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A visit to Delhi rekindles memories of the old, historic city

When an Imperial Durbar was held in December 1911 to commemorate the coronation in Britain, a few months earlier, of King George V and Queen Mary and to announce the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta (now Kolkata) to “the ancient capital Delhi”, Delhi was still, in essence, a Mughal city. In one stroke, the announcement restored the lost glory of Delhi — which has been known at different times by different names like Indraprastha, Qila Rai Pithora, Tughlaqabad, Ferozabad, Dinpanah and Shahjahanabad — as the centre of political and military authority.

It was the fifth Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan I, born in Lahore in 1592, who moved the capital from Agra and established Shahjahanabad. He made immense contributions to its art and architecture. The grandest street of all — Chandni Chowk — was laid out by his daughter, Jahanara Begum, who lies buried near the Dargah of the celebrated saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (1238 – 1325); the inscription on her grave (as translated) reads, in part, as follows:

“Let no one cover my grave except with greenery, for this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor”

The same complex is the resting place, among others, of the renowned poet, Mirza Ghalib, and the Emperor Muhammad Shah ‘Rangeela’ (1720-48) who was the last to exercise control over his dominions. Known mostly for merry-making, he showed seriousness enough in commissioning Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur to build an observatory of architectural astronomy instruments, known as Jantar Mantar, in Delhi.

Not far from the Dargah is the tomb of Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana (1556-1627), one of the ‘nine jewels’ at Emperor Akbar’s court; the Neela Gumbad, one of the earliest Mughal monuments in Delhi; and the tomb of Emperor Humayun, a gem of Islamic architecture. There are a large number of graves in the sprawling compound of the emperor’s tomb, including those of the headless corpse of Dara Shikoh (once a crown prince) and three of the later emperors, namely, Jahandar Shah (1712), Farrukhsiyar (1713-19) and Alamgir II (1754-59). Jahandar Shah’s favourite consort, Lal Kunwar, might be interred in Lal Bangla, a monument in the precincts of the Delhi Golf Club; the other possibility is that the two graves inside are of Lal Kunwar, the mother of Shah Alam II and daughter, Begum Jahan.

Delhi’s extraordinary poetic and musical heritage is rooted in pre-Mughal times and brings to mind the great Sufi mystic, Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) who wrote primarily in Persian but also in Hindavi and who is regarded as the originator of ‘qawwali’, as also the khayal and tarana styles of music. Being a spiritual disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, he was thus connected with the silsila of the Chishti order of Khwaja Moinuddin of Ajmer, Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid of Pakpattan and the Auliya’s successor, Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlavi (1274 - 1356).

Two of the later Mughals, Shah Alam II (1759-1806) and Akbar Shah II (1806-1837) are buried near the shrine of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli, Delhi, as are the brothers, Rafi-ul Darjat and Rafi ud-Daulah (Shah Jahan II) who reigned for a few months in 1719 and died of lung disease.

Language and literature continued to flourish in Delhi and attained great heights in the last decades of the nominal Mughal Empire. Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) ranks as the leading Urdu poet of the 18th century and, alongside Sauda and Khwaja Mir Dard, is a pillar of the Delhi School of  Urdu ghazal. Thereafter, emerged men of letters of the calibre, among others, of the poet-laureate Zauq, Momin Khan ‘Momin’, Nawab Mustafa Khan ‘Shefta’ and Mufti Muhammad Sadru’d-Din Khan ‘Azurda’ who were patronised by the last Emperor, Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’. They were contemporaries of Ghalib whose prose and poetry remain the best form of Urdu literature. Indeed, this influence is visible in the works of such outstanding poets, of a later day, as Daagh Dehlvi (1831-1905) and Jigar Moradabadi (1890-1960).

Just outside the walled city, at Ajmeri Gate, stood the oldest educational institution, the Delhi College, originally termed Madrasa Ghaziuddin Khan after its founder who was a leading general of Emperor Aurangzeb’s army in Deccan. Declared a heritage monument, its distinguished alumni include Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), Deputy Nazir Ahmad Dehlvi (1830-1912), a pioneer of Urdu literature, and the famed scholar, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi (1833-1880) who was instrumental in establishing the Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband (United Provinces).

After the Emperor became a pensioner of the East India Company in 1803, their top officials like David Ochterlony, the first British Resident in Delhi, progressively modelled their demeanour and life-styles on the lines of what could be described as “British Mughals”. Several very impressive buildings came up at this time, such as the St. James’s Church constructed in 1836 by Col. James Skinner (the son of a Scotsman and a Rajput lady), the house of Thomas Metcalfe, the British Agent and Commissioner in Delhi (1835-53) and the haveli (later known as Bhagirath Palace) of one of Delhi’s most colourful personalities — Begum Samru.

The mausoleum of Safdarjung (1708-54) — a powerful prime minister in a declining empire who also administered the province of Oudh — arguably, the last major Mughal tomb in the subcontinent, is in the area conceived and planned as New Delhi by the British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944).

Although not born in Delhi, towering figures like Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) and Maulana Hasrat Mohani (1875-1951) were associated with the city; the latter was the first to demand “Complete Independence” at a session of the All India Muslim League in 1921.

The tragedy and the pathos of the collapse of the Mughal dynasty were captured by the eminent historian, Prof. Percival Spear (at one time associated with the History Department of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi) in the masterpiece Twilight of the Mughals. The life and culture of the Delhi of around 1880-1920, its alluring charm and flavour and the feelings of sadness are also immortalised in Prof. Ahmed Ali’s definitive novel Twilight in Delhi which was first published in 1940 and which earned him an international reputation. The author (who passed away in Karachi in 1994) was a Dilliwala to the core.

The brutal repression of the uprising of 1857, the murder, in cold blood, of the Mughal princes at the Khooni Darwaza, the long years of colonial rule and the course of events post-1947, all cast a long shadow over a city which is historically best remembered as Mughal Delhi, in which the past lives with the present.

That Delhi, which has had links with virtually all parts of India and Pakistan, endures in the lanes and by-lanes of Shahjahanabad, its katras, kuchas and mohallas, in a tehzib distinctly its own, in the eateries in areas like Jama Masjid, Ballimaran and Chitli Qabar and through the Sair-e-Gul Faroshan (Phoolwalon ki Sair).

This annual festival (which was revived in 1962 at the insistance of Prime Minister Nehru) celebrates a composite, cultural tradition as a manifestation of which floral tributes are offered at the shrine of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and at the nearby temple of Yogmaya Devi to gratefully recall the return of Mirza Jehangir, a son of Akbar Shah II, from British exile in Allahabad.