Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Buried in Paradise: Humayun's Tomb in Delhi

Huge, old sacred figs form a calm, shady oasis at an intersection of the huge grid of walkways and water channels in the garden around Humayun's Tomb.
Entering the paradise gardens surrounding the second Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb in Delhi is like life in India crystallized. From the trash-filled misery of the begging poor lining the streets of Delhi, you walk through a shady enclosure lined with glossy sacred ashoka trees (Saraca indica) and step via a towering gate into the light, to the 'abodes' of a few chosen who continue to inhabit an earthly paradise even long after their deaths. Contrasts and more contrasts everywhere.
The towering entrance gate, as seen from outside the walled garden, and from the platform of the huge tomb. In Farsi, the walled garden is called "pairi daeza", which evolved into "paradise" in English and to many related words in other European languages.

While Sikandar Lodi's Tomb from early 16th century (see earlier post) was the first walled garden tomb in the Indian subcontinent, Humayun's Tomb was the example for later Mughal rulers to follow. Commissioned by Emperor Humayun's devoted wife Hamida Banu Begam in 1562, it took eight years to complete. The design was so successful that when the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, lost his beloved wife Empress Mumtaz Mahal, he used Humayuan's Tomb as a basis for his design of Taj Mahal, that was to be the crowning glory of huge Mughal mausoleums in India. I find the symmetry here rather lovely: one built by a loving, favorite wife to her husband, the other by a devoted husband to his favorite wife...

View from the gate, and then from the square fountain midway to the tomb. Even without the surrounding four minarets, it is easy to see that Taj Mahal was inspired by Humayun's magnificent mausoleum. Despite being an UNESCO World Heritage site, there were relatively few visitors at the gardens and mausoleum, a complete opposite to the huge crowds by the Taj Mahal.

Built in red sandstone and marble on the bank of river of Yamuna that has since changed its course, this large tomb in its 26-acre garden is surrounded from three sides by high walls (originally, the river formed the "wall" on the fourth side). The tomb forms the centre of this charbagh (or chahar bagh) garden that is divided into four quadrants by four wide pathways. Narrower pathways, with water channels representing the Quranic paradise, further divide each quadrant into grids of eight squares, the ninth being occupied with the enormous tomb on its platform. The central water channel looks like it disappears under the tomb and reappears on the other side, according to a line from the Quran:
But they who believe and do things that are right. We will bring them into garden beneath which rivers flow. Forever shall they abide therein. Truly it is the promise of God.

Details from inside the tomb; carved stone lattice screens called jalis let the wind flow through, the first one shows the direction of Mecca. Two tombs of female family members - tombs of females have a writing tablet on the top of them as here, and tombs of males have a pen case (see last picture of this post). The domes inside were all beautifully decorated and are still being restored after years of neglect. Here, a palm leaves together with lotus flowers form the motif.

The Akbarnāma, or the Book of Akbar, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, Humayun's son and the third Mughal Emperor (r. 1556–1605) describes what originally grew in the garden. Hibiscus, a popular plant with the Mughals, formed large clusters along the pathways. Mangoes, that have been cultivated in India for centuries, grew also together with pomegranates, one of the four trees mentioned to grow in the gardens of paradise together with figs, olives and date palms according to the Holy Quran. Humayun's father, the first Mughal Emperor Babur who was a great lover of gardens, mentioned eight different species of citrus in his writings, and it is highly probable that at least some of the species were also grown in the garden grave of his son.
I would have needed a wide-angle lens for these pictures... but they still show a part of the huge grid design of the garden. Some of the intersections have platforms where tents were raised (the first picture above, now a tree grows in the middle of the platform), and some have water ponds.

Today, the plantings are restored after long periods of neglect - at some stage, they were even used as kitchen gardens by the poor of the surrounding villages (now part of Delhi), which is understandable, but certainly destructive for an architectural work of art as this. Large trees, such as neem (Azadirachta indica) and sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) stand in the intersections of the waterchannels. Some handsome palm trees stand in attendance near the platform of the tomb and cypress trees flank the walkways. Only an occasional hibiscus and citrus offer a discreet note of color in this otherwise solemn garden that still so well conveys  reflection of the (at least imaginary) paradise beyond our earthly existence.

 Even the platform contains tombs for the lesser members of the family; this is a tomb of a deceased male, as it has a pen case on the top. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site, Humayun's Tomb is a serene, magnificent site which is very much worth visiting while in Delhi.


Anonymous said...

Your photographs are lovely. Glad you enjoyed the trip to northern India.

You might be interested to know more about the restoration of this splendid site, which has been not without its controversies: http://landscapelover.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/ruined-love/

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thanks for the link!

I read about the heavy restoration following years of neglegt and mismanaged older restoration attempts, but your post gives more light into the process. Yes, the site feels today a bit too perfect, but in a couple of years I hope - like many that left comments on your post - that the monsoons and inpurities of Delhi air will mellow the effect. I'm glad that the latest restoration was made by such a knowledgeable team, so that this monument was saved for future generations to enjoy.

Unknown said...

What an interesting post!
I wonder if they will try and reintroduce all of the plants that originally grew there?
The photographs are intriguing and make me want to see more.
I don't know a lot about Moghul India although I did once read a book about the Princess Jahanara who I think was Humayun's granddaughter (or great granddaughter).

thea said...

looks truly spell-binding!!