Mouldering Might: the Fallen Cities of Delhi

I remember Rome and meditate on mausoleums, get lost in the Middle Ages, find myself in Paradise and reflect on ancient poems.

Delhi has been called a “City of Cities”.  It’s like an old house with multiple layers of wallpaper peeling off to reveal past generations or, in Hindu terms, former reincarnations.  At least 8 cities have been built here over 3000 years. The map is dotted with ruined gates and palaces and tombs from ancient empires, like a city-sized graveyard.  William Dalrymple wrote in City Of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, “Though it has been burned by invaders time and time again, millennium after millennium, still the city was rebuilt, each time rising like a phoenix from the fire.”

purana-qila-ruinsDelhi is also called the “Rome of the East”, and I’ve often noticed the resemblance.  As I roam a labyrinth of narrow market streets, I’ll turn a corner and find a decorated gateway or latticed window from a once-elegant haveli, the mansion of a merchant or noble.  Now flagstones are cracked and façade discoloured.  Plaster reliefs flake off to reveal the brick beneath and the edifice is half hidden behind grimy signs, cobwebs of wiring, bamboo scaffolding or washing.  As India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Delhi is the symbol of old India and new…  Even the stones here whisper to our ears of the ages of long ago and the air we breathe is full of the dust and fragrances of the past, as also of the fresh and piercing winds of the present.

The Delhi Metro Museum described Delhi’s deepest station as a “Time Machine”.  From an air-conditioned underground platform you ascend 20m to emerge in the Chawri Chowk market where, bar vehicle motors and horns and electric lighting, the vibe has changed little in centuries.  Unlike Europe’s old city walls, Delhi’s former battlements still overlook peasants herding cattle and selling farm produce much as in the Middle Ages.  In the courtyard of one old mosque I entered, the hands had fallen off the entrance gate clock.

qutb-minar-delhiThree spots where I warped back in time are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The Qutb Minar is a 73-metre stone tower – short of the 93m Statue of Liberty – begun by an invader in 1193 A.D. and leaning much less than Pisa’s 56m Tower.  The fluted minarette tapers skyward through five balconies – like a collapsing telescope said one writer – with alternating bands of red sandstone, white marble, abstract carving and Koranic inscriptions.

At its base is the oldest mosque in India, constructed on top of a Hindu temple and named “The Might/Triumph of Islam”.  An inscription boasts it was built with the materials of “27 idolatrous temples”; Hindu figures on the columns have been de-faced.  It’s now less mightily triumphant.  Chattering school classes on cultural outings file through its weathered courtyards where the roof has fallen in, and tourists frame shots of the tower through crumbling arches.  Nearby is a 27m pile of rubble: all that remains of a failed attempt in 1316 to build a tower twice as high.  The echoes in Delhi go back to Babel.

Touts are the worst at tourist traps and the Taj Mahal is probably the worst of all, so I’m giving it a miss this trip.  I saw its 16th-century precursor here in Delhi.  While the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, the tomb of the emperor Humayan was built by his grieving widow.  It has a graceful white dome over multi-arched storeys of – once again – white marble and red sandstone.  Inside is a stone sarcophagus in a cool, echoing chamber, the floor dappled with sunlight through lattice grills.  It’s surrounded by a symmetrical grid of fountains and water channels reflecting the tomb, landscaped gardens and palm trees.  A peaceful spot at dusk that I enjoyed at leisure.  I doubt the Taj experience would be as serene.

humayuns-tomb-delhiRumours of lost empires are whispered throughout the city and other parks have smaller, more dilapidated Muslim mausoleums.  Their builders hoped for immortal fame, but in some cases even the owner’s name has been forgotten.  Grass grows from the cracked domes and stray dogs rest in their shade.  Former empires are now ruled by monkeys.

On my first day in Delhi I saw, beyond the market chaos of Chandni Chawk (see here), distant red battlements beneath an Indian flag: the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort.  It was constructed by the Moghul emperor Shah Jehan, who also built the Taj Mahal and planned to move his capital here from Agra.  It was finished in 1648, when the Thirty Years War in Europe came to an end.  I crossed the empty moat and entered the Lahore Gate beneath chunky 30m ramparts.  The flag of independent India was unfurled here in 1947, 90 years after the 1857 anti-British mutiny which was brutally beaten down.  After dutifully noting the bullet holes from that uprising, I came face to face with a sandbagged military post and heavy-duty gun – the fort is still defended!

red-fort-gate-delhiOn the far side is the Jumna River, where queens watched elephant fights on the banks, and inside the 2 km walls are a private court mosque; museums with engraved weapons, royal garments, unearthed ceramics; pillared audience halls once covered in jewels and still inlaid with coloured stone pictures of birds and flowers.  The palace buildings were once cooled with water channels and on the wall is a Persian couplet: “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”  The gardens were meant to evoke the Koran’s description of heaven.  The absence of vendors was indeed paradisiacal, until I realised my bottle was almost empty and there was no potable water before the exit gate one sun-beaten km away.  I began to fear I’d entered the other post-mortem destination.

red-fort-detailThere’s an old prophecy that every ruler who founds a new capital here at Delhi will lose it.  This has held true for the builders of triumphant towers and forts of paradise, marble mausoleums and mighty mosques.  The last great statement of imperial power took 17 years to build from 1914-31 and its masters were driven out 16 years later.  British New Delhi is a big contrast to the cramped alleys of the old city, with the spacious wide tree-lined avenues around my hotel and neo-classical colonnades of Connaught Place.

Most impressive was the 42-metre high India Gate archway.  It’s one end of Rajpath or Kingsway Avenue that processes in triumph, flanked by water canals, fountains and flowerbeds, up to the presidential estate.  It reminded me of the Arc de Triumphe and Champs-Elysees in Paris.  Historian William Dalrymple likens the architecture of New Delhi to that of Hitler’s Berlin, which was built in the same period and for much the same purpose: to showcase racial superiority and might.  The mood was less pompous now.  The India Gate was surrounded by refrigerated ice cream carts, vendors of popcorn and balloons, picnicking families, and kids in paddleboats on the ponds – the future builders, perhaps, of Delhi’s next incarnation.

Nine days in Delhi will only scratch the surface of this archaeological dig, just enough to whet my appetite for more.  There are so many worlds on one map.  I was shown around the University of Delhi where this city’s history almost intersects my own: my dad spent a few months at the Department of Physics here before I was born.  Campus signs warned that ragging could end in jail and notice boards advertised student performances of Shakespeare.  Then I was taken to dinner in the Tibetan colony for spicy dumplings.  The Dalai Llama’s picture hung in the corner, a purple-robed Tibetan Buddhist monk ate at the next table, and it seemed a different world again.  Historians tell of many Delhis that have existed through time; sociologists tell of many Delhis that exist right now.  The Middle Ages and the Space Age jostle cheek by jowl.

purana-qila-detailWith its layers of forgotten history and fallen empires Delhi often reminded me of the saying, “India is an ancient civilization in an advanced stage of decay”.  And I thought of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I’ve also remembered a prayer that’s about as old as Delhi, said to come from a prophet who walked the sands of Egypt when the pyramids were young:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night….
Our years come to an end like a sigh.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Psalm 90