Sarkhej Roza, the Living Monument

in Overview
Published on: 10 July 2018

Sharmishtha Agarwal

Sharmishtha Agarwal is an architect, who graduated from the Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Gurgaon in 2014. Since then, she has been working on various residential, housing, landscape and institutional projects. She worked as a research associate on the book ‘Celebrating Public Spaces of India’ which was published in October 2016. Her interests lie in work related to research, cultural development and architecture design.

Sarkhej Roza is one of the most original architectural complexes of Ahmedabad and Gujarat. It is an example of the early Islamic culture of the region, fusing Islamic stylistic influences from Persia with Hindu and Jain architectural features to form what is known as the ‘Indo-Saracenic’ style of architecture. It is one of the largest historic complexes of monuments located 8 km outside Ahmedabad and can be now approached through the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway. The monument complex is unique in more ways than one, as till today both Hindu and Muslim communities living in the nearby areas visit the dargah of Sheikh Ahmad Ganj Baksh Khattu. The extent of the campus of Sarkhej Roza is 32 acres with the Ahmed Sar Lake itself being 17 acres.


At the time of Ahmedabad's founding, Sarkhej was primarily inhabited by indigo dyers and weavers. Sarkhej became renowned when Sheikh Ahmed Khattu, the much revered Sufi saint, settled there. Sheikh Ahmed Khattu was an advisor to Sultan Ahmad Shah, who founded Ahmedabad and belonged to the Muzaffarid dynasty. Sheikh Ahmed Khattu lived to the age of 111 and upon his death in 1445 CE, the then ruling king Muhammad Shah called for the construction of a mausoleum (roza) along with a mosque to commemorate him. These two monuments were completed in 1451 CE by his successor Qutb’ud-din Ahmed Shah. In the latter half of the 15th century, Sultan Mehmud Begada added to the grandeur of the complex by constructing a 17-acre large lake with stone steps leading to it on the sides. A number of small pavilions along with a mosque, a supply sluice gate, and king’s and queen’s palaces were added to the south and west corners. This led to Sarkhej becoming a place for leisure and meditation and a summer retreat for the royal family. A mausoleum was built right opposite Sheikh Ahmed Khattu's dargah for Mehmud Begada and his family, where his son Muzaffar II and wife Rajabai were buried eventually.


The last set of additions to the complex, a country house and a garden, was made in 1584 CE to mark the event when Muzaffar III, the then ruler, was defeated by the Mughal army led by Akbar. This makes the complex an important remembrance in the socio-political history of Gujarat, primarily Ahmedabad. 


Conceived as the ‘khanqah’ (a place for spiritual retreat) of the saint, the Roza complex was built in many phases and was eventually completed by Mehmud Begada. It is an appropriate example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, where Hindu techniques of construction were infused with the Islamic sense of scale and geometry. A sandstone trabeated structural system with corbelled domes and non-structural arched panels as infills testify to its stylization by Hindu craftsmen, while the proclivity for square geometry and rectilinear structural grid, floral or geometric patterns as filigree remain the consequence of Islamic aesthetic traditions. The eventual fusion and spatial organization remain very Indian.


The campus can be schematically explained in three perceptive worlds—the first, being the royal realm, includes the king’s and queen’s palaces and the water tank; the second, comprising the tombs of saint, kings and queens, characterises the social realm; and the third and innermost being the sacred realm, which includes the liwan (mosque space) to its west and the colonnaded riwaq (an arcade open on at least one side) on the other three sides retaining a rectangular sahak (courtyard) in the middle. These three apparent worlds mutually coexist in the same premises with each having its own set of activities and ambience. The built fabric on the northern edge of the tank, including the summer pavilions of the king and the queen, give the tank a sense of volume and containment. The lake is harvested by natural rainwater, providing a cooling effect and offering scenic views.


Although these three distinct worlds exist entirely on their own, at a larger level, they complement each other. The projecting jharokhas (balconies) and openings in a continuous long wall along the tank while holding the water edge creates a streetscape as a familiar backdrop and a reminder of the city’s skylines with domes and their silhouettes. The facade, which appears to be continuous when viewed from the lakeside, entails different spaces on the inside performing a very different function. This can be seen in the wall which is a perforated stone jali (a perforated screen) in the king’s tomb, which, in the mosque, acts as a liwan. A similar example can be seen in the eastern wall of the mosque which contains the void of the forecourt in the tomb area. The dome, which is monolithic and the largest on the campus, acts as a perceptual centre, which brings together the three worlds, itself acting as the point of reference. The use of courtyards and dual-edged built interfaces has facilitated in achieving the high quality of spaces in Sarkhej. The principle of organization played a vital role in facilitating the expansion and growth of the complex at various stages. After the expansion, each phase continued to function cohesively as an independent entity and at the same time honoured the sanctity of the whole.


Sarkhej is primarily a structure of Islamic faith, which is reflected in the principles of the architecture of the complex. It abides by the canons of the religion, the most prominent one is seen in the geometry and symmetry of the complex. Independent structures have been conceptualized on the basis of the different combinations achieved on the rotation of the square plan form and are symmetrical along their own central axis. Since representation of living beings is prohibited in Islam, the ornamentation is primarily in the form of square jalis carved in floral and geometric patterns. In the mosque, surrounded by the riwaq on three sides, the emphasis is achieved on the fourth side, physically and objectively as the axis to God, by the thickened wall mass of the liwan, the pronounced domes over them and particularly the small recess of the mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque, pointing towards the qibla, the direction of God or Mecca).


The monuments at Sarkhej Roza complex can be best understood if divided into the following groups:

  1. Entry
  2. Baradari
  3. Dargah
  4. Jama Masjid
  5. Lake
  6. Tombs of queens, which currently is being used as the museum and the administrative office
  7. Tombs of the kings


The first group of monuments is located in the central courtyard. The central courtyard has recently become the venue for conducting cultural programmes.


The second group of monuments is located at the periphery of the lake:

  1. Qalandari Masjid
  2. Tomb of Habshi noblemen
  3. Unknown monuments
  4. Palaces
  5. Tomb of Ghizhali Mash-hadi, court poet of Akbar
  6. Sluice gates


The third group:

  1. Tomb of Ghiasuddin Ali Kazwini
  2. Prayer chambers of the saint


Buildings in the Monument Complex




On entering the central courtyard from the entrance, a neem tree with dense foliage can be seen pointing towards the right to a high pillared structure, the Baradari. Located in the centre, in direct line of the axis of the dargah, the Baradari is a 16-pillared structure upholding nine domes and a flooring of colored stones. It has undergone a stage of restoration by the Archaeological Survey of India, as it faced massive destruction during the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. Baradari is the highest structure in the complex and its central location right across the dargah is an indication of the saint occupying the highest place. There is a flight of steps leading to the dargah on the white-marked pathway between the Baradari and the Wazzoo Khana (water body for ablutions). The colonnade, arrested by the protruding pavilion, defines a suction space, a node and a clue for movement towards the royal tomb.  The colonnade provides a transition from the outdoors, inviting into the royal tombs, a framed view of the colonnaded pavilion as a pivot relaying further movement towards the saint’s tomb.


Dargah of Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Bakshkhattu


This dargah is the largest of its kind in Gujarat with each side measuring up to 105 feet. A large central dome makes the roof of the dargah with a peepal leaf at the highest point of the dome. A peepal leaf was used as an emblem by the kings of the Sultanate Dynasty. A verse in Persian is written on the marble over the main entrance to the mausoleum, which reads:


When the ocean of Ahmed’s palm pours forth its pearls,

The skirt of hopes, becomes the treasure of Parvis:

No wonder, if in order to bend before his shrine,

The whole surface of the earth raises its head.


Brass perforated screens surround the sanctum sanctorum, which is the resting place of the saint. Trellis windows of perforated stone works in multifarious designs adorn the walls of the dargah. Many small tombs seen within the dargah premises are believed to be of the saint’s followers or disciples. The spiritual heir of the saint, Sheikh Salahuddin, is buried near the entrance to the right. Situated 30 feet away from the spacious compound of the dargah at the southwest corner is the Jama Masjid.


The Jama Masjid


Constructed alongside the mausoleum of the saint, the mosque is a simple pillared hall with domes of uniform height and no arches and minarets. From the style of architecture, it can be deduced that the masons and sculptors would have been of local origin and had not yet imbibed the nuances of the Islamic features of architecture such as arches and minarets, which were seen in buildings built later.


The masjid has been built in a total area of 4,300 square yards with an open court in the middle flanked with corridors on three sides. There are rainwater harvesting structures on its right side, where rainwater was collected and stored under the floor of the masjid to be used during summer months when there was no availability of water. The primary entrance to the masjid is on the east with another opening in the south into the Wazoo Khana. This entrance is used by the members of the royal family to access the special apartment for them, in the shape of a loft. Even today, the masjid remains a living mosque, which sees full assemblies on Fridays and festive occasions.


The Lake


Built by one of the greatest kings of the Sultanate Dynasty, Sultan Mehmud Begada, the lake was named Ahmed Sar by him, after his grandfather, Sultan Ahmed Shah. The lake occupies 17 acres with palaces on its southern and western banks. Three ducts of the sluice gates connect the Ahmed Sar lake to the Makarba lake. This rectilinear man-made lake has ghat-like stone steps and platforms on three sides and the mosque and tomb walls on the fourth.


The main source of water supply for the lake is the overflow of water from the Singarva Talaav, also known as Makarba Talaav. Although it’s a man-made lake, it was linked to a natural system of waterbody interlinking that was based on the topography and contouring of the land. It is also believed that Makarba lake also received an overflow of water from lakes in Pantij and Saltej, which are villages near Ahmedabad. However, at present, the lake often dries up, which could be a threat to the monument.


Sluice Gates


The sluice gates are the entry points for the overflow of water from the Makarba lake into the Ahmed Sar lake. The gates and the adjoining half minarets are symbols of the celebration of water. The sluice gates are an engineering marvel as they allow for water filtration without the use of electricity. The water overflows through a jali wall into an open courtyard, which also has two spiral staircases on each side for the purpose of maintenance. Long and tall grasses were grown in this courtyard for filtering the physical impurities in the water. It was only after being filtered in this courtyard that the water was allowed to flow into the main lake from the courtyard.


The Royal Tombs (Queens)


Three queens are said to be buried in this dedicated space built for the queens. The only identified queen is Queen Rajabai, wife of Muzaffar Shah II. This complex, however, is now being used as the office of the Sarkhej Roza Committee and also as a museum and library. This committee is mainly responsible for managing the administration of the religious complex, taking care of its welfare and also of the facilities that need to be provided to the visitors, who come to offer prayers and perform rituals.


A museum, set up for the interest of visitors to the complex, displays artefacts from the Sultanate Dynasty. Two cloth pieces embroidered with choir thread, which were presented to Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Baksh by the Caliph on his visit to Mecca are also displayed. There are also old coins that were in use during the rule of the Sultanate and hand-written copies of the Quran on display.


Bilingual panels detailing the history of Sarkhej are displayed on the walls for the visitors. A library is also gradually being built up for readers interested in studying the history of Sarkhej.


The Royal Tombs (Kings)


Some of the important kings of the Sultanate Dynasty are buried here at Sarkhej:

  • Sultan Mehmud Begada (1458‒1511)
  • Sultan Muzaffar Shah II (1513‒26), son and direct heir of Sultan Mehmud Begada
  • Sultan Mahmud III (1536‒54), grandson of Sultan Muzaffar Shah II


The rest of the kings from the Sultanate Dynasty are buried in Raja ka Hajira in Patan, the capital of Gujarat before Ahmedabad. The entry to the tomb of Sultan Mehmud Begada is to the left as soon as one enters the Roza complex. The walls on the outer periphery of this tomb are adorned with intricately carved jalis. An interesting mosaic pattern is seen on the floor when there is a play of light on the jalis.


The separation between the kings' and queens' tombs is in the form of a patio-type space, which directly opens out into the central courtyard. There is a flight of stairs from here providing direct access to the lake. The patio is often used for holding small gatherings and music performances.


The Qalandari Masjid


Situated on the western banks of the lake, the Qalandari Masjid is a short distance away from the main gate of the dargah of Sheikh Ahmed Ganj Baksh Khattu. Maulana Meer Abul Qasim, the mutawvali (manager) of the wakf was responsible for building the mosque.


Maulana Meer Abul Qasim was a learned man, well-versed in religious and rational science. He became a part of the saint’s establishment as the leader of prayer (imam) before being admitted in the saint’s circle of disciples. He continued to stay with the saint for the next three decades until his death in 1447. He has to his credit many vital pieces of literature from that period, the most important being the text Mirqat-Ul-Wasul, an account of the saint’s life and his teachings.


The Palaces


Added at a later stage by Sultan Mehmud Begada, the king’s and queen’s palaces are situated on the south-western banks of the lake. Built as the summer palace of the royals, both the palaces add to the splendour and grandeur of the Roza complex. They were strategically placed to fall in the direction of the cool breeze. A large arched pathway sloping down to the lake is known as the Haathi Khaana. The king’s elephants and horses often used this path to come down to drink water. There was direct access to the lake from the king’s palace through a staircase which has now been closed down by the ASI. The palace also housed a personal mosque for the king. Many brick structures in the vicinity of the palace are assumed to be the quarters of the soldiers and attendants to the king and his queens during his six-month stay at Sarkhej.


The king’s palace has now become a popular venue for hosting cultural programmes as it offers a magnificent open space for such occasions.


Tombs of Ghizhali Mash-hadi and Qasim Arsalan


Positioned beside the queen’s palace, these tombs have a direct view of the Sheikh Ahmed Khattu’s tomb on the west-facing banks. They open towards the sky and do not have any ornamentation. These structures are are not as popular since their location on the complex is such that they are not directly visible to the public.


Ghizhali Mash-hadi was a courtier of Emperor Akbar and one of the most renowned poets of his times. He died while on one of the conquests of Ahmedabad of the Mughal army and was thus buried in the precincts of Sarkhej. Qasim Arsalan was also a well-known Persian poet, chronogram writer, and calligrapher. He wrote Persian chronograms at the time of the deaths of Akbar’s chief-of-armyBehram Khanand Ghizhali Mash-hadi, who died in 1572. Qasim Arsalan belonged to Tous in Iran and had come to India during the reign of Akbar. After his death in 1586 at Ahmedabad, he was buried next to the tomb of Ghizhali Mashadi.


Khwaja Ghiasuddin Ali Asaf Khan Qazwini


Qazwini was a loyal noble and adept general in the court of the Mughal king Akbar. He won accolades in the Gujarat region when he fought the mutiny wherein Muhammad Koka (Akbar's foster brother) had been attacked in Ahmedabad. For this reason, he was honoured with the title of ‘Asaf Khan’ and graduated to the post of the bakhshi (administrator) of the province of Ahmedabad. Said to be related to queen Nur Jahan’s mother, it was the Mughal kings’ patronage for art and literature that drove talented people such as Qazwini to India. His prominence is illustrated from the positioning and dignified scale of his grave right behind Sheikh Ahmed Khattu's dargah. The grave is a modest brick structure without any ornamentation.


The Tomb of Siddi (Habshi) Noblemen


Before Akbar’s conquest of Gujarat, two Habshi noblemen ruled here for 25 years. People of African descent were referred to as ‘Habshi’, many of whom were brought as slaves by sultans of Gujarat. However, their allegiance and prowess in the battlefield led to the rise in their stature in court. There are four of these noblemen buried in this structure, located on the banks of the lake. The rule of the Sultanate Dynasty ended with the rule of Bahadur Shah, after which the state of Gujarat was divided by the nobles between themselves.


The Prayer Chamber


This is one of the oldest structures on the campus and was used by Sheikh Ahmed Khattu to offer prayers in seclusion. It is a small underground structure.