The NRI thing to do – Part 2

11 Feb

For those who have been patient enough to follow my blog since its inception, you would probably know what I am referring to. For the rest, wondering where part 1 is – although it was never ascribed that status, ‘Morning at the Masjid’ probably fits the description best! For those hapless souls who’ve never come across the much abused term NRI, it expands to Non Resident Indian. Someone whose fondness for all things ‘Indian’ increases proportionately with the distance away from home! And yes, I have worn that tag on occasion – like I did on the morning of the 6th day of this year.

It never hurts to plan big – a half day outing to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, a walk amongst the ruins of Tughlakabad, a visit to the monuments at Mehrauli, a walk along Lodhi Road and such. But with 2 weeks in India packed with travel and family commitments, that little bit of time out seemed an extravagance. So with each passing day, itineraries were quickly eliminated from the list and with 2 days left on my trip, the last one curtailed. The plan had been to start at Humayun‘s Tomb, walk down Lodhi Rd, through Lodhi Gardens finally ending at Safdarjung‘s Tomb with the possibility of breakfast thrown in at some point. Breakfast was acceded to but the walk and Lodhi Gardens got the axe!

Humayun’s Tomb, recently classified as a World Heritage Site, is easily one of the most popular stops on the Delhi tourist beat. But getting there as early as 7 am on a winter morning has its obvious advantages.

Other than the gatekeeper, and maalee (gardener), the only other people we saw there were residents of the nearby and upscale Nizamuddin East neighbourhood taking their morning walks. While for everyone else, this is a ticketed venue, the residents enjoy the privilege of a monthly pass that entitles them access to the gardens there. Other than the fact that it’s in close proximity to the train station, here’s another excellent reason to move there!

Contrary to popular belief (which I was guilty of to!), the tomb complex consists of a lot more than just Humayun’s tomb. Several monuments from the Mughal era of varying shape, size and architectural sensibilities sit in a sprawling complex of beautiful gardens.

Isa Khan Niyazi – a noble in the court of Sher Shah Sur – had the honour of having the first tomb built in this complex. Pre-dating Humayun’s by 20 years, this unusual octagonal shaped tomb was built in 1547 AD and sits alongside a mosque in a walled enclosure – a feature common to most tombs in this complex.

On closer inspection, the structure is nothing short of striking. From the canopies, to the arches, to the tiles, to the lattice screens – a strong aesthetic lives in every detail.

The complex has seen different occupants over the years. The enclosure that contains Isa Khan’s tomb, for instance, was occupied by an entire village till the early 20th century. During the first war of Independence in 1857, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar sought refuge in the complex before being arrested by the British. Today, far removed from the dramas of the previous centuries, peacocks and other birds roam freely in the lush surrounds.

And finally, after walking around for over an hour, we were at the centrepiece of this complex – the stunning mausoleum to Humayun himself.

Hamida Banu Begum – Humayun’s senior widow – ordered construction of the monument in 1562 and for this purpose a Persian architect, Mirak Mirza Ghiyath was brought in from Herat. 8 years and 1.5 Million Rupees later the monument was completed. The strong Persian influence was the first of its kind in India and would eventually inspire the design of none less than the Taj Mahal in Agra – completed almost 80 years later.

Even though it may not have the marble sheen and grandeur of the Taj, it manages to hold its own in a country that abounds in magnificent monuments. And much like the Taj, it is a photographer’s delight from any angle. The rising sun had definitely played spoil sport that morning but its meager attempts to shine through gave the setting a surreal effect.

Another first for this construction is the pattern of gardens that surround the monument. Known as Charbagh (four gardens), the typically Mughal design of four large square gardens are further divided into smaller squares separated by causeways, water channels and pathways making for a very simple yet tasteful design.

Barber’s featured prominently in the lives of Delhi rulers so much so that a fort and a tomb were erected in their honour. One such example lives in this complex – Nai Ka Gumbad or Barber’s tomb. Apart from the usual suspects, it was this structure, in particular, that caught my attention the most.

The Humayun’s Tomb complex has received generous support from the Aga Khan Trust in recent years for repair and restoration work. The same however cannot be said for the much less celebrated Safdarjung’s Tomb – on the other end of Lodhi Road. Still in the capable (?) hands of the ASI (Archeological Survey of India), what was once a grand entrance to this mausoleum, seems to be fast heading towards decay.

However, later that day, I was informed that the tomb was up next for restoration. Some evidence of this can already be seen with scaffolding scaling the western facade of the monument.

I only hope the ASI and the Government of Delhi have it in their wits to involve more private participation in this restoration effort or else it’ll be yet another case of too little too late.

Built in 1754 by Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah – the son of Safdarjung – this monument has been unfairly given the tag of ‘poor clone’ (of Humayun’s Tomb) by modern day historians. And to my mind, has partially suffered neglect on account of that. In less admonishing texts however, it is often described as ‘the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture’.

It may not be quite as imposing as Humayun’s Tomb or some of the other more storied Mughal era monuments but I would differ strongly on it being a clone. To me, it seems to have drawn inspiration from the best of the best. There are facets of it that reminded me of the Charminar in Hyderabad, others that have a strong Rajput influence and of course many attributes that are uniquely Persian. That said, the quality of its workmanship is up there with the very best and the intricately carved ornate ceilings best exemplify this fact.

To the north, south and west of the tomb are relatively flat albeit lengthy pavilions with colourful names – Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), Jangli Mahal (Sylvan Palace) and Badshah Pasand (Emperors favourite) – each separated from the monument by a pattern of gardens laid out to the Charbagh house style. To the east and sitting adjacent to the tomb’s main entrance gate is a very graceful mosque.

And just when it was time to head back, the sun finally pierced through the thick Delhi smog and revealed to us this wonderful silhouette of the mausoleum.

A great finale to a truly enriching morning – just the way we NRIs like it 😉

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