An Illustration of Defiance?: Depicting The Tomb of Qutbuddin & the Minār at Mehrauli in a 16th Century Miniature

I am really thankful to Rana Safvi for posting an almost an unknown miniature from the illustrated manuscript of Wāqi’āt-i Bāburi, preserved at the State Museum, Alwar in Rajasthan.

Babur Circumambulating the Tomb of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki

The miniature is interestingly inscribed in two lines in naskh using black ink within a golden band, one above, and the other below. The text is as follows:

“…hamīn shab i chahār shambah, qal’a i Dehli rā sair kardah. Shabash īnjā būd wa subāh i ān
Roz i chahār shambah, mazār i Khwāja Hazrat Qutbuddin tawāf kardah maqbara …”

[..on the night (preceding) Wednesday, went for site seeing the Fort of Dehli. Stayed there for the night. The next day morning, that is, Wednesday, went to circumambulate the sacred tomb of Hazrat Qutbuddin…]

We know that these texts were illustrated during the reign of Akbar, who had ordered a large number of histories and other manuscripts to be illustrated.

The miniature is extremely important due to the fact that amongst the genre known as “Mughal miniatures” perhaps it is the first visual record of the area of Qila Rai Pithora where the earlier Sultans built the city, the city which in sources of Delhi Sultanate is known as ‘Dehli-i Kuhna’. The miniature records at least three tombs, at a distance from each other. The most prominent of them being an octagonal one. To any observer of this miniature who has not visited the site, the above mentioned text would make him conclude that the prominent octagonal structure depicted almost in the centre of the frame would be the Tomb of the saint, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyār Kāki.

However, as righty pointed out by Rana Safavi, the octagonal tomb is actually the tomb of Adham Khan, the son of Akbar’s foster nurse, Maham Anaga, who was thrown twice from the ramparts by Akbar in 1562 after he had stabbed Shamsuddin Muhammad Atka, whom the emperor revered as his father!

Tomb of Adham Khan

We know that Adham Khan was actually punished with the death penalty by Akbar. After his execution, Maham Anaga withdrew from politics and ultimately died. From 1562 to 1567 the reign of Akbar saw a number of revolts by the senior nobles, many of whom were Turanis.

This whole incident is discussed in detail by Abul Fazl in his Akbarnāma. A very beautiful and poignant illustration of this punishment to the unfortunate rebel has also been included in the Akbarnāma manuscript at Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

After this particular incident nothing is mentioned by any of the sources regarding Adham Khan or his mother.

It is interesting to note that the painter who was assign the task to illustrate this copy of the Waqi’āt i Bāburi manuscript places this rebel’s tomb in the centre of his composition. If so, then was this an allusion to a silent and symbolic defiance? An illustration of sympathy towards a lost cause? We know that Akbar had ordered manuscripts and texts to be illustrated around 1580’s. A serious revolt had once again erupted in 1581, centred in Bengal and Bihar, against certain economic and religious matters. But is this illustration one of those which were illustrated under Akbar at all? Or is it a later composition?

The artist is placing the tomb of Adham Khan in the centre of his composition, on a page where Babur’s visit to the tomb of Khwāja Qutbuddin is being mentioned.

Rana Safvi rightly mentions that the domed structure now covering the tomb of the saint is of quite modern origins. The present structure was built only in 1940’s.

The present Tomb of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki

According to her, Sir Syed in his Athār us Sanānādīd says that this dargah is not a permanent structure and the saint’s grave is just a mound of mud. Similarly Monuments of Delhi of Maulvi Zafar Hasan describes it as ‘a mound of earth and kept covered by a sheet, made by his disciple and successor Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar of Pakpattan.’

Illustration of this shrine in Athār us Sanādīd

Also seen (perhaps again for the first and only time) in the miniature under discussion is the Qutb Minār built initially by Qutbuddin Aibek and then added upon by Sultan Iltutmish. The tapering minaret with its actual flutings and honeycomb balconies is depicted along with its original chhatri.

Towards the left of the minaret are placed a number of camps. Some camps can also be seen near a domed mosque-like structure placed on the right hand. Between Adham Khan’s tomb and the Qutb Minār are certain other structures. This is the place where ideally the Qubbatul Islām mosque should have been placed. But it is remarkably absent. Two domed structures are drawn at some distances behind Adham Khan’s tomb. Both are silhouetted with green trees. Is one of these tombs that of Muhammad Quli Khan, the brother of Adham Khan as opined by Rana Safvi?

Detail of the miniature

It’s just a guess. If so, and if one believes the miniature to be made under Akbar, then the defiant nature of the artist gets confirmed. The tomb of Muhammad Quli Khan, however in real life is much smaller than the dome depicted in this painting: though the artist’s licence can never be ruled out!

Tomb of Muhammad Quli Khan

The painting is a very interesting composition. In the foreground is depicted the party of the emperor with his standards and other royal paraphernalia. Babur is shown wearing a bright yellow tunic sitting atop a horse and accompanied with three other horsemen and a number of piyādas. A mahout atop an elephant follows him.

In a warning note on my post on this miniature by the art historian Dr Kavita Singh, a professor of Art History at JNU opined that artistically this painting can not be dated to the period of Akbar but to 19th Century. And then Professor Rochelle Kessler posted the link of American Institute of Indian Studies which lists this miniature from Waqi’āt i Bāburi as being dated c. 1775 AD! So it turns out that the painting is late 18th Century. The artist thus can in no way be labelled as a person registering his defiance or subversion! Probably the poor guy was not even aware of who Adham Khan was, or what the incident involving him was!

But then, it is quite possible, that the artist was closely following some other more contemporary depiction which he might have seen?

Must however thank my senior Rana Safvi for making this miniature known to the public through her posts. And thanks to Kavita Singh and Rochelle Kessler for helping us understand it!

The link to the website is:


• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi