Humayun’s Tomb: In the Memory of an Emperor



One of Delhi’s historical jewels, Humayun’s Tomb, is a significant monument for more than one reason. This grand mausoleum is the first tomb of a Mughal emperor to be built in India. But, over the years, it also came to be the resting place of more than 150 Mughal family members.

A fine example of Persian architecture, which created a template for Mughal architecture, this beautiful mausoleum is also the resting place of Emperor Shah Jahan’s son Dara Shukoh, Humayun’s two wives and later Mughal emperors. From being a stunning 16th century memorial to becoming a refugee camp during the Partition of India in 1947, Humayun’s Tomb has many tales to tell.

Mughal rule in India was established by the Turco-Mongol prince from Central Asia, Babur, in 1526. After trying to conquer the city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan and failing at it, Babur turned towards India. He invaded India and defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last Lodi Sultan and son of Sikander Lodi, in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. This was the beginning of Mughal rule in India under Babur.

First Battle of Panipat, fought between Babur and Ibrahim Lodi 
First Battle of Panipat, fought between Babur and Ibrahim Lodi |Wikimedia Commons

Four years after he established his supremacy in North India, Babur died of a fever in 1530, in Agra. He was initially buried in a garden at Agra but his remains were moved to a mausoleum in the Bagh-e-Babur in Kabul, Afghanistan, nine years later.

Babur’s son Humayun (r. 1530-40 and 1555-56) ascended the throne in 1530. He was only 22 years old then and had a challenging time heading the newly-established Mughal territory. Humayun laid the foundations of a city called ‘Dinpanah’ (roughly covering the area near modern-day Mathura Road) in Delhi around 1533. The inner citadel of this city is what we know as Purana Qila (Old Fort) today.

But shortly after his ascension to the throne, Humayun was defeated by Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Suri Empire, first in the Battle of Chausa in 1539 and later in Kannauj in 1540, after which he left India. Sher Shah Suri took over the newly-won Mughal territory and ruled till his death in 1545.

Mughal Emperor Humayun
Mughal Emperor Humayun|Pinterest

Humayun spent the next 15 years in exile in Persia and returned only in 1555 with the help of the armies of the Safavid Dynasty of Persia. He recovered his lost dominion after defeating Sikandar Shah Suri, the then Sultan of Delhi, and re-established the Mughal Empire. But fate had different plans for Humayun. In 1556, one day while he was climbing down the stairs in his library at Dinpanah with arms full of books, he heard the muezzin call out for evening prayers. In an attempt to hurry, to respond to the prayer call, the Emperor caught his foot in his robe and fell down the stairs, hitting his head. Three days later, Humayun was dead.

Humayun’s Journey to the Tomb

Interestingly, the tomb we see today, on Mathura Road in Nizamuddin, Delhi, wasn’t the first resting place of Humayun. On his death in January 1556, his body was first buried in his palace in Purana Quila in Delhi. But it had to be moved to a temporary tomb at Sirhind in Punjab, after Hemu, a general under Adil Shah Suri of the Suri Dynasty, advanced upon Delhi in 1556. It is said that the Emperor’s body was reburied at Dinpanah by his son and successor, Akbar, before finally being moved to the tomb, which was completed in 1571.

However, there are varying narratives about the date of construction of the tomb, as well as who constructed it. While some 19th-century scholars say construction began in 1565, others, referring to an old manuscript, Siyarul Manazil by Sangin Beg (late 18th century), say the foundations were laid in Akbar’s 14th year of reign, 1569.

Mughal Emperor Akbar
Mughal Emperor Akbar|Wikimedia Commons

The tomb itself was built in Humayun’s memory on the orders of his wife, either Bega Begum or Haji Begum. While some records say that Haji Begum was Humayun’s first wife Bega Begum, others claim she was Akbar’s mother and Humayun’s second wife, Hamida Bano Begum. Most scholars identify Haji Begum as Bega Begum, who was so called because she went on a Haj pilgrimage.

There are some scholars who believe that the main patron of this grand project was Akbar, probably because, during much of its construction, Haji Begum was away on a Haj pilgrimage. But it is important to note that Mughal women were great builders and quite prosperous (as detailed by Ira Mukhoty in her book Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire) and therefore it is quite possible that Haji Begum had commissioned the mausoleum. It is also possible that her role was more than just supervisory. She also commissioned the architects of the tomb. Humayun’s Tomb was built not only in honour of the Emperor; it was a symbol of the growing political and cultural might of the Mughal dynasty at that time.

Purana Qila with Humayun’s Tomb in the background, an idealised representation
Purana Qila with Humayun’s Tomb in the background, an idealised representation|British Library

The tomb was a first-of-its-kind in India and the site of its construction was chosen carefully and deliberately. It was selected for its proximity to the revered Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah (around 650 m to the east) and to Dinpanah (around 1 km to the north). It was also close to the Yamuna River, which has since changed its course. Today, it stands amidst the Nizamuddin basti, surrounded by other Mughal monuments.

An Architectural Marvel

Humayun’s Tomb was the first grand tomb of the Mughals in India and it influenced many of the Mughal monuments that followed, including the grand mausoleum by Shah Jahan – the Taj Mahal. The tomb is the first distinct example of Mughal architecture, which was inspired by Persian architecture. Naturally, the architect had to be carefully chosen and Mirak Mirza Ghiyas was appointed. Ghiyas had plenty of experience working on the great Persian (Timurid) monuments in Herat (in Afghanistan) and Bukhara (in Uzbekistan), as well as the Sultanate buildings in India.

It is said that Haji Begum was so taken by Persian architecture while in exile with her husband at the court of the Safavids in Persia that she personally commissioned Mirak Mirza Ghiyas for the tomb. But Ghiyas died during its construction and it was his son Sayyid Muhammad who completed the mausoleum.

Humayun’s Tomb, front view
Humayun’s Tomb, front view|Wikimedia Commons

Humayun’s Tomb has many striking features. It was probably the largest tomb in the entire Indian subcontinent at that time. The tomb stands on a raised plinth, which has as many as 56 cells or small chambers on all four sides. It is a ‘garden-tomb’ and an example of the classical charbagh, which is a four-quadrant garden with four water channels of Quranic paradise represented. The tomb stands right in the middle of this garden, which is spread across 30 acres.

The striking symmetry of the structure in an equally symmetrical garden is a visual treat. The other important feature of the tomb is the marble dome, which is actually a double dome and is probably a first of its kind in the subcontinent. A double dome consists of two layers, with a gap between them. The dome is flanked by chhatris or domed pavilions, and the domes of the central chhatris are adorned with glazed ceramic tiles. The main chamber under the dome houses Humayun’s cenotaph. The main chamber also carries the symbolic element, a mihrab design over the central marble lattice or jaali, facing Mecca to the West.

The white marble dome of the tomb with<i> chhatris </i>
The white marble dome of the tomb with chhatris |Wikimedia Commons

Red and white colours dominate the architecture. This colour scheme was favoured by the Indo-Islamic builders before Humayun’s Tomb. The use of these colours can also be seen in the Delhi Sultanate monuments belonging to earlier years. The red sandstone for the main building was quarried from Tantpur near Agra and was used with white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan.

Entrance gateway to the tomb complex
Entrance gateway to the tomb complex|Wikimedia Commons

Dormitory of the Mughals

It is said that the tomb was designed as a ‘dynastic centre’ of sorts. This is suggested by the many cells in the monument's plinth and the large corner rooms which house the graves of more than 150 Mughal members buried here over the years. No other mausoleum contains so many graves of the Mughal dynasty.

Apart from these members of the dynasty, most of the later emperors, princes and princesses, as well as their attendants, also lie buried close to Humayun. It is said that the subsidiary chambers of the mausoleum contain the graves of Humayun's two wives, Haji Begum and Hamida Bano Begum.

A view of the tomb’s plinth with its many cells
A view of the tomb’s plinth with its many cells|Wikimedia Commons

In 1659, Shah Jahan's heir-apparent, his son Dara Shukoh, was killed by his brother Aurangzeb in a struggle for succession to the Mughal throne. The headless body of Dara Shukoh is said to have been buried here amidst the many graves, all of which are uninscribed. Later Mughal emperors, including Jahandar Shah, Farukkhsiyar and Alamgir ll, were also interred here. Recently, the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, set up a seven-member panel of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to locate the unidentified grave of Dara Shukoh among the cluster of other graves at Humayun’s Tomb.

Centuries ago, the grand mausoleum is said to have been lined with cypress trees, and the sheer variety of plants and trees planted here ensured that there were blooms throughout the year. It is also believed that many fruit trees were planted here. The fruits were sold and the income was used for the upkeep of the mausoleum.

Tomb’s interior with Humayun’s cenotaph
Tomb’s interior with Humayun’s cenotaph|Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, the interiors of the tomb were once richly furnished and decorated with carpets and shamianas or awnings. The tomb also housed the Quran, along with Humayun’s sword, turban and shoes. We know this from the records of an English merchant, William Finch, who visited the tomb in 1611. It is said that the Mughal emperor’s belongings were probably stolen from the tomb when it was inhabited by the locals later.

Troubled Times

Humayun’s Tomb, the great symbol of the Mughals in Delhi, has also seen dark days, starting with the decline of the Mughals in the 18th century.

Humayun’s Tomb with surrounding tombs and pavilions, an idealised view , 1815&nbsp;
Humayun’s Tomb with surrounding tombs and pavilions, an idealised view , 1815 |British Library

In the early 18th century, records suggest that it was inhabited by locals, who also planted vegetable trees there. As shocking as that sounds, the gardens around the tomb were used to grow cabbage and tobacco! These details along with others relating to the state of despair of the tomb complex, were mentioned in a report from 1881-82, called the Report of the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India by Henry Hardy Cole, who was the superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, North-Western Provinces, in the late 19th century.

A photograph from the year 1870 showing the tomb and its gardens
A photograph from the year 1870 showing the tomb and its gardens|British Library

Humayun’s Tomb shot to prominence once again during the Revolt of 1857, the armed rebellion that took place in parts of Central and Northern India against the British administration. However, the British eventually recaptured Delhi. During this time, the Mughal Empire was already weakened, with Bahadur Shah Zafar as the last ruler on the throne.

When the British captured Delhi and attacked the city of Shahjahanabad, the Mughal family had to leave the royal palace in the Red Fort. The royal family with Bahadur Shah Zafar, his wives and three princes took refuge at Humayun’s Tomb. A British military officer, Captain William Hodson, is said to have taken Bahadur Shah Zafar prisoner in September 1857 from Humayun’s Tomb. He was taken to the Red Fort and exiled to Rangoon in 1858.

Capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar from Humayun’s Tomb
Capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar from Humayun’s Tomb|Wikimedia Commons

During the latter part of the 18th century, many changes were made to the mausoleum and it came to wear a more ‘English’ look. For instance, the green lawns around the tomb were an addition during the British era.

A photograph of the tomb taken in 1858, after the revolt in 1857
A photograph of the tomb taken in 1858, after the revolt in 1857|British Library

Almost a century later, after seeing the last Mughal Emperor imprisoned, Humayun's Tomb was to witness pain and brutality once again. During the Partition of India in 1947, the tomb and its garden hosted refugee camps and provided shelter to families who immigrated to India from the newly partitioned Pakistan. The occupation by teeming refugees for about five years damaged the gardens and even the principal structures in the tomb complex.

Restoring Humayun's Tomb

While there was an attempt to restore Humayun’s Tomb in 1903-1909, on the orders of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, the first proper restoration was carried out only after 1999. By this time, the ASI and the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) agreed upon the restoration of the gardens of the monument. A major restoration project was undertaken to revive the gardens along with the historic water fountains, which are seen functioning to this day.

The lawns were revived and more than 2,500 trees and plants including mango, neem, hibiscus, etc were planted here. A new water circulation system for the walkways was also installed, along with a rainwater harvesting system. Old wells which were discovered at the site were also restored. The tile work to the roof canopies was also restored using traditional tile-making techniques.

A view of the tomb from its gardens
A view of the tomb from its gardens|Wikimedia Commons

The Humayun’s Tomb Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. The entire complex houses other important monuments as well. It also has a baoli or stepwell within the Arab Serai of the complex. The serai is said to have been a residence for the tomb attendants and craftsmen, commissioned by Haji Begum.

Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb
Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb|Wikimedia Commons

One of the monuments in the tomb complex predates Humayun’s Tomb. It is the Tomb and Mosque of Isa Khan, an Afghan noble in the court of Sher Shah Suri. It was constructed in 1547. The other significant tombs here include:

- Bu-Halima’s tomb and garden

- Nila Gumbad

Nila Gumbad
Nila Gumbad|Wiklimedia Commons

- Barber’s Tomb

- Afsarwala tomb and mosque

Barber’s Tomb with Humayun’s Tomb
Barber’s Tomb with Humayun’s Tomb|Wikimedia Commons

Humayun's Tomb is a glorious example of Mughal architecture. Visit it and you will find a monument that had a special place in the history of the Mughals in India.

Cover Photo: British Library

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