Humayun's Tomb, Delhi, India: The other Taj Mahal worth seeing

When it comes to compiling lists that attempt to detail the world's most beautiful buildings, none can be considered truly comprehensive without including the Taj Mahal, right? The snowy-coloured shrine that poets have described as "a teardrop on the face of eternity" is one of the most iconic structures on Earth – a symbol of a man's love for his wife, and a pedestal for countless marriage proposals.

The Taj is a marbled mass of domes and cupolas, arches and spires – all soaring and piercing and curving into one seamlessly flawless collective. All well and good, but did you know that the inspiration for that perfectly symmetrical design can be found just a few hundred kilometres to the north, in Delhi's leafy southern suburbs?

Humayun's Tomb was completed in 1572 – 76 years before the blueprints for the Taj Mahal were set in stone. It was built to honour the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, whose life was cut short by what could be called a "co-ordinative mishap".

See also: Twenty reasons to visit Delhi

Humayun was 47 years old when he tripped on his robe and tumbled down the stairs in his library. He was said to have dropped to his knees to pray when he stumbled and knocked his head against a rock; it was a reverent practice he supposedly followed whenever he heard the muezzin's call to prayer. Considering his chequered history, however, Humayun's debauched lifestyle may in fact have been a contributing factor in his misfortune.

The son of the first Mughal emperor, Babur, was just 23 years old when he inherited the throne. It was a role he was unsuited to at the time, preferring instead to wallow in the excesses of opium and alcohol while he lazed about in the company of his harem. As the head of a vast empire that stretched from Kabul to Calcutta, it was a pattern that was unsustainable. Something had to give.

Babur's death triggered a series of battles between Humayun and his three younger brothers, who were intent on wresting control from him while a wily schemer by the name of Sher Shah attacked him from the east. A besieged Humayun eventually fled to Persia where he lived in exile for 15 years, and it was during this time that he came to appreciate the delicate craftsmanship of Safavid artisans and builders.

See also: India's most exotic state

In 1556, with Persian backing, Humayun triumphantly returned to Delhi to reclaim his throne. His rule was short-lived, however, as his premature death occurred just six months after he'd resumed his reign.

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Humayun's distraught widow Hamida Baba Begum thereupon made it her life's work to honour her fallen husband through the construction of a monument befitting a king. She commissioned Mirak Mirza Ghiyas, an architect from the city of Herat in north-west Afghanistan, to blend Persian and Mughal elements into the design of a mausoleum that would float above gardens replicating the Koranic description of paradise. Never before had such a design been seen in India and it set a template for subsequent Mughal architecture, culminating with the completion of the Taj Mahal in 1648.

The site for Humayun's Tomb, on the banks of Yamuna River, was chosen because of its proximity to the mausoleum of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Other members of the ruling Mughal family were later buried at the tomb, with UNESCO counting 150 graves inside the complex. One even pre-dates the main tomb itself by 20 years; it is the tomb of Isa Khan Niyazi, an Afghan noble in Sher Shah's court of the Suri dynasty.

The garden was divided into four quarters, which were in turn separated by channels into 36 parts. The main tomb stands on a vaulted terrace eight metres above the surrounding parklands, reaching a height of 47 metres. Its arched facade is inlaid with bands of white marble and red sandstone, and the building follows strict rules of Islamic geometry, with an emphasis on the number eight.

The complex took seven years to build and was completed 16 years after Humayun's passing. But the tomb and its garden's expensive upkeep, as well as the subsequent transplanting of the Mughal capital from Delhi to Agra, lead to its abandonment. By the 18th century, the once-grand gardens were planted with vegetables and the tomb complex had fallen into disrepair. At one stage, during the 1947 Partition of India, thousands of refugees set up camp inside its walls.

The turning point came when Humayun's Tomb was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, after which it underwent extensive restoration work largely through funding from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Then, in September 2013, after two centuries of neglect, the tomb complex was reopened to the public, adding itself once again to the list of "World's Most Beautiful Buildings".

Mark Daffey travelled courtesy of Korean Air and Crooked Compass.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

Incredibleindia.org

Humayunstomb.com

GETTING THERE

Korean Air flies daily from Sydney and three ties weekly from Brisbane to Seoul/Incheon, connecting to Mumbai on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. See koreanair.com. Numerous Indian airlines connected Mumbai with Delhi on a regular basis.

TOURING THERE

The author travelled to India as part of with Crooked Compass' 10-day Ard Kumbh Mela itinerary in February 2016. It included touring around the "Golden Triangle" of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and three days spent at the Ard Kumbh Mela festival in the holy city of Haridwar. Crooked Compass specialises in off-the-beaten-track small-group tours, which includes 14 unique Indian Festival tours. They also offer private tailor-made itineraries. See www.crooked-compass.com.

STAYING THERE

Crowne Plaza New Delhi Okhla is a 25-minute drive from Humayun's Tomb. See ihg.com/crowneplaza.

See also: India for beginners: what you need to know
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