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Humayun’s tomb, the first grand monument built in memory of a beloved in medieval India

History 23 Nov 2020
Humayun's Tomb

Public memory, and even much of mainstream history-writing, has a curious way of remembering things. Of all grand medieval monuments, if people are asked to name a few that might justifiably remembered as ‘testaments of love’, most will stop at the Taj Mahal!

Taking nothing away from the this ‘tear-drop in the cheek of time’ to take snatch from the Nobel laureate poet philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, it’s, however, not historically the first grand monument built in memory of the beloved in medieval India. It’s the Humayun’s Tomb.

And indeed this curious absence of Muqbara-i-Humayun, in public memory, in such a reckoning, may, in modern theoretical discourse, even be labelled as a male chauvinistic slip! This is because Humayun’s tomb, probably, is the only monument in India, certainly the sole one of its scale, which was not built by a man for his beloved, but the other way round. This stunning piece of architecture, which has stood in Delhi for the past four and a half centuries was commissioned by Hamida Begum in 1569, in memory of her untimely dead husband, completed in 1572 at cost of 1.5 million rupees, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Design and Construction of Humayun’s Tomb

Not only did Hamida Begum, who as we have seen in another of my columns, was with Humayun through the worst and the best of his life, commission the monument she carefully chose the architects as well. Mirza Ghyas and Sayid Muhammad travelled all the way from Iran to design and built the tomb. There is of course far more to be remembered about Humayun’s Tomb, than just the gender of its commissioner, which is no less important in an otherwise largely male-dominated society.

For example, as noted historian pointed out this monument for the first time ‘broke with tradition with its prominent marble dome’. Again, it is the first Indian monument to have a classical Persian garden, the Chahar-bagh, or Charbagh, an amazing garden-design, of which we shall have to dedicate a separate column.

Opposition Accomodated

Spread over a sprawling 13 acres, so many later Mughals were buried here that the tomb is often called the ‘Dormitory of the Mughals’, though none of the major emperors is buried in its complex. Surprisingly within it lies the tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, who fought the Mughals all his life.

The fact that the tomb of this Afghan noble in Sher Shah Suri’s court predates the main tomb, hints at the accommodating nature of the Mughal regime under Akbar the Great, during whose time the tomb was built, at his mother’s behest.

Shelter of the last Mughal Emperor

Hamida Begum is said to have selected the location of his beloved husband’s tomb keeping in mind its proximity to the tomb and residence of the venerated 13th century Sufi saint Hazrat Nizam ud-Din Auliya, for whom the Mughals also had great respect. Last, but not the least, this monument also incidentally bears testimony to a sombre and tragic moment in Indian history.

Following the suppression of India’s first struggle for freedom from British rule, the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar took shelter in this monument, before being arrested and deported for life to Rangoon, marking the end of an era in Indian history.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)