June 16, 2014

Safdarjung's Tomb Complex, New Delhi

“Safdarjung’s tomb with its bulbous dome and stained sandstone walls seems somehow flawed and degenerate…it at first sight looks wrong; its lines look somehow faulty, naggingly incorrect…Half-way though the construction, the marble appears to have run out. Prominent strips of inlay were left unfinished; awkward patches of pink sandstone intrude into the glistening white of the dome. The effect is like a courtier in a tatty second-hand livery: the intention grand, but the actual impression tawdry, almost ridiculous…Inside the capitals have turned almost into cabbages as they curve and curl in vegetable convulsions. They throw up stamens and tendrils past the stalactite muqarnas and squinches, gripping and voluting towards the floral boss of the low inner dome…The spirit is fecund, Baccahanalian, almost orgiastic…Like some elderly courtesan, the tomb tries to mask its imperfections beneath thick layers of make-up; its excesses of ornament are worn like over-applied rouge. Even the little mosque to the side of the gate has a whiff of degeneracy about it; its three domes are flirtatiously striped like the flared pyjamas of nautch girl; there is something voluptuous in its buxom curves.” 

– William Dalrymple, renowned author-historian, “City of Djinns: A year in Delhi” 

Given the notoriety that Safdarjung’s tomb has received on account of the evocative remarks furthered about it in travel blogs and books, one wonders if the beautiful tomb loses much of its charm on account of shoddy marketing and the impression of it being “the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi” (Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) website quote) that visitors form prior to visiting the splendid tomb complex. That it has been ridiculed for being built out of marble pilfered from previous tombs, overly ornamented with plaster, a poor copy of Humayun’s Tomb nearby and even for possessing the color of potted meat is a known fact, what is more shocking, and equally disappointing, is that most people writing about the tomb never really attempt to discover the history behind its construction and ornamentation or into Safdarjung’s life and machinations – in fact, as I read through most travel websites, all I got were the same lines, including Mr Dalrymple’s quote, copy-pasted again and again everywhere.

Safdarjung's mausoleum (notice the mosque's dome peeping over the vegetation in the left background)

Before we start with Safdarjung's life and burial, a primer about Shia and Sunni sects of Islam - At the time of Prophet Muhammad’s death, the early Muslims got divided over the issue of who should be the heir to the Prophet – one faction favored his cousin and son-in-law Ali (“Shia’t Ali” or the “partisans of Ali”) while the other favored Abu Bakr, Prophet’s father-in-law (father of Ali’s step mother-in-law, i.e, Prophet's other wife). Since the religious and spiritual head of Muslims was also Islam’s political leader, the conflict got politicized and violent over time, claiming amongst its initial victims Ali as well his sons. The former faction came to be known as Shia (with several sub-sects like Ashari, Ahmadiyas, Bohras) while the latter were referred to as Sunnis – the conflict and violence still continues in most countries that can claim significant Muslim population, including occasionally in India too. The Mughal Empire, that ruled virtually unabated for close to two centuries over a large segment of the Indian subcontinent, professed to and promoted Sunnism – most of them were involved in the persecution of Shias, execution of spiritual leaders, desecration and destruction of their religious sites and libraries, suppression of religious customs and traditions, and according second-class citizen status to them – but that didn’t stop them from employing Shias in the administration, governance and military, especially those escaping from even more intolerant and ruthless societies like Persia and Central Asia. Perhaps the intolerance stemmed from the fact that Emperor Humayun (ruled AD 1530-40 and 55-56) had to pretend to embrace Shia’ism in order to gain asylum and military assistance from Shah Tahmasp of Persia when the former had been chased out of the country by the Afghan warlord Sher Shah Suri in AD 1540. The renowned French traveler Tavernier noted about the Iranian Shias who had found asylum and prestige in the Mughal court thus –

“It is true that although they regarded the Sunnis with horror they, nevertheless follow, in outward show, the religion of the monarch, believing that to make or secure their fortune they might conceal their true belief, and that it sufficed for them to cherish it in their hearts…Although Aurangzeb had, as I have said, numerous Persians in his service, he did not allow them to celebrate the festival of Hasan and Hussain, sons of Ali” 

Grace and symmetry

In late seventeenth century, the powerful Mughal empire began to collapse under the reign of emperors who spent most of their time in their dance and art ateliers or in the company of courtesans and concubines at the expense of administration and territorial expansion – local governors and military officials revolted, in several instances peasants and merchants rebelled, powerful local warlords and prominent leaders carved out their own empires along the fringes of the Mughal country, thereby dealing political, financial and religious reversals to the once-invincible empire – Rajputs (Hindus/Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh), Adil Shahi (Shia/Deccan), Qutb Shahi (Shia/Hyderabad and Karnataka), Marathas (Hindus/Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh), Rohillas (Sunni/Rohilkhand in western Uttar Pradesh) were the most prominent of these forces, though most of them began as vassals of the Mughals and were in the end too annexed by the Mughals or English colonial forces. Among the Shia adventurers who came to India was Saadat Khan I of Nishapur (Iran) – through sheer determination he rose to become an influential court figure and a powerful army warlord in a country that was foreign to him and against hostile religious environment, reaching the pinnacle of his achievements by becoming the Governor (“Nawab”) of the rich province of Awadh (eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of Bengal and Nepal), a massive territory that included several river basins and fertile plains and forests and used to supply a large fraction of the grain crop and revenue to the treasury. After establishing his position in Awadh by reconciling, eliminating or defeating most of the forces and eminent personalities against him, Saadat envisaged his own empire and became a power broker to be reckoned with, often dominating over the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah “Rangeela” (ruled AD 1719-48) and having complete say in recruitments and promotions of important officials as well as policy-making and execution. Despite the powers vested in him and the troops he commanded, Saadat never enjoyed complete autonomy but continued to rule under the name and with the authority of the Great Mughal.

At the threshold - Looking through the gateway leading to the tomb complex

Saadat didn’t have a son of his own; he brought his nephew Muhammad Muqim Ali Khan from his hometown in Khurasan and married his daughter Khairunissa to him. He also used his influence to have Ali Khan absorbed into the royal army and bestowed the titles “Mirza” (“gentleman”) and “Abul Masnur” (“servant of the victor (that is, emperor)”). Through his hardwork and statesmanship, Ali Khan swiftly rose through the bureaucratic hierarchy and gathered much power and influence in his hands; his skill was admired by the feeble emperor and he was soon granted the coveted position of “Mir-i-Atish” (Artillery commander), a position formerly occupied by his father-in-law. His position made Ali Khan even hungrier for power, he began craving for a degree of autonomy superior to what Saadat could achieve.

Saadat felt betrayed and enraged when the Emperor took several key decisions and made important political appointments while he was under captivity of the Iranian Sultan Nadir Shah who had taken over Lahore after defeating the imperial forces, including Saadat’s courageous army. Treasonably and to dire consequences, Saadat, who had left behind Ali Khan as in-charge of Awadh’s affairs, suggested Nadir to invade Delhi on the grounds that the treasury was overflowing to such an extent that Saadat himself could have paid for Nadir’s entire war expense through his personal salary. Nadir did eventually invade Delhi, reducing the empire to a vassal of Iran and massacring thousands of citizens, stories you can read here – Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort and here – Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid. Besides reducing the Emperor to the position of a frightened supplicant and carrying away the famed Kohinoor diamond and treasures accumulated over several generations, Nadir also humiliated Saadat and ordered his officials to confiscate Saadat’s personal wealth too. Grieved by the insults and pained by a rapidly-spreading leg cancer, Saadat committed suicide soon afterwards. The appointment of Governors was the prerogative of the Emperor, and the Governors were also frequently transferred to prevent them from building a support base for their larger ambitions – Saadat had refused to be transferred many times and he and Ali Khan had envisaged a strong power base in Awadh and built it to some degree too though their policies and decisions. Ali Khan bribed Nadir Shah Rs 20 million to force the Emperor to name him the new Nawab of Awadh – hereditary succession of Governors was unheard of in the Mughal Empire and this move cemented the existence of the Awadh dynasty. 

Overlooked - One of the corner towers along the complex's periphery

Mir-i-Atish Mirza Abul Mansur Muhammad Muqim Ali Khan rose even further and began expanding his influence as well as territory – he swiftly annexed Allahabad into Awadh when the former’s Governor was murdered; the Emperor, impressed by Ali’s management of his domains also gave him the provinces of Agra and Kashmir (the latter he later had transferred to his nephew Muazzam “Sher Jung” (“Lion in Battle”)) to govern – Ali, therefore, was at the same time looking after provinces hundreds of kilometers apart while the weak king wiled his time in dance, music and whoring; he also hired 6000-7000 Shia Qizilbash cavalrymen (Turkish-speaking tribe from Anatolia) from Nadir Shah’s army to strengthen his own forces besides having his army, especially the cavalry, equipped with modern weaponry and learn new tactics under the command of his brother-in-law and Mughal army’s most powerful commander Najaf Khan; he valued the learned and didn’t hesitate from hiring Sunnis taught at the elite institutions of Awadh as adjudicators and judges, though most of the leading families decided to convert to Shia Islam to improve their relations with the Nawab. “Rangeela” had by now given up the use of ruling even in the name and idled his time with partridge and elephant fights, conjurers and jugglers, wives and mistresses, while the aristocracy and generals had given themselves to corruption and frequenting courtesans, poetry events, drinks and opium. Ambitious, efficient and ruthless in decision-making, Ali soon held much of the imperial power, territory and army command in his hand – further to reduce the weight of policy-making and court life on his shoulders, the Emperor (who hadn’t learnt anything from the defeats administered to him by the Persians or Marathas) decreed that Ali Khan, from then on titled “Safdar Jung” (“foremost in battle”) would command most of his armies and execute his decisions in the empire – it was a wonder to the population of the domain that the Emperor was letting a Shia rise to such a powerful position (perhaps because his favorite wife is a Shia, they gossiped), many of the other powerful warlords and courtiers who were Sunni were jealous and enraged but couldn’t do anything against the growing might of Safdarjung except initiate court intrigues and back channel discussions with the intention to have him removed or disgraced.

Behold beauty

In 1745, taking advantage of Safdarjung’s absence, Awadh was overrun by the Afghani Rohilla clan who had settled in his territory; he cobbled together an alliance with the mighty Maratha army to chase away the Rohillas from Awadh and became genuine friends with the Maratha leadership. Rohilla power was curtailed, but not before Safdarjung had plundered and ravaged Farrukhabad, their stronghold. The splendid victory against the forces assembled by the Afghan Rohilla chief Ali Muhammad Khan gained him further popularity and favors. In the year 1748, Safdarjung notably assisted the crown prince Ahmad Shah Bahadur in a battle against the rapidly advancing forces assembled by the Afghan king Ahmed Shah Abdali, impressing the prince enough to promise Safdarjung the coveted position of prime minister when the former became the Emperor. Soon thereafter, Muhammad Shah “Rangeela” passed away following unbearable grief on the death of his friend and prime minister in the battle against Abdali’s forces. Ahmad Shah ascended the throne of Delhi, the capital of an empire that remained only a shadow of its former glory. Safdarjung was called to the capital to help with the affairs of the state; born to a Shia mother (Qudsia Begum), Ahmad Shah had no qualms against having powerful Shia ministers and Governors – he also granted the province of Agra to the trusted Safdarjung who had been often discriminated against by the other officials and Governors on account of his religious beliefs. As a token of appreciation, (and given his influence in the court and contacts in the military) the Emperor made Safdarjung his prime minister (“Wazir-ul-Mamlikat-i-Hindustan”) besides further showing his trust and gratitude by granting the Governorship of Ajmer (Rajasthan) and “Faujdari” (Garrison command) of Haryana to him – Safdarjung thus controlled almost the entire Mughal territory except for some small regions in the Deccan and Delhi. As he consolidated the power and his influence crystallized, he began to grow arrogant and isolated many ministers who were once in his favor, even the Emperor and the imperial family started getting alienated from the administration and began to side with officials who had poisoned their ears against Safdarjung – the ministers couldn’t have used the Shia card since the Emperor’s mother (a very influential lady in the court) too was Shia, so they accused him of high-handedness and corruption. Safdarjung entered into a power struggle with the Sunni Nizams of Hyderabad, one of the largest provinces in the Mughal empire – he began liquidating the posts held by members of the Nizam’s family, even occupied territories that supplied revenue to sustain the armies of his competitors. As a response to the growing financial and military threat that Safdarjung had become, professional assassins were hired by some of the nobles to have him killed but he escaped the attempts on his life. When Safdarjung found out who the nobles were who ordered the botched assassination attempts, he immediately assembled the entire Mughal army at Delhi with the purpose of destroying these nobles and their domains and even requested his friends Marathas to raise further forces in the Deccan; his advances could only be stopped by the Emperor ordering the Nizams to head back to their territories and not to pursue the matter in order to prevent an outright civil war. Regrettably for Safdarjung, the Nizams hadn’t seen the end of it, in 1753 they again entered into a conflict with him and this time there was no stopping Safdarjung to wage a full-scale war against them – the Nizams, Sunnis by faith, raised the banner of religion (“Jihad”) and pronounced Safdarjung a heretic, commanding his Sunni soldiers and officials to desert him – left weak and vulnerable, Safdarjung fought the battle in the streets of Delhi but only to see his soldiers butchered and innocent Shias killed and enslaved in the capital. Safdarjung had to escape fom Delhi under stained circumstances and the threat to his life looming large; the Emperor was forced to curtail all of his privileges and powers and he fell from the enviable position of Wazir – he returned to Awadh which he had always cherished (and converted into a stronghold) even when deputed in Delhi or other parts of the Empire, but the loss of position and power which he so craved took its toll on him and he passed away after physical decline at the young age of 46 in 1754 AD. His son and successor, Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah convinced the Emperor to allow Safdarjung’s burial in Delhi in the Aliganj-Karbala (present day Jorbagh and B.K. Dutt Colony) area since the Nawabs owned a large estate here and held the belief that the presence of sacred Shia shrines purified the area (the place has been a Shia enclave even before Safdarjung’s time and still is; articles on the shrines will be up soon too). It’s a story for another day that Ahmad Shah was soon murdered by the Wazir who replaced Safdarjung and the empire collapsed even further following massive defeats and ill decisions soon after Safdarjung’s demise.

Intricate stucco work inside the pavilion that (till recently) housed the ASI office

The site that was chosen for the construction of the exquisite but modest tomb is close to the location where Timur “the lame” defeated the last of the weak rulers of the once-invincible Tughlaq dynasty (ruled AD 1320-98) before laying waste to the citadels of Delhi. The dignified tomb sits on a high plinth in the middle of a vast square garden designed in the Mughal charbagh pattern (large square garden divided into four quarters by means of walkways and water canals with the tomb proper in the center) – possessing a fully-evolved onion dome and polygonal minarets attached to each corner of its square structure, the tomb, designed by the Abyssinian architect Bilal Mohammad Khan, boasts of a design that is unique to Delhi’s landscape. The first feature one notices is the elaborately ornamented triple-storied gateway leading to the square complex – above the arched entrance leading within, the plaster is worked in purple, orange and green to generate splendid floral and geometrical patterns that adorn the fa├žade in striking and breathtaking symmetry around the jharokha (“hanging window”) in the middle – promising immediate visual gratification and assuring peace and serenity to those who venture within. A closer inspection also reveals fish motifs near the base of this intricate artwork – fish were the insignia of the house of Awadh. Most of the rooms leading within the massive gateway are locked now but I imagine that once these would have housed soldiers on the lower levels to prevent vandals and thieves from carrying away the expensive lamps and other adornments, while the upper levels perhaps housed families of the guards or even the descendants of Safdarjung themselves! Standing within the great gateway, one feels amazed at the structure of the tomb that the arched walls frame gracefully – though tourists seldom visit this forgotten tomb of one of the most powerful Wazirs of the Mughal dynasty, one still has to spend at least over ten minutes to click the scene without one or the other person stepping in to spoil the entire frame. All sound seems to disappear the moment one steps into the gateway even though the tomb complex stands on the T-junction of two of the busiest arterial roadways in the city.

Unique but not grand - The gateway to the complex 

The interiors of the gateway have more exquisite (though monochromatic – pale cream in the central square, orange in the side chambers) artwork in incised plaster to offer – the roof of the central square within the gateway’s span is decorated with a large flower concentric with more floral patterns of different designs; the center of the flower is a small hole that glitters like a star when observed from different angles and different hours of the day; the arched entrances on each side are flanked by multitude of scallop designs while more flower patterns and scallop designs wait visitors in the side chambers. The right-side chamber leads to the complex’s small, triple-domed mosque which is a pleasing structure with its small, striped onion domes, slender cuboidal minarets, pointy finials emerging from floral (not lotus that was the norm) base atop the domes and dark, cool interiors – but visitors are allowed entry to the mosque’s square only on Friday for the prayers and an iron grille blocks the entry the rest of the days (though technically, according to govt. notification, prayers aren’t allowed at monuments, but the mosque should be open for public entry since it is a national monument and an architectural heritage of the citizens). It isn’t possible to click the mosque from the small courtyard since most of it is veiled by the colorful awnings that stretch from side to side to provide shade to the devotees and also since the walls of the numerous chambers that flank the gateway and span the space around the gateway face obscure much of the mosque – these chambers were meant for the students of a madrasa (Islamic seminary) that was commissioned and supported by Safdarjung’s descendants, but now these too have been barred and one of these houses the complex’s ticket counter. In the center of the mosque is a large tank meant for supplying water for the ablutions and it too is responsible for keeping the structure cool even in scorching summer heat. The upper floor of the gateway houses ASI’s library and also provides a superb view of the entire complex but again visitor entry here is prohibited (yeah, that’s what ASI does, lock away most of the monuments when it can’t look after them properly) – I was able to get permission from the guard to have a look within (of course, with one of them breathing down my neck), the books seemed informative but I wasn’t allowed to take any of them from the old bookcase – at least they let me click the tomb from the ledge on the side of the pavilion atop the gateway – the view isn’t comparable to the one afforded from the ground since the striking symmetry of the complex when viewed from a particular position was missing, still am glad I have these clicks (since not many people do!). Each level of the wide gateway has projected eaves (“chajja”) circling the entire built area, and the side leading to the tomb proper has windows adorned with curved Bengali-style roofs.

Close up of the spectacular plasterwork patterns on the gateway

Stepping into the majestic tomb complex, one notices, besides the perfect symmetry, an abundance of flowering trees, palm trees and shrubs – set within a large, manicured lawn and rising high from its huge plinth, the beautiful tomb is a feast for the eyes even though in the derisive opinion of many writers and architects the tomb is architecturally and visually flawed in having a smaller plinth that cannot balance the prominent vertical axis of the mausoleum – to my eyes, the tomb, with its silence and lack of visitors is a boon, I can photograph the place to my heart’s delight without an irreverent tourist stepping into my composition (though there are some tourists here on weekends). The place enjoys an aura of undisturbed serenity that would have been the envy of the nearby Lodi Gardens and Humayun’s Tomb Complex (refer Pixelated Memories - Bada Gumbad Complex, Lodi Gardens and Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex) – apart from the ASI people, guards and a few visitors, the only people here are the couples who find solace in each other’s arms (and escape from the city’s prying eyes and the moral brigade’s strict standards) under the numerous trees in the complex grounds (though these are the people responsible for disgracing the mausoleum interiors by scribbling names, dates and love letters and even etching permanent marks on the walls! Thoroughly repulsive and disgusting!). The silence and tranquility is surprising, especially since the tomb complex is hemmed by busy, traffic-choked roads where honking and shouting is the norm instead of an exception.

Lines, arches and well-honed geometric skills - Interiors of the mausoleum

Waterways emanate from the central square where the mausoleum stands in all four directions, but there is not a drop of water in any of them (following rains too, the water is quickly pumped out of the tanks to prevent mosquitoes from breeding); the fountains are in poor state with the rusted steel pipes peeping out of their cement frames towards the top; lack of water in the tanks means that the stairs in the corners of the tank can be accessed and one can step down to look at the tomb from a different perspective. Each side of the square tomb complex, except the one with the gateway, has large, squat pavilions built in the center – these pavilions, christened “Moti Mahal”, “Jangli Mahal” and “Badshah pasand” (“pearl palace”, “palace in forest”, “King’s favorite” respectively, the second is said to be a hunting lodge and hence the name), have been converted into offices and warehouses to store wood, sandstone material and sacks of cements that are to be used in the restoration-conservation work of other monuments. Except for the pavilion that houses the ASI office, the other two are out of bounds for visitors – the former too would soon be out of bounds since the office is being moved out in preparation for the tomb complex’s upcoming UNESCO World Heritage Site bid – and it would be a pity since the pavilion has some of the most intricate incised plasterwork that I have ever seen, and though it has been painted over numerous times and lost much of its detailing, it is still very exquisite and delightful. The “kotla” (enclosure) that circumferences the tomb complex consists of rubble wall with shallow arched alcoves built in it and two corner towers for company – these towers too have been retrofitted with air conditioning units in order to convert them into offices, public entry is prohibited but one can admire their medieval, well-preserved state – though visitors aren’t allowed to venture into the thin strip of tree-covered land that surrounds the enclosure on the outside and separates it from the congested roads, I was able to proceed after getting permission from the supervisor of the guards on account of my research into the tomb complex – the corner towers are in good condition on the outside too with the ornamental niches still prominent and very little sign of degradation. There is a small tank too just outside the enclosure, part of its brick walls have collapsed and where water was stored once, garbage is being dumped now.

Framed - One of the pavilions as seen from within the tomb

In recent times, the tomb complex has also been made disabled-friendly, the first such monument in the country, with ramps built along the front corners to allow wheelchair access and an aluminum information panel in Braille affixed near the entrance gateway along with the usual red sandstone panels – though I feel ramps should also be created in the stairs leading up the plinth, if not along the front face then the back so that nobody is denied the opportunity to explore and adore this amazing structure, especially people with special needs. Moreover, the steps are built in Mughal style with each being approx. 10 inches high and even old people find it difficult to climb them. Though plans to restore the water channels and the fountains to working condition have been in the pipeline for over an year, the discovery of the original drainage system buried under earth and vegetation has given it a new impetus. This is in addition to the night-time lightning of the tomb complex that was installed in several monuments located along arterial roads for the Commonwealth Games 2010 that were hosted by Delhi (though I have no idea how frequently and in which monuments are these lights used now that the games are over – everywhere I went, the lights seemed to be buried under thick layers of dust and dry leaves and in one place, wheat flour left by the locals for the resident ants (feeding ants is considered spiritually rewarding in Hinduism))

The Wazir rests eternally

The splendid, monumental tomb, built out of red sandstone and white marble has an imposing aura of grace and prettiness despite all its obvious faults, the most glaring of which is the inelegant interspersing of white marble with pink stone on its massive onion dome – though most travel blogs and scholars claim that the dynasties – both Mughal and Awadh – had fallen to such a poor state of existence at the time of construction of the tomb that they had no financial backing to support the commissioning of such a grand and extravagant structure and hence were forced to pillage marble from the pre-existing tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan (refer - Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb) and the marble from Rahim’s tomb too ran out, necessitating the use of pink sandstone patchwork. Those who have visited Rahim’s tomb would obviously point out that it is far larger than Safdarjung’s relatively modest mausoleum, the dome area is bigger and therefore the question of marble running out doesn’t arise – but the important and more perplexing question is that Awadh was amongst the richest empires in the country, supplying the entire land with grains and revenue, why then were they unable to complete to tomb they so adoringly began to build for the dynasty’s second Nawab – my guess is that, given the massiveness of the mausoleum and the complexity of the artwork involved, the construction couldn’t have been completed in less than 3-4 years and came to a halt in the period leading up to 1758 when the Maratha forces invaded Delhi and forced the Mughals to accept Maratha regency while continuing guerrilla warfare against the other states (Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah was the prime minister to the Mughal Emperor and would have definitely faced repercussions from the Emperor too for failing to safeguard the territories from his political and military allies) – on later resumption of work, the architects and masons had to quickly make do with whatever material was available or could be sourced from nearby.

Drenched in light - Perhaps the most adorned sarcophagus in Delhi  

The imposing double-storied tomb consists of eight chambers, the central one housing the Wazir’s sarcophagus (the mortal remains of Safdarjung and his beloved Khairunissa are in a crypt below the ornamental sarcophagus though) with a large rectangular chamber along each of the sides and small octagonal chambers along the corners. Staircases hidden into the plinth lead up to the tomb level and the tomb interiors can be accessed from two of the sides via flights of stairs. Each of the side room is decorated with rococo plasterwork culminating into floral designs, arches and scallop patterns at the flank of each large flower (note carefully, the designs are different in adjacent chambers). The corner rooms have relatively plain interiors with the walls tapering towards the roof which is decorated with a simple floral medallion in the center and small alcoves built in each face – it is here that one does feel to some extent that the tomb has been built with stone stripped from other tombs since the walls have been raised by fitting together sandstone slabs of different sizes into a patchwork pattern. Interestingly, unlike most tombs, some of the chambers here have air shafts in the corner though all you can see in them is a dark arched tunnel carved roughly and ingrained thoroughly with dust and spider webs. About the comparison with the more formal Humayun’s Tomb or Taj Mahal, Mr Dalrymple states –

“The longer you look, the more the qualities and character of the tomb become apparent and the clearer is that the architect was not simply trying to imitate Taj and failing. He had another, quite different aesthetic he was aiming to achieve – a sort of blowy Mughal rococo. His design was the product of another age with very different, more eccentric tastes. The tomb shows how the aesthetes of the age of Safdarjung liked their gateways to be as ornately sculpted as their prose was purple; how they preferred their onion domes to be over-extended and tapered; how they thought the interior of a tomb incomplete unless covered with a rococo riot of elaborate plasterwork.”

The poster I designed for Delhi Instagramer's Guild Instawalk 

Stepping in to the central chamber is a visual delight unto itself – the magnificence of the finely polished, white marble sarcophagus (the most beautiful in Delhi) is matched only by the intricate patterns in limestone plaster that cover the walls, especially near the base of the dome – while the dome itself consists of concentric floral patterns spanned by numerous straight lines to create a symmetrical, well-executed geometric pattern, the windows on each side and squinches on each corner adding further charm with their curved roofs and ornamental pillars – the wonder is how each point in the mausoleum is symmetrical to other points and together they all merge to create an exquisite web of lines, curves, flowers and indentations. It isn’t just enough to observe the details, one feels the urge to look at the patterns from different perspectives and angles, especially when photographing – I took several shots from every conceivable point in the tomb, even sitting next to the sarcophagus and wedged in the corner amidst spider webs that clung to my hair and clothes! I have to concede that with its superior multiform patterns and the riot of stucco work to show for, the tomb has become a favorite over Humayun’s Tomb – so much for the reviews in all the books and websites – there is so much to see, why won’t someone be impressed by the designs and the skills of the artists and the craftsmen who executed this piece of architectural and artistic magnificence?! Even the floor shows the signs of (now non-existent) pietra dura inlay consisting of colorful stone embedded in the marble – to those who say that the treasury was depleted and the dome couldn’t be completed because of financial constraints, I ask there was enough money for the lavish plasterwork and opulent stone inlay, but not for building a dome? There has to be another reason behind it, one that was either never documented or has been obscured in the pages of history.

Bewitching - Looking up at the tomb's dome

The four entrances of the central chamber are built such that they throw sheets of light within so a cross forms from entrance to entrance with the corners sheathed in darkness and the brilliant white sarcophagus shimmering because of the four-fold light drenching it. The acoustics within the central chamber are amazing, even normal conversational tone gets magnified several times; the polygonal towers on each corner are lined with thin white marble strips and possess a chattri (domed kiosk) on the top; a sandstone parapet curtain stretches from chattri to chattri while each face has a rectangular emboss (in which the arched entrance is set) that is raised both vertically and horizontally with respect to the rest of the wall, vertically ending in slender turrets with a line of miniature domes between them – the whole set up perfectly obscures the sixteen-sided drum on which the massive dome rests, only the top curve of the drum can be made out and that too by the most discerning eye.

Set in the heart of Delhi, the tomb, little known and seldom remembered, is a tribute both to the influence that Safdarjung wielded in the rapidly disintegrating empire as well as to the spirit of mankind to rise against all setbacks and discriminations to achieve a position of superiority as Safdarjung and Saadat Khan did. The tomb would be a surprise to those who have been to the simple but elaborate muhajjar (tomb enclosure open to sky) of Safdarjung’s master, Muhammad Shah “Rangeela” – in an age when even Emperors were forced to rest in simplistic, unadorned tombs for lack of funds, here was the prime minister whose descendants built such a splendid edifice to house his last remains. Lending its name to an airport, an arterial road, an entire residential and commercial enclave and to one of the foremost hospitals in the capital, the tomb epitomizes Safdarjung’s capabilities as well as the turbulent period that the Indian subcontinent was experiencing, best summed in Dalrymple’s own words –

“Safdarjung’s life encapsulates perfectly the intriguing but cataclysmic half century that linked the Mughal high noon with the decay and disintegration of the twilight fifty years later.”

Location: At the T-junction of Lodhi Road and Aurobindo Road, approx. 3 kilometers from the renowned Safdarjung hospital and bus stop
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh
Nearest Bus stop: Safdarjung Madrasa
How to reach: The tomb complex is only a 100 meters from the metro station. If coming by bus, deboard at AIIMS stop and from there it's more convenient to take metro to Jorbagh which is only 2 metro stops away.
Entrance Fee: Rs 5 (for citizens of India and neighboring countries); Rs 100 (others); free entry for children up to 15 years of age.
Facilities available: Toilets, parking space, wheelchair access, drinking water (though the water cooler, placed at the gateway, is infested with bees and is best avoided; carry water bottles instead or buy water from the trolley outside the complex)
Relevant Links - 

  1. Pixelated Memories - Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Bada Gumbad Complex, Lodi Gardens
  3. Pixelated Memories - Diwan-i-Khas, Red Fort
  4. Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb complex
  5. Pixelated Memories - Sunehri Masjid

Suggested Reading -
  1. "Roots of North Indian Shi‘ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859" by J. R. I. Cole
  2. Hindu.com - Article "Safdarjung Tomb to be disabled-friendly" (dated June 21, 2001)
  3. Independent.co.uk - Article "The vicious schism between Sunni and Shia has been poisoning Islam for 1,400 years - and it's getting worse" (dated June 16, 2014) by Paul Vallely
  4. Royalsplendour.blogspot.in - Hyderabad: the largest
  5. Thehindu.com - Article "Safdarjung Tomb illuminated in run-up to 2010 Games" (dated March 20, 2009) by Madhur Tankha
  6. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Fountains of Safdarjung Tomb to run again" (dated Dec 6, 2013)
  7. Wikipedia.org - Shia–Sunni relations
  8. Wikipedia.org - Shia Islam in India


  1. AnonymousJune 16, 2014

    the photos were a delight!! they came out really well!!!

  2. Nirdesh SinghSeptember 09, 2014

    Hi Sahil,

    Either you hate or you love Safdurjung Tomb - I think that is how people have reacted upon seeing it all these years. And the fact that stone was ripped off from the beloved Khak-i-Khanan Tomb does not endear Safdurjung to most. But of course you cannot but admire the architecture, especially the centotaph chamber and the bewitching domes.

    As always a sweeping account of the tomb and the Shia Sunni rivalries.

    Your detailed research is worth appreciating - Keep up the good work!



  3. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

    Sahil Ahuja, Was only able to read half of it by now.. Will read more..interesting fact, I was always wondering about the large population of Shia community in Awadh region.. Now I know.. Thanks.. Please use paragraphs.. Photos are good.. would suggest to keep information about architecture to minimum as pictures says it all.

  4. Rangan DattaSeptember 09, 2014

    Dear Sahil Ahuja just finished reading your long but beautiful article, thanks for throwing more light on the life of Safdarjung and also on the Shia - Sunni conflict.

  5. Jayshree ShuklaSeptember 09, 2014

    Thank you, Sahil, for sharing this wonderful piece, all of which I read very carefully and with great pleasure. I am glad we are likeminded in our love of this monument. Much decried for its many imperfections, I visited the place for the first time all set to dislike it and came away in love with it. And yes, its relative isolation is a boon. I have not returned for a while now. Your blog has made the desire to go back soon more urgent. As always, wonderful. Kudos!

    1. Thank you Jayshree Mam. Visit the tomb on friday, the mosque is opened on friday and there is a biryani seller who only sets his stall at the time of afternoon prayers to cater to the faithful gathered for Namaz.

  6. Lovely blog but its not festival of Hasan and Hussain but mourning their martyrdom. Festivals are Eidul Fitr and Eiduz Zuha and are common. Moharrum or mourning for matryrdom of Imam Hussain is observed not celebrated

    1. Another mistake please correct... Hazrat Ali was the Prophet's cousin and son in law not nephew . The Shia Sunni hostility did not start with Humayun. Noor Jahan was a Persian and Shia as was Mumtaz MahaL but much later in Aurangzeb's reign.

    2. Rana Mam I am aware about Muharram and have attended the procession once in Bengal too. I came across that quote in a book about Shia'ism in India but will crosscheck with Tavernier's original accounts as soon as I have a proper net connection.

    3. Tavernier may have written that. Possible

  7. Sahil Ahuja this article is indeed unique, written with a tangential facet, rather than the mundane and routine description of tomb and the person interred. The text is powerfully worded, yet subtle and the photographs are so crisp and clear. Good idea of adding a popular Prologue and Epilogue. I have always been reading your articles and appreciated the contents. Look forward to many more articles. God Bless

    1. Thanks a lot for your kind feedback, Madhu Mam!