Poetry in lime and mortar: The Paigah Tombs of Hyderabad

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After offering his prayers each morning, Rahmatullah settles down among the arched alcoves of the complex with a cup of chai beside him and a newspaper in hand, waiting for any stray visitors to wander in.

From the outside, the crumbling gateway gives no hint of the opulence that lies just beyond. Of all Hyderabad’s historic monuments, the Paigah tombs are arguably the most impressive. Built as a final resting place for members of one of Hyderabad’s most prominent families, the complex is an amalgamation of several different architectural styles decorated with exquisite perforated screens (jaalis), carved into intricate geometric and floral patterns.

Architecturally influenced by several distinct styles, including that of the Turks, the Rajputs, the Mughals, and the Qutb Shahi kingdom that ruled from Hyderabad, the Paigah Tombs are a wonder to behold. 

Looking across the fountain to the Maqbara Shams ulUmra

The Masjid e Paigah is designed in the Qutb Shahi style

“As you enter the complex and see the mosque, you feel as if you’re in the Qutb Shahi period,” says Rahmatullah, who’s been the caretaker of this complex since 1974. “But then walk into the tombs, and you could be in Istanbul, in Turkey, or in Rajasthan.”

The complex exudes refinement through the intricate lime and mortar jaalis, which, artfully juxtaposed with marble from the same quarry as the Taj Mahal, turn it into a gleaming oasis in the middle of Hyderabad’s haphazard urban jungle. While the city is just another metropolis in India today, it was the seat of power of what became Hyderabad State since the early 16th century, one of the wealthiest kingdoms anywhere in the world. 

The Paigahs were one of the most important noble families in Hyderabad till India’s independence. Fiercely loyal to the Nizams, the rulers of Hyderabad State, the Paigahs helped ensure its continued prosperity for nearly 300 years. 

The family was founded by Abul Fateh Khan, a soldier and bodyguard of the second Nizam, who was said to be a descendant of Omar ibn Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam. Khan was renowned for his strength and size, and had a reputation as a fearsome warrior. He was given the title Shams ul Umra, or the Sun among the Nobles, a title which today lends its name to this complex. 

Looking into one of the rooms through the broken jaali

The entrance to the chamber housing the remains of Sir Asman Jah, a former prime minister of Hyderabad State

The family rose in prominence over the centuries, becoming prime ministers, advisors, and military generals who were the right hand of the rulers of what was once the richest state in the world. Successive generations of Paigahs married into the Nizam’s family, and their strong relationship ensured the state’s continued prosperity. 

Till today, there are neighbourhoods in Hyderabad named after the Paigahs. For instance, Shamshabad, where the city’s international airport is located, is named after Shams ul Umra. 

In a city like Hyderabad that is brimming with history, the Paigah tombs are a relatively unknown gem. Hundreds of visitors flock to Hyderabad’s Old City each day for a glimpse of the Charminar, snapping selfies from every angle. 

An ostrich egg hangs above the grave of Muhammad Fakhruddin Khan, a former Prime Minister of Hyderabad State

Looking into the room housing the Lateef Unnisa tombs

The chamber of Lateef Unnisa with its exquisite stucco ornamentation

But just four kilometres away, the Paigah tombs attract only one or two people a day. Most people prefer the tried and tested tourist spots to walk through a maze of alleyways to find this place.

The few who do make the journey through the narrow bylanes are greeted with the sight of a glistening white monument flanked by old mango and badam trees. The most famous and the best-preserved tombs are part of the Maqbara Shams-ul-Umra, and sit upon a raised platform. The other graves around it might be crumbling or poorly restored, but this section remains in all its awe-inspiring glory.

It’s where they often find Rahmatullah, sitting on a carpet in one of the corridors. Always ready to greet visitors with a smile and a line or two of poetry, he expertly guides them around the complex, explaining each artistic feature and what it symbolizes. 

Intricate stucco designs embellish the corridors and arcades of the complex

Even though the main Maqbara Shams ul Umra is well preserved, the tombs around it urgently need to be restored 

Like the large, intricately carved piece of jade on the tomb of Sir Asman Jah, which is believed to protect it from lightning strikes. Or the ostrich egg hanging over the grave of the former prime minister of Hyderabad Muhammad Fakhruddin Khan Bahadur, indicating his Sufi faith. Or that the tomb of Hussain un Nissa, a daughter of the fifth Nizam, is a copy of Mumtaz Mahal’s in the Taj, inlaid with rubies, emeralds and precious stones before thieves dug them out.

One room Rahmatullah makes sure to point out is that which houses three graves known as the ‘Lateef Unnisa tombs.’ While the graves in this chamber are relatively plain, the room itself is stunning - intricate jaalis flank each doorway, surrounded by panels of stucco carved in the shape of flowers and bouquets. A delicate frieze carved with a design to imitate pineapples, a symbol of wealth and rarity in this part of the world, runs around the top of the room before the ornamentation breaks into a row of arches that gently merge with the sky. 

“Lateef Unnisa was an exceedingly beautiful woman, it is said,” says Rahmatullah. “So her final resting place also had to be exceedingly beautiful.”

None of this would have remained if it weren’t for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), says Rahmatullah. Even though the organization is much maligned for their poor work at other heritage sites, Rahmatullah credits the ASI’s interest in this complex for its survival. 

When they labelled the Paigah tombs as a heritage monument in 1990, the ASI’s renovation department repaired the leaking roofs and lime flooring that had been damaged by the elements. Being around the architects and workmen, Rahmatullah quickly picked up many aspects of the conservation process. 

“There was this director of the ASI called VV Krishna Shastri, who was very fond of me,” says Rahmatullah.  “He used to tell his engineers that anything you do, you do it under his  [Rahmatullah’s] supervision.”

Rahmatullah, the caretaker, in one of his favourite spots

But there is still a lot to be done. There are dozens of tombs on either side of the main monument that are falling to bits. The Aga Khan Trust, which is responsible for the brilliant renovation of Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, is apparently due to begin work to renovate the tombs here as well. 

Rahmatullah will undoubtedly be around to supervise the architects, engineers and craftsmen who are to come. He always has been. 

“One day, my sons and grandsons will take over from me,” he says, and adds with a smile, “I am joined to the monument.”

This article was first published in Sacred Footsteps in June 2021