“Delhi was once a paradise, where love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now And only ruins remain”
– Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’
Buildings can tell a thousand tales; If you wish to time travel, come to Delhi. Delhi has a soul which is so conspicuously missing in the fabricated, concrete jungles of Gurgaon and Noida ; where else you’ll find a five hundred year old tomb playing peek-a-boo with you, vying for your attention, amidst all the modern constructions around it?
Yet, Delhi failed miserably to preserve its rich and glorious heritage, as if the plundering of the city by multiple invaders during Mughal rule & before, and later by British, was not enough. William Dalrymple, echoes this grief in his fantastic book ‘The Last Mughals’-
“Of the great cities of the world, only Rome, Istanbul and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and diversity of historic remains…Ninety nine percent of the delicate havelis or Mughal courtyard houses of Old Delhi have been destroyed and like swathes of the city walls have disappeared into memory. Sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved or less cared.”
It is a pity that a Britisher’s words are what piqued my interest about the city, a place where I have spent a quarter of my life, so much so that on one bright Sunday afternoon I found myself gazing in awe at the majestic Lahori Gate. It’s from this Lahori Gate that all wedding processions, which were a symbol of authority & prestige for Mughals, used to commence. Now, it acts as the only entry to the Red fort, overlooking the sprawling Chandni Chowk market.
A straight walk from Lahori Gate led to the Naubat Khana or the Drum house, from where musicians would announce the entry of the emperor and the princes to the Diwan-i-Am or the House of Public Audience. It was indeed a door to the emperor’s house with music serving the same purpose as the current-day door bell. Naturally, it was here where all means of transportation such as bullock carts, elephants and horses were required to be ‘parked’.
As I walked towards the Diwan-i-Am, I could imagine the emperor sitting on his impressive marble throne, and meeting common people to hear petitions, settle grievances, and administer justice. Although, a lot of it was damaged in the 1857 rebellion, wherein it was turned into an ammunition center by the mutiny of the Sepoys; there is enough to keep you amazed at the craftsmanship displayed in a hall built nearly four centuries ago. After all, it was built by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, to whose architectural credits include the most visited monument in India – Taj Mahal.
It was not my first encounter with the Red fort, but it was definitely the first time I could feel the sorrow, elation, betrayal, struggle, triumphs these structures would have seen. Perhaps that’s why reading and travelling are so interconnected – when you read, you want to travel; when you travel, you want to read.
My favourite place in the fort, though, was the Hayat Baksh Bagh or the Life-bestowing Garden, to the left of Diwan-i-Am (see map), adorning two identical white marble structures Sawan and Bhadon Pavilion. Symmetry was one of the key aspects of Mughal architecture and you won’t fail to spot the same in the rectangular gardens here. For Mughals, gardens were a ‘reflection of paradise‘ and hence it is no surprise that many mushairayas or poetic symposiums were held there during Zafar’s rule. Zafar, to his credit, was more than an amateur poet and his company included two of the most celebrated poets of the time : Ghalib and Zauq.
Poetry in Delhi was not an elite’s entitlement and was discussed in every house. It was nothing less than an obsession – your civilization index, as a matter of fact, depended on your command over verses. When a collection of Urdu verses was published in early 1850s, the contributors ranged from, “the emperor himself to a merchant, a poor water-seller in Chandni Chowk, an elderly German mercenary, a young wrestler and a barber. Atleast 10% of these had clear Hindu names.” This passion cut across all genders, religions and social status, which instinctively raise questions as to when and how did Delhi’s image get transformed from being intellectual to being boorish & uncultured.
Along with being intellectually rich, Delhi was famous for being a wealthy city too. When Nadir Shah defeated the Mughal army in 1739, thousands of elephants and horses were required to carry his loot to Iran. Along with the still contentious Kohinoor Diamond, he also took along the famous jeweled Peacock throne that was seated in Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience).
The hall today is not even a shadow of the opulence & authority it once stood for, but once it was here that the emperor received his honoured guests and conducted important meetings with ministers and dignitaries. The only tiny glimpse to the prosperity of the time could be seen through the exhibits kept in Mumtaz Mahal, a part of Zenana or the residence for women. The white-marbled palace, which is to the right of the Diwan-i-Khas, now displays forgotten pieces of the Mughal history.
While preparing myself to return back to the present, I wondered how would Shahjahan react if he were to see the dilapidated state of the beloved city he founded? May be, I am just romanticizing something which I have not even experienced. May be, my longing for a bygone era is just misplaced. May be, someday I would be able travel to the city in its glory and have my own version of ‘Midnight in Paris‘. Till then, I’ll keep time travelling. Through Books and Buildings, ofcourse.