Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Living with history

August 09, 2013

Written by an English travel enthusiast and his photographer son who call Delhi their second home, Delhi’s Historic Villages aims at highlighting the dilemma faced by the residents of a contemporary city with a complex history. Charles and Karoki Lewis do this while trying to recreate the ambience of times gone by with nostalgic musings, delightful anecdotes, and stories of rulers. They compare the practical needs and aspirations of a sprawling mega city with the conservation of religious and political relics in its clusters of towns. Delhi as the modern city has developed around several historic villages that were founded, flourished, were abandoned, razed, re-populated, sacked, salvaged and finally became part of today’s Delhi. Some of these historical villages still contain authentic remnants of their past lives, with aging populations and slow-moving lifestyles. The authors describe the community life amidst the backdrop of some of the majestic monuments in a heartwarming manner — elders playing cards and sipping tea, kids pumping water and herding buffalos, old women puffing at the hookah. Other villages have been mildly vandalised, with graffiti on the walls of historic monuments. Yet others have been offensively intruded upon. These have lost their original character, succumbing to the very practical pressures of modern urban development. In Delhi, many view these historic sites as important for their aesthetic value, and as occasional retreats from the bustle of city life. But the locals residing within these villages look to these spaces for more practical purposes, not as romanticised escapes. For them, these spaces within are an essential part of life. These historic villages are therefore caught between an active collective conscience of the city and its basic desires to live, grow, and expand. The introductory chapter gives a brief yet fulfilling account of the story of the seven smaller villages that constitute the historic Delhi and how they came to be. Delhi shifted many hands: from pre-modern mythic Hindu demigods to Muslim raiders and the Mongol marauders who ultimately sacked Delhi, from their ashes rising other scavenging dynasties, the infighting, including horrible tales of torture, amputations, beheadings, betrayals, and love gone sour, to the collapse of the Mughals, the making of British India, and the modern Indian capital. It talks of conquerors and kings, defence towers and siege equipment, city walls and grandiose tombs. Sometimes, old or inefficient citadels were deliberately allowed to fall into disrepair so valuable construction materials that were “mis-utilised” obviously by a previous, less worthy monarch, could be salvaged for the next imperial project under a more “able” victor. And so, through a general trend of each successive ruler building upon the rubble of the previous one’s achievements — sometimes quite literally — this royal tendency to occupy and adapt ancient ruins to contemporary utility has trickled down to the modern Delhi, though the motivation behind this action has changed: the lust for dominance replaced by a need to survive, to find shelter in a hostile city. On a brighter note, Delhi was not merely a city plagued by opulent, decadent rulers (or usurpers) disguised as protectors of the faith. It also housed scholars, poets and artists who sought refuge here when the Muslim capitals of Bukhara and Baghdad were raided and intellectuals ruthlessly put to the sword by the Mongols. Muslims brought new architectural styles to the subcontinent. Islamic art and architecture inspired from a rich fusion of Central Asian, Persian and Syrian construction techniques that employed burnt bricks and graceful trabeated load-bearing arches and vaults, which in turn had drawn from Byzantine and Sassanian influences, met with the majestic Indian post and lintel stone structures. Calligraphy and geometric arabesque were merged with floral motifs and animal figurines to craft innovative elements for ornamentation. Glazed tile work was fused with intricate relief work on the friezes of sandstone to produce impressive works of visual aesthetics. This unusual but highly productive synthesis eventually culminated in the epitome of Indo-Islamic architecture, with examples ranging from the Jama Masjid Delhi and Lahore to the Taj Mahal. However, the interpretation of these monuments in contemporary society is usually quite different from what the original designers would have envisioned. Some courtyards are used for sports by boys, and smaller alcoves are left to younger children to play gullidanda. Beyond haphazard encroachment, where kids without pants run amok chasing stray dogs through fumes from rubbish heaps, rise imposing monuments. This sight, complete with a majestic backdrop and a melancholic foreground, is almost a celebration of a living dead, the heritage, against the decaying lives of the people. Begumpur is one such village. It contains decrepit monuments intermingled with patches of contemporary village life. Ancient stone steps have been turned into sunbathing decks for the winter, and mihrabs into contemplative niches. Qasr-i-Hazar Sutun, once a majestic palace, now lies in ruins, the Sultan’s throne reduced to a pile of rubble indiscernible from the rest of the masonry debris lying around. Khirki village is known for Khirki Masjid, named after its sandstone jali-work windows set deep in thick rubble stone masonry walls. It is completely obscured from view, unless you are standing right in front of it, within the agglomeration of jumbled appendages to old havelis. Even though devoid of a conscious ornamentation scheme, the Masjid’s rough-cut stone surface creates amazing visual displays when the lingering evening light produces haunting textures. The chapter on Chiragh Delhi, yet another village, explains the influence of saints and mystics on medieval Indian social life. Their success depended on their interaction with people rather than on restricting themselves to the acquisition of esoteric wisdom and the performance of arcane rituals. Perhaps this was needed in a society plagued by a rigid caste system and successive despotic monarchies. The village of Shahpur Jat reverberates with melodramatic episodes of the transfer of power. Tales of treason, Trojan horses, trapdoors, and betrayal by a beloved, and, of course, decapitations, mark the centuries of turmoil it was subjected to. The baradari within it, originally a labyrinthine maze of secret passages, vaults and cul-de-sacs, houses storage sheds and workshops today. Shops, diners, and relatively upscale hostels in the Hauz Khas village make it a better preserved example of a cluster of ancient monuments. Some of the modern facades around this area have replicated, with great attention to detail, the original jali-work on new balcony grilles and door frames. The area is patronised by Delhi’s elite and has consequently benefited economically from the provision of services, with villagers having greatly improved lifestyles. The numerous monochromatic photos in the book that capture people and activities give a sense of perspective on life in these villages — as locked in place and time, as fleeting images from a lucid dream. Some monuments have been captured in stunning colour detail, brought to life in the early hours of dawn or the haunting shades of dusk. Devoid of people, these coloured static masses with touches of vegetation creeping through cracks in the plaster provide vivid details that complement the text beautifully. At the end, the book makes you realise that not much has changed since the human race learned to control its environment and order others about. Someone builds a structure, someone kills for it but never gets to live in it, another occupies it temporarily before being driven out, someone else finds it is generally distasteful and decides to pull it down to, say, erect a new mall, and then a group of people protest against it. Delhi is no different from any modern metropolis in this regard.

Delhi’s Historic Villages (History) By Charles Lewis and Karoki Lewis Penguin Books, India ISBN 9780670084562 184pp.