June 07, 2015

Chausath Khamba, Delhi

The unusual history of the unequivocally fascinating reign of the Mughal Empire (AD 1526-1857) in the Indian subcontinent can best be described by borrowing from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” –

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Count the pillars - Chausath Khamba

In AD 1562, Khan-i-Azam (“Lion of the Kingdom”) Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, the Governor (“Subedar”) of Gujarat, bereaved and bewildered following the ruthlessly gruesome murder of his father Shamshuddin Atgah Khan, commissioned a soberly grand, exquisitely ornamented and spellbindingly detailed mausoleum for the latter near the sacred shrine (Dargah) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi (refer Pixelated Memories - Atgah Khan's Tomb and Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah), and in the immediate vicinity also had constructed a single-floor glittering white marble square edifice, christened “Chausath Khamba” after the sixty-four simplistic rectangular pillars that supported its structure, where the family could stay, surrounded by flowering trees, grassy lawns and centuries-old, vividly multicolored historical monuments and shrines, on the occasions when they visited the Dargah and the beloved father’s mausoleum.

Besides being an exceptionally formidable military commander during the reign of Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (reign AD 1556-1605), Mirza Aziz, being the son of the former’s wet nurse Jiji Angah, was also regarded as the Emperor’s foster brother (“Koka”) and therefore deputed to Gujarat as the Governor, a position he steadfastly retained during the successive reign of Emperor Jahangir (ruled AD 1605-27). However, he supported his son-in-law, Jahangir’s son Khusrau Mirza, in AD 1606 in a rebellion against his father and was consequentially punitively stripped of his distinguished titles and powers and expelled from the royal court. His life history nearly mirrors that of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, one of the foremost poets that the subcontinent ever produced and also an exceedingly mighty General in the Mughal armed forces, who too was posted in Gujarat by Emperor Akbar and was later socially and militarily chastised by Jahangir when he opposed his rebellion and subsequent ascension to the throne. Interestingly, Rahim too is buried in the neighborhood, though his majestic mausoleum has borne the brunt of the brutal ravages of time and humanity (refer Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb).

Camouflaged - A gem in the poor settlement

The ethereally beautiful, minimally adorned and highly symmetrical "Chausath Khamba" pavilion possesses along its sides pink-white marble panels sculpted into filigree screens composed of multiple recurrent motifs while the roof, though externally flat and demarcated by wide eaves (“chajja”), culminates into twenty-five small marble concave domes surmounting each smaller square formed by the pillars. Upon his own demise in AD 1623, Mirza Aziz was laid for eternal sleep in this handsome edifice in an ornately sculpted marble sarcophagus and was soon followed in the tradition by his sons and wife, the last being buried in a corner distinguished by a low division built between the pillars surrounding it and identified by the sarcophagus’ plain surface (as opposed to the male graves which portray a narrow wedge-shaped projection (“takhti”) along their top surface). Other relatives were buried in large, relatively simpler and minimally ornamented sandstone graves around the structure. The renowned poet Mirza Ghalib too chose to be buried in a plot adjacent the structure and his small mausoleum, also conceived of white marble, would have continued to strikingly complement the former (which is presently regularly utilized for musical evenings and cultural exhibits) had the two not been later separated by a monstrously ungainly rubble wall (refer Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb).

A different perspective

Over time, as the historic settlement developed and shaped into a semi-urban Muslim ghetto, the entire area around the structure was overtaken by the unrelenting forces of urbanization and commercialization till what remained were narrow patches of grass lawns that did little justice to the magnificent beauty of the pearlesque heritage structure. Recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), financially supported by the German Embassy in India, extensively documented and restored the monument to its original enchanting glory in a conservation-beautification project that lasted nearly four years and frustratingly prevented me from visiting the epitome of artistic ingenuity every time I was in the area. Irresistibly drawn to its thrall, I eventually did visit it a few days back and was unexpectedly rewarded by nature for my patience in the form of a peafowl couple of which the vivid-blue peacock hopped upon the gravestones and ran around the pillars and passages while bright unrelenting sunlight filtered down in kaleidoscopic patterns through the sculpted stone screens. I couldn’t have asked for more!

Need I say more?

Location: Nizamuddin Basti, adjacent Urs Mahal/Ghalib's Tomb, a few meters walk prior to the Dargah complex
Nearest Metro station: JLN Stadium
Nearest Bus stop: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
Nearest Railway station: Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
How to reach: Quite simply walk in the Basti towards the Dargah complex from the Mathura Road side (Bus stop/Humayun's Tomb complex) and ask for Chausath Khamba/Ghalib's Tomb. It's not even five minutes walk away.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Other monuments located in the immediate vicinity - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Atgah Khan's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb 
  4. Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  5. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex 
  6. Pixelated Memories - Nila Gumbad 
  7. Pixelated Memories - Sabz Burj
Suggested reading - 
  1. Civilsocietyonline.com - Article "Going wow in Nizamuddin" (dated Dec 2012) 
  2. Deccanherald.com - Article "Heritage monument gets a makeover" (dated Nov 19, 2014) by Azaan Javaid 
  3. Indianexpress.com - Article "Chausath Khamba tomb reopens after four years of painstaking work" (dated Nov 17, 2014) 

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