Like history, there and yet forgotten, I have lived in Nizamuddin for a number of years. In those times of course I used to be in a rush to work and back and my only foray into the galis used to be to pick up food. I knew of the existence of many a monument here but I never did find the time to stop and stare. Or let us say, the priorities were a little different for a young girl working in the city having left a sheltered home for the first time ever.
When Delhi Karavan posted details of their walk through Nizamuddin Basti I felt a call. I had to go back. To see what I had left unseen? An unfinished duty? A homage not yet paid? The walk had already started by the time I reached and therefore was thrown in the midst of nostalgia while ears taking in new sights and information. We traversed the Urs Mahal, the Chausath Khamba , Ghalib’s tomb . But nothing prepared me for the grandeur of the Atgah Khan tomb until I was face-to-face with it.
Encircled by multistoried shanties, the mausoleum’s 16th century aesthetics contrasted sharply with the makeshift nature of the surrounding modern-day brick structures. TV dishes, wires, people washing clothes, a curious eye or two from behind a pardah at this eclectic group which had come exploring, the smell of freshly made chapatis, the call of prayers, the azaan by the muezzin, and in the middle of it , this monument, forlorn and yet standing tall , although of stone, yet so soft and gentle.
The entrance to the tomb was through a small courtyard that could have been mistaken for a private residence.
In historical perspective, the tomb of Atgah Khan in central Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti shelters the memory of a rich and influential man from the time of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. His wife, Jija Anga, was one of the nine wet nurses of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. By that relationship, Atgah Khan (real name: Shamsuddin Muhammad; ‘atgah’ meaning foster father and ‘khan’ a title) became Akbar’s foster father and a figure who commanded respect. Atgah Khan’s death came about at the hands of Adham Khan, the son of another wet nurse, Maham Anga. His son, Mirza Aziz Kokaltash built this tomb in his father’s memory very near the revered dargah of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
Except for its marble dome, the red sandstone edifice is embellished with floral patterns, marble inlays of Islamic calligraphy and filigree jaalis. A west-facing enclosure wall, with remains of yellow, blue and green tiles in geometric patterns and arabesques, is indicative of the grandeur of this monument as it once would have stood. This is a wall mosque, which as the name suggests, is a wall that functions as a mosque. The main purpose of this is to indicate the direction of prayer, facing towards Mecca. Any wall marked with a ‘mihrab’ or arch, facing in the direction of Mecca, is also considered a mosque.
Next to it is an arched courtyard. Its slender flute-shaped columns have blackened with time.
Inside the dark chamber, the daylight enters through lattice screens. There are three cenotaphs, each ornately inlaid with exquisite calligraphy and floral patterns. The cenotaph directly under the highest point of the dome is that of Atgah Khan himself; the woman’s cenotaph is that of his wife, Jiji Anga. The second male cenotaph is unknown, but may have been that of a close relative.
Rarely visited by lovers of old buildings, the tomb’s forsaken state has infused its stones with a special tenderness. The place should stay a secret.
(Note: Atgah Khan’s tomb was one of the buildings occupied by crowds of refugees during the Partition; this is partly the reason for the damage caused to it.)