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150 Ghosts Live in This Indian Building That Inspired the Taj Mahal

PHOTO: Ronan O'Connell

This is New Delhi’s most intriguing structure, Humayun’s Tomb.

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 pass through two gigantic wooden doors, each worn by time and held together by dozens of thick iron bolts. Then, in the distance, a sight surprises and entrances me. This is how I expected to feel when I first saw India’s famed Taj Mahal. While that monument in Agra is undeniably graceful, its visual impact was diluted by dense crowds, and the fact its beauty was foreshadowed, having been revealed to me in videos and photos since I was a child.

What I’m staring at right now, however, is a building far less familiar, yet equally majestic. A giant Mughal mausoleum, built of red sandstone and marble and crowned by an enormous dome. Humayun’s Tomb is an architectural masterpiece. The effect it is having on me pales in comparison to the manner in which it shocked the Indian subcontinent 451 years ago. To the people of that era, it was a truly alien building.

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Ronan O’Connell

When it was revealed in 1570, onlookers marveled at its array of unique features, with this new style of Mughal architecture eventually inspiring the Taj Mahal. Asia’s first-ever garden tomb, where 150 Mughals are buried, the design of Humayun’s Tomb became a template, copied over and again across Asia.

Yet this man-made wonder is greatly overshadowed by its spawn, the Taj Mahal. A major reason for that is the urban labyrinth in which Humayun’s Tomb is located. New Delhi is an impossibly large, complex, and crowded city. With a sprawling metropolitan area home to about 30 million people, it is nearly three times the size of Los Angeles.

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It is easier to fathom the vastness of this mega-metropolis when you understand it is, in effect, eight different cities combined. Their grand remains are scattered around India’s modern-day capital–seven ancient cities which preceded New Delhi.

From a so-called “Lost City” that baffles scientists, to the citadel that fought the Mongols, and the giant forts of former Islamic dynasties, Delhi is eight cities built one upon the next, stretching back 5,000 years. As a result, it brims with historic remains. Delhi has so many astounding pieces of ancient architecture that it’s difficult for any one site to stand out. Whereas, in Agra, the Taj Mahal is unrivaled.

Yet the Taj wouldn’t have such supremacy, wouldn’t be the tourist icon of India, if not for Humayun’s Tomb. This latter gem was completed during the reign of Akbar the Great, the third Emperor of the Mughal Empire, which commanded vast swathes of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan from the 1520s to the early 1700s. The Mughals were an Islamic dynasty. So after the death of Akbar’s father, Emperor Humayun, it was decided to build for Humayun the grandest mausoleum on the continent, one that fused Indian and Islamic architectural styles.

Humayun had been a great admirer of Persian architecture and had formed important alliances with the Persian Safavid dynasty. His tomb was built to reflect that. Persian and Indian craftsmen worked together in Delhi to create something unique.

It was this synthesis of Indian and Islamic design elements that beguiled me when I visited Humayun’s Tomb. I found myself mesmerized by its dozens of decorative arches, intrigued by the intricacy of its stonework, and impressed by the balance provided by its chhatris–domed pavilions that decorated the tomb’s upper tier. Each of those elements is a common feature of traditional Indian architecture.

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Ronan O’Connell

I was equally charmed by the tomb’s Persian influences. These included its enormous, 138-foot-high dome, its many Iwan porticos, and the Charbagh-style layout of the sprawling garden that surrounds this structure. This garden is divided into quadrants to symbolize the four streams of Quranic paradise.

After walking through this elegant green space, I climbed a set of stairs to the structure’s first platform. There I found dozens of doorways, each of which led to another tomb. Although this giant complex was built for Humayun, it later became home to the remains of many of his Mughal descendants, including several of the Emperors who succeeded him.

Not all of the Mughal leaders were given such an honor. In fact, the Dynasty’s final Emperor is laying to rest not in a magnificent mausoleum, but in a tiny, nondescript tomb 1,429 miles southeast of Delhi, in Myanmar’s city of Yangon. The tale of how Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II ended up buried in the basement of a small Yangon mosque is one of the most intriguing stories linked to Humayun’s Tomb.

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Ronan O’Connell

After controlling the Mughal Dynasty for nearly two decades, Zafar II found his shrinking Empire under siege from the British in 1857. As the British began to defeat his forces, Zafar II fled his headquarters, Delhi’s iconic Red Fort. He then hid at Humayun’s Tomb. It was not long before he was discovered by the invading Brits, who charged him with treason and exiled him to Yangon, which was also under British control and where his soul now sleeps.

Fortunately, the Brits did not also engineer the demise of Humayun’s Tomb. This marvel survived centuries of invasions, political upheaval, and social unrest. Now it stands intact as a proud emblem of India’s most powerful Islamic dynasty and of the bold architecture that inspired the Taj Mahal.

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