Vishnu H Prasad : An Accidental Civil Servant

Delhi Diary: A Trip to Humayun’s Tomb

The plan to visit Humayun’s tomb was made almost impromptu. Just before going to sleep yesterday, I footed the idea that I will visit the famed World Heritage Site today. Lekshmy immediately backed me up saying she too wants to visit the site. She is not a big fan of historic monuments, but likes to visit them with me because I usually tell the tales and the architectural elements that go into the narrative of the structure that we are visiting. This is one of the few advantages that learning history for the past 4 years has granted me.

However, like always, I had decided to prepare adequately before visiting the site, so that I don’t waste an opportunity to learn more. I had purchased Delhi- 14 historic walks on kindle and already finished reading up on both Humayun’s tomb and Nizamuddin ( since both are almost adjacent). Infact after looking the place up yesterday, we had figured that it is nearby Pragati Maidan.

The initial plan was to visit both Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin Dargah and be done with the whole thing by noon. So we started at 8, reaching our location by 9:30.  Humayun’s tomb is a World Heritage site and therefore Indian’s are charged ₹30, whereas foreigners are charged ₹500. The amount the foreigners are charged is paltry when compared to what they charge in Europe and USA. Typically the entry fee is around $25-$30 in most of the developed countries. It is time that we started charging similar fees in our monuments. I don’t mean it as a tit-for-tat policy, but an application of rich-should-pay-more principle.

It is better to reach Humayun’s Tomb early in the morning if you are visiting in the months from April-October. August-October is bearable, but in months prior to that, I don’t recommend visiting Delhi at all. The summer heat is simply unbearable in these times.

Guide Book

I am using the book Delhi: 14 historic walks to assist me in visiting the different places in Delhi in a sensible order. It is written by a historian and in that way it supplements the knowledge that I have about the history of the city. In addition, it is written in a narrative format which I find very useful. The only grouse that I have against the publisher, is the quality of maps provided in the kindle edition book. They are unusable for any purposes whatsoever. As for the book itself, I shall provide a review, once I am done with it.

Layout of the Monument

Humayun's Tomb Map

Humayun’s Tomb Map

In the above layout, 2 things are not marked. There are two structures in between item 1 and 3. The first structure is the Eastern Gate of the Tomb of Bu Lalima Garden. The structure is the Gate of Arab Sarai.

Tomb of Bu Halima

Item 1 in the above layout is the tomb of Bu Lalima. Not much is known about the identity of the person who has been buried here. It is an unremarkable structure which looks like a square platform. There are enclosure walls on all sides of which the western wall has a gap now. This gap was made so that the structure is accessible from the western side. Earlier this was a stand alone tomb with its own garden. This compound was earlier occupied by local population until they were evacuated for conservation purposes.

In the guide book, I was unable to make out which was the tomb of Bu Halima because the map was unclear. However, common sense prevailed and after some roaming around, I figured which is which. I paused sometime to observe the tomb. There was a huge wasp nest in one of the side chambers and I backed off from further exploration. It points out to the sorry state of conservation in our country. Only the main monument get some attention. The other subsidiary structures are almost completely ignored.

Tomb of Isa Khan Niazi

This is the first building that you see when you enter the Humayun’s Tomb complex. This tomb belongs to Isa Khan Niazi, who was an important noble in the court of Sher Shah Suri. The tomb was built during his lifetime and there are multiple tombs within the mausoleum. They must belong to his family, even though there are no inscriptions available.

There are three structure that are particularly of note (as mentioned in the book). The first thing is the gateway, which carries both corbelled and arcuate elements, clearly demonstrating the presultante hangover of Indian artisans. I would have missed this feature, if not for the book. I found it very amusing. The gateway and the wall reminded me of the Alai minar and other similar structures that I had encountered in the Qutb complex, which closely resemble the construction here.

Once you enter the complex you are greeted with the mausoleum of Isa Khan Niazi. The whole building is octagonal in shape with double pillars with a central dome. There are eight chhatris that surround the central dome and there is a sloping chhaja above the verandah. You can also find kankuras on the roof, which are usually betterments made on fortified structures (like the ones you find over Shaniwar Wada Fort, Pune). The building is made of a mix of quartzite and sandstone and is belongs to the late Sultanate period.

One fact that I would never had known if not for the book is how to enter Islamic tombs. The body is laid in a north-south manner with feet to the south and the face towards the West (in India) i.e looking at Mecca. Therefore when you enter the compound, you are not actually entering the entrance to the tomb, which is on the other side. I saw some students who never figured this out and left without entering the inside.

On the west of the tomb is a mosque with three mihrabs (which point to the direction of Mecca, since Muslims alway pray facing Mecca). There is a well in front of the mosque which has been littered with plastic bottles. I felt sad seeing the state of affairs in our country. We litter our national monuments with no regard for their value. Like the Bu Halima enclosure, this structure was also housing a civilian populace until the early twentieth century, who were evacuated for conservation purposes.

Both the mosque and the tomb had glazed coloured tile decoration on their dome and body. I found it very attractive. It seemed a very Persian characteristic.

Arab Sarai Gate

Once you pass through the east gate, you find yourself a specimen the tis typical of the early Mughal Architecture. It is called the gate of the Arab Sarai. It is said that this gate and the complex beyond housed the artisans who had come from Persia to build the Humayun’s tomb. You can see inlay patterns in different coloured stones used for decorating the structure. There are also jharokas which would later emerge as a very prominent structure in Mughal buildings with Akbar initiating rituals like “Jharoka Darshan”.

You can sit in the side recesses of the gate, where you can enjoy the cool breeze and listen to the parakeets that keep chirping. It is a very relaxing experience.

Afsarwala Tomb and Mosque

Item number 3 marked on the map are two structures called Afssarwala mosque and a tomb that lies next to it. The name simply means officer’s tomb and mosque. No one knows of the patron of these structures or who is buried there.

However, there is one thing that needs to be mentioned. Here too when I tried to enter the tomb, two three stray dogs seemed to be relaxing inside the structure. They stood up when they saw me and barked threateningly. I was pretty sure they would have charged had I approached. Like the Bu Halima tomb chamber, this was also a threat to the safety of an unsuspecting tourist. It is sad that this is the state of affair in one of the world heritage monuments in our country.

Jahangiri Mandi & Baoli

Even though the book mentions these two items, I failed to find them. I did not find them initially, so I decided that I’ll check out the main tomb and then get back to these. However, I forgot these two towards the end. Apparently the baioli here is constructed in the Malwa style (unlike the ones found in Delhi which followed the stepped construction). Jahangiri mandi was constructed by a eunuch of his court as a wholesale market.

Humayun’s Tomb

Once through all these structures, you reach the western gate of the Humayun’s tomb. This gate is very similar to the gate that you find to the Taj Mahal, only less grand. There is the six pointed star which is an auspicious mark, the perfect arches, recessed alcoves, the chhatris on top of the gate; these are some of the architectural features that draw your attention. Through the arch of the gateway you see the tomb (much like the Taj). However, in case of Humayun’s tomb, the elements are predominantly sandstone based (unlike Taj, which is marble)

Once you are through the gate, you reach the huge chahar bagh ( Mughal garden). The lawn based garden is a colonial legacy. The original Mughal garden was full of trees and orchards. It doesn’t make sense to have vast lawns in a tropical climate like that of Delhi. It only adds to the heat of the surroundings. The British had failed to understand or take in the needs of Indian climate. They simply recreated the European concept of a well maintained garden.

@ the Western Front of the Humayun's Tomb

@ the Western Front of the Humayun’s Tomb

You can see that the Tomb is in fact standing on a large sandstone platform which is arcaded on all sides. You can climb the platform from any of the four sides. The southern side was meant to be the real approach side. Therefore I did not climb the western entrance which every other person was climbing. I walked from the western end to the southern end. Once you reach the southern side, you can see that the gateway on the far end is much more elaborate.

The platform is not laid with marble, but quartzite which was very much an Indian element. There is no lotus crest on top of the dome, which is very typical of Central and West Asian buildings of the time.

From the southern side of the tomb, I climbed the stairs. The stairs too were not as steep as the ones in Taj ( Taj had steep steps and also it had a bent at the middle. Here you simply climbed straight). Once you reach the top of the platform, you see before you this majestic structure, which has the signature of both Akbar, and Humayun’s widow. I thought of the numerous artisans and builders from different lands who must have toiled day and night so that one man could rest in all glory and find peace!

You can find a lot of inlay in stone, instead of stone carvings being used to decorate the tomb. The central chamber consists of the cenotaph of Humayun. The body however is buried deeper underground. There are other chambers also in the adjacent rooms which are supposed to belong to his wives and daughters.

You will find cenotaphs on the platform also which are not identifiable with any inscriptions. It is said that Dara Shukoh, the philosopher son of Shah Jahan is resting in the cenotaph that lies closest to the northern stairs.

I walked around the tomb taking in all its beauty and enjoying its construction. Besides the tomb, you can see the surrounding garden and also hear sounds of the city beyond those walls. I could hear trains blaring their horns from the Nizamuddin station that lay beyond the walls. Would the kings who visited these buildings have even thought in their wildest dreams that such an iron vehicle that could be propelled by the power derived from fossil fuels was going to symbolise the Raj which would sound their death knell. The trains blared their horns as if reminding the Mughals who lay there of the legacy of the British Raj.

I descended the northern stairs and walked towards the end of the wall. There I could see the northern pavilion. Then I walked along the wall towards the north eastern pavilion which would have overlooked the river. I was able to find out the sloping nature of the terrain. At the end of the tomb compound, there was a Sikh Gurudwara. It lay below the river terrace. There must have been a river flowing there!

Once this was done, I walked around the tomb platform one more time. It was already noon and the sun was right above my head. Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah would have to be covered another day. There is a lesson to be learned in visiting the monuments of Delhi. Set aside atleast a day for a monument if you are a serious visitor. Humayun’s tomb complex could be covered in around 2-3 hours time, if you simply would like to see everything and not look at every single feature. Otherwise, prepare to spend a day within the complex.

State of Preservation

Except for the main tomb, the state of preservation of these monuments reflect a state of general neglect. The place seemed to be littered at many places with the lawn of Bu Halima and Isa Khan Niazi strewn with plastic bottles and covers. However, this is not to be blamed on the authorities alone. The visitors seem to care more about clicking selfies rather than appreciating the historic and cultural significance of these structures. It is important to have state trained guides in these destinations to show visitors around and explain the history of the place.

Many of the structures like Bu Halima tomb did not even have proper markers to identify them. I shudder to think what the state of neglected monuments in India would be if the protected ones are like this. There is a need to instill some historical sense in both the government and the general public.

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