It fell to the lot of Delhi's resident poet Asadullah Khan Ghalib to describe the city succinctly, appropriately. “I asked my soul, what is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its soul.” Ghalib might have composed the couplet more than 150 years ago, but not much has changed since for the city that was always destined to be the heart of Hindustan, the capital in modern parlance.
From being the lifeline of the Moghul Empire to a rare jewel in the crown of the British Raj, Delhi has been short neither of patrons nor of conquerors. Thousands of years before Ghalib, Delhi was Indraprastha or the Abode of Indra. Delhi might be celebrating 100 years of the capital being shifted from Calcutta, but much before that, it was the city of knowledge.
The city was established on the banks of the Yamuna. Once the river was in spate and the ancient scriptures came to be deposited on its bank — the stretch came to be known as Nigambodh Ghat (the bank of sacred knowledge). Indraprastha came up near it. But from Indraprastha to New Delhi, it has had at least seven reincarnations, as each emperor sought to leave his own imprint. In his essay “Life in Shahjahanabad”, which is a part of the book under review, Salman Khurshid puts the number at a maximum of ten.
In early medieval India, Indraprastha became Jahanpanah (haven of the world). Sometime later, it was christened Deenpanah (haven of faith), appropriately so, considering that almost every other peepul tree was home to deities, every other lane had a mosque, many of them boasting the signage of a king with a grandiloquent title. Why, even a ruler whose sovereignty extended not more than a few square kilometres was bestowed the title of ‘Shah Alam' (Emperor of the Universe)!
Yet, this is a city that made space for a slave to rise to kingship — some 800 years ago Qutbuddin Aibak, a former slave, laid the foundation of the Delhi Sultanate! Only a little after Aibak, Delhi had a woman ruler, Raziya Sultan. Even Babur, not known to be a great lover of Hindustan, laid out beautiful gardens here.
All the accidents of history proved that the city, with its unique culture, was way ahead of times. And it continued, as Delhi changed from being the apple of Shah Jahan's eye to Edwin Lutyens' dream. This is the change the book traces with skill. No eulogy on the city's rich heritage, just a delectable collection of illustrations, drawings and the photographs that reveal the city in its varied colours. Backing that is a text that opens little windows to the bygone era.
This book focusses more on the Moghuls than on the early days of the Delhi Sultanate. Citing Nidhamal's plan of the Red Fort, William Stewart's collection, and those of Gentil and James Hyde, etc., Losty draws neat parallels between Delhi and Agra and even other towns of the era. This is where the worth of the book outstrips the sum of its parts. If Ratish Nanda's essay presents the face of a researcher with a sharp eye for detail, Malavika Singh's takes the narration beyond the Walled City to the newest Delhi.
The strength of Nanda lies in depth and detail rather than width or vision and that of Singh in comparisons of the city, old and new. Importantly, none of this seems odious; there is a natural progression from one era to the next.
The drawings and photographs speak a thousand lines. For instance, the ink and watercolour recollection of the age-old Faiz Bazaar near Jama Masjid showing the emperor's caravan moving to Qutub Minar and even Roshanuddaulah Masjid. Similarly Sitaram's ‘The Shrine of Qutub Sahib at Mehrauli' is a gem. It comes from his drawings done for Lord Hastings.
Equally illuminating is English artist William Carpenter's ‘Jama Masjid from the Balcony of a House to the North'. With neatly etched paandaan and zenana, it throws light on an ordinary man's life. Giving a different facet of the city is Jugal Kishore Gosain's work. It proves that although the city is known for its Moghul architecture, a large proportion of its inhabitants have been Hindus throughout. Giving yet another perspective are some photographs, notably Joseph Beglar's, reproduced from the Archaeological Survey of India collection.
Leafing through the visuals, one feels like a poet wishing to stand and stare at an unfolding world. It is all summed up by Khurshid who puts it beautifully in the couplet of Zauq, poet in Bahadur Shah Zafar's court: “Kaun Jaye Zauq Par Dilli ki galiyan chhor kar?” You could whisper that about the book too.