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India's Wonders: Humayun's Tomb

India’s Wonders: Humayun’s Tomb
Eighty years before the Taj Mahal was built, the mighty Mughal Empire established a new style of art and architecture that would enrich India for centuries to come

The Mughal Empire may have faded nearly 200 years ago, but its legacy lives on in New Delhi.


Near the Yamuna River in the medieval Muslim hub of Nizamuddin stands the final resting place of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun.

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ommissioned by the emperor’s first wife and chief consort, the Persia-born Haji Begum, and built in 1570, Humayun’s tomb is a masterpiece: a striking red sandstone structure, inlaid with white and black marble, with a bulbous white dome that seems to float above the four lush, symmetrical gardens that surround it.

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ar from being just a mausoleum for one man, however, Humayun’s tomb was the first grand garden-tomb built in India, and it would influence Mughal architecture for centuries to come.

Refining the
Mughal Style
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umayun’s tomb features a distinctive blend of Persian and Mughal design elements guided by Islamic principles of geometry. These unique foreign influences helped pioneer a style distinguished by the use of sandstone and marble, delicate latticework, Persian calligraphic inscriptions, onion-shaped domes, recessed archways and charbagh — quartered gardens, divided by walkways or flowing water, that represent the four gardens of Paradise in the Koran.

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s time wore on, Humayun’s tomb would house the remains of over 150 Mughal family members, including his wife Haji Begum and reputedly his favorite barber, too. In 1857, the complex provided refuge for the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, before he was exiled by the British Raj.

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he tomb’s influence, of course, extends to one of India’s most famous landmarks: the Taj Mahal. The construction of India’s ‘monument to love’ in 1653 marked the apex of Mughal architecture, but it would not exist if Humayun’s tomb had not provided a blueprint for it 80 years prior.


Yet it is something of a paradox that such a significant structure was built to honour an emperor who never had more than tenuous grip on power — an emperor who lived in exile for 15 years.

A Fractured India and the Exile of Emperor Humayun
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ince 1206, much of India had been ruled by the Delhi Sultanate, Turkic-Muslim rulers who overtook a divided Subcontinent following the spread of Islam out of the Middle East. This 320-year succession of dynasties transformed concepts of equality and governance, synthesised Islamic and Indian culture and repelled Mongol advances. But it also suffered from the often-hostile clash of Muslim Turks with Hindu and Buddhist Indians. Not to mention in-fighting.


The Sultanate finally fractured in 1526. Daulat Khan Lodhi, the governor of Lahore, invited the ruler of Kabul at the time, Babur — a warrior-prince from the Fergana Valley in modern-day Uzbekistan and descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan — to invade Delhi and sack the unpopular sultan Ibrahim Lodhi. Thanks to Babur’s military might and knowledge of gunpowder firearms, his army defeated the Lodhi Dynasty army at the Battle of Panipat. Having struggled to solidify his own domain in Central Asia, Babur finally assumed power in Delhi, establishing the Mughal Empire.

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hilst Babur was known for his might and military savvy, his first son Humayun was not. When Babur died in 1530, 22-year-old Humayun proved unable to consolidate power. After only 10 years as emperor, Humayun was ousted by supporters of the Lodhi Sultanate, led by Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri, and would go into a 15-year exile in outposts of the Persian Safavid Empire.


This exile, however, would shape Mughal art, architecture and military in the future. In Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, Humayun developed a taste for Persian painting and poetry. When Humayun overtook a Delhi embroiled in chaos in 1555, he did so with thousands of Persian literary and military figures — as well as his son, Akbar, who was born in exile — in tow.


Despite its rulers’ Central Asian roots, the Mughal Empire would be most greatly influenced by the culture, religion and art Humayun experienced in Persia.

The Death of the Emperor, the Rise of an Empire
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umayun’s return to power would be short-lived. After only six months, he suffered a fall and died from his injuries. Whilst his reign may not have been extraordinary, his legacy would be.


As Humayun’s son Akbar cemented a favored reputation — uniting almost all of India, extending religious freedoms and founding an administrative system that would last into British rule — Haji Begum planted the seeds from which Mughal art and architecture would bloom, ordering the construction of the greatest mausoleum the Muslim world had seen to that point.


Today, visitors can experience Humayun’s tomb in its original splendor. The UNESCO World Heritage Site recently underwent six years of restoration work that stripped it of ungainly cement fortifications and returned to its architectural integrity.


The garden-tomb that inspired the iconic Taj Mahal has rightly regained its status as one of India’s most incredible monuments.

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