Muqarnas is "suspended ornamental vaulting, also called 'stalactite' vaults; usually concave and arched but sometimes rendered as flat niches."1
While viewing Humayun's Tomb's dome at a distance, conspicuously dark brown muqarnas appears like a row of books on a shelf that wraps around the top of the dome's drum. When viewed from the roof terrace, the muqarnas' pattern's base layer is a few rows of evenly spaced, flat pointed arch niches that gradually distort into a three-dimensional pattern in a way that is more fluid than geometric and creates an illusion of a hundred brackets supporting a massive dome. This ring of dark brown muqarnas at the top of the dome's drum is an eye-catching feature that makes Humayun's Tomb a very recognizable monument.
The entrance chamber's ceiling inside Humayun's Tomb is an elaborate composite of ornamentation. A large, centered incised plaster, 24-pointed blue stellate medallion extends into a red and white herringbone pattern that is formed by repeating the stellate medallion's outline nearly three times the medallion's diameter until just before the point where the ceiling's semispherical form joins with the tops of the octagonal room's walls, making the herringbone portion almost seven times the size of the medallion and about two thirds of the chamber's diameter. At this point, the spaces between the stellate symbol's points are occupied by clam shell forms. As the shell's contours spread out, they disperse into tactile, stellate sham muqarnas like a firework sparkles at the edges before fizzling out.2 The entrance chamber ceiling at Humayun's Tomb is a less exciting and subdued rendition of a ceiling inside of the Timurid Aq Sarai Mausoleum. As the Aq Sarai Mausoleum's ceiling's sham muqarnas concludes with a net of muqarnas that dips at the chamber's corners, so does the red net of incised plaster muqarnas dip at the chamber's corners as it concludes the starry burst of ornamentation in Humayun's Tomb's entrance chamber. Comparing these two ceilings is enough evidence to conclude that these muqarnas patterns have the same Timurid origins, which are the origins of the Mughal dynasty.
All of the muqarnas inside Humayun's Tomb, except the top portions of the entrance chamber's ceiling are of a uniform style. Red nets sprout from the chambers' and niches' corners and spread out where spaces with corners meet semispherical canopies. On the outside of the tomb, the ceilings of the niches and iwans are filled with red sandstone, monochromatic muqarnas forms that emerge from corners in a similar manner.
A thin strip of dark brown muqarnas joins with lapsing chevron engaged colonettes of the same thickness to frame the corner grave niches on the plinth. This muqarnas is comprised of a row of seventeen equally spaced pointed arch niches that contain two rows of three niches. The tomb's iwans also have this configuration of two rows of three niches encapsulated in a larger niche. Interestingly, the plinth's facades are divided into what has the appearance of seventeen equally space forward facing niches, one central staircase disguised as a niche sandwiched between two arcades of eight niches.
Also on the plinth, a net of red incised plaster muqarnas outlines spring parabolically from each niche's corners into a web of a complex stellate pattern on its ceiling. An elaboration of this pattern can be found in the South Gate's northern facade's two ground level niches.
The South Gate and the West Gate have red muqarnas outlines on shallow white incised plaster formations in their exterior niches and outward facing balconies. Inside of both of Humayun's Garden Tomb's gate buildings, the shallow white muqarnas forms do not appear to be outlined.
As a result of the rectangular shape of the building, the baradari has unique muqarnas patterns. The Aga Khan Development Network and the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative have a building plan drawing of the elaborate muqarnas outside and inside of the baradari, but it has not been released to the public.
Although the variations of muqarnas at Humayun's Tomb and its surrounding buildings are very simple when they are compared to muqarnas in the rest of the Islamic world, muqarnas is a prominent design element at Humayun's Garden Tomb.
1. D. Fairchild Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 226.
2. For light-weight sham muqarnas and firework effects in Timurid architecture see, Robert Hillenbrand, The Timurid Achievement in Architecture," in Islamic Period: From the End of the Sasanian Empire to the Present, ed. Abbas Daneshvari (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2005), 18: 113.
Hillenbrand, Robert. "Aspects of Timurid Architecture in Central Asia." In Utrecht Papers on Central Asia: Proceedings of the First European Seminar of Central Asian Studies held at Utrecht, 16-18 December 1985, edited by H. Boeschoten and M. Van Damme, 255-86. Utrect: Institute of Oriental Languages, University of Utrecht, 1987.
Memarian, Gholamhossein, Hadi Safaeipour, and Negin Dadkhah. "Traditional Complex Modularity in Islamic and Persian Architecture: Interpretations in Muqarnas and Patkâné Crafts, Focusing on their Prefabricated Essence." In Offsite: Theory and Practice of Architectural: Fall Conference Proceedings, edited by Rashida Ng, John Quale, and Ryan E. Smith, 131-38. Philadelphia: Temple University, 2012.
Petersen, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London; New York: Routledge, 1996.
Aq Sarai Mausoleum Samarkand, Uzbekistan at Russian Wikipedia / CC BY