With a few exceptions, tombs and mausoleums lose meaning as generations pass and the story of the individual interred in a particular place is forgotten. It is only the very famous or infamous whose names echo through the ages, perhaps kept in the memory banks of the future by the magnificence of their burial sites. Such is the case of Humayan, the second in the line of Mughal Emperors, who gained an empire only to lose it before he reclaimed it again and then died within the year, falling down the stairs of his observatory.
According to history, Humayun’s son, Akbar (who was probably the greatest of India’s Mughal Emperors) had the tomb built to honor his father, selecting Humayun’s senior and most favorite wife, the Persian-born Hamida Banu Begum, to oversee the construction which took nine years (1562-1571). It would be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal in Agra, built six decades later by Humayun’s great-grandson, Shah Jahan.
It was so hot the day we visit that even the kites are cooling their sharp talons in the pools of water formed by the irrigation systems. Even the parakeets, who normally flit noisily from tree to tree, are sitting quietly on the branches. Walking through the 45-foot tall Arab Serai Gate where the Persian craftsmen lived whilst building the tomb, a vast garden opens before us. A legacy of Humayun’s exile in Persia after he lost his empire, it is laid out in the traditional Persian style. Four squares (symbolizing the four Zoroastrian elements of sky, water, earth, and trees) are divided by paved walkways (khiyabans) bisected by two water channels. Pathways further divide the garden into a total of 36 squares. The garden is designed to represent paradise.
In the center of this first of the great imperial tomb gardens of India sits Humayun’s Tomb. In the heat of the day, the sun beats down off the pure, white bulbous dome, turning it into a dazzling beacon on top of the sandstone building, decorated with black and white marble. This is the first example of Persian double-dome architecture, the inner dome supporting the white marble exterior.
Climb up steep stairs from the garden level, and you reach the base of the tomb. Three arches accent each side, the central one being the highest. Intricate stone latticework covers the openings, a signature feature of Mughal architecture that also provides natural cross-ventilation.
Beneath the white dome is the central octagonal sepulcher. As per Islamic tradition, it is aligned north-south. The actual burial site is in the underground chamber beneath the sepulcher. Radiating from the central gallery are eight additional vaulted chambers housing the tombs of Hamida Banu Begum and other Mughal dignitaries.
As you stroll through the garden, other smaller monuments appear. One of these, the tomb complex of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble in Sher Shah Suri’s court, actually predates the Tomb of Humayun. It is under renovation, and we are unable to visit the interior. The other notable structure in the garden is the Dome of the Barber (Nai Ka Gumbad). There is no specific evidence to indicate who exactly is interred in the two tombs located under the dome, but it is believed that one of them belongs to Humayun’s favorite barber.
Humayun’s Tomb is a must-see in Delhi, a legacy of the early Mughal Empire, whose name is kept alive by the splendor of his tomb.
IF YOU GO
Humayun’s Tomb is located on Mathura road near Lodi Road, New Delhi (Tel. +91-2435-5275); the tomb is open from sunrise to sunset, and there is an entrance fee. Delhi is best visited between October and March when the weather is mild. The tomb should be visited in the early morning before it gets too hot and crowded. Be sure to bring plenty of water and a hat if you visit during the summer months.