Monument of Love V: The Poet-Warrior

His most cited achievements are military victories in Gujarat, the conquest of Sindh, and a long tenure as viceroy in the Deccan seeking to expand the Mughal Empire further south. In court, he was the greatest of the Mughal patrons of Persian poetry. Talk about multiple personalities! Can you really try 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 into one man? A man of contradictions indeed!!

Unlike Humayun’s Tomb, where the husband came to recognition because of the wife’s accomplishments, here the huband’s accomplishments is so vast and limitless, than there’s hardly any information available on the wife who inspired the construction of the first Mughal monument of love for a lady. In modern society, this would be taken as bone of contention for many couples. Strangely, his list of achievements is surpassed by an even greater reputation as the Hindi poet Rahim; a more lasting legacy in the form of the 700-odd couplets penned under the name of Rahim Das, that have over the years become an important part of Hindi school textbooks. Like many others, I first met Rahim during a Hindi class in school. And somehow, more than Kabir (another poet), Rahim became my favorite medieval poet. This is mostly because he is the easiest of all contemporaries to understand and remember. Rahim’s dohas, for which he is best known, are simple lessons for everyday living, addressing themes such as friendship, enmity, life’s peaks and troughs, family, relationships, etc.

जो रहीम उत्तम प्रकृति का कर सकत कुसंग |

चन्दन विष व्यापत नहीं लिपटे रहत भुजंग ||

Translation – Says Rahim, one who is of inherently noble nature, will remain unaffected even when he associates with bad people. The sandalwood plant does not absorb poison when the snakes wind around it.

Rahim’s couplet or doha

Rahim was an astute statesman in the Mughal court, the commander-in-chief of the Mughal army, a translator par excellence, an enthusiastic patron of architecture and a known Persophile. Khanzada Mirza Khan Abdul Rahim, popularly known as simply Rahim and titled Khan-i-Khanan during the rule of Mughal emperor Akbar, was one of the nine important ministers in Akbar’s court, also known as the Navaratnas. Infact, being the son of Bairam Khan, Akbar’s mentor and his most important commander-in-chief, history depicts a close and fostering relationship between the two:

Upon Bairam Khan’s assassination, Akbar immediately ordered the child to be brought to him. “In court, all sources declare unanimously, Akbar’s treatment of the child was exemplary and presaged the strong emotional attachment that was to develop between the two,” 

TCA Raghavan, author of the book, ‘Attendant lords Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim: Courtiers and poets in Mughal India.’

Having been brought up in Akbar’s court, Rahim invariably gained a holistic education that was often reserved for sons of premier nobles – from riding, swordsmanship to languages such as Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit and even Portugese. Rahim was also one of the foremost translators of his times. He wrote extensively in Braj, Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian. He translated Babur’s autobiography Baburnama from Turkish to Persian, and was known to have translated the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. As such, an enigmatic personality of such cadre, was often brought to light through his poetry, as well as his personality quirks.

Abdul Rahim was known for his strange manner of giving alms to the poor. He never looked at the person he was giving alms to, keeping his gaze downwards in all humility. When Tulsidas heard about Rahim’s behaviour when giving alms, he promptly wrote a couplet and sent it to Rahim:-

ऐसी देनी देंन ज्यूँ, कित सीखे हो सैन |
ज्यों ज्यों कर ऊंच्यो करो, त्यों त्यों निचे नैन ||
(Translation – Why give alms like this? Where did you learn that? Your hands are as high as your eyes are low)

Realizing that Tulsidas was well aware of the reasons behind his actions, and was merely giving him an opportunity to say a few lines in reply, he wrote to Tulsidas saying:-

देनहार कोई और है, भेजत जो दिन रैन |
लोग भरम हम पर करे, तासो निचे नैन ||
(Translation – The Giver is someone else, giving day and night. But the world gives me the credit, so I lower my eyes.)

Rahim lived in an era of great literary success with contemporaries such as Tulsidas, Keshav, Gung and many others – a period in India that is as important as William Shakespeare made the 16th century in England. However, unlike most other poets of the medieval era, Rahim’s writings could be grouped under three broad categories – he was a Bhakti poet, a liberal follower of didactic poetry, and also wrote erotic poetry which was interwined with Hindu religious poetry. Oddly enough, his verses has never been sung to music, written for listening, or even documented. They have often been part of oral tradition for centuries.

As a patron of literature, art and architecture, it comes as no surprise that he will also build a tomb. What is more noteworthy is that, while the tomb is known as the Tomb of Rahim, the monument was originally built as a tribute to his wife Mah Banu who died in 1598. This was the first Mughal tomb built in dedication to a lady, a fact that is often alluded to Taj Mahal. Unlike Neil Armstrong’s notoriety, within the heritage circuit of tourism, it’s often Taj Mahal that takes the crown! Similar to Taj Mahal, the tomb of Rahim is also placed at the edge of the chaar baagh. Just like the shroud of obscurity that the mausoleum seem to revel in, there is not much known about Mah Banu, other than the fact that she was the daughter of Jiji Anga, Akbar’s foster mother and wet-nurse, and sister to Mirza Aziz Koka. Such a contrast isn’t it to both the ladies of Mughal court – Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal!

In that sense he built a Taj Mahal, except that he built it about half a century before Shah Jahan did.

Ratish Nanda, CEO of Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Just like his poetry, Rahim’s mausoleum holds the quality of being timeless, a testament in current times when heritage is often disregarded or embroiled in political controversies. In fact, one can go so far as to theorise that the mausoleum is a culmination of all that he believed and loved throughout his life – his role as a poet, his position as a courtier in Mughal court, a patron of architecture, and his role as a husband. Though modeled like the Humayun’s tomb, Rahim’s mausoleum was unique in its placement along the riverbanks of the Yamuna. Restoration work revealed evidence of terrace water tanks, with a fountain mechanism that utilised the flowing water from the Yamuna via hydraulic engineering from the 16th century.

At a glance, the tomb consists of an arcaded ground floor with 17 arches on each of the four sides, and octagonal rooms on the upper floor. The tomb stands in the centre of the terrace while a roofed double dome covers the tomb chamber. First ever privately undertaken conservation effort under the Corporate Social Responsibility programme revelaed some interesting finding during their documentation process – On some of the arches outside and on the walls and ceiling of the inner chamber, incised plaster pattern, a decorative style that comprises of application of two coats of plaster (lime mortar) followed by carving of intricate patterns on the outer layer before the plaster sets. The symbols used are geometric and floral as well as the swastika and peacock patterns, pointing to his pluralistic nature.

It is said that the grandeur of sandstone and marble work was of such supreme quality that 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. Rahim’s life, despite his many political, military and literary achievements, ended tragically. He and his family were caught up in the most destructive of all Mughal concerns: the struggle for succession. This led to his own downfall, but more tragically to the execution of his son and grandsons. Despite this, Rahim will always resonate in my mind, not as the voice of a loner or a philosopher, but as of someone reflecting on a life of accomplishment and disgrace, political intrigue, cool-headed calculations and pragmatism. A very different emotion compared to Shah Jahan’s loneliness in Taj Mahal!

रहिमन गली है सांकरी, दूजो ना ठहराहिं।

आपु अहै तो हरि नहीं, हरि तो आपुन नाहिं।।

Translation – 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

Monument of Love series:

Related (and not-so related) Posts:

New Delhi, Union Territories


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