A sweet smell of winter mist is fused with the pungent odour of fresh lime mortar as one enters the sandstone paved pathway at Rahim Khan’s mausoleum. Standing tall, grand, and newly restored, the double-domed structure on New Delhi’s busy Mathura Road is hard to miss. Yet, about six years back, when it was first investigated for conservation by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), the cracks in the dilapidated arches of the mausoleum were so grave that the structural engineer came rushing out in disbelief that it was still managing to stand erect.
“The kind of cracks on its foundation could fit in an entire human being,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the AKTC. He adds that the condition of the structure was such that it would have collapsed had it not been conserved immediately. “This is something I never say for any monument, since these buildings are meant to survive generations,” he says. Nanda explains that in terms of the amount of effort required to restore the grand mausoleum of Khan, it is perhaps the largest conservation project ever undertaken for any monument of national importance in India.
The restored Rahim Khan’s mausoleum was finally opened to the public this week. Yet its significance lies not just in the extraordinary beauty of the monument which is said to have inspired Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal. Rather it is the patron of the monument, the Mughal era poet and soldier of equal repute, Abdul Rahim Khani-i-Khanan, whose legacy deserves attention. “Whenever we start with any conservation project, the first thing we ask ourselves is what exactly are we preserving. In this case it was Rahim,” says Nanda.
Rahim: The poet, soldier and one of Akbar’s nine gems
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Rahim is in the form of the 700-odd couplets that have over the years become an important part of Hindi school textbooks. “That is his immortality. A man from Akbar’s time whom every school child in the Hindi region knows,” says Harish Trivedi, professor of English at Delhi University.
Writer Rakhshanda Jalil says the greatness of his couplets lies in their simplicity and pragmatic wisdom. “They discuss philosophies and sensibilities that have stuck over centuries and are easy to understand by a 13-year-old even today,” she says.
But apart from being a prolific poet in the 15th century, Rahim was also an astute statesman in the Mughal court, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal army, a translator par excellence, an enthusiastic patron of architecture and so much more.
Rahim was born in 1556 to Bairam Khan, the uncle and tutor of Akbar. Upon Bairam Khan’s assassination, Akbar immediately ordered the child to be brought to him. “In court, all sources declare unanimously, Akbar’s treatment of the child was exemplary and presaged the strong emotional attachment that was to develop between the two,” writes TCA Raghavan, author of the book, ‘Attendant lords Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim: Courtiers and poets in Mughal India.’
Raghavan explains that in Akbar’s court he was given the kind of education in riding, wrestling, swordsmanship and languages as was reserved for sons of premier nobles. Consequently, he grew up with a strong proficiency in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit and he also spoke some Portuguese.
Being so close to Akbar, Rahim accompanied him in military campaigns from a very early age. The political and military career of Rahim began with Akbar’s Gujarat campaign in 1572 when the former was all of 16. In 1575, he was appointed by the emperor as governor of Gujarat. “The prestige conferred by the appointment was, however, enormous and the fact that he was favourite of the emperor was no longer in doubt to anyone in the court if ever it was,” writes Raghavan.
Towards the end of the century, he is remembered for leading the expedition to Sind and Baluchistan and playing an important role in Akbar’s expedition to the Deccan. He was one among the nine most important ministers in Akbar’s court, also called the navaratnas.
“Rahim was a combination of the pen and sword. In that sense he has no equivalent in Hindi as well as foreign language literature,” says Trivedi. “One rarely associates the valour of the battlefield with the subtlety of the pen. But that is what Rahim symbolised,” he adds.
Jalil says the fact that Rahim was a courtier, statesman and military officer, meant that he was able to see literature in its vastness. “Given that he led military campaigns to Deccan, Gujarat, the travel would have exposed him to different cultures and literary styles,” she says.
As a poet, Rahim is seen at par with the famous triumvirate of medieval Bhakta poets, Surdas, Tulsidas and Kabir. However, as Raghavan puts it, Rahim’s poetry ‘has an enigmatic quality’. In his poetry, he experimented with Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit. Trivedi explains that unlike most other poets of the medieval era, Rahim’s writings could be grouped under three broad categories. He was a Bhakti poet, but he also didactic poetry of a more liberal kind. He also wrote erotic poetry which was interwined with Hindu religious poetry.
Rahim was also one of the foremost translators of his times. He translated Babur’s autobiography from Turkish to Persian in the most graceful of ways. “I see Rahim as a patron deity of modern day translators in India,” says Jalil. “He had the foresight to understand how languages need to create bridges between the ancient and the modern.”
Finally, he is also remembered for his enthusiasm towards architecture. He is credited with have patronising the construction of beautiful buildings, canals, tanks, pleasure gardens in Agra, Delhi, Lahore and Burhanpur. The grandest among these, however, is the tomb he built for his wife, Mah Banu in 1598, making it the first Mughal tomb of its kind built for a lady. He was later buried in the same structure. “In that sense he built a Taj Mahal, except that he built it about half a century before Shah Jahan did,” says Nanda.
Conserving Rahim and his tomb
The conservation of the tomb began in 2014 by the AKTC with the support of the InterGlobe foundation and with the permission of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The physical revival of the structure included repairing the mausoleum’s canopies, dalans, facade, dome, and the landscape. “Being the brilliant man that he was, Rahim ensured that his wife’s mausoleum was ornamented with diverse motifs including those seen in other mausoleums as well as those found in Hindu architecture like the peacock and Swastika,” says Nanda, adding that wherever there was evidence of the original design, the motifs have been restored, matching the quality of the 16th-century artisan.
Approximately 3,000 craftsmen were employed over five years in the conservation of the structure. On cleaning layers of soot, the principal tomb chamber and the arched bays on each side of the ground level arcade was found to be ornamented with breathtaking incised plaster patterns. The sandstone terrace along with the sandstone parapet has also been restored.
The lofty double dome was originally clad with marble, which was later quarried away to build the nearby Safdarjung’s tomb in the 18th century. “After much consideration, restoration of the marble cladding was limited to the base. This served the dual purpose of strengthening the base as well as to indicate to visitors the original finish of the dome,” says Nanda. He adds that in the future there is the possibility that they will veer towards completing the marble cladding on the entire dome.
Though modeled like the Humayun’s tomb, Rahim’s mausoleum was unique in its placement along the riverbanks of the Yamuna. In recent years though, the construction of a road on the southern side of the mausoleum has broken the historic link with the river. However, evidence of terrace water tanks, with a fountain mechanism is proof of the incredible feat of hydraulic engineering applied in the 16th century, and how important the flowing water from the Yamuna must have been to these tomb gardens.
While on one hand the architecture of the 16th-century poet was being conserved, on the other hand, his persona and writings too had to be preserved in a new spirit. One way of doing this was to get a cross-section of people like historians, writers, artists, archaeologists, bureaucrats involved in the process of conservation. Consequently, two books on Rahim were put together, one in English and the other in Hindi, carrying essays on Rahim and his works by noted scholars of literature, history and art.
“There are two ways of making someone immortal. One way is to conserve their magnificent monuments, and the other is to keep reading them and making the works available in attractive and accessible ways,” says Trivedi, who edited the Hindi volume of essays on Rahim titled, Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan: Kavya, Saundrya & Sarthakta.
In this collaborated effort to preserve Rahim and his mausoleum, the conservationists hope that the 16th-century figure would be given a fresh breath of life. “At the very least his name would now be better known,” says Jalil. “No longer would this be just one among the many tombs dotting Delhi, but would be known widely as Khan-i-Khanan Rahim’s tomb”.
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