Central Asian in South Asia

Humanyun's Tomb. Construction began in 1562.

I am writing you this evening from New Delhi, capital of India! (I can tell you that I’m traveling this time, unlike in the past, because I now have a roommate in Almaty – my friend Leroy – and am therefore not worried about advertising my absence from the city.)

Before I explain why, however, I want to bring your attention to my short article published on The Fletcher School’s foreign affairs blog: “China: The View from Next Door.” Those of you who read my posts regularly will be familiar with the ideas and themes covered, but I hope it raises some important questions for readers. I hope to do much more of this kind of publishing in the near future.

This is my first time in India, and I am blown away. I’ve long heard from friends and fountains of “common knowledge” like Eat Prey, Love that India is an incredible place, but it is only now that I am fully convinced: the sights, sounds, smells, people, flavors are a bit overwhelming, but also invigorating and fascinating. I know very little about Indian history or the country’s contemporary situation, but I am struck by the desire to learn more.

I’m here because the Fulbright Conference for all the grantees in Central and South Asia is going to be in southern India in early March. I decided to tack on a few days to the front of the trip in order to see a bit more of the subcontinent.

Having only just arrived today, I haven’t done too much yet; however, my big tourist site for the day was Humayun’s Tomb (pictured top). If I’m not mistaken, this 16th century mausoleum is considered one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture, and I was most fascinated by the similarities I could see to Central Asian architecture from about the same period. This isn’t entirely surprising, though.

Carved stone screen at the Tomb

Humayun (1508-1556) was the son of Babur, founder of Mughal dynasty and himself a Central Asian Muslim. He likely hailed from what is today Uzbekistan. The establishment of the Mughals therefore also opened the door to Central Asian influences and innovations – including, perhaps, naan and samosas (although that assertion could well be apocryphal). That the Mughals had a heavy influence upon vernacular architecture, however, is beyond doubt.

Specifically, the forms, rhythms, weight, drama, &c. were all very familiar, but what I found exciting about the Tomb was the ways in which I could see how certain patterns had been either elaborated or simplified, embellished or refined, as they moved from Central Asia. This was clearest in the stone screens covering window openings. I also think the use of contrasting red and white stone was done with particular sophistication in this instance, giving the huge monument an energy that saves it from becoming exaggeratedly bulky.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of India. This introduction is made even more surreal due to the fact that just yesterday I was skiing in the mountains thirty minutes outside Almaty. From snowy mountaintop to Mughal tombs, curry and the warm Delhi sun – I have to say, I’m a lucky guy!

The slopes at Shimbulak, the ski resort 30 minutes from the heart of downtown Almaty.

1 comment
  1. Gordon said:

    Great article over at the fletcher school!!! Planet money will be sure to have you on in no time…

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