Humayun’s tomb

Painted ceiling inside Humayun's tomb

On my trips out of Delhi I have often been stuck on the outer ring road with a view of red sandstone walls, which my taxi driver has pointed out as Humayun’s tomb. The tomb of this Mughal emperor, the second of the six great Mughals, was the third stop on my slow tour of New Delhi. This is a world heritage site. After rushing though it on a little break from my meetings I think this may be the best example of Mughal architecture, certainly comparable to the Taj Mahal.


Before your come to the emperor’s tomb, you pass a gateway on your right which leads to Isa Khan’s tomb (photo above). This is almost a piece of Lodhi architecture: a dome sits above a building on an octagonal base. The architectural novelty is the remnants of blue tiles on the dome and arches, and the fact that the main dome is a full dome: its outline a complete semi-circle. I walked in, and was very impressed by the lattice work on the windows and the calligraphy and decorations on the prayer niche next to the grave. Isa Khan’s tomb is undergoing restoration right now. The little that has been done looks very nice. I hope it is authentic: in design as well as material and technique.


I’ve always been puzzled by the fact that noblemen and emperors have tombs, when the Quran clearly says that people must be buried under the sky. A guard in the tomb of Isa Khan threw some light on this when he explained that the dome is a representation of the hemisphere of the heavens, so that in a technical sense the noblemen are buried under the sky. Next to the tomb of Isa Khan is a mosque, with beautiful glazed tiles on the arches. The colours seemed too bright to be original. Do you know whether these tiles are original 16th century work or later a restoration?


You exit the way you came in. The path leads through a beautiful white gate. This gate looked too perfect to be a 16th century structure; it is possibly a very recent restoration. When you walk past it there is a wonderful gate on the right. I walked in through it and into a little courtyard with very uneven flagstones. Just beyond the door was a collapsed dome (see photo alongside). Beyond was a little garden called Bu Halima’s garden. The gate has a lovely balcony with brackets.


Before you enter the gates to the gardens surrounding the emperor’s tomb there is another little gate to the right. Percival Spear says that the structures behind this door are the remnants of a little Serai built by Hamida Banu Begum, the wife of Humayun and the mother of Akbar, for Arab pilgrims. In the Oxford India paperback edition of Spear’s book, Delhi- Its Monuments and History, which I have, Naryani Gupta adds an intriguing footnote: ” Or [for] Persian architects working on the tomb?” The relevant piece of information here is that Hamida Banu Begum caused Humayun’s tomb to be built.


I exited from Bu Halima’s garden and walked down the path leading to the entrance to the Emperor’s tomb. Although the walk was crowded, I could walk down the center of the path, clicking photos as I went. From here you see the great dome of the tomb behind a sandstone and marble screen. Already you see Mughal architecture in full bloom. This is clearly the tradition which would lead in a couple of generations to the heart-stopping beauty of the Taj Mahal. As you walk down the path you have time to take in the marble inlays which trace out the star of David on the massive screen. It turns out to be an ancient Arab cosmic symbol, perhaps pre-dating Islam and even Judaism. Do you know the symbolism of this six-pointed star?


I stepped through the doorway in the screen and had a heart-stopping reaction which I’ve only had twice before: once when I saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, and then when I saw Michelangelo’s Last Pieta. On those two occasions The Family was with me, and she turned to me and asked “Why are you crying?”. This time I was alone, and I did not have to fumble to explain the immense emotional impact of what I saw before me. The photo above does not do justice to the impact that the monument has on you when you step through the screen and see it for the first time.


I can fully understand the emotional response which leads tourists to take photos of each other, and themselves in selfies, in front of this structure. I waited patiently before the central pool for a gap to take a photo of the tomb reflected in the pool surrounding the fountains.

I see that crowds have become more civilized since the time I’d first visited the Taj Mahal. Then there was a great jostling near the pool in front of the tomb. Now the crowd gave each other space to take their own photos. Is this the effect of face book? Does everyone realize that you not only post your photos, but also like others’? Whatever the reason, I was happy that I could spend time composing the photo that you see alongside.


The tomb stands on a platform, like all Mughal structures. I climbed up on this. Then there is a further climb along a steep flight of stairs until you reach the level of the grave. There is a broad terrace at this level. I’d climbed up the western stairs; now I walked to the north and continued in the same way to walk right around the structure. The square structure of the tomb is perfectly symmetric. There are steps leading down from each side, and the gardens below are laid out symmetrically, with water channels leading down a central avenue and then branching out to the garden. I came to the southern face and found an open door to the grave. The roof of the vestibule had the wonderful decoration which you see in the photo alongside.


The central chamber holds the grave of the emperor (photo alongside). I’ve stood next to the grave of the emperor Shah Jahan in the Taj Mahal, of Akbar in Agra, and of Aurangzeb outside modern-day Aurangabad. The grave of the second Mughal emperor of India did not move me as much as the building which surrounds it. I was relieved by this sanity check: when I saw the tomb I was not moved by power as much as art.

I wandered around the interlinked rooms which contain other graves. The lack of an ability to read Persian handicaps you; I don’t know who else is buried here. I walked out and exited through the western stairs. The steepness makes it difficult to climb down quickly: you don’t want to tumble down and break your neck like Humayun did. I exited in a cacophony of languages: I could recognize the sounds of Meitei, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Danish, French, English, Punjabi and Hindi. That’s a lot of tourists, from across India as well as the world.

My walk through this enclosure had taken me somewhat over an hour. I realized that in three days I had covered about a century of history: the earliest were the Lodhi tombs from the late 15th century CE, then the buildings in Purana Qila, dating from the early part of the 16th century CE, and now the beginning of the High Mughal period of architecture, from the late 16th century. There is still a later period that I want to explore in the one more day I have in Delhi.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


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