Humayun’s Tomb: Paradise Lost and Found
It was dawn in New Delhi, but already the traffic was entangled, a coil of cars, buses, trucks, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and cows, a crescendo of beeping horns and swerving tires, all illuminated by the blood red sun burning through the indomitable smog. It was India, Day 2. We were standing outside the blue tin walls, the entrance of Humayun’s Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Delhi’s most unique cultural treasures.
From behind us, a voice rang out. It was Saatvik, our Sherpa (Guide) we had been connected with through SeekSherpa. Seek Sherpa is a brilliant service, linking people together through a peer to peer online website and giving travellers unforgettable personal experiences, brimming with incredible stories and insights from local and authentic perspectives.
At introductions, we learnt that Saatvik was in the tech world, but his real passion is history. It was easy to see his enthusiasm as his eyes sparkled when we purchased our tickets to Humayun’s Tomb and I myself could easily understand his thrill at stepping back through time, being enamoured with history myself. Lalika and I managed to squeeze through free, as at age 15 is when full price is required. Mum and Dad paid 250 Rupees each with the compulsory ‘Foreigner’ ticket while Saatvik entered for a mere 10 Rupees. That’s less than 15 Cents!
We began our walk down the pink stone concrete pavement, the tomb glinting in the distance as Saatvik pointed out the fusion styles of architecture that surrounded us. From Mogul to Persian, from the crescent arches to miniature balconies and azure emerald tiles. If I closed my eyes and listened to Saatvik’s words, I could almost see the thousands of craftsmen, delicately carving the hard rock that was used to create these structures that could last forever.
We entered the inner sanctum of the park, criss-crossing the intricate fountain quarries, with the water inside them flowing across the entire perimeter of the park with sheer gravity before exiting into The Yamuna River.
Around us, miles of soft green grass stretched beneath our feet, an occasional tree was the only thing disturbing the velvety carpet and even the horns of traffic seemed to fade into obscurity. Here Saatvik explained that when the tomb had been constructed, it had been designed to look as if it was the very definition of paradise as is described in the Holy Quran, because it was believed that, that’s where Humayun, as Emperor of India, was destined to go after his death.
“Humayun had quite a turbulent life.” Saatvik began as we stepped closer and closer towards the tomb, its shadow slowly intertwining with ours. “He was the son of Babur, a fierce, battle-hardened warrior, who after becoming Chief of Farghana at 12, (Today Uzbekistan) conquered India. He became the first Mogul Emperor and surged India ahead to become a leading power of the North. He created good infrastructure and educational institutes and kept India safe from any invaders with his incredible strategic strengths.”
We stopped underneath a shady oak tree.
“Unfortunately, Humayun, having been born within luxury and not having to fight a single battle to earn his throne but simply inheriting it, was weak. He squandered a lot of money and was addicted to opium. His kingdom stretched from Afghanistan to Bihar but Humayun was greedy and wished to conquer the lavish country of Bengal that was governed at the time by a man named Sher Khan. They fought two bloody battles and Humayun, having none of his father’s talents, lost both. At the end of the second one, he had to flee India to keep his life and took his wife and children with him.”
“And the opium,” Dad interjected jokingly.
“With Sher Khan’s army in pursuit, they fled to Persia where he was welcomed with open arms as the Emperor of India. Back in Delhi Sher Khan crowned himself and changed his name to Sher Shah. Humayun did not know that it would be 13 years before he would see Delhi again.”
We walked on and suddenly Lalika and I were swarmed by a large group of school boys, each dressed in stark white shirts and who were a few years younger than us. “Hello!” they called smiling as they shook our hands and then ran ahead. A few of the braver ones stayed for a photo, cheering when the flash went off. “A lot of them come from small villages and have never seen light skinned people before.” Saatvik said smiling.
Then we entered the tomb.
The monument had been built with stunning precision, a tribute from one of Humayun’s wives to his remembrance as Emperor.
While Humayun may not have been the wisest of rulers, his tomb was nothing short of majestic.
It was influenced by Persian architecture and was grander than anything built in India before. Indeed, Humayun’s tomb was the inspiration for the legendary Taj Mahal.
The building is 42 metres high (140 Feet). The gold finial on the very top is 5 metres tall in itself (18 Feet). That’s as tall as a two story house!
Humayun’s grave is located on the lower floor of the monument and his tomb is represented with a beautiful marble cenotaph. The room is lit softly with the outside light filtering in through the sacred geometric shapes and latticed screens of the windows, (also known as jaalis), providing a calming effect and the same cool air all year round.
Around us was a startling assembly of beautiful lime plaster work and ceramic tiles. The balconies were all as lavishly decorated as each spare one, the window looking out to the west and Mecca. Looking up the dome seemed to be much smaller than what the outside views promised, but Saatvik explained that this monument was quite unique at the time of its construction, being constructed double domed, (one dome built on top of each other and supported by the surrounding arches) an incredible feat to perfect, even today, but even more so at the time of its construction.
“Humayun finally managed to return to India in 1554 with an army the Persian emperor had gifted him. He won the battle against Sher Shah’s descendant and virtually claimed the throne unopposed due to weak opposition. Sadly, he did not get to enjoy his victory long enough, for, on the 27th of January 1556, he died after a fall from the top of the very steep steps of his library. He was only 48 years old.”
With the tomb now shielding the sun from our backs, we disappeared into the trees, heading to the former banks of The Yamuna River.
“This site is also home to the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin, the famous Sufi Saint. He lived here in Delhi in the early 14th century and took on many disciples, teaching them the ways of Sufi mysticism. He is another reason why there are so many other tombs surrounding here, for while Nizamuddin was destined for heaven, a lot of people wanted to tag along.”
“Definitely wanted to get on that bus.” Saatvik joked.
The rest of us tried to hold back our laughter.
“Here you can even see where Nizamuddin lived.”
We stepped inside a small doorway, and our eyes washed over the ancient stone walls, stained a little bit by water. It was a humble dwelling, with only two rooms but on second look, the rooms seemed to expand, a quiet, tranquil aura enveloping us all. We looked out the open air balcony, standing over a steep cliffs edge, serene… silent.
Then the droning horn of a passing train broke our trance.
We moved on.
Outside, we turned back towards the West Gate, chatting and joking alongside a few depleting fig trees and another group of cute kindergarten children. We stopped outside another imposing structure, the tomb of Isa Khan, a descendant of Genghis Khan.
Here Saatvik revealed that in the last week when he was guiding another tour, he witnessed the popular TV show of The Amazing Race (American Version) Live and in-play. The teams were racing around the actual tomb, partaking in a challenge and the pitstop was a few hundred meters back on the steps of Humayun’s Tomb! The four of us couldn’t help but collectively sigh at this. The Amazing Race is one of our very favourite shows and traveling around the world, we couldn’t help but hope that we might somehow run into one of the teams or the host. Knowing that we had missed them by a mere week was agonising!
Our last stop on the tour was to be outside the gates of Humayun’s Tomb and across the street, within the Nizamuddin Dargah complex. Here lies the grave of Princess Jahan Ara Begum. She was the daughter of Emperor Sha Jahan, the man who commissioned the Taj Mahal to be built in honour of his wife, Muntam Mahal. We crossed the hectic street, already in flow with the rest of the crowd and unfazed by the honking horns. We entered inside the intricate labyrinth of the Dargah and wound our way through the market stalls to a small checkpoint. Here we were required to take off our shoes and with Mum and me entirely barefoot, we burrowed even deeper inside. Finally, we came out to an exquisite white marble courtyard, covered with reed mats and surrounded with the masses of locals gathering for the Muslim call to prayer.
After wandering around for a little while, we realised with a pang of sadness, that we could not enter the grave site. My heart skipped a beat when I saw that the tomb was shut off.
I had read JahanAra’s story when I was just 10 years old, flipping through the pages of books, stealing the opportunity at night, under the cover with a flashlight. I had researched her like an avid stalker and imagined what her life had been like and even pretended to be her in a make-believe game with my friends! But I had never in my wildest dreams thought that I would one day land in Delhi, navigate the narrow alleyways of the city and journey to her tomb. It was certainly a dream, come true.
As we left the courtyard, I think I could still hear the faint whisper of her soul through the stone walls… singing. Jahan Ara was a woman who understood her time and position. I can feel that that she must have invested much contemplation into how she lived her life. In a time when women’s roles in court were often cast aside to menial significance, Jahan Ara rose above her barriers with great skill, diplomacy, and strategy. She used her intellect and heart to become the most strategic counsellor to her father and later her brother, arguably becoming one of the most influential guides on the destiny of the empire. Jahan Ara was also a guiding light in advancing female rights and was even recognised as a talented poet. But she was recognised by the people for her kindness towards the citizens of India and it is said she never flaunted her position as Princess. In fact on her grave lie the inscribed words:
‘Let nothing cover my grave save the green grass, For grass is enough as a covering for the grave of the humble.’
Outside, the tour came to an end. We thanked Sherpa Saatvik profusely for his time and efforts. He had brought the history of Humayun’s Tomb to life for me. We had ducked through the past, on an adventure ride of wonderment, beauty and many, many laughs. Saatvik if you’re reading this, we want to express just what a marvellous time we had with you. Thank you!
For those of you who are planning a visit to New Delhi or are there right now, don’t give Humayun’s Tomb a miss! With SeekSherpa, you will experience it the way it is meant to be!