If there is one thing I envy Delhi-ites, it is the green oasis of Lodhi Gardens. Over ninety acres of unexpected tranquility to escape the gridlocked delirium of their capital city. The landscaping would be easy enough to replicate elsewhere in India (who am I kidding!). But it is the historic ambience, those omnipresent vestiges of Delhi’s storied past, that make this space even more special.
The oppressive September heat seems to drop a palpable couple of degrees as we enter gate 1, from Lodi road. A royal palm lined path leads to a mound topped by one of few surviving structures from the 37 year reign (1434 – 1451) of the Sayyid dynasty, the second to last of the Delhi Sultanate.
The octagonal tomb – a shape generally reserved for rulers – with Indo-Islamic architectural elements including the umbrella like chhatris and the inverted lotus on the dome, houses the remains of Muhammad Shah Sayyid and members of his family.
We traverse the timeline to some of the distinctive monuments of the next dynasty: the one that gives these gardens its (post independence) name. Earlier – following the 1936 transformation of what was once Khairpur village into this heritage landscaped garden – it was named Lady Willingdon Park, after the wife of the then British viceroy.
The angular, (mock) double storeyed architectural style of the Bada Gumbad complex is characteristic of the Lodhi period. The ‘tomb with the big dome’ as the name suggests, might very well have been the gateway to a mosque, since no graves or human remains were found inside. A beautifully decorated mosque – the Jama Masjid – and a domeless arched pavilion – the Mehman Khana (guest house) – flank the Bada Gumbad.
Opposite, is the Sheesh Gumbad (Glass Dome) whose dome and facade were once clad with reflective glazed tiles. It is believed to be the tomb of the first Lodhi emperor, Bahlol, although I do not spot any distinguishing features among the half a dozen or so graves inside. The plaster detailing on the facade is eroded, but bands of square turquoise and cobalt blue tiles beneath the external cornices still glisten in the morning light.
If tombs are not your thing, this part of the garden offers plenty of opportunities for people watching. We stop to watch a mini football game in one corner. A breakfast picnic is laid out on another. Joggers, yoga enthusiasts and young lovers add colour to the late summer setting stripped of winter blooms.
Up ahead is the final resting place of – Sikander Lodhi: the second and greatest of the (Afghan) Lodhi Sultans. It was built by his son Ibrahim Lodhi in 1517 and appears to have been loosely styled after the older Muhammad Shah Sayyid tomb, sans the chhatris and set within a walled garden and accessed from a fairly elaborate gate.
Part of the enclosure wall has a Mihrab (prayer niche facing Mecca) worked into it, so it functions as a wall mosque. Inside, is a simple rectangular grave devoid of any ornamentation. Sikandar was the last of the Delhi Sultans to be interred in Delhi. His son lies in Panipat, where he fell to the first Mughal: Babur.
My envy multiplies at the sight of a large man made reservoir nearby, and the Mughal era bridge: the Athpula (eight pier). The 16th century bridge possibly spanned a tributary of the river Yamuna that once flowed through here. The dreamy, verdant setting complete with frolicking geese is certainly not what I expect to find in the heart of this smoggy city.
On our way out, we pass a small arched gateway, a lesser but beautiful mosque and a strange circular turret with an ornate window believed to be the oldest structure in the gardens, whose origins and history have been lost to time.
Then, as if ejecting from a teleportation machine, we exit Gate 3 on Max Mueller Marg, into the frenzied bustle of modern Delhi.