I’ve recently concluded a series of occasional mini-articles on little-known secular historical monuments in Delhi. Looking around for ideas for another series, I realized that some of my favourite historical monuments in Delhi are tombs. Yes, that might sound slightly macabre, but consider: grand tombs, in which time and money and love (whether for another or for oneself) had been invested, are a dime a dozen in Delhi. There are, of course, the famous ones: Humayun’s Tomb, Safdarjang’s Tomb, the tombs dotting Lodhi Gardens, and the dargahs of Sufi saints like Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Roshan Chirag-e-Dehli.
And there are the lesser-known tombs: large, often very prominent—like the many unidentified tombs which stand around Green Park, Mehrauli, and RK Puram—and sometimes small, inconspicuous (or even just sheer unappealing at first glance!), but bearing the names of famous people: Razia Sultan, Ghiyasuddin Balban, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan (the Hindi poet Rahim, for those who don’t know).
So here we go, with the first of a series of articles on some of Delhi’s lesser-known tombs. Tombs don’t fall, as far as I’m concerned, into the ‘secular’ category of monuments, because the very concept of building a tomb—of interring a body according to certain religious rites—is, by its nature, religious. What’s more, nearly all Muslim tombs in Delhi are conspicuously marked by religious symbols: verses from the Qu’ran as calligraphy, a mihrab or arch marking the West (the direction of prayer, to encourage visitors to the tomb to pray for the soul of the departed), even—in the case of the more wealthy and influential—a mosque.
All of these, and more, come together in the tomb of Atgah Khan, in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti.
Atgah Khan was, by all accounts, a wealthy and highly influential man: his wife, Jiji Anga, was one of the nine wet-nurses of Akbar. Atgah Khan (?- 1562 CE) was a man of humble origin: the son of a farmer, he had started his career as a soldier in the army of Kamran (half-brother of Humayun), but—by saving Humayun’s life when the Emperor was drowning in the Ganges—found himself elevated to the rank of a personal servant to Humayun. His wife became a wet-nurse to the infant Akbar, and by that relationship, Atgah Khan (whose actual name was Shamsuddin Mohammad; ‘atgah’ means ‘foster-father’ and ‘khan’ is a title indicating high rank) became Akbar’s foster father and therefore a figure worthy of great respect.
Atgah Khan’s death came at the hands of another foster-relative of Akbar’s: Adham Khan, the son of another wet-nurse, Maham Anga. Adham Khan, jealous of Atgah Khan’s influence with Akbar, murdered Atgah Khan (and was, in turn, executed by Akbar by being thrown off the ramparts of the fort). Atgah Khan’s son, Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, buried his father in a tomb constructed next door to the much-revered dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
Atgah Khan’s tomb, though hidden away among the maze of little galis surrounding the dargah, is a superb little example of early Mughal architecture: it combines many of the architectural styles, building materials, and decorative motifs that predominate in this period—from an abundant use of both red sandstone and white marble, to ornamentation that ranges from delicately carved sandstone filigree jaalis (screens) to panels of inlay.
While there is some tile work in deep blue and green on the inner part of the arches forming the doorways to the square tomb, a better example of tiles and their use is to be seen in the wall mosque beside the tomb. A wall mosque, as its name suggests, is a wall that functions as a mosque. (The main purpose of a mosque is to indicate the direction of prayer—in India, west, since Mecca lies west of India; therefore, a wall marked traditionally with a mihrab or arch to indicate west is also considered a mosque). The wall mosque at Atgah Khan’s tomb has, obviously, suffered the ravages of time, but it still contains traces of the lovely yellow, green and blue tiles, in geometric patterns and arabesques, which originally formed its decoration.
The interior of Atgah Khan’s tomb contains three cenotaphs: of two men and a woman. The cenotaph directly under the highest point of the dome is that of Atgah Khan himself; the woman’s cenotaph is that of his wife, Jiji Anga. The second male cenotaph is unknown, but may have been that of a close relative.
Atgah Khan’s tomb was one of the buildings occupied by crowds of refugees during the Partition; this is partly the reason for the damage caused to it (the ceiling of the tomb still has traces of some beautiful painted plaster, in red and blue, which must have—combined with the tiles, the carving, and the inlay—made this quite an exquisite little tomb in its heyday).