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A Dying Empire, a Nawab named Safdar Jung, and an Imperfect Tomb

Many of us are familiar with the name ‘Safdarjung’. But who was he? And how is his story linked to the decline of the Mughal empire?

History textbooks would tell us that the Mughal Empire ruled from 1526, when Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodhi at the First Battle of Panipat, to 1857, when the British East India Company deposed Bahadur Shah Zafar and exiled him in the wake of the First War of Indian Independence. But the extent of the empire was far from consistent in these 331 years, with the first six rulers conquering one territory after another, and subsequent rulers losing them in equally quick succession. This post is set in the period of the decline of the Mughal empire, and the emergence of one man whose name nearly every resident of Delhi is familiar with, but whose story doesn’t find much references in pop culture.

Let’s go to the era of Aurangzeb to understand this better. The year was 1707, and Aurangzeb had just died after spending 49 years on the Mughal throne. This is what his empire looked like at the time of his death.

The extent of the Mughal empire in 1707, which included parts of modern day Afghanistan, Assam and even northern Tamil Nadu.
European powers had been present in India for a while, having set up factories for trade.
The Maratha Empire established by Chhattrapati Shivaji had grown to control parts of western Maharashtra and northwestern Karnataka in 33 years.

Note: Territories coloured in cream are not part of the Maratha Empire; the shades of gold on the map legend can be deceptive.
Source: The History India: Every Year, by OllieBye, on YouTube.

Twelve years after his death in 1707, the Mughal Empire had five different emperors, each ruling only for a short period. In 1719, the sixth one, Muhammad Shah (also known as Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ for his reported colourful and joyous nature) was crowned the emperor. But the empire looked very different from how it did just fifteen years prior.

The Mughal empire in 1719, having lost Gujarat, Punjab and Bengal.

Note: Territories coloured in cream are not part of the Maratha Empire; the shades of gold on the map legend can be deceptive.
Source: The History India: Every Year, by OllieBye, on YouTube.
Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’ on horseback.
Source: The British Museum, London

A Persian Man Arrives Looking for a Job

Meanwhile, a Persian nobleman named Mir Muhammad Amin from Nishapur, Iran had migrated to India in 1709 after the collapse of the Safavid dynasty (whom his family was in allegiance with), and settled in Delhi at the court of the Mughal emperor. Here, he was employed by a fellow Persian and a military commander based in Allahabad, Sarbuland Khan, as his camp superintendent. From here on, he was part of multiple military campaigns fighting for the Mughal empire under various emperors and, in 1720, was given the title of ‘Saadat Ali Khan Bahadur’ by the emperor Muhammad Shah, and appointed first the Governor of Akbarabad (later Agra), and two years later (ie in 1722) the first Nawab of Awadh (often anglicised as ‘Oudh’) – a title that would run down his family.

Wait… Who is a Nawab?

Across the world, large empires would generally have appointed governors administrating different provinces. Occasionally, these governorships would become hereditary themselves, and the emperor would allow them to enjoy varying degree of autonomy within the empire, in return for their allegiance to the emperor and his military conquests. Often this would result in formation of ‘vassal states’ – states which were governed pretty much independently, but paid obeisance to an emperor and sent men to fight for the emperor. If the empire remained strong and the emperor retained effective control over the vassal states, the system would work in their favour; but if it didn’t, the vassal state could end up becoming more powerful than the empire it broke away from, those in positions like Nawabs would become kings in their own right, and fortunes would change.

Saadat Ali Khan as the Nawab

Saadat Ali Khan (as Amin was now known) established his capital near Ayodhya and served as the Nawab of Awadh for seventeen years from 1722 to 1739. He proved to be a very capable administrator in a period that saw tremendous decline of the Mughal Empire owing to an invasion by Persian conqueror Nader Shah (which qualifies for a separate post in itself, with an interesting cameo featuring Saadat Ali Khan), and the rise of the Maratha Empire to the south which had taken control over most of Central India. Not having a son to succeed him as the Nawab, he gave his eldest daughter in marriage to his nephew (his sister’s son and hence his daughter’s first cousin) Muhammad Muqim, better known to us as Safdar Jung (often written as one word – Safdarjung).

An illustration of Saadat Ali Khan, the first Nawab of Awadh by an unknown artist. He was a Persian nobleman who arrived in India 1709, served the Mughal empire, and became the first Nawab of Awadh in 1722.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Rise and Fall of Safdar Jung

An illustration of Safdar Jung, the Nawab of Awadh and the prime minister in the court of Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur.
Source: The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Safdar Jung (born Muhammad Muqim) was patrilineally descended from a Turkic tribe tracing its ancestry to the Caucasus region (modern-day Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia). He came from Nishapur, Iran to India in 1723 at the age of fifteen on the invitation of Saadat Ali Khan I. He was Saadat Ali Khan’s nephew and his son-in-law, and took the reins as the new Nawab of Awadh in 1739. He was given the title ‘Safdar Jung’ by emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangila’. Like his uncle/father-in-law, he too proved to be a good administrator who effectively ran the political affairs of Awadh and also proved to be of valuable assistance to the Emperor Muhammad Shah. He was thereafter also appointed the Governor of Kashmir, and became a central figure in the court of the emperor. Gradually but steadily, he seized more administrative control of the empire, to the point that soon he was the real administrator of the empire and the emperor was just a figurehead.

In 1748, Muhammad Shah passed away and was succeeded by his son Ahmad Shah Bahadur. The empire then looked something like this.

The Mughal empire in 1748, having further most of central India to the Marathas; with Awadh and Sindh having become independent, yet vassals to the Mughal empire.

Note: Territories coloured in cream are not part of the Maratha Empire; the shades of gold on the map legend can be deceptive.
Source: The History India: Every Year, by OllieBye, on YouTube.

Ahmad Shah Bahadur was familiar with the administrative power of Safdar Jung and, after his military assistance against Ahmad Shah Durrani (also known as Ahmad Shah Abdali, an Afghan invader who tried to invade India multiple times, succeeding once) in a military campaign in 1747, towards the end of his father’s reign, he appointed Safdar Jung as his Prime Minister after becoming the new emperor.

In 1751, many of Safdar Jung’s possessions in Awadh were targeted by Bangash and Rohilla tribesmen, who had ties to Ahmad Shah Durrani of Afghanistan. He fought with them with the help of various Maratha leaders like Malhar Rao Holkar, as per directions of Peshwa Balaji Bajirao, and defeated them at the battles of Fatehgad and Farrukhabad.

Ahmad Shah Bahadur: A Man of Poor Decisions

Unlike some of his predecessors, emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur wasn’t very good at being a king in the definitive sense of the word. He neglected his royal duties and spent considerably more of his time on worldly pleasures like wine and women than did his predecessors. It is even reported (in the book Modern India by PN Chopra, Puri, Das & Pradhan) that his harem extended over an area of four square miles! Gradually, though not without conflict, his prime minister Safdar Jung grew in power and stature, as he increasingly took upon himself the administrative duties of the emperor.

Fearing the growing influence of Safdar Jung and wary of the Marathas, with whom Safdar Jung had fought against the Rohillas, in 1753 a worried Ahmad Shah Bahadur tried to counter it by getting closer to Feroze Jung III (also known as Imad-ul-Mulk, and the grandson of the first Nizam of Hyderabad), another military leader in his army and then-governor of Assam. Ahmad Shah Bahadur and Feroz Jung III went to war with Safdar Jung, who was defeated but was allowed to return to Awadh for he still commanded influence with certain sections of the empire and its allies. After returning to Awadh in 1753, he expanded the capital ‘Bangla’ on the outskirts of Ayodhya built by his father, and renamed it ‘Faizabad’, meaning ‘the city of abundance’.

Meanwhile, Feroze Jung III was getting too powerful in the Mughal court and emerged as the new regent, and this was a source of huge worry for Ahmad Shah Bahadur, who now regretted having favoured him over Safdar Jung. The emperor now turned to Safdar Jung, and ordered Feroze Jung III to be removed from the imperial court, which, as you can imagine, didn’t quite go very well.

Feroze Jung III came to know about this, conspired with the Marathas, and defeated the emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur at the First Battle of Sikandarabad in 1754 with the help of Malhar Rao Holkar and Sadashivrao Bhau (the military commander of the Peshwa in Pune). After this defeat, Ahmad Shah Bahadur fled to Delhi, where he was chased by Feroze Jung III – who imprisoned both the emperor and his mother (Qudsia Begum); and appointed Ahmad Shah Bahadur’s brother Aziz-ud-din (known by his regnal name Alamgir II) the new emperor, as a puppet ruler.

Safdar Jung died the same year, in 1754, in a town named Sultanpur, around sixty kilometres from his capital Faizabad.

An illustration of Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur riding a horse in a hunting field, c. 1750. Putting worldly desires before administration, much of the decline of the Mughal empire occurred during his reign.
Source: San Diego Museum of Art.

This was the period that saw the Mughal Empire reduced to nothing but a tiny sliver around Delhi on the map of India, under the suzerainty of the now ever-powerful Maratha empire.

The Indian subcontinent in 1754. At this point, most of northern and central India is part of the Maratha empire, which does not depose the Mughals as the rulers of Delhi and lets them continue being the official rulers effectively under Maratha control.

Note: Territories coloured in cream are not part of the Maratha Empire; the shades of gold on the map legend can be deceptive.
Source: The History India: Every Year, by OllieBye, on YouTube.

A Tomb for Safdar Jung

After Safdar Jung’s death in 1754, his son and his successor as the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daula, pleaded with the Mughal Emperor Alamgir II for permission to build a tomb for his father in Delhi. He sought the services of an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) architect to design the tomb in the classical Mughal charbagh style, with the tomb located at the centre of four gardens.

However, if you were to go and see the tomb for yourself, you’ll realise that there’s something that feels a little off about the tomb. When we compare it with other Mughal mausoleums, this one feels a little… Imperfect. Among other things, it appears that halfway through the construction of the tomb, the marble ran out. The stone used to build parts of the monument, most visibly the dome, are not even consistent in colour. How on earth did the builders of such a magnificent tomb do such a shoddy job? This is also explained by the sudden, sharp decline of the empire. The traditional quarries, that were used to mine stone to build monuments in Delhi, were located near Agra – which was no longer controlled by the Mughals. As a consequence, the builders of the tomb had to resort to stripping down existing monuments in Delhi to gather stone and other raw material for the construction of the tomb.

Safdar Jung’s tomb as it looks today, landscaped with beautiful palm trees. One can see how the dome uses different kinds of stone, making do with whatever they could find.
The mosque in the compound of Safdar Jung’s Tomb complex. The three onion shaped domes are built in a striped pattern, another example of the efforts of the builders trying to make do with whatever limited amount of stone they could gather.
Source: Manan Jain, Wikimedia Commons.
The grave of Safdar Jung inside the tomb. He was originally buried in Sultanpur where he died, and his grave was shifted here when his son decided to build him a tomb in Delhi.
Source: Pranav Singh, Wikimedia Commons.

The Legacy of His Name

Today, Safdar Jung’s name lives on in the names of a few South Delhi neighbourhoods, a hospital, a prominent avenue that used to house the official residence of the Prime Minister of India, a railway station and a defunct airport, all in the vicinity of the tomb. Somewhere along the way, ‘Safdar Jung’ became ‘Safdarjung’, reflected in signage and official use. I wonder how many of those who would hang out at any of the umpteen cafes in Safdarjung Development Area would have ever thought about who or what that ‘Safdarjung’ was.

Writer and historian William Dalrymple writes in his book ‘City of Djinns’ that Safdar Jung interested him because his life seemed to encapsulate perfectly the intriguing but cataclysmic half-century that saw the Mughal empire at its peak and its nadir. He writes that when Safdar Jung arrived from Persia, Delhi was still the richest, most magnificent and most populous city between Istanbul and Edo (Tokyo); with two million inhabitants, it was larger than either London or Paris. By his death, the Mughal empire had been reduced nearly to dust at the hands of the Marathas (who would go on to form a great empire of their own), and Delhi would no longer be the power centre it once was – until 1911 when the British government in India would announce that New Delhi was to be their new capital. And more than a hundred years later, it remains the capital of independent India.

Last year, the Archaeological Survey of India decided to light up certain monuments in Delhi and open them up for night viewing, a departure from their usual policy of shutting shop at sunset. Safdar Jung’s Tomb was one of them; and I am exceptionally lucky that I was able to see this beautiful building in its illuminated splendour. It’s simply breathtaking.

Safdar Jung has long gone, but his tomb remains today – for us to see in all its imperfect glory – described charmingly as ‘the last flicker in the dying lamp of Mughal architecture’.

Safdar Jung’s Tomb, illuminated at night, the last flicker in the dying lamp of Mughal architecture. It’s a sight to behold, and in my opinion, a must-visit for anyone with a couple of days to spend in Delhi.

Hope you enjoyed reading this post. The information mentioned in the post is correct to the best of my knowledge, and I have refrained from putting a few interesting stories that I couldn’t back up with reliable sources on the internet.

If you’re inclined to visit the tomb yourself (after the COVID19 lockdown is lifted), Safdar Jung’s Tomb can be accessed from Jor Bagh Metro Station on the Yellow Line of the Delhi Metro. I would recommend you go there at night, although the main tomb closes for visitors in the evening.

If you liked this post, please leave a comment and share it with your friends. Thank you.

By Anmol Dhawan

A doctor who is serially taking exams, and likes to travel and document history and culture in inter-exam period.

13 replies on “A Dying Empire, a Nawab named Safdar Jung, and an Imperfect Tomb”

Excellent article. Your method of writing evokes a level of credibility. Even without your disclaimer, we knew that you have researched it thoroughly

Liked by 2 people

In almost last 50 years of my existence around the safdar Jung Tomb, I’ve never really connected to the tomb in the manner you’ve reflected!
Thanks a ton for the enlightenment! Especially the maps are amazing orientation that most history books seem to miss! Cheers
Anurag Sharma

Liked by 1 person

I take the liberty of addressing you Anmol. I’m Rajiv, a ‘V’ bather.
Excellent post Anmol, thoroughly researched and narrated coherently. Your passion for history is evident. Kudos!
Safdarjung Tomb is indeed a spectacular jewel in Delhi’s incredibly rich heritage.

Liked by 1 person

The Mughal empire has always been the most interesting part of Indian history and you’ve brought the latter period alive for me along with making the monument significant
Easy to read – which makes all the difference
Lovely .

Liked by 1 person

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