During his four-year stay (1526–30) in India, Babur laid the foundations of Timurid-Persian scheme of walled-in gardens also known as chahar bagh in Persian (chahar in Persian means “four” and bagh, “garden” – four-fold garden) or char bagh in Urdu. He built the gardens at Dholpur, Gwalior and Agra. He also built mosques at Sambhal and Panipat.

Upon his death, he was temporarily buried in Agra but finally entombed in a beautiful garden on the banks of the Kabul River known as Bagh-e-Babur which means the “Garden of Babur”. His entombment in Kabul shows that the Mughals did not feel quite at home yet in India. Humayun’s reign (1530-40; 1555–56), on the other hand, was a turbulent one, a large part of which was spent in exile. His reign is therefore not particularly known for the construction of monuments on any big scale.

The 16th century however is known for the revival of the architectural style associated with the early Delhi Sultanate. And, Humayun’s tomb is intimately connected with this revivalist trend. The red sandstone-white marble combination was a favoured architectural scheme ever since it first made its appearance in the Alai Darwaza built by the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khalji in the Qutb Minar complex around 1311.

A portion of the char-bagh with paved walkway, water pool and channels. | Photo credit: Shashank Shekhar Sinha.

This scheme remained prominent under the Delhi Sultanate until around the construction of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb (in the Tuglaqabad Fort) in 1325. This Sultanate style had gone out of fashion in Delhi during the 14th and 15th centuries but had continued uninterrupted in the provincial centres such as Bayana and Kannauj. The early Mughals and Surs looked to Sultanate’s architectural heritage for inspiration.

Soon the Timurid-Persian style – brought by the Mughals – began to merge with the older Sultanate elements such as red sandstone, inlays of white marble and coloured stones, bud-fringed arches, lotus rosettes, jaalis or decorative perforated screens, ribbed domes or domes with lotus and pilasters and Hindu/indigenous architectural features like chajja or sloping stone projections from the top of a building’s wall to protect it from the sun and rains, trabeate brackets and chattris or umbrella-shaped decorative domed pavilions or kiosks.

Manifestations of this revivalist trend could be seen in the Lodi period mosque called Moth ki Masjid, built in c 1505 and situated in the current neighbourhood of South Extension Part II, and in some buildings belonging to or coinciding with the early Mughal and Sur period such as the mosque of Jamali-Kamali built in c 1528-29 in the area currently known as the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, the Qila-i-Kuhna Masjid (c 1534) built in Purana Qila, and the tomb of Atgah Khan (c 1566-67) now at the Nizamuddin Village Area.

Akbar inherited this revived architectural tradition but systematically incorporated other styles. His reign – characterised by syncretistic incorporation of regions, faiths, cultures – saw the bringing together of architectural elements from Timurid, Iranian, Transoxanian and other regional Indian styles. The clashes in diverse styles were mollified by the unifying effect of the red sandstone as the extensive building material.

Red was also the colour reserved for Mughal tents. However, even in the context of intermingling of various styles during Akbar’s reign, there was marked preference for Timurid-Persian kind for particular types of buildings such as mausoleums, hammams (baths), pleasure kiosks, caravanserais and smaller mosques. Humayun’s tomb also belongs to the genre of buildings inspired primarily by Timurid-Persian style.

Funerary architecture and Humayun’s tomb

Humayun’s tomb represents the first mausoleum dedicated to a Mughal emperor in India. For that matter, it is one of the first important royal monuments constructed once the Mughals had established their power. Was it then meant to reflect the excellence and precision of Timurid-Persian architecture as also the power and glory of the Mughals in India?

This tomb is unique in many ways. As art historian Glenn D Lowry puts it: “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 mentions that the tomb’s features are so unique that it is impossible to define them in the normal vocabulary of funerary architecture.

Humayun’s tomb marks another significant departure in the tomb and funerary architecture in India making them grand and magnificent structures opposed to orthodox Islamic tenets. Tombs have always been a controversial feature in the Islamic tradition. The Hadiths (collection of traditions containing sayings of Prophet Muhammad) consider tombs irreligious, heathen, and non-Islamic. Praying at tombs is considered polytheism and construction of buildings over tombs is seen as leading to a cult of dead and idolatrous worship.

The white marble cenotaph of Humayun lies in the centre of the central tomb chamber. | Photo credit: Shashank Shekhar Sinha.

For those in favour of tombs, as long as they were not pompous, structures over burials were seen as a means of providing Paradise-like conditions for the dead promised to the faithful in the Quran. Such structures gave the protective shade and their heights symbolised proximity to god and paradise. Specific construction plans were symbolic. Thus, four-sided or eight-sided constructions represented fourth or eighth stages of Paradise. This Eight Paradises plan first emerged in the palace architecture of north-western Iran under the Turkoman and Timurid rulers of the late-15th century. In the 16th century, this plan was adapted by Mughals in India.

Domes are always regarded as a symbol of heaven, but large-domed mausoleums were always objectionable in orthodox Islam. Humayun’s father and predecessor, Babur was buried in an orthodox and minimalistic style in an open enclosure in Kabul while Humayun was interned in a large domed mausoleum in Delhi.

“These two extremes set the parameters for the funerary architecture of the Mughals.” Humayun’s tomb “made a grand imperial statement in Delhi, the old capital of the sultans.” Also from the very beginning, it became a place for a dynastic cult and was regarded as the tomb of a saint. Later emperors paid a pious visit to the mausoleum whenever they came to Delhi and made the ritual circumbulation (tawaf).

Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories

Excerpted with permission from Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri: Monuments, Cities and Connected Histories, Shashank Shekhar Sinha, Pan Macmillan India.