August 07, 2013

Atgah Khan's Tomb, New Delhi

It is not difficult to imagine strikingly impressive monuments could be concealed within the folds of the lanes & by-lanes of Nizamuddin Basti area which hides within its bosom several jewels that glitter with their stupendous architectural magnificence & heritage antiquity. One such ornate structure, hidden pretty nicely in plain sight, is the tomb of Atgah Khan, foster-father to the Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605) & a powerful noble in the court of both Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 & 1555-56) & Akbar. Interestingly, the mausoleum stands next to the Dargah (Tomb) of Hazrat Nizamuddin, the patron saint of Delhi & can be seen from different points within the Dargah complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah), & yet it is one of the least visited & least known structures in all of Delhi – the reasons for this second-class status being the greed of the citizens of Delhi who are ever so ready to encroach upon such structures & convert them into residential/commercial spaces & the apathy of the Government agencies who turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed upon these centuries-old monuments & indeed even permit further construction/vandalism in return for a few green-colored pieces of paper.

Strikingly symmetrical!!

Khan-i-Kalan Shamsh-ud-din Muhammad Khan was the son of a simple farmer in Ghazni (modern-day Afghanistan). He joined the army of Emperor Humayun & rose to become one of his close confidantes & administrators. When Humayun was overthrown by Sher Shah Suri, the Governor of Bihar, in the year 1530, Shamsh-ud-din stood by his lord through thick & thin. Humayun went through several difficulties, faced many struggles, conflicts & rebellions while he was out of power, his own brothers betrayed him & tried to arrest him. Crossing over the dreadful Thar Desert that marks parts of Rajasthan & Pakistan, Humayun’s wife Hamida Begum’s horse died & she being pregnant at that time, Humayun had to lend her his own horse. Nobody offered Humayun their camel or horse; he walked through the scorching heat & sand of the desert in what he described in his memoirs as the lowest point in his life while his courtiers & ministers rode their stallions. Through all this Shamsh-ud-din stood firmly by Humayun’s side. Pleased with his steadfastness & loyalty, Humayun declared Shamsh-ud-din the foster-father (“Atgah”) of his new-born son Akbar & Shamsh-ud-din’s wife Jiji came to be known as Anga (“Foster-mother”). They looked after the young prince like their own son while Humayun was seeking asylum & military assistance from the Shah of Persia.

Details of the marble & stone work at the lower half of the tomb

Akbar grew up with Mirza Aziz, Shamsh-ud-din’s son & Quli Khan & Adham Khan , the sons of Akbar’s other foster-mother Maham. When Humayun returned to power in the year 1555, he elevated Shamsh-ud-din “Atgah” Khan to the position of general of his army. Atgah Khan retained his position when Akbar ascended the throne in AD 1556 & also held immense power & influence over the royal court. Mirza Aziz Kokaltash (“Koka” = “foster-brother”) too rose to become an army general, & so did the brothers Adham & Quli. Atgah Khan also married his daughter Mah Banu to Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, another powerful general & one of Akbar's "Navratnas" ("Nine Jewels") (Both Mah Banu & Abdul Rahim were also later buried close to Atgah Khan's Tomb, refer Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb). Much to the chagrin of Maham Anga who wanted all the power to be consolidated in the hands of her own sons, Akbar immensely respected Atgah Khan & sought his opinion in all important decisions. In 1561, Akbar raised Atgah Khan to the coveted position of “Wakil” (“Minister”), a step that greatly displeased Maham Anga & Adham Khan & finally culminated in the murder of Atgah Khan at the hands of Adham Khan when he was investigating some of the corruption charges against the latter (the views of Adham’s brother Quli about Atgah Khan are not known, history is silent about his life & actions though his tomb still exists in the far-off corner of Mehrauli Archaeological Complex, refer Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb). Blinded alike with fury & fear of the consequences of his actions, Adham then burst upon Akbar with his sword unsheathed. Infuriated, Akbar had Adham Khan arrested & thrown down the ramparts of his fortress in Agra, twice for good measure – many scholars believe that it was Akbar himself who threw Adham down. Atgah Khan was given the honour of being called a martyr & his death is so recorded as martyrdom in “Akbarnama” (“Chronicles of Akbar”) by Akbar’s court chronicler-historian Abu Fazl.

The striking sandstone & marble ornamentation at the upper half of the tomb

A magnificent mausoleum was commissioned within the complex of the Dargah of Sheikh Nizamuddin for Atgah Khan by his son Mirza Kokaltash on the orders of the Emperor who was aggrieved by the heinous murder of his most trusted lieutenant & minister. The tomb’s architect was Ustad Khuda Quli who presided over its construction; Ustad Baqi Muhammad was entrusted with sculpting the marble slabs that were to be laid on the sandstone walls with intricate calligraphy drawing upon Quranic verses.

The strikingly symmetrical medium-sized square tomb, built of red sandstone, ornamented with decorated slabs of white marble, & completed in the year 1566-67 is splendidly ornamented with medallions, tessellation art & calligraphy. It is surmounted by a high dome & is decorated in several different patterns, each adding to its charm & further adding a layer of admiration for Mughal art & architecture in the eyes & mind of the visitor. The marble that covers the tomb’s exteriors is inlaid with red & blue-hued stone, painstakingly chiseled in several patterns. The inlay work is more profuse near the base of the tomb. The most admirable feature of the tomb that catches the eye of anyone aware of Islamic art are the two hexagonal medallions that flank the arched niche that marks each side of the tomb – the symmetrical pattern laid on the medallion is a classic example of the tessellation art practiced throughout Islamic world by skilled artists & craftsmen – the word “Ali” has been repeated six times in each medallion. One of the sides has an entrance built into it with a wooden door that has been locked perennially by the Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I); the rest of the niches are marked with intricately designed latticework (“jali”). Speaking tomes about the time & effort that went into designing & crafting this piece of architectural delight, even the red sandstone that covers the exteriors is patterned & chiseled throughout with amazing dexterity – the repeating floral motifs appear flawless to my eye & the introduction of inlaid marble slabs to break the monotony of the sandstone works wonders & adds a graceful flamboyance to the otherwise subdued mausoleum.

Jewel Box!!

Since going inside the tomb is not possible, I could only peep through these jalis & look at the sarcophagi that line the interiors of the mausoleum (there are five or six graves in there), the interiors are said to possess excellent designs done in blue paint, however the same could not be seen from the outside. The tomb still retains much of its original decorative elements, though much of it has been spoiled by vandals – now there are just gaping holes & crevices at places where once was a smattering of stone inlaid in marble. The tomb stands in a small patterned courtyard that separates it from the matchbox-like, shabby houses that have mushroomed all around it. The courtyard was once pretty large, the architects had intended it to stand in a large open ground so the visitors can take in its sheer beauty & magnificence, but has been encroached upon on all sides leaving only a couple of feet on each side of the tomb. The present size of the enclosing courtyard makes it difficult to photograph the tomb fully & as naturally as one would like to, on many occasions I had to step through debris & piles of construction & animal waste in order to get a vantage view of the structure. The courtyard is laid with red sandstone & inlaid with marble, but is filled with rubbish & garbage, small mountains of daily waste mark each of its corner, the problem of waterlogging is extensive & three of its four sides of the courtyard had large puddles of muddy, brackish water accumulating alongside. The surrounding houses have come right up to the level of the surrounding walls, in certain places one can even see the original, small decorative windows that must once have added grace to the enclosure, now embedded into the walls of the houses & filled with cement & dust.

Archive image of the tomb. On the right are the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin & the Jamaat Khana Mosque. The graves visible in the foreground have no doubt been lost to the rapidly expanding basti (settlement), since now only houses surround the tomb in all directions (Photo courtesy -'s Tomb - Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative)

A small, roofed pavilion stands within the courtyard, next to one of the enclosing walls – the eight pillars still retain much of their original artwork, the walls too display traces of artwork around the shallow niches that ornament them, however the damage wrought on it by the residents of this neighbourhood is intense – a small room next to the pavilion has been broken into, part of the wall that surrounded it has been demolished & the room converted into a makeshift incinerator for burning paper & wood, the walls are all blackened with soot, the pavilion itself reeks of melancholy & a sorrow bordering on desperation, crying out for protection from this fate that it does not deserve.

I can still smell the putrid smoke. The pavilion is being subjected to a treatment that is disgusting, to say the least.

Perhaps expounding on the once glorious days that the mausoleum & the associated structures around it enjoyed, a wall next to the pavilion still retains much of its original tile work – the simplistic designs that mark the wall consist of three ornamental arches crafted out of red, plaster bricks that have been embossed on the underlying rubble wall. The arches are surrounded by intricate floral & geometrical patterns done with yellow & blue glazed tiles. Perhaps this wall acted as a Qibla (an open wall that points to Mecca (West) & is faced by Muslims for the purpose of prayer), indeed the wall is parallel to the Jamaat Khana mosque which is the principal mosque of Nizamuddin Dargah complex & is visible from Atgah Khan's Tomb. One can even climb over some portions that have caved in close to the Qibla wall & step onto the roof of the adjoining house to get an “aerial” view of the Nizamuddin Dargah complex & the Jamaat Khana mosque.

The Qibla wall - Notice the patterns & the floral design above the central arch

Opposite the aforementioned pavilion is a domed structure, however this one has been encroached upon to such an extent that nothing except the blue-ish dome is visible now. I could not even fathom a way to reach the structure. Perhaps somebody lives inside it now, it certainly looks like it has been included within the plan of the houses that have sprung up around it. This structure is close to where the archival image I posted above must have been taken from.

What's that blue-domed structure in the background?? Can someone enlighten me?

Astonishingly, though the mausoleum is now locked for visitor entry, the crypt below it where the bodies of Atgah Khan & his family are actually buried has been occupied by several families for the past several years (decades if they are to be heeded). Perhaps that explains the glares & the watchful eyes that I encountered when I made my way to the mausoleum, I was led by the neighbourhood kids but the elders who sat gosipping around the tomb courtyard, looked shocked & anguished as if I have stepped in their courtyard. Somehow the municipal corporations even issued permissions & bills to retrofit the tomb to fix electrical & water connections inside it. The crypt chamber itself has been modified to make way for closets & doorways, the walls & the floor are now lined with ceramic tiles, the foundations have been demolished to make way for additional rooms. One would have thought it couldn’t get any worse than this, but the surprising thing is that one of the families that inhabit this burial chamber is that of the watchman employed by the ASI to safeguard this medieval-era jewel from encroachers!! Despite the numerous articles that have been published about the condition of the tomb in leading newspapers since way back in 2009 (see links below), the ASI has failed to evict one of their own who has taken to damaging this stunning structure instead of protecting it. ASI has not yet responded to my mail to them regarding this whole scenario & it was actually Ratish Nanda of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) who told me about this watchman connection when I talked to him about the plight of the structure (AKTC has been entrusted with the restoration & conservation of the monuments falling within the Humayun’s Tomb Complex-Nizamuddin Basti-Sunder Nagar Area. Hopefully they would soon take up structural conservation of the mausoleum as part of its ongoing projects). I had to resort to posting my original mail to ASI here with the hope that they would be jolted into taking some action about it –

Don't say I did not tell you!!

Interestingly enough, the ASI Director-General replied to me rather quickly when I wrote to him several months back about an internship in monument conservation with them, wish the staff at ASI were as quick in their response when it came to monuments & heritage structures which are supposed to be their prime concern. Sad times that we live in, a lone structure that once stood within the Nizamuddin Dargah Complex has been separated from it by upcoming houses, taken to the verge of a catatonic shift in terms of plan & layout by the encroachments, & yet the authorities fail to wake up. & I thought my blog could make a difference by educating ordinary folk about our cultural & architectural heritage, I’m disappointed in you ASI!! I always thought you people were the real heroes – maintaining thousands of forgotten structures & excavation sites throughout the country, often with the meager resources that are allocated to you & in the face of civic/police inaction & incompetence in providing you assistance, but the recent actions of your own men should be enough to put you to shame.

The Mughals & their pavilions - I am reminded of Hira Mahal in Red Fort Complex after looking at this one.

Location: Nizamuddin Basti Area, very close to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah)
How to reach: There are two ways leading to the tomb – the first is from the Dargah itself, the second is through the labyrinthine maze of narrow lanes that fold upon themselves around the Dargah. Either case, it is better to ask for directions & guidance from the locals – the shopkeepers or the kids in & around the Dargah.
Open: All days, Sunrise to sunset
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Advice: Since you might have to cross through the Dargah area, it is better to take off one’s footwear & carry them in your hand/bagpacks. You have the option of depositing them with any of the numerous shops that line the lanes outside the Dargah, however you will need them in case you are visiting the mausoleum on a scorching summer day since the stone & marble floor of the tomb courtyard would be simmering like a frying pan. It is also advisable to be dressed modestly & keep one’s head covered with skullcap/dupatta (cloth used by Indian women to cover their head).
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  3. Pixelated Memories - Hira Mahal, Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Quli Khan's Tomb
  6. Pixelated Memories - Red Fort Complex
Suggested Reading -
  1. - Article "A tomb in today's times" (dated September 15, 2007) by Gargi Gupta
  2. - Article "Digging next to Atgah Khan’s tomb" (dated October 09, 2011) by Nivedita Khandekar
  3. - Article "Akbar-era monument suffers neglect" (dated April 05, 2011) by Sweta Dutta
  4. The MIT Press - (pdf download) Tessellations in Islamic Calligraphy by Mangho Ahuja & A.L. Loeb
  5. - Article "India's ancient mausoleums are home sweet home to some" (dated June 08, 2009) by Stephanie Nolen
  6. - Article "Illegal stay hits Mughal tomb" (dated May 16, 2011)
  7. - (pdf download) Article "At home in Akbar-era ASI 'protected' tomb" (dated March 5, 2009) by Richi Verma & Neha Lalchandani
  8. - Tessellation (Ornamentation art involving the use of Glazed Tiles to cover a plane)


  1. Bravo, Sahil. A great article on this gem of a monument that has now been hemmed in on all sides by the ugliest forces of uncontrolled urban expansion.
    Like you said, a first-timer won't even believe something half as gorgeous could be hidden beyond those ugly shanties. People who live there do act very territorial at times( undeservedly so, if I may add). It pained me a lot to see how someone had mercilessly scribbled all over the breathtakingly beautiful tile-work and calligraphy.

    I just discovered your blog and I am liking it very much.

  2. Sahil, this was such a nice read. Respect and Kudos to your work :)