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Humayun’s Tomb- An Excerpt From ‘The Forgotten Cities Of Delhi’ By Rana Safvi

“Emperor Humayun’s tomb was the first tomb built on this Persian principle of ‘Char Bagh’ or paradisiacal tombs.”

Emperor Humayun’s Tomb

‘As for the righteous, they will be in the midst of gardens and rivers, in and assembly of truth, in the presence of a Sovereign Omnipotent.’

[Surat al-Qamar, 54: 54-55]

Paradise as described in the Quran will have rivers of milk and honey and gardens with trees in it. In fact, the word ‘jannat’ (or paradise) means a garden set with trees, surrounded by eight principal gates.

There are eight levels of Paradise, and man is not allowed the seventh and last level called ‘al-arsh’ (allegorical for God’s throne). This led to the concept of ‘hasht bihist’ (or Eight Heavens) for funerary monuments. Hasht bihist is a Persian architectural term which refers to a specific type of floor plan, divided into eight chambers that surround a central room. These tombs were square or rectangular planned buildings, divided into nine sections such that a central domed chamber is surrounded by eight elements.

The flowing rivers in Persian and Mughal tombs are modelled on the four rivers which flow in jannat, namely Saihan (Syr dariya), Jaihan (Amu dariya), Furat (Euphrates), Nil (Nile) and a spring named Salsabeel which is the source of the Rivers of Rahma (mercy) and Kausar (abundance). All this imagery is supposed to help the soul of the dead man gain forgiveness and entry into Paradise.

Emperor Humayun’s tomb was the first tomb built on this Persian principle of ‘Char Bagh’ or paradisiacal tombs. The tomb when built was surrounded by gardens with cypress trees and flowerbeds. There were water canals flowing all around it, with fountains flowing in the hauz at intervals. The hauz and water channels are still there, and all but the central one do not work. The garden had become completely desolate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for a brief time was used for agricultural cultivation.

Lord Curzon, responsible for saving many of India’s architectural treasures, helped preserve Emperor Humayun’s tomb.

Har ke mi khwahad ke binad shakl e Firdaus e Bareen
Go baya een Qasr wa een Bagh e Humayun ra ba-been
(Anybody who wants to have a glimpse of Heaven on Earth,
Should be invited to see this tomb and garden of Humayun Badshah)*

[*Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Asar us Sanadid, (Chennai: Tulika Books, 2018)]

Emperor Humayun died on 21 January 1555 and was buried in Kilokhari. His wife Haji Begum built this tomb and interred him here.

There is a lot of confusion about the identity of Haji Begum, the builder of this tomb. Was she Bega Begum, Emperor Humayun’s first wife, or Hamida Bano Begum the last? Sir Syed identifies Haji Begum as Hamida Bano Begum, the mother of Emperor Akbar. Gul Badan Begum, the writer of Humayun Nama, identifies Bega Begum as Haji Begum, Emperor Humayun’s first cousin and first wife. A reference from 1696 AD identifies her as Emperor Akbar’s stepmother, and so it is clear that Haji Begum and Hamida Bano Begum are two different persons.

In the Indian Travels of Therenot and Carri we find this: ‘Upon the road from Agra to Bayana there is a royal house built by the queen mother (step) of Eebar [Emperor Akbar] with gardens kept in very good order’.

The Humayun Nama also mentions: ‘She remained there with the other ladies when Emperor Humayun made this expedition to recover Hindustan, and she came with Hamida and Gul-Badan and the rest to join Emperor Akbar in 964 AH (1557 AD). After this she built her husband’s tomb near Dihli, and became its faithful attendant.’

To my mind, the confusion may have arisen from the fact that although Emperor Akbar was extremely fond of her, Bega Begum was not Emperor Humayun’s favourite. He left her behind after his defeat in the Battle of Chausa where she was taken captive by Emperor Sher Shah. The latter had her escorted with full honour to Emperor Humayun’s camp in Agra later.

The construction of Emperor Humayun’s tomb was started in 1565 AD in the fourteenth year of Emperor Akbar’s reign. It took sixteen years to complete this and cost 15 lakh rupees at the time. Most of the expense was borne by Emperor Akbar.

The chief architect of these tombs was Mir Mirak Ghiyas of Herat, identified as a stonecutter in Emperor Babur’s memoirs. He had worked extensively in Bukhara, and his area of speciality was buildings and landscape architecture. He died before the tomb was completed, and his son completed the project in 1571 AD.

This tomb is also the dormitory of the Timurids, with over 150 royals of that family buried here. This is the only tomb in the world to have the graves of so many emperors, queens, princes and princesses. It is one of the most magnificent monuments of India and perhaps the world. Despite its size, it is delicate and beautifully symmetrical.

This was the first grand tomb of the Mughals and influenced all the others that followed. It is the first distinct example of proper Mughal style, which was inspired by Persian architecture. The tomb proper stands in the centre of a square garden, divided into four main parterres by causeways, in the centre of which ran shallow water-channels. The high rubble built enclosure is entered via two lofty double-storeyed gateways on the west and south. A baradari (pavilion) occupies the centre of the eastern wall and a hammam in the centre of northern wall.

The square red sandstone double-storeyed structure of the mausoleum with chamfered corners rises from a seven-metre high square terrace, raised over a series of cells, which are accessible through arches on each side. The grave proper in the centre of this cell-complex is reached by a passage on the south. The octagonal central chamber contains the cenotaph, and the diagonal sides lead to corner-chambers which house the graves of other members of the royal family. Externally, each side of the tomb and its elevations are decorated by marble borders and panels, and dominated by three arched alcoves, the central one being the highest. Over the roof, pillared kiosks are disposed around the high emphatic double dome in the centre. The central octagonal chamber contains the cenotaph, surrounded by octagonal chambers on the sides. Perforated screens are placed on the windows. There are three arches on each side with the central one being larger on each side. This plan is repeated on the second storey too. The roof surmounted by a double dome (42.5 metre) of marble has pillared chhatris (kiosks) placed around it.

This mausoleum is a perfect blend of Persian architecture and Indian traditions. While Sikandar Lodi’s tomb was the first garden-tomb to be built in India, it was Emperor Humayun’s tomb that went on to become a template, resulting in the Taj Mahal at Agra. There is also a somewhat common human angle to both monuments: one erected by a devoted wife for her husband, and the other by an equally – or more devoted – husband for his wife.

The tomb has two magnificent gateways, a western and southern one. The western darwaza which we use today is unparalleled in its attractiveness and elegance. It has apartments on top, which must have once housed the people who took care of it. Every apartment has a different entrance and stairs. The southern darwaza has arches and platforms. Sir Syed likens the two gates to Gates of Heaven. They were built of red sandstone and ‘sang-e- rukham’ (alabaster) used to look like marble. The waterworks for the streams and fountains were housed in a pavilion in the eastern wall which bordered the river Yamuna. They can be seen from the Damdama Gurudwara. The British used the southern gateway as a ‘Dar-ul-Iqama’ or rest house. The officers who came here to visit it would stay in it.

This complex houses the graves of Hamida Bano Mariyam Makani, Mohammad Azam Shah, Emperors Farukhsiyar, Jahandar Shah, Rafi-ud- Daula and Alamgir II. But perhaps the most important is the tomb of Dara Shukoh.

Dara Shukoh was killed very close to this tomb in a Kilokhari palace where he had been imprisoned, beheaded, and later buried here. This is also famous as Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s last place of refuge in 1857.


Rana Safvi is an author, historian, blogger and is engaged in documenting of India’s Syncretic past. Her book The Forgotten Cities of Delhi (HarperCollins India), is book two of the Where Stones Speak trilogy.

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