After the gap of last week when more pressing issues had compelled us to write about the senseless cutting of trees on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Marg that runs between Sectors A and D in Vasant Kunj, we return to the excerpts from the 1919 publication Waqeyaat-e-Daar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli – Events at the Capital Delhi -- by Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad.

The text, that runs into 2400 pages in the original and into 2000 pages in the recent reprint where the entire text has been digitally typeset, was written at the behest of W.M. Hailey, the first chief commissioner of Delhi and Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad is careful not to offend his patrons and yet he finds it difficult to not refer to the devastation and destruction that had been inflicted upon Delhi in the aftermath of 1857. The protest is, however mild, subdued and indirect.

You will get an idea of the tenor of his remonstration from this short excerpt about the Deewan-e-Aaam or the hall of public audience. Aside from being a fairly exhaustive history of Delhi and a source for a detailed description of many leading personalities of Delhi, the Waqeyaat is also interesting as a pro British commentary on 1857 and on the events between 1857 and the early decades of the 20 century:

“In the days when this majestic building was in its original form and shape, it was 550 feet in length and 300 feet in width. Within its four walls there existed many structures linked through a series of courtyards that were described by Bernier in the following words ‘this palace is similar to the Palace Royale in England, the only difference is that it is not a two-storied structure and there are many separate courtyards arranged such that there are small connecting doors for moving from one enclosure to the other’ (It needs to be mentioned here that I am translating Bernier from the Urdu translation by Bashir-ud-din Ahmad). The rooms were very large and open and were placed on a plinth that was three-and-a-half feet high. Those nobles and courtiers who had to be present at the court used to occupy these buildings. On special occasions, like the two Eids, these places were decorated elaborately. Brocade was wrapped around the pillars, curtains of silk and velvet were draped across arches and the floor covered in fabulous carpets, in other words the entire complex would be dressed up like a bride.

After the 1857 Mutiny, all the buildings within and the walls of enclosure were demolished and no trace now remains of the grandeur, the decorum and etiquette that defined this place. The place where the massive mansion of the Deewan-e-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) now stands alone was in fact the centre of the courtyard that was adjacent to the eastern gate, to its right was a gateway that led to another courtyard, to its left were the palaces of the heir apparent; these too have been levelled to the ground. And as for the state of Deewan-e-Aam it is in a mess, all its silver work has been scratched out here and there, the precious stones and jewels that had been used for inlay work have mostly been removed, whatever has survived the depredations of these heartless plunderers is worth appreciating and unparalleled.

Despite all this destruction and unbridled loot, this splendid edifice is incomparable. The entire building is made of red sandstone. The floor is four feet high and the hall is 80 feet in length and 40 feet in width, the roof is at a height of 30 feet. The hall has a wall only on one side and is open on the other three. On the roof there are two small canopies in the style of the canopies placed atop the Naqqar Khana Darwaza (The Drum House Gate). The roof is flat with a broad cornice projecting on three sides. Inside the hall has three rows of seven arches, each arch is built atop pillars placed six feet apart, the cusped arches begin from the rear wall and come up to the front of the hall. The front of the hall has 10 pillars upon which rise the same type of cusped arches. On three sides the hall is flanked by stairs, five towards the front and seven each to the sides”

The procedure that Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad follows at many places in Waqeyaat is that he begins with a mise-en-scène kind of presentation of the monument, painting a picture in words of the locale, as he has done in the case of the Deewan-e-Aam excerpted above. He would then launch into a description of what went on at the chosen locale and for this he often uses eye witness accounts, for instance in the case of Deewan-e-Aam he chooses to describe the ‘pomp and show’ of the place in the words of the Frenchman François Bernier (1625-88) a traveller and for many years personal physician of Aurangzeb. When recounting things and events that he has firsthand knowledge of, Bashir-ud-Din writes with great flourish and style.

Unfortunately we cannot translate the description of the goings-on at the Deewan-e-Aam primarily because it is rather long and elaborate and will not fit into this column. To enjoy the description properly you will have to wait for a full translation of Waqeyaat, whenever that happens.


Bridging myth and realityMarch 11, 2013