in search of rahim das aka rahim khan, the 16th century warrior-poet

Young Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan being received by Akbar, Akbarnama. V&A Museum, London.

Not all men are made the same. Some are soldiers, and some are poets. And then there are some who wield a sword and pen with equal elan.

This post is the story of one such gentleman in the 16th Century who went by the name Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan. ‘Khan-I-Khanan’ meaning ‘Khan of Khans’, a title given to him by the Mughal Emperors he served: Akbar and Jahangir.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan portrait. 1627. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan was a man of multiple talents: a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, and patron. Befittingly, he was also one of Emperor Akbar’s legendary ‘nine jewels’ or navratanas in the Mughal court.

Born to a Muslim father, Bairam Khan, and a Hindu mother in 1556, he was equally proficient in Persian, Arabic and Turki as he was in Sanskrit and Hindavi, his mother tongue. His Portuguese was passable.

His family belonged to the inner circle of the Mughal royal family, serving as companions and tutors to its princes through generations. Though his childhood was marred by the fall of his father’s career and subsequent assassination, he was straightway taken into Emperor Akbar’s court when he was just four years old. A court where pluralism and aristocratic culture thrived under Akbar’s mentorship. It was, thus, no surprise that Abdur Rahim’s manifold innate talents bloomed multi-fold.

History remembers him most for his translation of the Baburnama, Emperor Babur’s biography, and the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, into Persian and some 300 pithy Hindavi dohas or couplets. The latter, written under the pen name of Rahim Das, ooze with a deep insight into the complexities of life and human nature, and form part of India’s school curriculum, even four hundred years after his death.

Most of his poems written in Hindavi focussed on devotional [bhakti] and secular love. Oddly enough, his verses were never sung to music, written for listening, or even documented. They passed down the centuries purely by oral tradition.

I mentioned in the beginning of this post that our man was just as capable brandishing his sword as he was weaving words. In his role as commander-in-chief of the Mughal army, he led military expeditions to Gujarat, Sindh, Mewar, and Deccan. As governor of Mughal provinces at different points in his life he gave audiences to European travellers and merchants, and settled trade disputes.

So trusted was he by the emperor, his job description included being Mir Ard, or the one who, on behalf of the emperor, heard the thousands of applications addressed to the ruler.

His patronage in the arts and architecture was no less significant. His libraries in Gujarat, Malwa and Burhanpur were a treasure trove of learning. Manuscripts comprised Persian poetry, medical treatises, books on dream interpretation, Quranic commentaries and other religious books. Many of these are now in private and museum collections across the world.

Like all creative folks, he had his own atelier. It translated the Ramayana and Mahabharata into Persian and then beautifully illustrated the folios, restored damaged books, and supported Hindavi poets along with hundreds of Persian poets and musicians who came all the way from Persia.

Last, but not the least, Abdur Rahim’s passion for architecture and hydraulic engineering led to his building caravanserais, mosques, water canals, hammams, tanks and gardens in Agra, Delhi, Lahore, and Burhanpur.

Which brings us to the most important monument he ever commissioned—the tomb for his beloved wife Mah Banu in Delhi in 1598, in which he himself was interred in 1627.

From a thematic point of view, this mausoleum started the trend of building magnificent tombs for wives. From an architectural point of view, with the tomb placed at the edge of the char bagh, it established the layout of such tombs. Both followed to the fullest by Shah Jahan when he had the Taj Mahal built in memory of his wife Mumtaz, in Agra.

Much of what Abdur Rahim created and compiled in his lifetime, and it was an enormous amount by any standard, has unfortunately disappeared over the ensuing centuries.

That is, apart from his Hindavi couplets in dry textbooks and the gigantic gouged tomb for his wife. The latter was first scavenged mercilessly for building material by the Mughal wazir Safdarjung’s son for the Safdarjung tomb a short distance away, and thereafter, neglected by both time and humanity.

In 2020, after four hundred years, and a six-year conservation project of his resting place, Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan came to life again. The project, carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and InterGlobe Foundation, more importantly, led to a renewed interest in the man himself as well.

Like the couplets, the tomb too echoes of pluralism and sombre elegance. Red sandstone trimmed in white marble encase the towering facades of the mausoleum which resembles an exquisite large jewellery box. Incised plaster work and stone carvings depict swastikas and peacocks, a stark and blatant delineation from prevailing trends. Just like he was.

At first glance the Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan mausoleum looks exactly like the Humayun Tomb. But this is smaller. Daintier. Its seemingly incomplete restoration is aimed at finding a balance between what it was like originally, and what it ended up as eventually.

Come along with me as I take you on a visual tour of his [and his wife’s] mausoleum and a literary tour of a few of his couplets. Perhaps they will help throw some light on why he was one of the most admired of the nine jewels in Emperor Akbar’s court. Why he was the Khan-I-Khanan. ❤

What stands out the most about Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan’s mausoleum is its elegance. Nothing is nondescript. Even if it is the ceiling of one of the corner cells of the platform.

Entrance way to the main chamber which contains the cenotaph of Mah Banu in the centre, and next to her that of her husband and the man who built the tomb, Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan.

– – –

तरुवर फल नहिं खात है, सरवर पियहि न पान।
कहि रहीम पर काज हित, संपति सँचहि सुजान॥

“A tree doesn’t eat its fruit, the lake doesn’t drink its water; Says Rahim, good peoples’ wealth is for others’ benefit.”

Painted and incised stucco on the ceiling of the main chamber’s entrance way. Look closely, and you will notice the 8-pointed floral star in the middle is lined with a Quranic verse in calligraphy.

– – –

बुरा जो देखन मैं चला, बुरा न मिलिया कोय।
जो दिल खोजा आपना, मुझसा बुरा न कोय ॥

“When I looked for evil outside, I could not find any evil. Once I started looking in my own heart, I found I was the evilest.”

The two-storeyed main chamber topped by the inner dome of the double dome.

– – –

चाह गयी चिंता मिटी, मनुआ बेपरवाह
जिनको कछु ना चाहिए, वे साहन के साह

“Wanting things is the root of all worries and if one can rid all wants there will be no worry. People who do not want anything are the king of kings as they are happy in all circumstances.”

Closeup and overview of the floral centrepiece on the ceiling, reminiscent of the gardens in paradise.

– – –

जो रहीम उत्तम प्रकृति, का करी सकत कुसंग ।
चन्दन विष व्यापत नहीं, लिपटे रहत भुजंग ।।

“Says Rahim, bad company cannot spoil someone with excellent character. Like snakes are always on a sandalwood tree, but the tree never becomes poisonous.”

Aga Khan Trust for Culture and InterGlobe Foundation’s conservation project has revealed, mostly-intact, 400-year-old incised plaster patterns under the years of accumulated grime and soot and 20th Century lime wash. Yup, this is all original.

– – –

रहिमन धागा प्रेम का, मत तोड़ो चटकाय।
टूटे से फिर ना जुड़े, जुड़े गाँठ परि जाय॥

“Says Rahim, don’t break in haste the thread of love between people. Once broken it cannot be joined for even when joined, there will always be a knot in it.”

Two of the mausoleum’s most telling works of incised plaster. The left image contains rows of swastikas, a Hindu symbol. The right image contains calligraphy in the cursive script used specifically for writing. Both are present in the main chamber as if to say, here lies interred ‘A pluralist poet’.

A feather I found at my feet whilst walking around. Its colours matched the tomb colouring perfectly.

– – –

रहिमन देख बड़ेन को, लघु न दीजिये डारि।
जहाँ काम आवै सुई, कहा करै तलवारि॥

“Rahim says you should not forget small things or poor friends once you have expensive big things or are with rich, important people. You cannot use a sword where you need a needle, even though the sword is much bigger than a needle.”

Monuments commissioned by Muslims, as a rule, avoid any kind of depiction of humans or animals. Yet here, a peacock carved in buff sandstone adorns the arches of the cells lining the platform, along with eight other motifs. No other monument from this period boasts such variety in its decoration.

– – –

रुठे सुजन मनाइए, जो रुठै सौ बार।
रहिमन फिरि फिरि पोहिए, टूटे मुक्ताहार॥

“If good people get angry with you, Rahim says you should reconcile with them every time it happens. Just as you would repair a pearl necklace every time it breaks.”

The conservation of the mausoleum has gone through its fair share of controversy. That’s because of its attempt to create a balance between what the tomb looked like and what it ended up as. It definitely is different from standard conservations. But then everything to do with Abdur Rahim Khan-I-Khanan has been a bit out of the ordinary. 🙂

Travel tips:

  • Timings: Sunrise to sunset.
  • Ticket: Rs. 20 for Indians; Rs. 250 for foreigners. Photography allowed.
  • I explored the mausoleum through a heritage walk led by Pooja Varma for INTACH Delhi.

10 thoughts on “in search of rahim das aka rahim khan, the 16th century warrior-poet

    • The tomb looks beautiful now. It is an absolute gem, and surprisingly, rarely visited by locals or tourists. Not that I am complaining about the lack of crowds. 😀



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