Living with history

Living with history

Delhi has absorbed, over the centuries, immigrants and visitors from across the world, and from Central Asia in particular. In many ways, the history of Delhi is the history of cuisines, fragrances, fabrics and architectural styles that came with various waves of immigrants. These were so seamlessly adapted into the indigenous culture and practices that their origins are often forgotten, notes Tanuja Kothiyal.

When Delhi orders its humble evening snack samosa, little is it aware of the long journey that this fried potato and pea patty had undertaken from Central Asia to India. Samosa, or originally sambosa, in the 13th century Sultanate of Delhi, was a fried savoury filled with minced meat, dry fruits and nuts, served in the banquets of the Sultans. Over the passage of time, this meat snack was indigenised to suit the food habits of the vegetarians and emerged as a potato-pea and paneer patty, so much so that the meat version appears to be a recent import. In many ways, the history of Delhi is the history of the cuisines, fragrances, fabrics and architectural styles that came with various waves of immigrants. These were so seamlessly adapted into the indigenous culture and practices that their origins are often forgotten.

The emergence of the Sultanate in Delhi in the early 13th century opened its doors to multiple ethnicities like the Turks, Taziks, Uzbeks, Mongols, Arabs, Afghans, Iranians, Syrians and Abyssinians from Central and West Asia among others. Arriving as occupational travellers like warriors, traders and ascetics, they represented a nomadic cultural ethos quite different from a sedentary one they encountered in India, or Al-Hind, as it was then called. The establishment of the Sultanate in Delhi provided a basis for the emergence of an Indo-Islamic society that incorporated the features of both the nomadic immigrant cultures and settled indigenous ones. The Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals, all brought varying ideas that were visible in the areas of polity, social organisation, commercial institutions, religious practices, art, architecture, town planning, cuisine, military technology and weaponry among others. These ideas led to the development of a new social culture that was very urban in ethos and revolutionised Indian towns like Delhi and converted them into vibrant centres of exchange.

The Central Asian immigrants had come from magnificent cities in Transoxiana like Kabul, Herat, Balkh (Afghanistan), Bukhara, Samarqand, Tashkent, Ferghana (Uzbekistan) and Isfahan and Tabriz (Iran). Indian towns failed to impress the immigrants who were used to living in bustling cities. Therefore, over a period of time, they contributed to the development of cities like Delhi as urban spaces, so much so that the 14th century traveller, Ibn Battuta, found Delhi to be the most magnificent city of the Islamic world.

Delhi, to begin with, was not the centre of the emerging Indo-Islamic world. The city that was regarded as the Marqaz-i-Dar-ul-Islam (centre of refuge of Islam) in the early 13th century was Lahore. The early Sultans were enthroned as the Sultans of Lahore and Ghazna (Afghanistan). But Lahore’s proximity to the western frontier made it vulnerable to Mongol attacks, rendering Delhi a better choice for a capital city.

Delhi itself was ideally located between the arid western frontier of Al-Hind and the riverine plains of northern India. This confluence made it a thoroughfare for travellers from Central Asia, as well as a locale from where such movement could be controlled. As the rulers of the Sultanate resigned themselves to being the Sultans of Delhi, rather than that of Ghazna in Afghanistan, they attempted to replicate Central Asian urban planning in their new capital. The Central Asian splendour was soon visible in Delhi as palaces, mosques, madrasas, khanqahs, serais and bazaars were built where Iranian merchants could be found rubbing shoulders with painters from Balkh and Herat. From the 13th century onwards, Delhi emerged as the political centre of the new Sultanate. It also became a leading centre of Islamic theological discourse and learning as the Mongol menace forced the clerics to seek refuge in Delhi that came to be seen as Dar-ul-Islam (refuge of Islam).

Over the next few centuries, several cities of Delhi like Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahanpanah (city built by Muhammad bin Tughlaq), Dinpanah (city founded by Humayun in the Purana Qila), Shahjahanabad, were settled and unsettled. Each of these revelled in architectural traditions that borrowed from the old and brought in the new as well. The skyline of the upcoming cities was repeatedly transformed by the new architectural styles that came with the immigrants. The true arch and dome built by the arcuate system, in addition to the indigenous trabeate and corbelled systems, revolutionised building styles in Delhi. The Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque of the 13th century with a dome, an open courtyard with arcades on the north, east, and south sides and a broad prayer hall before the qibla, used tile work and calligraphic patterns prevalent in central Asia. Among various mosques built by the Tughlaqs, the imposing Jahanpanah Mosque was framed in Iranian style.

The Jama Masjid, built by Shahjahan in the 17th century, appears to be the coming of age of Indo-Islamic architecture. Thus the buildings in medieval Delhi saw a steady refinement in architectural styles by including high arched gates and alcoves, corridors, domes, gardens and shallow waterways that became intrinsic parts of the new buildings. The concept of chahar bagh, or a four-part garden intersected by axial walkways, was replicated in the various gardens that Mughals laid in India. The Central Asian model of rivers and channels running through the city became so intrinsic to Mughal architecture that when Chandni Chowk was built as a market and residential area opposite the Red Fort, it was constructed on both sides of a water channel called Nahr-i-Faiz (river of victory).

Urban designs

The Central Asian urban ethos was also reflected in the markets that developed in the new cities. Delhi was not just the administrative capital of various medieval regimes, but a bustling market frequented by traders and merchants from all over Central Asia and China. An important aspect of the market places in Delhi and other cities was the presence of market squares or bazaar-i-chaharsu, which was a common feature of the cities of Transoxiana. Over a period of time, the markets came to be organised according to the kind of merchandise that was sold. For instance, the cloth merchants’ street, the bazaar-i-bazzazan, sold varieties of silks from China like khuz, diba, shir and qasab apart from other exclusive materials like mashru, zarbaft and kimkhab. Rubies from Badakshan, leather from Morocco, glassware from Syria and brocade from Rum (Anatolia) appear to have been luxurious imports available in the markets. The immigrants also created demand for luxury utensils, particularly of Chinese porcelain, as the practice in India had been to use metal utensils. A separate market had been organised in Delhi that sold Arabic horses, wild camels from Central Asia, hawks, falcons as well as furs of beaver, fox and Sythian weasel. The overwhelmingly militaristic nature of the Sultanate in Delhi also created the need for a market that specialised in weapons, armours and saddles.

Imported taste

The markets were also transformed by the dietary needs of Central Asian immigrants. A variety of Central Asian fruits like yellow plums, melons, grapes of different kinds, dry fruits such as almonds, pistachios and raisins were imported from Bukhara. In fact, the sweetest yellow melons were cut into strips, dried and packaged to be sold in Delhi. A bewildering variety of meats, fish and birds like chicken, water fowl, pheasant, partridge, quail and button quail were also available. The fundamental difference that emerged in the market places in the Sultanate was the opening of catering shops or dukanan-i-tabbakhan where cooked food was sold. Indians were not used to buying cooked food, whereas Central Asian travellers, itinerant traders and warriors had no religious inhibitions about it. So restaurants selling baked breads and meats became commonplace in the market squares. Therefore, it is not surprising that all old market areas in Delhi like Mehrauli, Nizamuddin and Chandni Chowk are much visited food streets of the city.

The impact of Central Asian cuisine on the food habits in Delhi was a lasting one. The cuisine that came to be identified later as Mughlai had actually evolved over four or five centuries. The Central Asian traditions emphasised on communal dining as opposed to Indian traditions where meals were closed exclusive affairs. The Sultans of Delhi patronised large kitchens where food was cooked for hundreds of people. They also appear to have been rather fond of organising lavish meals on occasions like Id, Shab-i-baraat, and Nauroz, also called Jashn-e-bahaar like in the times of Sultan Firuz Tughlaq in the 14th century. These banquets were held in luxuriantly decorated spacious tents where a variety of food was served. It was cooked by expert matbakhyans or cooks under the guidance of specialised chashnigirs or tasters. The banquets usually began with the serving of refreshing sherbats made of fruit juices and sugar candy. This was followed by several kinds of preparations of meats roasted or curried, rice, cooked as biryani, pilaf, khichri, mutanzan, breads like qurs, nans, mashrikin and sweets in the form of halvah, firni and sabuni. A lasting contribution to the cuisine of Delhi was the aforementioned sambosa. Public kitchens were organised at the Sufi khanqahs, mosques and madrasas as well, where the spread may not have been so lavish but nevertheless catered to a large number of visitors.

The use of pyrotechnics was another feature that enlivened the city life. Though all ingredients of gunpowder like saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal were easily available in India, yet the techniques of gunpowder production and gun-casting came with the immigrants. Initially, gunpowder was used for firework displays and eventually for the artillery. Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji (1290 CE) is believed to have used fireworks like hawa’i and fatila-i-gardan (a stone-shaped toy) in royal celebrations. The 13th century poet, Amir Khusrau, composed a qasida where he described the hawa’i as a wonder which threw fire flowers in the air when ignited. The fatila-i-gardan turned in spirals while burning. In another work Ijaz-i-Khusravi, Amir Khusrau describes Delhi as having turned into the garden of Ibrahim by the firework display. A whole community of pyrotechnic professionals called aatishbazaan was involved in the production and display of fireworks, which had become so sophisticated by the Mughal age that they burst to form shapes of elephants and camels in the sky when ignited. Interestingly, Islamic orthodoxy termed firework display as sinful innovation and the practice of Nimrud, symbolically the tyrant and the enemy of God.

It was not only the skill of fireworks that the immigrants brought to India, but the whole tradition of knowledge that had developed in Central Asia. As Isami, writing of the reign of the 13th century Sultan Iltutmish in Delhi points out, “Painters from China, many learned men, natives of Bukhara, ….many assayers knowledgeable in precious gems, scholars versed in greek sciences (hakiman-i-yunan) and physicians from Rum in that city, they came like moths gathering around a candle.” As early as the 11th century, the science of astronomy and astrology had already gained popularity among the elite in Central Asia under the patronage of the rulers of Khwarazm, Ghazna and Samarqand.

This interest in sciences was reflected in the era of Sultans of Delhi as well, as complex astronomical instruments like the astrolabe came to be used in the Sultanate. Firuz Tughlaq’s reign in the 14th century also saw the installation of the Tas-Gharyal or the water clock with an associated gong that advertised the hour. According to Ziauddin Barani, in the reign of late 13th century Sultan, Alauddin Khalji, the conglomeration of scientists and men of learning from different countries made Delhi rival Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul.

The presence of such a great number of learned men also helped in the emergence of yet another institution, that is the madrasas of Delhi. The tradition of imparting Quranic knowledge, tafsir (the exegesis of the Quran), hadis (the prophetic tradition) and fiqh (jurisprudence) had already become established in cities of West and Central Asia. In the emerging cities, madrasas became important means of social mobility by opening doors to new converts to Islam and lower caste Hindus. Two madrasas built by Firuz Tughlaq, the Madarsa-i-Firuzshahi at Hauz Khas and Madarsa-i-Shahzada-i-Buzurg at Siri, provided an education that based itself on both Ilm-i-Maqul (rationalistic sciences), Ilm-i-Kalam (scholasticism) as well as on Ilm-i-Maishat (economic sciences). The madrasa education, over time, became the means through which the polity of Sultanate was indigenised by increasing inclusion of the locally born into the administration. It was through madrasas that a literary tradition in Persian, and eventually Urdu, developed in Delhi.

If madrasas became the medium for Quranic instruction, another form of Islam was promoted through Sufi khanqahs of different orders that were established in Delhi. The khanqah of Sufi Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Qaki at Mehrauli became the centre of spread of the Central Asian Chistiyya order in Delhi, carried forward by Nizamuddin Auliya and Nasiruddin Chirag-i-Dilli. The khanqahs attracted Hindus and Muslims alike and adopted local languages, idioms and practices. The culture that evolved in the Sufi dargahs became an intrinsic part of Delhi’s culture.

Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, a disciple of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, perhaps represented the epitome of a mixed Central Asian and Indian heritage. Born in India of mixed Turkish and Indian origins, Amir Khusrau is attributed with the origin of a distinct style that was the confluence of Persian, Central Asian and Hindustani traditions of poetry, prose and music. It is in his words that we can perhaps attempt to understand the influence of Central Asian culture that over a period of time became so deeply ingrained in lifestyles and practices that any attempt to seek distinct origins is futile.

Mun tu shudam tu mun shudi,mun tun shudam tu jaan shudi
Taakas na guyad baad azeen, mun deegaram tu deegari


(I have become you, and you me,
I am the body, you soul;
So that no one can say hereafter,
That you are someone, and me someone else)

The writer teaches History at Ambedkar University, Delhi




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