Delhi & Agra, India
Insights into signature aspects of the world’s most spectacular places
Taj Mahal Architecture: Origins in Humayun’s Tomb
By David Raezer
“And a dome of high foundation and a building of great magnificence was founded — a similar and equal to it the eye of the Age has not seen under these nine vaults of the enamel-blue sky, and of anything resembling it the ear of Time has not heard in any of the past ages … it will be the masterpiece of the days to come, and that which adds to the astonishment of humanity at large.”
Many would agree with the quote above. But it is important to understand that the Taj did not simply appear in its perfect form
Humayun’s Tomb was built by the Islamic Mughal dynasty from 1562-1571, 85 years before the Taj Mahal.
A comparison of the two structuresreveals how Mughal architects refined and perfected their original design to create the masterpiece.
Let’s begin by looking at the similarities between the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal. Both have large, rectangular pistaq entrances, the tops of which break above the rest of the facade. They frame pointed-arch iwan niches. You can see this pistaq-iwan niche combination repeated on both facades. There’s a clear prototype for this arrangement in the earlier Timurid Madrasa of Ulegh Beg, which was built between 1417-1420 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Additionally, both have large bulbous domes that rise above the tomb at the center, they feature Hindu-inspired chhatri pavilions and have chamfered corners that give the impression of depth. Finally, they sit on elevated platforms, symbolic of their importance.
This is where things get interesting! The Taj has Quranic inscriptions that communicate a clear narrative to the visitor. (In the video, we zoom in so we can see them more clearly.) They convey an apocalyptic message focused on judgement and the potential for salvation. Another difference is the color scheme: In Humayun’s Tomb, white marble is used exclusively to highlight key features, while at the Taj, the entire tomb is white. The facade of Humayun’s Tomb undulates, with octagonal wings that flank the entrance projecting forward. These projections are eliminated at the Taj. Finally, the dome changes form. You can see how the Taj’s dome is more elevated and significantly more bulbous.
Both tombs employ what is called a nine-fold plan, in which eight rooms surround a central chamber. The tomb sits at the absolute center. In both the rooms are octagonal. The octagon represents a middle state between a circle (symbolic of the divine world) and square (symbolic of a human world) and is used to designate sacred areas.
As for differences, Humayun’s Tomb encourages visitors to move outward from the center, while the Taj encourages a rotation around the central tomb.
And finally, to illustrate the most important point, we have overlaid the floor plans on the elevations. You can see that the Taj is significantly more balanced. It is a perfect cube with a 1:1 ratio between plan and elevation.
See our beautiful world through the eyes of BBC’s David Attenborough
Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links; as an Amazon Associate, Approach Guides makes a commission from qualifying purchases.