Delhiwale: What lies beneath…


Nothing here but silence. And the two graves at the centre.

This is the windowless crypt of Rahim’s tomb, in central Delhi’s Nizamuddin East. What the visitors see up there in the breezy principal tomb chamber, directly under the gumbad (dome), are the empty gravestones, the cenotaphs. But here in the underground lie the original graves of Mughal-era poet and nobleman Rahim, and of Mah Banu, his wife, in whose memory the building was conceived.

The 16th century mausoleum was undergoing years-long restoration, led by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, that finished last week. Truth be told, the building has always been cloaked in melancholic beauty. But it was in a derelict state. The interiors were dark, musty, and smelt of bat shit.

Now, decades of grime have been removed to uncover the original surface of the monument’s walls. The patterns have been reclaimed, the authentic designs cleaned up, or restored where they were found missing. Geometric patterns, symbols and religious calligraphy are again visible. The ceiling in the cenotaph is showing a clear view of its floral patterns.

You will cherish all this delicate artistry but unfortunately, you won’t be able to experience the underground crypt. This part of the mausoleum isn’t accessible to visitors, though this reporter did manage an exclusive access.

This evening… oh well, it doesn’t seem like evening in the vault, or like any other time of the day really. In this world of the permanently dead, there seems to be no connection to the outside. The place would be terrifying in the darkness but the lighting—two lamps currently on—has turned the whole chamber into an arresting work of minimalism.

The lamps have lit up parts of the walls, leaving out some parts in patterns of darkness. Until some years ago this crypt was a network of cracks, discloses Rajpal Singh, chief engineer, Aga Khan Trust for Culture. “Our work started here with underpinning foundations and stitching the cracks—some over a foot wide.” The crypt has a passage, the so-called parikrama, turning around the graves. Walking along it is like wading through spaces dappled in sudden eclipses and auroras. Niches scooped into the walls appear to be shadows within shadows. In some places, the blurry line on the floor separating light from darkness flickers like a time zone limit, gradually drawing day and night apart, as it sometimes can be seen from airplane windows.

But the couple’s graves are entirely soaked in light.

Up there, in the main tomb chamber, as you’ll Instagram in real time the stunning walls and splendid dome, remember that a much sparse but equally haunting exquisiteness exists directly underneath.



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