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Rahim’s tomb: Delhi’s monument of love gets new lease of life after six-year conservation 2020-12-17

Thursday, 2020, December 17
A view of the Tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan also known as Rahim's Tomb, after the completion of its restoration work, near N
Arpan Rai

Rahim’s tomb, Delhi’s own monument of love built nearly 50 years before the iconic Taj Mahal, which stood in a ruinous condition with a “risk of collapse” has finally received a new lease of life after six-year-long “monumental conservation” work.

A multi-disciplinary team of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and support of a corporate conglomerate, worked extensively on the project which married traditional craftsmanship with cutting-edge technology.

“After completing the ambitious Humayun’s Tomb conservation project in 2014, we began work on the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan located in Nizamuddin area. And thus began a journey of restoring the tomb of a man who was a celebrated poet, a nobleman and one of the ‘Navratnas’ in Akbar’s court,” said AKTC CEO, Ratish Nanda.

“He also patronised construction of monumental buildings - canals, tanks, enclosed gardens - in Agra, Lahore, Delhi and Burhanpur, among other Indian cities,” Nanda said. The Delhi-based conservation architect said the restored tomb was the mausoleum that Rahim had built in 1598 for his wife, Mah Banu. It is the grandest of his surviving buildings, inspired by the architectural style of Humayun’s Tomb (built in 1558) and, in turn, inspiring the Taj Mahal completed in (1653) as historian Percy Brown had reckoned, Nanda said. Upon his death, Rahim was also buried in the same mausoleum.

According to AKTC, with 1,75,000 man-days of work by master craftsmen, this is perhaps the “largest conservation effort” ever undertaken at any monument of national importance in India post-Independence, and also the “first ever privately undertaken conservation effort” under the Corporate Social Responsibility.

“The project was very complex and full of challenges. The volume of work involved and using both traditional knowledge and state-of-the-art technology, we overcame various challenges. InterGlobe Foundation’s support through their CSR funds helped in sustaining the project work, which given its complexity was carried out literally on a monumental scale over six years,” Nanda said.

He said the cultural site that sits next to the main road in Nizamuddin area is slated to be re-opened to the public from Thursday evening.

Nanda said before starting the actual conservation work, an extensive research was conducted on the monument, including from the archives.

“The last time a major architectural intervention was in the 1920s when the ASI had provided masonry support to overhanging sandstone blocks on the facade – saving the structure from sure collapse. These early 20th century repairs, using Delhi quartzite stone, have been retained during the present conservation effort,” he added.

The lofty double dome was originally clad with marble said to have been quarried from here, as older buildings tended to be. Though several peer reviews suggested completing the marble cladding on the dome, on the advice of the ASI restoration of marble cladding was limited to the base. This served the dual purpose of strengthening the base as well as to indicate to visitors the original finish of the dome, according to AKTC.

As in Humayun’s Tomb project, we used 3D laser scanning to identify the cracks, which is a very effective tool. Also, on cleaning layers of soot and 20th century paint layers, the principal tomb chamber and five arched bays on each facade of the ground level arcade were found to be ornamented with breathtaking incised plaster patterns,” Nanda said.

Rahim had ornamented his wife’s mausoleum with diverse motifs in plaster and stone, the AKTC said.

“As with his poetry, these patterns include both geometric and floral patterns commonly seen in mausoleums, but also patterns seen in Hindu buildings, like ‘swastik’ and peacock. Each of the arches of the ground level arcade boast of medallions of varying designs in the spandrels of the arches. Where there was evidence of original design, the medallions were restored, carefully matching the quality of the 16th century craftsmen,” it said. Nanda said Rahim’s tomb, situated beside Mathura Road, is important also for the syncretic cultural legacy that he has left behind and it is very much part of the city’s skyline, adding another layer of aesthetics to the historic Nizamuddin area. “His own atelier produced beautifully illustrated translations of the Ramayan and Mahabharata into Persian and a set of Ragamala paintings. On account of his poetry and dohas, drawings from the Hindu religious narratives and customs of veneration, Rahim is often compared with the Bhakti movement poets – Surdas, Tulsidas, Kabir,” Nanda said.

The conservation effort on the monument has included celebrating Rahim’s cultural legacy too.

Two major publications, ‘Celebrating Rahim’ and ‘Abdur Rahim Khan-i-khanan – Kavya, Saundarya, Sarthakta’ have been produced. Both include new research by several scholars on the multi-faceted Rahim and his literary achievements, he added.

Built on the riverbank, Rahim’s garden mausoleum stood within an enclosed garden stretching to the Arab Serai in the Humayun’s Tomb complex to the north. “Sadly, much of this was lost in the 20th century when residential neighbourhoods were built here. More recently, a road to the southern side of the mausoleum disrupted the historic link with the river – now, Barapullah Nallah,” according to AKTC.

“From the centre of the southern river-facing facade, a vaulted passage leads to the crypt chamber with a unique circumambulatory path around the grave platform. Above this stands the lofty tomb chamber roofed by a double dome. Stone medallions of numerous designs, incised plaster patterns including the sacred ‘swastika’, floral motifs on the wall surfaces adorn the structure,” it said.

A conservation effort of this magnitude and complexity required to benefit from a wide spectrum of advice, and “over 60 independent peer reviews have been carried out since 2015,” Nanda said.

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