August 23, 2014

Najaf Khan and his tomb, Delhi

"Hukumat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam"
"The rule of Shah Alam exists only from Dilli (Red Fort) to Palam (a suburban village then)"
– Popular saying deriding Shah Alam I's weak administration

Prince of an ousted dynasty, related to the ex-Emperor through a distant relationship, he was fleeing persecution and imprisonment in his native land and being given a terrible chase over dense forests and numerous plains by bloodthirsty soldiers and officers of his nemesis; accompanied by his close family and a few still loyal, travelling throughout the day and enforcing forced marches by night, he pressed on. The threat and fear of being tortured, and in all possibility executed, if caught permeated their thoughts and dreams, becoming a recurrent horrific nightmare and pervading their senses till they could think of nothing except escape from the sadist, cruel wolves in human form who were filled with unspeakable joy at the thought of punishing and killing them. Having long lost any understanding of what was happening, and with leaden feet and a terrible dread in their hearts, they ran for their lives – only to be caught.

Just when he had lost all hope and was giving himself to despair, Mirza Najaf Khan Baloch, the Safavid prince, was rescued from the prisons of Shah Nadir of Persia (Iran) by another of his distant relatives Saadat Khan, the Nawab of Awadh, who, on account of being the governor of one of the richest provinces in Mughal India, wielded considerable influence throughout the Indian subcontinent and also among several distant territories with whom the Mughals professed to trade and friendly relationship. The year was AD 1736 and three years later, the prince decided, inexplicably so, to shift residence to Awadh where his sister was married to a relation of the Nawab. In much detail have I recounted the entire tale of Saadat’s rapid rise and meteoric fall and his succession by his farsighted nephew and son-in-law Mirza Muqim Ali “Safdarjung” in an earlier blogpost that can be accessed here – Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb Complex. Safdarjung, on ascending to a position of eminence in the court, immediately proceeded to strengthen himself – his influence was further enhanced by addition of numerous titles and command positions to his name by the grace of the fledgling emperor Muhammad Shah I (reigned AD 1719-48), but unsatisfied with the sluggish proceedings, he began on a policy of formidable military posturing by recruiting lethal soldiers and annexing the territories of smaller provinces flanking his own – the feeble emperor soon granted him the enviable position of “Wazir” (Prime Minister) and had Najaf Khan too employed in the Mughal army. But, Najaf had ambitions of his own, in his heart he knew that political intrigue was not his cup of tea and instead dreamt only of achieving an unparalleled skill in arms and a position of unmatched martial superiority further fortified by a massive standing army at his command. Before being hunted down in his own homeland, he had attained formidable training in horsemanship and developed an unmatched skill in the use of arms – now, given the reigns of a contingent of the Mughal forces, he diligently began to train soldiers into becoming lean fighting machines – it is claimed by historians that the toughened force that he trained was the supreme army of the land, equaled perhaps only by the European mercenaries – equipping his soldiers with modern weaponry and infusing them with determination and combat readiness through a backing of efficient organizational management and a superlative cavalry force, he embarked on creating a massive army that could withstand the rigors of prolonged battle as well the monotony of peace – at a time when the once almighty Mughal empire was falling apart and often in arrears with respect to its payments as a consequence of untamable governors expressing rebellion and an internal decay set in by a highly corrupt bureaucracy, he ensured that the soldiers were paid regularly and their training and upkeep of arms, armor and cavalry never suffered. The Mirza (*Mirza being a Mughal title, equivalent of a high-class gentleman) received his first setback in conflict not because of military unpreparedness, but political interference and lack of coordination between ally nobles and governors, resulting in a colossal defeat at the hands of the British East India “trading” Company at the Battle of Buxar (1764 AD) where his forces were irredeemably routed and his Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned AD 1759-1806) chased by the extremely advanced British forces, yet he sustained himself and his forces and continued to strengthen his hand in the background. The pathetic emperor, though able to retrieve the throne of Delhi for the Mughals once again with the help of the Hindu Marathas of central India, was reduced to a wretched supplicant cowering in terror and pleading for the lives of his family and subjects time and again by forces intent on raiding Delhi and its surroundings and plundering the riches and revenues of the land; filial royal rivalry, inexperienced generalship and scheming nobles continued to keep the army on its toes, rushing from one province to another to tackle the threat posed by overarching governors and terribly cruel warlords – appalling were the conditions and the empire seemed to be on the brink of collapse, when Mirza Najaf was decreed the Commander-in-Chief of all forces of Hindustan in 1772. Still hurting from the overwhelming defeat at Buxar, but by now possessing an immensely resolute infantry armed with artillery that was colossal in terms of the damage it inflicted and a reformed cavalry regarded with fear and despair by the enemy, Najaf Khan began the seemingly impossible task of setting the crumbling house in order despite the fact that large segments of the empire were breaking apart with an irrepressible regularity and new foes, in the form of extremely well-trained and unwavering European colonists and mercenaries, were making headway into the subcontinent.

Pristine - Mirza Najaf Khan's simplistic mausoleum

The first task that the valiant Mirza undertook on becoming the Commander-in-Chief was to expel the Rohilla Afghans of western Uttar Pradesh, who had become the regents of the feeble Mughal emperor Shah Alam, from Delhi – he was able to fulfill his mission in 1773 and from then on the emperor placed a blind conviction in his qualifications and administrative capabilities; even the hardliners were won to his side through his courteous manners and conciliatory tone, and he immediately began to grant his unremitting attention to the business of warfare and territorial preservation of the Mughal sovereignty. The revenue of several districts to the north and west of Delhi was assigned to him for raising the cost to assemble an excellent and gallant army which he built by availing the services of tenacious Persian and Turkish Muslim cavalry officers (“Mughalia”) and also by raising a contingent of extraordinarily skilled and fearless European mercenaries for his own personal guard; besides he stationed some of his trusted lieutenants – Mirza Najaf Quli Khan, Niyaz Beg, Muhammad Beg Hamadani and Afrasiyab Khan (the first and the last adoringly referred to by him as his adopted sons) – to develop into strongholds the territories granted by the emperor.

Shortly following the consolidation of his forces, Najaf Khan and his men were called to defend the capital against the Marathas, once allies in the war against Rohillas but since antagonized by supposed betrayal on the part of the emperor over the non-payment of war damages and grant of territories and revenues to their supreme leaders (“Sardars”); the emperor on his part felt that the Marathas had cornered the entire treasure, including cash, gold, elephants and horses, plundered from the Rohilla fortresses, and though Najaf Khan’s armies were still unprepared and untrained for decisive battle, he agreed to go to war rather than capitulate to the Marathas’ exorbitant conditions – the untrained soldiers proved highly ignorant and unmanageable, and wavered in the face of a colossal enemy that outnumbered them one to five, the consequence was large-scale butchering and maiming; but more than the enemy’s merciless and menacing advance, Najaf suffered on account of miserable carelessness on the part of Mughal artillery leading to explosion of huge powder chests and death of over four hundred soldiers and also because of backstabbing by other Mughal high officials, including the Wazir (“Prime Minister”) Husam-ud-Daulah who instead of supporting Najaf’s rear guard indulged in pillage and arson of their own camps with the Maratha soldiers! Najaf Khan’s nephew Mirza Ahsan was mortally wounded by cannon fire and died shortly. After plunder and pillage, the Marathas, numerically superior but lacking foresighted generalship, retreated with chest loads of treasure besides elephants, horses and other spoils. The hopeless emperor failed to punish the turncoat officials and immediately sued for peace with the Marathas, consenting to grant all their excessive demands along with crippling war levies – Husam-ud-Daulah bribed the Marathas, who were already terrified by Najaf Khan’s fighting ability and solid generalship, to demand the disbanding of his army and his dismissal and banishment from the capital, however, portending threat to their lord-commander, the Mughalia mercenaries immediately took up defensive positions outside Najaf Khan’s house – feeling betrayed, Najaf Khan audaciously defied the combined Mughal-Maratha authority and challenged them to expel him from the city; but sensing perilous conflict for his steadfast men and considering that he had no support except for his armed contingents nor allies and territories to financially support him in case of a gory war, he decided to surrender and accepted pension from the government and further agreed to the condition that he shall lead the forces in future conflicts as and when required by the administration – but he had no intention of doing so and had his soldiers abandon Maratha battalions in the thick of the soon convened war against Shuja-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Awadh and his kinsman – after the Marathas irreparably failed against the Awadh artillery backed by English commanders, Najaf Khan was dismissed along with his soldiers, though, to the dismay of Maratha command, after being paid in entirety and with much honor. His position was vindicated by the Maratha loss and he was asked to report to Delhi by the Mughal emperor, whereas Husam-ud-Daulah and the Marathas were chastised and disgraced for their abject failures on both the battle and diplomatic fronts – Najaf Khan had his own men deployed in the court, including his follower “Bahram Jang” Nawab Majid-ud-Daulah Abdul Ahad Khan as Wazir in place of Husam-ud-Daulah who was imprisoned and released only after rendering an account of state spending under his administration and forfeiting all his property and revenues to the emperor and Najaf Khan (his followers were not so lucky and were executed by various terrible methods after being imprisoned and subjected to horrific tortures for several months). 

The ruins of the gateway, as seen from within. Thankfully, the ASI has maintained the area remarkably well and there was a guard and numerous gardeners on duty.

Najaf Khan soon raised anew an army of excellent and devoted soldiers exceeding twenty thousand in number, and the next course of action where he proved himself to be foremost in valor and strategizing was subduing the Jats of Bharatpur (Haryana) through a protracted war – the latter had defeated Mughal governors at the gates of Delhi several times and even forced entire garrisons out of captured areas; their recently deceased leader Surajmal had, in supreme defiance of imperial authority, built a mud fort at Maidangarhi (near Mehrauli, Delhi's south-eastern frontier), only thirteen miles from the Mughal citadel at Red Fort (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort); they had even proceeded to capture, plunder and reduce to only a skeleton of its original glory the province of Agra, erstwhile capital and an important garrison town, which according to an assurance issued by the emperor was to be added to Najaf’s fiefs once he re-conquered it from the Jats. Resisting further territorial occupation by them and suppressing the inefficient smaller chieftains of Gurgaon, Rewari and Jhajjar through his vastly superior army equipped with copious supply of canons, artillery, rockets and muskets, before proceeding further to Ballabhgarh and Narnaul, Najaf Khan took to subjugation of the rebel state through terrorizing them by plundering their fields, butchering men and animals alike and levying heavy tributes – such was the terror of his forces and the unmitigated demoralization of the Jat soldiers that entire contingents of the latter abandoned camp and fled in panic when they noticed dust storms on the horizon, lest they be the his advancing columns. Mirza Najaf Quli Khan, the battle-hardened lieutenant, led a series of assaults and raids while Mirza Najaf Khan kept turning on the heat of battle on the Jats, till in the end they were pushed back to their frontiers and he established a weak regency kingdom that dared not come out against the empire while he lived (though he himself was mortally wounded by a spear thrust in the last of the major battles). The poor general however had such an everlasting dearth when it came to friendship and loyality that when he was away defeating the emperor’s enemies in Jat territories, Abdul Ahad Khan, whom he had raised from the rank of a mere courtier to the position of Wazir, began poisoning the emperor’s mind against his beneficiary, invoking the bogey of Najaf Khan’s religious practices arising from his Shia faith (for a primer, refer Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb Complex), and also his camaraderie with his kinsman Shuja-ud-Daulah and their combined fomenting of a Shia uprising against the emperor. The Emperor ordered Najaf Khan to reduce his army’s strength so that he couldn’t pose a threat to the imperial guard, and also to surrender the spoils of the war including the fortress of Agra, but apart from this there wasn’t much that Abdul Ahad could have enforced on the invincible general, despite being authorized by the Emperor to do so, since no official or commander was a match for Najaf Khan’s ruthless strategizing in battle or his highly advanced war machinery. Abdul Ahad had to be content with fomenting occasional Sikh and Rohilla skirmishes to harass the undeterred Mirza, who simply brushed them aside with contempt as if they posed no more threat to him than a cluster of flies. Though now sick and often bedridden, the Mirza gathered his armies and mercenary forces and travelled once more to the Jat territories to conquer those territories that had resolutely remained independent and refractory during his last march – he conducted himself with admirable composure and gallantry, capturing Jat territories and most importantly, the well-fortified and nobly defended fortress of Dig, despite often being subdued by sickness and news of political vendetta against him by opposition nobles at the court – the soldiers adored him and found it difficult to believe that the boy once chased out of his native place by his enemies could rise so high to become the scourge of such powerful and affluent kingdoms. By enforcing overwhelming sieges and crippling blockades, Najaf Khan reduced the entire Jat country to subjugation, but before he could proceed any further he received news of the wretched Ahad Khan’s nefarious planning – the Wazir had vengefully turned on the Rohilla leader Zabita Khan, who was once in connivance with him against Najaf Khan, and war was declared again on the confused and terror-stricken Rohillas in AD 1776, for the purpose of which Najaf Khan was ordered to return to Delhi and take command of the army besides the office of paymaster (“Mir-Bakshi”) which he anyway executed, even though so far Zabita Khan held the coveted position nominally. 

A Mughal cavalryman, the likes of whom Mirza Najaf would have trained (Oil painting by Edwin Lord Weeks, Photo courtesy -

Emboldened by the presence of Sikh mercenaries in their midst, the difficulties faced by Mughal army struck in trenches and surrounded by marshes in the rainy season and the absolutely worthless command of Ahad Khan who harshly condemned and opposed every strategy devised by Mirza Najaf Khan, the Rohillas gave strong opposition to the invading forces till in the end Najaf Khan set the ball rolling their way by assembling his forces and calling all the lieutenants from their territories and declaring war on his own initiative against the Rohiilas. Much delayed by the rains, harassed by the incessant Sikh raids and tired of constant bickering of the court officials and the Wazir, Najaf Khan decided to himself enter the battlefield and at the very outset bought off undisciplined Rohilla allies or terrorized them away be threat of annexation of their kingdoms – he wreaked havoc in the desperate enemy lines and proceeded to punish and scatter them, regardless of his own losses, till in the end, the treasonous Rohilla resistance was crushed (1777) and, Zabita Khan’s family arrested and escorted to Delhi under armed guard; in fact, under duress, Zabita Khan was forced to marry his sister and daughter to Najaf Khan and Najaf Quli Khan respectively before being ejected from Delhi and its political affairs. More about the fate of the Rohillas can be read here – Pixelated Memories - Rohilla War Memorial, Calcutta. While the Mirza was busy defending the empire against potential adversaries, his own enemies held sway in the court and continued to plot and prepare for his downfall; however following the ascension of Sikhs and their increased clout in Haryana, Najaf Khan swiftly moved in to consolidate his power by restoring the Sikh territories back to Mughal administration (thereby gaining further trust and the position of “Wakil-i-Mutlaq” (Vicegerent) from the emperor) and arresting Wazir Abdul Ahad Khan, his primary enemy, on the charges of colluding with the enemy, corruption and securing garrison command positions for his undeserving relatives throughout Haryana and Punjab instead of checking the perilous rise of the Sikh warlords. Coveting further victory, Mirza Najaf continued to bring Sikh kingdoms under Mughal governance one after the other, either through sieges and negotiations, or through a chastising policy of punishment, assassinations and plunder; in an instance of brilliant statesmanship, he had Zabita Khan pardoned and his family and estates restored in order to set a Rohilla buffer state against the Sikhs.

The decorated protrusion along the mausoleum's front face. Notice the graceful use of minimalistic ornamentation.

Ironically, when Mirza Najaf Khan, the most influential commander of the later Mughals and a doggedly incorruptible officer, passed away in 1782 AD after a brief illness, he was buried in one of the simplest tombs that Delhi had ever seen – it isn’t known who commissioned the tomb, but it is considerately located close to the Karbala area (present-day Jorbagh) that has been venerated by the Shia population of the city as hallowed by the presence of Qadam Sharif, the shrine holding as sacred relic a footprint of Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad; also constructed in close vicinity a few years before Mirza Najaf’s death was the magnificent tomb of his brother-in-law Safdarjung while in 1820 AD the Mirza’s daughter Fatima too was laid to rest next to him. The Mughal army, pressurized by rebel governors and made hollow by corrupt commanders, collapsed soon after the Mirza’s unfortunate demise, especially after the Emperor restored Abdul Ahad to his position of Wazir and the latter reduced the army’s dimensions from 20,000 to 5,000 – Sikhs overran Delhi the very next year following Mirza Najaf’s death and the emperor himself became a worthless and nominal monarch whose writ did not extend much beyond his fortress’ frontiers – the royal family was tortured and executed, and the emperor blinded by the Rohilla warlord Ghulam Qadir Khan, following which the Mughal administration came under purview of Maratha dominance (AD 1788). In the face of extreme opposition from enemy nobles in the Mughal court as well as an exceedingly brainwashed Emperor, and repeated skirmishes from the Maratha infantry, Mirza Najaf Quli Khan rebelled and continued, till his demise in 1791, to hold the territories in Haryana that were established into a stronghold by Mirza Najaf Khan during the Jat subjugation; the territories were further sustained by Mirza Najaf Quli’s widow till her demise in 1792 AD following which they lapsed into the Maratha confederacy’s territories. 

The splendor of the Mughal court greatly decreased from 18th century onwards as a consequence of numerous defeats administered by invading forces and court rivalries and intrigues. Oil painting by Edwin Lord Weeks. On the right side is the beautiful Jama Masjid that Shahjahan built. (Photo courtesy -

Consisting of a squat and extremely simplistic square enclosure boasting of octagonal bastions at the corners, the mighty general’s mausoleum is more of a memorial than a grand structure – the red sandstone walls are unadorned except for a set of ornamental stone panels, each bearing minimalistic floral motifs and flowing arches, affixed to the projected embossment that runs along the front face of the tomb – the embossment itself is flanked on the corners by decorative pillars and staircases leading to the low roof where a raised projection marks the position of graves underneath. The two entrances leading within the tomb to the actual graves, along the side facing the gateway and its opposite, yawn dark and deep but remain barred by means of grilles installed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Apart from these minor details, the tomb bears no other adornment except an extremely thin strip of sandstone molding (more prominently detailed over the bastions than on the sides) along the roof and shallow alcoves, identical in form and configuration of the entrances, on the sides not possessing an entrance. The gateway to the tomb complex, a slender double-storied structure with wide kanguras (battlement-like ornamentation), is desolately ruined – only a small end portion of it survives now and it is difficult to ascertain whether the space it enclosed was square or arched in nature. A dilapidated staircase that would have led up to the enclosure (“kotla”) walls can still be seen along the gateway's side facing the tomb gardens, while parallel to it on the opposite side only the thick rubble base  now remains of an identical staircase. The remains of the gateway have long ceased to display the plasterwork that once would have draped them and exhibit their bare rubble and Mughal-era Lakhori brick framework – nonetheless, they are better-off than the tomb complex’s enclosure walls which are, if not ruined, then defaced with graffiti or lined with heaps of garbage and construction debris – it is said that originally there was a gateway on each side of the square enclosure but now only the one survives. The lawns around the tomb are remarkably well-maintained – designed according to Mughal charbagh style of garden plantation where a square lawn is divided into smaller quadrants by walkways/waterways (only the former here), the lawns are planted with lush trees and rows upon rows of plants bearing colorful and fragrant flowers – to the credit of the cool, beautiful grass-carpeted lawns, the tomb complex has become the playground for local children and a public park for the aged desiring a brisk walk or school kids of the surrounding areas wishing for a short stopover before heading home at the end of the day – ASI recently identified the complex, on account of it drawing numerous visitors on a daily basis, for addition of a ticketing facility – I wonder how many of these visitors would come to visit Najaf Khan then. Of course, even now, those who visit seldom know anything about this forgotten officer whose tumultuous life could have been the theme for a dramatic Bollywood flick if only it was well known, researched or remembered. 

The adornment panels affixed on the front face embossment. It has been contended that the tomb was to be built further and could never be completed, perhaps due to the collapse of Mughal administration and the spread of anarchy soon after the Najaf's death.

Location: Jorbagh (Coordinates: 28°34'51.4"N 77°12'48.9"E)
Open: Sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro Station: Jorbagh
Nearest Bus stop: Safdarjung Airport
How to reach: Walk from the metro station/bus stop - the distance is less than a kilometer in either case.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Relevant Links - 


  1. Loved this post Salil. Najaf Khan was also a Safvi

    1. Aah, so Safvi is the same as Safavid, Rana Mam?

  2. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

    Just finished this article, Sahil :) I appreciate your efforts in doing so much research.

    I was always interested in knowing history, after Aurengzeb and british establishment, this article gives good insight of what was happening in and around Delhi during that period.
    Heroes of this period are not really recognized, may be we should try to list strong personalities like Mirza Najaf..
    Keep the good work going .. Hope to meet you in some walk.

    1. Rakesh RanjanSeptember 09, 2014

      I also started reading about Shia's in India, and this article has references

    2. Rakesh Sir thank you so much! I had thought I shall be able to write this article in 5-6 hrs since there isn't much available about Najaf Khan, but I ended up reading about the later Mughals and various military campaigns for 4 days! Time for a short break now!!

  3. Swapnil NarendraSeptember 09, 2014

    Sahil, why dont you start working on a book?

    1. Swapnil, thank you for taking out the time to read and motivate :)

      Blogs have a wider reach and can be modified everytime I come across new information or feel the older needs to be supplemented. Having said that, I have only seen some 300 monuments at max out of the 1300 that Delhi boasts of - I might someday indeed write a book, but it's still a couple of years away.

  4. Gency ChaudhuriSeptember 09, 2014

    Sahil good very good. But I suggest you to use paragraphs.... for easy reading. Else it becomes too much to decipher. .