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Sense of a city


The idea of Delhi; Edited Romi Khosla, photographs by Nitin Rai, Marg Publications, Rs. 2500.

DELHI'S is one of the world's great cities, layered in histories memorialised in the ruins of its ancient settlements, its weather-beaten tombs and the monumental presence of its more recent past. Marg's latest offering is not concerned with these. Rather it shows how the city was conceived by a succession of rulers, and how their ideas were translated into urban forms.

At the outset, the Editor distinguishes between two types of cities: pre-planned with clearly demarcated areas within defined limits and organic ones that grow according to the proliferating needs of the inhabitants.

Through the past

With erudition and stylistic elegance, Romila Thapar takes us on a ramble, as she puts it, through some of Delhi's pasts. Originally it was the site of legendary Indraprastha where the great assembly hall had golden pillars and gem-encrusted walls, and floors so polished that it was difficult to tell whether it was stone or water. It metamorphosed subsequently into a much humbler avatar, a centre of Jain activity called Yoganipura. During the Sultanate political power was again centred here, and it became a hub of commercial and religious activity too, with numerous dargahs and Sufi shrines, notably the one at Nizamuddin, scattered among its forts and palaces.

For Thapar, Delhi represents a counterpoint of creation and destruction starting with Indraprastha itself. To build it the great forest of Khandava-vana was burned out of existence. Following this ominous initiation the city was sacked repeatedly, by Timur, by Nadir Shah and other invaders, and finally by the British in 1857. In each case it was rebuilt on the same site to impart a sense of continuity, as mosques were erected over the ruins of destroyed temples to appropriate the earlier sacred space. The latter was a common practice in India where Buddhist stupas were built over ancient megalithic burial places, and Buddhist chaityas, in turn, were converted to Vaishnava and Shaiva worship.

Akhilesh Mithal sees the site as a source of literary inspiration. Vyasa described Indraprastha as both magnificent and impregnable in hyperbolic terms. To its Muslim conquerors it was "the refuge of Islam" and the twin of paradise, while Mir Taqi "Mir" declared that the Heavens themselves envied it. "How then is it possible for any city to equal Dillee?" he asks rhetorically. As in all high tragedy by hubris led again and again to its downfall and today, laments Mithal, Shahjahan's Paradise upon Earth is reduced to the status of a slum.

Compared to these essays and his own Introduction, Romi Khosla's article on Imperial Delhi is rather flat. He has much to say of Lord Hardinge's choice of the location and the plan on which the buildings were laid out, and how important it was for the new rulers that the Viceregal Lodge should tower over Shahjahan's structures. There is little however on the architecture.

The selling point of the book is that there is something in it for everyone. Two essays on the rehabilitation of Partition refugees will be of interest to sociologists and administrators. Ravinder Kaur shows how the Punjabis from Pakistan were successfully integrated with the local communities, due partly to their self-respect and capacity for hard work, and partly to the enlightened measures taken by the government. In a process of "double ethnic amnesia" they have forgotten their refugee status and become truly Indian, and the Delhi Hindus and Muslims have accepted them as such, unlike the Muhajirs in Karachi who are in perpetual conflict with the Sindhi mainstream.

Suneetha Kacker describes the formation of the Delhi Development Authority in the 1950s when it took over the vacant areas around the city and created a land bank to make property available to the refugees at reasonable prices. Delhi was the first metropolis anywhere to attempt such large-scale State intervention. Gradually these laudable aims were subverted by bureaucrats for their own benefit, and by politicians who permitted the building of unauthorised structures to create vote banks.


On what lines will the Capital develop in future? A French scholar builds her projections on the publicity put out by developers of residential complexes whose clients are often NRIs returning to India after retirement. Since the aim is to replicate their earlier life-style the builders advertise veritable townships, totally self-sufficient and segregated from their surroundings. The largest, DLF Qutab Enclave, is 23 kilometres away from the city centre and covers 1000 hectares, with 46,000 homes ranging from high-rise apartments to luxurious villas. The promotional campaigns make amusingly inflated claims to lure buyers who see themselves as forward-looking, westernised, ecologically aware and so on. Ardee City invites them to "Step into the next millennium," Rivardale is "America... East of Delhi: Citizenship opens today," Farmlands will fulfil the "dream of a child... air as pure as nature, trees and gardens, with a thousand birds singing". Names such as Royal Retreat, Diplomat, Senator, have overt elitist connotations.


"Mapping Delhi" is written with such verve and scholarship that one feels the urge, mercifully fleeting, to become a cartographer oneself. S.M. Chadha, former Surveyor General of India, is forthcoming with maps old and new, information, and amusing sidelights.

The Delhi triangle is 600 million years old while the Himalayas, at 100 million, are toddlers in comparison. The author describes the geographical features that made it the chosen site for the capital by a succession of rulers.

Colonel George Everest who mapped it in the 1830s encountered unforeseen difficulties. The Yamuna valley being dead flat, tall towers had to be erected and heavy instruments, such as Everest's 450 kg, theodolite, hauled aloft. When householders complained that men working at that height could look into the women's quarters, some towers were moved at considerable expense. Chadha expounds a weighty subject with humour and clarity.

The concluding chapter consisting only of photographs will please those who, like this reviewer, have a childish liking for pictures. The bazaars, malls and markets are undistinguished and could be anywhere in India, but the views of Jama Masjid, Jantar Mantar and Nizamuddin Auliya's dargah are compensation enough, as are those of the forest area and Delhi's lush green gardens.

All in all this is a very satisfying book, reader-friendly and informative.

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