In the mystic alleys of Delhi (III) – Humayun’s Tomb

The Taj Mahal in Agra, a World Heritage site, was built by Shah Jahan (1628–58) as memorial to his wife Mumtaj Mahal. Perhaps not many of us are aware that almost a century prior to the construction of this magnificent opus, the widow of Emperor Humayun, Hamida Banu Begum (fondly known as Haji Begum) built an architectural marvel in the memory of her husband, which is believed to be the precursor of Taj Mahal. Standing on a platform of 12,000 square metres, which reaches a height of 47 metres, this edifice is known as Humayun’s Tomb and is located at Nizamuddin East in South Delhi, close to the Nizamuddin Railway Station and the Dargahs of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his beloved disciple, Hazrat Amir Khusrau. It is believed that the designers of Taj Mahal were inspired by the magnanimity of the Humayun’s Tomb. Imagine the common human impetus behind these two edifices – one erected by a devoted wife for her husband and the other by an equally or more devoted husband for his wife.


The Tomb

Though I have been to this rather under-promoted monument over half a dozen times before its restoration in 2003, last week having gone there along with Balbir Singh, my old friend from the college days, who is well versed with the history of the city and a couple of guests from England and being overwhelmed by the systematic revival of the gardens post restoration, I decided to write this post.

Since it was the first visit of our British friends to the tomb, Balbir suggested that it would be appropriate to tell them its brief history.

The word Mogul or Mughal was derived from the Arabic word for Mongol. Babar or Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in India was a descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Born in Ferghana,(now a part of Afghanistan) in 1483, Babur tried unsuccessfully to conquer Samarkand, the capital of Tamerlane. In 1505 he was forced to flee to Afghanistan, where he increased his band and became the master of Kabul.


Babur and Humayun (This rare picture has been taken from the internet. Grateful thanks to its publishers)

He assembled a large army and then laid a claim on Punjab, because Tamerlane had conquered it a century back. The seventeen year old Humayun accompanied his father and fought in the decisive battle of Panipat in 1525. Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodhi, the Sultan of Delhi, assumed the title of emperor and thus established the rule of the Mughals.

As per the tradition in those days, Humayun being the eldest son was given the responsibility of governing the remote province of Badakhshan, beyond the Hindu Kush. Not being very happy there and he wrote to his father about the difficulties he faced. Babur sternly replied him and reminded him of his duties as a king.

Humayun also did the mistake of rushing to Delhi upon hearing the news of the illness of Babur, which earned him Babur’s wrath. It is believed that Babur was also not very happy about Humayun’s leisure seeking habits like indulgence in poetry, etc in stead of pursuing his military campaigns. Somehow the love for the son won and Humayun was forgiven. After sometime Humayun became seriously sick and the recovery was taking inordinate time. It is believed that the worried father, in desperation, prayed to the almighty and offered his own life in place of his son’s. Humayun recovered and Babur did fall mortally sick and died after a few months.

Despite his small shortcomings, Humayun, being the eldest son of Babur, succeeded his father and became the second emperor of the Mughal Empire in 1530. Unlike Babur, Humayun was highly superstitious and took astrology very seriously. However, from Babur he learnt the importance of religious tolerance, which did help him in governance.


Purana Qila (Old Fort) where Humayun wished to build Dinpanah


The main entrance – the change of hands is clearly visible.

Humayun was a highly religious and generous person too. He started to build a new city at Delhi, called Dinpanah (asylum of faith) at a place which is now called Purana Quila, to be a home to all the Islamic faiths. Unfortunately, the project could not be completed as Humayun was having troubles on two fronts (It was subsequently completed by Sher Shah). He had to confront Sultan Bahadur in Gujarat and was under a constant threat from Sher Khan Suri in the East. Over the next few years Humayun was finding it difficult to control these two enemies. Eventually he found himself stuck behind the enemy lines in Bengal. At the same time two of his brothers were plotting against him at Agra. Sher Khan stood between him and his capital, calling himself Sher Shah and claiming the empire. Humayun’s army was defeated on the banks of the Ganges and he barely escaped with his life. Sher Shah followed on Humayun’s heels and finally in 1540 defeated him.

Humayun with his family and treasures retreated to Lahore and thence into a fifteen-year exile in Persia. During the tedious years of exile, the most significant event was his marriage to Hamida Banu, who subsequently gave birth to his first surviving son, Akbar.

In 1544 after he was welcomed to Persia by the Shah, the exiled Humayun began to prosper. He visited Herat, the great Islamic city and thoroughly absorbed the culture of the Persian court. He was deeply impressed by the Persian art and architecture, especially the 12th century Mosque.

With the help and support from the Shah, Humayun started to make inroads into Sher Shah’s empire. His prospects improved further when Salim Shah (Sher Shah’s son) died, leaving three rival claimants to the throne in India. The discord created a good opportunity for Humayun to march back under the generalship of Bairam Khan. Humayun eventually recaptured the throne of Delhi in 1555.


Qula.I.Khulna Masjid built by Sher Shah Suri

From then, Humayun’s life was peaceful. He returned to Dinpanah and installed there the precious library that had accompanied him on arduous journeys. He also resolved to build upon the excellent administrative systems of Sher Shah (The famous Grant Trunk Road from Kolkata to Amritsar was Sher Shah’s creation). Unfortunately in 1556, while coming down from the stairs of Sher Mandal Library, he tripped on his robe and fell down the steep steps from the roof and died three days later.


Sher Mandal – where Humayun had a mortal fall

It is believed that fourteen years after his untimely death, his widow Haji Begam commenced the construction of his tomb in 1570. Balbir told us that this was the first distinct example of proper Mughal style, which was inspired by Persian architecture. It is well known that Humayun picked up the principles of Persian architecture during his exile, and he himself is likely to have planned the tomb, although there is no record to that effect. The other Mughal tombs of sandstone and marble that show Persian influence are the Red Fort at Agra and the walled city of Fatehpur Sikri .

It is said that Haji Begum occasionally visited the site to personally supervise the construction of the tomb.

Tour of the tomb

The tomb is situated between a very busy road and the Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. The entry point to Nizamuddin is marked by a traffic island with a blue-domed tomb known as Sabz Burj (sabz, green; burj, dome). On the left of this island, there is a small lane that leads to the tomb located at a distance of less than two hundred yds.


Isa Khan’s tomb

Entering through the secured gate, we discovered that it is a huge area of around 30-acre. A long pathway takes us to the main tomb. But before that, just on the right of entrance, there is another tomb in a pre-Mughal architecture of Ali Isa Khan Niazi who was in the court of Sher Shah Suri during the short reign of the latter. Little farther, passing through the Bu Halima Gate, we saw a huge archway, called the Arab Sarai Gate. This 14 metre high gateway led to the walled enclosure which housed the Persian craftsmen who came here for the building of the mausoleum.

The pathway leads to the main structure, which we found, is massive. As we passed through the West Gate (16 metres high), a lady tourist guide addressing some of the foreign tourists was talking about the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb and Tajmahal. I requested Balbir to elucidate on the contrasting atributes of the two monuments. As mentioned above, while the tomb at Delhi was constructed by the grieving widow of Humayun, the Taj at Agra was erected by a devoted husband. Taj being the mausoleum of a royal queen was built of white marble, heavily decorated with jewels and precious stones; the tomb at Delhi is made of red sandstone inlaid with white and black marble, with not much of artistic decorations. Then, the Taj has four tall minarets signifying protection of the tomb of a lady, while the edifice at Delhi is not surrounded by minarets.


The waterways after restoration

Moving further, as soon as one enters the massive double-storied gateway, the majesty of the building becomes self-evident. The high walled Persian style structure constructed of red sandstone, inlaid with black and white marble, on a commanding podium looking towards the Yamuna, it stands in the centre of the formal charbagh (quartered garden).The enclosure is dissected into quarters by causeways and channels, and each square is further quartered. Rising on an arcaded platform, the octagonal structure is crowned with a double dome that soars to a height of 38m.

The gardens are of special significance as it was the first time they were built in that pattern in the Indian subcontinent. The Char-bagh, as they are called, are rectilinear shaped huge gardens with elaborate water systems running around them. Since its renovation it has attracted many more tourists. When Condoleezza Rice visited Delhi in 2005 this was the only site that was chosen for her visit.

The high rubble built enclosure is entered through two lofty double-storied gateways on the west and south. A baradari (pavilion) occupies the centre of the eastern wall and a hammam (bath chamber) in the centre of northern wall.


Humayun’s resting place

The octagonal central chamber contains the cenotaph, and the diagonal sides lead to corner-chambers which house the graves of other members of the royal family. Externally each side of the tomb is dominated by three arched alcoves, the central one being the highest. This plan is repeated on the second storey too (presently the visitors are not allowed to go there). The roof surmounted by a double dome (42.5m) of marble has pillared kiosks (chhatris) placed around it.

Balbir is of the opinion that the Humayun’s Tomb was a landmark in establishing some of the essential norms for later Mughal mausoleums in India. The tomb can be compared with the mausoleums of Timur and Bibi Khanam at Samarqand.

Although Sikandar Lodi’s tomb was the first garden-tomb to be built in India, it is Humayun’s tomb which set up a new vogue, the crowning achievement of which, as mentioned above is the Taj at Agra.


Hamida Begum’s grave

The tomb has within it over 100 graves including those of several rulers of the Mughal dynasty including Dara Shikoh and Farrukhsiyar. Bahadur Shah Zafar had taken refuge in this tomb with three princes during the first war of Independence (AD 1857).

On the southwestern side of the tomb is located barber’s tomb (Nai-ka-Gumbad) which stands on a raised platform, reached by seven steps from the south. The building is square on plan and consists of a single compartment covered with a double-dome.

We were told that in 1993, the Humayun’s tomb was declared a World Heritage site, the other two in Delhi being the Red Fort and the Qutub Minar and its precincts.

Restoration of the Gardens

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, Agha Khan Trust for Culture decided to sponsor the restoration of Humayun’s Tomb Gardens – a four-part paradise garden (char-bagh).


View after the restoration

Between 2000 and 2003, this first privately funded restoration of a World Heritage Site in India was completed through the joint efforts of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under the aegis of the National Culture Fund. The objective of the project was to revitalize the 30-acre gardens, pathways, fountains and water channels surrounding Humayun’s Tomb according to the original plans of the builders. Amongst other conservation works, 3 kms of water channels have been repaired, 3.5 kms of pathway edging restored, over 3000 truck loads of excess earth manually removed, 4 kms of sandstone hand-chiseled, 2500 plants favoured by the Mughals planted, 25,000 square metres of pathways restored and an exhaustive rainwater harvesting system introduced. The preservation of historic elements required archival and archaeological research, as well as close attention to the living and renewable landscape elements.

Thus, though the construction the monument was completed in around 1570 and that puts it at around 438 years of age, yet it appears pretty intact, thanks to the renovation work and constant upkeep done by ASI and the restoration, as detailed above.

Before calling it a day, we decided to pay obeisance at the historic Gurdwara Damdama Sahib which stands next to the Humayun’s Tomb (on the southern side).


Gurdwara Damdama Sahib

Balbir told us that this gurdwara is associated with the Tenth Guru, Shri Guru Gobind Sahib ji. It commemorates his meeting in 1707 with Prince Muazzam. It is believed that the Prince had sought Guru Sahib’s help in his battle for succession for the throne with his brother, after the death of Aurangzeb. Guru Sahib met the Prince at this place and together, they drew up their strategy. The battle was won by the prince with the help of Guru Sahib and later on he was known as Emperor Bahadur Shah. It would only be fair to write about this historic gurdwara in details in a separate post.

Thank you for being with me on this rather longish journey to this part of the alleys of Delhi.

26 Comments

  • vamsee says:

    Great Post Ram. It read like a history lesson and I love history. The building is absolutely beautiful (first picture?).

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Opening with a stunning picture of the tomb, your lucid narration take us through centuries of history at unstoppable pace. After bypassing it umpteen times in over two decades, I did visit the place early this year. Your post made the bygone era come alive in all its splendour.

    I must add that the restoration work done is exceptional and hope it remains so.

  • Celine says:

    Thank you for an excellent post on one of the finest Mughal monuments.
    It is written in certain places the construction began in 1562, so 6 years from Humayun’s death. Whatever the case, I can imagine the grief-stricken Hamida Begum supervising the construction of the Tomb and she deserves most credit. Can I say the Tomb is also an expression of Akbar’s love and respect for his father, as by then he was already crowned the ruler before he was barely 14.

    Ram, lovely pictures of the Humayun Tomb Complex. When were these photographs shot? While I was there in February this year, I came across some beautiful flowering plants lined up in the gardens, thanks to ASI and Agha Khan Trust.:)

  • Ram says:

    Vamsee,

    Such sweet words from a person who has just churned out couple of excellent posts on Hawaii is elating.

    Thank you very much.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Patrick,

    Thanks for your kind words. I repeat what I have said earlier too – you are a great source of encouragement to all of us.

    I am in total agreement about your remarks on the the excellent work done by the Agha Khan Trust in association with the ASI. The restoration has changed the very outlook of the complex. The many fold increase in the footfall is a testimony. On a sunny day in the winters, it’s a great pleasure visiting this place. The best thing about the place is that you don’t find tourist guides, photographers or vendors to pester you.

  • smitadhall says:

    Now what?! :-) wonderful description – detailed and narrative, takes back to the times… looking forward to Gurudwara Damdama Sahib now…

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Celine,

    With X-Mas around the corner, what could be better than seeing your heart warming remarks.

    Yes you are absolutely right. Irrespective of the authenticity of the dates, the fact that a grieving widow not only thought of this tribute to the departed soul, but also personally supervised the construction of this monument and that too during those days when women hardly had any say in such matters, speaks a lot about her perseverance and efforts. In my personal opinion, considering the fact that Akbar was enthroned at a very young age, her effort of creating this timeless memorial is more commendable than the contribution of Emperor Shahjahan.

    Humayun was known to be a highly amiable person, even to the extent that he had forgiven his brothers despite their unpardonable acts of treachery and that too through tearful reconciliations. Hence I am in total agreement with your view about Akbars love for his father, but for which this mammoth work could not have been completed.

    We did see the beautiful flower beds. But , as you are aware, the flowering season in Delhi comes into full bloom during January/ February and hence the photographs taken during early December couldnt capture the beauty you had seen during your visit to the edifice.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Smita. I am glad that the post was to your liking. I will definitely endeavour to write about Gurdwara Damdama Sahib soonest, but before that someone has reminded me of my old promise about a post on the Sri Krishna Janambhumi. Let’s see.

  • nandanjha says:

    Ram – I am buried in something (sorry for the pun) and hence not able to read this post in the manner which this post rightly deserves but I still wanted to drop a small comment.

    With this post, Ghumakkar has reached the magic number of 300 and probably a privilege for Ghumakkar to have your post as the 300th.

    So far so good.

  • JATINDER SETHI says:

    Yes.Ram, one built by the husband for the wife and other built by the wife for the husband.Both,Taj and Humayun Tomb are great monuments but built at different times. Humayun Tomb built in the mid-sixteenth century by Hamida Begum for her husband, the second Mughal Emperor, was the first great monumental tomb to be built by the Mughals( and 300 years later it became a refuge for the last Mughal-Zafar before he got arrested by the British. Another point is that Hamida Begum ,though the first Mughal woman to build this great monument, was not the only woman.In fact more than half the monuments of Shah Jehans Delhi were built by the Mughal women,including Jahanara, Shah Jehans daughter, although years later.
    I lived in Nizamuddin East for many years during Fifties, and even today, it is one of the most beautiful, unspoiled places. We visit it quite often because it has the biggest Nursery , run by the government, where you can buy all kinds of plants.
    Great post and a literary piece!. Also congrats to Ghumakkar for the third century.

  • sudhir sharma says:

    sir,
    great peice of article !!!!!!!!!!!!
    tells the history of the mughal and its architecture like a film which can be imagined.
    certainly we are eager to wait for the ” In the mystic alleys of Delhi (IV) ” to come soon.
    Regards
    sudhir

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Jatinder,

    Thanks for your kind and overwhelming words. I am equally grateful for your value addition to the post too.

    Nandan.

    Thanks. I can understand your pre-occupation.

    Needless to say that it’s an honour to be associated with this group.

    Awaiting for the fourth century.

  • nandanjha says:

    Mystic Alleys are losing the mysticism. What research , bravo.

    I first went to the tomb in 1994 when we were contemplating a historic background as a stage for a play which we were to do as our ‘Yearly Production’ at Kirori Mal College’. I might have some very old pics as well, we ended up doing that at ‘Aiwan E Ghalib’ auditorium :) in Delhi. Then it was not restored.

    My subsequent visit was after it was restored and with two kids of my sister accompanying us, it was a fabulous experience.

    As I read your account, I remembered everything :). Thanks.

    This is true-blue book material.

  • Subash Kapoor says:

    What a fantastic journey of Mughal history. I read the article, not once but many times so as to be able to recall the Mughal history. It is not only an article on Mystic Alleys but subtle lesson of hostory also, which we should not forget. Coffee Table Book on Mystic Alleys of Delhi from such an author would not be a bad idea.
    Subash Kapoor

  • Ram says:

    Subash ji,

    I am very grateful to you for your very sweet and encouraging words.
    I feel elated on reading your advice regarding coffee table book. I promise I will do my best.

    Nandan / Sudhir,

    I am happy that the post was to your satisfaction. Thanks for your heartwarming remarks.

  • Manish Khamesra says:

    Thanks Ram, for this wonderful post. As I started reading it, the very first thing that came to my mind was,

    Ek Shahanshah ne banaker hanseen TajMahal,
    Hum gareebon ki mohabbat kaa majak udaya hai.

    Just kidding :)

    The post took me to a gripping journey to the Mughal period. Ram, you missed the death of Sher Shah Suri. In my understanding had he been alive, Humayun could never take control of Delhi. Shershah was an able administrator(as pointed by you too) and a great military strategist too . I think the death of his elder son (as mentioned by you), has significance only after his own death.

    We had been to Humayun’s tomb around 2001-2002. It was a very well kept monument at that time also. And I am happy to know that it has become better now. I have not yet seen Tajmahal (plsss don’t pity on me :), but I found this place very sad and gloomy. Being a tomb may be it is supposed to be like that.

    Reading the post was like knowing its complete historical significance and it is supported by some very beautiful pictures. I specially liked the one: Humayun’s resting place and Hamida Begum’s grave. These photos have beautiful light effects.

    Thanks again for this wonderful and complete (in every sense) post and I am looking forward to the next ones …

  • faridequbal says:

    Sir,

    its fabulous,earlier i thought you read lots of books,but after this post its clear you retains immense of them what you read.

    missing you people.

    kolkata

  • Ram says:

    Farid,

    Good to hear from you and thanks for liking this post.

    Yes, We also miss you a lot.

    Please do keep on visiting and apprise us of your views.

    God bless you and the family.

  • Shoma Mittra says:

    Hi Ram

    A fascinating write and although most of the history is known to those of us who have grown up and gone to school in India, I think it would make fascinating reading for people outside of India – particularly children of Indian origin who know little about the history of their land. Your writing is luci, easy to read and extremely interesting.

    Thank you for sharing…

    shoma

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks for your kind words Shoma.

  • Palash Adhikary says:

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  • Good info here. I am still looking for supplemental ideas on gardening and would be thankful any advice. Thank You!

  • abbos sharapov says:

    Fergana is not the part of Afganistan, it is in Uzbekistan and it was always in there. There is no concrete history ppl always write something adding wrong facts. Do have respect and write only checking and rechecking the facts as much as it is required. I am from Uzbekistan and to me it sounded as it would sound Texas is a part of Brasil ))).

  • ram dhall says:

    Thanks for your comment.

    The inadvertent error is sincerely regretted.

  • muneer says:

    A great page, good photos and good commentary. Thanks a lot for this.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks Muneer, for liking the post.

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