Literary history

Meet Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, who was also the ‘bhakta’ poet Rahim Das

Rahim was a linguist, who spoke some Portuguese and wrote extensively in Braj, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian.

Rahiman gali hai sakri, dujo nahi thaharahi
Apu ahai to Hari nahi, Hari to aapun nahi

The alley is narrow, Rahim, it won’t take both of us
If I go, the lord can’t; and if the lord does I can not

Poet, statesman, soldier, one of Akbar’s navratna or Nine Jewels, an early-day proponent of a secular all-embracing all-encompassing culture of inclusiveness that has been “native” to this land long before the proponents of Akhand Bharat became clamorous, founding father of the movement to popularise the people’s language as the language of poetic and creative expression instead of the high-brow Persian and Turkish of the Mughal court, and patron saint of modern-day translators – Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan was all this and much more.

The son of Bairam Khan – Akbar’s uncle, tutor and regent after Humayun’s death – Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan (1556-1627) not only accompanied Akbar on his military expeditions, most notably the one to Gujarat, but also became Mir Ard, the one who heard the thousands of applications addressed to the emperor. More importantly, he is also the Rahim Das that most of us have encountered in Hindi textbooks in school along with the famous triumvirate of medieval Bhakta poets, Sur, Tulsi and Kabir.

Clearly a man of many parts, it is difficult to reconcile the bhakta Rahim Das – the Servant of Rahim (one of the 99 names name for Allah) – and the aesthete-courtier-military strategist seen in many gilded Mughal-era paintings. Yet, such a man existed. He lies buried in a vast and crumbling mausoleum on Mathura Road (once part of the Mughal Grand Trunk Road) at the mouth of Nizamuddin East in Delhi, in a grand edifice built by Rahim for his wife, making it the first Mughal tomb of its kind built for a lady.

Its proximity to the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia, the thirteenth-century Sufi saint, makes it part of a cluster of over 100 monuments, mostly mausoleums and mosques, that together comprise the densest ensemble of medieval monuments anywhere in India. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), having successfully undertaken repair and renovation work on Humayun’s Tomb and several other monuments in its vicinity, has now turned its attention to Rahim’s Tomb as part of its Nizamuddin Urban Renewal initiative. While the conservation work being undertaken by the AKTC, in collaboration with the Inter Globe Foundation, is of great architectural significance laying out as it is a blueprint for conservation projects elsewhere in India, the intention to revisit Rahim’s legacy is equally laudable.

On February 9, 1956, a function was organised by the Ministry of Communications to celebrate the 400th birth anniversary of Rahim Das. After this token sarkari felicitation of a man who strove to achieve the synthesis of Urdu and Hindi, the Rahiman of countless sweet and sage pronouncements was promptly consigned to the rubbish heap of history and his tomb, despite its vantage location on one of Delhi's busiest roads, rendered practically invisible.

Few have ventured inside its sprawling grounds (at some point “protected” by a tall fence built by the ASI and a five-rupee ticket) or marvelled at its perfect proportions. Originally faced with red sandstone relieved by the use of buff sandstone and marble, most of its finery was stripped for the construction of Safdarjung's tomb a century later. Yet, neither neglect nor pillage can rob it of its solemn grandeur – befitting the brilliant poet-statesman who lies buried here.

The poetry

The fact that three great poets lie within a bare kilometre of each other – Rahim on Mathura Road, and Amir Khuro and Mirza Ghalib close beside Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah –all of them among the greatest votaries of inclusiveness and multiculturalism, needs some attention. While the curtain of forgetfulness occasionally parts and the qawwali, geet and ghazal of Khusro and Ghalib make themselves heard, Rahim and his marvellous poetry have been largely neglected. It is laudable, therefore, that the conservation project has included within its ambit the documenting of Rahim’s contribution to culture; a compilation of his dohas (two-line pithy couplets) is in the works as is an edited volume of essays focusing on his multi-dimensional personality.

A poet and a patron of men of learning, Rahim was a bit of a linguist himself. He spoke some Portuguese (the first Jesuit mission had already reached Akbar’s court) and wrote extensively in Braj, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. He translated Babur’s autobiography Baburnama from Turkish to Persian.

Abdur Rahim was barely four years of age when his father Bairam Khan was assassinated. He, however, grew up into a fine young man under the fostering care of Akbar who later gave him the title of Mirza and made him commander of Five Thousand with the title Khan-e-Khanan. He was appointed tutor to Prince Salim and one of his daughters was given in marriage to Prince Daniyal. After Akbar’s death, he served under Jehangir for 21 years.

However, for all his loyalty, he was seen as a threat by Jehangir and treated shabbily. Jehangir ordered the killing of two of his sons at the Khooni Darwaza on the trumped-up charge that they were traitors. In this he was supported by Mirza Raja Man Singh and Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, son of Akbar's wet-nurse, Maham Anagah. The bodies of the Khan-e-Khanan’s sons were left to rot and eaten by birds of prey, thus providing yet another leaf in the macabre history of Khooni Darwaza.

Coming to his poetry, Rahim wrote for every occasion. Here’s something on the need to must preserve every drop of water, for, a single drop saved inside the oyster’s shell, forms a pearl:

Rahiman pani rakhiye bin pani sab soon,
Pani gaye na ubare moti manus ehoon.

On the innate goodness of character that remains untainted, like the chandan tree that retains its purity despite the poisonous snakes twined around it:

Jo Rahim uttam prakrati, ka kar sakat kusang,
Chandan vish vyapat nahin, lipitay rahey bhujang.

On the transience of both ill and good fortune:

Rahiman vipida ho bhali jo thoray din hoye,
Hit anhit eeh jagat mein, jaan paday sab koi.

On placating, time and time again, those who are good at heart:

Ruthay sujan manaiye jo ruthay sau baar,
Rahiman phir phir poiye jo tootay tootay sau baar.

On the Small vs Big debate and the use of a needle when a sword is not required:

Rahiman dekh badein ko laghu na dijiye daar,
Jahan kaam awai sui, kahan karey talwar.

On birds flying off from a drying lake to seek another perch, but what of the poor wingless fish:

Sar sookhe, pachchi ure aure saran samae,
Deen meen bin pachch ke, kahu Rahim kahan jaye?

On using obviously “Hindu” imagery despite being a Muslim when declaring the only way to achieve salvation is through unconditional surrender to Ram (the all pervading consciousness):

Gahi sarnagati Ram ki, bhavsagar ki naav
Rahiman jagat udhar ko, aur na kachhu upaiy

And the most famous of them all, on the thread of love, that once snapped, forever bears a knot:

Rahiman dhaga prem ka, mat todu chatkai,
Tootey phir se na milay, milay gaanth padi jai.

The mausoleum

While it would be certainly be worthwhile to revisit the dohas, chaupais and kabits written by him that transcend their time and age and speak so eloquently of the co-mingling of cultures, it just might be equally worthwhile to drop by and visit his tomb, see the conservation work that is in progress. Watch the layers of grime and neglect being scraped away by a team of dedicated conservationists to reveal glowing, gleaming incised plasterwork. While large parts of the monument itself are cordoned off at present owing to the ongoing conservation, the parts that peep out from behind the scaffoldings nevertheless present an imposing sight.

A massive square edifice rises from a high platform faced by arched cells on all sides. Unlike Humayun’s Tomb, its predecessor and early prototype of the garden-tomb so dearly loved by the Mughals, the plan here is a plain square instead of octagonal.

The charbagh pattern, too, is here though simpler with paths instead of water channels. The lofty double-storied mausoleum rises from the centre of what was once a Mughal garden reduced to a patch of mangy grass over the years but with some handsome old trees still remaining. There is a high deeply recessed central arch on each side and several shallow arches on the flanks in each storey.

The interior of the tomb chamber has remains of beautifully incised designs in plaster and traces of paint work – all of which are being faithfully and painstakingly restored to its original colours. Four chhatris are strategically placed at the corners of the central dome giving it a perfectly balanced look, unlike, say, Safdarjung's tomb which suffers from a peculiarly compressed and elongated look.

The platform has shallow octagonal tanks connected by narrow drains – possibly for allowing rainwater to drain off. With the near-cannibalistic stripping of the marble and red sandstone from its facade to ornament other monuments in the vicinity and rampant pilferage and looting of its parapets and lattices, the tomb looks scarred and gouged, yet venerable. It is said that, along with Humayun's tomb, it provided the prototype for Shahjahan's architects to work on the spectacular Taj Mahal.

One hopes the “model conservation project” will bring a new lease of life to this grand monument to one of India’s ablest sons; in the process if it draws attention to his poetry one can only rejoice. For, surely it is time for Rahim to step out from the shadows of long-forgotten Hindi textbooks and take his rightful place among the great poets of Hindustan.

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