The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Delhi Omnibus Oxford, Rs 595

The concept of an omnibus is a good marketing device. It manages to bring together a number of different texts on a single theme under one cover. This volume, with a marvellous introduction by Narayani Gupta, brings together four well-known books. There are two books here by the Cambridge historian, Percival Spear; Narayani Gupta’s monograph on Delhi between 1803 and 1931; and the festschrift for Spear, edited by Robert Frykenberg, on Delhi through the ages.

One of the books by Spear presented here — Twilight of the Mughals: Studies in Late Mughal Delhi — has already acquired the status of a minor classic. It looks at a period which was only looked at in some detail by Jadunath Sarkar in his massive study of the Mughal Empire in decline. If Sarkar caught the macro picture of a massive structure in decay, Spear describes here the scene in the capital which was the only area in which the emperor’s writ ran, albeit tenuously.

It is not easy to precisely date when Delhi ceased to be the great capital it once was. It is possible to place it, as Sarkar did, at the time of the death of the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb, in 1707; or more conveniently, in 1740, when Nadir Shah ransacked the city and took away the Peacock Throne.

Spear pushed it back to the third battle of Panipat in 1761, when, in his words, “the tides of Afghans and and Marathas had swept over the Empire to meet, in a titanic shock, on the fatal field of Panipat, and thereafter in receding to leave that turmoil of rival chiefs and shadowy sovereignties which is known as the Great Anarchy”.

The idea of the Great Anarchy to be replaced by the great pax Brittanica is now no longer accepted by historians even though the notion of pax Brittanica refused to die on raj coffee tables.

The Mughals fascinated Spear. He wrote, “Everyone I suppose has their kinks, their interests or taste for which there is no rational explanation. In my case it was the Mughals...Not only their buildings, but their dress, their habits, their fortunes, even their genealogies would come into my head whether I wanted them or not. Indian friends would say that this reflected a previous Mughal incarnation.” Gupta is perhaps right when she describes Spear as “THE historian of Delhi.”

Gupta’s own monograph underlined how Delhi, the home of a civilized and cultured community before the great Rebellion of 1857, was transformed by the great British terror that followed the uprising. That violence severed the links between political and cultural institutions and widened the racial divide. Delhi became again, later, an imperial capital.

The British not only deliberately chose the Mughal capital as its seat of grandeur but also took on Mughal styles of architecture and durbar. But Delhi never quite recovered the grace which was associated with it when it was under the aegis of the Mughals, even during the twilight of their power.

Despite the central importance of Delhi to Indian history, it has not attracted too much scholarly attention. Readers will find the four most important books on the subject included in this tome.

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