This is basically Dilli Darshaning around my own neighborhood, so I was really excited to explore this area. I live about a kilometer away from the two sites that this post is centered around: Humayun’s Tomb and the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, but there were a lot of places around these that I hadn’t been to before!
Nizamuddin was a Sufi saint who lived and preached at this site during the early part of the 14th century, and Humayun was the second Mughal emporer, who ruled (intermittently) during the first half of the 16th century. Nizamuddin’s tomb or dargah is one of the most holy sites in the Delhi area, and many prominent people (including Humayun) had their tombs built nearby.
It’s really interesting to compare the differences in the way Humayun’s and Nizamuddin’s tombs have been preserved and the way people interact with them today.
Humayun’s tomb is today one of the two “world heritage sites” as decreed by UNESCO (the other one being the Qutb Minar complex), and has recently been restored with funding and support by the Aga Khan foundation. It is a huge tomb set in a huge garden, with lots of other tombs and compounds near or next to it. Again, this is not because people wanted to be buried near Humayun, but because they (including Humayun) wanted to be buried near Nizamuddin. However the scale and beauty of Humayun’s tomb makes it an architectural and touristic focal point in the neighborhood. Stylistically, Humayun’s tomb is a precursor to the Taj Mahal at Agra.
Humayun’s tomb is abutted by the tony East Nizamuddin neighborhood on one side, the Delhi zoo on the other, and a raliway line on the third. It is characterized by wide open spaces both within the tomb compound and around it. The wide space inside the tomb compound is mostly bare of liveliness and activity, and neither the constant trickle of tourists that come into it, nor the occasional sound of trains whistling by can remove the air of solitude inside the compound.
As will be apparent from the photographs, I visited the tomb on a heavily overcast day.
Nizamuddin’s dargah (i.e. tomb of a holy man) is just across the road from Humayun’s tomb in the West Nizamuddin neighborhood, and is the polar opposite of Humayun’s tomb. It is at a much more intimate scale, and located within a dense and crowded urban village. Unlike Humayun’s tomb, it is not visited by many tourists, but instead by crowds of pilgrims from all across India, as Nizamuddin’s dargah is one of the most important Sufi shrines in the country.
We thus have next to each other, one of the most important buildings in India from an architectural history perspective, and one of the most important Sufi pilgrimage sites in India. The first is a well restored and preserved World Heritage site, visited by thousands of tourists daily, but lying inertly though grandly within it’s hugh garden compound, having been evacuated decades ago of any population for it’s secular historical importance, and studied and restored to it’s perceived original state.
The second site has been occupied and active for centuries. It is teeming and dynamic, crowded and dirty. It is apparent that the dargah has been constantly altered and “improved” upon by successive generations wanting to display their devotion to the saint (and the site). The paint is new and gleaming, the gold is shiny, and the decorations are vibrant.
Both sites have been maintained remarkably well, but with completely different philosophies and techniques behind that maintainance. The area around the dargah is teeming with houses, restaurants, shops, pilgrims, beggars and the graves of those associated with the saint and those who wanted to be buried next to him.
In a sense, the first is a dead site, the second is alive.
Here’s a satellite image of the Nizamuddin area to show how different the two spaces are, and the diversity in the area in general. I think I’m going to have to write a blog post down the line about the transitional spaces between “residential colonies” and “urban villages”, which is where one turns into the other, and the interactions between these colonies and “villages”.
Satellite image with labels. East and West Nizamuddin are the two residential colonies that are way more upscale than the basti. We can see the garden spaces around Humayun’s tomb and Isa Khan’s tomb, and the density of the basti.
Corollary: A tale of two octagonal tombs
The thriving, live site has its consequences, and the clinical, dead historical site has it’s advantages. This is where I get back to my critique of the urban villages of Delhi! :)
The basti (settlement) of Nizamuddin is no exception to this critique, which can be illustrated by looking at the differing conditions of the two octagonal tombs located within this neighborhood. These two are the first and last of the five octagonal tombs built in Delhi from the 14th to 16th centuries. The first, the tomb of Khan Jahan Tilangani, was built around the 1360s and is located just south of the dargah, and now lies within the urban village that grew around the dargah, known as Nizamuddin basti. The last octagonal tomb, that of Isa Khan, was built in 1547, is adjacent to Humayun’s tomb, and is part of it’s heritage complex.
Tilangani and Isa Khan’s tombs, like many others in Delhi, both had a surrounding wall and fortification around it, called kotla. The basti that grew around Nizamuddin’s dargah expanded into Tilangani’s kotla and completely enveloped the tomb. The tomb is now virtually inaccessable, and is one of Delhi’s many “occupied” tombs, which means that there is a family or families living inside it. Just one wall of the tomb is accessible and visible. What’s funny is that the dome of the tomb is still visible from some pathways near it!
Isa Khan’s tomb in stark contrast is wonderfully maintained (if one ignores the rather bland landscaping and questionable restoration work that is a trademark of historical structures in Delhi!), and is a pleasant site that is much more relatable and human-scaled than Humayun’s tomb. I actually use Isa Khan’s tomb as an example to understand the structural elements of these octagonal tombs.
And this is the area around Khan Jahan Tilangani’s tomb, at the same scale. Tilangani’s tomb is the brownish dot at the center of the image, completely surrounded by small houses. The octagonal shape can still be made out – which is still the shape that the built up area around the tomb has taken. If one uses a little imagination, one can also identify the square shape of the erstwhile kotla around the tomb, which the basti has roughly adopted. The big square building to the right of the tomb is Kali Masjid.
I’m quite fond of Isa Khan’s tomb, and so there are extra photos of it! I’m also going to write a blog post in the future comparing the situation and condition of all five of Delhi’s octagonal tombs, where I’ll elaborate on these issues further.
Khan Jahan Tilanganis’ tomb
Isa Khan’s tomb
And here is Isa Khan’s tomb, just across the street, part of the Humayun’s tomb world heritage site! Tilangani’s tomb would basically have looked like this. Since this is the last of Delhi’s octagonal tombs, it’s design would have been little more sophisticated, and Tilangani’s would have been a bit more “unrefined”, but the basic shape and elements would have been very similar!
Mosque accompanying Isa Khan’s tomb, within the same walled enclosure. This enclosure as a design element is the same as the erstwhile wall around Tilangani’s tomb, except that in Isa Khan’s case the wall was octagonal in shape, and in Tilangani’s case it was square, as was more common
Buildings around Nizamuddin’s dargah and Humayun’s tomb
Some of the other buildings around Nizamuddin’s dargah …
Photo taken between metal sheets barricading the site of the erstwhile Lal Mahal, at the edge of Nizamuddin basti. The 13th century structure was recently illegally torn down, and all that remains is this nearby tomb
Inside Kali Masjid. This mosque is very similar in layout to Khirki Masjid and with good reason – it was built during the same time and by the same guy, Khan Jahan Tilangani’s son Khan Jahan Junan Shah
And some of the structures across the road, around Humayun’s tomb …
Chilla Nizamuddin. A “chilla” is a place where someone prays or meditates, and this is said to be the site that Nizamuddin used for that purpose. It shares a wall with Humayun’s tomb’s enclosure wall, and there is an access to it from the enclosure, as well as rooms built adjacent to it on the enclosure side