Sher Shah and his Architects

It was Friday morning on May 22, 1545 in Bundelkhand, when Sher Shah Suri, tired of a dragged siege and stiff resistance from the occupants of Kalinjar Fort decided to launch rocket grenades into the fort. He was there to supervise the launch and as fate would have it, became a direct casualty from the fire explosion caused by an own rocket that ricocheted off the fort wall into the stockpile of Suri ammunition. His force won the fort the same day as Sher Shah breathed his last. His body got a temporary burial at Kalinjar Fort awaiting his son’s arrival Jalal Khan who would rule assuming the title Islam Shah.

A small town of Sasaram in the then Shahabad district of Bihar became the final resting place of Suri king. There a grand mausoleum awaited a reburial. The Grand Trunk Road that saw phenomenal uplifting in Sher Shah’s reign traversed nearby. A plaque on Sher Shah’s tomb gives us a date of completion, 16 August 1545, into the reign of his son. Much of the tomb was constructed under the supervision of Sher Shah and in that it mostly resembles yet differs on many counts from other Suri tombs in Sasaram and Chainpur (around 40 miles west of Sasaram).

Link points to original source: Picture by Nandanupadhyay | Wikimedia Commons

A three storey structure on octagonal base and monumental dimensions, in the center of an artificial lake gives a look more of a pleasure garden than a tomb. It was conceived to be the former. The lake meeting the terraced steps presents water as a medium of transition to reach this garden making it easily accessible to visitors. A mid 18th century oil painting by Francis Swain romanticizes it further with a sailing vessel in the foreground.

Mausoleum of Sher Shah, Sasaram, Bihar
Francis Swain Ward (c.1734–1805), British Library

John Marshall in his book ‘The Monuments of Muslim India’ has drawn an interesting comparison between Sher Shah Suri’s tomb in Sasaram and the Shah Rukn e Alam’s Mausoleum in Multan Pakistan. The comparison is not suggestive of any influence of the latter on the former. We do get a mention of Sher Shah being in Multan during early 1540s but we also know that the tomb construction at Sasaram was a later years’ affair with much of inspiration drawn from architectural tradition of Sharqi Sultans in Jaunpur, where Sher Shah spent his early years.

Tomb of Shah Rukn e Alam: Multan | Source Wasaib Explorer

Back to our tomb at Sasaram, we are told the in the initial design the only access across the lake was through boats / rafts. At present causeway that connects the gatehouse to the tomb was built around 1915 by the Archaeological Survey. Moulvi Muhammad Hamid Quraishi tells us that before the current bridge there was an earthen causeway connecting the gatehouse to the tomb as the original bridge had been washed away. A 1810 water color by Thomas Daniell shows us the remnants of a damaged bridge. There’s a 17th century sketch by Peter Mundy from his travels across Asia shows us a 10 arched bridge with raised walls and decorative battlements.

Gatehouse and the bridge to Sher Shah’s Mausoleum | Photo by Aakar (image link points to their blogpost)

Next we come to the plinth of the tomb that like a traditional Islamic tomb is aligned with Qibla. The two prominent features on the plinth are the four pillared chatris and octagonal pavilions. The chatris have stepped rectangular tops and stand out among other domed features with an outlook of oriel windows. A pair of rectangular chatris surround the large octagonal pavilion one on the each corner. These life size spacious pavilions are punctuated with elaborate arches and topped with a round dome. It’s on the western side that we notice chatris are missing, west being the direction of Qibla and prayer.

On the first storey of the tomb we encounter the octagonal arched verandah that runs on the circumference of the tomb’s interior. There are three arches on each octagonal face and the projecting eaves on the top form an elegant chajja. The top of verandah is further decorated with battlements. There are no slopes and this gives an imposing impression of height to the perspective.

The highlight of the second and third storeys are the domed chatris arranged in octagon. Raised on four pillars with a chajja on top and surmounted by a hemispherical dome again topped by a lotus finial, these ornate each corner on 2nd and 3rd floor. Standing against the skyline these chatris add up to the magnanimity of the tomb that gets a further complement from the grand dome. Then, dear reader, we reach the giant 80 feet diameter dome. Cunningham tells us and so the early paintings verify that the dome was crowned with a four pillar chatri 16 feet in height. That unfortunately is gone, the present amalaka is a recent installation.

Photo by Amit Kumar | Google Photos

The decorative elements on the tomb are smooth and blend with he facade. The arches appear to be fused into he tomb architecture generating a pure aura. On the outside the arch spandrels are decorated with carved lotus flower. We come across these carved motifs on the inner chamber of the tomb on arched niches as well. There the medallions alternate between the word Allah and lotus blossoms.

And this brings us to the main mehrab, pictured in the background of the Suri King’s grave and containing the most exquisite and elaborate details. It contains both Quranic verses, non Quranic inscriptions as well as floral and geometrical motifs. From the non Quranic inscriptions, two of those in Naksh characters are translated for us by Moulvi Muhammad Hamid Quraishi. One on the larger arch reads ‘The holy tomb of the revered Sultan Sher Shah. May God illuminate his grave.’ Another one in the center of the mehrab reads ‘May you live O King, for a thousand years, May each year be of a thousand months, and each month as long as a thousand years. Centuries later the Urdu Ghazal Maestro Mirza Ghalib would pen a verse on same lines:

tum salāmat raho hazār baras
har baras ke hoñ din pachās hazār

Sher Shah’s grave | The Mehrab is in the background
Source: Google Photos
Close up of the Mehrab | Sher Shah Suri’s tomb
Source: Google Photos

What survives of the Suri tomb now is the grandeur and magnanimity of the structure in colors of algae black. But we do know that for once this structure had its arches and battlements and balustrades painted in bright colors, decorated with bright tiles. The colors long gone but the structure still stands, tall like a giant, in a the midst of a lake, a tomb of today, a pleasure garden of yester-years …

Abbas Khan Sarwani, our narrator of Tareekh e Sher Shahi, tells us of the Suri King’s great fondness of the fort at Rohtasgarh, arguably the strongest hill fort in India. Abbas further tells us that Sher Shah’s fort in Jhelum Pakistan built to counter the Gakkhars was modelled after Rohtasgarh in Bihar and was called ‘Little Rohtas’.

Why not then, dear reader, shall we explore the little Rohtas in Jhelum and in that draw a comparison with Rohtasgarh Fort in Bihar in an upcoming post …

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