June 09, 2012

Arab Serai, Humayun’s Tomb complex, Delhi

This post is part of the larger series about Humayun’s Tomb complex, Delhi. The composite article can be accessed from here – Pixelated Memories - Humayun’s Tomb complex.


“Delhi was once a paradise, such peace had abided here;
But they have ravished its name and pride, remain now only ruins and care!”
– Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II
(reign AD 1837-57)

One of the finest examples of Mughal-era craftsmanship and an excellent testimony to the dexterity of those extremely talented architects and artists, the 14-meters high imposing gateway of Arab Serai is but a miniscule fraction of the World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb complex that was envisioned by Hamida Banu Begum, the grief-struck wife of deceased Emperor Nasiruddin Humayun (reign AD 1530-40 and 1555-56). It was built to serve as the outstanding entrance to the enclosed garden which was to house the “serai” (inn/guesthouse) where would live the 200 craftsmen which the Empress had brought with her from Persia to lend physical form to the conception of the ethereally magnificent mausoleum of her late husband. Amply doing symbolic justice to the nature and dimensions of its exemplar gateway, the Serai itself was originally colossal enough to house the hundreds of craftsmen and their families, sadly however only the considerably massive gateway and the miserable ruins and outlines of a few of the chambers envisaged alongside its substantial peripheries have survived the relentless ravages of time and nature.

The gate that witnessed history

The impressive gateway to the Serai complex can be reached by taking a short detour towards the right past the ticket counter at the entrance of the larger Humayun's Tomb complex. Keep walking straight instead of taking this detour and one reaches Bi Halima’s moderately-proportioned mausoleum-garden complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Bi Halima's Enclosure) and further on Humayun’s enthralling mausoleum proper. The Arab Serai, an enormous grass-carpeted, tree-lined rectangular enclosure, itself further leads on to the Afsarwala tomb and mosque complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Afsarwala Mosque and Tomb complex) where are interred the mortal remains of a valiant officer, identity unknown, in the service of Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (reign AD 1556-1605).

The huge strikingly beautiful gateway, constructed from random rubble masonry layered with slabs of grey Delhi quartzite and red sandstone inlaid with minute traces of flawless white marble, has been restored and maintained excellently by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). Come monsoons, the water-soaked glistening vibrancy of the brilliant red sandstone literally bleeds into the atmosphere around it to render it more visually mesmerizing than ever. Its numerous ornamental features – the projecting overhanging windows (“jharokha”) adorned with a striking array of tessellation artwork composed of radiant blue, yellow, pink and purple glazed tiles, the white marble highlights culminating into exquisite rosette medallions and the slender ornate brackets that support the protruding windows and the balconies – have withstood the elements remarkably well and even now, with their formidable structure and mesmerizing composition, lend evidence to the vision and skills of the craftsmen involved in sculpting the handsome gateway out of stone.

A sprinkling of color

Forlornly inclined against the gateway’s walls lies its gigantic weather-shattered wooden door – large enough to even allow elephants to pass through its enormity, the door makes one wonder how could it possibly be moved about by mere humans? The hinges most certainly must have been considerably smooth and well-oiled to allow the huge door to rotate! Embedded within it is another smaller door that allowed humans to pass through one at a time.

Step through the immense gateway and one comes face to face with the drastic destruction brought about by the inexorable ravages of relentless time, unyielding nature and cruel human ignorance and abandonment. Little is left of the Serai within and only vestiges of a few of the chambers adjoining the gateway have survived. A near-ruined staircase flanking one of the equally decrepit sides of the gateway leads upstairs to limbo from where one can observe close up the numerous decorative features of the jharokhas and get an uninhibited view of the Afsarwala complex. Much later in its existential history, the inn was also put to use to accommodate travelers and caravans enroute from the easternmost frontiers (Bangladesh, Bengal and Orissa) to the north-western frontiers of the empire (Lahore, Sindh and Afghanistan) via Delhi along the Grand Trunk road (more details here – Pixelated Memories - Kos Minar, Faridabad).

A monument lost to the vagaries of time

It is said that till the year 1925, the vast swathe of area enclosed between Arab Serai, Afsarwala complex and Khwajasara Mihr Banu’s market beyond was occupied by a populous community so large that it merited its own post office! For undocumented reasons, the residents were ordered to vacate the area by a certain Colonel Young of the British Indian army and the settlement they thereafter established was christened after him as “Youngpura” – the origins of present-day upscale Jangpura located near the renowned Lajpat Nagar market!

It is a travesty that today most of the visitors to Humayun's Tomb complex ignore this beautiful gate that, unlike most other monuments within the complex, is not an exemplar of ornamental sepulchral or religious architecture but is a visually spellbinding functional edifice instead. Even those making the detour simply give it an uncourteous passing glance before proceeding towards the relatively simplistic Bi Halima’s complex and Humayun’s magnificent mausoleum proper. ASI has done an excellent job looking after these structures of historic importance within the World Heritage Site.

Grandeur obliterated

It behooves those who are interested in Delhi’s history and architectural heritage to visit and witness the grand gateway and marvel at the fact that the widowed Empress of India was so eminently well-off financially that besides commissioning her husband’s gargantuan mausoleum, she could even have constructed a colossal, exquisitely ornamented inn just for the artists and craftsmen to live in. Those not interested in history or architecture should certainly visit the gateway and the monuments it leads to, just for the sake of witnessing its sublime beauty, and honoring the hundreds of craftsmen who gifted the city its most outstanding monument.

Location: Humayun's Tomb Complex, Nizamuddin, New Delhi
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium
Nearest Bus stop/Railway station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
How to reach: The mausoleum complex is located immediately across Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah bus stop. Buses are available from different parts of the city. The metro station and railway station are both approximately 2 kilometers away on either side of the complex and one can walk or avail a bus/auto from either.
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Entrance Fees: Citizens of India and SAARC countries: Rs 10/person; Others: Rs 250/person; Free entry for children up to 15 years of age
Photography charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 20 min
Relevant Links –
Articles pertaining to other monuments that compose Humayun’s Tomb complex -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Afsarwala Mosque and Tomb complex
  2. Pixelated Memories - Barber's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Bi Halima's Enclosure 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun’s Tomb complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Isa Khan's Tomb Complex
Other monuments/landmarks located in the vicinity -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Atgah Khan's Tomb
  4. Pixelated Memories - Chausath Khamba
  5. Pixelated Memories - Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin
  6. Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb
  7. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  8. Pixelated Memories - Lodi Road - Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium Trail
  9. Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad
  10. Pixelated Memories - Sabz Burj
Suggested reading -
  1. Thehindu.com - Article "Arab Serai to regain its glory" (dated May 7, 2014) by Madhur Tankha

1 comment:

  1. nyce... although i am not too interested in places and history and stuff...and hence never really retain much about these topics... however, i like that fact that you read so much and ofcourse! good images :)
    Keep up!