History in Ruins
By Ananya Borgohain
25 January 2015
A realisation of decay often evokes nostalgic memories of a happy and glorious past. There is an inescapably passionate brooding sense one finds in pain and destruction, in what remains incomplete; it is nostalgic and often even picturesque. In fact, in the classical or medieval times, the idea of ruins inspired many enthusiasts. From Petrarch to JRR Tolkien, ruins were pre-eminent for their poetry and fantasy both.
Extending the same to the context of Delhi, one might however beg to differ. Ancient buildings are not only historical documents to trigger intellectual discourses among the elite; they are establishments of rich heritage and architectural notice. The city of Delhi, in its own right, is a world heritage city irrespective of whether it is officially called so or not. Unfortunately today, all past triumph and aesthetic inheritance lie in decay, almost literally so.
The restoration of ruined historical buildings could trigger the debate between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ methods of conservation, but it also directs us to a crucial question: will the past cease to be so if it is reconfigured into the present? Art critics like John Ruskin and William Morris may have famously exhorted that ancient buildings must not be restored, but then James Patterson too had as famously said, “What are we but our stories?”
Storytelling is an inherently Indian attribute; we have all grown up within the culture of weaving and telling stories. With the influx of modern fads, storytelling in the common parlance may have faded into oblivion, but one will still be enamoured and inspired by the narratives when one encounters the tradition of storytelling still practised through religious sermons in the traditional places of worship in the country. The sense of transfer of one generation to the other creates a sense of belonging towards a past we call our own. Which is why it is pertinent that the time Indian history has traversed be conserved and celebrated.
Delhi, in spite of regular renovations at multiple historical sites, disappoints in its attempt to safeguard its own historical interests. Team Agenda visited a number of lesser known and explored heritage sites and examined how they have been maintained over the years, only to be disappointed by the collective indifference and apathy encountered in the process.
There are more than a thousand sites in Delhi which have historical relevance. One would be surprised at the number of locations that has crossed over from the triumphant times of yore to land up in our negligent generations. The first glimpse of most of the sites we visited was that of gutter, betel leaf stains, undergarments drying on clothes racks, and the likes. An enquiry about a dustbin was met with an absolutely serious, “Dustbin toh Nahin, par Yahan road Hai.”
For instance, former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf had spent a significant phase of his childhood in the hustle and bustle of the by lanes of Daryaganj. He had lived in the Naharwali Haveli behind Golcha cinema in the pre-Partition era. Golcha Cinema, one of the oldest cinema halls in Delhi, is 60 years old and was constructed seven years after Independence. The area is now known as Gola Market and is named after Prem Chand Gola who had purchased the Haveli from the late Quazi Mushamuddin Musharraf, grandfather of General Musharraf. Apparently, back in 1946, it was sold for Rs562.50!
Today, the expansive haveli that once covered an area of 24,800 sq ft has been totally changed. In fact, it has been demolished bit by bit and reduced to a sordid and shanty housing cluster with commercial shops around in the already heavily congested area. When current occupants were asked about the haveli, most of them did not have even minimal clue about it, and instead sensed that we were interrogating them under the pretext of an architectural research.
A lady, who refused to identify herself, said: “I swear I had no idea that this house was a part of Musharraf’s Haveli once. It was only when he had visited that we discovered the fact.” We tried to prod her further, repeatedly assuring that we are not investigating her ownership of the property, but she maintained that she does not have an iota of knowledge about the Haveli and its past.
One MS Khan, a local resident, added: “This area became popular after Musharraf visited some years ago. There is hardly anybody here today who would have been around when he lived here, but he did meet his nanny and refreshed his childhood memories during his brief visit. The nanny too passed away a few years ago.”
Musharraf’s Haveli is only one of the many historical remnants which are on the verge of vanishing. The meandering lanes of Daryaganj and Chandni Chowk are exuberant with memories of the pre-partition days. Most of these Havelis belonged to members of the royal families and the nobles who served them. While not many know that the first woman ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Razia Sultan, is buried near Turkman Gate, Ghalib ki Haveli at Gali Qasim Jan is the 19th century Haveli of one of the most revered poets of all time, Mirza Ghalib.
The Haveli has arched corridors on three sides and encloses a courtyard. It is also open for tourists to visit (except on Mondays). Ghalib is said to have spent his last days there from 1860 to 1869. Surprisingly, this Haveli — which is more than 200 years old — was only recently attended to by the Government and restored in 2000. It is miraculous that the ruins have successfully preserved a few belongings of the great poet, such as a chessboard and Chausar board.
Ghalib’s tomb in Mirza’s Nizamuddin Basti too is in a despondent condition. Guard Rishi Pal at Ghalib ki Haveli says, “It may not be a crowd-pulling hangout zone for young Delhiites but this place still manages to fetch tourists, both foreigners and locals.” Contractor Fahimuddin Saifi adds, “Barring Mondays, when it is closed, it’s buzzing with visitors on most days. I have been working in this area for only three days now and I have already seen how crowded it can get.”
Chandni Chowk was once the largest market in India and Mughal processions would pass through it. From Meena Bazaar to Jama Masjid to the Red Fort, this place is resplendent with historical locations. At the same time, it is also one of the most secular regions in Delhi. Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir (1656), Gauri Shankar Temple (1761), Central Baptist Church (1890), Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib (1783), Jama Masjid (1650) etc are all at a stone’s throw from one another.
Victor Massey, a member of the Baptist Church, says: “A large part of the church roof has not been redone and is as it was in the 19th century. A school was built on the premises 50 years ago. All students come from the Delhi 6 area. This church enjoys a heritage status officially.” With their beautiful archway, courtyards and underground chambers, these sites are buildings of supreme pertinence. Sadly, nobody seems to share the sentiment, not even the Government. The capital city of Mughals is today more identified by its crime ratio, ghastly traffic congestion, unhygienic alleys and lifestyle, illegal constructions and lack of infrastructure. But these vintage mansions still bear traces of history, which are heartbreakingly on the verge of decay.
One of the most striking examples of the same is Khazanchi ki Haveli in Dariba. It belonged to the treasurers or Khazanchis of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Sadly, it is quite ironic to call it a Haveli because it has been reduced to ruins and that is the first thing one notices on entering the premises. There is also a hint of a fountain in the courtyard and it is said that the mansion had an underground tunnel which connected it to the Red Fort. It was used to keep accounts books of the treasury and transfer money safely to the royal coffers back in the Mughal era, but it was blocked by the Government in the 1960s. A direct descendant of the treasurer’s family is the current owner of the Haveli. It is indeed demoralising to see that archaeologists, historians and social organisations alike have failed to restore this absolutely beautiful artefact.
There are innumerable such structures which lie exposed to public access but all that they receive are Government apathy and collective social ignorance. Nicholson Cemetery at Kashmiri Gate is located very close to the Metro station. But it is as dead to the Delhiites as its graveyards genuinely are. Most of the graves on this cemetery are from the 1857 revolt. The cemetery is named after Brigadier John Nicholson, who is also buried there. Nicholson had planned and led the British capture of Delhi during the war.
He succumbed to the wounds he had received during the war. Very close to the Nicholson Cemetery is Qudsia Bagh. Qudsia Begum was the mother of Mughal emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur and a consort to his father Emperor Muhammad Shah. It belonged to the heir apparent but eventually fell to disarray. It was ruined to a large extent during the revolt of 1857.
Today only an entrance gate, the Shahi (Emperor’s) mosque and the stables remain. Qudsia Bagh, the garden, which was created for Begum Qudsia, has been recorded as a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India. Reports suggested that there were plans by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to rename Qudsia Bagh as MM Aggarwal Park, after the city commissioner, but expectedly, it raised protests.
Feroz Shah Kotla, on the other hand, is a huge, spacious and fascinating fortress built by Emperor Feroz Shah Tughlaq. The sandstone Ashoka Pillar there dates back to the 3rd century BC. It is one of the pillars which Emperor Ashoka had left after his reign in the 3rd century BC. Tughlaq transported the pillar from its original location at Ambala. Another pillar is at the ridge in the Delhi University’s north campus. That one was brought from Meerut. Today, this fortress is seldom visited by anyone. Worse, the stillness and absence of human interest have created an eerie aura. For the lack of a better word, it’s scary to be alone on the premises for even a few minutes.
Ancient architecture in Delhi is a crucial link to the past, and merits an honest appraisal of whether or not these historical ruins need to be conserved. The strains of living a modern, progressive life have annihilated all reflections of history. It is high time both the Government and public conscience woke to the hapless shrieks of Indian history.