Tombs of the Qutb Shahi

We are creeping slowly down the steep stone steps in pitch black, except for two tiny birthday cake candles, one in each of my guide's hands. Thick swarms of mosquitos cloud around the candles, momentarily distracted from lunch (me) by the weak flames. The six hundred year old stones are cool under my bare feet, but the air is thick and soupy. One hand on the wall, one on the ceiling, I slip my toes forward, searching for the edge of the step to keep from flailing down towards the burial chamber below.

I'm heading towards the actual resting place of the third Qutb king -- the public tomb above is just a "chhatri" or empty tomb, meant to serve only as a public monument. The entrance to the crypt below was originally covered by the black marble floor tiles, but someone has broken through to expose it.

The public tomb above is open and light and very soothing. A narrow balcony, just a few feet wide, overlooks a coffin-shaped monument set in the center of the stone floor. In one of the alcoves to one side, lie several more monuments of various sizes, some as small as a newborn baby. Most are covered in colorful cloths and heaps of marigolds and rose petals. Just beyond the balcony on the second floor are narrow doorways that seem to lead somewhere, although the outer walls of the mausoleum are just beyond. Passage ways for the souls of the departed, portals for them to hover, considering the boundaries between this world and the next, contemplating the accomplishments they leave behind.

In one corner, a dark barefoot Muslim man in a white crocheted skull cap called a “kufi” holds his hands to the sides of his cheeks and calls out spectacularly eerie prayer song, playing the echo in the chamber like an instrument. His song starts with a piercingly high call to Allah that seems to fill the small cracks in the ancient dome and winds its way through lower tones that I feel in my chest and shoulders. For a moment, all thought is swept away with the fading call, only to be slowly filled with new ones. Another call from the mourner, another wave of serene emptiness.

It’s easy to imagine myself sitting here all day, washing in the borders between this world and the next. It’s impossible to know what attracts the mourners to pray for these ancient kings. After all, these invaders from Persia weren’t exactly saints. Offspring of Genghis Khan, they built empires by force and in the end, were defeated by distant cousins, also descended from Genghis Khan. This particular king, Jamsheed Quli Qutb Shah, killed his own father while he was praying. He then blinded his elder brother and rightful heir to the throne and chased his other brother off to a distant city so that he could ascend to the throne. When he died, his exiled brother returned to take up the throne and became a great poet and patron of the arts.

The man in the kufi drifts over to me and with a smile full of white teeth and asks me, as best as I can make out, how I liked his prayer. He seems disappointed that I have come without a camera of any sort, but happy to receive 10 rupees, or about twenty cents and offers to take me down to the crypt below. Shoes are not permitted anywhere in the mausoleums, so I leave them on the terrace outside.

As we reach the bottom of the winding stairs, we have to duck our heads to enter the crypt. Like the monument above, the stone coffins in this room are covered in cloth and piled high with flowers, although it’s hard to see through the haze of mosquitos and darkness. I can clearly hear some scuffling in the marigolds from the corner of the room. I give it a few moments and, so feeling no bites or stings of any kind, decide that I’ve pressed my luck about far enough for the moment. Turning to the candles, I can see my guides white teeth smiling at me like the Cheshire Cat and motion at him to depart.

At one time, these tombs were appointed with carpets, chandeliers, quilts, pillows, Korans and rich tapestries, suitable for the royalty that had their last bath here. The walls were decorated with bold colors, some of which is still visible today. In the mosques adjacent to each of the tombs, you can still find small prayer carpets, but it takes some imagination to picture the splendor that these gardens must have inspired in their prime. One of the last royal rulers of Hyderabad ordered the restorations of the tombs in the 1800s, but that was a long time ago.

In all, seven Qutb kings rest here, along with countless wives, children, physicians, generals and ministers. Some of the most important chhatris are inscribed with Koranic verses, but, in accordance with Islamic tradition, most remain unadorned and unmarked. Other than the most important markers, the identities of those who lie below them have long been forgotten. Nearly all of the domes have at least one shrub that has managed to root in the dry cracks, clinging to a tenuous life before giving in to the scorching Deccan summer heat. Piles of rubble and weeds blend into the landscape, bake in the sun next to crumbling steps, toppled metal gates and rusted brown metal domes. Most of the markers that lie outside the main tombs have been split by weeds and rain.

One of the most impressive tombs doesn’t belong to a king at all, but instead shelters the sister of the sixth king. Fatima Sultan earned her own tomb when she negotiated to avoid a war with Aurangzeb, their badass Mughal neighbor from the north. Aurangzeb’s father was a heartsick romantic that built the Taj Mahal for his wife. Aurangzeb eventually put his father under house arrest to keep him from bankrupting the kingdom with any more elaborate projects. But with his father still at liberty to blow his inheritance building the Taj, his main princely concern was expanding the kingdom and keeping the revenue coming in.

The Qutb kings had very productive mines and must have seemed like a good addition to the Mughal kingdom. I can only speculate how Fatima Sultan managed to negotiate to keep her brother out of hot water with what was sure to be a losing battle, but however she did it, it was enough to earn her an upscale tomb to match the best of them. Unfortunately, her good work didn’t last.

The tomb of the eighth and last king of this particular dynasty is also here, but it stands empty, only partially completed. In 1687, this Qutb king had fallen behind in his payments to Aurangzeb. When the Qutb king was finally forced to hand over the fort after an eight month long siege, he handed over some serious booty, including the now famous Hope diamond and the Kohinoor diamond, a stunning rock that now sits at the center of the royal crown of the queen of England. Aurangzeb sent this last unlucky king of the dynasty off to prison in a remote desert town where he died twelve years later. Just proves what they say about death and taxes, the two certainties in life…

The future of these tombs is uncertain. In their current condition, it’s hard to imagine them standing in another hundred years, but predicting even a short distance into the future is particularly unreliable in India. Time will tell, but one thing is certain. I'll be washing my feet as soon as I get back to my hotel.

PlacesPeter Moon