The Bara Gumbad, or "big dome," is a large domed structure grouped together with the Friday mosque of Nizam Khan Sikandar II ("Sikander Lodi") (r. 1489-1517) and a mehman khana (guesthouse), located in New Delhi's Lodi Gardens. The buildings were constructed at different times during the Lodi era and occupy a common raised platform. Formerly an outlying area of Delhi, the Lodi Gardens are a British-planned landscaped garden which includes a number of monuments (primarily tombs) from the Sayyid and the Lodi dynasties. Originally called Willingdon Park, the gardens were located in the former village of Khairpur, now on the edge of Lutyen's Delhi, the colonial capital built by the British in the early 20th century. The gardens, which cover approx. 70 acres, have come to be surrounded by institutional buildings and some of contemporary Delhi's most expensive real estate.
Although they were built under the same dynasty, each of the three structures was undertaken separately. The Bara Gumbad, completed in 1490, is considered to have the first full dome constructed in Delhi. Its original purpose is contested; although it appears to be a freestanding tomb, it contains no tombstone. This causes the speculation that the building might have been intended as a gateway for the Friday mosque; however, their respective placements, stylistic differences, and construction dates do not support this theory. The Friday mosque, completed in 1494, is the first example of the new mosque type that developed during the Lodi era. Characterized by a relatively simple five bay prayer hall building adjacent to a simple open courtyard, this type was an important precedent for mosque architecture in the Lodi and Mughal eras.
The complex can be accessed from various points along the roads bordering the Lodi Gardens, with the access from the Lodi road towards the south most prominent. The buildings are situated at a distance of about 300 meters from Muhammad Shah's tomb towards the south and about 380 meters from Sikander Lodi's tomb towards the north. Another prominent structure, the Shish Gumbad, is located facing the Bara Gumbad at a distance of about seventy-five meters towards the north. The area surrounding the buildings is landscaped with manicured grass lawns. Few trees are planted in the immediate vicinity, leaving the view of the structures unobscured. The path winding through the Lodi Gardens approaches the buildings axially from the north, although the building plinth is accessible all from all sides.
The buildings are sited on a three-meter-high platform, measuring approximately 30 meters (east-west) by 25 meters (north-south). The Friday mosque is located along the western edge of the platform; the guesthouse is sited opposite it, occupying the eastern edge, while the Bara Gumbad is located along the southern edge. Stone masonry walls, about six meters high, connect the three structures along the southern edge. The northern edge is provided with staircases for accessing the platform. A centrally located straight flight comprising of eight steps, about ten meters wide, connects the ground to a generous mid landing. Another 'C' shaped flight of eight steps wraps around the landing, creating an amphitheatre-like space and reaching the top of the platform. The current arrangement of steps appears to be more recent, and the remains of walls adjoining the southern face of the guesthouse and the mosque indicate that the northern edge might have originally been walled. In the center of the raised court, with its southern edge along the staircase, are the remains of a square shaped platform, 8 meters wide, which appears to be a grave.
The Friday mosque is a single aisled, rectangular building, approx. 30 meters (north-south) by 8 meters (east-west). The mosque is organized in five unequal bays, which correspond to the five arched doorways on the eastern (entry) elevation. The width of the arched doorways decreases from the center towards the sides. The arches span across grey granite piers. The central arch is framed within a projecting rectangular portal, measuring about 8 meters in height by 6 meters wide. The piers of the rectangular frame are cased in dressed granite and have three shallow arched niches in red sandstone, occurring vertically above the springing point of the arch, on either side. The doorway itself is described by four receding planes of ogee arches, the outermost one being in line with the external face of the rectangular portal. The doorways immediately to the side of the central portal are about 5 meters wide, while those at the two ends are approx. 1.5 meters wide with two receding planes of ogee arches, adding to the prominence of the central doorway. The apex of each innermost arch is constant, measuring approx. 5 meters from the top of the platform. Each arch is finished in plaster and embellished with intricate carved Arabic inscriptions. The spandrels are also heavily carved with geometric motifs, and their the corners are adorned with round inscribed plaster medallions. Red sandstone eaves (chajjas) on stone brackets top the arches, interrupted only by the central projecting portal that extends above them. There is a blank plastered frieze above the eaves, followed by the projecting horizontal bands of the cornice that is topped by a blind masonry parapet adorned with petal shaped crenellations with inscribed plaster medallions.
The interior of the prayer hall reflects the five bay division of the eastern elevation. It is a rectangular space, measuring about 27 meters (north-south) by about 7 meters (east-west). Additional arches spanning between the piers on the eastern elevation and the engaged piers of the western wall emphasize the demarcation of the interior space into bays. These internal ogee arches reach a height of about five meters. They are finished in plaster and profusely decorated with carvings of Arabic inscriptions. The piers are unornamented, dressed gray granite.
The qibla (western) wall of the prayer hall is a blind wall divided into five unequal bays expressed as recessed ogee arched niches, reflecting the arched openings on the eastern wall. The two bays adjacent to the central bay have three equal niches carved out from the portion below the springing line of the main arch. These niches are separated by granite piers, which have smaller arched niches in the top third of their elevation. The three niches are made of two layers of ogee arches framed by the piers. The external layer is in gray-yellow granite, while the interior arch is made of red sandstone. The central niche is mildly distinguishable from the others because its arched portion is curved and the imposts are engraved, while those of the adjacent arches are plain. The innermost rectangular portion of the central niche is blank, while that of the adjoining niches has the carving of a vase and flora inscribed in it. The tympanum of the main outer arch is finished in plaster and has an additional niche directly above the central niche which is embellished heavily with plaster carvings of Arabic inscriptions. A band of similar inscriptions runs along the interior perimeter of the arch and around the upper niche in a closed loop. The voussoirs of the outer arch are plastered and embellished with another layer of carvings. The central bay of the western wall also has three niches, each made of four recessed planes of alternating rectangular and arched profiles. The central mihrab niche is taller and wider. It is also shallower and the innermost plane is blank, while the other two niches are deeper set with relief work. A stone minbar with three steps has been provided abutting the northern pier of the central niche.
Hemispherical domes cover the three central bays, while the terminal bays are covered by low flat vaulted ceilings. The square plan of the three central bays transitions into an octagonal drum through the application of corbelled pendentives at the corners. The corbelling occurs in four layers, which increases in width from the bottom up. The layers are further embellished with curved niches set into rectangular frames, which also increase in number, the lowest corbel having one and the last corbel having five such niches. The last layers of the pendentives form alternate edges of the octagonal drum; the remaining edges being formed by the extension of the walls and are also provided with similar curved niches. The octagonal drum transitions into a hexadecagon, followed by a thirty-two-sided polygon by the provisions of small struts. Each face of the hexadecagon is provided with shallow niches, while the thirty-two-sided polygon is described by a projecting band of red sandstone, followed by a band of inscriptions finally topped by the hemispherical dome. The dome is finished in plain plaster. The voussoirs of the arches, the pendentives and the tympanum are all covered by intricate stucco Arabic inscriptions. The central dome is relatively higher that the other two domes.
The northern and southern walls of the mosque are punctured by ogee arch doorways below the springline of the main arch. Each opening leads to a projecting balcony, comprising of red sandstone posts supporting a tiered roof. The balconies protrude out from the façade and are supported on red sandstone brackets, whose profiles and carvings are characteristic of Hindu architecture. An elaborately carved arched niche is provided above each opening on the interior wall. It is set into a rectangular frame embossed with Arabic text.
The plasterwork on the external northern and southern walls of the mosque has fallen off, exposing the stone masonry, while that on the western wall has survived. The central bay of the western wall projects out and is marked by two solid towers at the corners. These towers are divided vertically into four layers; the first two layers from the bottom are orthogonal, while the third layer has alternating curved and angular fluting; the top layer, extending over the parapet of the mosque, has a circular section. The corners of the mosque are marked by similar tapering towers, which are divided into four layers. Each layer is circular in plan except the third layer, which is described by alternating curved and angular fluting. All the towers have the remains of finials at their apex. The central projecting wall has four red sandstone brackets in its upper third portion, which may have supported a projecting balcony similar to those on the north and south elevations.
The plasterwork on the walls of the plinth is now gone, exposing the rubble masonry construction below. The western face of the plinth is punctured by five ogee arch openings set into rectangular frames, one in the center and two each on the sides. These openings provide access to the basement within the plinth.
The roof has three domes corresponding to the three central bays of the prayer hall and the three central arches on the eastern elevation. The extrados of the domes are finished in plaster. The octagonal drums supporting the domes protrude out over the roof level, above which the circular bases of the domes are decorated with blind crestings having floral motifs. The central dome is marginally larger than the adjacent domes and all three have the remains of lotus finials at their apex.
Square in plan, the Bara Gumbad measures approx. 20 meters per side. Set on a plinth 3 meters high, it joins the common plinth on the north and projects beyond it to the south. Its plinth is decorated on the east, south, and west with ogee arch openings set into rectangular frames. These provide access to a basement.The walls of the Bara Gumbad are approx. 12 meters tall, above which a hemispherical dome on a hexadecagonal drum extends another 14 meters from the roof level, for a total building height of 29 meters above ground level.
Each of its elevations is nearly identical and divided into 2 horizontal sections. A projecting portal composed of an ogee arch set in a rectangular frame (approx. 8 meters wide), is centered in each elevation and rises approximately 75 cm above the parapet line of the building. The 1.5 meter wide frame is made of dressed gray granite. Each vertical pier of the frame has six shallow red sandstone niches arranged atop one another at varying heights; nine niches continue in a line along the horizontal portion of the frame. The portal is described by two receding planes of grey granite ogee arches; the spandrels are cased with black granite with a thin projecting edge of red sandstone. Two round plaster medallions adorn the spandrels. The lower layer of the portal has a central doorway, spanned by two red sandstone brackets that form a trabeated arch supporting a black granite lintel. These brackets are supported on grey granite posts. An intricately carved red sandstone frame adorns the brackets and the lintel; it starts at the springing point of the arch and frames the lintel of the doorway. The entire composition is set in a rectangular yellow sandstone frame. An ogee arch window has been provided above the trabeated entrance. The portal is crowned by the arched crenellations of the blind parapet. Solid turrets mark the projecting corners of the portal.
The remainder of the elevation, that flanking the central portal on either side and recessed behind it, is divided vertically into two equivalent parts by projecting horizontal bands of stone. Each part is described by two equal arched panels set into rectangular frames. Both the panels of the upper part on either side of the portal are blind and filled with granite masonry. The lower panels located adjacent to the portal are windows, while the lower panels at the edges are filled in. The parapet, like the portal, is decorated with arched crenellations, and the roof has solid turrets at each corner.
A single hemispherical dome surmounted on a sixteen-sided drum crowns the building. Each face of the drum is described by an ogee arched niche set in a rectangular frame. The voussoirs of the arches are gray granite, while the spandrels are clad with red sandstone. The top edge of the drum is decorated with a band of arched crenellations, similar to those on the roof parapets, running above a projecting band of stone that surrounds the drum. Below this projection is band of leaves carved in relief. The extrados of the dome are finished in smooth plaster. The lotus base, possibly for a vanished calyx finial, is still extant.
The structure can be entered either from the raised courtyard via the north elevation or from a double flight of steps located on the western elevation. Inside, the square building measures about seven meters per side. An 80 cm high, 45 cm wide solid seat runs continuously along the interior perimeter of the building. Light streams in from all four walls, which are punctured by the openings of the doorway at the ground level and the ogee arch window above. The interior surfaces of the Gumbad are unornamented and finished in dressed granite. The square plan of the room transitions into an octagon via squinches, which then support the thirty-two-sided drum and the dome. The apex of the dome has two bands of floral inscriptions; otherwise, the dome is finished in plaster. The absence of historical inscriptions has contributed to the confusion over the original purpose of the Bara Gumbad.
The third structure in the group is rectangular in plan, measuring about 27 meters (north-south) by 7 seven meters (east-west). Located along the eastern edge of the common plinth, it faces the mosque and is connected to the Bara Gumbad by a masonry wall along its northern face. The structure is believed to have either been a mehman khana, (guesthouse) or a majlis khana (assembly hall).
The building is accessed from the common plinth through its western wall, which is divided into five bays, mirroring the eastern elevation of the mosque opposite it. The three central bays are considerably larger and have ogee arch doorways, giving access to the interior, while windows puncture the smaller end bays. The arches are set in rectangular frames, which are recessed from the face of the elevation. Each opening is composed of two recessed planes of arches. The spandrels are clad in red sandstone, contrasting with the gray granite of the elevation, and are decorated with round plaster medallions with lotus motifs. The window openings have an additional tie beam or lintel at the springline. The tympanum of the window towards the south has been filled with stone, while that of the window towards the north has been left open. A continuous chajja, supported on equidistant stone brackets, projects from the western wall above the rectangular frame. The cornice is unornamented and is topped by the projecting horizontal band of the parapet, which reaches a height of approximately five meters from the top of the raised plinth. The roof of the structure is flat. The exterior of the building lacks decoration and is finished in dressed granite.
The interior is divided into seven chambers occurring from north to south; the central chamber is the largest, measuring about 5 meters (north-south) long. It is abutted by relatively narrow chambers (approx. 2.5 meters long). The outside chambers which flank the 2.5 meter wide chambers on either side are approximately the size of the central chamber, and correspond to the arched openings in the western wall. The chambers are separated from each other by gray granite walls, punctured by simple ogee arched doorways set in rectangular frames. Square in plan, the outer rooms are separated from the adjacent chambers by stone walls with rectangular door openings with blind ogee arches and rectangular frames. Each doorway has shallow rectangular recesses on either side, as well as a small arched window set into a rectangular recess and a stone jali screen set above the doorway within the tympanum of the main arch. The eastern wall of the building has blind ogee arches, occurring as two successive planes, reflecting the arched openings of the western elevation.
The roof of the central chamber is flat and supported on arches located on four sides; flat stone brackets appear at the corners. The two adjacent rooms are covered by shallow domes supported on squinches. The interior domes are finished in plaster with carved concave fluting. The exterior of the domes has been filled to blend with the flat roof of the central room.
Certain stylistic continuities are recognizable in the three buildings; each was constructed with (local) gray granite and lime mortar. However, the degree and type of embellishment, both interior and exterior, on the mosque differs substantially from that found on the other two, relatively unadorned, buildings.
Apart from the grouping of the three structures and their stylistic similarities, the buildings do not appear to have been planned as a complex. The Friday mosque is the first example of the panchmukhi building type, where "panch" (five) and "mukhi " (facade) characterize a five-bay prayer hall. This approach was influential in both the Lodi and the Mughal periods. The Bara Gumbad is significant for having the first complete hemispherical dome in Delhi.
The differences in the surface ornament of the buildings suggest that the buildings were constructed at different times, with the Bara Gumbad and the guesthouse being similar in style and decoration, without the multilayered arches of the Friday mosque. The function of the Bara Gumbad is still unknown; its geometry and form aligns with the predominant tomb architecture of the period (like the neighboring Shish Gumbad). However, there is no grave or cenotaph in the building, and rather than being blank, its qibla wall (like its other walls) is punctured by an entrance. While the continuous stone bench in the interior is also found in gateway architecture, (as in the Alai Darwaza at the Quwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Mehrauli), the size of the Bara Gumbad vis-a-vis the Friday mosque does not support this conjecture. Some scholars surmise that the structure might have been a gateway to the larger complex of tombs within the Lodi Gardens.
Alfieri, Bianca Maria. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London; New York: Laurence King Publishing, 2000. 53-55.
Asher, Catherine. The New Cambridge History of India: Architecture of Mughal India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 11-13.
Merklinger, Elizabeth Schotten. Sultanate Architecture of Pre-Mughal India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005. 48-49.
Nath, R. History of Sultanate Architecture. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. 108-113.
Peck, Lucy. Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building. New Delhi: Lotus Collection, 2005. 124-125.
Sirajul Islam, Muhammad. The Lodi Phase of Indo-Islamic Architecture (1451 to 1526 A.D.). (Ph.D. diss.) Freie Universitat, Berlin, 1960.
Tillotson, G.H.R. Mughal India. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1990. 39.
Williams, John A. and Caroline. Architecture of Muslim India: The Sayyids and the Lodis, 1414-1526. Santa Barbara, California: Visual Education, Inc., 1980.