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Exploring the temples and tombs of Delhi’s Mughal and Sultan rulers.

Today, was Christmas Day, which is not a major celebration in Hindu majority India, but it was still a public holiday. Our tour operator, Audley, had set out a fairly leisurely schedule for the day with us not planned to set out on a tour until noon. So, we spent our morning getting settled in and having a civilized, mainly Indian breakfast.

Before setting out to India we had been worried about the pollution levels in Delhi, which has developed an unwanted reputation as one of the World’s most polluted cities. Earlier in November, the pollution levels had reached very dangerous levels, due to the four million cars on Delhi’s roads, particulates from construction, coal-fired power plants and farmers burning their crop stubble. Our concern had been serious enough for us to pack face masks. Luckily, the pollution levels had improved, but there was still a haze and you could smell and taste the air.

Our driver and the guide for our two days in Delhi, Zupaigh (I was not sure of the spelling), arrived to collect us. With the traffic delay, albeit lighter than usual due to the holidays, we still had plenty of time to chat about Indian culture and politics. Karen and I consider ourselves worldly, but we still love to discover more. It was fascinating to get a better understanding of the caste system, which is still deeply rooted in Hindu culture.

The first stop of our day was the Qutab Minar. Being a holiday, everything was crazier than usual, with people and cars everywhere. We were slowly getting used to how things worked but it was nonetheless amusing to watch the seething mass of humanity squeeze into such a tiny space. Fortunately, there is a rule that has foreign visitors paying ten times the entrance fee of Indian Nationals but this gets you priority entry. So, instead of queuing for 2 hours we walked straight in.

Qutab Minar is a minaret that forms part of the Qutab complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The minaret is a 73-metre (239.5 feet) tall tapering tower consisting of 5 storeys, with a 14.3 metre (47 feet) base diameter, that reduces to 2.7 metres (9 feet) at the peak. The base of the first storey has alternate angular and circular flutings, the second one is round. The third storey of the Qutub Minar has angular flutings. The top storeys have totally different designs as they were added later. When viewed from above the Minar looks like a lotus flower, which is sacred in Indian culture. The Minar is constructed from very durable and beautiful sandstone. The minaret itself is hollow and has a spiral staircase that takes you to the top, providing spectacular views across Delhi. Sadly, we couldn’t experience this view, which would have anyway been obscured by the smog, because the public is not allowed to climb the stairs. Before 1974, the general public was allowed access to the top of the Minar via the internal staircase. On 4 December 1981, the staircase lighting failed and between 300 to 400 visitors stampeded towards the exit. 45 were killed in the crush and many were injured; most of these were children. Subsequently, public access to the inside of the tower has been stopped

The Qutab Minar was established along with Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque around 1192 by Qutab-us-din Aibak, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The mosque complex is one of the earliest that survives in the Indian subcontinent. The Minar’s ground storey was built over the ruins of the Lao Kot, the citadel of Dhillika. Aibak’s successor, lltutmish, added three more storeys. The Minar’s topmost storey was damaged by lightning in 1369 and was rebuilt by Firoz Shah Tughlaq, who added another storey. In 1505, an earthquake damaged Qutab Minar; it was repaired by Sikander Lodi. On 1 September 1803, a major earthquake caused serious damage. Major Robert Smith of the British Indian Army renovated the tower in 1828 and installed a pillared cupola over the fifth story, thus creating a sixth. The cupola was taken down in 1848, under instructions from Viscount Hardinge, then Governor-General of India. It was reinstalled at ground level to the east of Qutab Minar, where it remains. It is known as “Smith’s Folly”.


Sandstone carving at the Qutab Minar
Beautifully carved pillars holding up the colonnade
Fabulously carved arch – Qutab Minar
Swirling patterns set within the sandstone

Sandstone bricks
Myself and Karen in front of the Qutab Minar
The impressive Qutab Minar in all its glory
The Qutab’s base

Getting out was made easier by the expertise of our guide and driver, and we were soon on our way to stop two, Humayun’s Tomb. On the journey, we had more time to find out more about Delhi. One thing that I was particularly curious about was how the Delhi and the National Indian governments were going about tackling the crippling pollution that envelops the region every winter. To try and mitigate the air quality they have designated Delhi to become a green city and planted a lot of trees. Each tree is painted and numbered, and someone has to go around and count the trees and make sure no one has come along in the night and had away with one. Also, they have built some of the coal-powered fire stations hundreds of kilometres from Delhi and transport the power back, which doesn’t sound hugely efficient. It might also explain the frequent power outages. We also got to discuss the caste system, which for those of us who are not Hindu is hard to fathom.


The system divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty), and is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old.

The four main castes are: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that these groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.

At the top of the hierarchy are the Brahmins who are mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then there are the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from Brahma’s arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs.

The main castes are further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on specific occupations.

Outside of this Hindu caste system are the achhoots – the Dalits or the Untouchables.

For centuries, caste dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy.

Rural communities were long arranged on the basis of castes – the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste.

When India gained independence in 1949 the new constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste. In 1950, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy.

With these lessons on history and culture the time soon passed, and we arrived at Humayon’s Tomb to see another throng of people. Just like at Qutab Minar, we were able to jump the extremely long lines.

The tomb itself is set within a complex with extensive and lush gardens, amongst which are scattered several elaborate tombs. The largest structure is Humayan’s Tomb, a phenomenal structure which is believed to have been the template for the Taj Mahal. Humayun’s Tomb is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun which was commissioned by Humayun’s first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum (also known as Haji Begum), in 1569-70. It was designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, a Persian architect chosen by her.

The circumstances behind Humayan’s death were unusual. On 27 January 1556, Humayun, with his arms full of books, was descending the staircase from his library when the muezzin announced the Azaan (the call to prayer). It was his habit, wherever he heard the summons, to bow his knee in holy reverence. Trying to kneel, he caught his foot in his robe, tumbled down several steps and hit his temple on a rugged stone edge. He died three days later.

We were given time to walk around the tomb and admire the surrounding views, with the minarets of the other tombs peeking above the trees. Leaving the complex, we did a quick detour to see the octagonal Isa Khan Niyazi Tomb, which pre-dates Humayan’s Tomb by 15 years.

By this time, we were getting peckish, so we set off to find somewhere to grab a quick bite. We ended up a restaurant for a full sit-down meal. To my delight, they had pickled onions within the pickle selection, which was very fitting for Christmas Day (a Hobbs family tradition). A mushroom tandoori and saag dahl later we were stuffed and shortly after we started to enter a food coma. We made a quick stop at a store to look for gifts, but this turned out to be disappointing and we left empty-handed.  By now we were totally exhausted and were grateful to be returned to our hotel for a snooze before dinner.

The gate to Humayon’s tomb
Humayon’s Tomb.

The summary of the day is:

  • Delhi pollution is unbelievable – and we had missed the worst of it
  • The early rulers of Delhi loved their tombs and monuments
  • Curry for Christmas Day lunch is perfect

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