Who was Safdarjung? His tomb – large, opulent and richly ornamented – occupies prime property in the heart of South Delhi. One of the busiest government-run hospitals is named after him, as are a clutch of colonies, an aerodrome and a flyover.
Yet virtually nothing is known of the man himself, or his claim to fame and his contribution to the history of Delhi. That a man should be remembered for his tomb and the area around it rather than any peculiarities of character is sad, and not a little ironic.
But that is Delhi for you! Nephew and successor of the first Nawab Wazir of Oudh, Safdarjung was the power behind the throne during Mohammad Shah Rangeela’s long and tempestuous reign and after him Ahmad Shah’s. Safdarjung’s real name was Mirza Muqim Abulmansur Khan.
He was appointed Governor of Oudh by Mohammad Shah and later elevated to the post of Wazir by Ahmad Shah. Safdarjung’s interests lay not in Oudh, which was till then a provincial outpost and not quite the centre of gracious living and high culture that it would metamorphose into during the reign of his descendent Wajid Ali Shah, but in Dilli, that much-abused but still-throbbing heart of Hindustan.
It was here that Safdarjung did what ambitious and powerful ministers are wont to do when rulers are weak and vacillating: he plotted and connived and ruled by proxy. Shortly after Nadir Shah’s infamous sack of Delhi in 1739, a civil war broke out between the powerful Safdarjung and the equally powerful rival minister Ghaziuddin Imadul Mulk.
But Safdarjung was defeated, whence he retreated to Oudh and died near Faizabad on September 25, 1754. His body was brought back to his beloved Delhi, the scene of his crimes and passions, and buried in the grand mausoleum built by his son. His tomb embodies the coming together of all the terrible excesses that eventually led to the decline of Mughal architecture. In its less-than-pleasing colour combination, its far-from-elegant proportions, its cluttered lines and asymmetrical shape it is a portent of the Beginning of the End. No significant monuments were destined to be built in Delhi hereafter.
The way was clear for post-colonial monstrosities, be they Punj-Gothic, or Neo-Puppy. The Indo-Islamic marriage, architecturally speaking, was well and truly over by the mid-eighteenth century. Many regard Safdarjung’s mausoleum as the last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture in Delhi. The intricately worked gateway and the elegantly proportioned mosque, built as an afterthought, are far more attractive than the tomb itself.