As dusk crept over the Mughal garden that frames Humayun's tomb, the summer air was sodden with heat. In the copious shade of a giant, gnarled ficus tree planted almost a century ago, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees and the occasional breeze could have come from the panting of a dragon. The sounds of India's past and present echoed across the grassy lawns. This was the same bird song that the Mughal rulers themselves must have heard more than 500 years ago. Trees shimmered with the twittering of thousands of tiny starlings. Peacocks strutted the grounds, gracefully undulating plumage in tow. Drifting into the garden from just outside its walls was the clicketyclack of trains running over track laid during the British Raj. From a slightly greater distance came the muffled roar and honk of modern-day New Delhi, the ungainly, sprawling capital of democratic, independent India.
Akbar, Humayun's son and the greatest of India's Mughal emperors, built this grand and austere monument, probably between 1562 and 1571, to honor his father, India's second Mughal ruler, who stumbled to his death down a steep flight of stairs. Scholars believe Akbar chose Humayun's senior wife, Haji Begum, to oversee construction of the enormous sepulcher, crowned with a bulbous dome of white marble. The tomb would later serve as the architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal, built in Agra some six decades later by Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan. But while the Taj became the world's most celebrated monument to love and a symbol of India itself, forever thronged by tourists and touts, Humayun's tomb sat in lonely splendor. Its charbagh, or four-part garden -- the first of the great imperial tomb gardens in India -- fell into a sad state of neglect.
For most of the past four years, I lived just a 10-minute drive from the tomb, but never visited it, although I made repeated lengthy road trips to show family and friends the Taj. It was only when I heard that the Aga Khan was paying to restore the charbagh at Humayun's tomb that I went over one afternoon.
I was stunned by the scale and severe beauty of the mausoleum, which rises from the ordered geometry of a now beautifully restored garden, its 30 acres divided and subdivided into a precise fretwork of squares.
O. P. Jain, the president of the Sanskriti Foundation and a leading voice for the preservation of India's ancient heritage, told me that Humayun's tomb is to the Taj what a monastery is to a royal palace, what Sufi poetry is to love poetry, what a monk is to a king. ''Humayun's tomb has a certain purity and relationship to God and nature and space, while the Taj has romance and grandeur,'' said Mr. Jain, who was part of a small group of
British and Indian preservationists that approached the Aga Khan Trust for Culture about financing the garden's rebirth. He could also have said the Taj is a building to make you swoon, while Humayun's tomb would cast you into a reverie. And perhaps that's not so surprising given the very different legends behind the wives who played central roles in the history of these tombs.
In the oft-told story of the Taj, Emperor Shah Jahan built the tomb of white marble inlaid with jewels as a testimonial of love to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died shortly after giving birth to their 14th child. Humayun's tomb has a more ambiguous and intriguing story, often unmentioned in guidebooks. Akbar, the son of Humayun's youngest and most favored wife, had a soft spot for his stepmother, Haji Begum, who helped bring him up. Scholars believe that after Humayun's death, Akbar gave his stepmother the riches and responsibility to oversee the construction of his father's magnificent tomb. But an account of Humayun's rule, written by his sister, reveals that life with the emperor was far from idyllic. Declaring
himself an opium eater, Humayun spent little time with Haji Begum and his other wives, to Haji Begum's sorrow.
In the classic, simple lines and colors of the tomb -- composed of earthy red sandstone and pure white marble -- there is no suggestion of easy sentiment. It is rather an early statement that Mughal rule was in India to stay. Irfan Habib, a historian and authority on the Mughal era, said Haji Begum's role overseeing the tomb gave her status and prestige. She took up residence in Delhi, despite the fact that her beloved Akbar lived in Agra, the capital of the empire. "Humayun was the only husband she had, and she devoted her life to the construction of the tomb," he said.
In packed, polluted and noisy New Delhi, the tranquil, sweet-scented oasis of Humayun's tomb is still remarkably empty, even desolate at times. "For reasons I don't understand, Humayun's tomb has always been overlooked", said Tom Kessinger, general manager of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which funded the garden's $650,000 restoration. "It's the insiders' best-kept secret in historical and architectural terms". That may soon change. The restoration of the garden, itself a monumental task, will be completed by year's end. Summer monsoon rains will drench the spindly, newly planted lemon and mango saplings, the hibiscus and the jasmine cuttings, and make them grow. By December, for the first time in four centuries, water will again flow at a stately pace through a system of hand-chiseled sandstone channels and gurgle from fountains at the center of the garden's square pools. The flowing water seems certain to bring not just life to the garden, but people, too.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture took on the project in 1997, and two years later reached an agreement with the Archaeological Survey of India, public custodian of the tomb and more than 2,000 other historic monuments in India. The restoration of the garden is the first privately funded, collaborative project undertaken by the Archaeological Survey. It will likely be an important model for preserving other wonders of ancient India. The survey has a total annual budget of $10 million to maintain thousands of national monuments across India -- less than the United States National Park Service plans to spend to improve security around the Washington Monument next year.
To be sure, money goes much farther in India. Craftsmanship and labor are inexpensive there. Ratish Nanda, a 29-year-old conservation architect working for the Aga Khan Trust, has overseen the labor of some 60 stonecutters, who were paid about $4 a day to hand-chisel more than a mile of edging stones for the garden paths and water channels.
Workers carrying baskets on their heads and pedaling bicycle rickshaws removed 3,000 truckloads of earth that had obscured the gardens' pathways and waterworks. Yet more laborers cut high grasses and weeds, planted the lawns and removed hedges and trees that blocked views of the tomb.
As the men worked, the fine bone structure of the garden re-emerged. "These Mughal gardens are very tight", said Mohammad Shaheer, a professor of landscape architecture who was a consultant on the project. "The geometry is absolutely set". But he also conceded that it has been impossible to recreate the gardens as they were at the time of the Mughals. There are no known drawings or paintings of the tomb until the early 19th century. Instead, he and others involved in the project have relied for guidance on archaeological evidence, as well as mentions in Mughal-era chronicles. They have also preserved elements introduced shortly after the turn of the 20th century during British rule -- grassy lawns, sandstone benches and towering palm, cypress and tamarind trees.
In the early mornings, the gardens at Humayun's tomb seemed more like a neighborhood park than a Unesco World Heritage Site. A trickle of people who live off the narrow lanes of Nizamuddin, a village now engulfed by the haphazard sprawl of New Delhi, came to walk, jog and do yoga before the heat descended. Every now and then, a busload of foreign tourists poured out. At night, no one was there but birds and swarms of mosquitoes. The tomb's white marble dome rose theatrically from the darkness, bathed in lights that illuminated it from four sides. Flights of tiny bats swirled around it, fitting witnesses to a Mughal burial ground where both Humayun's favorite wife and the wife who once felt scorned share a final resting place with him.
Celia W. Dugger, formerly co-chief of the New Delhi bureau of The Times, is the Edward R. Murrow Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.