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The fall and rise of a city

Nov 25, 2012 :

City lights

Delhi has seen a massive influx of rulers from different parts of the world. It has also been at the receiving end of a number of assaults, turmoil, tragedies, loot and plunder through many centuries. It has risen and fallen in successive waves. However, resurrection and decline have always enveloped Delhi like two sides of the same coin, notes Salil Misra.

At the very outset, two contradictory things can be said about the city of Delhi. One, that it is doing very well; and two, that it is doing rather badly, and is in a perpetual crisis.
Delhi has done well because it has managed to survive and flourish in spite of many assaults made on the city through centuries.

The city has grown and acquired many layers with time. It has embraced the new without really giving up the old. The 21st century modern buildings coexist with medieval, and sometimes ancient monuments, side by side. Few cities in the world can boast of preserving so many remnants from its past. In its seamless continuity from distant pasts, Delhi compares very well with cities such as Rome, Athens, Cairo and London.


Delhi speaks through its monuments and old buildings. The city has also been a home to outsiders from other parts of India. It embraces outsiders like no other Indian city does. Those who migrate to Delhi are not obliged to give up their primary identity. Delhi incorporates them into its fold without insisting on their assimilation. Multiple cultures interact here without the fear, either of submergence, or of being isolated.

At the same time, Delhi is also doing very badly. It is bursting at the seams and has outstripped its carrying capacity. Large number of people throng the city in search of employment. They develop an extractive relationship with the city. They take from the city without bothering to give back.

As a result, Delhi remains flooded with large clusters of population that are first generation urban, literate, middle class and affluent. This large cluster, in search of sustained affluence and security, can hardly be expected to maintain standards of civility and urbanity. It is therefore not surprising that Delhi also has the unenviable reputation of being one of the more unsafe cities to live in, specially for women.

Delhi has been at the receiving end of a number of assaults, turmoil, tragedies, loot and plunder through many centuries. It would be true to say that Delhi is connected in time through tragedies and catastrophes. Delhi’s Sikhs, most of them migrants during 1947, were assaulted very brutally in 1984 and nearly 3,000 of them lost their lives. Yet, Delhi has withstood all the wounds on its body with equanimity, and moved on.

There is, however, nothing unusual about the conflicting images of a vibrant city and a city perpetually ridden by crisis. Delhi has always carried multiple such contradictions within itself. It has risen and fallen in successive waves. Resurrection and decline have always enveloped Delhi like two sides of the same coin. The story of this rise and fall, and of Delhi’s making and unmaking, is both interesting and intriguing.

What makes Delhi so important? Is there an explanation for Delhi’s continued centrality to Indian life through centuries? Perhaps some of Delhi’s importance owes itself to the city’s geographical location. For centuries, it had been the natural gateway of entry for travellers, traders, rulers, settlers and raiders. All but two of the major outsiders — British and Vasco-da-Gama — came to India through this route, from Alexander in the 3rd century BC from Greece to Babar in the 16th century from Central Asia.

When the Turks from Central Asia arrived in 12th century, they transformed Delhi from a provincial town into a great administrative centre. From around the 12th century till the 17th, started an interesting pattern in which different rulers from outside came to Delhi and set up a new city within the larger Delhi. And so the fulcrum of capitalhood  kept shifting but remained broadly within the larger Delhi. As many as seven cities developed within Delhi, somewhat like Rome that was built on seven hills. The boundaries of some of the cities can be identified even today.

Delhi was by no means the only important city in the north. Lahore and Agra competed with it for capitalhood. But Delhi had its own magnetic charms that kept attracting rulers. Mohammad Bin Tughlaq decided to shift capital from Delhi to Daulatabad in the Deccan in 1327, but brought it back to Delhi in a few years’ time. Mughal rulers from 16th century onwards showed their preference for Lahore and Agra, but could not stay away from Delhi for long and, in the 17th century, decided to settle in Delhi.

The British too initially created a new city of Calcutta and made it their capital. But they gave in to Delhi’s irresistible attracting powers and brought back the capital to Delhi in 1911. When India became free in 1947, there was some debate among the decision makers on what the capital of independent India should be. Some suggested that it should be located in the vicinity of Nagpur and called Gandhipur.

Some others suggested Allahabad on the ground that it had been the headquarters of Congress during the national movement. Delhi was opposed on the ground that it was after all a colonial city and had been the graveyard of old empires. But Delhi prevailed again and retained its status as the ‘natural’ capital of India.

When Jawaharlal Nehru addressed the citizens of independent Indian nation on August 16, 1947, he chose to do so from the ramparts of the Red Fort and thus acknowledged Delhi’s long imperial past and its seamless continuities. Thus, Nehru complemented Mir Taqi Mir, the 18th century great Urdu poet, who had called Delhi “the heart of Hindustan”.

Favoured destination


It was perhaps inevitable that Delhi would acquire wealth and riches because of the presence of rulers and emperors. This would make Delhi a favoured destination also for invaders and looters. The invaders and looters also came to Delhi from the same route as the rulers. Throughout the 13th century, Delhi was constantly threatened by attacks from Mongol invaders.

Towards the end of 14th century, Timurlane, the Mongol marauder, invaded north India and devastated Delhi. He looted, killed and plundered and reduced Delhi to a lifeless landmass, devoid of all wealth and glory. Within three centuries, however, Delhi was back to its glory and prosperity. It was the Mughal emperor Shahjahan who elevated Delhi to unprecedented heights of magnificence and splendour. He set up the new city of Shahjahanabad. It was popularly called Nai Dehli (New Delhi). In the 20th century, however, the  ‘new’ was redesignated as the old because the British created the New Delhi of today in 1931.

The old Delhi is still there with all its old worldly charms.The Mughals made an extremely important contribution to Indian life by creating a new system of Indo-Islamic syncretism with Delhi as its headquarters. This syncretism reached its heights and glory in poetry, paintings and architecture. The great Persian poetry, rightly called the French of the East, flourished in Delhi.

From Akbar’s times, India became the most important centre of Persian poetry outside Iran. From the 18th century, Urdu poetry, a unique product of Indo-Persian literary style, developed in Delhi. Almost all the great Urdu poets of 18th and 19th century, Mir, Sauda, Zauq, Momin, Dagh and the greatest of them all, Mirza Ghalib, wrote in Delhi, and on Delhi. Not surprisingly, Delhi, its beauty, charm and destruction, became the standard themes of mainstream Urdu poetry.

One of the most vibrant symbols of this syncretism in architecture is of course the Red Fort. Built in the 17th century, it still stands tall and intact. Almost 60-75 feet high, it was built in an area of 125 acres. Red Fort was not simply a king’s private mansion, but virtually the microcosm of the Mughal empire. It had a large bazaar, offices of clerks and accountants, stables for horses, elephants, camels and cows.

It contained manufacturing units for weapons, carpets and jewellery. It had a treasury, houses for soldiers, clerks, merchants, poets, religious specialists and astrologers. According to one estimate, at its height, it housed around 57,000 persons. By all accounts, it was not just a fort, but virtually a city.

The city of Shahjahanabad had a distinct Islamic flavour. Both the forms of Islam, the high and classical, and the Sufi-syncretic, flourished in Delhi at the time of Shahjahan. The high Islam was manifested in the great Jama Masjid, build by Shahjahan, and the Sufi-Syncretic Islam flourished through the multiple shrines of Sufi saints, scattered throughout the city, those of Nizamuddin Chishti (in Nizamuddin today) and Bakhtiyar Kaki (in Mehrauli) being the most prominent.

It was inevitable that all the wealth and prosperity of the new city would again invite the wrath of invaders. And it did. The 18th  century witnessed perhaps the maximum destruction that could be inflicted on a city. A number of invaders — Ahmad Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah from the outside, and Sikhs and Marathas from within India, attacked the city and emptied it of all its richness. Delhi lost its trading and banking networks and also its poets who had been so dependent on the patronage system supported by the city and its rulers. Urdu poets wrote poignantly on the loss and desolation of Delhi.

A whole new genre of poetry, called Shahr-Aashob (wailing over the decline and degradation of the city) developed in Urdu, depicting the decline and destruction of the city. It was during the 18th century that the leading Urdu poets of Delhi left the city partly because the patronage system had dried up. Delhi fell upon bad times again. According to one estimate, Delhi’s population of around two million in the 18th century was reduced to only two lakhs in 1803 when the British took over the city. The plunders by marauders, emigrations from Delhi and natural calamities all took their toll on the city of Delhi.

Return of stability


However, the early decades of the 19th century witnessed the return of stability and order in Delhi. Commerce, literature, education, all of it began to flourish in Delhi. The artists, poets, architects, merchants and traders who had deserted the city began to return to it. But, as was Delhi’s fate, calamity struck again, this time in the form of the rebellion of 1857. Indians rebelled, British retaliated and Delhi bled. Well over 40,000 people died and the famous city of Shahjahanabad was devastated and flattened out by the British. Delhi had risen, only to fall again.

Delhi’s destiny, however, was to keep oscillating between destruction and efflorescence. The two came to Delhi in successive tidal waves. After the destruction of 1857, better days again returned to Delhi by the beginning of the 20th century. During this period, Delhi developed as an important railway junction connecting routes from east, south, south-east and north-west. As Punjab increased in trade and prosperity, Delhi became a major distributing centre between Punjab and the rest of India.

Delhi’s importance was duly recognised by the British and they transferred the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The construction of the new capital began under the leadership of Edwin Lutyens and finally, in 1931, the New Delhi was inaugurated. Thus, yet another city was added to the existing seven. But any kind of sustained peace was to elude Delhi. This time, it was the partition of India in 1947 that took its toll on Delhi.
The British decision to partition India suddenly made the minorities of the two nation-states — Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India — very unsafe.

Delhi, given its Indo-Islamic flavour, had acquired the image of being a Muslim city. Therefore, initially, Muslims from neighbouring Gurgaon, Rohtak and Meerut migrated to Delhi in search of safety. But Delhi itself became very unsafe for Muslims with the arrival of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. As a result, large number of Muslims left their homes and gathered in make-shift refugee camps in Jama Masjid, Purana Qila and Humayun Tomb.

Violence went on for some time and by the time it subsided, Delhi’s basic character had been substantially altered. Nearly 10,000 Muslims had been killed in the violence and over 130 mosques had been damaged or destroyed. Over 44,000 Muslim houses had been evacuated and nearly two-thirds of Delhi’s Muslims had migrated out of Delhi to Pakistan. Delhi’s Muslim population was reduced from 33% to 5.7%.

But Delhi’s population on the whole increased from 9 lakhs in 1941 to around 16 lakhs in 1951. This was because a large number of refugees from Pakistan had come to Delhi and occupied the areas emptied out by emigrating Muslims. Thus the single episode of the partition transformed Delhi’s identity from a Muslim city to a city of refugees. The refugees from West Pakistan spent many years of struggle and deprivation, but within a generation, settled down into relative comfort and contributed in their own way to the city’s vibrance and ‘never say die’ spirit.

Thus the city of Delhi has carried on its long journey through waves of destruction and rebuilding. Delhi’s basic character has been shaped as much by the rulers as by the hordes of traders, travellers, musicians, poets and politicians. The resilience of the city is there even today for anyone to see. This resilience has been tested and tried far too often in history. But the city has always managed to rise from its own ashes.

(The writer teaches history at the Ambedkar University, Delhi )

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