Return to Humayun’s Tomb Complex – Delhi

My first visit to Humayun’s Tomb Complex was way back in December 2005, and was part of the typical “golden triangle” tourist trail conducted at such break-neck speed that it was over in just 10 days and left me wondering if I had truly experienced India at all. A lot has changed since then, not least the amount of visits I have now made to the country (23 and counting!). I hope in early 2022 I will once again be able to resume my annual trip and escape the British winter :-).

When I started this blog site I did a short piece on my visit to Humayun’s Tomb Complex from all those years ago. I made a return visit to the site in 2016 but never got around to documenting it, in part because I subsequently realised that I missed some of the monuments that are part of the complex or very close by. I’m normally meticulous in planning my travels, but in this instance I let myself down. If nothing else it is a good excuse to make a further visit some day very soon.

Humayun (1508-1556)

Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, and ascended the throne of Delhi in 1530 after the death of his father, Babur. Much of his reign was marked by struggle, mostly driven by the need to supress rebellions that seemed to be almost constant. In 1539 Sher Khan, an Afghan nobleman who ruled over much of Bihar and Bengal, rose up against Humayun, forcing him to spend 15 years in exhile. With a borrowed Persian army, Humayun eventually recovered his lost lands and re-established the Mughal Empire in 1555. His return to power was, however, short-lived. On 19th January 1556, Humayun accidentally fell on the steps of his library in Sher Mandal at Purana Qila, and shortly afterwards died.

With Humayun’s successor, Akbar, far away in the Punjab, the news of Humayun’s death in Delhi was initially kept a secret to prevent unrest. For over two weeks one Mulah Bekasi was made up to resemble the emperor and present himself to the public every morning from the riverside balcony of the Red Fort. Finally, on the 11th February 1556, Humayun’s death was made public and Akbar was proclaimed as the new emperor.

Humayun was initially buried at Purana Qila, and there is some debate as to whether his remains were subsequently moved to a temporary shrine in Sirhind as Hemu advanced upon Delhi in 1556. We do know that when Akbar defeated Hemu, Humayun’s remains where moved into a mausoleum erected in 1569 by his widow Bega Begum (also known as Haji Begum), at an estimated cost then of Rs 1,500,000 (approx $21,000 USD).

Humayun’s Tomb

Set within a symmetrical garden plan, Humayun’s Tomb was one of the first important Mughal buildings to be erected in India, and draws influences both from the land it was built in as well as Persia. No one can argue that it is an awe-inspiring sight, and clearly a precursor to the even more astonishing Taj Mahal in Agra that was built just sixty years later. The architecture is attributed to Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, who was previously working in present-day Uzbekistan and came to Delhi in 1562.

The tomb stands on a high platform that contains seventeen arched openings on each side, providing access to small subsidiary burial chambers. The corners of this platform are cut away to mirror the corners of the tomb above. The central archway facilitates access to the tomb platform via a steep flight of stairs.

Humayun’s plain marble cenotaph stands alone in the central chamber. The proportions of this chamber are wonderful, although to what extent the chamber was decorated remains in question. Accounts from 19th century travelers make no reference to this chamber having any decoration aside from the formal cloth covering over the cenotaph, but an A.S.I. survey from 1916 does make some reference to the remains of decoration. It’s worth waiting in this main chamber until there is nobody else around, having this space to yourself is certainly worth experiencing.

The central chamber has three storeys of arched openings, with just enough daylight filtering through the jalis. Unlike many other Mughal tombs, there is no mihrab here, but the notion of a mihrab is indicated within each of the west-facing jalis.

The overall plan of the tomb consists of five linked Baghdad octagons, the central one being larger as it is the main tomb chamber. This is the first example in India of a multi-chambered tomb where the linked chambers are so obviously independent of each other. This is also the first Persian-style dome to appear in India, which has a bulbous profile and was constructed as a double dome with two shells, the inner shell providing the central chamber with a roof proportionate to its dimensions.

In total there are around 140 graves in the 120 chambers and on the platform of Humayun’s mausoleum, many are unidentified but a few are known or inscribed. Humayun’s wives Biga Begum and Hamida Begum (Akbar’s mother) are in the north-east corner chamber. The cenotaphs of Humayun’s daughters are located in the south-east chamber, and the south-west chamber has the cenotaph of the seventh Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah and his wife.

Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, is also thought to be buried somewhere here. Born on 11th March 1615 in Ajmer, Darah Shikoh was known for his translation of the Bhagwad Gita and for books such as Majma-ul-Bahrain or The Confluence of the Two Seas. Considered a very liberal man and philosopher, he would have ascended the throne but a battle for succession broke out, pitting him against his younger brothers Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh. According to accounts by the prince’s personal physician, Francois Bernier, Shikoh was paraded though the streets of Shahjahanabad atop a filthy elephant after his defeat in 1659, before then being executed by beheading.

Until recently it was thought Dara Shikoh’s cenotaph was somewhere on the mausoleum platform, but recent studies have suggested that his cenotaph may in fact be in the north-west chamber, next to the graves of Prince Daniyal and Prince Murad, Emperor Akbar’s sons.

The main evidence for the location of Dara Shikoh’s grave comes from the Alamgir-Nama, the court history of Aurangzeb. This mentions that Shikoh was buried under a dome (rather than on the mausoleum platform), and there are only twelve cenotaphs situated under a dome at the mausoleum complex. Many of these cenotaphs have been identified, but of the three in the north-west chamber, an unidentified one next to Prince Daniyal and Prince Murad has a design markedly different from Akbar-era cenotaphs. This has led scholars to conclude that this is most likely the final resting place of Darah Shikoh.

Humayun’s Tomb is set within a huge garden, with the mausoleum at the center of four squares each one subdivided into a grid of three by three squares. The divisions are marked by raised walkways, each of which has narrow water channels leading to pools at some of the intersections.

Extensive work here in recent years by the A.S.I. and Aga Khan Foundation has done much to restore the garden and monument, work that is evident for many of the tombs that lie just outside the main complex, most notably in Sunder Nursery and Batashewala Complex which are well worth visiting.

Baber’s Tomb

Located in the south-east quadrant of Humayun’s Tomb garden, Baber’s Tomb is reputed to be the tomb of Akbar’s barber, obviously a man that was probably the most trusted of all the imperial servants.

The figure of 999 carved on one of the graves inside the monument suggests a broad construction date of 1590-91, but there is no solid evidence for who is actually buried here.

Isa Khan’s Tomb and Mosque

Located to the west of Humayun’s Tomb on a site probably specifically chosen for its close proximity to Nizamuddin’s shrine, Isa Khan’s Tomb is a great example of an octagonal tomb of which there are many in Delhi.

Isa Khan Niyazi was a high ranking nobleman of Sher Shah’s time, and one the last nobles to be buried beneath an Afghan style tomb. Built in 1547, the tomb still has traces of incised stucco and glazed tiles around the arches, the best examples of which are on the south side.

Inside the tomb are two large graves and four smaller ones, one of the larger cenotaphs built of red sandstone and marble is that of Isa Khan. It’s worth looking up here to admire the decorated ceiling which has been wonderfully restored.

Also built in 1547, Isa Khan’s mosque is a simple structure in contrast to the tomb, but does has some well preserved tile work on the exterior.

Standing on a meter high platform, the mosque consists of a single prayer chamber that is divided into three bays, none of which are elaborately decorated.

Afsarwala Tomb and Mosque

Situated between Isa Khan and Humayun’s tomb is the Afsarwala Tomb and Mosque. Little is known about these structures, although a date on one of the cenotaphs indicates that they must have been constructed before 1566.

‘Afsar’ means officer, so the name given to these structures does not help us at all in determining who they were built for. Most tombs of this age would have belonged to army commanders or courtiers, the latter often also being considered soldiers.

The existence of a minbar inside the mosque suggests it was once used as a congregational mosque. A report in 1947 mentions unidentified graves in the courtyard of the mosque, but these appear to have now disappeared.

There is much I have yet to explore and document both within Humayun’s Tomb Complex and other nearby monuments (e.g. Nila Gumbad, Sabz Burj, Khab-i-Khanan’s Tomb). Fingers crossed I will be able to continue this adventure in 2022 !

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Categories: Delhi, Humayun's Tomb Complex, India

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6 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting on Humayun’s Tomb. Wonderful narration. Perhaps this is THE most beautiful Islamic Architecture in India, better than taj mahal, as far as aesthetics in architecture is concerned.

    Liked by 2 people

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