In 1956, historian and polymath Damodar D. Kosambi famously complained about “the straits to which the formal historian is reduced in India”, due to lack of material. For all the strides historians have made since, history has become an even more bitterly-contested discipline for political and ideological reasons.
The figure of Abdur Rahim Khan towers above all acrimony over history, and not just because his influence spread across the reign of four of the six great Moghul emperors. In classical circles, he is ‘Khan-i-Khanan’, a powerful Mughal general, governor, statesman, polymath. In popular culture, he is one of Akbar’s ‘Navaratnas’ whose verses are part of school curriculums. But in folk memory, he is merely ‘Rahiman’ or ‘Rahim Das’, the Bhakti poet memorised and repeated for the earthy wisdom and emotional succour in his Hindavi couplets, even among the illiterate.
Now, Rahim has a memorial worthy of his stature. Actually, the memorial has existed for about 400 years in Delhi’s Nizamuddin area. What the ruinations of time spared, the depredations of later monument builders destroyed; the tomb was quarried for stones in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people who walked or drove past the Tomb of Khan-i-Khanan could not identify the final resting place of the great poet. It had developed large cracks and was looking for a reason to collapse into a heap when, five years ago, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the Archaeological Survey of India undertook its restoration. The InterGlobe Foundation funded the project, the first instance of CSR monies supporting such an effort. It became a part of the extensive Nizamuddin Urban Renewal initiative, the largest restoration programme of a historical district in India.
The restored structure has just been reopened to the public. While the structure itself was verging on a collapse, says Ratish Nanda, AKTC’s director in India, the embellishments inside were just covered by dirt and soot. It was a more painstaking task to clean and restore the delicate craftsmanship than it might have been to recreate it. It was restored based on available evidence. There were no drawings or literary references to go by.
Certain elements had been obliterated, for example, the cenotaph in the main enclosure; these had to be built from scratch. Some of the renovations undertaken in the 1920s have been retained as a record of the efforts to conserve the structure. Some tricky portions have not been restored. This gives the monument an incomplete look.
“Conservation has no one grammar. One has to choose between several levels of reasons and sensibilities,” says Nanda. The monument will now display new stone engravings of Rahim’s couplets. Cold stone may not have life, but it is a sturdier form of memory than what any hard disk drive can offer.