In the Delhi of my childhood, practically every new middle-class residential neighbourhood abutted a small village of considerable historical age. Concrete houses and mud huts, Ambassador cars and buffaloes, tarred roads and unpaved lanes, tiny private gardens and sections of the original Ridge forest, all coexisted in more or less shared localities. We were told to not wander over there, beyond the end of the street, where the urban environment suddenly gave way to a rural one. We were expected to not play with those kids, with their bare feet, unkempt hair and scant clothing. When my parents finished building a house in what was then the southern edge of the city, my father flatly refused to go and live in it, preferring to hold on to his — small, decrepit, and increasingly cramped —rented accommodation for another four years before he packed up and moved to what he dismissively referred to as “the jungle”.
As much a part of the landscape as the enclaves of rural life, cattle, nomadic communities on their seasonal treks north or south, and the low Aravalli hills forested with short spiky keekar trees, was a majestic river, the Yamuna, flowing along as it had done for centuries and, dotting the city, hundreds of big and small structures that we always referred to simply as “monuments”. Monuments could be fairly impressive or on the verge of collapse, open to tourists or completely overgrown with weeds, part of a routine morning walk or way out of town, irredeemably obscure. No one seemed to have a strong sense of whether they were religious structures or tombs, palaces or dwellings, Hindu or Muslim, impossibly ancient or sort of vaguely medieval. These monuments, at once ubiquitous and in their own way unremarkable, were simply a part of the furniture of the city we called Delhi. In your neighbourhood, you might have a favourite monument you went to play in with your friends; a monument you were afraid of because it was reportedly haunted by ghosts; a monument that you had best ignore, because grown-ups had their own ideas of what to do there. Monuments were where one saw vultures, hyenas, kites, bats, giant spiders, graffiti, flowering trees, and a number of other sights, some not really fit for the eyes of children, truth be told.
A quarter-century on, the capital of one of the world’s fastest growing economies has discovered the treasures buried in its own backyard. Cleaned up, restored, properly identified and dated, and treated as an asset rather than as an accident, even the smallest monument can bring historical and architectural interest to a neighbourhood. For a city that often hosts international events like the Commonwealth Games and the BRICS meetings, the more sights there are to see and to show, the better. In some areas — Mehrauli, Nizamuddin and the Walled City being excellent examples — populations live so closely inside, upon or around historical structures, that reclaiming these monuments while also preserving the habitat, property rights and livelihood of communities that surround them can be a challenging, but certainly not hopeless, task. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Development Network are agencies that have shown some initiative in reclaiming and restoring Delhi’s neglected monuments, and turning them into repositories of historic and aesthetic value in urban, national and international contexts.
For anyone who grew up in Delhi, the dramatic improvements to sites like the Lodi Gardens monument complex, Safdarjung’s Tomb, Humayun’s Tomb, Sunder Nursery and Hazrat Nizamuddin in recent years need hardly be emphasized. Many of these places have literally come back from the dead and begun to speak again of Delhi’s long and complex history as a city where kings, saints, travellers, chroniclers, conquerors, poets and artists have lived, built, and left their mark for well over a millennium, if not two. Equally dramatic changes to the city’s layout, skyline and built environment on account of the Metro, dozens of new metalled roads and flyovers, and exponentially increasing numbers of people, vehicles and houses, cumulatively cancel out many of the gains of conservation and restoration work. But that there has been a facelift given to many of Delhi’s majestic monuments, and that the AKTC and AKDN’s efforts have for the most part borne spectacular results, are undeniable facts. Any resident of Delhi — especially anyone who can remember what it was like 10, 20 or 30 years ago — may put on her tourist’s hat for a day and verify the results for herself. There is now so much more to see than the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, and Lutyens’ Delhi.
Naturally, conservation work in a city of Delhi’s size and age has a number of daunting problems to overcome, not least to do with gaps in our knowledge of building techniques that may have been used in centuries past; the shortage sometimes of appropriate materials, which might have been completely exhausted through hundreds of years of mining and excavation; ever diminishing numbers of craftsmen, masons, stone-cutters and other skilled workers who have any idea how to deal with structures that could be from the 13th or the 16th century, and properly trained historians and archaeologists who can give the right advice on how to save or reconstruct fragile buildings. Environmental pollution — and Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities — creates a whole other set of issues to be tackled. Add to these problems the usual dose of corruption in local and Central government bodies, property disputes involving the city, private owners, and public institutions, and the difficulty of making arguments that seem to privilege inanimate structures over living communities, and you can hardly imagine a more difficult scenario in which to do what at one level seems like the obvious thing — fix up say, Humayun’s Tomb, and get for Delhi a World Heritage Monument that attracts thousands of visitors every year.
But really the rub lies elsewhere. What conservation agencies in Delhi — as elsewhere in India — face, is a strong, deep and often inarticulate resistance, from government officials as from municipal workers as from local residents, to firstly recognizing the heritage value of our Muslim pasts, and secondly, making actual efforts to restore and rehabilitate the architectural remains of these pasts. With urban dreams pinned on a futuristic globalized Delhi, a city of gated suburbs, tech-parks, malls and skyscrapers, and a cash-rich Hindu Delhi (as embodied in the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple built not long ago on the sand-bed of what used to be the living Yamuna), who has time for the Delhi of the Lodis, Tughlaks, Khiljis and Mughals? The Delhi of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau, of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib? If anything, many would like these monuments — shrines, tombs, palaces, forts, homes, tanks, mosques, gardens and caravanserais — erased and built over, as has happened more brazenly in Modi’s Gujarat. We are comfortable with the colonial city built by the British during the raj, but not so comfortable with the massive evidence of Delhi’s erstwhile stature as one of the jewels of the Islamicate world, with pride of place among imperial capitals of the premodern era, like Cairo, Istanbul and Baghdad.
What is gained by pretending that this city is not what it is — a great, aged, complicated confluence of many cultures, many religions, and many seasons of political power? As responsible citizens, we should celebrate the priceless built heritage of Delhi, and do everything we can to recapture and recreate the many shades of its history, “flowered into the beauty of serene stone”, as Rabindranath memorably wrote of the Taj Mahal.