Lodi Road, located in the heart of New Delhi, India, is approximately six (6) km long and in its proximity, there are several historical buildings constructed during the Islamic reign over India. Two iconic mausoleums lie at either end of this road, namely Humayun’s Tomb towards the east and Safdarjung’s Tomb towards the west. In between, is the sprawling Lodi Garden which contains the tomb of Sikander Lodi and other monuments belonging to his era. This splendid complex is also Delhi’s favourite park utilised by walkers, joggers, photographers, and people looking to spend some quiet time close to nature.
However, the jewel in the crown is Humayun’s Tomb – one of three UNESCO heritage sites in Delhi. It has been splendidly restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
Who is Humayun?
Humayun (1508- 1556) was the eldest son of Babur (1483-1530), a Timur descendant who established the Mughal empire in India (1526 – 1857) after defeating Ibrahim Khan Lodi in 1526. After Babur’s death in 1530, Humayun ascended the throne. Despite his early success, he faced defeat at the hands of an Afghan nobleman, Sher Shah in 1540 and went into exile for 16 years. Though not lacking in personal courage, he was not as astute a commander as Babur or his son, Akbar. In July 1555, he returned to India to re-establish the Mughal Empire, aided by his General, Bairam Khan.
Unfortunately, he was not able to enjoy his success for long. On the night of January 24, 1556, he tripped on his fur robes and fell down the stone stairs of his library in Sher Mandal, a monument inside what is now called Purana Qila (Old Fort) – a new city he had started to build in Delhi[K5] . He died three days later, just six months after regaining his throne. With Humayun’s sudden death, the empire suddenly seemed vulnerable as his successor, Akbar was only 13. He was initially buried in Purana Qila and his body was then moved to Sirhind, Punjab (250 km from Delhi). Once the situation was brought into control, it is believed that construction started for his final resting place in Delhi sometime in the 1560s and was completed in 1565.
A large area with religious significance was selected next to the River Yamuna for what would become the first major mausoleum for a Mughal King. The river’s proximity was important for access and creating a pleasant micro-climate around the monument. The site was close to Purana Qila and the shrine of the famous 13th century Sufi Saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. It was considered as a blessing to be buried close to a Sufi Saint.
The mausoleum was not planned just as a grave for Humayun, but as a family cenotaph and contains around 150 Mughal graves. Barring Humayun’s three immediate successors, most of the later Mughal emperors, their families and attendants were buried in this complex. However, as the graves were not inscribed, hence individual identification is not possible.
The architect who worked on the tomb was a Persian named Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, who had returned to India with Humayun. His previous work was extensively in Herat and Bukhara. The main patron of this unprecedented mausoleum was the most senior of Humayun’s wives, Bega Begum, who was also a Timurid cousin of Humayun. She remained at the site of the construction where the sandstone and marble were brought in from quarries in Agra and Rajasthan, and a Persian vision was brought to fruition by Indian craftsmen.
Humayun’s Tomb is located in the centre of a huge garden, occupying the central four squares in a 6×6 grid. These divisions are marked with walkways, each of which consists of narrow water channels leading to small pools located at intersections. These channels were fed through a water well. The Mughals preferred to locate the tombs in a garden based on the Islamic concept of paradise – the Persian word for paradise means ‘walled garden’. Babur, the first Mughal King built many innovative gardens and the layout for gardens, as described in his memoirs, set the design for all future gardens built by Mughals. The basic design known as Charbagh or ‘four-folded garden’ has remained the same. The entire tomb including the garden, is enclosed by a wall through which one can enter through two gates – the now closed south gate facing the river Yamuna, and the west gate which stands on a podium and is now used as a visitors’ entrance.
The first sight of Humayun’s Tomb can be awe-inspiring considering that it was built 60 years before the spectacular and popular Taj Mahal. Though not high on ornamentation, the red-white contrast of the building material makes it stand out. The building itself stands on a platform which contains 17 arched openings on each of the 4 sides of the platform. These openings give access to smaller burial chambers. The four corners of the platforms were cut to match the corners of the above tomb. On each side, a central archway gives access to the tomb platform via steep steps. To the east of the southern stair, a horizontal passage leads to the actual tomb. The octagonal tomb is itself surrounded by smaller octagonal chambers and positioned diagonally. These smaller chambers house other tombs.
The octagonal central hall containing Humayun’s cenotaph, a marble block in the centre of the chamber (his actual tomb is located vertically below in the basement) is roofed by a double dome which is one of the most interesting aspects of this tomb. It was among the first structures in India to use a double dome, that is a dome composed of two shells, with a gap between each layer.
A favourite of Persian builders, this gives the building an imposing exterior height while keeping the central hall’s ceiling symmetrical with the interior heights. The dome was also the first major full dome to be seen in India, as earlier domes never completely traced a full-semi-circle. The outer bulbous dome is encased by marble with a majestic gold gilded copper finial resting at its top (of the dome). In 2014, during an unprecedented sand storm, the finial had fallen and a new one was painstakingly restored by the team consisting of ASI and AKTC engineers. The finials on Mughal tombs all over India also represent the pluralistic architectural traditions used by them in adopting elements from monuments pre-dating their arrival in India. Lotus bud-fringed arches reinforce the same. It is worth noting that the Humayun’s Tomb displays a more austere style of early Indo-Islamic architecture. This later led to a more ornate style with the maturity of Indo-Islamic architecture as characterised by the Taj Mahal.
There are also other Mughal-era historical monuments within Humayun’s Tomb complex. These include, but are not limited to, Barber’s Tomb, Nila Gumbad, Afsarwala Tomb and the Tomb and Mosque of Isa Khan. Each of these monuments has a story worth exploring. Make sure to visit the complex on your next visit to Delhi. A visit can easily last for 3 to 4 hours and the best time of the year to visit is from October to March.
1. Humayun’s Tomb – ASI World Heritage Series, Good Earth Publication
2.Delhi – A thousand Years of Buildings – Lucy Peck, Intach – Roli Publications
3. Akbar- The Great Mughal – Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Publishing
Pics courtesy: Pixabay