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 - 


  1. A very detailed post, but long none the less. I found this post to be longer than most of the posts i have read, on your blog as well as others. I think it would be more beneficial for you as well as the readers if it were seperated into tow different posts!
    Also, i was aware of most of the facts you stated about his life, partly due to our HIndi teacher telling us stories about him. The fact that he was Akbar's son as well as that he died a poor man were surprising to say the least!

  2. Hey Shrey,
    I'm glad I still have something up my sleeve to amaze you..my Hindi teacher never told me anything about Rahim's life as a general-courtier, & I was in one of the best schools in my city. That's the reason why I decided to enlighten the readers & those who like to quote Rahim about his history.
    I have been experimenting with the writing style for quite a few posts now Shrey, shall try to make them more informative, add more photographs. Lets hope this style works.
    Keep visiting & keep commenting!!

  3. thanx pixelated mem. me doing research on Rahim this will b benifited for me......

  4. plz if u have more information about it suggest me....

  5. Brilliant article. it sounds creepy that u wanna sleep on graves :P

  6. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

    Sahil, thanks for writing this beautiful post. Like your father, I too had an impression about Rahim that he must be a poor man and begging for living.. and what not.. believe me I cross checked with my wife what does she thinks about Rahim and she had no different thoughts about him.. Thanks for making us aware of facts, atleast my son wont have such an opinion about him, who will soon be reading his Dohe's ..thanks for such an effort.

    1. Rakesh Sir thanks for going through this post.
      If you read the Khusro post, you might remember that he too was an accomplished soldier..seems like the courtiers & nobles were all soldiers, perhaps something like today's Territorial Army, to be called upon during the time of need.
      Will try to visit the tomb of Zauq & the haveli of Ghalib next time I'm in Delhi

  7. Loved your post..Intend to go through more of them..whats the research material you use? very detailed and informative posts..

    1. Sangita,

      Hi! Thanks for stopping by.

      For architectural history and peoples' character sketches, I refer contemporaneous literature - Akbarnama, Tuzukh-i-Babri, Bernier's Travels and the like.

      Modern history books like V.D. Mahajan, Satish Chandra, H.C. Fanshawe and James Fergusson too help. Also, barring the occasional mistake, ASI/INTACH guides are great for architectural overview and chronology.