Delhi was the subject of works written almost a hundred years ago. Waqeyaat-e-Daar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli by Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad is an exhaustive Urdu text that reveals the status this Capital city enjoyed

About a fortnight ago this column had drawn attention to the fairly large, some would even say vast, number of rare manuscripts, memoirs, diaries, maps, drawings, photographs, journals, news pieces, posters, pamphlets and other published and unpublished texts on or about Delhi that exist in Urdu, Persian, English and many older texts in scripts like the Mundior Murhi (used almost exclusively by the traders, not only for keeping accounts and sending missives of a confidential nature but also for regular writing).

Much of this material is either gathering dust uncared and unaccounted for in different government and municipal libraries and private collections, being siphoned off surreptitiously abroad or simply disintegrating. The attempt was to underscore the necessity of setting up a library and archives focused on Delhi and to create one central repository of material on Delhi. Such an archive will be of use not only for planners and researchers but also for anyone with any interest in the histories of this eternal city.

Over the next few weeks this column will carry translated excerpts from one of the many remarkable books in Urdu about Delhi. This will be done not only to give to the readers of The Hindu an idea of the kind of work that was being done about the city almost a hundred years ago and earlier, but also to foreground the need to preserve and translate these texts. If this work of preservation, archiving and translation is not taken up with the urgency it demands, this very large part of our intangible heritage will be lost forever.

We begin this series with an introduction to Waqeyaat-e-Daar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli by Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad. The rather longish title of this 1919 publication only means “Events at the Capital City of Delhi”. The Waqeyaat was out of print for decades till the Urdu Academy Delhi re-printed the book as facsimile copy in 1990. The Academy has brought out a more modern photo-composed, slimmer and slicker print with the addition of an exhaustive index and a detailed preface by Prof. Iqtedar Hussain Siddiqui about the significance of texts like the Aasaar and Waqeyaat in understanding the pasts of Delhi and the tradition of historiography in Urdu.

Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad, the author of Waqeyaat, belonged to Delhi and had authored several texts including a few novels intended to usher in social reform in the style of Urdu fiction of the period. For several years he was in the employment of the Nizam of Hyderabad, as collector and while there he authored, among other works, a three-volume account of Bijapur --Waqeyaat-e-Mamlikat-e-Bijapur (Events in the kingdom of Bijapur).

The work was highly appreciated, the Nizam gifted him a princely sum of Rs 1000, John Marshal the Director General of Archaeology (1902-28) liked the book greatly and wrote that “the volumes contained many new things and nothing like it (about Bijapur) had been written earlier by anyone.” The book was eventually seen by W.M Hailey, the first Chief Commissioner of Delhi (1912-18) and he asked Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad to write a similar work on Delhi and also wrote to the ASI to extend him all help in his endeavour. So that is how Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad ended up writing his magnum opus on Delhi.

Bashir-ud Din Ahmad was admitted to the Royal Asiatic Society (London) on the strength of this work. Many decades earlier another Dilliwala Syed Ahmad Khan was similarly honoured by the RAS for his work on Delhi called Aasaar-us-Sanadeed – remains of the past (First published 1847, revised and enlarged edition 1865). Syed Ahmad Khan was to later found the Mohammaden Anglo Oriental College that is today the Aligarh Muslim University. The Aasaar, incidentally forms the basis of and a point of departure for Waqeyaat and in the preface to his work Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad acknowledged the seminal nature of Syed Ahmad Khan’s work.

The flowery prose, the style of the time, that has been employed in writing Waqeyaat consisted in frequent use of poetry to strengthen or foreground the idea being put forward in prose and this piece will conclude with an almost verbatim translation of a ghazal in praise of Delhi that was originally written in Arabic by Shah Abdul Azeez (1745-1823), a great Islamic scholar and interpreter of the Quran. Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad has translated the ghazal from Arabic to Urdu prose and I have attempted a translation of the Urdu text in the hope of transmitting some idea, even if diminished by two linguistic transitions, of the kind of love that people had for this city that no one seems to care too much about these days.

“To the person who wishes to know about Delhi and its status and standing vis-a-vis other cities (this is what I say) without doubt all other cities are maid servants while Delhi is their queen and without doubt Delhi is like a pearl while the other cities are mere shells. Delhi takes precedence over all other cities with the exception of the Mekka, Madina, Jerusalem and Najaf…………. The waters of the Jamna flowing near the city are like the streams that flow through heaven”.

But this and other poetic and literary tributes to Delhi are only a small part of the wealth of historical details that Waqeyaat brings together within the covers of its three volumes consisting of more than 2400 pages. During the coming weeks we would try to bring across to readers selected excerpts from the descriptions of the Red Fort as contained in the Waqeyaat in order to emphasise the need and urgency to preserve and translate these rich resources for the use not only of historians but also because this is our heritage that we should all learn to cherish.

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