With the faculty at Ambedkar University

Our destination today was Safdarjung’s tomb, erected by his son, who begged permission to bring him back to Delhi, if only in death, in the early 18th century. We have driven past this monument a number of times, and as it is on the list of “must-sees,” we decided to take a look. In City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, author William Dalrymple says that 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.” One of the information signs calls the tomb the “flickering light of a dying lamp,” expressing a similar idea.

Safdarjung was a Persian nobleman from Iran who came to India in the late 17th century, earned a post in the Imperial Army, married a Mughal noblewoman, and succeeded his father-in-law as the Nawab (governor) of the state. This was at the peak of the Mughal empire: Delhi had a larger population than Paris or London, the army seemed invincible, its palaces were magnificent, and the “domes of its many mosques quite literally glittered with gold” (Dalrymple). By the time of Safdarjung’s death, however, the last Persian Shah, Nadir, had come to India and then gone, taking with him the immense wealth that had been accumulated over 8 generations.

Safdarjung's tomb

This was a dangerous time to be a leader! Three emperors were assassinated; the last one was blinded with a hot needle before his execution. The mother of one emperor was strangled, and the father of another was forced over a precipice while riding his elephant. The city of Delhi, once so magnificent, was in ruins. However, during much of this time, Safdarjung was the de facto ruler. He had consolidated his holdings to include the richest land in India from Bengal across the rich plains of North India to the eastern borders. While the Imperial family played and amused themselves, Safdarjung increased his power. When the last emperor died, he seized the office of Vizier or Prime Minister. But he overplayed his hand; his arrogant bullying offended everyone, and the Imperial family called in the armies of the Hindu Mahratta. In the civil war that followed, Safdarjung was driven out of Delhi, not to return until his body was placed in his tomb.

The beauty of the Taj Mahal is familiar to all of you who have no doubt seen it in pictures if not in real life. That memorial is spotless white Agran marble, balanced in design, and simple in its elegance. The tomb of Safdarjung is almost its opposite. Instead of white marble, it is built of what marble could be cannibalized from other Delhi tombs. When that ran out, there was no more marble available; the Agra quarries were not yielding as much stone, and in addition, the road from Delhi to Agra was controlled by wild and hostile Jat tribesmen. So the tomb had to be finished in a patchwork of Delhi sandstone.

After paying Rs 100 for an entrance fee, we walked through two lines of beggars waiting for the noon prayers in the attached mosque to be finished. Whatever the mosque’s architectural weaknesses, the acoustics are excellent, and the men’s voices followed us through the gate and into the tomb’s precincts. The gate, wide enough for a car to get through, leads to a beautifully laid out Mughal garden centered by a fountain (not working) and a reflecting pool (almost empty). This is India! But it would be like the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument being empty.

The walkways are in good repair, though quite rough, and the grass is green, tempting at least 20 men to take off their shoes, make their clothes into a pillow, and curl up for a nap. I have never seen a woman do this, although the men are a common sight in every park. The walk leads up to the tomb itself, an eccentric building topped by a patchwork dome. Two sets of stairs lead to the second level. The steps were at least 10 inches high, and there was no rail. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my cane, so I sat on the fountain coping and just looked around. There wasn’t much to see, because like many other buildings here, it has been allowed to decay considerably. The rococo building was more like a drooping old lady with a fraying petticoat showing under her skirt and with runs in her stockings. Here’s how Dalrymple describes it — and I can do no better:

“Like some elderly courtesan, the tomb tries to mask its imperfections beneath thick layers of make-up; it’s 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; it’s three domes are flirtatiously striped like the flared pyjamas of nautch girl; there is something voluptuous in its buxom curves.”

It is easy to envision the tomb collapsing in a cloud of Delhi dust, as the once sturdy pillars of the Mughal empire collapsed while the court amused itself with music, poetry, opium, and harem girls.