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A history lesson for the Obamas

Last updated on: November 7, 2010 20:48 IST

A history lesson for the Obamas

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K K Mohammad, who took the US First Couple around Humayun's Tomb while explaining its history, tells Rediff.com's Sheela Bhatt that the tour was a crash course in architecture and history for the Obamas.

The visit to Humayun's Tomb, which is quite deserted on normal days near the Nizamuddin railway station, was a crash course in Persian, Indian and Central Asian architecture and history for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

In an exclusive interview to Rediff.com, director K K Mohammad said, "President Obama asked many questions. He was very, very inquisitive about Dara Shikoh."

The President and the First Lady's history lesson went something like this. They arrived at the 30-acre architectural wonder with an army of security personnel and US media. They were shown photographs and a model of the tomb.

Mohammad, who is a historian and an architect who works for the Archaeological Survey of India, was the couple's lone guide.

The couple strolled along the manicured lawns. Since 2000, the Aga Khan Foundation has made huge efforts to save this grand monument, spending more than Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million).

The AGF has won an international award for its restoration work on the monument. This world heritage site is so grand that many architects love it more than the Taj Mahal in Agra.


Image: US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama tour Humayun's Tomb with their guide K K Mohammad
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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'It would be kind of tough to build this in the US'

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At the entry point, it is inscribed that the tomb is a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

The design carved in red stone and lime mortar is an architectural marvel because it depicts 'an ornamental cosmic symbol'.

Spread over 30 acres, it has three kilometres of water channels and 2,500 plants in the complex.

Its 25,000 square metre pathways give a majestic touch to the 16-metre tall main structure.

The Obamas were given some facts about the Mughal Emperor Humayun, the son of Babar, the founder of the Mughal empire in India.

Mohammad told the couple that Humayun's Tomb was built over nearly a decade beginning around 1565. The main work was completed in 1572. The tomb contains over 100 Mughal graves.

Obama found it interesting that some 500 years ago that such a giant structure was built in just seven years in India. He later told journalists "I heard it was built in seven years? I give credit to the contractor. This kind of thing if we build in the US, it would be kind of tough."


Image: Barack and Michelle Obama tour Humayun's Tomb with K K Mohammad
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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'Delhi is a modern city, rooted in history'

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"Delhi is such a modern city," Obama said, before pointing to the mausoleum and adding, "but rooted in such a civilisation."

Mohammad says on listening to the history behind the monument, "President Obama told me India has withstood the rise and fall of empires. I am sure India will lead the world."

"I told the President India has 28 world heritage sites. New Delhi has three of them," Mohammad added. "The Red Fort, the Qutub Minar and Humanyun's Tomb. I explained to him that all other sites in New Delhi are due to its historical importance, but this site portrays both Indian history and architecture. At other places, gardens were added later, but in this monument, the garden is an integral part. I told him with pride that India had technology to conceive such monuments and execute it."

"I also explained that this structure has Persian, Central Asian and Indian architecture. That's so unique. It's an amalgamation of three streams of ideas," Mohammad said.


Image: Barack and Michelle Obama with workers who restore historical buildings and their children
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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'Dara Shikoh has a US connection'

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Mohammad says the President asked several questions about Dara Shikoh and that made the conversation very interesting.

Dara Shikoh was the elder brother of the last major Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal.

"Mr President," Mohammad told Obama, "there is a Dara Shikoh, US connection too."

"Dara Shikoh was defeated by Aurangzeb in a power struggle. He was a great man with a vision. He wanted all school of thoughts and religion to live in harmony. Akbar succeeded in spreading that philosophy, but it was Dara Shikoh who conceived it, beautifully," Mohammad added.

"President Obama was very impressed by Dara Shikoh's philosophy and asked me questions."

"Dara Shikoh," Mohammad said, "translated the greatest Indian text, the Upanishads, into Persian. It was later translated into Latin and French. That copy reached the US. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American philosopher, was introduced to Indian culture through Dara Shikoh's translation of the Upanishads."

"I told the President that Dara Shikoh rests here."

When President Obama went to Humayun and Dara Shikoh's tombs, Mohammad says he folded his hands, as if to pray.

"As far as I can remember, there were no photographers there."


Image: Barack and Michelle Obama greet the children of workers
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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