Humayun's Tomb: In Conversation with Catherine Asher

Humayun's Tomb: In Conversation with Catherine Asher

in Interview
Published on: 28 November 2016

Catherine Asher

Catherine Asher is associated with the Department of Art History, University of Minnesota, USA. She specializes on Islamic art and Indian art from 1200 CE onwards. Her 'Architecture of Mughal India' is a seminal work on the subject of Mughal architecture.

Catherine Asher, New Delhi, March 2016



Sahapedia: Could you start by talking about Humayun as an emperor?

Catherine Asher: Humayun was an interesting emperor. He came to the throne after his father had ruled for only four years. And he wasn’t really well suited for kingship. He was a very sensitive gentleman who was very interested in astronomy. He was very interested in the invention of architectural creations, for example, he invented a floating building that consisted of four barges that somehow came together to form some arches; exactly how this worked we are not really sure. As a warrior he wasn’t consistent, i.e., for example in 1538 when the usurper Sher Shah Suri had pursued him, and he had actually been victorious in a battle against Sher Shah, he then spent the next six months in pleasure in the palace he had captured, when Sher Shah cleverly went on to control the rest of eastern India. So he wasn’t really sensible in a lot of ways. But he did try to sustain an empire. He was ousted from India for a period of time. And in some ways this ousting, when he spent a period of time in the Safavid court in Tabriz in Iran, turned out to be perhaps one of the most culturally significant events for the future of Mughal India, in that he brought back extremely talented artists from the Safavid court, the master artists, which made a big difference in what was going to happen. As the audience might know, Humayun ruled for ten years. He was basically kicked out of India. Then he came back for one year, and unfortunately after ruling for only one year after his return, he died in an accident.


S: Who built the tomb?

CA: Well, the tomb was constructed sometime between about 1568 and 1571. And it wasn’t constructed immediately because the Mughal empire wasn’t really an empire. It was a series of very unconsolidated areas that Akbar had to really shape up, and gel into a coherent state. So he was very preoccupied with military enterprise. That was probably one reason for the delay. We don’t really know exactly who constructed it. Humayun’s senior wife Haji Begum is often credited with the construction. She probably had a role. We don’t have any sources that really tell us this, but since the tomb was very likely intended as a dynastic mausoleum for the Mughals, it probably had Akbar’s hand in it very heavily. We know that he hired architects from Bukhara, today in Uzbekistan, that would have been part of the Timurid homeland. The Mughals are really Timurids. They are an extension of the great Timurid dynasty.


These architects were a father and son team who were trained in both landscape architecture and building architecture. Probably getting these two gentlemen from Uzbekistan took some time. And of course the tomb is enormous so that would take a long time to build. And it was unique at that time in the Indian subcontinent. So again that would probably explain some of the reasons in the delay in building.


S: What was the role of Haji Begum in building the tomb? Could you say something about women as patrons of such activities?

CA: We don’t really know the role that Haji Begum played in the construction of this particular tomb. But we know that Akbar, who was probably the overall patron, quite revered the senior women in his life. For example, we know that he gave his mother the governorship of Delhi when he was out of town. It was perhaps more of an honorific role than actually sitting down and figuring out the taxes and revenues and all that sort of thing. But the fact is that these women, the senior women of the court, had considerable responsibilities. For example, Noor Jehan: we think of her as being unique in having a lot of authority; well, she probably had more authority than any of the previous women, but she was actually following a pattern of Mughal women being responsible, and by the time of Shah Jahan, for example, it is the high-ranking women of the court, his various wives, princesses, his daughters, so on and so forth, who are actually responsible for embellishing the city with mosques. He of course built the large mosque, the Jami mosque. But the other mosques, for example, the Akbari mosque, which is no longer in existence, the Fatehpuri mosque or the Zeenat-al-manzil, all of these were built by senior women or important women of the court. So we have a long standing pattern of important female roles. It doesn’t mean that Haji Begum was responsible for directing people personally but rather that she was the overseer in many ways. So that is what is worth thinking about.


S: Would you say something about the design of the tomb?

CA: Humayun’s tomb is as you know a very large complex. And it was built in an enormous garden. The location is very important. It was built at a site known as Indraprastha, which is associated with India’s ancient epic lore from the Mahabharata. So it had an ancient Indic meaning. It was also built in very close proximity to the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, who I think at this point was Delhi’s most important saint, a saint of the Chishti order, or the Chishti silsila, which would become the saintly lineage that may be seen to underride Mughal legitimacy and Mughal authority. It is also located at the site of the first of Akbar’s capital, i.e., Din-panah started by Humayun, intervened in by Sher Shah and again resided in by Akbar in his very early days before he shifted his court down to Agra.


So its location has important associations with Indic tradition, with Muslim tradition and with Mughal authority. So the design of the tomb is heavily drawn from the Central Asian Timurid tradition, i.e., it is set in what is known as the chaharbagh, a four-part garden. Four-part gardens are a very longstanding Iranian tradition. They probably date back to Sassanian times or even perhaps the Achaemenid times’ pre-Islamic Iranian associations. They are often associated with the notion of paradise, i.e. the gardens promised to the faithful in the Islamic tradition on the Day of Judgement. But under Babur, the first Mughal, these very ordered regular four-part gardens were associated with order and with Babur’s ability to rule India. He likened himself to a master gardener, and he saw his ability to make gardens as a sort of a metaphor for his ability to rule what he considered to be unruly Hindustan.(In his memoirs he writes about laying out symmetrical gardens in the northern plains, which he describes as '-safā va bī-siyāq', which has been translated as 'unclean and disorderly'.) 


So the garden setting itself has a symbolic meaning. The tomb at the time that it was built was the largest tomb in the entire subcontinent, perhaps really one of the largest tombs in the Muslim world at that point. It sits on a very high plinth. It is what is called a Baghdadi octagon (musamman baghdadi), i.e., an octagon whose sides vary, they are of irregular size, that is one side will be smaller in width than the next one. So it is an irregular octagon which is again from the Central Asian tradition. The interiors of Indian tombs to date had been just a single central chamber. Humayun’s tomb differs, in that it has a central chamber and then around it are eight ancillary rooms which can be circumambulated in a slightly awkward way. This tomb type is known as a hasht-bahisht ('eight paradise') type tomb and it again derives from Timurid tomb types.


So the plan is a type that is really intended to be again a kind of a metaphor of paradise, i.e., obviously the land that is promised to the faithful on the day of judgement. The tomb has two upper floors, and we know that the roof was used as a madarsa, that is, teaching institution. The tomb is largely in red sandstone. The sandstone comes from the area around Dholpur, Rajasthan. And it is faced with white marble, the marble of course coming from the Aravalli hills in the area of Rajasthan down to Gujarat, but probably from Rajasthan itself. This basically becomes the imperial Mughal building type. And as Ebba Koch has pointed out, the colours probably were chosen very specifically. I mean, not only was the stone available but stones of other colours were available as well. In the ancient Indic tradition (if you see the eighth century Vishnudharmottara Purana), white stone is associated with Brahmins, that is knowledge and learning. And red, which is the majority of the building, is associated with Kshatriyas, the kingly caste. You can imagine that the Mughals saw the use of red on imperial architecture as an assertion of their royal authority. So we can see the tomb as being a really grand expression of royal authority, a kind of setting that indicates order, and also the notion of paradise. Today the tomb is planted with grass which is a British invention. Grass would not have been a natural ground covering in south Asia. We don’t know exactly how any of these tombs including the Taj Mahal were planted, but we have reason to believe from paintings and from references in literary sources that flowers would bloom at various times of the year, as well as trees, including cypress which appears often in Persian poetry, and is a metaphor for the lover and the beloved, which in the Persian Sufi tradition or the mystic tradition is basically a metaphor for the love of the divine, for the love of God, the yearning for God. It also would have been planted with fruit trees and we know that the fruit would be sold and that the income that the fruit would bring in would help support the mausoleum.


You know, today the river is quite far away from the tomb. But the Jamuna has shifted course, and at the time of its construction, i.e., the middle of the 16th century, the Jamuna ran right next to the tomb. So the Jamuna obviously was feeding the wells that were watering the gardens that were supporting the tomb. There are wells that are still extant. Behind the south entrance gate into the tomb complex is a very large well that actually still functions that feeds the water. It has been restored recently by the Aga Khan Trust.


And so today now water is actually coming down from the water shoots into many of the canals that run through the garden which produce a very nice effect. So the tomb in design is inspired from Timurid types. Now again this is not an accident because as I mentioned earlier, the Mughals considered themselves Timurids. I have a feeling they would be quite shocked if they knew they were called Mughals. They also descended from the Mongols but they truly clung to their Timurid legacy. And so they are called Mughals which is really just a corruption of Mongols. So the Timurid building type was also intended to showcase their Timurid legacy. The tomb was probably not intended just to inter Humayun, but probably was also intended ultimately to inter the future Mughal rulers; of course this didn’t really happen. Separate tombs for the next rulers were built, one for each of them. In Humayun’s tomb there are many other graves and tombs. Many of them are in the chambers that are in the plinth below. But interestingly many of these people are the more disgraced members of the Mughal household. Now why this happens nobody is sure. It did not end up being a dynastic tomb.


S: Why is the tomb set in a garden? And how it is different from other tombs?

CA: So, Islamic tombs in India perhaps were set in gardens. We don’t really know. But if they were, they probably were fairly simple. It is very unlikely that they had water courses running through them or even if they did, they were these very ordered chaharbaghs. Tombs in India until the construction of Humayun’s tomb—and even many of them after them—tended to be either fairly simple square-planned tombs. Many, for example, tombs of the Lodis (that is the dynasty that preceded the Mughals) were square-planned tombs, and most of those tombs were built for nobility. The tombs of kings in the Lodi and the slightly earlier Saiyyid period usually were octagonal tombs. But they were nowhere as sophisticated in plan as Humayun’s tomb. There you find a single central chamber with a veranda around it. As an example, take two of the tombs in Lodi garden: the tomb of Sikander Shah or the tomb of Mubarak Shah, which are easily seen by people. Before that the tombs were in general even more simple. They tended to be square-planned tombs with a single chamber. It was not until Humayun’s tomb that the notion of constructing a very enormous tomb in a planned garden setting really became the norm for the Mughal elite. Just before the construction of Humayun’s tomb there was the construction of a tomb in Sasaram for Sher Shah, the person who ousted Humayun from India. Until that point, his tomb had been the largest one in the Indian subcontinent. It was a very large version of the octagonal type that I talked about in terms of Sikander Lodi’s tomb for example.


And the tomb of Sher Shah was, uniquely, set in a very large pool of water that was probably intended to evoke the waters of paradise. But even so, while that tomb is very impressive, it again lacks the links with Timurid architecture of Central Asia, nor does it have a very sophisticated or elegant stone facing on the tomb. It is really stucco. Humayun’s tomb stands out as a fairly unique construction. It becomes, of course, the model for the Taj Mahal and that is because Humayun’s tomb, more than any other, is very much modeled on those Timurid prototypes. Shah Jahan of course was extremely proud of his Timurid legacy and so there is an intentional evocation of that earlier tomb.


S: The significance of the location of the tomb?

CA: Humayun’s tomb was set in proximity to the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya, a very important 14th-century Chishti saint who came to be deeply revered. And it is also really close to the then Mughal fort, what we call today the Purana Qila which had been called the Din-panah or the ‘refuge of religion’ by Humayun who first commenced its construction.  It was set on what must have been an open ground at that time right next to the river Jamuna and it was planned so that it would be linked to the palace, the walled palace. In a sense because of Mathura Road,  which today runs between the Humayun’s Tomb and the dargah complex of Nizamuddin Auliya, we tend to think of them as very separate areas. But in Mughal times, I think, we would probably think of them more as being extensions of one another.


Also slightly to the north of Humayun’s tomb there was a huge sarai, which is a place for travelers to stop. The Grand Trunk Road was still there, part of which is what we call the Mathura Road today. But there was also a huge sarai, as I mentioned, which would have been a stopping point for travelers. We can imagine that not only were they replenishing themselves with food and water (people did not drink tea in those days), but probably many of them stopped to pay homage to the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya. It’s unclear how accessible these grand Mughal tombs were to the public. It is believed now that probably they were opened sometimes to the public, at least their gardens were. But certainly, whether they were opened or not, the huge tomb could be seen over the walls. And it would be understood that the deceased emperor Humayun was receiving the barakat, that is the kind of spiritual essence that exudes from the saint’s tomb, from Nizamuddin Auliya. So he would be seen increasingly as a kingly figure who was endowed with the saint’s grace. I think that is how it would have been perceived in the middle of the 16th century, and afterwards when the tomb had been built and was seen by the general public who was travelling on the GT Road (today the Mathura road) as they traversed from one part of the Mughal empire to the other.


S: What were the practices associated with the tomb?

CA: It appears now that saints’ tombs were circumambulated. People still do this today. In general they are circumambulated seven times. And this is the same rite that is given at the Kaba in Mecca, that is the holiest shrine in Islam. This is done at the tombs of many Sufi saints. So the circumambulation of the Mughal tombs by the Mughal elite indicate a concept of kingship that was basically commenced under Abul Fazl, that is the great Mughal minister’s sort of inspiration, implementation of his concept of Akbar’s authority, that is the notion that Mughal rulers are basically semi-divine, that they come from a long line whose original source was a human who would have been conceived by a princess who was impregnated with a ray of divine light. So this notion of circumambulating the tomb underscores his semi- divine status. It gives him a status superior to mere mortals.


S: How was Akbar involved in the building of the tomb?

CA: The fact that two architects from the Timurid homeland were procured to build the tomb, the fact that it is so huge in scale, so monumental, the fact that it was very carefully planned suggests that there is some degree of imperial authority. We have no way of knowing if Akbar personally showed up at the worksite and told the workmen what to do. I mean he was pretty busy trying to consolidate Indian states and authority, so I am sure he had a supervisor doing all this. But certainly it wasn’t left just to whim. I mean certainly there is a high degree of imperial intervention in the tomb.


S: Were their indigenous influences on the tomb?

CA: Definitely I would say there were indigenous influences in the tomb. One certainly is this reference to colour. In Indic texts, ancient Indian texts red is the color of the warrior caste Kshatriyas, and white the color associated with Brahmins, that is the priestly group. So that certainly would be an indigenous effect. It was built on a site associated with the Indraprastha, that is the site associated with the events in the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic. It was well known in India, even 14th-century texts talk about this site as being associated with Indraprastha. So this is not something that we people in the 21st century say, 'Oh well, you know, we know it was associated with Indraprastha.' The Mughals were fully aware of this. Those were certainly some of the Indic associations that we have.


The fact that it is octagonal also may be a reference to earlier kings. I think its size, which is larger than Sher Shah’s tomb was again intended to evoke past rulers, but also to suggest that the Mughals were the logical extension, the new rulers. Well Akbar at this time, very early in his reign, was concerned with his central Asian origins. Increasingly over time of course he becomes deeply interested in things Indic. So this is by far the most Central Asian inspired building that is constructed under Akbar. Subsequent ones including the Agra fort which is his next major project and really started just about the time that Humayun’s tomb is coming to be completed is extraordinarily Indic in nature, with its post-and-lintel architecture. Many people call it Hindu. That is not correct because this sort of architecture had been used widely under the Sultanates, especially in Gujarat in western India, so I prefer to call that a pan-Indian style architecture, not one that is associated with any religious affiliation.


S: Tell us about the craftsmen involved in the making of the tomb.

CA: We actually have no record of who the craftspeople were. But I am going to speculate a bit, and say that Mughal architecture before the construction of Humayun’s tomb was not terribly sophisticated. For example if we take Babur’s mosque at Panipat which is where he defeated the last Lodi sultan in 1526, or Humayun’s mosque in Agra which is across the river from the Taj, they seem to be fairly unsophisticated attempts to emulate Timurid architecture, but it would seem that there was a lack of people highly skilled in the engineering techniques that would be needed, technology that would be needed to actually build those kinds of buildings. There is a complete transformation with the construction of Humayun’s tomb which suggests that probably the two architects, Saiyyid Mirak Ghiyas and his son who came, as I said, from Bukhara in central Asia to design and work on Humayun’s tomb, I imagine, brought technicians with them. Because all of a sudden we have the kind of vaulting and the kind of planning that were only found in Central Asia, in Iran. So there must be a conflation of Indian stone masons because in Central Asia there is very little stone. It is almost all stucco or brick construction combined with engineers and technicians who knew how to build in Central Asian techniques. We don’t have any names, we don’t have any texts that tell us this but looking at the building and how it appears, it suggests that sort of thing.


S: Would you talk about Humayun’s tomb in the context of Mughal architecture,  and the course Mughal architecture took in the coming years?

CA: Mughal architecture of course is quite interesting. I think I am going to just stick to tomb construction because if I started talking about palaces and other things it would take a long time. So in its place in tomb construction, obviously it is the first really major Mughal tomb. Babur’s tomb had been built in Kabul in Afghanistan and it is very simple. 


The next two great Mughal tombs which would be Akbar’s tomb and the tomb of Jahangir, of course are somewhat similar to Humayun’s tomb. The garden settings are there and that is very important. Both sit on very large plinths. Akbar’s tomb is a tiered tomb. This is not a complete dead end. Some of the tombs of the nobility in Allahabad are tiered. But it is somewhat unusual. Akbars’s tomb is tiered and its top floor is open to the sky, probably to receive the moon and sunlight. Of course Akbar was very interested in the notion of divine light. Jahangir’s tomb today in Lahore, Pakistan today is just a simple plinth with four huge minarets which of course Humayun’s tomb doesn’t have. It too originally had an open air plinth on top which is now missing. And then we have Shah Jahan’s tomb. Shah Jahan’s tomb, the Taj Mahal, which was of course built for his wife, also inters the ruler himself and I believe was always intended to inter Shah Jahan. It is very much modeled on Humayun’s tomb.  In part, I believe, because both of those tombs were intended to evoke the Timurid past, to underscore the Mughal’s Timurid legacy. The Taj of course has a huge minaret on each corner of the plinth which was something we saw at Jahangir’s tomb. So Humayun’s tomb is very important of course in terms of the garden setting which we find in multiple Mughal tombs whether they are imperial or sub-imperial. And then of course later tombs like Safdarjang’s tomb, other Mughal tombs, many of them are irregular octagons, that is Baghdadi octagons, including the Taj with a dome on top. So it was very important, at least through the next hundred years in sort of establishing a mode of what it is to have a grand tomb. So it had a lot of importance.


S: What about the comparisons with the Taj Mahal?

CA: Humayun’s tomb and the Taj Mahal have more in common than any of the other great Mughal tombs.  One obviously is the garden setting, although the Taj’s is more oblong in shape and of course the Taj has another garden on the other side of the river which Humayun’s tomb lacks. They both have these monumental plinths, they both are irregular octagons that is Baghdadi octagons.  The Taj has a minaret at each corner of the tomb which Humayun’s tomb does not have. They both of course have large domes on top. Of course one of the major differences is the facing of each of the tombs. In Humayun’s tomb we can see the use of red sandstone and white marble. Shah Jahan’s tomb is completely faced with white marble.  Increasingly what we see is the use of white marble for the imperial presence. In the time of Akbar who was the patron of Humayun’s tomb we had white marble that was used for the trim of tombs, and we talked earlier about how that may have indicated the notion of education, of priestly learning. But white marble was reserved for the tombs of saints, for example the tomb in Ajmer of Sheikh Moinuddin Chishti or the tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri for example. And it was also used for the Mughal thrones, for example the throne of Akbar at, as we know from paintings, the Agra fort. It was then of course replaced by Shah Jahan’s white marble throne.  So over time we have a transference from the use of white marble only for saints' tombs to the use of white marble for imperial tombs, that is Shah Jahan’s tomb, the Taj Mahal, which was, as I said earlier, not only intended for his wife but for himself as well. So this really underscores this transition that we have from the Mughals thinking of themselves as rulers in the case of Babur to thinking of themselves as semi-divine rulers which we start getting with Akbar later in his rule, with Jahangir, and then of course with Shah Jahan. So again this is a reflection of the notion of kingship. It is not just decoration.


S: Tell us about the other tombs in the Humayun’s tomb complex.

CA: On the outside of Humayun’s tomb—well, not really on the outside, if you go through several doorways, massive doorways that have gardens within them to get to the actual tomb of Humayun—one of the first ones you have off to the side is the tomb of Isa Khan who was an important noble under the Sur kings. His tomb was obviously placed there before Humayun’s.  And again, his being placed in close proximity to the Chishti saint Nizamuddin Auliya was in order to receive the saint’s barakat, his saintly aura. So then, once inside of Humayuns tomb there is a tomb that is called the tomb of the barber. It is very unlikely that there was a tomb of a barber. It was probably some very elite person. We don’t know who it was. There are tombs around in the complex. And then of course there is all the graves inside the tomb. Some of them are the graves of the princely families, some of them are much later Mughal princes that are buried in the cells within the plinth. So there were probably many graves than we have today. There is a tendency to remove many of the graves, specially the ones that are falling apart. The tomb probably was an extension basically of the dargah of the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya which of course has the graves of Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara, the graves of some of the later Mughals, and many of the elite. So probably what we think of today as a division between Nizamuddin East and West wasn’t there. So it probably would have been really a vast graveyard, a vast kabristan, that we would have had in that area.


S: Would you say something about the restoration of the tomb by the Aga Khan foundation? 

CA: The Aga Khan foundation became engaged with the government of India in restoring not only Humayun’s tomb but also the basti of Nizamuddin. They made a Mughal type garden to the north of the tomb, pretty much in the area where the original great Mughal sarai had been earlier. Some of that extends into the area where the zoo is today and they are hoping to work there but they haven’t been able to do that yet. So the project that dealt with the basti included the clearing of the baoli at Nizamuddin’d tomb, and actually doing enormously wonderful social projects at the basti including medical facilities, education, the constructions of playgrounds, so on and so forth. At the tomb there was a great effort to restore it to its original place and time. The waterways were cleared and not all of the canals are full of water, but certainly some of the main ones are, giving a sense of how the tomb looked originally. The cement that had been put on on much of the tomb during restoration in earlier periods was all removed, and removed by hand. Then the original stucco work was restored, the tilework was restored, and what was so good about this project was that the Aga Khan Foundation actually taught local people how to do this, so that it gave them employment and also trained them to do restoration on other important monuments of Delhi. The tomb of Humayun has always been a major tourist attraction for foreigners and Indians alike of course, as well as a place of enjoyment for the locals who lived there. It was always a very impressive structure, no one can deny that. But I think it has been brought back to much of his original splendour and glory by this restoration project. And one of the things I always feel about this restoration project is that it wasn’t just a project that had to do with the improvement of the appearance of the monument, but really engaged the local people: improving their daily lives but also giving them an income, and I think that is a really important way to think about: projects combining them with social needs as well as aesthetic improvements and implications. So it has been an important project. 


S: What are some of the directions for future research?

CA: I think we know a lot about the basic tomb, I think we know as much as we wanted to know about how it was constructed, who constructed it, so on and so forth. Probably if there is an opportunity to explore more about its central Asian roots that might be a good project. It might be interesting to have a dialogue between scholars trained in Central Asian scholarship with scholars trained in Indic traditions to see really how much is Indic and how much is Central Asian. I find that when you talk to people who come out of the Central Asian tradition they often have a very different point of view and I think that is something that can well be explored and studied at this point.


S: Could you describe how you look at the tomb?

CA: I think the tomb is a very exciting monument. It is one of the highlights of Delhi, maybe the highlight of Delhi, especially since it has been restored so beautifully by the Aga Khan Trust. One of the things that really interested me was that when I used to go to Humayun’s tomb there were people there, there were often tour groups. But increasingly I am seeing a lot of local people, specially I am seeing people who are of Muslim origin, who, I think are really connecting with their own heritage, as well as of course Indians from multiple cultural and religious traditions, and I think that by having this monument restored and by having people come to it and appreciate it is just one way to help ensure the maintenance of India’s cultural traditions which I think all of us worry about a great deal sometimes. Because of course people need basic things like food and water. But also it is really important to remember the past and what a great thing it really is. I think the tomb really is important for all of that.  


S: The original entrance to the tomb was not the one we use today?

CA: So, when you enter the tomb today, basically from the Mathura Road side, this is not necessarily the way that the great Mughals would have entered it. They probably came down from the river, we know for example this is the way Shah Jahan personally visited the Taj Mahal. He did not enter through the gate that would be the street side, the way people enter today. The great Mughals would have entered on the east side of the tomb. We enter today on the west side. The west side often appears flat because you are entering through what is called the qibla side, the side of the tomb that faces in the direction of the Mecca. There is an arch there which does not hold an entrance, rather it holds a small sandstone arch which is pierced with holes, it has jaalis (netting) in it. And that is actually the tomb’s mihrab. It indicates the direction towards which Muslims pray. That prayer niche, that mihrab which is full of holes would allow for the entrance of light and that very specifically evokes a particular verse in the Quran which likens god’s presence to light in a niche. So you are seeing it really from the back when you come in as a visitor to the tomb.


The other three sides, the east side, the north side and the south side have great recessed niches with entrances, and those great recessed niches are what are really coming out of the Central Asian tradition. Well, obviously many people who would visit the tomb even in the Mughal time were coming in from what was then the Grand Trunk Road from the great sarai that was near it. The Mughals themselves would have come in through the river entrance, which of course now has shifted far away and there are train tracks there now today. So you have to again know the context to understand how it really would have been imagined and seen.


S: It would be good to understand better how the tomb complex functioned

CA: It is difficult to know exactly how everything  at the Humayun’s tomb was used. The garden certainly would have been very beautiful. You would have seen them from the plinth below. We have Mughal paintings that suggest that people enjoyed gatherings in gardens. Very possibly this happened at Humayun’s tomb. Probably for the Urs that is the annual commemoration of Humayun’s death. There would have been many celebrations. It would have involved music, probably the precursor of what we call qawwali today. We know that there would have been a 24-hour recitation of the Quran. They probably would have gone on in those many arched cells that are in the bottom part of the plinth. We don’t have texts that tell us this but we know this is how later tombs were used so we can imagine that this is what happened at Humayun’s tomb as well. The entrance gates would have had room for people to gather. They could have been cooled by the water tumbling down or the water shoots. Those water shoots are carved with a zig-zag pattern which makes the water look like it is rushing faster than it really is. So visually you would have felt like you were almost near a waterfall. This was an attempt to recreate the natural waterfalls that would be found in the mountains of Central Asia, when the snow that was melting was rushing down, or even let’s say in Kashmir, when in the gardens of Kashmir when snow melts and turns into rushing water from the natural streams. Certainly during the Urs the tomb would be circumambulated. It is impossible to know at this point whether the general public was allowed to come in and participate in these events or whether it was limited to a certain level of the nobility—we really don’t know that. But the tomb would be used of course, as the Mughals shifted their capital from Delhi almost immediately by the time the tomb was finished, and didn’t return to Delhi as residents until the middle of the 17th century. It probably was visited sporadically by the elite. But we know that it was maintained and I am sure that those who were in charge of Delhi, the governors of Delhi were probably using the tomb in some manner. It is hard to believe that it was not actually used, given its location, by the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya, and by the huge sarai and right off a place that linked Agra to Delhi to Lahore along with other important cities in the Mughal empire.