – so at the airport, change only the minimum amount of local currency that you require. Once you step out of the airport building, you may not be allowed back in to exchange foreign currency.

There are currency exchange counters before the customs and after the customs area in the arrival section of the Delhi airport, Terminal 3.

Before customs, there are 2 currency exchange counters: Thomas Cook and Central Bank of India, both of which are open 24 hours. Central Bank of India’s counter is not easy to find – so ask & look for it (refer to image) as they don’t charge any commission while Thomas Cook (refer to image) does. You should be able to exchange currency at either counter for similar rates. You can use the pictures below or the Airport’s interactive map to see where the currency exchange counters are located.

Location of Currency Exchanges - Image : newdelhiairport.in

Location of Currency Exchanges – Image : newdelhiairport.in

Currency exchange outlets in the city

Look for and exchange only at authorized money changers

Currency exchange outlets are found in tourist, market and commercial areas. They offer better exchange rates than the airport, and may or may not charge a commission. Offices in market areas like Connaught Place tend to offer better exchange rates than those in tourist areas (Paharganj, Karol Bagh etc) but always shop around to figure out which center is offering the best rate.

Govt or Reserve Bank of India approved money changers will have a sign proclaiming Authorized Foreign Currency Exchange. You can usually make out the genuine ones from the street corner people or ask for the Encashment certificate if you want to be sure. Take care when changing money – i.e. always count money in front of teller before departing, try to avoid changing large amounts of cash at any one time and check if notes are valid. You can try and bargain for the best rate if you are changing large amounts of currency.


One of the simplest and scam free way is to use the ATM to withdraw money. Money changers like Thomas Cook and AMEX will charge much more as compared to the bank issuing the ATM card in most cases (do check with the card issuer transaction charges in advance!). However, sometimes banks may charge a transaction fee for every withdrawal, in which case it is best for you to withdraw larger sums so the transaction fee is spread on a larger amount. If you prefer to withdraw smaller amounts each time, notify your card issuer that you will be using ATMs frequently in India given most places in India accept cash only. Any fees will be up to the bank in India, and your home bank, but it will (usually) be better than a cash exchange service at the airport.

Important Note: In most (but not all) Indian ATM machines, you insert your card and then take it out immediately, unlike in some countries where you leave your card in when using an ATM. You will then be asked to enter your pin and carry on with your transaction.


Local hotel/ Travel agents

Cross check exchange rate being offered & decide accordingly as the rates offered here will be poorer than authorised agents.

Local Bank/ Post Office

Many local Indian banks branches will also change your currency at a fair rate if you have time for the paperwork. The other option India Post (local post offices), which in association with HDFC Bank, provides Forex services through select Post Offices across India. This is a useful service if you need to exchange money outside main cities/ towns in India and do not want to use an ATM/ bank card due to high transaction charges.


  • Do not purchase foreign currency from local residents offering you a better rate. Fake foreign currency is not uncommon in tourist areas.
  • Buying foreign currency from unauthorized places is also illegal.
  • Do not fall victim to people trying to entice you by saying they will give you a better exchange rate than what the banks may offer you.

Q: How do I know if I am getting a good exchange rate?

Follow the steps below and you won’t be disappointed or feel cheated

  1. First check the rate on XE.com to get a fair idea of the current or today’s exchange rate
  2. Look at the Buy & Sell spread used by the money changer/ hotel etc. Spread is the difference between what they pay to buy a unit of currency and what they sell that unit of currency for. A bigger spread means they are looking to make more money on the transactions vs. a smaller spread which is better for you! Exchange your currency at a center/ hotel where the difference between Buy and Sell is the smallest amount.
  3. If you request for a receipt, some centers offer 0.3-0.4 rupees less than the exchange rate for the transaction. Currency exchange receipts should clearly show the amount of foreign currency exchanged for Indian currency and the rate of exchange you were given so you can reconvert your left over Indian currency back to foreign currency at the airport where you fly out from.


You can get a list of Reserve Bank of India approved places to exchange currency here


Indian Currency Notes Alert

Indian Rupee currency notes printed before 2005 will no longer be accepted after January 1, 2015. Those who have such currency notes should exchange them at par at Indian banks as soon as possible. Currency notes issued before 2005 do not have the year of printing on the reverse side. In notes issued after 2005, the year of printing is visible at the bottom of the reverse side. Tourists should ensure they are not accepting any Indian currency notes that do not have the year of printing visible on the reverse side of the currency.


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: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/addorimss/t/largeimage55392.html)
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 http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/3547827938/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Bada Gumbad By Anupamg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

** Mohd Shah Tomb By Lucido22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sikander Lodi’s By Tanmay Kumar Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

*** Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb at Sasaram, By Nandanupadhyay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

# Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb in Delhi; By CaptivaTour
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz

The Taj Mahal Story – in Rhyme

The Love Story

Prince Khurram (aka Shah Jahan), Mughal crown price, was our Hero,

The heroine was Arjumand, grand-daughter of the Empire’s CFO

You may imagine, between them, a cute, love-at-first-sight story

But this is India, ladies and g’men, we do arranged marriages only!

Married in 1612, Arjumand and Khurram’s love knew bounds none

As his favourite wife, she was titled Mumtaz Mahal (the Palace’s chosen one)!


Tragedy Strikes

Since he loved no one as much, he had many, many children by her

One child every 16 months? Mumtaz was one heck of a mother!

In her 14th pregnancy though, tragedy struck the couple loving

Mumtaz passed away; leaving a distraught, heart-broken king

For two years he mourned, his hair turned grey, dress a white gown

An uncle admonished him ‘Mumtaz is in paradise, time to move on’

But deep in his mourful heart, a monumental idea took birth

For his beloved Mumtaz, he would bring Paradise down here on earth.


A marble dream takes shape

One of the richest rulers was building a memorial for his dearest spouse,

He could’ve gotten the world’s best architect; but there was one inhouse

A gifted architect, Shah Jahan supervised and changed designs on his own

The world’s greatest monument took shape, brick by brick, stone by stone

For his beloved it would be only the best: marble – pristine, pure, white

Enhanced by a striking technique – pietra dura – it makes for a stunning sight!

One overarching design theme across the monument is made to stick

It was: ‘Ensuring Paradise Is Certain’ (for Mumtaz); in short, EPIC!

Taj Mahal - A pristine dream in Marble

Taj Mahal – A pristine dream in Marble

What happened Next

‘Move on’ an uncle had said and Shah Jahan later did so (literally)

Five years after the Taj was built, he moved his capital from Agra to Delhi

A majestic Fort Palace was built – The Red Fort (as it is now known)

Luxury, riches, entertainment – it was a good lifestyle to own

Until a tragic (and yes, embarrassing) incident occurred in 1657, September

And then Shah Jahan was overthrown and imprisoned in an Agra Fort chamber


Questions, questions

What was that incident? Had Shah Jahan ‘moved on’ too far?

Would Mumtaz be waiting in heaven with flowers (or with a crowbar)?

In short, was that immortal love story all that it was cracked up to be?

For answers to all these questions, take the Taj Mahal CaptivaTour: its free!


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Photo Credit

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz: Sourced from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shah_Jahan_and_Mumtaz_Mahal.jpg; See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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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 🙂


Did Shah Jahan Read ‘Good to Great’?

If you cringe at statements describing the Taj Mahal as  “the ultimate expression of love” or “man’s greatest ode to a woman”, here’s some solid logic to back that up!

For those who believe in parallel universes, how about a thought experiment.

Imagine multiple universes –each with a different kind of Taj Mahal:

Taj in Parallel Universes

Taj in Parallel Universes

  1. A universe with a Shah Jahan who wasn’t rich and powerful, but who was a good architect and loved his wife: In such a universe, while he would have the passion and talent to build the tomb, he couldn’t have afforded the materials and the skilled men. A Taj in this universe, if at all, would’ve been a beautiful but small memorial.
  2. A universe with a rich, wife-loving Shah Jahan, but without the architectural talent: Here we would’ve surely had a Taj Mahal – but most likely it’d been a pompous and garish creation. You know, the money-can’t-buy-class-type? (we’re looking at you, Donald Trump!)
  3. A universe with a rich, talented Shah Jahan, but without that love for Mumtaz: In such a universe, the Taj simply would not have existed. Monuments were rarely made for wives by husbands, even if they had the means and talent to do it.

What we’ve used here is a modified form of the ‘hedgehog framework’ from Jim Collins’ famous management book ‘Good to Great’. This framework states: To achieve greatness, focus on that specific activity for which you have three strengths – insane ability, unending passion, and a strong economic driver.

Let’s look at each of the three, vis-a-vis Shah Jahan.

1. Architectural ability: For the design of the Taj, you may imagine that Shah Jahan would’ve undertaken a country-wide, nay global search for the best architect. Here’s a fun imaginary recreation of that brief conversation:

Emperor Shah Jahan: Spare no expense. Search high and low, across all the oceans… but get me the best architect on earth..

Minister: Uh, Sir…

Emperor Shah Jahan:… oh wait, that’s me!

Yes, Shah Jahan was an accomplished architect himself. In fact this passage from Shah Jahan’s biography lays out clearly the completely hands on role of the Emperor in the design: “The building superintendents along with the architects bring the architectural designs before the exalted sight of the Emperor. And … he attends to it fully by creating most of the designs himself and also by making appropriate changes to whatever the architects have thought out

2. Unending passion: Shah Jahan’s love for Mumtaz is the stuff of legend. But he was no one-woman-man, especially after her death. He had a vigorous sexual appetite, and stories about the same abound in some of the gossipy European chronicles of that time.

However, we have to keep the context in mind here. In medieval times it was very common for rulers to have a significant harem of wives and concubines. Even Shah Jahan’s illustrious grandfather Akbar had a large harem, like most other kings.

But, what was not common was for such rulers to develop an overwhelming affinity for any one woman. And that was truly the case when Mumtaz was alive.

Peter Mundy, an Englishman visiting Agra in the 1630s, writes this about their love: “This Kinge is now buildinge a Sepulchre for his late deceased Queene …. whome hee dearely loved, haveing had by her 9 or 10 children, and thought, in her life tyme to use noe other woman (which is strange if true consideringe their libertie in that kinde).

There you have it – their love made even a classic understated Brit raise his eyebrows in mild surprise!

Apart from the love, what was also very uncommon was grand tombs built for women.

Mughal emperors would usually build grand tombs for their fathers (think Humayun’s Tomb, Akbar’s Tomb, Jahangir’s Tomb), palaces for themselves (think Red Fort, Agra Fort) and mosques for the general public (Jama Masjid). But nothing really for their wives or mothers.

A few exceptions like the tomb of Shah Begum in Allahabad, or Bu Halima’s spartan tomb in Delhi exist. But till the 1630s, the equation of Mughal tombs was overwhelmingly in favour of the males


Mughal Tombs for Men and Women

Mughal Tombs for Men and Women

Enter, the Taj.

Shah Jahan had his flaws. But for a guy who spent more than 12 years, and a significant amount of his empire’s resources on creating an achingly beautiful piece of marble heaven-on-earth for his departed wife, one thing was for certain – that love was genuine.

Economic Driver: Ideally ‘economic driver’ in the hedgehog framework refers to the value that the activity generates. In that sense, the activity of architecture wasn’t an economic driver; but we have interpreted the framework here in the sense that Shah Jahan had ample resources to undertake that activity.

Those resources came from Mughal India being the world’s second largest economy then. The Mughal Emperor was probably  the richest guy on earth at that time. The money spent on the Taj (Rs. 5 Mn then; around $250 Mn in today’s money) was financed from this rich empire.


And so, ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate to be living in that parallel universe, where we got the whole package!

A Shah Jahan who was rich and powerful, an incredibly talented architect, and madly in love with his wife.

And you know what was the most vital ingredient? That clichéd, worn-out, word: Love! 🙂


And for more such stories and insights, on India’s most famous monument, experience our Taj Mahal CaptivaTour! Available in Android and coming soon on iOS.

Photo Credits:

Trump Taj Mahal: By Jrballe (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ataga Khan tomb By Gaur.rameshwar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

Akbar’s tomb By *_* (originally posted to Flickr as Akbar’s Tomb) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

Jahangir’s tomb by By Jugni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons ;

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