Deliverance in the tombs

Delhi: the Built Heritage
January 26, 2001

Anita Desai recalls the sights, sounds and mortar of India's Rome

Delhi is too vast, too sprawling, too archaeologically deep and complicated and historically fragmented a city for anyone to have a feeling of knowing it. Each of us Delhi-wallahs "owns" just one small piece of it, no more than a pebble to hold in one's hand, turn over in one's pocket and reminisce over in that tone of nostalgia and grief that best expresses its long history of conquest, defeat and decay.

My particular collection of pebbles was made, in childhood, in Old Delhi, which to me was bound by Kashmere Gate to the south, the Delhi University campus to the north, the rocky, thorny wilderness of the Ridge to the west and the sluggish river Jamuna crawling through the sands to the east. It was within these boundaries that I played hide-and-seek in the Qudsia Gardens, spent my pocket money on books in Kashmere Gate, on boiled sweets in Exchange Stores, enjoyed birthday treats in Maidens Hotel, cycled past Nicholson's Cemetery and the police parade grounds, the elegant Cecil Hotel and the sprawling bungalows of Ludlow Castle to Queen Mary's School for Girls. I knew that Qudsia Gardens had been laid out around the long-vanished palace of the wife of the Emperor Muhammad Shah and that General Nicholson had played a prominent role in the uprising of 1857, but did not venture to discover much more. St Stephen's Hospital was where my brother and sister were born, St Stephen's College where my brother studied, Miranda House, the college to which my sister and I went - all humdrum and taken for granted.

Later, as an adult, Delhi became for me New Delhi (although when my parents had been advised to buy land in the new capital being built by Edwin Lutyens and others in the 1930s and 1940s, they retorted: "What, and live where jackals roam?"). I had known the 12th-century red sandstone victory tower of Qutb Minar from school picnics but little else until I began walking my dog in the gardens surrounding the Lodi tombs, taking my children for walks in the gardens around Humayun's tomb or those of the madrasa (seminary) built around the Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq's tomb, where peacocks would strut along the tops of the walls and parrots dart through the sunset light. By then I had begun to notice the decay and vandalism rapidly destroying these historic landmarks and the urbanisation swallowing small neighbourhood villages such as Shahpur Jat and Hauz Khas. (Quite remarkably, the village houses where buffaloes had been tethered in the courtyards and food cooked on open clay fireplaces were being turned into expensive boutiques where silks, satins and sequins glittered, attracting car-loads of Delhi's nouveau riche .)

The process had really started, for my generation, when hordes of refugees began to pour in from the newly created country of Pakistan. They were mostly Punjabis, a tribe we in Delhi had never met before. We were both impressed and intimidated by the way they took over the city that had till then been something of a kabr-i-sthan (necropolis), marked as it was by the crumbling tombs, cenotaphs and mausoleums of successive waves of conquerors and the dynasties they founded. The history of Delhi goes back, after all, to the first millennium BC and it is a city that has been in continuous existence for more than 1,000 years. Although the Punjabis had arrived destitute and were being housed, to begin with, in huge tent cities, they assured us with a brash confidence that the Delhi-wallah was lacking:

"You'll see, we'll turn this into another Lahore." Certainly, they transformed the cityscape and with it the admittedly somnolent air of Delhi. They made Delhi what it is today - a city burgeoning with life and "development", loud with bicycles and auto-rickshaws ( phut-phutties in our lingo), food stalls on every pavement, markets spilling over with goods and customers, shops glittering with coloured sweets and foods and flashy fashions, wedding marquees and blaring loudspeakers (we had never heard amplified music before the Punjabis arrived), and suburbs known as "colonies" spreading ever further into the surrounding desert.

And, of course, the population grew and grew - in the last century, from 200,000 to more than 12 million, filling the air with the fumes of urban life and small industry so that today people are forced to wear masks when they ride into the traffic and to blink and gasp as they struggle to see and breathe in the grey woollen quilt of pollution that smothers the city during the winter months that had once been a season of clear blue skies and gardens of marigolds and parrots.

It was not at all unusual to find a family, or even several families, crowded into a 14th-century tomb for shelter (even a dispossessed princess of Oudh lived in one, with her children, her retainers and her Dobermans), hanging their washing over the dome and letting their goats graze in the formal gardens. Almost overnight we found ancient gateways and fortresses demolished to make way for roads and marketplaces. But when the bewildered and disoriented Delhi-wallahs became aware that the great Urdu poet Zauq's tomb had been turned into a municipal lavatory and the revered poet Ghalib's house had become a coal merchant's depot, something finally snapped. Enough! The cry went up. Enough!

Or at least a few voices did, and it is their concerted efforts that have produced nothing short of a miracle when one considers the odds against anything constructive rising out of all this chaos. Rescue has come from unexpected quarters: Intach (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), that prided itself on such imaginary triumphs as the much-ballyhooed and entirely bogus "cleaning of the Ganges" and DDA, the deadly Delhi Development Authority that we have to thank for the redundant flyovers, deserted stadia and concrete blight that has buried the historic city. One blinks in disbelief but here is the proof, in two hefty volumes, that people did care, that they got together and took the first step towards the preservation of an architectural record just as extensive and ancient as that of Rome. These two handsome volumes are made up of more than 700 pages of black-and-white photographs - some just snapshots but others quite dramatic - and data that list 1,200 buildings that need to be protected from the maniacal bulldozers and builders of Delhi. Apart from the photographs, there are details of location, condition and the category of archaeological and historic value to which they belong. This stunning and monumental publication appears to be largely the work of three inspired and dedicated Delhiites: O. P. Jain, the convener of the Delhi chapter of Intach since 1995, Narayani Gupta, a professor of history at Jamia Millia Islamia and, most commendably of all, Ratish Nanda, whose background is in architectural studies.

Nanda won a gold medal in his degree, then the Aga Khan Foundation's international scholarship and the Charles Wallace conservation scholarship for postgraduate work in conservation studies at the University of York. He began work with Historic Scotland but very soon gave it up to return to India and work as consultant to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and take on the task of reviving the waterworks and gardens of Humayun's tomb that had been shamefully allowed to turn to acres of dust. Apparently, Jain met Nanda while working on the restoration of St James's Church in Kashmere Gate and when the former took over the Delhi chapter of Intach, he clearly knew on whose support and labour he could rely. While Jain is responsible for the necessary "networking" - he brought together the lieutenant governor of Delhi, the chief minister, the Delhi Tourism Board, the Delhi Development Authority, and all the others who had to cease the traditional warfare that goes on between governmental and voluntary organisations and begin to cooperate - it is Nanda who actually undertook the tireless footwork to collect the data. In his introduction, he describes some of the hazards of his job: "In many cases, entry into the buildings was not permitted. In some cases, the photographs appear snatched because photography was either not permitted or caused much alarm among vested interests which then tended to be a major hindrance (leading to 'noisy' discussions, occasionally culminating, at least, in the film roll being exposed!)." In the case of Nicholson's Cemetery in Old Delhi, Nanda notes:

"Serious deterioration. The monkeys within the compound are causing extensive damage to the tombstones." Have monkeys taken to building with them, one wonders, following the tradition observed by successive waves of foreign conquerors?

Anyone with experience in trying to get work done in Delhi will think that Nanda's next medal should be for heroism.

The unlikely sounding company of Eicher Goodearth Ltd provided computer experts to mark the plots and zones on maps made by the DDA so that the two volumes show a Delhi conveniently divided into eight zones. By looking up your area of interest, you can trace the building you want information on and discover its history, its condition, its state of preservation and archaeological value, using the same system of gradation that is used in England and Scotland. The history of Delhi from 1068 to 1947 is finally ours. In 1947, just 151 of the monuments and major buildings were protected by the Archaeological Survey of India; at present the ASI protects 5,000 buildings of which 160 are in Delhi (a woeful figure compared with the 500,000 buildings listed and protected in England and Scotland). The rest of the 1,208 listed here remain "unprotected" - ie politicians in need of votes, bumbling civic bodies and the insatiable builders and contractors of Delhi may prey on them recklessly. But at least a structure has been set up to make that less easy and less likely.

This is not the first attempt at documentation. In 1847, Syed Ahmed Khan's Asar-us-Sanadid provided the first survey of Delhi's monuments, but although it was translated into French, no English version exists. In 1911, when New Delhi was first contemplated, the British commissioned Zafar Hasan of the Archaeological Survey to list all the old buildings in Delhi; he laboured at this undertaking until 1922 but his work had limitations imposed on it: it lists only religious buildings and tombs that the British hoped to avoid demolishing in order to escape provocation. Also, his four-volume Hindu and Muslim Monuments of Delhi provides no pictorial evidence. Both these works are out of date because they do not take note of the colonial architecture that followed. The only post-independence cataloguing of Delhi's monuments was done in the 1950s by Japanese scholars under the guidance of Matsuo Ara, but was restricted to buildings of the Sultanate period (1193-1526). To date, it has not been translated and remains unavailable to the general reader. It is shocking to learn that 30 per cent of the buildings recorded in the 1950s had disappeared by the 1990s.

This sobering fact alone should alert the public to the need to follow a policy of conservation for which these two volumes provide the groundwork. Although the hefty price of the books might lead Indians to think of them as a coffee-table production, this is not how they should be viewed. They are a guide not only to Delhi's tourist attractions but to the extraordinary history of the city itself. Nanda believes "Delhi is like no other city in India. You go to Calcutta or Mumbai and you see architecture of mostly one period, colonial, colonial and more colonial. You go to Agra and see only Mughal buildings. You go to Pondicherry and it's French. But in Delhi, there's everything. Sultanate, Mughal and British architecture of all styles, helter-skelter, cheek-by-jowl. It's a heritage museum."

There are misprints, misspellings, errors and omissions - every Delhiite will have a favourite building that is not listed - and one could ask for a more comprehensive glossary, index, bibliography and reference section. But an inspiring beginning has been made. More than anything, it should inspire pride, curiosity and then the determination to honour and preserve.

Anita Desai is professor of writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States. She is the author of many novels and stories about Delhi, most notably In Custody .

Delhi: the Built Heritage: A Listing
Volumes One and Two

Author - Ratish Nanda, Narayani Gupta and O. P. Jain
ISBN - 81 900281 9 7
Publisher - Intach (Delhi chapter): ratish@del6.
Price - £80.00
Pages - 737

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