The site is deserted, even at midday. The Re.5/- entrance fee ($2/- or Rs.100/- for non SAARC foreigners!) is almost an apology, even without the elevated status of a royal tomb.
This “last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture” is the final resting place of the erstwhile Nawab of Avadh, Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan, also known as Safdarjung, whose exceptional service to emperor Ahmad Shah elevated him to Grand Vizier (Prime Minister) in 1748, and whose excessive ambition cost him that privilege in 1753.
He was banished to Avadh and only returned to Delhi posthumously – a year later – thanks to his son who wangled permission from the Mughal court to interr him at this spot.
The prominent and ornamental gate frames the monument, that at first glance holds a strong resemblance to its star cousin: the mausoleum of emperor Humayun. It is similar in colour and follows the charbagh (quadrilateral walled garden) style of construction divided by water channels.
As you walk in however, you notice the marked absence of refinement. The skewed proportions, the elongated facade, the bulbous dome and its mismatched stone cladding mark a disappointing epilogue to the grand legacy of Mughal architecture in India. In many ways it is said to be a reflection of its times. Of the degenerate lifestyles of lesser emperors and the decline of a great empire. whose famed coffers had been cleaned out by a daring Persian raid.
The Abyssinian architect possibly meant it to be as pristine as its iconic predecessor in Agra. But he had no access to the quarries – by then under the control of Jat chieftans – nor the funds. So he was forced to make do with scavenged material from nearby tombs. And resort to almost Moorish arabesque plaster work to adorn the interiors in place of traditional pietra dura..
In The City Of Djinns, William Dalrymple spares no adjective in deriding the monument’s shortcomings: “The spirit is fecund, Bacchanalian, almost orgiastic. Like some elderly courtesan, the tomb tries to mask its imperfections beneath thick layers of make-up; its excesses of ornament are worn like over-applied rouge.”
That, to my mind, is as exaggerated as the ornamentation. Safdarjung’s tomb isn’t perfect. But viewed singularly and without bias, it is quite beautiful. And nothing justifies its neglect* or that Rs.5/- entrance fee.
*The discovery of a buried drainage system has spurred the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) to restart the fountains. That’s a beginning!