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SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Delhi, yesterday
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Vignettes of a capital city from more than a century and a quarter ago.

City of ruins: The Purana Qila or Indraprastha, said to be the site of the most ancient Delhi.

THE two hours in Lahore permitted only a quick lunge into a highly recommended bookshop. But the pickings were good. The top catch was a Gazetteer of the Delhi district 1883-84, reprinted and hardbound. It brought back fond memories of long ago summer spent poring over such gazetteers in the deserted library in Nahan, the small and uneventful capital of Sirmur district of Himachal. The memories recalled the fascination with which one read these geographical catalogues with their masses of facts assiduously put together by young, academically inclined ICS administrators.

Indelible images
History, geography, flora and fauna, sociology, ethnography, legend... all coalesced on those yellowing pages to create indelible images of various districts and regions. The doyen of such writers and compilers of gazetteers was William Wilson Hunter who joined the ICS in 1862 and opted for service in the Bengal Presidency. His talents caught the attention of the Viceroy, Lord Mayo and he was transferred to the Government of India as the compiler of the Bengal Gazetteer. Over the next 12 years, Hunter put in a prodigious amount of work to produce his crowning achievement — the Imperial Gazetteer of India of 1881, in nine volumes, and was knighted for his efforts.

The Delhi district gazetteer of a century and quarter ago does not disappoint. It relies on a draft gazetteer put together between 1870 and 1874 by one Mr. F. Cunningham, Barrister-at-Law, settlement reports as well as reports by various district officers and produces as detailed a picture as can possibly be imagined of a district that then had only "two towns of more than ten thousand souls" — Delhi and Sonepat, housing together 1,86,000 people!

Clearly, it was a very different Delhi — a Delhi "built on a slight eminence on the right bank of the Jamna" — essentially Shahjahanabad with its 10 gates and some later additions by the British. It is a Delhi whose suburbs are Sabzi Mandi, Sadr Bazaar and Paharganj. Its finest street, Chandni Chowk, planted with a double row of neem and pipal trees, leads from the main gate of Red Fort to Lahori Gate of the city. The East Indian railway enters the city from a magnificent iron bridge across the Jamna, like an arrow piercing the gap between the Red fort and the Salimgarh fort, and the Rajputana State Railway passes out of the city through the Kabuli gate. There are several well laid out gardens, within and just beyond the walls — the Qudsia Bagh, the Roshanara Bagh and the Queen's Bagh laid out by Jahanara Begum, between the railway station and Chandni Chowk which I rather suspect is now the gigantic parking lot.

Beyond the walled city the plains are dotted with the ruins of earlier Delhis, remains of lost empires and tombs of bygone rulers — the desiderata of history. A quick tour sounds like an early morning Sunday drive today, when all the residential colonies are asleep and there is no traffic. The Mathura Road leads away from Delhi gate, shaded only by the occasional kikar, papal, neem or dhak, past the ruins of Firozabad to the Purana Qila or Indraprastha, said to be the site of the most ancient Delhi. Not far away is Humayun's tomb where along with Humayun, his wife and the headless body of Dara Shikoh rest several princes of the House of Timur. Close at hand, but already fives miles away from "modern Delhi" is the "village of Nizammuddin." The road carries on for several miles to another ruined Delhi — the 14th century Tughlakabad, reduced even then to "an insignificant Gujar village".

The other side
On the other side, from Lahori Gate, the road takes one two miles from Delhi to Jantar Mantar, started but never completed by the astronomer Jai Singh. Three miles across an open plain stands the tomb of Safdarjang in the centre of an elaborate garden. A few miles further to the south of course is the Qutb Minar with its complex of remarkable monuments. Somewhere along the way are the ruins of Alauddin Khalji's Delhi at Siri.

The Gazetteer gives intricate details of the Qutb, measuring it at 238 feet and one inch, with 179 steps leading to the top. It mentions that an earthquake in 1803 brought down the cupola that originally adorned the top of the tower. This was replaced by one Major Robert Smith with a Mughal pavilion but that was found to be so out of character with the rest of the monument that Lord Hardinge ordered it to be replaced with the iron railing that one can see today.

Around Mehrauli and the southern regions are the rocky and undulating hill spurs, covered with kikar and beri bushes, the soil sparkling with mica. The Gazetteer notes that the "hills of Delhi, which though not attractive in themselves, give a pleasant view across the Jamna, and in clear weather allow, it is said, even a glimpse of the Himalayas." It must have been very clear weather indeed. And the wildlife of the region sounds astounding — pigs, foxes, hare, partridge, duck, snipe, muggers, ghariyals along the banks of the Jamna... .. chikara, black buck, snakes everywhere... even leopards were seen at Tughlakabad.

There must be many other gazetteers in the world. In fact the Columbia Gazetteer of the World online is probably the biggest of them all, recently updated with 30,000 new entries from the 1952 version. One hundred and fifty geographical scholars have put down every possible bit of information about the world, from glaciers to shopping malls. But give me my old Delhi gazetteer any time; and give me the Delhi that does not change. The Delhi of the shady neem trees, the soothing yellow of the amaltas, the wild kikar across the ridge, the peacock on its thorny branches greeting the morning sun, the flaming gulmohar, the jarul bush with its lilac flowers. And then let Zauk, the Urdu poet, softly recite:

Kaun jaye, Zauk, Dilli ki galiyan chod ke. (Who can leave behind, O Zauk, the bylanes of Delhi).

navtej.sarna@gmail.com