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The General who was a Poet

Joe Shearer

Apr 19, 2009
Rahim’s synthesis
In polarised times, Abdur Rahim could be a national icon for his syncretism
  • Written By Syeda Hameed |
  • Published On: October 28, 2017 12:05 Am

The tomb in Nizamuddin, Delhi, where Abdur Rahim is buried. (Representational)

I often pass a large monument on Mathura Road. It is covered by a green net. In front there are a few hoardings announcing the renovation of the tomb of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana. A few days ago, I found myself standing before a packed hall speaking about the man who rests there. Two lines from Keats poem On first looking into Chapman’s Homer came to my lips as I began. What do these lines have to do with the event? First the lines :

Then I felt like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken

The lines reflect my emotion when I opened the book, Celebrating Rahim produced by Inter Globe Foundation and Agha Khan Trust For Culture, published by Mapin Publishing. This article, however, is not a book review. It is my experience of a man who, along with Amir Khusrau, symbolises our syncretic culture, to use the overused phrase, our Ganga Jamni tehzeeb.

Who was Abdur Rahim? He was a statesman, courtier, soldier, poet, linguist, humanitarian, patron. And also one of the nauratans of the court of emperor Akbar. He served three Mughal rulers and was regarded second in hierarchy to Akbar himself. My part was to release this volume, a task which gave me two sleepless nights. In school we had read dohe (couplets)of Rahim and Kabir; verses learnt in childhood are never forgotten.

Rahiman dhaga prem ka mat toro chatkaye/
Toote pe
phir na jure, jure gaanth par jaaye/
paaye phul hot hai samay paaye jhari jaat/
rahe nahin ek so, kaahe Rahim pachhtaat

His atelier (literary kaarkhana) produced Persian translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata along with Ragmala paintings. Artists, poets, craftsmen were welcomed wherever he went — Sindh, Gujarat or the Deccan. His translation of Baburnama from Chaghtay Turki to Farsi was a singular scholarly feat. Rahim was not a poet like the bhakts (religious devotees) Tulsidas, Surdas with whom he was compared. A soldier, he spent years in battlefields. Yet, he wrote poetry with equal ease in Farsi and Hindavi, the latter a combination of Braj, Avadhi and Khari Boli.

Harish Trivedi’s article “Rahim in his world and in ours” describes this wondrous sangam: “By choosing to be a poet in vernacular Hindi rather than courtly Persian Rahim, was entering a parallel cultural universe in which he became deeply immersed.” The ease of switching Persian with Hindi is evident in use of Hindavi words instead of Farsi; a few samples: Aandhi=Baad-e-tund, kela=mauz, imli=samar-e-Hind. The ease with which he switches languages shows his mastery of local speech. Maulana Shibli Nu’mani places Rahim’s Farsi poetry higher than that of Urfi’s. This sample for me is the finest expression of love.

Shumar e shauq na danista am ke ta chand ast/Jus ein qadar ke dilam sakht arzumand ast
(I do not know how to measure desire/Except my heart aches with craving)

The use of sakht arzumand ast would have made even Ghalib envious.

It was the pluralistic canvas of Akbar’s durbar which enabled Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khanan to be just Rahim and not only write in Hindi but commission Hindi and Sanskrit in a Persian court. The painting of Krishna holding mount Govardhan reproduced in the book was commissioned by Akbar. The one of Hanuman holding Mount Drongiri which contained the Sanjeevni plant was commissioned by Rahim.

My moment of personal pride was when I saw reproduced from his library an illuminated manuscript of poetry by my ancestor. Khwaja Abdulla Ansari, also known as Pir of heart, wrote a collection of poetry, Munaajat (supplications) which was acquired by Rahim. His note on the book says that it entered his library in 1589/90. Its flyleaf bears signatures and seals of four monarchs — Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb — indicating its journey through many libraries.

Why should we recall Rahim today? In our polarised world where Hindi and Urdu are placed respectively in Hindu and Muslim camps, Rahim disrupts the neat order by writing Barvais invoking Hindu Gods, Bighna Binasan (Ganesh), Nand Kumar (Krishna), Suraj Deb (Sun God), Girija (Shiva) and Priya Raghubir (Hanuman). His literary canon shows that in the Mughal court there was no discernible rupture between the Hindus and Muslims. Professor Namvar Singh speaks to this fact: “Rahim had attained that high ground of sensitivity where a Musalman while still a Musalman does not remain a mere Musalman nor a Hindu a mere Hindu.” His political message in the doha below speaks to the polarised worlds of Hindus and Muslims with ever hardening gaanths (knots) .

Toote sujan manaiye jo tootan sau baar/Rahiman phiri phiri poiye toote muktahaar

If a friend breaks off go plead again and again/If pearl necklace breaks don’t we thread it again and again?

In the synthesis he achieved while sitting on the pedestal in Akbar’s court, Rahim, worthy of becoming a national icon, gives a roadmap for India’s future.

The writer is former member, Planning Comission


El Sidd

Apr 5, 2017
Secular Muslim appeasement continues in India.

Now the seculars want the din e ilahi back as a tool to divide Muslims when the orthodox there are voting BJP.


Jun 18, 2006
United Kingdom
There are many misconceptions about Akbar. Many orthodox Muslims disliked him and he was considered an apostate by both the Sunni (Badauni) and Shia (Yazdi) scholars because of his innovation of Din-e-Ilahi However anyone who cares to objectively research his reign cannot help but admire this remarkable grandson of Babur.

Akbar’s conversion to a ‘free thinker’ was not immediate. Both his parents were undoubtedly Muslim; Humayun a Sunni and the mother Hamida Bano Begum, a Shia.

Akbar abolished ‘Jizya’ in 1564 but Shaikh Abdul Nabi, a Hanafi Sunni was appointed Sadr-ul Sadur in 1565 ( who had the authority of the highest religious officer of the realm). Akbar did not start the Din-e-Ilahi until 1582 that is after 20 years of assuming control.

Akbar was in fact an extremely curious fellow. He became dissatisfied with Sunni orthodoxy quite early. He flirted briefly with Shias and also the Sufis. One can judge his devotion to Sheikh Salim Chishti from the fact the he called his eldest son Salim with the nickname of Sheikhu. Akbar created “Ibadat Khana” in 1576 where scholars from all the faiths gathered to debate merits of their faith & point out flaws in other faiths in scholarly discussions.

Din-i-Ilahi was in fact the brain child of Abul Fazl and advocated the policy of Sulh-i-Kul or universal peace. In my opinion this primarily represented Akbar’s policy of considering all religions being one in essence. Akbar did not force any one to convert and many of his close advisors such as Man Singh (Hindu) & Adur Rahim Khan-e-Khanaan (Shia) did not convert.

I believe that since every human being will have to answer to the Almighty about his deeds on the day of judgement, it is not up to me to judge a person on his/her beliefs. My admiration of Akbar stems from the fact that from the tender of 12 or 13 he faced impossible odds and still managed to created one of the most prosperous and powerful kingdoms of the day.

Akbar recognised and rewarded merit. Akbar appointed Todar Mal, a financial genius of the day, as his Minister of Finance and shrewdly, a Rajput (Man Singh) commander of the Mughal army sent to fight another Rajput, Partap Singh of Mewar,.

Nevertheless, like all kings of the time, Akbar was also a despot and a megalomaniac. He dismissed Bairam Khan as soon as he turned 18. However, Akbar understood that he owed his kingdom to Bairam Khan because without the victory at Panipat in 1556, there would have been no Mughal empire. Therefore after Bairam Khan’s death, he took full care of his 5 year old son.

Mirza Abdur Rahim was without doubt a man of culture as well as a consummate military commander, but one must remember that as a foster child of the emperor, Abdur Rahim received the best education & military training available in India at that time. There are not too many books written about his life to enable me to critically appraise him. I accept that Abdur Rahim Kana-e Khanaan was a military man of the highest calibre and helped Akbar in winning many battles including the conquest of Sind. I would however disagree with the comments that his Persian poetry ranks equal to Urfi. In my humble opinion only Amir Khusro and Faizi wrote Persian poetry of such high standard.

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