Far from the madding crowd: Humayun’s Tomb [photo slideshow]

नमस्ते I am lucky (again: I find myself often writing that word recently) to live near to Humayun’s Tomb, said to be – after the Red Fort in the ‘old’ city – the second most popular tourist attraction in Delhi and perhaps its most celebrated.

A visit there is a 20 minute walk from our apartment, so one fine morning – read ‘excessively warm’ – I decided to walk there, reserving the right to get an auto home if necessary (auto = auto-rickshaw: they’re not called ‘tuk-tuks’ anywhere here in Delhi, except by me when we arrived, until told politely but firmly otherwise).

The skinny, as our American friends are wont to say: The Tomb of Humayun was commissioned by the late Mughal Emperor Humayun’s wife, Hamida Banu Begum in 1562. Its design set the precedent for many Mughal mausolea, culminating in the Taj Mahal (which, for those who didn’t know, is also a tomb).

I won’t go into further details on the history and social role of the tomb – there are a myriad of guidebooks to do that and Wikipedia does a good job at introducing the key elements. But it’s useful to know that when – and it’s a ‘when’ as opposed to an ‘if’ – you visit the Taj Mahal during your visit to India, I imagine – that Humayun’s Tomb is its predecessor.

And some say it is preferred by comparison. I’ve read several times that some consider Humayun’s Tomb the more rewarding, at least personally if not objectively. Sam Millier, in his inestimable Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity has it thus:

I remembered my many afternoon wanders around that most gorgeous of Mughal monuments, the impossibly perfect tomb of the Emperor Humayun. (I would never have such feelings for that flashy jewel-encrusted latecomer, the Taj Mahal) (page 158)

I can’t tell you which I prefer: I’ve not visited the Taj Mahal yet. Soon. Until then, I’ll focus on how I found Humayun’s Tomb.

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The site is on the extremely busy and noisy Mathura Road and so the immediate feeling when entering the grounds before the ticket booth and turnstile is one of relief. Certainly the traffic noise and the ubiquitous ‘beeping’ sound is the aural backdrop to your day but it’s easier to forget once you’re within the gates and amongst wide lawns, beautifully kept on the whole, and shielded by trees.

Being in the middle of the organised chaos of one of Delhi’s busiest roads was not always the lot of the Tomb. As few as 100 years ago the site was relatively empty, before it became surrounded by Lutyens’ New Delhi, the new capital of India. As William Dalrymple writes in his City of Djinns, when he speaks with a friend who remembers the Tomb as it was then:

Of course it was all so lonely then. Humayun’s Tomb was absolutely out in the blue. It was open land, strewn with tumbledown tombs and the rubble of ages. Beyond the plains were dotted with black buck and peacocks. You could ride anywhere …’

‘So this was all before Lutyens’s Delhi went up?’ I interrupted.

‘Well, I suppose the building was just about beginning.’

‘Did you ever meet the man himself?’

‘Who? Lutyens? Oh yes. He was a great friend of my parents.’

‘What was he like?’

‘Well, he was very taken with my mother. Because my father’s name was Monty, he used to call her Carlo. That was typical Lutyens. Always making these rather childish jokes. (Page 72)

Its isolation is not so hard to imagine when inside the complex – and that is one of the best parts of being here. There is a sense of harmony, of balance for which the Tomb building itself is the zenith, the most perfect realisation, especially when viewed from the water troughs than run into pools before it. There is an atmosphere of plaintive contemplation, fitting for a mausoleum – especially when I saw it, in the morning, with few people around.

The interior is modestly decorated and quite unlike the busy and intricate detail you might in, say, a baroque western cathedral. I didn’t visit the museum there – this will be just the first of many visits, I’m sure, and I wanted to save something for my next time – but it looked informative and organised when I peeked around the door.

Expect – and try not to be upset – to pay more for entry as a non-Indian. Indeed, ten times as much; and more for a camera (even more for a video camera). It’s worth it. नमस्ते


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