The Tomb of Khan - i Jahan Tilangani: A forgotten gem.

- Rohit Priyadarshi Sanatani


Prior to the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, Islamic tombs in the Indian subcontinent were almost always square in plan. The typical form comprised of a square chamber raised on a plinth, with squinches translating the square to an octagon near roof level. The octagon supported a 16-sided polygon, which in turn supported a 32-sided polygon. This further supported a 64 sided polygon, which, being practically a circle, supported the dome. Tombs found throughout the Slave, Khalji, and Tughlaq dynasties typically adhered to this format. 

The tomb of Khan - i Jahan Tilangani (also known as Malik Maqbul), prime minister to Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq was the first tomb in India to incorporate a radically different plan form: the octagon.1 This format comprised of a regular octagon raised on a plinth, directly supporting the dome through the intermediate 16, 32 and 64 sided polygons. The need for the squinch was thus eliminated. An octagonal pathway ran around the central octagon, with arches piercing each side.

 The octagonal form went on to become extremely popular during the Sayyid and Lodi dynasties of the Sultanate, and continued well into the Mughal Empire. Beautiful examples of this form may be found in in Delhi, in the tombs of Mubarak Shah Sayyid (1434), Muhammad Shah Sayyid (1445) or that of Sikandar Lodi (1517). A stunning and mature example of this type of tomb is that of Sher Shah Suri in Sasaram (1545). Examples from the later periods include, among others, Isa Khan's tomb (1547) and Adam Khan's tomb (1561). In fact, derivatives of this octagonal style can be seen in the famous tombs of Humayun at Delhi (1572), and Mumtaz Mahal at Agra (Taj Mahal)(1653).


From left: Tomb of Muhammad Shah Sayyid, Tomb of Sikandar Lodi. Lodi Gardens, Delhi.


Tomb of Sher Shah Suri, Sasaram, Bihar. 2

 The Tomb of Khan - i Jahan Tilangani.

 The tomb of Tilangani (1369) was the first such tomb of the octagonal form in India, thus occupying an immensely important position in the evolution of tomb architecture in India. The tomb of Rukn i Alam in Multan (1340) is the only earlier example of an octagonal form in the subcontinent.3 The tomb of Telingani is tucked away inside the present day Nizamuddin village, barely a few hundred metres from the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, the Sufi saint after whom the village is named. Nizamuddin is one of the many 'medieval villages of Delhi', with narrow streets and bustling bazaars.


From left: Google Satellite Images of Tomb of Telingani, Nizamuddin, Delhi; Closeup of tomb.

 The tomb is situated within a walled enclosure known as 'Kotla Nizamuddin'. 4 The walls have been largely built over through the centuries, and only small parts of the original wall can be seen here and there through the concrete jungle all around. It is extremely difficult for one on the ground to locate the tomb, as the original structure is accessed through a complex network of narrow lanes, and is itself surrounded on all sides by 4 - 5 storeyed buildings built leaving a space of barely 2 metres from the outer walls of the octagon. This results in a narrow pathway around the structure, with the outer walls of the tombs on one side, and the buildings on the other. The form of the structure can thus be only understood by climbing up to the roof of the nearby buildings. From here, the architectural style of the structure can easily be identified as being of the typical octagonal form. An octagonal passageway runs around the central chamber, and supports eight small domes, one on each side of the octagon. The central octagon rises up higher than the apex of these domes, and supports the main central dome, capped by a decorative finial (See Fig. below). Each of the faces of the outer octagon (passageway) is pierced by three arched openings.5

The Tomb. Photographed from the roof of an adjacent building.


From left: The dilapidated dome; Closeup of the subsidary domes. Notice the water tank and dish antennas.

 The tomb is in a very sorry state of repair. Families inhabit the interior of the structure, and there is apparently an ongoing dispute between the inhabitants and a conservation trust. Lack of awareness amongst even the local residents about the immense historical and architectural importance of the tomb results in very little respect for the structure. The faces of the octagon have been modified beyond recognition, and cannot be easily identified from any point on the ground. A number of haphazard additions and alterations also appear to have been carried out without any knowledge or concern for the architectural language of the original structure. The central dome is in the worst state of repair, and unless urgently attended to, stands the risk of collapse. The plasterwork covering the dome has largely disappeared, thus exposing the rubble masonry inside. Small trees have started growing on the dome itself, their roots piercing through small gaps in the masonry. Almost the entirety of the exposed parts is covered with what appears to be grass like vegetation. The tile work covering the structure has disappeared in many parts, and the eaves running around the passageway are collapsing. In short, this building is crying for conservation. It is indeed unfortunate that the monument does not appear among the 174 monuments in Delhi officially listed and protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.6 The ASI publication, 'Delhi and it's Neighborhood' describes the tomb as 'Although now in a dilapidated condition, architecturally it occupies an important place in the development tombs, being the first octagonal tomb in Delhi.'7 Unless proper action is taken urgently, a building of such great architectural importance may soon disappear altogether.

1. Islamic Architecture in India: Satish Grover, CBS Publishers, Pg. 34

2. Photo Credit: Nandan Upadhyay;

3. ; Accessed 30/12/2013

4. Delhi A Thousand Years of Building: Lucy Peck, Roli Books, Pg. 173

5. Delhi and its Neighborhood: Y.D Sharma, ASI, Pg. 118

6. ; Accessed 30/12/2013

7. Delhi and its Neighborhood: Y.D Sharma, ASI, Pg. 118

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