Magnificent mausoleum

A milestone in Indo-Islamic architecture, Humayun’s Tomb introduced several architectural innovations in the tradition of tomb and garden landscape in India.

Published : Jul 04, 2018 12:30 IST

Humayun’s Tomb.   The white marble cenotaph in the central octagonal tomb chamber with its well-proportioned storeys of arched openings and carved stone jalis. The surrounding floor is decorated in a simple pattern of stars in black and white  marble.

Humayun’s Tomb. The white marble cenotaph in the central octagonal tomb chamber with its well-proportioned storeys of arched openings and carved stone jalis. The surrounding floor is decorated in a simple pattern of stars in black and white marble.

L ocated on the banks of the Yamuna, as it flowed then, close to the shrine of one of the most famous Sufi saints of the subcontinent, Nizamuddin Auliya, is the tomb of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, it introduced several architectural innovations in the tradition of tomb and garden landscape in India. On account of its architectural uniqueness, the tomb is also described as a “Precursor of the Taj”. The structure borrowed from Iranian elements and also improvised on them to create a milestone in Indo-Islamic architecture. As the scholar Glenn D. Lowry says, “The symbolic qualities of Humayun’s tomb reflect [a] bold attempt to create an architecture which grows out of, but is distinct from, earlier Islamic buildings in India and Iran, the two poles of the Mughal world.” He further says, “The tomb’s features were so different from those of other structures that it was impossible to define them with the normal vocabulary of funerary architecture.”

Humayun was the son of Babur, the king of Kabul and a descendant of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan and Timur/Tamerlane, the Turko-Mongol conqueror and founder of the Timurid empire in Persia and Central Asia. Defeating Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, at the First Battle of Panipat (1526), Babur laid the foundations of the Mughal (corruption of the word Mongol) empire in India. Humayun was a person of several interests, including astronomy, painting, calligraphy and collecting handwritten and hand-painted books. He was also very superstitious. Soon after ascending the throne in 1530, he laid the foundations of a new city called Dinpanah (“Refuge of the Faithful”) in the complex now known as Purana Qila (“Old Fort”) in Delhi. His city project and reign was, however, constantly interrupted by rebellions and the rise of the Afghan chieftain Sher Khan in the Bihar-Bengal region and Bahadur Shah in the Malwa-Gujarat area. Sher Khan first trapped Humayun in Bengal and then defeated him successively at Chausa (1539), on the banks of the Ganges (the emperor barely escaped with his life with the help of a bhishti , or water carrier), and at Kannauj (1540). He then took charge of Delhi under the title of Sher Shah, founded the Sur dynasty, and took Humayun’s city project further. Humayun and his family had to flee Delhi and spend a long time wandering in Lahore, Sindh and on the borders of his empire. It was during this 13-year exile that his wife, Hamida Banu Begum, gave birth to Akbar, the future emperor, on October 15, 1542.

Humayun and his family finally found refuge in Persia (Iran) in 1544 and received the warm hospitality of its emperor Shah Tahmasp. During his stay in Persia, Humayun visited Herat, the great Islamic city, and learnt a lot about Persian courts, gardens and paintings. When he finally returned to Hindustan, he brought with him two painters who introduced miniature-style techniques. With the Persian emperor’s military support, Humayun also regained the throne of Delhi (1555) from Sher Shah’s weak successors and is said to have completed his palace-fort at Dinpanah. He did not live for much longer thereafter. On January 27, 1556, while on the roof of his library Sher Mandal (in Purana Qila), he heard the call to prayer. Rushing, in a hurry the 48-year-old emperor apparently tripped over his robe and fell to his death from the steep steps.

The construction

The historical circumstances surrounding the construction of Humayun’s Tomb were in some ways unique. This was the first important Mughal monument being constructed on Indian soil. His predecessor, Babur, had laid the foundations of Persian-style gardens in India (at Dholpur, Gwalior and Agra) and built mosques (at Sambhal and Panipat). Babur was temporarily buried in Agra but finally entombed in a beautiful garden on the banks of River Kabul known as Bagh-e-Babur (Garden of Babur).

Unlike many former emperors of Delhi, Humayun did not construct a tomb for himself. Perhaps he never had the time to do so. It was built several years after his death. He was initially buried in his palace in Purana Qila. Some scholars say that his remains were taken to a temporary tomb in Sirhind (Punjab) to secure them from possible damage by Hemu, the Hindu king who had risen to power as Afghan ruler Adil Shah Sur’s general. Hemu had defeated the Mughal governor of Delhi, Tardi Beg Khan, near Tughlaqabad (1556) and assumed the throne under the title Raja Vikramaditya . Soon after, Akbar defeated Hemu at the Second Battle of Panipat (1556) and Humayun was reburied in Sher Mandal. Finally, in 1565, nine years after his death, the construction of the former emperor’s tomb began. The site was located on the banks of the Yamuna, close to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. The saint’s residence, Chilla Nizamuddin Auliya, lies just north-east of Humayun’s Tomb. The structure was completed in 1572 at the cost of Rs.15 lakh.

Scholars are divided over the question of who built the tomb. It was obviously built during the reign of Akbar, but the question revolves more around who played the leading role. Some like S.A.A. Naqvi say it was Humayun’s widow Bega Begum, while others like Percival Spear give the credit to his other wife, Hamida Banu. However, if one were to go by an inscription on the site, the tomb was built by “Haji Begum”. “Haji” means someone who has gone on the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. This means either of Humayun’s two wives—Hamida Banu (Akbar’s mother) or Bega Begum—could have built the monument. The art historian Ebba Koch further problematises this question. She says the role that Haji Begum (d. 1582) played in the construction of the tomb has been overemphasised by past scholarship. Citing Abu’l Fazl, the main chronicler of Akbar’s reign, she argues that Humayun’s widow merely took charge of the maintenance of the mausoleum during the last two years of her life. On the other hand, the renowned historian of Mughal India Irfan Habib opines that Haji Begum’s role in overseeing the construction of the tomb gave her status and prestige. She took up residence in Delhi while her beloved son Akbar lived in Agra, then the capital of the empire. Habib says, “Humayun was the only husband she had, and she devoted her life to the construction of the tomb.”

There is relatively greater clarity in the information regarding the architect of the tomb. Information regarding the architect is provided in two contemporary texts, those by Badauni and Bahauddin Bukhari. Of these, Badauni mentions only Mirak Mirza Ghiyas as the architect. On the other hand, Ebba Koch, referring to the other 16th century text (by Bukhari) traced by the historian Simon Digby, says that Mirak Mirza Ghiyas and his son Sayyid Muhammad were known architects and poets who had worked for the Timurid court at Herat, for Babur in India and for the Uzbeg king in Bukhara during Humayun’s exile. Once the Mughals came back to power, the son returned to India and was later assigned the construction of Humayun’s tomb.

The tomb

The mausoleum is placed on a high quartzite podium (about 6.5 metres high) containing 17 arched openings on each side giving access to burial chambers. The corners of the platform are cut at an angle to meet the corners of the tomb above, while a central archway gives access, via steep steps, to the tomb platform. The platform is surrounded by a garden spread over 30 acres. Ebba Koch says it is the first of the grand dynastic mausoleums that were to become synonymous with Mughal architecture. It is here that, for the first time, the monumental scale, so characteristic of imperial projects, is attained.

The tomb garden (an expression used to describe the entire complex) is enclosed by 4.6 m-thick plastered rubble walls which are 5.8 m high on the northern, southern and western sides. On the eastern side was the Yamuna, which has since moved away from the structure. The centre of the eastern wall has a baradari (literally, “a pavilion with 12 doors”) or a decorative pavilion, with a verandah on the eastern front to give a good view of the river. The northern wall has an arcaded pavilion containing an octagonal tank and probably a hammam (bath chamber). Behind this pavilion is a rubble-built circular well which supplied water to the bath and the channels of the garden. Water was also supplied from a well outside the western wall and from the Yamuna on the eastern side with the help of chutes and channels. The central walkways of the garden terminate at two double-storey gates: a main one in the southern wall and a smaller one in the western wall. The West gate is now the public entrance to the tomb garden, while the South gate remains closed.

Three kinds of stones have been used in the construction of the mausoleum and the walls. The main building is made of pink, red or yellow sandstone with marble panels and a marble-covered dome. The enclosure walls and two gateways have been built from local quartzite with red sandstone and marble inlay. The red sandstone for the main building came from Tantpur near Agra, while the marble came from Makrana in Rajasthan.

Architecture and symbolism

While the mausoleum has several distinguishing features, some stand out—the radially symmetrical plan; the hasht bahist layout (“eight paradises” or Baghdadi octagon); the range of three great arches on each side; the chahar bagh (fourfold garden); the bulbous double dome on a high drum; a high portal in the front elevation; the coloured tile work; and the arch-netting in vaults. All these had strong Timurid and Persian associations. However, as Naqvi argues, the tomb also drew on elements from pre-Mughal India such as the red sandstone and white marble combination, lotus-bud fringed arches, jalis (perforated stone screens), chajjas (overhanging eaves) and corbelled ornamental brackets. One could even add the Hindu chhatris (umbrella-shaped cupolas).

The red sandstone-white marble combination, Naqvi says, was a favoured architectural scheme ever since it first made its appearance in the Alai Darwaza built by the Delhi Sultan, Alauddin Khalji, at the Qutb Minar complex around 1311. Further, this scheme remained prominent under the Delhi Sultanate until the construction of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb (in Tuglaqabad Fort) in 1325. Thereafter it disappeared for most part of the 15th century and is seen again in the Lodi period in Moth ki Masjid (a mosque built in c. 1505 in South Extension Part II) and in some buildings belonging to the early Mughal period such as the mosque of Jamali-Kamali (c. 1528-29 in Mehrauli Archaeological Park), the Qila-i-Kuhna Masjid (c. 1534 in Purana Qila), and the tomb of Atgah Khan (c. 1566-67 in Nizamuddin Village Area). Under the Mughals, Naqvi underscores, this combination became the standard means of finishing a building.

The red and white contrast of sandstone and marble is used very effectively in Humayun’s Tomb. Plain surface decoration mostly reinforces the tomb’s structural form—yellow sandstone spandrels and white marble panels are used as narrow bands to frame each arch. The building was decorated by lime plaster work and ceramic tiles using geometric and plant patterns as motifs. The decorative six-sided stars—seen in many Islamic buildings as well as in Judaic, Christian and Hindu structures—appear here in the spandrels of the main arches and have a raised marble lotus in their centre. A kangura (merlon or ornamental band) frames the terrace while guldastas (flower bunches) protrude from the angular points.

Three features of the tomb, however, deserve special treatment—the paradise tomb garden, the hasht bahist (“eight paradises”) or ninefold plan, and the true double dome.

Humayun’s Tomb was set up in a walled garden with flowing water and trees bearing flowers and fruits. This symbolically represented the Paradise Garden in the Quran. The historian Narayani Gupta explains that the English word “paradise” comes from the Persian word pairi daeza meaning “walled garden”. This concept evolved over a period of time.

Paradise garden

Babur had introduced an innovative layout known as the chahar bagh in Persian, char bagh in Urdu or the fourfold garden in English. The Timurid-Persian scheme of a walled garden was divided into four quarters by raised walkways and canals. The next stage in the evolution of garden architecture was the tomb garden. Naqvi says that tomb gardens, including those of Humayun’s in Delhi, Akbar’s in Sikandra, Jahangir’s in Lahore, Itmad-ud Daulah’s in Agra and Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, are considered the greatest innovations of the Mughals in garden architecture. Symbolically, they represented the Islamic paradise garden, with the emperor forever in paradise. The large square enclosure divided with geometric precision represented the ordered universe. Naqvi underlines that the tomb rose like a cosmic mountain above the four rivers represented by four water channels. Eternal flowers, herbs, fruits, water and birds, such as those found in paradise, added further character to the tomb gardens.

The classical char bagh Mughal garden in Humayun’s tomb is divided into four parts/squares by paved walkways ( khiyabans ) and two bisecting central water channels. These channels disappear beneath the mausoleum and reappear on the other side in a straight line, creating a visual symbolism of the four rivers flowing beneath the Islamic “Garden of Paradise”. Each of the four squares is further divided into smaller squares with walkways, creating 36 squares in all. Such walkways are, in turn, underlined by water channels flowing along their centres.

The points of intersection between the walkways are marked by octagonal or rectangular pools and fountains. They also contain platforms where tents could be pitched for visitors in the past.

The crown of the garden is the mausoleum inspired by the concept of hasht bahist , an allusion to the eight gates of the paradise garden. Ebba Koch says the concept has been interpreted as a reference to the eight rooms surrounding the central chamber. Further, the Mughals derived this concept from their late/post Timurid tradition. Ebba Koch points out that an abbreviated form of the scheme makes its appearance in monuments such as the Sabz Burj and Nila Gumbad near the tomb; a fuller version in the khanqah (hospice) of Shaikh Armani in Deh-i Minar, south west of Herat (late 15th century); and a more complex variety in the khanqah of Qasim Shaikh at Kermin, north-east of Bukhara (1558-59). However, as she elucidates, unlike the preserved Timurid buildings which employed a strict ninefold plan more as an exception than a rule, Mughal architecture adopted and further developed the model in a perfect symmetry, and this was faithfully reflected in the elevation.

Ebba Koch explains that the complete ninefold plan—as it became current in Mughal architecture—consists of a square (or rectangle), sometimes with corners fortified by towers but more often chamfered to form an irregular octagon (termed muthamman baghdadi by the Mughals). The layout is divided into nine parts by four intersecting construction lines, comprising a chamber in the centre and rectangular open halls in the middle of the sides.

The design of the mausoleum, Ebba Koch further adds, also appears to have been inspired by Humayun’s wooden boat palace, known to us only through its description by Khwandamir (d. 1532, author of Humayun Nama ). The floating palace on the Yamuna was made of four two-storey pavilions ( chahar taq ) on boats joined together in such a way that between each of the four ( chahar ) an arch or arched unit ( taq ) was produced. The eight hasht bahist units—Khwandamir uses the synonym hasht jannat —formed an octagonal pool between them. Lisa Golombek, a scholar of Islamic Arts, says that Humayun simulated a nine-part pavilion, a hasht bahist , on water, leaving the central octagon void rather than covering it with a dome as in actual buildings. She argues that a poem following the description of the structure leaves little doubt that Humayun was consciously creating such a garden pavilion: “And by the union of char taq (units), eight heavens (that is, hasht bahist ) have appeared there. A reservoir like the kawthar (the pool of paradise) has appeared between them.” And, to complete the picture, Humayun planted several barges with fruit trees, flowering plants and vegetables.

Lisa Golombek underscores the point that the transformation of Timurid ideas in India marks an important and complex chapter in the history of cultural borrowing. The cemetery in the Islamic tradition, she says, was often referred to as rawda , a garden—alluding to the paradise garden. At Humayun’s Tomb, the idea was given its first literal interpretation and the nine-part plan of the pavilion reflected the composition of Heaven itself. She argues that although the plan had acquired a metaphorical meaning in Iran, it became far more explicit in the tombs of Mughal India.

The mausoleum consists of five linked Baghdadi octagons—the one in the centre is taller than the others and contains the main tomb chamber. Architect Lucy Peck says this is the first example in India of a multi-chambered tomb where the linked chambers are visually independent of each other. The entrance to the central chamber has a beautiful ceiling adorned by coloured plaster designed like the leaves of a palm tree. The central chamber has well-proportioned storeys of arched openings and a notional mihrab on each of the west-facing jalis (screens). The two-storeyed octagonal tomb chamber is surrounded by smaller octagonal tomb chambers at diagonal points—each housing several tombstones. The white marble cenotaph lies in the centre of the central chamber and the surrounding floor is decorated in a simple pattern of stars in black and white marble. The four sides of the once-heavily gilded and enamelled chamber are pierced by carved stone jalis . William Finch, an English merchant who visited the tomb in 1611, describes the rich interior furnishing of the central chamber. He mentions that it contained rich carpets and a shamiana, a small tent, above the cenotaph covered with a pure white sheet. Copies of the Quran were kept in front of the cenotaph along with Humayun’s sword, turban and shoes.

The main chamber is roofed by a double dome which makes its first appearance in the tomb of Sikander Lodi at Lodi Gardens, Delhi. The one at Humayun’s Tomb, however, is the first true double dome which is mounted on a drum. It has two masonry shells—the outer shell covered by a bulbous marble dome gave it (and the building) an imposing height, while the inner shell kept the ceiling of the central hall in proportion with the interior heights. The inner shell also took care of the acoustics. This double dome also happened to be, as Naqvi says, the first major full-rounded dome to be seen in India. All earlier domes could not sketch a complete semicircle. The outer dome is surrounded by roof pavilions—which, some historians believe, served as a madrasa (college) when the tomb was a living monument—along with other chattris and guldastas . They also masked the drum from public view. Gupta points out that blue, green, white and yellow tiles—the kind made in Central Asia—covered the rooftop cupolas as also the walls of the tomb chamber.

The dome is surmounted by a finial as high as a two-storeyed house. The original finial of the tomb was knocked off by a heavy storm in 2014 and was later replaced by an 18-foot replica consisting of a sal wood core and 11 copper vessels topped with a brass piece and coated in gold. The restored finial was unveiled in 2016.

The tomb garden after Akbar

The process of the decline of the monument started soon after its construction. With the shifting of the capital to Agra in 1556, the monument began to lose its importance. The decline of the Mughals in the 17th and 18th centuries further added to the woes of the tomb, creating severe problems relating to maintenance and upkeep. The tomb garden was being used to grow vegetables by people who had settled near the monument.

The proximity to the Nizamuddin dargah, however, kept alive the sacred importance of the place and many later Mughal emperors, princes, princesses and descendants of the royal family were buried within the complex during the 17th to 19th centuries. The mausoleum is said to house the graves of Humayun’s wives and Shah Jahan’s son and Aurangzeb’s brother, Dara Shikoh, besides several later Mughal emperors, including Jahandar Shah, Farrukhsiyar, Rafi Ul-Darjat, Rafi Ud-Daulat and Alamgir II. However, in the absence of inscriptions, it is difficult to identify the individual graves. There are more than 150 graves in Humayun’s Tomb and in the surrounding garden and the monument is sometimes known as the “Dormitory of the Mughals” or “Necropolis of the Mughal dynasty”.

Humayun’s Tomb came into the limelight during 1857 when the Mughal emperor and symbolic leader of the rebellion, Bahadur Shah Zafar, sought refuge in the tomb along with his three sons. They were arrested and the three princes were killed by Major William Hodson while Bahadur Shah Zafar was later tried in Red Fort and deported to Rangoon (Myanmar). With the suppression of the rebellion, Delhi came firmly under the control of the British. There was a change in the tomb garden’s landscape. Vegetable gardens were soon replaced by English-style gardens. Circular beds replaced the four central water pools on the axial pathways and trees were abundantly planted in flower beds. These anomalies were somewhat corrected by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, when the original gardens were recreated as a part of a restoration project between 1903 and 1909. The first report of the official curator of ancient monuments in India, published in 1882, mentioned that the main garden was let out to various cultivators, including some later royal descendants, and they were growing cabbage and tobacco in the area.

During the Partition and the communal riots thereafter, Humayun’s Tomb and Purana Qila became the site for refugee camps. R.V. Smith, historian and chronicler of Delhi, points out that initially, many Muslim families leaving for Pakistan took shelter in Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb, Nizamuddin Dargah complex, and in the tombs of Chote Khan and Bade Khan in South Extension-1. Later, these served as refugee camps for Hindus coming from Pakistan. These camps, which remained for almost five years, caused much damage to the principal structure, gardens and water channels. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which later took charge of the site, made efforts to restore the monument.

Humayun’s Tomb has been in the news in the recent past for renovation and restoration projects, involving, for the first time, private firms as well. The first major privately funded restoration in the complex was that of the garden accomplished through a partnership between the ASI and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) with the help of the National Culture Fund (NCF). This involved, among other things, restoring the monuments and green spaces; creation of a water circulation system for the walkway channels; planting of trees; and making the fountains functional again. Following the restoration of the garden, a “public-private partnership agreement” was signed in 2007 to restore the Humayun’s Tomb complex. The ASI and the AKTC partnered again, with funding from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, and the process was completed in 2013.

The AKTC hailed this restoration process as a departure in the history of conservation in India. The restoration was based on the premise that monuments could be economic assets and their conservation could generate wealth and employment. Also, the process could act as a catalyst for social change and urban revitalisation of the areas including and surrounding the heritage site, such as Sunder Nursery, Batashewala Complex and Nizamuddin Basti. According to the AKTC, departing from the “preserve as found approach”, the restoration was executed as “a model conservation process for the Indian context” and a combination of hi-tech methodology and traditional crafts-based approach was adopted.


The restoration work provoked sharp debates though not much is currently available by way of systematically written critiques. Some say it forms an “innovative attempt” while others say it amounts to making it “a caricature of the original tomb”. The art historian Katharina Weiler says such debates point to “the need for a critical dialogue with architectural preservation in India as an originally colonial discipline”. According to her, “the project’s aim to revitalise the architectural spirit of Humayun’s Tomb and original intentions of its builders can be regarded as an innovative attempt. The thoughtful understanding of aspects of authenticity justified a craft-based approach and set a benchmark for the discipline of conservation in the Indian context. Rightly so, inappropriate twentieth-century materials were removed and replaced with traditional materials.” Katharina Weiler argues that the “philosophy behind the conservation of Humayun’s Tomb preserved the design and original appearance of the mausoleum rather than conserving its original, authentic material in its deteriorated state.”

The Indian History Congress, on the other hand, passed a separate resolution in its 2015 session, expressing a larger concern over preservation and restoration works being carried out at monuments and archaeological sites by private agencies. In the case of Humayun’s Tomb, the resolution said: “Two principles, namely, strict use only of materials that were originally employed in construction and repair, and clear demarcation of the current additions in the name of restoration, have been clearly violated.” Further, “[e]ven colour-schemes appear to have been changed.”

While the nature of the restoration process continues to be debated, the tomb has been the site of several interesting developments. In July 2015, UNESCO approved a proposal to include several structures within the complex to the heritage site buffer zone. Among these were Isa Khan’s tomb, Bu Halima’s tomb and garden, Afsarwala garden tomb and Arab Sarai bazaar. Each of these monuments somewhat reiterate the predominant architectural feature of red-white contrast so characteristic of Humayun’s Tomb, though the Mughals sometimes used lime plaster mixed with marble dust to mimic the more expensive white marble used at the mausoleum. Further, in 2016, UNESCO added seven more 16th-century garden tombs to the subsequent boundary modification suggested by the AKTC. These include Lakkarwala Burj, Sunder Burj, Sunderwala Mahal, Mirza Muzzafar Hussain’s tomb, Chotte Batashewala Mahal, an unknown Mughal tomb and Nila Gumbad. These seven structures had already been included in a conservation project co-funded by the United States Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) following U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the site in 2010. The year 2017 saw another addition to Humayun Tomb’s profile—India’s first sunken museum. Located at the entrance zone of the complex, the museum houses galleries, a library, seminar halls, a crafts centre and a cafeteria. The finial which had fallen off the tomb in 2014 now happens to be the shining star of the museum.

With the recent decision of the Central government to involve corporate houses in the management of heritage sites, Humayun’s Tomb is back in the news as the nation debates the larger question of the role of business firms/private agencies in heritage preservation.

Shashank Shekhar Sinha has taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender, violence, culture and heritage.

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