Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi, India | C.1570

Photo Credit: Dirk Rohde

In 1556, Emperor Humayun, his arms filled with books, was descending his steps when he heard the siren calling the people of New Delhi to prayer. Startled, the emperor took a knee in reverence, as was his tradition. Catching himself within the folds of his robe, he lost footing and took a tragic tumble down his newly polished grand staircase, knocking his head along the way. Within a matter of days, the emperor was dead.

His unexpected end was especially unfortunate, as within a mere six months he would have regained control of his empire after having spent fifteen years at war with his rebellious brothers, who all aspired to unseat him. His bereaved wife, Empress Bega Begum, commissioned the spectacular Mughal garden tomb as her late husband’s resting place. Fourteen years later, in 1570, the dynastic mausoleum was completed. Over time, it became known as the “dormitory of the Mughals”; buried within its chambers are more than 150 members of the royal family.

In the sixteenth century, Humayun’s empire covered a large expanse of land in South Asia, spanning 1 million square kilometers and including what is now India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Assam. Consequently, Mughal architecture fused what we now identify as Indian, Persian, and Turkish stylistic influences: large bulbous domes, elaborate ornamentation, minarets, enormous halls, and grand vaulted gateways.

Viewing those elements at Humayun’s Tomb— the gentle slopes of the white dome, the towering minarets, the high arches—one can’t help but compare the magnificent building to the iconic Taj Mahal. In fact, all the features that made the Taj globally recognizable were first showcased at this garden tomb, which predates its infamous architectural cousin by sixty years.

In addition to being visually spectacular, the tomb employs an array of Islamic symbolism. The burial chamber is aligned on the north-south axis, so that Humayun’s face is turned toward Mecca. According to religious tradition, science, mathematics, and religion are indivisible—which infuses numbers with spiritual meaning. One represents God in its absolute uniqueness. Two represents the eternal balance and duality of all things. In Humayun’s Tomb, the number eight is featured most prominently, as it represents paradise. According to many interpretations of the Quran, eight angels sit on eight thrones that surround the world, corresponding with the eight corners of space that make up the universe. And so the tomb’s main chamber was built as an octagon; within it are eight chambers, which in turn each contain eight smaller chambers.

Few aspire to have their greatest legacy be their tomb. But Humayun’s eternal resting place arguably bears greater cultural significance than anything the emperor achieved in his life, as it was the first such tomb on the Indian subcontinent, inspiring major architectural innovations that are still celebrated centuries after the ruler stumbled.

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