Paigah Tombs: A walk through the intricately carved, heritage 'Taj of the Deccan' site
The Paigah Tombs, a long-forgotten 230-year old royal mausoleum, is being restored so that the grandeur of its unique stucco ornamentation and jaali work can be celebrated once again
In a city which is brimming over with centuries-old monuments, the Paigah Tombs are a lost gem. Though they are merely four kilometers away from the famed Charminar, even the locals haven’t heard of them, which has resulted in most visiting tourists passing over this beautiful necropolis.
While the Qutb Shahi Tombs (the other more famous cemetery in Hyderabad) are a popular destination for tourists and have been given immense patronage by the Aga Khan Foundation for restoration, the Paigah Tombs, lost in byzantine alleys of the old city are a forgotten legacy, their architectural splendor notwithstanding.
Arresting the viewer right at the entrance with an arched gateway, called Naubat Khana, these tombs are a vintage oasis in the heart of the city. Though an air of desuetude is palpable, their old-world charm enhanced by the presence of ancient mango and badam trees will enthrall even the less inclined visitor.
The history of the Paigahs
The tombs are the private necropolis of the Paigah family. The Paigahs came to the Deccan along with Emperor Aurangzeb during his conquest of the region. The founder of the House of Paigah was Nawaz Abul Fatah Khan Tegh, also known as Shams-ul-Umra I. Because of their military training, their services were retained by the Nizams, cementing their place as senior aristocrats in the social hierarchy.
Paigah was a honorific title bestowed by the second Nizam of Hyderabad. It is a word of Persian origin which means pomp and rank — the family had both in equal measure. They were great builders, constructing some of Hyderabad’s most opulent mansions, including the Falaknuma and Basheerbagh palaces. Next only to the Nizams in rank, at one point, the Paigah jagir consisted of 23 taluks and 1,273 villages, covering an area of 4,134 square miles and boasting its own postage, police and courts. They further cemented their ties with the Nizams through marriage, and it was a common practice for the Paigah men to marry the daughters of the Nizam (except in one case, where one of the Nizam's sons married a Paigah woman).
The architecture and artisanship
The necropolis came into existence in 1786, with the death of the founder of the dynasty, Abul Fatah Khan. Then spread over 8 acres, the site was chosen due to its proximity to the dargah of the sufi saint Burhane Shah, who came to India from Iraq and was buried in an open enclosure in 1655. Known for his simplicity and ability to work miracles, he was much revered by the local populace. Because of the proximity to the dargah, many among the nobility wanted their family graveyards to be located next to the site. The second Nizam gave away the entire area for aristocratic families to have their maqbaras (graves), which lent it the name 'Riyasat Nagar'.
Haseeb Jafferi, a cultural curator whose family has its own necropolis in the area, says, “Around 10 families were allocated Bagh-o-maqbaras in the area. Each of them consisted of a mosque, tombs and a water body. Many laid out baghs or gardens, as they added tranquility to the surroundings.”
The Paigah Tombs consist of 28 graves, and while the crypts were kept as simple as possible, its rich architecture exudes grandeur. The rows of scalloped arches, towering minarets, stucco work, a now-defunct mosque which seems to preen at its own reflection in a small water body, and the wrought iron benches transport you into a century or two into the past. Deviating from traditional Islamic architecture, the roofs are embellished with stucco ornamentation in the shapes of fruits, drums, flowers and even vases and serpents.
Faiz Khan Paigah, an eighth generation descendant of the family, spoke about the rich history of the place. He says, “The architecture is unique as it is an amalgamation of eight diverse styles – French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Mughal, Rajput, Persian and Kakatiyan. No other place in the city boasts of so many influences. It’s a mammoth complex, matchless in its design.”
A walk through the tombs is like stepping through a looking glass into the past. The extensive jaali work on the walls and the unique floral stucco ornamentation are breathtaking. The jaali work is an example of a lost craftsmanship that can be best described as controlled chaos. It’s impossible to point out where the creepers end and the flowers start, when eight-pointed stars acquire a life of their own, and why layered motifs were chosen — all of which bedazzle the visitors with their calligraphy-like appearance. While there are nearly 80 jaalis, no two patterns are similar. Showcasing both masculine (mind) and feminine (matter) designs through geometric circles, stars, and foliage, they are intricate and impressive. Though broken in places, they are sentinels of the past, giving us a glimpse into the expertise prevalent at the time.
Rahmatullah, who has been the caretaker of the cemetery for 43 years, is voluble and eager to show the visitors around. He directs them to the more ornate tombs and suggests the best angles for pictures. A local legend, who once braved an attack from the neighborhood land mafia, he speaks speaks Urdu in an unhurried manner and shares, “The geometrical patterns here can be found nowhere in the world. Each part here is unique, due to the carvings etched on them, which compete with others to stand out. They have the potential to be a tourist destination like the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.”
Laid north to south and open to the sky, the tombs emulate the style of the mausoleum of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The tombstones are singular pieces of art, each embellished with colorful and intricate detailing. While some have chandeliers hung atop, others were, at one point in time, embedded with precious stones which changed colors with the season.
Faiz Khan adds, “The Paigahs donated generously to build gracious mausoleums of 21 sufi saints across India. Since they were patrons of art, their own tombs are done up majestically. They have a marble chowkandi (small pavilion) over the tombs, which was decorated with gems. In fact, the tombs of Khurshid Jah Paigah and his wife Hussian-Un-Nissa Begum were replicas of those made for Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan.”
Every tomb features something unique, and part of the wonder lies in discovering the differences. Most of them are enclosed by walls done up in exotic designs, rivaling the bejeweled graves they surround. Some tombs boast of stunning pietra dura inlay work on marble brought in from Makrana in Rajasthan (also used in the construction of Taj Mahal) while others are enclosed by ornate wooden doors made from teak and rosewood. There are also century-old natural sinks which divert the excess cleaning water to the gardens.
A sorry tale of neglect
How did a monument so old and culturally rich decay and remain hidden, even from the locals? Parts of the walls with jaali work are broken, the ceilings built from terracotta and limestone are caving in, and the mausoleum is constantly being encroached upon. In fact, some tombs are now separated from the others by more than half a kilometer due to a spate of illegal constructions which have sprung up.
Rahmatullah says that until 2009, there were families living inside the premises who were removed thanks to the effort of the then collector, Navin Mittal. While the ownership is with the Paigah family, the maintenance was transferred to the Department of Archeology in 1990. Walking inside gives one a taste of the contempt that modern India has for its rich history. Ancient minarets stand against the backdrop of ugly, modern cheek-by-jowl houses, domes are disfigured by electricity poles and some of the branching minarets have entire chunks missing.
The road to recovery
Relief to heritage enthusiasts comes in the form of news that as part of the Swadesh Darshan scheme of the Union Tourism Ministry, the Paigah Tombs have been included in a heritage circuit in Hyderabad and Rs 4.10 crore has been sanctioned to restore their grandeur. Artisans from Central Asia and Iran have visited the site for preliminary data collection and unconfirmed reports say that even the Aga Khan Foundation will be a partner in the restoration work.
The Paigah Tombs have a unique charm — they make the mundane magical. At first glance they may be dismissed as any another crumbling monumental remnant from the past, a walk during sunrise transforms the scene – the grass is viridian, the tranquil air heady, the ornate trellis flawless and the carved pillars turn from plebian to profound.
It is this beauty that lingers on, and needs to be conserved. To echo Rahmatullah’s words these tombs are “a great gift that should be passed down to generations.”
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