July 13, 2013

Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb, New Delhi

A prominent military general once said -

 “Kheera mukh te katiye, maliyat loon lagaye/ Rahiman kadve mukh ko, chahiyat ihi sazaye” ("To cure a bitter cucumber, we cut its head off and rub in salt/ Says Rahim that to cure a bitter mouth we should apply the same remedy")

But then the same man also exclaimed - 

“Rahiman te nar mar chuke, je kahun mangat jahin/ Unte pehle ve muye, jin mukh niksat nahi” (“Says Rahim, he who has to beg ceases to be a man/but he who refuses to help another was never a man to begin with”)

One might ask how is it that a man could also talk about helping others while being an army general & promoting the use of sword against those whose only fault is their employment of rude words against their opponents. But that is how Rahim Khan-i-Khanan was. Rahim who??

Though Khanzadah Mirza Khan Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan lived from 1556-1626 AD, he remains a hated figure among school children throughout much of India till date. That too, not for any particular fault of his but for the sole reason that his couplets ("Dohe") about worldly knowledge & behavior are so impressive that the Education Ministry of the Government of India decided to incorporate them in Hindi syllabus throughout the country (CBSE Board). Children studying in classes 9-10 have to read, memorize & expound upon many of his couplets, which if you ask me is an easy but monotonously boring task, especially the way education is imparted in Indian schools. Sadly, no efforts are made to explain to the kids the worth of these couplets written in archaic Hindi & they are fed these as a chore suitable for rote learning, made relatively easy by the presence of so many cheat books & exam guides. Interestingly, Rahim’s couplets are quoted by grownups with much passion & often as a means to set an erring individual right. Indeed my father’s favorite couplet is “Bada hua to kya hua, jaise ped khajoor/Panchi ko chaya nahi, fal lagat ati dur” (“What’s the point in being big (tall, literally) like a date palm/ It doesn’t give shade to even a bird & the fruit grows so far”), to be used every time I tell my sister that she is younger & hence less experienced than me. Very few people are actually aware of Rahim’s history, even few know that he was buried in Delhi after his death. His tomb in Delhi’s Nizamuddin Area is a short walk away from the majestic Humayun’s Tomb complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex), sadly the latter overshadows its presence & ensures that very few visitors ever set foot in Rahim’s Tomb complex. Before I embark upon a detailed discussion of his tomb & its architecture, here is a primer about Rahim’s life for those who are interested in knowing more about this poet-composer who joins the list of many others who called Delhi their home & were buried here (most prominently Ghalib & Amir Khusro about whom I have previously written here - Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro's Tomb & Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb).

Rahim's Tomb - First view

Abdul Rahim was one of the most accomplished ministers in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605), he was one of the “Navaratnas” (“Nine jewels”) who graced Akbar’s court & entertained the Emperor as well as the masses with his skills & knowledge. Very few people are actually aware today that besides being a renowned poet & composer, Rahim was also a powerful army general & commanded Akbar’s armies in many battles. He was given the province of Ahmedabad by the Emperor & his palace & surrounding gardens still exist there on the banks of the river Sabarmati, though in a much dilapidated & ruinous state. On his father’s side, Abdul Rahim belonged to the Turkish Kara Koyunlu tribe of Afghanistan which had ruled over large territories in Central Asia for several decades before being supplanted by their arch-rivals, the Ak Koyunlu tribe. Rahim’s ancestors then joined service under Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (ruled AD 1526-30), Emperor Akbar’s grandfather. Rahim’s father Bairam Khan was a mighty general, close confidante & clever statesman in Akbar’s father Humayun’s court. He was also counted in the circle of Humayun’s dearest friends & asswociates. During a brief period from AD 1540-55, the Mughal administration was destroyed by the renegade Governor of Bihar Sher Shah Suri who defeated & chased Humayun & his commanders out of the country. Humayun was forced to seek asylum & military assistance from Shah Tahmasp, the Sultan of Persia & embarked on a bid to re-conquer the country when Sikandar Suri (ruled AD 1555-56), one of Sher Shah’s descendants & the then Sultan of India, proved to be a weak administrator. Bairam Khan commanded Humayun’s army to victory several times, most notably in Benaras, Bengal, Kandahar & Gujarat & helped re-establish the Mughal rule firmly in the subcontinent. After the siege & capture of Kandahar, Bairam Khan was given its governorship by Humayun, a position he held for over nine years. As a means to win over the local Khanzada lords & chieftains who were originally the enemies of the Mughals (“Khanzadah”, literally “The son of Khan” was the Persian form of the Hindi word “Rajput” or “The son of Raja (King)”. Khanzadahs were originally Rajputs who accepted Islam after coming in contact with the Sufi sheikhs. They belonged to royal Yaduvanshi family who traced their lineage back to the mythical statesman-warrior Krishna, supposedly an incarnation of Vishnu (the Hindu God of life & nourishment). Humayun decided to forge matrimonial alliances with them & asked his nobles to do the same. Humayun & Bairam Khan respectively married the elder & the younger daughter of the Khanzadah chief Jamal Khan of Mewat (Haryana) (the names of the two ladies I could not find). Thus, on his maternal side, Abdul Rahim traced his ancestry to Krishna who is considered a God by the Hindus. Bairam Khan also had a second wife named Salima Begum. 

Intricate - A medallion ornamenting one of the arched cells that mark the plinth

After Humayun’s sudden death in an accident in his fortress Dinpanah/Old Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort), Akbar had to ascend throne at the tender age of 14 years. The boy was too young to take over the reins of the vast Indian subcontinent that he was betrothed & so Bairam Khan acted as his military & administrative regent & tutor till the Emperor came of age. Bairam Khan helped consolidate the vast empire till the Emperor grew up to take charge, he cruelly subdued many of the empire’s enemies & renegade generals & was also responsible for the victory of the Mughal forces in the II Battle of Panipat (AD 1556) over the Hindu king Hemu Vikramaditya who had taken advantage of Humayun’s demise & overrun much of North India & declared himself the Samrat (“Emperor”) of India. However, when Akbar grew up, he could not put up with Bairam Khan’s fiery temperament & had him dismissed from the army in 1560 AD (Akbar was 18 now & Bairam no longer called the shots as regent). Bairam chose to leave India & go on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, however it was not to be as he was identified & assassinated in Gujarat by Hazi Khan Mewati, a General & friend of Hemu. It has been contested whether it was Akbar himself who had his erstwhile tutor & the powerful commander assassinated. Hazi Khan spared Bairam’s wife & the four-year old toddler Abdul Rahim & had them sent back to North India where they were received by the emperor. Akbar decided to repay Bairam’s favour by becoming the guardian to the young Abdul Rahim. A few years later, the emperor married Bairam’s widow Salima & thus Rahim became his step-son. 

Even the mold & the seepage could not put a dent on the charm of these patterns!!

Growing up, Rahim proved to be a brilliant scholar, soon mastering Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hindi. He also achieved excellence in the techniques of warfare & was accorded the position of a general in Akbar’s army. An able poet & a powerful commander, he soon found himself in the Emperor’s close circle & became an integral part of his court. Rahim was made the governor of Burhanpur (in Madhya Pradesh) where he initiated several public works & commissioned several civic structures. Burhanpur was an important Mughal outpost from where they controlled Central & South India & it was here that Akbar confined his son Daniyal under the tutelage (& arrest) of Rahim. Akbar also had the titles of “Mirza” (“Gentleman”) & Khan-i-Khanan (“Khan amongst Khans”) bestowed on him. Despite being a Muslim by birth, Rahim was a firm devotee of Krishna to whom he claimed descent from. Mah Banu who was the daughter of Atgah Khan, Akbar’s foster father & an even superior general, was betrothed to Abdul Rahim. He rose the ladders of success, soon finding his way into the list of the literary geniuses of his time. His knowledge of philosophy, literature & astrology far exceeded that of his contemporaries & he went on to write several major literary works, including several “dohas” (“couplets”) written in Hindi & Braj Bhasha (a local dialect of Hindi, most commonly used in parts of Uttar Pradesh), devotional songs dedicated to Krishna & books on astrology, besides translating Baburnama from the original Chaghtai language to Persian (Baburnama (“Babur’s memoirs”) remains till date one of the most authentic & widely referred source of medieval Indian history & the personalities involved, especially the phase where Babur invaded India & defeated the seven major kings who lorded over the territories - five Muslims & two Hindus. Rahim finished his translation of Baburnama in AD 1589–90). Later, Rahim married his daughter to Prince Daniyal Mirza, the third son of Akbar.

Delicate - Another medallion

Rahim believed in making the world a better place for everyone, his philanthropic acts were derived from both the Hindu & Muslim tenets of charity (most educated people, including my father who is a doctor by profession, I talked to about Rahim were shocked when I told them he was pretty rich, powerful & militarily efficient. They had always believed he must have been a mendicant or a poor poet singing his verses while begging for alms – another reason why the way his compositions are taught in schools needs to be revamped), but he was always very humble about it & would never look at the face of the person who came asking for alms but instead looked at their feet. In a bid to emphasize Rahim’s kind-heartedness & modesty, his contemporary Hindi poet-composer Goswami Tulsidas questioned him thus in these words -

“Aisi deni den jyun, kit seekhe ho sain/ Jyon jyon kar unchaya karo, tyon tyon neeche nain”
(“Why do you give alms like this Sir?? Where did you learn it?? Your hands are high, but your eyes so low”)

Touched by Tulsidas’s words, Rahim immediately answered with a verse full of respect & humility -

“Denhaar koi or hai, bhejat jo din rain/ Log bhram hum par kare, taso neeche nain”

(“It isn’t me who gives day & night but someone else (God), I lower my eyes so the people do not give me credit for the acts of charity”)
Sadly, Rahim could not immediately reap the rewards of his philosophical knowledge & charitable acts, he died a broken man, without any financial backing or administrative power. In his lifetime, Akbar had appointed Abdul Rahim the tutor of his son Prince Salim. Though Salim was a favourite of Akbar’s queens & the nobility for succession to India’s throne, he was disliked by both Akbar & Abdul Rahim. When Akbar passed away in 1605 AD, Rahim opposed Salim’s ascension to Akbar’s throne, but the opposition proved to be futile & Salim was crowned emperor with the title of Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-27). To set an example of the power he wielded over his subjects, Jahangir had Rahim stripped of his powers & expelled from the royal court, his two sons (that is, Jahangir’s nephews) were executed & their bodies were left to rot at Delhi’s Khooni Darwaza (“Bloodied Gate”, refer Pixelated Memories - Khooni Darwaza). Rahim’s other sons did make up with Jahangir later, his son Feroz Khan even fought alongside Jahangir against the renegade commander Mahabat Khan in AD 1626 & gave his life for the emperor. Rahim built a splendid mausoleum ornamented with colorful tiles & plaster patterns, & referred to as Nila Gumbad (“Blue-domed tower”, refer Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad), for his favourite slave Fahim Khan who died alongside Feroz in the battle. However, it is not known if Rahim built a mausoleum for Feroz & if he did if it has survived or what its location is (Perhaps it is one of the numerous domed towers that dot Delhi’s cityscape, popping out in posh colonies, school playgrounds & hospital complexes, or perhaps it is in some other city, like Lahore where Rahim was born & died). Rahim's eldest son Shah Nawaz Khan is buried in Burhanpur.

Nila Gumbad - Commemorating a faithful servant

Rahim had also built a tomb for his wife when she passed away in AD 1598. Rahim spared no expense in having the tomb ornamented – set in a large garden, except for a few modifications it is architecturally a replica of the tomb of Humayun that exists very close to it. Perhaps Rahim was guided by the same reason & belief that guided Hamida Begum (Humayun’s wife) when she commissioned her husband’s tomb – the presence of the tomb of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya close by which is said to sanctify the entire area around it for several kilometers (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah). When he died in AD 1627, stripped of his power & authority, Rahim, the builder of magnificent mausoleums even for slain servants, did not have enough to build a separate tomb for himself. Although he died in Lahore, his body was brought to Delhi & buried in the tomb intended solely for his wife. Since then the structure is referred to as Khan-i-Khanan’s Tomb. The beautiful square tomb, built of red sandstone & grey Delhi quartzite interspersed by marble, is an epitome of striking symmetry & craftsmanship despite being ravaged by later Mughal nobles. The marble & the sandstone slabs that once covered its exteriors were stripped from its surface in AD 1754, more than a century after it was built, to provide building material for the tomb of Abul Mansur Safdarjung – the ruler of Awadh (western Uttar Pradesh) & the last of the powerful Mughal viziers (“Wazir”). By the time of Safdarjung’s death, the Dynasty had weakened so much that not even the emperors, leave alone the viziers, could afford to build magnificent tombs & mosques. But then Safdarjung was a powerful man, a vizier only in name, in reality all the administrative & military power lay in his hands, he had to have a splendid tomb complex to commemorate his life & the power he wielded. Unable to source raw material to furnish Safdarjung’s tomb due to the paucity of funds, the officials simply decided to plunder the construction material used in Rahim’s Tomb (or perhaps they believed in the 3 R’s necessary for environmental conservation – Reduce, Reuse & Recycle!!). After all Rahim had been disgraced from the court, he was an emperor’s step-son, his tomb could be given a step-motherly treatment. Only fragments of quartzite & sandstone remain on Rahim’s tomb now, even the medallions were not spared & pulled down, the dome & the chattris (dome-like structures surmounted on thin pillars) that surround it were completely shaved of their marble cladding, the rubble masonry underneath the dome remains exposed now. But even then, the tomb, like Rahim’s works, remains dignified despite the humiliation & disgrace meted out to it. It is still one of the most striking structures in all of Delhi, preserved in the state it was left in 1754. A major reason for its better-off condition is that the complex lies in Nizamuddin West, a posh colony close to the World Heritage Site of Humayun’s Tomb Complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex) & hence the threat of vandalism & encroachment is negligible (though a major portion of the garden that once surrounded the complex has been sacrificed at the altar of urbanization, what remains now is a much curtailed piece of land conserved for posterity & also to serve the joggers & walkers who come here for their daily dose of exercise morning & evening) 

Dignified & humble

Standing on a very high square plinth, the tomb looks impressive but dauntingly massive – the plinth itself is so huge that it has arched cells running along all its sides. Despite its size, the tomb looks delicate, a gentle mausoleum built by a fiercely powerful but wise man. The first thing I did when I visited the tomb complex was to go along the periphery of the well-maintained garden & photograph the tomb from different angles. One realizes how the tomb appears different with each glance - grand & yet very subtle about Rahim’s aesthetic tastes. A walk along the plinth proves the first assumption wrong – the tomb has been decorated profusely enough to make visitors stop & take notice – the arched openings of the cells that mark the plinth are each flanked by medallions, the designs are so varied & such intricate – there are several floral & geometric patterns, medallions embossed with peacocks, & such on display. The rooms that exist directly underneath the mausoleum, the ones containing the actual graves of Rahim & his wife, have been grilled & locked, certainly a disappointment (strange tradition right?? Because of the same, in half of the tombs around Delhi with no graves in the mausoleum, it cannot even be ascertained if the graves were above ground & have been destroyed or if the bodies were actually buried deep underground the structure!!).

From the plinth, one can look around the complex - the guard sits quietly in his corner, nothing much to do as visitors are few & far, dogs stroll in the complex, mynas flutter around, landing in the grass & taking flight soon again, the flyover passing close to the tomb is choked with vehicles, do the people take notice of this silent bystander?? I did, I first saw the tomb when passing over the flyover enroute to the nearby Old Fort, Humayun’s citadel (refer Pixelated Memories - Old Fort). Then I did not know anything about this tomb, did not even know that Rahim, the guy I read in school lived in Delhi & was buried here too. Why did not the school authorities think of a trip to this complex, it would have helped the children understand Rahim, the man, better. But then perhaps my teachers too would not have been aware of Rahim’s history, maybe they too thought that he was some kind of mendicant-poet who was out of job & whiled away his time by begging & composing couplets, after all they too are the product of the fairly-outdated, rote learning-based Indian education system.

The plinth is marked with several small tanks, perhaps there were once fountains installed here, similar to the ones in Humayun’s Tomb Complex, or perhaps the tanks housed lotuses & water lilies. Now they run dry, the only thing they reflect back is desolation & melancholy. There is silence all around which is not even pierced by the traffic that goes in circles around the complex, the birds nesting in the trees that flank the mausoleum too appear far off. Perhaps Rahim had intended the place to be silent so it could prove conducive to generating his memories & his verses in the mind of enlightened visitors. 

A lily pad?? A fountain??

Immediately on entering the structure, the first thing one notices are the brilliantly executed star-shaped patterns on the inside of the arched entrances that mark each of its side. The ornamentation is impressive, the patterns carved in stone appear to be done on wax, I doubt if I can even replicate them on paper, such was the prowess of the artists that Rahim employed. There are medallions as well as geometric & floral patterns carved on the entrance. Inside lies a single large cuboidal tombstone under which are buried Mr & Mrs Abdul Rahim. There are no separate graves, not even any ornamentation or calligraphy or embossment on the cuboid, just a plain monolith. Rahim would have agreed to this simplicity, here is what he had to say about fame & greatness –

“Bade badai na kare, bade na bole bol/ Rahiman hira kab kahe, lakh taka mera mol”
(“Great men/women never reveal their influence. Nor do the praiseworthy praise themselves. Says Rahim that a diamond does not have to say how much it is worth”)

An epitome of craftsmanship

But with the exception of the tombstone, the dark grave chamber is splendidly decorated with plaster work – both incised & painted. The most prominent feature is the domed roof – there is a large circular medallion in the center surrounded by eight radially placed smaller medallions. Interestingly the designs are very similar to the patterns carved inside the dome of Nila Gumbad!! On the inside, the corners of the mausoleum are designed in an arched manner – this is the use of a squinch arch (meant to bridge the upper corners of a structure in order to support the weight of the dome), masked so brilliantly by the use of arches, recessed niches & ornamental patterns that one does not even think of it on the lines of architectural necessity – certainly art & architecture reached a new paradigm during the time of the Mughals. The walls are also marked by medallions in several different designs – the calligraphy on these medallions is unique in that there are verses inscribed such that there are only straight lines (& no curves) employed in their execution, at other places the verses are aligned along designs such as they become part of floral patterns. Though much of the paintwork has since peeled away & deteriorated, the complex patterns in plaster, ingeniously thought of & dexterously designed, reflect upon the skills of the craftsmen who, though themselves unknown & unremembered, left behind a wonderful mark in Indian art & architecture through their creations. 

The dome - Rahim's blanket

Slightly above the entrance, a band of calligraphy runs horizontally along the length of the wall. The four sides are also pierced by arched windows & small square ventilators located just below the room. All in all, the chamber presents a picture of subdued magnificence, artistic excellence as well as knowledge of functional aesthetics – somehow the Mughals innovated with arches, domes & openings to ensure that the structures they built remained considerably cooler than their surroundings – a feature observable inside this mausoleum. In complete contrast to the heat outside that threatened to set ablaze trees, stone & beings alike, in here it was cooler, I could have sit down & stayed there all day long. That & the presence of the big cuboid tombstone that covers much of the area within the chamber – doesn’t it look like a king-size bed?? I’m getting ideas in my head, it is said that you should not step on graves for fear of waking the sleeping spirits, what about sleeping on one?? Are there any rules regarding it?? Metcalfe stayed in Quli Khan’s Tomb, if you ignore the fact that he died of poisoning, nothing much happened to him, at least not on account of the spirits (refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb). 

No curves!!

Would Rahim have been angry if I fell asleep here?? What if I just pretend to be sleeping while I collect my thoughts?? Would he be appeased if I think of his couplets once in a while?? I bet there are hundreds of homeless in Delhi who turn the unmaintained tombs into their night shelters. & then there are the tombs that people have encroached upon & turned into their houses & offices. I guess Rahim has better things to take care of. He has to take cudgels with Safdarjung for the pilferage of construction material from his tomb. He must also be pissed at the Indian education system for not giving him enough credit & recognition for the couplets they use. At least he can find solace in the fact that his name & couplets are still known & understood by the majority of Hindi-speakers in the country whereas almost nobody remembers the mighty commander Safdarjung, even though an entire area in Delhi (Safdarjung Enclave) derives its name from him. 

Ahh..the sophistication!!

Location: Nizamuddin West, close to Humayun’s Tomb Complex
How to reach: Travelling on Mathura Road from Sabz Burj (refer Pixelated Memories - Sabz Burj for identification) to Ashram Crossing, Khan-i-Khanan’s Tomb is located a couple of hundred meters away from Sabz Burj & can be accessed via a lane going into the Nizamuddin West area.
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh (which is quite a walk away, so you will have to take auto if coming by metro)
Open: Seven days a week, Sunrise to Sunset
Entrance fee: Rs 5 for citizens of India, SAARC Countries, Thailand & Myanamar. Rs 100 for the rest. Free entry for children below the age of 15 years. (Local residents can have passes made for free entry to the complex for the purpose of jogging/exercise/yoga)
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Relevant Links - 

July 07, 2013

Freedom Fighter Museum & Salimgarh Fort Complex, New Delhi

The Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s reign saw an unprecedented development in the native art & architecture which was truly reflected through the magnificent structures that he commissioned – the Jama Masjid & Red Fort of Shahjanabad, his citadel in Delhi, & the Taj Mahal in Agra, his erstwhile capital before he shifted base to Delhi. His architects achieved such prowess in their craft that they could conceive bazaars, palaces, garden complexes & even canal-lined avenues with such ingenuity that visitors from far & wide were left gaping at the Mughal Emperor’s wealth & splendor. The structures that Shahjahan & his architects envisaged were superior to those built before him, they were a synthesis of both form & function that had been reached after several centuries of experimentation & fusion of Indian art & building designs with skills & science imported from as far as Europe – his open palaces are reminiscent of the nomadic ways of his Afghan ancestors, the onion domes & tall minarets come from Central Asia & the pietra dura work that his palaces were adorned with was inspired by European culture & mythology. & yet, unlike many previous rulers who reigned over the Indian subcontinent, Shahjahan did not lay to waste structures that had existed in the country from before his ascension to the throne - if he did have any of them pulled down, it was solely for the purpose of rebuilding them with better material & ornamentation. Shahjahan did not believe in Sher Shah Suri’s savagery – the latter had Dinpanah, the under-construction citadel of Humayun, whom he subjugated & forced into exile in AD 1540, destroyed in a show of overarching power & domination (refer Pixelated Memories - Dinpanah/Old Fort). Sher Shah then went on to build his own citadel, Shergarh (“Lion’s lair”), over the ruins of Dinpanah with the latter’s debris & construction material plundered from previous fortresses of Delhi (such as Siri, see Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains). Shhajahan wasn’t Sher Shah Suri, he was more intelligent, more calculating. Rather than destroy a citadel & raise a new one over the previous’ remains (& add woe to his exchequers, not that his treasuries were not overflowing with precious jewels & mounds of gold, silver & diamonds), he went ahead to incorporate the existing fortress into his newly built one.

Connecting fortresses..

The older fortress, christened Salimgarh after Islam Shah Suri aka Salim Shah (ruled AD 1546-52) who commissioned it in AD 1546, is not as impressive as Red Fort that Shahjahan built along one of its walls in the period 1638-48 AD. In fact, not even close. It once stood on a triangular delta in the middle of river Yamuna which explains its roughly semi-circular orientation. Perhaps Islam Shah had intended the fortress to be the treat of the city, very much like his father’s citadel Shergarh, remains of which still exist close by. Perhaps Islam Shah had wanted to raise a splendid palace-fortress, ornamented with stunning stone work, impeccable craftsmanship & exquisite calligraphy & surrounded over by massive defensive walls & ramparts to offer protection against enemies (after all, Humayun might have been exiled from the country but he was very much alive & seeking forces from his ally, the Shah of Persia). Sadly, Islam Shah passed away before he could complete his fortress & line it with impressive palaces that would have stolen the limelight during the day & put the moon at unease at night. Only the ramparts were completed – the massive walls & thick circular bastions built of rubble indicate highly defensive posturing on the part of Islam Shah, but there are no holes to allow archers to shoot through. Perhaps Islam Shah had counted upon the might of the river Yamuna & its (then) torrential flow to thwart his enemies & plundering armies. Or maybe he relied on the defensive walls that his father built to enclose the entire city in order to keep out the raiders.

An array of historical reasons make the fort culturally so important – it has been associated with several of Delhi’s rulers in its more than four & a half centuries long existence. Besides that, the fort has also played a central role in the period when India was colonized by the British & turned into one of its trading posts (& later a controlled territory).

Salimgarh as seen from outside (Photo courtesy - Wikipedia.org)

1) Disgraced Emperor Humayun finally did return to India & laid siege on Delhi. He set his camp at Salimgarh & stationed his troops here before he captured Delhi from Sikandar Suri. But the poor man did not live long enough to take stock of the new fortress that had come up close to the ruins of his own city – the only thing that he did was to decree that Salimgarh be referred to as “Nurgarh” henceforth since he did not want Sher Shah or his successors to be mentioned in his court. Perhaps he was aggrieved that Sher Shah had destroyed his beloved citadel which was to be the “asylum of the faithful”, the faithful here referring to scholars & theologians equally or more learned than Humayun himself who is said to be a pretty learned Emperor, devoted to the affairs of mind & philosophy more than those of state & military. Whatsoever be the reason, Humayun soon made peace with Shergarh & the new palaces & mosques built by Sher Shah & began to call them home. He met his untimely demise after falling down the stairs from Sher Mandal, a tower that Sher Shah had started building & Humayun retro-fitted to convert it into his personal library.

2) Humayun’s successor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) shifted the capital to nearby Agra in order to control the rebellious elements there & also for ease of movement of his soldiers to different parts of the country. The fortunes of Delhi were clouded over & the city’s status was relegated to that of a mere province. 80 years after Islam Shah’s death, Akbar had given this fortress as a grant to Farid Khan (aka Murtaza Khan) who was a noble in both Akbar’s & his son & successor Jahangir’s (ruled AD 1605-28) court.

The last remaining link to Salimgarh's medieval history

3) Jahangir too preferred to rule from Agra, but he did take control of Salimgarh & converted it into a state prison where enemies of the empire were confined, tortured & executed. Jahangir built a three-arched bridge to connect Salimgarh with the mainland (Before that point, people used boats to reach the fortress, that’s how Humayun transfer his troops to the military camp he set up there). Debate is on about whether it was Jahangir or Farid Khan who built the bridge, most scholars lean towards Jahangir. In that time, a Tughlaq-era fort existed where the Red Fort stands today, the fort was obliterated when Shahjahan raised the Red Fort over it, but the baoli (step-well) was renovated & accommodated within the Red Fort Complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli for details of the baoli).

4) When Jahangir’s son Prince Khurram came to the throne after the former’s death, he took up the title Shahjahan (“King of the World”) & decided to shift his capital to Delhi. After much consideration, the site that was finally chosen for the construction of his citadel, the Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort), was next to the river Yamuna, directly across the Salimgarh Fort. Perhaps the presence of “Salimgarh military & prison facility” was also on his mind when he chose the site – what better place to keep political dissidents & military renegades than a stronghold in the center of a river & so close to the king’s palace that the presence of armed battalions was a guarantee?? From a royal fortress, Salimgarh turned into a provincial prison, who would have foreseen that it would be even put to use as a royal prison?? It continued to be one for a long period thereafter, in fact for more than 300 years!! Shahjahan repaired the arched bridge built by his father to connect Salimgarh to the mainland  & had the Red Fort designed in such a way that the bridge now connected Salimgarh with the new fortress.

Of miserableness & dejection..

5) Shahjahan's pious son & successor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707) built striking mosques out of white marble within the Red Fort for his personal use, while Salimgarh was turned into a dreaded prison-cum-torture facility. Aurangzeb has been infamous for his use of this prison – he imprisoned his own brother Murad Baksh here after the war for ascension to India’s throne broke out among the brothers following Shahjahan’s depreciating health. Aurangzeb also had his daughter Zebunissa imprisoned here for the simple reason of her being a poetess-musician, characters unacceptable to an orthodox Aurangzeb (she wrote under the pen-name of "Makhfi" or “the Hidden One” & was adept at philosophy, calligraphy, mathematics, astronomy, literature & arts, & also had mastery over Persian, Urdu & Arabic). She languished in Salimgarh prison for 20 years – one wonders if her situation was better than that of the other prisoners?? Was she given silken clothes & delectable food instead of the prison gruel & whiplashes that the other prisoners were subjected to?? One can have a look at some of Zebunissa’s couplets by following the links at the end of this post.

6) Interestingly after the Mughal Empire had declined & the British had taken over the Red Fort & the rest of the country as well in AD 1857, they too decided to continue with Salimgarh’s use as a prison. Despite their abhorrence of native traditions & practices, even they could not resist the lure of a state prison housed within a massive fortress. The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was captured by the British from the Humayun’s Tomb (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex) after they recaptured Delhi from the mutineers. He was imprisoned in Salimgarh while his case was heard in his own royal court, the Diwan-i-Khas (refer Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort). The British went on to level many structures within Red Fort-Salimgarh complex & raise military structures in their place. They built artillery caches, magazines, barracks & prisons within Salimgarh & that is all that remains now in the fortress. The British repaired Jahangir's bridge & also added a five-arched bridge almost parallel to it in 1867 AD (more on it later). The new bridge was sturdy enough to be able to withstand heavy loads & it has since then carried the load of the trains passing over the railway line that the British engineers laid passing through Salimgarh fortress & chipping Red Fort (perhaps the British engineers thought that Salimgarh, orphaned since the death of Islam Shah, was expendable & hence brought down portions of its wall, but couldn’t do the same with Red Fort which is elaborate, architecturally more magnificent & built of exorbitant materials).

Barracks - This is what the British would be remembered for in Salimgarh-Red Fort Complex

7) Among the most notable prisoners that Salimgarh jail housed were Shahnawaz Khan, Prem Kumar Sehgal & Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon of the Indian National Army (INA or the “Azad Hind Fauj”) that was instituted by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to wrestle control of the Indian subcontinent from the British. The three military heroes, along with several other soldiers captured by the British in Malaya, Singapore & Burma faced trial & court martial on the charges of treason, murder & abetment to murder. The court was held at Red Fort – such was the turn of events that by right of conquest, the great Mughal’s court, palaces & country turned into the court, palaces & territory of those who ousted them in the first place.

The river Yamuna that flowed between Salimgarh & Red Fort has since diverted its course & its place has been taken up by the arterial Ring Road. Salimgarh is connected to Red Fort by the massive brick masonry bridge that was built during the reign of Jahangir. The bridge is lined on either side by walls with arched (arrow/gun??) slits made into them & the gateways on either side of it (that is one at Red Fort’s periphery & the other at Salimgarh’s) are high & ornamented with floral medallions. Somewhere during the course of history, Jahangir's bridge was renovated by the British engineers & christened with the name Mansi (also pronounced Mangi) Bridge. Almost parallel to Jahangir’s Bridge is the railway bridge that the British laid & which once passed over Yamuna but now demarcates the five carriageways that run underneath. One can see the railway bridge cutting through an extremity of the Red Fort, the engines passing over it seem distant & dream-like. CRPF men keep guard over the two bridges & keep an eye on the visitors to the complex, issuing instructions to the errant ones who would often cross over into the portions of the complex that are used to station these armed men & are therefore inaccessible to general public. The Mansi Bridge has been a bone of contention over the past few years between several civic agencies – Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Public Works Deptt. (PWD) & Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) – because of the height of the road passing underneath, the damage caused to the structure by the trucks that scrape against its arched lower side. The issue has been highlighted by several leading newspapers over the years (see links at the end for reference).

Not to be forgotten, the railways too were introduced in the country by the British

As soon as one crosses over the Mansi Bridge, one comes face to face with a large iron foot over bridge, painted rust red & winding its way over the fortress complex & railway lines that pass through it. Sign boards declaring the way to Swatantra Senani Sangrahalaya (“Freedom Fighter Museum”) guide one to the final destination while ropes tied between several points keep the visitors from strolling into the out-of-bound areas. The bridge spans a long distance, passing over railway tracks, soon one gets the feeling that one should turn 180 degrees & go back to the Red Fort rather than cover almost a kilometer on an iron bridge with not much to see around, but then the spirit of curiosity is a terrible thing, it never ceases to motivate one forward. But the walk to the base of the bridge is long & deserted, very few visitors make their way to Salimgarh – it is the palaces & the pavilions within the Red Fort, though now are only a skeleton of their erstwhile glory, which steal the visitor’s attention & time. At one point from the bridge, one can see the massive red sandstone walls of Red Fort jutting into the sky & Asad Burj’s black-ish dome gleaming in the sunlight (Asad Burj is one of the two domed towers that grace the corners of the side of Red Fort which faced the river Yamuna & was parallel to Salimgarh). At other points, the greenery below the bridge looks inviting, but mostly there are army barracks projecting out of the vegetation till as far as the eye can see.

A long bridge that tests one's patience

Finally on reaching the base of the bridge, the view one encounters is a bit disappointing given that one has walked almost a kilometer to be here – there are a few barracks that seem to be abandoned, one of them was the jail that housed the INA prisoners. One can enter the jail, look at the cells within, they seem much larger compared to ordinary jails. Everything within is painted white, though the paint is peeling away, the walls are covered with heaps of cobwebs, pigeons flutter around in the corridor connecting the cells, building nests in the small ventilator windows. They would sit over the iron bars that project from the roof & support it & would coo at the visitors – perhaps trying to inform them of the history of the place & singing paeans to the soldiers who were imprisoned here. Did they know Zebunissa was here, that their nests flank a princess’ life-long chamber?? Do they coo the poems that she wrote during her short but dejected life??

Another small holding cell has been converted into a museum dedicated to INA & commemorating its soldiers – the glass cases display INA uniforms, maps of India with the movement of INA & their attack plans marked, the insignia used by INA hierarchy, several sepia-tinted photographs showing INA stalwarts such as Netaji Bose, G.S. Dhillon, P.K. Sehgal, Shahnawaz Khan & Capt. Lakshmi Pandit. The diary of Shahnawaz Khan is also on display. The museum was opened in 1995 & this very structure was used to hold the INA prisoners for the two years between their apprehension & India’s independence from British rule (1945-47).

Commemorating the bravehearts..

One of the barracks has been turned into a gallery displaying the findings of an excavation project carried out here in the year 1994-95. The excavations proved that the land on which the fortress has been built has been almost continuously a part of human settlement since 900 BC, except for small periods when it was unoccupied before re-settlement. I am yet to see this gallery (wasn’t even aware of it before writing this post, further underlining the fact that the fortress needs to be promoted more aggressively by the ASI & Delhi Tourism) & hence am compensating with photos from the INA museum’s gallery.

Close to the barracks are the remains of a ruined mosque – its face has been blasted away, perhaps as a result of the shelling the fortress saw when the British attacked & captured Delhi from the mutineers in the First War of Independence/Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Not unlike many other mosques that dotted the landscape of medieval Delhi, the mosque has a single dome resting on a high drum (base) ornamented with kanguras (decoration resembling battlement). It presents a picture of desolation & dejection, an isolated piece of architecture destroyed by a brutal force & now separated from humanity by the whims of soldiers & the threats of terrorists – visitors are not allowed to go close to the mosque or the medieval brick & red sandstone gateway built by Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” (& christened after him too) in 1854-55 that exists close to it & connects the fortress to the outside world since a few years back terrorists tried to blast their way into the fortress through this gate & hence the security here has been increased manifolds & a few guards are always patrolling the area (This has also led to another administrative decision - direct entry to Salimgarh Fort has been stopped since then & the fort can only be accessed through the bridge connecting it to Red Fort.). Though photography isn’t disallowed, the guards could & would stop one from going too close to the walls & taking photos of the gateway or the carriageway that descends to a lower level before passing through the gateway & meeting the road outside, hence I do not have any photographs of the fortress’ ramparts or bastions.

Forgotten heroes & old memories

The railway line passes through the complex, very near to the barracks. The passing engines make immense noise, at times disturbing one’s contemplation & permanently breaking the chain of thought. But then thoughts are easy to form in the silence that ensues between the passage of consecutive trains. One can take a leisurely stroll in the complex for as long as one wants to, but then there isn’t much to see & it isn’t such a wonderful experience to be walking around with the gaze of several armed men following your every movement. One can climb the stairs to one of the ramparts & from here look at the trains that pass over the bridge – there is one every 5 minutes & they would come chugging & whistling & one can even see men & women sitting on the seats & the doorways & looking with admiration at the massive walls of the two forts. Are they wondering about the fort’s history & vintage?? Did anybody tell them about this distant cousin of the famed Red Fort?? The fortress raises more questions than it answers. Returning back to Red Fort after visiting Salimgarh comes as a powerful shock – the crowds, the melee of Indians as well as foreigners clamoring to click photos of the palaces & bargaining at the Chatta Chowk (refer Pixelated Memories - Chatta Chowk, Red Fort) – stark contrast with Salimgarh’s loneliness & the haunting silence that permeates its grounds. Perhaps the long walk from Red Fort complex to Salimgarh discourages most visitors – it did prevent me from crossing the iron bridge even though I had crossed most of it when I visited the complex after a span of almost a decade. The Salimgarh-Red Fort complex was included in the World Heritage Monuments list in the year 2007 because of the historical legacy associated with it.

Records of battles & captivity

One important but often ignored character of this mighty citadel is that it is said to be haunted!! Interesting, right?? The ASI, which has been the guardian of the fort since 2003, doesn’t mention it on any of the sandstone plaques that dot the complex, most of the guidebooks too are silent on it, but the myth has gained such credence that it has been the subject of newspaper articles & has also assisted the fort in gaining popularity as one of the most haunted spots in the entire city. It is claimed that the ghosts of Zebunissa as well as several other prisoners who had been broken physically or executed here still abound in the fortress campus, perhaps waiting for their rightful justice – they would be disheartened to know that the Indian judicial system is very slow on account of an all-pervading lack of enough judges & court officials & hence take almost as many years in clearing a case as the ghosts have survived in this realm (OK, I’m exaggerating, but you get the drift right?). The caretakers of the complex as well as the passer-bys at night say that laughter, footsteps, shrieks, painful moans as well as conversations can be heard around the fort all night, but when one tries to follow the source of the sound it disappears without a trace. Zebunissa’s ghost is commonly sighted on full moon nights, covered in a black veil & singing the poems she composed during her lifetime. Did she compose any new ones after death, I wonder.

How to reach: The fortress can be accessed through the Red Fort Complex
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk Station
Open: All days except Monday.
Timings: 10 am - 4 pm
Entrance Fee: Rs. 10 (Indian), Rs. 250 (Foreigners)
Photography Charges: Nil (Rs. 25 for video filming)Relevant Links - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Chatta Chowk, Red Fort
  2. Pixelated Memories - Dinpanah/Old Fort
  3. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Jama Masjid
  6. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort
  7. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Baoli
  8. Pixelated Memories - Siri Fort Remains
Suggested Reading - 
  1. Adatewithdelhi.wordpress.com - An alternate view | Red Fort, Delhi
  2. Allaboutindia.net - Salimgarh Fort
  3. Asi.nic.in - Swantratata Senani Museum, Red Fort
  4. Hindu.com - Article "A bridge too precious" (dated June 29, 2009) by R.V. Smith
  5. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Dead prisoners make merry at Salimgarh" (dated May 20, 2008) by Sarat C. Das
  6. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Mangi Bridge falls down" (dated June 18, 2009) by Jatin Anand
  7. Hindustantimes.com - Article "Mangi Bridge repair work in limbo" (dated March 01, 2012) by Nivedita Khandekar
  8. Infrawindow.com - Monuments Authority gives NOC to railways for new bridge near Salimgarh Fort
  9. Razarumi.wordpress.com - Mughal Princess Zebunnissa
  10. Razarumi.wordpress.com - The invisible Princess Zebunnisa
  11. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "New bridge to take burden off Salimgarh Fort" (dated May 14, 2012) by Richi Verma
  12. Wikipedia.org - INA trials
  13. Wikipedia.org - Zeb-un-Nisa
  14. Wisemuslimwomen.org - Zebunnisa