The Tomb of Salim Shah Suri (Islam Shah): The glory that never was.

- Rohit Priyadarshi Sanatani

10/12/2014

 

The town of Sasaram in Bihar is best known to the country for the magnificent mausoleum of Sher Shah Suri, the enterprising Pashtun who forced emperor Humayun out of India, took charge of his empire, and established a dynasty that kept the Mughals at bay for 15 long years. Hailed as one of the most magnificent tombs of the ‘octagonal style’ in India, the monument continues to draw a steady stream of visitors throughout the year. It is currently protected and maintained by the Archeological Survey of India.  Lying a few hundred meters away, and also protected by the ASI, is the tomb of Hasan Shah Suri, Sher Shah’s father. Though less celebrated, this tomb is also quite well known and frequently visited.  

Hidden from the world, and little known even to the local residents of Sasaram, lies another tomb – a tomb that could well have surpassed the glory of its celebrated predecessor, but now lies incomplete and in ruins, a cruel victim of fate and circumstance – the tomb of Salim Shah Suri (Islam Shah), the son and successor of Sher Shah. Very few people know of it, and almost none visit it. It lies about a kilometer to the North-West of Sher Shah’s tomb, and, like the latter, occupies the center of a large artificial lake. The tomb is very difficult to locate on the ground, owing mainly to the fact that the lake has been completely surrounded by clusters of haphazard constructions. Asking around only leads to confused stares, or confident directions to the tomb of Sher Shah. Though it has been documented in the past, its memory seems to have gradually faded over the years into oblivion. But why did the tomb of an emperor who succeeded the great Sher Shah come face to face with such cruel fate? Well, for that, we’ll have to go a little into history, and take a look at the political scenario of the empire at the time of its construction. Before that, let’s take a look at the tomb itself.

 

  View of the tomb from the periphery of the lake.     

                     Left: View of the tomb from the periphery of the lake; Right: View in Google Maps.

The tomb of Salim Shah was modeled upon that of his father, but was intended to be larger and by far more flamboyant than its predecessor. It was never completed. The tomb complex can presently be accessed through a network of narrow lanes, which pass through the shanties around the lake. The square island on which the tomb sits measures about 106m each way, while the lake itself measures about 381m square.[1] The main structure can hardly be seen from the periphery of the lake, owing to the thick foliage that seems to shield the entire island. The island itself is accessed through a 10 m broad bridge, constructed by placing horizontal stone slabs between piers, thus creating channels for water to pass through [2] The bridge, like much of the entire complex, is presently in a very shabby and downright dirty condition. The lake is used by the surrounding residents for washing clothes and utensils, and much of their daily refuse is dumped on to the bridge.

 

   

                               The magnificent entrance archways which adorn each face of the octagon. 

After having negotiated their way through the bridge, the visitor arrives on the island, and, for the first time, gets a glimpse of the glory that the building had once aspired to achieve. Magnificent arches, supposed to have been entrances to the tomb, now stand alone, as if each telling their own story. Following the general grammar of octagonal tombs in the subcontinent, this structure comprises of a large central octagonal chamber, around 23 m across, surrounded by an arcaded verandah designed to have been pierced by three arches on each of its eight faces.[3] The grave of Salim Shah occupies the geometric centre of the entire building, surrounded by a number of other later graves. The structure rises barely to about 3-4 metres.
 
  

 Left: The inner octagonal chamber; Right: The outer verandah.

 

This tomb possesses another feature, which makes it architecturally really important, giving it a prominent position in the evolution of tomb architecture in the country. Each of the corners of the outer octagon has vestiges of what were to be minarets. These minarets are similar to the Qutb Minar, exhibiting a pattern, which recurs in numerous Islamic monuments throughout the country – they are divided into segments, with the lower segment remaining a plain octagon in section, and the upper segment consisting of alternating triangular and semicircular flutes. Minarets in tombs had never been seen before. This was a first.[4] The feature however became very popular in subsequent structures, with buildings such as the tomb of Akbar in Sikandra, and that of Itmad ud daulah in Agra boasting of lofty and splendid minarets. The most famous example of such a tomb is naturally the celebrated Taj at Agra, where the minarets frame the actual structure and form an integral part of the building’s visual proportions.

 

      

 Left: The minarets at each corner of the outer octagon; Right: An archway towards the eastern face.

 

We now return to our initial question. Why is the tomb of an emperor who succeeded the great Sher Shah incomplete and in ruins? To answer that, let’s go back half a millennium. It was in the year 1539, when Sher Khan, a governor who was rapidly rising to power, defeated emperor Humayun and forced him out of India. Having ascended the throne at Delhi, he began ruling under the title ‘Sher Shah’. Sher Shah is remembered to this day as a brilliant administrator and founder of the Sur dynasty. Under his efficient rule, the empire remained by and large stable and peaceful.[5]

Sher Shah met his end due to a gunpowder accident in 1545, and was succeeded by his son Jalal Khan, who assumed the title of Islam Shah. Islam (Salim) Shah completed the famous tomb of his father, which had already been partially built during his Sher Shah’s reign. Salim Shah’s rule too was generally peaceful. He is credited to have built the Salimgarh Fort in Delhi, which presently lies adjacent to the Red Fort. There were however strong seeds of discontent amongst his nobles and generals.[6] As a result, following his demise in the winter of 1554, the empire gradually descended into chaos. His twelve-year-old son, the newly crowned emperor was murdered within days of his coronation. A number of rulers subsequently ruled for brief periods of time, but the Sur dynasty never regained its lost glory. Realizing his great opportunity, Humayun, who had been living a life in exile for 15 years, marched towards Delhi, successfully recapturing it in 1555 and bringing an end to the Sur Dynasty.[7]

Amidst all this chaos, there was no one left to finish construction of the tomb of Salim Shah. The circumstances under which construction stopped are not clear, but it’s evident that the Sur dynasty did not survive long enough for the entire structure to be completed. The Mughals probably found no point in looking after a half built tomb of a rival dynasty, let alone complete it. Slowly and steadily the tomb faded into oblivion.

It was with the establishment of the Asiatic Society in 1784 that there was a renewed interest in the cultural heritage of the subcontinent. In 1807, the then Governor General Lord Wellesley appointed Francis Buchanan to survey the topography, history and antiquities of Bengal, which at that time included regions of present day Bihar.[8] Buchanan was a Scottish physician, geologist and botanist who had earlier been appointed to carry out a survey of Mysore, following the defeat of Tipu Sultan. Around 1812, Buchanan recorded his visit to the tomb of Islam Shah. In 1934, the Bihar and Orissa Research Society published his description of the tomb in ‘An Account of the District of Shahabad’.

Around 1870s, the tomb was photographed by Joseph David Beglar, who was a civil engineer by profession, and served as an assistant to Alexander Cunningham, the founder of the Archaeological Survey of India.[9] The photographs remained a part of the ASI collections. They also find their place today in the British Library archives.[10] Beglar had carried out extensive photographic documentations of monuments throughout the country, most of which were published by the ASI.

Gradually, interest in the tomb of Salim Shah begun to decline. The tomb never enjoyed the attention of tourists. Sasaram continued to be famous for the tomb of Sher Shah, and, to a certain extent, the tomb of Hasan Shah. The website of the ASI mentions the presence of the tomb in passing, in its description of Sasaram, but omits it from the official list of monuments. Today, the tomb lies completely forgotten, neglected and uncared for. Exploring its ruins sends chills down one’s spine. The solitary arches, the incomplete minarets, and the moss covered stones all seem to echo the same tragic tale. The tale of the splendor that was never achieved. The story of the glory that never was.

 

   

Left: View from end of the bridge; Right: View of the bridge from the tomb


[1] The antiquarian remains in Bihar; Devendrakumar Rajaram Patil, Pg. 522

[2] Bihar and Orissa Gazetteers, Shahabad; L.S.S O’malley, Pg 185

[3] The antiquarian remains in Bihar; Devendrakumar Rajaram Patil, Pg. 522

[4] The Indian Encyclopedia: Meya-National Congress; ed. Subodh Kapoor,  Pg 4836

[5] An Advanced History of India; R.C Majumdar, Pg. 432 - 433

[6] Ibid. Pg. 436

[7] Ibid. Pg. 438

[8] Encyclopedia of the Hindu World, Volume 3; Ed. Ganga Ram Garg, Pg 588

[9] ‘Archaeologizing’ heritage? Transcultural Entanglements between Local Social Practices and Global Virtual Realities; Ed. Michael Falser; Pg. 42

[10] http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/g/019pho000001003u00482000.html; Accessed 10/12/14 

 


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