The Mughals came to India as Timurids. Founded by the Turko‐Mongol warlord Timur (Tamerlane) (c. 1370–1405), the Timurid dynasty ruled much of Iran and Central Asia for over a century (c. 1370–1507), first from Samarqand (Uzbekistan) and then from Herat (Afghanistan). Toward the end of the fifteenth century its realms were already diminishing. In 1507 Babur, the proud descendant of Timur and Chinggis Khan, after having been driven from Samarqand by the Uzbeks to his exile in Kabul, sought new opportunities in India.1
Babur was Emperor Humayun’s father. The culture that the Mughals brought from their Central Asian origins included Timurid building traditions. This included Timurid architects.2 Humayun's Garden Tomb has a consistent Timurid cord running through every fundamental element of its design.
Humayun's Tomb monumentally stated that the Mughal Dynasty was a powerful, pious, and lasting presence in Delhi. The use of a building's scale and context to make such a statement is seen in Timurid architecture.
Great size is by no means a hallmark of Timurid architecture at large. It is confined to buildings erected under royal or court patronage, and for the most part these have a public dimension. This makes the link between colossal size and the ruling authority explicit for everyone to see. It is part and parcel of the publicity angle, so to speak, that the building should announce itself from afar.3
The character of Humayun’s Tomb's presence in the city of Delhi, is likely a conscious or unconscious result of the influence of Timurid building traditions. Ever since Humayun's Tomb was constructed, it has risen above the top of its enclosure wall to dominate the Delhi horizon above the domes of tombs that were once monumental but now barely peek up over their own enclosure walls. In a city packed with buildings, Humayun's Tomb has manage to retain its space, set into its own walled garden and surrounded by other old walled garden-tombs. Robert Hillenbrand describes a Timurid tomb in a similar way.
The great shrine of Khwaja Aḥmad Yasavī at Turkestan, for example, was set off by a cluster of small buildings placed at a respectful distance around it, for all the world like a whale among minnows The contrast can scarcely have been accidental. (. . . .) all the façades, including the rear one, are richly decorated—a clear indication that this was a building intended to be experienced in the round.4
Humayun's Tomb has eight identical, fully decorated minor facades, two on every side of the building, and the building is centered in a broad enough space so that each facade can be admired. This quantity of ordered, uniform ornamentation on these facades and the space left open around the building contributes to the tomb's monumental appearance, a configuration seen in some monumental Timurid architecture.5
Humayun’s Tomb holds an instantly recognizable resemblance to is the Tilleh-kari Madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The facade configuration of the Tilleh-kari Madrasa shares the same Timurid design reasoning as the configuration of Humayun’s Tomb’s facades. In the case of Humayun's Tomb, the goals of "solidity," monumentality, and "geometric harmony" are all met through careful use of Timurid building traditions while still retaining a sense of balanced reserve. Some Timurid building characteristics that are present in facade organization for both buildings are a "contrast between the height of the entrance iwan and the flanks of the façade, the anchoring of the building at the corners by very tall minarets, and the ornamentation of the entire exterior."6
On Humayun’s Tomb’s facades the height of the pishtaq's iwan in comparison to its shorter lateral facades have a less drastic proportional disparity when compared to that of the Tilleh-kari Madrasa, but in both buildings the pishtaq and facade work together in the same way to create a more monumental effect. The portal appears to tower over the facades, causing the tomb to appear more imposing.
Timurid architecture – the outside is easy to grasp, its clear lines emphasized through its continuous overall pattern of decorative tilework. However the building is to be used, a penchant for symmetry dictates the distribution of rooms, courtyards, and passageways and also the treatment of the major and minor façades. This is also evidenced by the repetition of architectural elements employing a fixed canon of proportions and arch templates for the entrance portal (pishtaq), the arcade (open or blind), and the minarets or corner towers.7
Instead of the hefty minarets seen at the outer ends of the Tilleh-kari Madrasa's minor facades, Humayun’s Tomb’s facades have elegant white marble engaged colonettes than rise up every facade corner and gracefully resolve into guldastas. Both of these forms of corner configurations create a defined vertical conclusion for the surface of the facade.
The repetition and symmetry on Humayun’s Tomb’s facades is more complex than that of the Tilleh-kari Madrasa. First, there is the symmetry between the facades that flank each pishtaq. After this, Humayun’s Tomb's design carries the symmetry and repetition to a new level, by dividing each side of the lateral facades into a symmetrical configuration of three. The large, middle portion of the minor facade is a symmetrical composition of a mixed bag of architectural elements, with an alcove, marble blind arches, marble panels with sandstone borders, and openings that are decorated with either a jali screen or a jali railing. All of these elements are clearly distributed across the facade in a neat presentation. At either end of this middle facade portion is a smaller oblique facade portion that contains two vertically aligned ground and gallery level openings, including a balcony with a jali railing.
The facade on each side of the plinth that Humayun's Tomb sits on is comprised of a center staircase niche that is flanked by eight-niche arcades. These grave niche arcades conclude at the engaged colonettes that frame the oblique corner niches of the plinth. The facade of the Tilleh-kari Madrasa has a central portal that is flanked by double story niche arcades, totaling in eight niches per side, and concluding with an attached minaret. These niches are comprised of the same basic elements, division of three, two vertically aligned openings, spandrel and arch outlines, and a stellate or floral cartouche that alternates and repeats in the same pattern. Like the stellate and floral cartouche around the niches on both of these building's facades, stellate and floral ornamentation that defines architectural elements by filling wall spaces is seen often in Timurid architecture.
Humayun's Tomb's Building's plan is Timurid. The configuration of a radially symmetrical plan with eight chambers that bloom from a central octagon is a Timurid building type.
The Timurid building type that best illustrates a love for symmetry is the centralized plan of eight parts around a central core, the hasht-bihisht (eight heavens). The surviving examples all seem to date from the second half of the fifteenth century, although the plan must have been popular much earlier (Jairazbhoy 1961), as descriptions of Timur’s garden pavilions by Clavijo, the Spanish envoy to Timur(c. 1404) confirm (Clavijo 1928: 216, 227, 230). Clavijo described these as having a cross-in-square plan, with a domed space in the center of the cross and the axial spaces transformed into vaulted halls. These were used as openings to the outside or as a special place reserved for the throne. The corners of the square building were divided into rooms that filled the spaces between the axial halls. Thus, the building was composed of eight rooms and a dome chamber, making it the perfect embodiment of the mystical concept of the "eight heavens." As such, it was appropriate for mausoleums, connoting the celestial paradise, as well as for garden pavilions, connoting the terrestrial paradise. In the more exotic plans the corner spaces are transformed into octagons or into a second corona of rooms around the central core. The entire design can be reconstructed through geometry, following the radii that emanate from the central dome chamber. One of the best examples of the Timurid hasht-bihisht.8
Humayun's Garden Tomb's layout has roots in Timurid garden traditions.
Two variations of the formal garden (chahar‐bagh) seem to have existed in the fifteenth century. In Timur’s time the gardens were walled square spaces divided into quadrants by cross‐axial water channels, forming the chahar‐bagh (quadripartite garden) for which landscape architecture in Iran and Central Asia is famous (Fairchild Ruggles 2008: chapter 4). In the center, where the water axes intersect, a pavilion was erected. In most cases the pavilion was at least two stories high and its interior was divided into nine spaces – a central domed space surrounded by eight spaces, thus, the classic hasht-bihisht plan described above. 9
The Timurid building spirit is present with the addition of the superficial net muqarnas patterns to tops of Humayun's Tomb's curved wall surfaces.
The entire vault became a stellate design, based on rotated squares (Golombek and Wilber 1988: vol. 1, 169–172). All Timurid buildings from 1445 onward have some form of stellate vault. Initially, these were constructed in the masonry, but soon they were fabricated entirely from plaster, either in molds, which were then assembled when attached to the masonry.10
The most noticeable example of this is Humayun's Tomb's entrance chamber's ceiling. The ceiling of Aq Sarai Mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan has a similar ceiling to Humayun Tomb's entrance chamber ceiling, which is an elaborate undulating, radially symmetrical ceiling that is circumscribed by a ring of shells that resolve into muqarnas and then wrapped by the same characteristic net muqarnas pattern that dips down as is turns a corner and peeks up at the peak of every arch in the octagonal chamber. The spirit of both ceilings are shared in Robert Hillenbrand's description of the ceiling inside the Aq Sarai Mausoleum.
(. . . .) interior of the dome into one vast firework display, alight with constellations of stars, comets with flaming tails, radiating suns. Rarely has the ancient metaphor of the dome as a simulacrum of heaven been realised in quite such a literal fashion. The entire surface of the vault has become a three-dimensional geometric pattern. Its effect is, moreover, heightened by means of paint and this, like the slight variations in level and surface, adds extra complexity and sometimes drives home the analogy with the heavenly bodies.11
As a result of the complexity of all of the elements that had to come together to create Humayun's Garden Tomb a strong organizational system was needed.
Rational planning was required to hold together such potentially sprawling compositions. The discovery in the Tashkent Library of 16th-century gridded paper with architectural plans and geometric designs, and of a large paper scroll of like content in Istanbul, and finally the depiction in a Mughal Babur Nama of similar paper held on a clipboard by an official who supervises the laying out of a garden, all combine to suggest the strong likelihood that such paper was in use under the Timurids and was an instrument of major importance in controlling the large interlocking spaces so typical of the best Timurid architecture. It may even have encouraged the development of that modular type of composition so beloved of Timurid architects, where one element links up with another in a continuous echelon.12
1. Lisa Golombek and Ebba Koch, "The Mughals, Uzbeks, and the Timurid Legacy," in A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, ed. Finbarr Barry Flood and Gülru Necipoglu (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 2: 811.
2. Catherine Asher, Architecture of Mughal India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 44.
3. 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: 96.
4. ibid, 97.
5. Golombek and Koch, "The Mughals, Uzbeks, and the Timurid Legacy," 817.
6. ibid, 820.
8. ibid, 821.
9. ibid, 824-25.
10. ibid, 823.
11. Hillenbrand, "Timurid Achievement in Architecture," 113.
12. ibid, 98.
Golombek, Lisa, and Ebba Koch. "The Mughals, Uzbeks, and the Timurid Legacy." In From the Mongols to Modernism, edited by Finbarr Barry Flood and Gülru Necipoglu, 811-45. Vol. 2 of A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2017.
Hillenbrand, Robert. "The Timurid Achievement in Architecture." In Islamic Period: From the End of the Sasanian Empire to the Present, edited by Abbas Daneshvari, 83-124. Vol. 18 of A Survey of Persian Art: From Prehistoric Times to the Present. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2005.
Aq Sarai Mausoleum Samarkand, Uzbekistan Наумов Андрей at Russian Wikipedia / CC BY
Tilleh-kari Madrasa Samarkand, Uzbekistan Bobyrr / CC BY-SA