Delhi Monuments – The Three Domed Mosque, Safdarjung Tomb


There is something about this Garden Tomb of Safdarjung that draws you in.  This was the last architectural project of Mughal era in Delhi and is perhaps one of the most underrated monuments too, mainly because of the constant comparison with much touted Humayun’s Tomb. Here is a blog I wrote about why You should go with an open mind to really enjoy its beauty. Safdarjung Tomb Complex  

Safdarjung’s full name was Wazir-ul-Hindustaan Abul Mansur Mirza Muhammad Muqim Ali Khan Safdarjung. He was also known as Nawab-Wazir, Nawab Wazir al-Mamalik, Subedar of Kashmir Agra & Oudh, Khan Bhadur, Meer-e-Atash and Firdaus Aaramgah. He was the most powerful governor and the state of Awadh or oudh virtually became independent of the Mughal empire under Safdar Jung and his successors till it was annexed by the British in 1857.

The tomb complex is also known as Mansur ka Maqbara and like most monuments of Delhi this too holds interesting nooks and corners which usually visitors tend to ignore.

This post isn’t really about the tomb but about the beautiful little double storey mosque, with its three gorgeous onion shapes domes, built to the right of the exquisite main entrance of the tomb complex. The mosque was supposedly made by Safdarjung’s wife. if true then it is one of the few mosques commissioned by women, another one is Khair ul Manazil mosque.

You get the best view of mosque from the high platform of the tomb.  It is fascinating to watch the lingering shadows, the filtering sunlight and the tree branches making patterns on its wall.  The onion shaped striped domes, the slender cuboidal minarets and the pointy finials emerging from floral base atop the domes are exquisite to look at all times of the day. Interestingly the floral base isn’t Lotus as was the norm in those days. The place is full of intrigue and surprises. The placement of the mosque is unusual but it was built as part of the mausoleum.  The exterior of the domes has distinct stripes of red sandstone and marble veneer. Haven’t seen anything so beautiful in Delhi at least.

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Visitors are allowed entry to the mosque’s square only on Friday for the prayers and an iron grill blocks the entry on rest of the days. It isn’t possible to click the mosque from the small courtyard since most of it is veiled by the awnings that stretch from side to side to provide shade to the devotees. Also, the walls of the numerous chambers that flank the gateway and span the space around obscure much of the mosque.

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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 are inaccessible. Locked and closed gates aren’t a new feature for those who wander around Delhi monuments. Delhi has enough phenomenal architectural hidden treasures not accessible to public . No one tells why access is denied. The other functional mosques don’t have access issues so it is sort of baffling about this one. Perhaps someone can explain the reason.

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Last year,  I was fortunate to get access to the beautiful but neglected wuzu khana or the ablution tank chamber located on the lower level. There is a small gate on the right (usually latched) inside the grand eastern entrance to the tomb complex that leads to the corridor leading to the wuzu khana and the mosque . The wuzu tank has a fountain in it. The place has lost most of its engravings which were perhaps similar to those on the main gateway. Just imagine how gorgeous this would have looked when it was used for ablution before going upstairs for prayers. The central arch of the mehrab has a floral engraving.

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Most mosques do not have a fountain.  Only three mosques in Delhi, including this one, have a fountain in wuzu khana. The Kalan Masjid at Turkman Gate has a fountain in the tank that is used for wuzu, but it is made of Marble. The entire mosque is built with The Delhi Quartz Stone and was built in the time of Feroz Tugalaq when the use of Sand Stone and Marble wasn’t common and because these stones had to be brought from Rajasthan so the fountain could be a later addition.

Fatehpuri Mosque too has a fountain. This was built in the 17th century and so the marble fountain could be an original.

So, this is a unique feature of this particular mosque and I seriously hope that the waterworks are revived here and the structure is restored properly without making it garish eyesore like a few other restored ones.

Interestingly, a drawing of Safdarjung Tomb scene by Willaim Daniell dated late 18th century shows a water body in the foreground. According to historian and Convener of the Delhi chapter of INTAC Swpana Liddle old maps reveal that this was in fact a stream, which rose in the Ridge, the part of it adjacent to present day Vasant Vihar, it flowed in a north-easterly direction, past Safdarjung’s tomb, through today’s Lodi Garden, and finally merged with the Barapulla nala.  No trace of this stream survives today. I wonder if that water-body fed the water to the Wuju khana. I lot of questions need answers and I will update as I come to know.

Unfortunately both the mosque and the Mansur (Safdarjung) ka madarsa don’t get enough footfall for the authorities to look after these structures. This mosque was opened for Friday prayers in the 1980s and  like monuments used for prayers such as Jama Masjid, the Puri temple and many other old temples, mosques and Churches is not under ASI protection. Since the authorities responsible for these structures do not spend money on maintenance the heritage buildings are generally neglected. The ASI, perpetually short of funds, does not care too much for monuments which are not totally under their care. Allowing prayers in protected monuments is a clear violation of law but laws are often violated in our country. Call them religeous or political whims and a setback to our collective heritage.

I could spend only a short time inside the mosque corridor leading towards wuzu khana and mosque so couldn’t examine it minutely. Neither could I see the entire mosque with the guard breathing down my neck. I could manage only a few photographs but hopefully one day I will get another chance to explore it in greater detail.

This is a quick post just to share some of the photographs and details. Will notify as and when I update it.

I hope this goddamn virus curls under some stone and goes into indefinite hibernation so that the lockdown is lifted and I can visit my favorite haunt. Meanwhile don’t forget the beauty that Delhi is with all its shortcomings.

Delhi Monuments – Safdarjung’s Tomb Complex


Safdar Jung’s Tomb complex or Mansur ka Maqbara, as locals call it, holds a special place in my heart. I think the tomb was never meant to rival Humayun’s Tomb as sighted everywhere but to solely honor Mirza Muqin Abul Mansur Khan, viceroy of Awadh and later the chief minister known by his title, Safdar Jung.  He was a powerful governor and the state of Awadh or oudh virtually became independent of the Mughal empire under Safdar Jung and his successors till it was annexed by the British in 1857. It rivaled Delhi in literature, architecture, art.  Satyajit Ray’s classic movie, Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) was set in the backdrop of Awadh.

This garden tomb was the last architectural project of Mughal era in Delhi.

There is an undisturbed calm that fills the tomb complex as it is not crowded with tourists like the other tombs. A sereneness that draws you in. It may be “imperfect” architecturally but as a whole the entire complex is awe inspiring.

Remember what Sheldon’s mother says in Big Bang Theory? “Sometimes it’s the imperfect stuff that makes things perfect.”

Keep in mind that this artistically magnificent tomb is that of a prime minister in the Mughal Empire, “Wazir-ul-Mamlikat-i-Hindustan” and not that of an emperor or a Mughal royal. Even his master Muhammad Shah Rangila doesn’t enjoy the luxury of such a splendid spacious resting place. Though he may have that fine ornate carvings, characteristic of  mid 18th century Mughal era, inside his tomb.

As for the marble being stolen from Rahim Khan e Khana’s tomb there are two theories on this. One is the popular one floating everywhere and mentioned by historians too that some of the exterior stone (marble) was plundered from Rahim’s tomb while constructing Safdarjung’s tomb.

The second theory I read refutes the first. As per Aga Khan Trust ( who are restoring Rahim’s Tomb) no material from there was used in Safdar Jung’s Tomb. The analyzed stone cladding is totally different. Mr. Ratish Nanda  says, the marble on this dome doesn’t match the one in Rahim’s.

I am no historian or expert to give my views on it but I still feel that wherever the stones came from should not belittle the efforts of creating this grand mausoleum.

Both Sir Syed ( who thinks the stones and marble went to Lucknow) and Basheeruddin Ahmed who thinks it was stolen during the time the railway line was being built by workers, don’t mention Safdarjung refute the stripping off the marble theory.

 

The triple storied heavily ornamented gateway of the tomb complex is a photographers’ delight. The splendid floral and geometrical patterns that adorns the facade symmetrically around the jharokha of the arched entrance are stunningly done in orange, green and purple. One of the prettiest gateways in Delhi especially in comparison to the much touted Humayun’s Tomb. Only a few of the buildings by later Mughals have this Bangla jharokha style incorporated with the inverted arches in their buildings as per my knowledge. Correct me if I’m wrong.

One can barely see one of the fading fish motifs, the royal insignia of Awadh, on the left side under the base of the arch. The other is not visible at all. It reminds one of  Safdar Jung’ glorious connection with Awadh. The arched walls of the gate frame the tomb perfectly and trust me it is a very surreal experience to stand there and watch the grand mausoleum. There is a lot of work in incised plaster in the interior of the gate.

The Arabic inscription over the main entry gate to the central chamber of the tomb reads, “When the hero of plain bravery departs from the transitory, may he become a resident of god’s paradise”.

A gate on the right side leads to the three domed mosque.  most of the chambers of the madarsa and the mosque is not accessible to the pubic which is the case in many of the monuments in Delhi. A very frustrating rule. I was not permitted to step in the courtyard or into the mosque to see the Ablution or the Waju Khana with a fountain that is a rare occurrence in such mosques.

The gardens are filled with bird calls and it is soothing to see such a treasure of unique trees and shrubs. I was able to see the gorgeous Sita Ashok, mango and the Indian Gooseberry (Awla) in bloom, the kadamb fruiting in full glory with squirrels and birds feasting on the ripe fruits, the beautiful shrubs of Red Kund / Red Jasmine lining the main pathway to the tomb.

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The manicured lawns, the swaying palms, the gardeners at work, the entire tranquility just lift  your tired spirits. You must look up the gardens whenever visiting any of the monuments.  The waterways are always dry but the well had a motor attached for watering the garden which was a welcome sight as earlier I remember seeing it all neglected and was cordoned off with the stone lattice work fence.

Don’t know how deep it is. Was it used to quench the thirst of weary travelers or those staying in the pavilions in the complex apart from being the prime water source to the gardens? Perhaps a Persian water wheel was used for garden irrigation or water was even hand drawn too for drinking. I’m trying yo picture the scene. Nothing online about the well perhaps because these wells are poor cousins of the mighty step-wells..lol …I’ve seen a beautiful working well in khair ul manazil mosque. There’s one in Nili masjid too but closed and not in use.

Built in 1753-54 AD, Safdar Jung’s tomb is set on a high plinth containing series of recessed arches. It is surrounded by a 300-sq-meter garden in typical Mughal style charbagh pattern where the garden is divided in four squares by walking paths and canals leading to the three pavilions that are, as expected of ASI, out of bound for public. The tomb is in the center. There are four two storied minarets in the four corners of the square structure.

The onion shaped dome, made of white marble and pink stone, rising above a 16 sided sandstone drum stands out uniquely amidst the other tombs and monuments of that period. Designed and built by Abyssinian architect Shaidi Bilal Mohammad Khan the tomb is a fine example of Persian and Indian architecture. The bulbous shape derives from Persian Timurid domes and the elegant lotus finial with a marble pinnacle derives from the Hindu temples.

(I lost a few pictures so sorry for this shoddy one. Will change when I visit the tomb next.)

The interior of the dome has beautiful work in molded limestone plaster or stucco as we know it. The medallions with looped floral designs are surrounded by radiating petals and carried on honeycomb pendents that rise in multilayered formations. The dome consists of eight chambers, the central one housing the pristine white marble cenotaph of Safdar Jung. One of the most ornate and beautiful ones in Delhi.

The actual graves or burial chambers of Safadrjung and his wife Amat Jahan Begum are placed in an underground chamber of the monument.

The central chamber has four entrances and the play of light and shadow in the chamber is stunning.

Hidden staircase in the plinth leads to the tomb level and the tomb interior can be accessed via flight of stairs on the two sides. Each of the side room is decorated with rococo plaster work. Each designs different from the other. The minaret in the four corners are lined with thin marble strips and have a chatri on top.  

The Mughal Empire by the mid 1700s and there may have been several factors and not just short funds leading to the hurried patchwork in the making of this tomb. I wish someone researches this a bit more.

There is a certain grace about this tomb made of red sandstone and marble. I hope the monument gets its due and people stop quoting it as resembling an “elderly courtesan”..  (highly exaggerated), “last flicker…” and “poor copy” of Humayun’s Tomb etc. The mausoleum is perfect in its so called imperfection. 

Look beyond what is served to you on platter and visit the tomb with no preconceived notions. Its quiescence will draw you in like nothing else.

 

Delhi Monuments : The Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque


In 1450 the Mughals began their reign starting with Babur, the Mughal empire flourished and reached its pinnacle during Akbar’s reign. He was an ideal king and is considered one of the best rulers among all the Mughals.

Emperor Akbar is usually associated with Fatehpur Sikri, the capital is founded in Agra but I wanted to explore the bits of his story that lives through the ruins in Delhi. I went to the two places in Mehrauli, the tombs of Muhammad Quli Khan and Adam Khan, sons of Maham Anga and Akbar’s foster brothers. I think her remains too are buried along with Adam Khan here but I am not sure. Maham Anga was Akbar’s chief wet curse and held an important place as an adviser to the teenage Emperor. Shrewd and ambitious she was in-charge of the empire and acted as the de-facto regent of the Mughal Empire from 1560 to 1562. The worse kind of petticoat government that ever was.

Khair ul Minazil was commissioned by her during Akbar’s reign and the complex has a mosque and a madarsa (Islamic seminary). The name means ‘ the most auspicious of houses’.  This is an important structure because there aren’t many instances of  surviving  architecture which have the patronage of a woman.  It was perhaps the first Mughal Mosque in Delhi.

This serene mosque is located on Mathura Road, opposite the Old Fort  or Purana Qila. Driving down the busy road in the front of the mosque I had always wanted to stop by and spend some time there. This time I especially made a plan to do so. One can see hundreds of pigeons flying around the structure and for once I didn’t despise the sight.

It all blended in so well. Perhaps in olden times this complex was part of the Old Fort complex. Not many people actually venture into this beautiful structure and that is a pity for one can sense the grandeur of the place by just standing inside the complex. History tells that an assassination attempt was made on Akbar’s life from the first floor of this mosque in 1564.

The double storied gateway of the mosque is made of quartzite and red stone but the mosque and the madarsa are made of rubble. If you look from inside the magnificent gate has medallions and intricate stucco patterns etched on it.

On both the sides of the mosque stands the two storied madarsa in dilapidated state. The larger rooms are on the ground floor and a narrow passage leads to the smaller ones on the first floor. Most of the walls are crumbling and no doors or windows are left if there were any.

The vast rectangular courtyard has a waju hauz which is not working hence not in use. The old well, on the other hand, is working and people draw the water for waju (ablution).

One can see water pitchers near the hauz that are filled everyday for the residing pigeons.

 

The mosque is better preserved than the madarsa. Earlier there were five arched bays leading to the mosque but now only three are visible. There is a dome at the central bay of the prayer hall while the other bays have been roofed with vaults. The mehrabs, curves and Qur’an scripts are on the verge of decay due to the neglect of the structure.

 

The Persian inscription  set above the central entrance that tells us that this was built by Maham Anga with the assistance of shihabuddin Ahmed Khan. We also see two more names apart from Akbar that of Niyaz Baqsh who constructed Khairul Manazil and Darvesh Hussain who supervised the construction. The name ‘Khair-ul-Manazil’, when written in Persian, yields the number 969 Hijri (AD 1561-62), the year of its construction, and thus is a Chronogram. A very interesting and unique feature of this structure.

The inside floor of the mosque is still in a fairly good condition because people offer Namaz but the outer floor is in very bad state.

One can see copies of Quran sharif kept in one of the brackets in the wall.

The Mecca facing western mehrab still has some remnants of the exquisitely vibrant blue, red, violet green and yellow enamel tile work, a testimonial to its glorious past.

Most of the awe inspiring artwork is now lost to the years of neglect and the gorgeous facade bears a blackened appearance and yet it stands tall as a witness to the beauty and grace this place has managed to keep even now leaving behind the rectangular protruding projections. One can imagine how grand this mosque would have looked in its prime days. Maham Anga was resourceful, rich and very confident woman and left no stone upturned to make this a work of art. No tow tiles of the facade are of the same design. The geometrical and floral patterns are different in each tile. There are some verses from the Holy Quran inscribed on the walls.

On the outer wall of the mosque one can see the brackets that once supported the chajjas or the wide eaves that were meant to keep the sun away.

It is hard to believe that the mosque is erected without any foundation.

The iron gate and the boundaries restrict the movements if you wish to photograph the complex from various angles.

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I wanted to take some pictures from the expansive lawns of Sher Shah Gate or Lal Darwaza complex but it is under restoration and public is not allowed at the moment.

I hope more people visit this stunningly beautiful mosque but I also feel that the lack of interest in this has also preserved it from the onslaught of those ‘tourists’ who harm the monuments by engraving their names or drawing cupid hearts etc on the walls.

I also hope Archaeological Survey Of India considers some restoration work here before we completely lose whatever artwork is remaining now. Do visit this place whenever you are on Old Fort side.

 

 

Delhi Monuments – Chor Minar ( The Thieves Tower )


I often wonder how I never paid any attention to this solitary tower in K block Hauz Khas Enclave. I have seen almost all the big and small structures around this area but never stopped here. Yesterday I was wandering around the city and was in the neighborhood so decided to walk down and take a closer look at the tower of punishment, a landmark with a gory history, that is usually ignored by many.

The minar is located in the midst of posh bungalows of Hauz Khas. This supposedly haunted structure is encircled by a garden and serves as a traffic roundabout. The monument is made of rubble masonry where large irregular chunks of stone are held together by thick mortar.  The tower, with 225 regularly spaced holes on the upper half,  is kind of macabre to look at. It also seems incomplete and gives a stump like look. If you view it from a distance it appears to have its head chopped off. Sends a shiver up your spine to think what it hides in its dark depths.

Delhi has had its own share of horror filled past and this Chor Minar is a fine example of that. Built in early 14th century, under the reign of Allauddin Khilji (1290–1320) , this tower was used to display the severed heads of thieves and criminals. The heads would be impaled on spears stuck into the holes, to act as a deterrent to others. Though there is no proof if that was the sole purpose of this tower it is very much possible as those times were very turbulent.

I stood there imagining 225 blood dripping heads staring at me from the stone walls of the Minar and turned away only to face the tree in the compound with hundreds of dried seed pods hanging on its branches. It is perhaps one of the Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees but I need someone to identify it correctly.

I can’t tell you if I was amused or repulsed. The eerie silence holds you captive as you marvel at the structure, the bloody times in which it was constructed and the Sultan’s preferred way of  delivering justice.

Perhaps with the growing threats from the Mongols, it was necessary to maintain law and order for Khilji. Only with a streamlined administration he could have faced the challenges imposed by the mongols and other invaders. It is believed that when the crime rate increased then heads of only the important noted criminals were displayed and the rest were piled like a pyramid next to it. A blood curdling scene that is hard to imagine as one stands there looking at the manicured square patches of grass that surround the tower.

There is also a belief among the historians that a large number of Mongols who attacked Delhi during Khilji’s regime were defeated and captured and their severed heads were hung from the holes in the Minar for striking terror among the masses.

I wondered if the man who peacefully slept under the warm winter sun, the girls who took selfies next to the Minar or the creme de la creme living in those upper crust houses knew of the headless ghosts that may be grinning or peering at them.

Unfortunately not many people are aware of its history and the morbid tales associated with it and the tower stands there seeped in its blood soaked secrets.

I sat there on the bench taking in a piece of history one would wish to forget. The tower is headless and that seems like too much of a coincidence. It stands on a platform with three arched recesses on all four sides. The central recess on the east is the entrance to the tower with a spiral staircase leading to the top. The gate is locked now and is inaccessible. Only the birds, the squirrels and the bats can see what’s in there.

A woman walking the dogs gave me a strange look as I stood at the gate peering at the minar and hoping against hope to get a signal from some presence in there. It was a hot winter day and the afternoon sun was blazing in its full glory. I had a few more monuments to visit so said goodbye to the ancient inhabitants of the Chor Minar promising to be back soon as my elder son lives a stone’s throw away.

Do visit this haunting beauty whenever you are in this part of the city. The place isn’t very far from the Metro station and the guards near the colony gates or the autowallas will guide you there.