Monument of Love IV: The Prince of Exile

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you…I could walk through my garden forever.”

Alfred Tennyson

In a country where arranged marriages are considered as an accepted norm and patriarchy rules the day, the love between husband and wife often gets lost amidst the nuances of duties, responsibilities, sacrifices, and compromises. As a 90s kind who has developed an unfortunate attitude of looking at the world with a realist outlook where the glass is half empty because no one has the time to care for the glass anymore, I have rarely heard happy stories of an arranged marriage that has actually resulted in a positive outcome. I will not give all credits to history for being a master teacher when it comes to life lessons, but sometimes the untold stories are too poignant to not remember and wonder!

The first garden tomb of Indian subcontinent would not have come into existence if it wasn’t for Bega Begum, who commenced the construction of a mausoleum for her deceased husband in 1565, nine years after his death. Afterall, this mausoleum is the only reason why history hasn’t forgotten him, considering he spent major part of his reign in exile unlike his predecessor and successors. Squashed between two legendary giants, Humayun was the son of Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, and father of Akbar, the greatest ruler of the empire. His name literally meant ‘the auspicious one’.

Humayun, with much reluctance, became the emperor of Hindustan in 1530, a role he was neither excited about nor equipped for. However, his reign on the decentralized empire (1530-40; 1555–56) was a turbulent one. Having spent a large part of his “rule” in exile, his time as the Mughal emperor is not particularly known for the construction of monuments on any big scale. Despite an auspicious name, his “virtues” are only known because of one woman – Bega Begum. Since Babur preferred to be burried back in his homeland, Humayun’s tomb is the first official Mughal structure that set the tone for the existing Mughal architectural legacy.

While many historian talk about Humayun’s fondness for Hamida Banu Begum, akbar’s mother, compared to Bega Begum, it is Bega Begum who changed history for Humayun (in my personal opinion). Bega Begum, Humayun’s first cousin, was just 19 when he ascended the throne in 1530. She was with him when he was exiled in Persia, personally taking risks as well.

Bega was “her husband’s bride of youth, the bride of his first forays into Hindustan and his early, erratic and aimless wanderings through Bengal”.

Ira Mukhoty, book Daughter of the Sun

In the Battle of Chausa where the harem was captured by Sher Khan, she was the only Mughal empress to have been held captive. Upon hearing this, Humayun rushed to rescue his chief consort. Bega Begum was reknown for her independence – she became the first Mughal woman to undertake the Hajj all by herself, as a result of which she was subsequently known as Haji Begum. Following Humayun’s death, a grieving Bega Begum travelled to Mecca. On her return, accompanied with several persian architects, she comissioned the work for a tomb befitting the exiled prince. Not only that, she brought 300 Arabs from Mecca to pray for the emperor’s soul, hence the name Arab-ki-Sarai for the enclosure near the tomb.

Arab ki Sarai

Under the guidance and direction of chief architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyaz, the tomb was constructed in the center of a persian-style Char bagh. Majority of the construction was completed under the patronage of Akbar, Humayun’s son. While Akbar might have shifted his base to Agra, Bega Begum chose not to join the harem in Agra but remain in Delhi in order to supervise the building work. A house was built near the tomb from where she would stay and watch over until the day she died. In fact, both the wives of Humayun – Bega Begum and Hamida Banu Begum have been buried in the mausoleum.

“One of his wives had loved Emaumus [Humayun] so faithfully that she had a small house built close by the tomb and had watched there till the day of her death. Throughout her widowhood, she devoted herself to prayer and to alms-giving. Indeed she maintained 500 poor people by her alms. Had she only been a Christian, hers would have been the life of a heroine.”

Jesuit priest Antoine de Monserrate, who was invited by Akbar from Goa to learn more about Christianity, detailed Bega Begum in his writing in the year 1591

The red sandstone-white marble combination was a favoured architectural scheme following its first appearance in the Alai Darwaza built by the Alauddin Khalji in the Qutb Minar complex around 1311. From the point of view of the history of architecture, this building plays a unique role in connecting between the Gur Emir, where Humayun’s ancestor Tamerlane is buried, and 85 years later, inspiring the construction of the mausoleum of his grandson Shah Jahan, i.e. Taj Mahal.

Both Taj Mahal and Humayun’s tomb have quite a few similarities and differences that can be easily identified (and pointed out by a good guide – both textual and personnel):

Similarities:

  1. Both the monuments contains large rectangular entrances, with pointed arched niches, a combination which has been repeated throughout the remaining facade.
  2. Large Bulbous domes prominently at the centre of the tomb. Interestingly, Humayun’s Tomb was among the first structures in India to use a double dome, a favourite amongst Persian builders, which gives a building an imposing exterior height while keeping the ceiling of the central hall in proportion with the interior heights. The dome is also remarkable for being the first major full dome to be seen in India; shapes of earlier domes can never be traced in a full semi-circle.
  3. Hindu-inspired chhatri pavilions adjacent to the central domes.
  4. Chamfered corners that add to the illusion of depth to the monument.
  5. Both the monuments are located on a large, elevated platform.

Differences:

  1. Taj has Quranic inscriptions that provide a narrative description about the Judgement Day, and the significance of the building as a representative of Mumtaz Mahal’ house in paradise.
  2. In Humayun’s Tomb, while the majority of the tombstone is composed of red sandstone, white marble is exclusively used to highlight only the key features of the monument, a distinct contrast to Taj Mahal.
  3. Humayun’s Tomb notably showcases octagonal projections flanking the entrance, a feature that is distinctly absent in Taj Mahal which lends to its impression of perfection and symmetry.
  4. The central dome at Taj is elevated with a greater ‘bulbosity’ as compared to the dome at Humayun’s tomb.
  5. Despite having an exact layout in terms of planning and design, the cenotaph of Humayun is placed at absolute centre of the structure, surrounded by his family members in the remaining chambers. In contrast, only Mumtaz Mahal’s cenotaph is placed at exact centre of Taj Mahal while that of Shah Jahan can be considered as an anomaly to the symmetrical scheme.
  6. Humayun’s tomb encourages visitors to move outwards from the centre, whereas Taj Mahal encourages visitors to take a circumabulatory route before progressing towards the centre.
  7. Lastly, Taj Mahal is perfectly balanced cube possessing 1:1 ratio between the floor plan and the elevation, as compared to 2:1 ratio showcased by Humayun’s tomb.

The lower tier of this rectangular construction is decorated with graceful arches, which are located around the whole perimeter of the building. The architecture of the mausoleum has details both from Persian architecture and Indian architectural traditions; the Persian influence can be seen in the arched alcoves, corridors and the high double dome, while Indian traditions have inspired the creation of the kiosks, which give it a pyramidal outline from distance.

Between 17th to 19th centuries, the garden complex surrounding the tomb was gradually filled with the tombs of Humayun’s descendants and his entourage including Prince Dara Shikoh whose headless body was entombed here after his execution on the orders of Aurangzeb. As such, Humayun’s mausoleum has earned the title of Necropolis of the Mughal dynasty. The cenotaph of the ruler is located in the center of the upper tier in a large room decorated with several rows of arched windows. The central chamber is octagonal with corner-chambers which house the graves of other members of the royal family.

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld of Paradise, so late their happy seat, waved over by that flaming brand, the gate with dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms: Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest, and Providence their guide; They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Pro Tip: For a smooth experience of exploring the monuments of Delhi, I would recommend purchasing the tickets in advance (I have linked the payment portal for ease of reference!). How advance? Well, for the smaller buildings, you can just purchase the ticket while walking towards the entrance gate or even at the ticket counter. You can also seek out INTACH Delhi for heritage walks within the garden tombs of Delhi.


Monument of Love series:


Related (and not-so related) Posts:


New Delhi, Union Territories

8 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s