The majestic but ravaged medieval tomb with its jagged dome and crumbling arches, standing like a brooding sentinel near the entrance to Nizamuddin East, always drew my attention when I passed by—yet never struck me as particularly welcoming. But recently, as I stood in the central chamber of this very tomb, built by the Mughal statesman Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan (1556-1627)—better known as “Rahim”, the poet of the dohas (couplets) recited to this day by millions of middle-schoolers in Hindi class—I changed my mind.
At the end of a five-year conservation effort, this gloomy hall has turned into an enchanted garden, with the delicate webs of floral patterns and exquisite calligraphy on its walls and ceilings brought to life by scraping off dust and distemper. Its allure deepens when you learn that what everyone calls “Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb” is actually the tomb of his wife, Mah Banu, who died in 1598. Rahim was buried by her side almost 30 years later. “Well before the Taj Mahal,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, “this was the first monumental Mughal tomb built for a lady.”
The trust has plenty of experience in transforming neglected monuments. In Nizamuddin itself, it has worked on some 60 over 13 years, including the magnificent Humayun’s Tomb. But Mah Banu’s tomb was special. “It was used as a quarry,” says Nanda, “all the way from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries. The loss of stone was staggering, almost every square inch required work, and a lot of detective work too.”
The dome was stripped of its marble, and both marble and sandstone were ripped out of the façade and floors. The story that it was all carted off to embellish the 18th century tomb of Safdarjung can only be true, at best, of the dome, the conservation team believes, after comparing the stone at both monuments. The carved marble cenotaphs of both Rahim and his wife went missing, possibly in the 19th century. The tomb also lost its vast walled garden. According to historian Narayani Gupta, an expert on Delhi’s monuments, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who had the remaining grounds, about 5 acres, cordoned off to prevent further encroachment.
“But the building lost all sense of its identity,” she adds. “It was remarkable that the Aga Khan people took it on. It gives you a sense of hope, this idea that the monument could be transformed by extensive work, by restoring only those portions where you are certain (you have evidence), and doing it with no attempt to glamourize the building.” Work began in 2015, in association with the Archaeological Survey of India, which protects the monument, and InterGlobe Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Indigo Airlines, which provided a substantial grant.
The dome, which now sports a band of marble at its base, to provide support and hint at what it would have looked like originally, will likely remain a talking point. Explaining its curiously unfinished new look, Nanda says this is what was agreed upon at the start “because complete restoration is frowned upon in India”.
Later, many experts wrote in to say it should be fully clad, including historian William Dalrymple, but some senior archaeologists opposed this. “In conservation, there are always debates,” Nanda says philosophically. He does think, though, that the dome will be fully restored one day, for both protective and aesthetic reasons.
While the tomb interests archaeologists because it represents a midway point between Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal, its association with Rahim is its most compelling aspect. A successful military commander, one of the nine ministers (navratnas) of Akbar’s court, he translated the Babur Nama from Turki to Persian, was a master-builder, and wrote poetry in Hindi dialects, laden with Hindu idioms, including erotic verse. From an eclectic use of swastikas to a hydraulic system for lifting water to the terrace, every detail becomes more appealing when linked to the astonishing breadth of his personality.
The simplicity and “sweet and sour pragmatic wisdom” of Rahim’s dohas, scholar Harish Trivedi has written, stays with readers. Years ago, Gupta recalls, she took “tall and gangly” students from a nearby school to the tomb. They were uninterested till she asked them to recite Rahim’s dohas (with the warning that the poet might rise from his grave to correct mistakes), and they were at it till lunchtime. “It takes time to understand that the grand Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan and the humble poet Rahim are the same man, and official guidebooks have done nothing to bring this out,” she says.
Retired diplomat T.C.A. Raghavan, whose 2017 book Attendant Lords has a riveting account of Rahim’s roller-coaster ride through the intrigue-ridden Mughal empire and his final days, straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy, agrees there is a disconnect between the monument and the Rahim people know. “To bring the two together gives the monument a new meaning and a contemporary resonance,” he says.
That is also a goal for the conservation team, which has created a covered outdoor space for an in-house exhibition. As I wandered around these once bedraggled grounds, I noticed fruit-bearing citrus trees, sandstone pathways, and a more accessible entrance and parking area. The new marble bands on the façade heighten the striking red-and-white contrast so captivating in early Mughal buildings and the repaired medallions with stylized images of birds and flowers—each different from the next— make you stop and look, as do the incised plasterwork patterns that have come to life everywhere. “Three-fourths of the money spent is on the wages of craftspeople,” says Nanda.
Cawing crows and squawking parakeets do their bit too, competing with the roar of traffic from nearby roads. And paradoxically, the same elevated road that looks unsightly when viewed from the tomb’s newly-paved terrace, offers thousands of commuters spectacular views of the monument, sparking the hope that they might one day turn visitors, in search of Rahim.
Anjali Puri is a Delhi-based journalist.