Tombs were status symbols in medieval India. Houses could be demolished, but a tomb, given its sacred nature, was a permanent structure. So rulers and noblemen strove to leave a lasting legacy by building grand tombs for themselves and their dear ones.
But how did they differentiate? How did they showcase their tomb as cooler than the others? Let’s find out!
The era of tomb building in India began with the arrival of the Muslim rulers in the late twelfth/early-thirteenth century. The first tomb was built in Delhi in 1231.
The initial tombs – think of them as Version 1 – had a typical design: a semi-circular dome mounted on a square base. There were some variations, but it was broadly similar.
In this design, the square base represented earth and the circular dome represented heaven – symbolising the soul’s ascent from earth to paradise.
By the late fourteenth century, this standard ‘dome-on-cube’ structure – our version 1 – had become really common and ubiquitous! The ‘status-symbol’ was losing its value.
Along came a set of rulers who decided to shake things up a bit. And sometime in the late 1300s, India’s first octagonal tomb was built – in the Nizamuddin locality. Some believe that the inspiration for this was from the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
These eight-sided tombs were preferred by the Sayyids and Lodis (both pre-Mughal dynasties) and you can see some great examples in Lodi Garden in Delhi.
Another stunning example is the tomb of Sher Shah Suri in Sasaram (Bihar).
During this period, the octagonal tomb design (our Version 2), was reserved only for kings. Other noblemen could only use the Version 1 dome-on-cube design.
One such nobleman from Sher Shah Suri’s court was Isa Khan Niyazi. Despite not being a king, he must have felt entitled to build a Version 2 for himself (perhaps because, by that time, there was no strong ruler to stop him!). And so he built this striking octagonal tomb in 1547 (which lies within the Humayun’s Tomb complex).
And then came the Mughals. Their reaction must’ve been like “Alright boys and girls, you’ve had your fun. Now we’ll show you how it’s really done”!
(Quick history recap: Babur was the first Mughal who captured territory in India in 1526. His son Humayun was driven out by Sher Shah Suri in 1540. Later, the Mughals regained their empire and Akbar became the emperor in 1556. Famous buildings of Mughal architecture as we know them, essentially began under Akbar.)
The first major opportunity to showcase the Mughal style was Humayun’s Tomb (which commenced in 1565). Desiring to build a grand, never-seen-before monument, Akbar got in expat talent – a Persian architect called Mir Mirak Ghiyas.
Ghiyas ditched the octagonal tomb design, in favour of a radical new design – hasht-behisht (or eight paradises) – our Version 3 tomb.
In previous tombs, there would be only a single chamber inside. In Humayun’s Tomb, however, the central chamber, (itself shaped like an irregular octagon) has eight ancillary structures surrounding it. There are four octagonal rooms at the corners and four arched niches in the cardinal directions. These eight rooms are supposed to evoke the eight gates or levels of paradise in Islamic belief.
It is an incredibly sophisticated design that achieves the objectives of having eight rooms surrounding the central octagonal chamber; with passageways connecting to the central chamber and to other rooms too. Just imagine – this achievement of sheer architectural genius was executed without any CAD or 3D imaging software, in the 16th century!
And guess what, when Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal seventy years later, he took the same hasht-behisht concept and modified it for his masterpiece.
And from then on, no one could say, ‘My tomb is cooler than yours’ – the Taj had settled that question once and for all.
*Dadi-poti ka Gumbad by By http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/ (http://www.flickr.com/photos/varunshiv/3547827938/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Bada Gumbad By Anupamg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ** Mohd Shah Tomb By Lucido22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sikander Lodi’s By Tanmay Kumar Photography (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons *** Sher Shah Suri’s Tomb at Sasaram, By Nandanupadhyay (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons # Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb in Delhi; By CaptivaTour