The Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan

[A quick word for Dusted Off regulars, in case you haven’t noticed the non-cinema related posts that have recently appeared on my home page: this is part of the process of combining Dusted Off with my other writing. I’d gotten a bit tired of maintaining two separate blogs, so decided it was high time the two were combined. So you’ll be seeing the odd post now and then which has nothing to do with classic cinema – more likely, something about history, since that is another passion of mine. But Dusted Off isn’t going anywhere, so please don’t go away, either!]

When I posted an article about Sabz Burj, a friend commented that he used to see it on his way to work – and he mentioned another tomb nearby that he used to see, too. A little bit of to-ing and fro-ing, and we managed to figure out which one he meant: the Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan. Like Sabz Burj, Rahim’s Tomb is by no means invisible (in fact, standing just off Mathura Road and in clear sight of the Barapullah Flyover, it’s probably one of the more familiar medieval monuments for passersby in the Nizamuddin are). It is, too, unlike Sabz Burj, not a particularly attractive monument—but it has a fascinating history, and the man buried here was one of Mughal India’s most illustrious.

The Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan.

The Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan.

When the Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan was first pointed out to me, years ago, my initial reaction was a somewhat polite “Oh, yes?” – because I didn’t know who Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan was. Then it was explained to me. Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan (1556-1626 CE) was the son of Bairam Khan, the general who acted as Akbar’s regent when Akbar succeeded to the throne at the age of 13. When Bairam Khan died, Akbar, in order to provide refuge to his widow Salima Sultan Begum (who was Akbar’s cousin) married her. Her son Abdur Rahim therefore became Akbar’s stepson.

Abdur Rahim was an extremely able general and statesman in his own right, and was bestowed with the title ‘Khan-e-Khanan’ (‘Khan of Khans’, denoting his high rank). He was also one of the ‘Navratna’, the ‘nine gems’ of Akbar’s court.

Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, however, is known not merely as a statesman: his other major claim to fame is as a well-respected Hindi poet. Like Kabir, ‘Rahim’ is known for his ‘dohas’ or couplets, such as:

रहिमन निज मन की बित्था
मन ही राखो गोय
सुन इठ्लैहैं लोग सब
बाँट न लैहैं कोय

(“Rahim says, ‘keep the sorrows of your mind within your mind. Those who hear them will strut about and gloat; none will share them with you’”)

And this very well-known one:

बुरा जो देखन मैं चला
बुरा ना मिलिया कोय
जो दिल खोजा आपना
मुझसा बुरा ना कोय

(“When I set out to look for evil, I found no-one wicked. When I searched my own heart, I found there was none as evil as I.”)

Rahim’s wife, Mah Banu Begum (who was the daughter of Atgah Khan and the sister of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, both of whom are buried in Nizamuddin, not too far from Rahim’s tomb) built the mausoleum for her husband in 1598. Close to 30 years later, when Rahim died in 1626, his body was interred here.

Rahim’s tomb sits on a high square platform which has arched cells all along the sides. (Interestingly, in a departure from the norm of not representing any animal life in Islamic architecture, at least one of the cells is decorated with a carved medallion, a representation of a peacock). There are other interesting features in the sparse decoration of the cells: some still have traces of incised plaster, including one depicting a swastika.

An unusual motif: a carved peacock.

An unusual motif: a carved peacock.

Very intricately incised plaster, in geometric and floral patterns, forms the basis of the decoration inside the domed chamber containing Rahim’s tomb. This plaster would once have been painted as well, but the paint – except in a few dirty patches on the ceiling – has worn off over the centuries.

Incised plaster motif at Rahim's Tomb.

Incised plaster motif at Rahim’s Tomb.

A view of part of the interior of Rahim's Tomb: this is incised plaster.

A view of part of the interior of Rahim’s Tomb: this is incised plaster.

And the icing on the cake, the final little thing that makes Rahim’s Tomb interesting? The fact that its dome – now unsightly rubble – was once clad with white marble. Like the tombs of his father-in-law Atgah Khan and the Mughal emperor Humayun, Rahim’s Tomb too had originally been crowned with a gleaming white marble dome. Sadly, in the mid-18th century, when Safdarjang (Wazir to the Mughal emperor) died, his sons – driven by a combination of poverty and a burning desire to show off, decided their father’s tomb merited some white marble, whether or not they could afford it.

Rahim’s Tomb suffered as a result: Safdarjang’s sons vandalized it and took away the marble to use it in their father’s tomb. Which is why today Safdarjang’s Tomb – otherwise not a good example of Mughal architecture – has a marble dome, while Rahim’s Tomb has a sadly denuded dome with marble remaining only in the form of thin strips and carved bosses here and there.

A pretty flower-shaped water tank a Rahim's Tomb.

A pretty flower-shaped water tank a Rahim’s Tomb.

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44 thoughts on “The Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan

  1. MAY I REQUEST MY FAVOURITE LOVELY WRITER MADHU PL WRITE ON HINDU GREAT PERSONALITIES LIKE RANA PRATAP SHIVAJI KINGS OF MYSORE JHANSI KI RANI .. U HAVE WRITTEN MAXIMUM ON MUGHALS. IT IS HIGH TIME DEAR DO JUSTICE. WITH WARM REGARDS…. vsyekkelli@gmail.com cell 9449618947

    • It is not a question of Hindu versus Muslim – please don’t read religious motives into what I’m posting. You must understand, too, that I don’t write lightly about Delhi (and not just the Mughals; I’ve written a good bit about pre-Mughal Delhi as well): over 15 years of research has gone into what I write, and even then, I’m painfully aware that I am by no means an authority on what I’m writing. Trying to write on ‘Hindu great personalities’ when I don’t know much more about them than the average layman would be presumptious and a waste of time – mine and my readers’. And, frankly speaking, I just don’t have the time to research such a vast topic when I am not really required to do so.

  2. V S Yekkelli, your comment was a bit admonishing I should think. On one’s own blog, one posts whatever one wishes. You may request, but not reprimand the writer, I should think. Madhulika is a scholar, author of the Mughol period in India; needless to say, the wealth of their stay in our country was in the north and that too Dilli.

  3. Madhu Ji,
    Thank you for introducing us to the little known tombs and information on Mughal period. Glad that you have brought this to our notice. Please continue to enlighten us. Next time I am in Delhi I will try to visit this place and period. Thank you.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Venkataramanji! I first began going on heritage walks in Delhi about 20 years back, when I used to work at the India Habitat Centre. Then, because of my sister (who’s a historian, and has been leading heritage walks for nearly 15 years)… I got even more interested. It’s quite amazing, the number of little-known monuments tucked away in Delhi’s nooks and crannies.

  4. Was surprised to find this in dustedoff and not at madhulikaliddle. But it is a good idea to combine them both.
    WAs amazed to hear that the tomb has a swastika in a Mughal tomb, I think they were much more liberal in those days than now.
    These posts of yours vet my appetite for more and also increases my desire to visit Delhi once again.

    • “WAs amazed to hear that the tomb has a swastika in a Mughal tomb, I think they were much more liberal in those days than now.

      A lot of the stone carvers – in fact, I would think the majority – would have been Hindus, and it seems not just the Mughals, but even earlier dynasties were quite open to letting the stone carvers use some of the designs they were used to. For instance, at the Qutb Complex (which I really must show you around, in detail, when you’re in Delhi next! – please come!), there are very typically ‘Hindu’ architectural elements, such as the kalash with the mango leaves. The lotus, of course, became an important element in a lot of architecture: lotus buds form rims for arches, an open lotus sits on domes (including the Taj Mahal), and so on.

      • I think, we talked about it also in Lodhi gardens about it. Very interesting!
        And when I read your novel Engraved in Stone, everything made much more sense. I think, that you have not on written a very good mystery novel, but also given a deep insight to the social structure of those days. That is what impressed me a lot about that novel. The daily going-ons, the food, the lives of the rich nobility in contrast to that of the poor, their clothes, the construction, the architecture, the intrigues. Made a good reading.

    • Incidentally, Harvey: Your comment about ‘them being more liberal in those days than now’ reminds me of a trip I made to Mewat earlier this year. It’s a Muslim majority area, and I’d gone with a social worker – also a Muslim – who pointed out something unusual: the near-absence of burqas. He also mentioned that till very recently, even beards or other obvious signs of ‘Islamic-ness’ in men were missing. He said that it was a result of the long occupation of Mewat by the Pathans, who did not impose such stringent rules; the recent ‘Arabization’ (as he put it) of Mewat, in the past few years, has resulted in beards etc making an appearance, and a more visibly Muslim ‘feel’ to the place. It was interesting, and a reflection on how religion need not set us apart – as well as how people do use it to erect barriers.

      • That is what I noticed in the South as well. I can’t remember Muslim girls in Bombay or in Karnataka wearing hijabs (scarves covering the hair and neck) till I left India in the early 90s. In 2004, even in small villages, I found many girls wearing hijabs, which I knew till then only from some Turkish and Arabic families in Austria. Burqas though quite common were not worn by all Muslim women and are still not.
        Am I right in thinking, that hijabs are new in India and a part of ‘Arabisation’?

        My mother, though a devout Hindu, never found and finds it odd to go to a dargah or a church. When she used to go to work, she often used to go with her catholic friends to the Mount Mary Church in Bandra or to a dargah. I remember her telling me that her Muslim and Christian friends also used to accompany her to the Siddhivinayak Temple in Dadar. I think this was not at all an uncommon phenomenon. I don’t know how it is now. I think, I should ask around, when I’m in Bombay next time.

        I didn’t know about Mewat. In fact, I’ve to admit, I didn’t even know where Mewat is. First I thought it is same as Mewar, but thanks to Google maps and Wiki, one can nowadays, jump to any part of the world. :)

  5. Rahiman paani rakhiye, bin paani sab soon,
    Paani gaye na ubre, moti maanus choon.

    So Rahim was the son of Bairam Khan and the stepson of Akbar! Wow! Did not know that. What a wealth of information I got out of this post.

    Thank you.

          • Did that actually make sense to you, Harvey?

            From what I recall, this doha was used as a standard example of a poetic style that uses one word to mean several things. “Rahiman paani raakhiye, bin paani sab soon” – “Rahim says, keep water with you, because without water, all is dull and lifeless (‘soona)”. In the second line, you realise that he’s using paani to mean different things in different cases: “Paani gaye, na oobre, moti, maanas, choon“. – “In the absence of water, pearls, man, and lime: none can come forth and shine”. In the case of pearls, he means ‘water’ to mean ‘lustre’ (just as we speak of diamonds being of the ‘first water’); in the case of people, if I remember correctly, water was meant to be honour, integrity; in the case of lime (choona), literally water, since unless you add water to ground lime, you can’t use it as plaster.

            • Thank you, Madhu! :)
              Really neat! such simple lines and such depth!
              I didn’t have any Rahim dohas in our Hindi text book, so they are totally new for me.
              It always amazes me how the saints throughout the history have also been such nature-lovers. In the present-times, they would have been called ecos.
              Spirituality and eco-awarness go hand-in-hand.
              Makes me feel humble and elated at the same time.
              Thank you for the nice word-to-word explanation. I would never have understood the choon-part.

              • You’re welcome, Harvey! Kabir was my favourite in school (his dohas made such good sense), but Rahim was not far behind too. I remember we used to have school antakshari competitions with Hindi poetry rather than film songs – and one had to recite at least the firts two lines of a poem. Dohas were a great favourite, because they were so easy to memorise!

  6. Thanks for sharing! I had always wondered whose tomb it is. I had also asked my brothers but nobody seemed to know. But, now I do, thanks to you! Should get out more, I guess.

    • Thank you, Kshitiz! There’s so much to see and discover in Delhi, there’s lots of opportunity to find out about this city’s past. Thankfully, with the ASI having pulled up its socks a bit before the Commonwealth Games, at least some of the previously-ignored monuments have decent signage and information boards, and are better maintained than before. Rahim’s Tomb among them.

    • Yes, it had first come as a real surprise to me to learn that Rahim was Akbar’s stepson (and such a statesman, too – I never knew, back in school when I was studying his dohas). Now that I come to think of it, I wonder why his bio in my text books didn’t mention that aspect of his life – would’ve made it more interesting.

  7. DO, Abdur Rahim was not Salima Begum’s actual son, I think. He was her stepson too since he was Bairam Khan’s son by the daughter of Jamal Khan of Mewat who were Rajputs who had converted to Islam. It is interesting that he unlike his father who antagonized Akbar never showed those ambitions. Perhaps he did not really hanker for power like his father , though in truth his father was the reason that Akbar could become emperor. Pity we did not visit half the tomb’s etc when A and I drove from Delhi to Agra. I had eyes only for Sikandra and she for TM.

    • Oh, okay. I didn’t know that, about Rahim not actually being Salima Begum’s own son.

      I do love Sikandra, don’t you? There is something so deliciously flamboyant about the place, all the way from that very ornate gate with those huge flowers inlaid all over, to the gorgeously painted interiors. I love the Taj Mahal too, but I wish more people would give Sikandra its due. And Itmad-ud-Daulah.

  8. You are one problem maker. Sorry for attacking you like this but what do I do? I am a history buff, so every time, I saw an update on Facebook relating to your other blog, I was tempted to read it, but I just did not have the time, so I just forced myself to look away and now look what you have done, given something more to read. I loved this post, and loved the dohas too. You know every time I stand in front of any old monument, I have this strange feeling, I am not able to describe it. I just imagine that at one time in another time people lived a different life in and around this place, they had their own joys and sorrows. When we read about them in our history books, they don’t seem real, to me they appear almost mythical, but when I am in front of such heritage structures,,,, I don’t know, cannot describe the feeling.

    • Thank you Shilpi! I agree completely with what you write about how the personal lives of people are reflected in their buildings – and how you can feel that these aren’t just buildings; they were once homes, people lived and died here, had their sorrows and joys… that is what actually is history to me, not a collection of dates, as most people seem to regard it.

  9. This blog is wonderful! I can’t get enough of your movie reviews and I love your travel writing as well.
    I wonder if you have come across the following doha ABOUT Rahim, which was composed by one of his contemporaries ( gang kavi):

    विक्रम गंगा तुल्य जग , भोज जमुन अनुराग ।
    प्रकट खानखाना भयो , कामद बदन प्रयाग ॥

    It compares him to the legendary kings Vikram(aditya) and Bhoja ( vikram-ganga meets bhoja-jamuna at khankhana-prayag)

    • Thank you so much! For the appreciation, of course (that’s what keeps me going!) as well as for that doha. I’d never heard it before. Rahim was obviously well-respected by his peers, though if I remember correctly Tulsidas (I think) also passed some snide remark about Rahim not looking people in the face when he distributed alms to them – to which Rahim had given a befitting answer to the effect that it was the Almighty who was the giver; for Rahim to hold his head up and look the poor in the eye would be unseemly.

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