Humayun's Tomb, the Mughal Mausoleum That Changed India’s Architecture
Mughal Emperor Humayun ruled over vast territory in Asia from 1530 until he was ousted in 1540. With the aid of the Safavid, the ruling Persian dynasty, he regained his lands in 1556. Humayun was said to be a kind man, devoted to his wife and son, and well-liked by his people. In 1556, at the age of 49, Humayun slipped on the polished steps of his palace and died.
Situated in Delhi, the site of his tomb was chosen to be near the shrine of the 14 th century Sufi Saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Since it was considered auspicious to be buried near a saint’s grave, seven centuries of tomb building here has led to the title of ‘necropolis of the Mughal dynasty’. The garden was gradually filled with the tombs of Humayun’s descendants, his entourage, as well as numerous subsequent Mughals. No tomb contains such a high number of tombs of the Mughal emperors and their relatives.
Humayun's tomb was commissioned by his first wife and chief consort. Empress Bega Begum, herself a Persian, was known as a wise, well-educated woman. Her grief was so great that she dedicated her time to constructing a memorial to her husband and was buried in the tomb complex when she died. This magnificent mausoleum inspired the Taj Mahal.
Humayun’s Magnificent Tomb and Gardens
Bega Begum appointed the Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas and brought him from Herat. Construction was completed in 1572 at the cost of 1.5 million rupees, paid for entirely by the empress. She supervised the construction while Persian and Indian craftsmen worked on the opulent garden-tomb.
Humayun’s tomb is culturally significant as it was the first of its kind on the Indian subcontinent. Although Humayun’s father was the first emperor to start the tradition of being buried in a paradise garden, Babur’s mausoleum in Afghanistan is fairly modest.
Decorative detail of the Taj Mahal with pietra dura and marble design (insalateammodo / Adobe Stock)
When North India was under Mughal rule, important innovations were made, including creating a char-bagh – a paradise garden described in the Quran. The architectural elements that developed incorporated both Persian and Indian traditions and their influence can be seen in the arched alcoves, corridors, and the high double dome. Humayun’s mausoleum, a perfectly symmetrical octagonal structure, stands on a 7-meter-high terraced platform. The white marble double dome at 42.5 m high creates a striking contrast to the red sandstone cladding of the walls.
A legacy of the Indo-Islamic architecture, pietra dura, (marble and stone inlay technique) can be seen all around the façade. This form of decoration flourished in later mausolea of the Mughal Empire, including the Taj Mahal.
Beneath the white dome in the central burial chamber, a single cenotaph demarcates the grave of Humayun. Humayun’s real burial chamber, however, lies beneath the cenotaph and is closed to the public. Light enters the chamber from the direction of Mecca.
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Humayun’s cenotaph beneath the dome (travelview / Adobe Stock)
Eight smaller chambers branch out from the main chamber. The floor plan is repeated on the second level. In total the structure contains 124 spaces which contain the memorials of Mughal royal family members and nobility.
Humayun’s tomb is surrounded by a 27-hectare garden complex. Flowing water was an essential element of the Mughal char-bagh garden design and incorporated into the gardens. This Persian landscaping style consists of four rivers representing milk, honey, water and wine. Channels of water divided the site into four squares. These were further divided by pathways into smaller squares, creating 36 squares in all, typical of later Mughal gardens. The central water channels disappear beneath the tomb structure and reappear on the other side, taking inspiration from the Quranic verse which talks of rivers flowing beneath the 'Garden of Paradise'. The trees provided shade, produced fruits, and nurtured birds.
The Decline of Humayun’s Tomb
In 1556 the capital moved to Agra and the monument gradually declined as the expensive upkeep of the garden proved impossible. By the early 18th century, the once lush gardens were planted with vegetables by the people who had settled within the walled area. The capture of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to worse days ahead as the British took over and replanted the garden in a more English style, with circular beds. In 1882, an official curator published a report which mentioned that the main garden was let out to various people, including royal descendants, who had planted cabbage and tobacco.
Isa Khan Tomb in the Humayun's complex in Delhi, India (AlexAnton / Adobe Stock)
By the early 20th century the original gardens were restored, but unfortunately, in vain. In 1947, during the Partition of India, the Purana Qila, the oldest fort in Delhi, and Humayun's Tomb, became a refugee camps for Muslims migrating to the newly founded Pakistan. These overcrowded camps stayed open for about five years and caused considerable damage to the gardens, water channels, and the principal structures.
In the coming years, the Archaeological Survey of India took on responsibility for the tomb, and gradually restored the building and gardens. In 1993 the monument was declared a World Heritage Site and restoration has been a continued ever since.
A small fee is charged to view this tomb complex and as the site is popular, it is best to book tickets online in advance.
Top image: Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi Source: jura-taranik / Adobe Stock
Delhi Tourism. 2016. Humayun’s Tomb. Official Tourist website.
The Hindu, 2007. Humayun's Tomb faces twin threats. [Online]
Available at: http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-newdelhi/article1855667.ece
UNESCO, 2015. Humayun's Tomb, Delhi. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/232