While many might have driven past it on numerous occasions, very few know about its existence. At the intersection of Delhi’s busiest routes, Mathura Road and Lodi Road, stands a monument at the roundabout, with Humayun’s tomb and Sunder Nursery on one side, the tomb of Rahim on one, the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya at one, and home to the city’s lost monuments, Delhi Golf Club at one side. People mostly happen to know about a lot of structures surrounding the Sabz Burj, but its very own history and art have been lost until it got some attention when the Aga Khan Trust for culture started a restoration project. My introduction to this structure was done years back by an old friend who is known by the name Mama-Jaan by everyone younger than him. His name is Shakil, and he works for the Aga Khan Trust. I met him at the Nizamuddin Dargah and ever since he has been showing me monuments all around Nizamuddin Basti.
Sabz Burj has changed over time, and with the city’s ever-changing landscape, there are many differences between what the tomb was originally built as, and what it is now. We do not know who built this structure, but we do know that it was built in the 1530s as a mausoleum. Often connected with the onset of the Mughal rule, scholars note it to be an example of Timurid architecture. Today when we see the structure, one would notice the glazed turquoise blue tiles on the dome, which were originally green in colour. Due to the green tiles, it was named ‘Sabz Burj’ as sabz means green. It has also been referred to by the name ‘Sabz Posh’ which means a green top, and even Nili Chatri, which was the name of another monument that doesn’t exist now; of Akbar’s nobleman Naubat Khan. The original green tiles of the structure can still be spotted if one looks closely towards the lotus finial on top of the dome.
Drawing lines with Timurid architecture, there is something common between the Humayun’s Tomb and Sabz Burj; both have double domes, which were perfectly made for the first time by the Mughals in the subcontinent, and both are built on the lines of ‘musamman Baghdadi’ or better known as a chamfered octagon. The Sabz Burj is an octagonal structure and similar trends can be seen at the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s tomb according to Art Historian Catherine Asher.
In the early 20th century, when the British had taken over, Sabz Burj was used as a Police Station, and most of the painted interiors of the structure were plastered with cement. Most of the intricate work done was lost and in the 1980s when the plaster had fallen off, inappropriate repairs were done to it, by fixing it with modern tiles and mortar, instead of taking the advice of art historians and restoring it properly. This made everything worse for Sabz Burj, and slowly it was turned into a roadside ruin until recently when Aga Khan stepped in. During recent work on the monument, painted ceilings with floral motifs and patterns created in real gold and lapis lazuli were found by art conservators. The indication of gold and lapis lazuli on the ceilings tells us that this structure was probably built as a mausoleum for someone from the high ranks. The grave does not exist now as it was demolished by the British.
Today, the Sabz Burj has been restored, even though not to its original glory, but one can not refer it as a roadside ruin. During the dark hours, the structure lights up, illuminating the ever-busy intersection which attracts over 6 million passersby annually, who witness the grandeur of the monument. The Sabz Burj is a junction, acting as a testament to the cultural and historic importance of the city, and a gateway to the historic district of Delhi, Nizamuddin Basti.