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.