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A scholar's date with Delhi...

THE LIBRARY of Dara Shikoh in Kashmere Gate, which partly houses the Delhi Administration's Archaeology Department, has a history of over 350 years behind it. Dara was a man of letters who read a lot in an age when books were a rarity. The books were first housed at Agra where Dara had a place full of them. He would walk across from the fort nearby and sometimes spend the night there too. The palace, which later housed the offices of the Agra Municipal Committee, is a short walk from the Yamuna so when Dara woke up he would have an early morning view of the river, with the sun just about a spear's height in the distance. In Delhi, the place that formed his library was also near the Yamuna bank, for 350 years ago the river flowed quite close to Kashmiri Gate.

Why did Dara shift his library to Delhi? Quite a few carriages must have been pressed into service to bring the vast collection of books all the way from Agra. The reason was that after Shah Jehan decided to make Delhi his capital, Dara, the heir apparent, had to be near his father, who placed a lot of confidence in him, with his other brothers posted as governors at different places. Because of intrigues and counter-intrigues Dara also thought it better to stay as close to Shah Jehan as possible.

But at the same time Dara could not do without his books. Hence the need for a library at Delhi which contained invaluable tomes, both from India and abroad, specially Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Iran. Dara was a mystic, who besides daily discourses with the sufis, also mingled with the vedantists and Jesuits and tried to understand their point of view. Many Jain munis were among his acquaintances and he even had the Upanishads translated into Persian.

When the war of succession broke out and Dara was defeated by Aurangzeb, he fled to Sindh where he was betrayed by his host, Malik Jiwan, a Baluch chieftain, who had once been saved by the Moghul prince from the wrath of Shah Jehan. The betrayal and death of Dara meant the destruction of a large number of books in his libraries which were regarded as heretical by Aurangzeb. Some of them were definitely saved but where they are today is not known. Perhaps a few found their way to England after the library became the living quarters of the British Resident and of the troops in 1857. No wonder the erstwhile library looks like a colonial bungalow from outside with pillared verandahs. One hopes that it will be restored to some of its pristine glory.

Dara's love of learning probably stemmed from Babar's love for writing, which got rubbed on to the latter's daughter, Gulbadan and to his grandson, Akbar who, though illiterate, had the best collection of books in his time. Like Jahangir, Aurangzeb could write well too and it was one of his generals who lent his named to the Ghaziuddin Madarsa near Ajmere Gate, founded in the early 18th Century. Its poor cousin is the Fatehpuri Masjid Madarsa. The Delhi College of the 19th Century, now named after Dr. Zakir Husain, is also an offshoot of the Ghaziuddin Madarsa. The oldest Madarsa in Delhi was probably the one set up by Firoz Tughlak near Hauz Khas. But here the spotlight is on the madarsa in Fatehpuri Masjid.

Fatehpuri Masjid is different from Jama Masjid. Though lacking in finesse, the building has a charm, which has to be discovered by wandering up and down in it. Perhaps the reason is that it was built by a woman, Fatehpuri Begum, a wife of Shah Jahan, and feminine intuition has naturally lent to it a cloistered look. After the Mutiny, the Masjid was mortgaged to Lala Chunna Mal for some time.

Among the rooms in the mosque is the madarsa where Urdu, Arabic and Persian too are taught like Latin was in the medieval monasteries. The madarsa was founded in 1875 when Lord Northbrook was the Viceroy and after whom the fountain in Chandni Chowk was named. Lord Northbrook was a man with a neutral stance. There was trouble brewing in Afghanistan but he tried to keep himself aloof though it led to the Second Afghan War during the time of his successor, Lord Lytton.

In 1878 was passed the Vernacular Press Act, which was anti- Indian to the core, and the same year was formed Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh. Then came the Delhi Durbar to proclaim the assumption of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. It was at such a time that the madarsa started imparting religious teaching to boys not only of Delhi but also from other places. We do not know whether the students of the madarsa protested against the retrograde Press Act, which was withdrawn by the liberal Lord Ripon.

The institution even today continues in much the same way as it began. You see boys in skullcaps and kurta-pyjama sitting on the ground and reciting the Urdu alphabet or the advance one known as the "amokhta'' with the names of the Muwakkils -- Alif se Israfeel, Be se Jibraeel, Te se Israeel, Se se Makail --all angels -- who preside over each letter. Madarsa Ali Arabia Fatehpuri is quite unlike other institutions but very much in keeping with the atmosphere of its surroundings, which have changed little from Moghul days. The students sway as they recite under the stern eye of the bearded teachers whose ear is so fine that they can catch the slightest deviation in intonation and make the boys repeat until they get it right.

This teaching by rote has its advantage too, for a student never forgets what he has learnt at the madarsa. The teacher used to be stricter but more leniency is shown now in keeping with the changed times. Dedication is another thing that a visitor gets to admire in this bastion of orthodoxy at Fatehpuri where they know the names of all the angels by heart.


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