New Delhi’s Spectacular Islamic Heritage Through a Canadian Lens

Editor’s note: Intrepid traveller Muslim Harji never fails to have a trip of a lifetime wherever he goes. New Delhi, the Indian capital was no exception judging by the pictures that he has captured, which cover the cultural and spiritual heritage of Islam. Like all his photo essays published on this blog, this one will draw the attention of thousands of viewers around the world. Some photos shown here were released by him specially for Simergphotos. We thank him for bringing joy to thousands of readers through his insightful photo essays over the past few years including Jerusalem – A Photo Essay of the Holy City, Iran and Alamut Like You Have Not Seen Before, and Photo Essay: The Ismaili Jamatkhana in Myanmar, With Notes on the Community’s Patriotic Spirit.

Special to Simergphotos

(with additional material, including excerpts from His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches)

I. Humayun’s Tomb

mhndelhi031  Designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyath a Persian architect and built by Indian and Persian workers, this monument is one of the first to employ Persian architecture and also the first to use Red sand stone and White marble in such a huge quantity. In 1993 it was declared a UNESCO World heritage Site.

The  perfectly proportioned and captivating of Delhi’s mausoleums, Humayan’s tomb seems to float above the gardens that surround it.

Humayun’s Tomb is one of the most beautiful monuments in Delhi but you don’t see it as often as you see India gate or Qutub Minar. It is located right in the heart of the city but the spacious compound surrounding the monument hides it away from the glare of public eyes. Sandwiched between Yamuna River and Nizamuddin Dargah, Humayun’s Tomb was the first garden tomb on the Indian Subcontinent. It is the Tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayun and it was commissioned by his wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562 AD. In recent years both its gardens and the monument have been restored and revived by Aga Khan Trust for Culture.


“These restored gardens are the first chahar-bagh, or four-part paradise garden to surround a Mughal tomb on the sub-continent. Built nearly a century before the Taj Mahal, the Tomb and its gardens were an expression of the love and respect borne towards the Emperor Humayun by his son, Akbar and widow, Haji Begum. The chahar-bagh was more than a pleasure garden. In the discipline and order of its landscaped geometry, its octagonal or rectangular pools, its selection of favourite plants and trees, it was an attempt to create transcendent perfection – a glimpse of paradise on earth.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, April 15, 2003.


“Conceived in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, the restoration of the gardens of Humayun’s Tomb was formalised two years later. Implementation began in 2001 and was completed yesterday [April 15, 2003].

“The task has been a vast one. Water channels were re-laid to such exacting standards that their beds rise only one centimetre every 40 metres. Over 2500 trees and plants were introduced in accordance with our knowledge of the original palette of landscaping. Wells were re-excavated and incorporated into a rainwater harvesting and irrigation system. Sixty stonecutters prepared 2,000 meters of hand-dressed red sandstone slabs.

“The hues and scents of these gardens, the varied sources of the design elements and of the chosen construction materials, make this monument an important reminder of the power and elegance of diversity, while the sentiments that moved its patrons, united them in a shared virtue.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, April 15, 2003.




“This inauguration ceremony marks the accomplishment of a great goal; the gardens and now the Mausoleum are fully restored. The fact that so many people want to share this extraordinary experience – as you do today – is a heartening affirmation of the Monument’s continuing importance.

“As you may know, this Mughal monument, which dates back to 1570, was the first garden-tomb complex on the Indian subcontinent. It inspired major architectural innovations, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal.

“Since 2007, master craftsmen have spent some 200,000 work-days restoring Humayun’s Tomb and its associated structures. I think you will be as fascinated as I have been to hear just a little about this reconstruction work.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, September 2013


(From L to R): Chairman Ratan Tata of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Minister Chandresh Kumari Katoch, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Mawlana Hazar Imam inaugurate the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb on 18 September 2013. AKDN / Gary Otte


Perfectly proportioned and captivating of Delhi’s mausoleums. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

The arched facade is inland with bands of white marble and red sandstone, and the building follows strict rules of Islamic geometry,  Alive with green parakeets, the surrounding gardens contain the tombs of the emperor’s favorite barber and Haji Begum. This was where the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, took refuge before being captured and exiled by the British in 1857.


A glimpse  of the Humayun Tomb. Side Entrance to the Tomb. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

“It is striking, for example, to learn that some one million kilos of cement concrete had been laid down here during the 20th century – and that it had to be removed from the roof using hand tools. Meanwhile, some 200,000 square feet of lime plaster had to be applied in areas where it had been lost or replaced with cement plaster that was already crumbling. Similarly, over 40,000 square feet of concrete had to be removed from the lower plinth of the Mausoleum and major, two-ton paving blocks, had to be manually replaced.” – His Highness the Aga Khan, September 2013.


Humayun Tomb Main Entrance. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi004Intricate Islamic design on the ceiling of the main space. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

“In addition, original decorative patterns have been painstakingly recreated – work that required the talents of master ceramic tile makers. Happily, practitioners of this art in Uzbekistan were able to come here to train young residents of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, contributing not only to the beauty of this monument, but also opening new economic opportunities for these young people.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, September 2013.


Inside structure and design. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



II. Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti 

Situated in Nizamuddin area of Delhi, the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is the most popular Sufi mausoleums in the country.  The mausoleum complex also houses tombs of poet Amir Khusro and Shah Jahan’s daughter and princess consort Jehan Ara Begum. mhndelhi007

Most residents of Delhi are unaware of the rich gems hidden in the “gullies” of Nizamuddin basti:  dargahs, tombstones, mosques, culinary delights, qawallis, etc. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


 Placing Chadar on the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright. mhndelhi009

Dargah of  poet Hazrat Amir Khusro. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi010The colorful Nizamuddin basti. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi011The Qawalli singers at the Dargah of  poet Hazrat Amir Khusro singing mostly Khusro Kalaams. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Incense vendor at the Dargah. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


 III. Jama Masjid

This great mosque of Old Delhi is the largest in India, with a courtyard capable of holding 25,000 devotees. It was begun in 1644 and ended up being the final architectural extravagance of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort.


Birds at the Jama Masjid. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



Faithful waiting for the Azaan..Call to prayers. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


mhndelhi016Worshipers at the Jama Masjid facing the Mehrab. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi025A close-up of the Mehrab in the prayer hall of the Jama Masjid Delhi. Photo: Muslim Harji.Copyright.

mhndelhi027Close-up of the calligraphy above the Mehrab, Jama Masjid Delhi. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


The Main Entrance to Jama Masjid. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


IV. Red Fort (Lal Qila)

Converted to a barracks by the British, this massive fort is a sandstone carcass of its former self, but it still conjures up memories of the splendor of Mughal Delhi. Protected by a dramatic 18m-high wall, the marble and sandstone monuments here were constructed at the peak of the dynasty’s power, when the empire was flush with gold and precious stones. Shah Jahan founded the fortress between 1638 and 1648 to protect his new capital city of Shahjahanabad, but he never took up full residence, after his disloyal son, Aurangzeb, imprisoned him in Agra Fort. mhndelhi017

Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


 V. Qutab Minar

The origins of Qutab Minar are shrouded in controversy. Some believe it was erected as a tower of victory to signify the beginning of the Muslim rule in India. Others say it served as a minaret for the muezzins to call the faithful to prayer.

No one can, however, dispute that the tower is not only one of the finest monuments in India, but also in the world. mhndelhi018

Beautiful Islamic Calligraphy at the entrance. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi019Qutab Minar is a soaring, 73 m-high tower , built in 1193 by Qutab-ud-din Aibak. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


VI. Mughalai Contribution to Delhi’s Culinary Delights

No trip to the Basti or Juma Masjid area is complete without enjoying the gastronomic delights of that area.


Mughalai Biryani meticulously prepared at “Karims.” Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Mughalai Tandoori dishes to die for…Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

mhndelhi022Mughalai Handi cooking at its best….in the Basti. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


VIII. Haleem

This is hearty food, different from the subtle confections of traditional Mughlai cuisine, like koftas and pulaos. Yellow and with paste-like consistency, haleem is a one-dish meal of wheat, lentils and meat. Cooked in sufi shrines and served in Muharram gatherings, the best haleem in Delhi is found in the home kitchens of Muslims. The second-best version is found in Gali Kababiyan, the lane behind Kareem’s restaurant in the Walled City’s Matia Mahal Bazaar. Mr Naeem sets up his stall there daily at noon. A ravenous crowd gathers around him immediately. Two and a half hours later, the man’s deg (giant bowl) gets empty. Mr Naeem inherited the business from his famous father, Bundu Haleem Walla.


Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



 Traffic in and around the Basti. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


VIII Mirza Ghalib

There would hardly be anyone who hasn’t heard and loved the heart-touching verses and poetry of one of the most renowned poets of all times, Mirza Ghalib. Often considered to be the Shakespeare of the Urdu literature, Mirza Ghalib acclaimed fame worldwide through his incredible works of poetry and short stories. He was a well-known poet in the imperial courts of the Mughal Empire during the era of  the emperor Bahdur Shah Zafar. Ghalib held Delhi very close to his heart and called the city “the soul of the world”. mhndelhi036

Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Mirza Ghalib. Often considered to be the Shakespeare of the Urdu literature. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



Ghalib Haveli in Old Delhi. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


Painting in his Haveli. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.


One of Ghalibs most famous poems. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

Date posted: Monday, December 22 , 2014.

Copyright: Muslim Harji. 2014.


Recommended reading: Anything and everything by William Dalrymple on Delhi and the Mughals.

References: Wiki, Lp, Tindia.

Profile of Muslim Harji at Contributors.

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