Photo Essay: Reading Past and Present in Humayun’s Tomb, India’s Most Melancholic Monument

Walking and talking history at a world heritage site that inspired the Taj Mahal.

[Pictures and text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The Fall

It was a cold winter night but the sky in Delhi was unusually clear and devoid of the predictable fog. After watching the rise of the planet Venus from his library’s pavilion, he prepared to leave for his private quarters. As he walked down the stairs, the muezzin started calling all the Muslims of the world to remember Allah. Being a pious believer, he stopped and was about to kneel down in respect when his foot got caught by the folds of his magnificent robes. He slipped down the stone stairs, blood dripped out from his right ear, and he lost consciousness. A few days later he succumbed to his injuries.

Nasiruddin Muhammad Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor of India, was no more.

The Oasis

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Humayun’s Tomb, a UNESCO world heritage site, is one of the most beautiful places in Delhi. Laying close to the holy river Yamuna it is surrounded by a green expanse of carefully trimmed grass. Here the shriek of the surrounding traffic is stifled to a soothing hum. The ancient trees and broken ruins serve as luxurious adornments to the sandstone shine of the mausoleum. New views of the grand monument emerge by walking on to different sides of the garden.

Sights to Savor – Behind the Leaves

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Sights to Savor – Amidst the Trees

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Sights to Savor – In the Water

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Amidst such majestic spectacles happy distractions abound: the chirping of birds, the sighting of chipmunks, the dazed looks of the foreign tourists, and embarrassed encounters with lovelorn couples.

The Early Years

Humayun was not the greatest of the Mughals. He won no brave battles. He annexed no enviable territory to his inherited empire. He built no majestic monument to immortalize his royal potency. No great poet, musician, or painter flourished in his decadent court. In the words of the British orientalist Stanley Lane-Poole, “Humayun stumbled out of life as he had stumbled through it.” And yet this irrelevant monarch remains the most enigmatic of all the Mughals.

The narrative of his life ranged from the fruit orchards of Kabul to the ravines of Bengal, from the hot sands of Sindh to the galloping rivers of Punjab, from the forts of Kandahar to the guest palaces of the Persian king. On one hand his tale is that of a romantic king fond of books and astrology, with an indulgence for opium; but the circumstances forced him to live in extraordinary wretchedness, also.

The Grave Chamber

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No one present there uttered any word in fear of its echo disturbing the hollowed quiet. Only the shudder of the camera clicks dared to clash with the imposing walls. Muffled conversations and gentle footsteps were heard from the neighboring halls. Some of the visitors gathered themselves in front of the white marble cenotaph and stood in reverence. Others walked around it, occasionally glancing up to look at the roof which stared back indifferently.

A hint of the natural light shyly filtered through the window screen. An old lady in a crumpled sari stood still like a stone statue beside it. She posed herself as an exotic human scenery to the camera-carrying western tourists. After every picture taken she mutely spread her palms for money.

So Many Tombs – Who Were Buried Here? How Did They Die?

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The Rout

It was during the beginning of the spring season in Kabul when Humayun was born to Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. At the age of twenty-two, ripe enough for ordinary Mughal princes to become war-mongering veterans, Humayun was still dangerously soft, dreamy, and sunk too deep into the pleasures of life. So it came as no shock when he lost all his empire to a shrewd Afghan chieftain called Sher Shah Suri.

Following his humiliating defeats the fallen king had to face the traumas and hardships written in the destiny of fallen people: hostile brothers became more hostile; friends turned strangers; long-time servants fled. Nobody, not even small-time vassals, reached out to rally round the man who once had the entire north of India under his thumb. The downfall could not have been more agonizing.

Worse, the circumstances took a more woeful turn and Humayun was doomed to languish in exile where he was accompanied by a small ragtag band of followers with an uncertain loyalty and insufficient valor. In other words, the former king was now all alone.

The Loneliness

The tomb of Humayun stands in solitude. No inscription is etched on it. There is no loving wife buried beside him. Desolation lingers in the air. It is as if the sensation of utter loneliness has been crystallized into a stone form. Once the day has ended, the entrance gates are locked, the floodlights are switched off, and the tourists return back to the comforts of hotel rooms, this must be an eerie place. How could anybody, alive or dead, be brave enough to survive such loneliness?

The grave looks so disturbing, pathetic, and vulnerable in its aloneness that one has an urge to rush to it, to envelope it in one’s arms and to kiss it till suppressed tears start seeping out of its stone surface.

Scenes of Solitude – A Lady Throws a Last Look

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Scenes of Solitude – Walking Alone

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Scenes of Solitude – A Job to be Done

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Scenes of Solitude – What is She Thinking?

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Scenes of Solitude – Even the Glimpse of a Passing Train Could Not Shatter the Loneliness

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The Exile

While wandering in the sandy deserts of Rajasthan and Sindh, the Mughal emperor was reduced to begging his people not to abandon him. He was left with no wealth and his state had become so miserable that he could not even arrange a horse for his heavily pregnant wife. In fact the emperor had no extra change of clothing. For days they had to subsist on wild berries. Catching an animal was rare and consequently a joyful event.

Not surprisingly, this band of leftover Mughals created an impression of common marauders in the countrysides they moved. Villagers fled at their approach, filling the wells with sand. In the hot dry summers water was so scarce that sometimes Humayun’s men killed each other during occasional fights for it. Mughal dynasty was in the danger of becoming a comma in history.

Chasing the Chipmunks – Look, Here They Are

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Chasing the Chipmunks – Keep Following

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Chasing the Chipmunks – Captured!

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The Inspiration

It is said that Humayun’s tomb inspired the architects of the great Taj Mahal. There is another similarity, too – both the mausoleums are built on the banks of the same river.

Yet these places could not be more different. Taj Mahal is godly in its perfection; Humyun’s tomb is humane in its scale. Taj Mahal is delightfully white; Humayun’s Tomb is in apologetic pale-red; Taj Mahal is glamorous; Humayun’s Tomb is melancholic. Taj Mahal is like a talented child, sure and independent, for whom the parents need not worry; Humayun’s Tomb is like a terminally ill cherub demanding special care and more love.

In Taj Mahal, the tourism is so intrusive and the commercialization so irreversible that it has become almost soulless. In Humayun Tomb the sight of the dome is enough to move even the stone-hearted. Most crucially, the emperor Shahjahan, unlike his grandfather Humayun, has his beloved wife for company in the Taj Mahal grave chamber.

Smile Please – Click, Click and Click

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Smile Please – The Classic Pose

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Smile Please – Two Japanese Busy in Themselves

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Smile Please – These Indian Tourists Posed For Me

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The Comeback

After plummeting to the deepest depth of misfortune, Humayun received refuge from the Shah of Persia. The Iranian monarch, eager to increase his prestige among his subjects, was more than willing to have a grand display of sheltering the former Emperor of Hindustan.

Thus it was in the palaces of Persia that Humayun managed to regain his blissful world of good food, amorous harems, bird hunting expeditions, and opium drinking sessions. But the stars were still not his side: he continued to be a king without an empire.

The obliging Shah sensed the opportunity and promised assistance with a condition: Humayun would have to discard his Sunni identity and convert to the Shiite faction of Islam. After some soul-searching the choice-less Mughal reluctantly agreed, making the wily Shah pleased with his religious zeal.

The Shah instantly provided twelve thousand soldiers and three hundred personal bodyguards to Humayun so that he could fight back for his snatched empire. Disconcertingly, the Mughal king, so drunk in his pleasures, appeared to be unprepared for the arduous task.

However by the time his forces conquered Kandahar, crossed the Khyber Pass, and reached the fertile plains of Punjab, much had changed in the territory that once constituted the Mughal Empire. Sher Shah, Humayun’s nemesis, had died in a freak accident and India was weak and welcoming to yet another invasion.

Fortune, for once, favored this unfortunate king and the soul of India’s great Muslim dynasty managed to regain its lifeblood. The luckless Humayun was lucky at last.

The Stuff Childhood Memories Are Made Of

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The Rejection

While walking in the tomb complex, sitting on the garden benches, chasing the chipmunks, strolling by the numerous graves, the most distressing observation was the absence of Indians.

Excluding a few lovers trying to snatch some moments away from the prying eyes of the world, it appeared that all of Delhi had decided to ignore its most stunning landmark. Most of the visitors were western tourists. With their straw hats, colorful Bermudas, and big Nikon cameras, the air of Humayun’s Tomb was clogged with unfamiliar languages rolling out in strange accents. In contrast, the citizens of Delhi, so fortunate in possessing such immense wealth of history and monuments, had simply turned their collective back on this entire heritage.

The lonely emperor’s isolation was complete.

The Legacy

Within six months of reclaiming his imperial grandeur Humayun was dead. He was buried on the outskirts of Delhi. His grieving widow, Hamida Banu Begum, later constructed this memorable monument over the grave.

Ironically, the grand tomb, not built by him, perhaps remains Humayun’s only significant legacy. It is a fitting statement since otherwise his primary achievement in life flowered only after his death: his son Akbar, a 13-year-old boy who succeeded him as India’s emperor and single-handedly lifted the name of the Mughals to the most exalted glory possible.

A Book Lover’s Tribute to Another Book Lover

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In many ways, the spectacular tomb of an unspectacular Humayun reflects back the small lives of us mortals – it stands as a witness to the splendid possibilities he had but never made use of. Just like us.

[For further reading: Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors, by Abraham Eraly]