Iconic heritage structures such as the Qutb Minar, Purana Qila or Red Fort, are usually related by guide-books to a particular historical moment, the initial history of construction, so that their afterlives are often rendered irrelevant. The Qutb symbolizes the foundation of the Delhi Saltanat, the Purana Qila marks the transition to Mughal rule and is associated with the intertwined careers of Humayun and Sher Shah, and the Red Fort epitomizes the splendour of the age of Shahjahan. Yet the destinies of these buildings continued to be shaped and reshaped by later events, closer to our time, events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Colonial presence in Delhi profoundly altered their relationship with the city, in turn determining the manner in which Delhi’s past was perceived. It is this story that interests Mrinalini Rajagopalan. She ‘seeks to redefine the architectural monument as not simply a static repository of the past but also as a site from which multiple histories were and continue to be generated’ (p.23).
The process of putting together a modern narrative of Delhi’s past commenced in the early nineteenth century, soon after the East India Company brought the city and its environs under its control following the battle of Patparganj (1803). As colonial officials gradually became acquainted with the large number of historical sites which constituted the city’s landscape, they attempted to place these in a chronological framework that would enable them to make sense of the bewildering variety of these sites. They built upon knowledge produced by preliminary colonial forays into the history of the Indian subcontinent. Delhi figured quite prominently in this history, at least from circa 1200 CE onwards. Thus colonial officials of the early nineteenth century, some of whom were also amateur historians, were not entirely unfamiliar with the ‘medieval’ past of Delhi. The broad contours of historical change, perceived mostly in dynastic terms, were delineated by combining local legends, folklore, and anecdotal evidence with information from historical texts and inscriptions.
It appears that in the 1810s and 1820s some of the Company’s servants posted in Delhi, particularly Charles Metcalfe, William Fraser and Thomas Metcalfe, initiated the project of systematically listing buildings that were considered to be of some historical importance, along with descriptions of these structures. An early outcome of this project was a Persian compilation entitled Sair-ul Manazil, the first version of which was ready by 1821. It then underwent several subsequent revisions. We know almost nothing about the author of the text, Mirza Sangin Beg, except that he was connected in some way with the Company’s establishment, and had easy access to source material on the history of Delhi available in the royal library in the Red Fort as well as manuscripts in private collections of scholars in the city. It is only now through the efforts of researchers such as Shama Mitra Chenoy that we are able to recognize that Sair-ul Manazil was the prototype for later writings of the nineteenth century on the history of Delhi including the much better known work of Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Asar-us-Sanadid (1847). Although Asar-us-Sanadid has a very different format and style, yet the account of the history of Delhi and its monuments more or less follows the brief outline presented in Sair-ul Manazil. Somehow Rajagopalan does not refer to Sair-ul Manazil, even though an Urdu translation of the text has been available for the past few years.
Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth century there was already a narrative that had been endorsed by the colonial state. It should be borne in mind that Asar-us-Sanadid, especially its revised 1854 edition, was greatly appreciated for its ‘modern’ approach. Its reputation as a solid work of modern scholarship, and the fact that it had an appreciative European audience, together with the author’s own illustrious career and prominence, gave to Asar-us-Sanadid a uniquely authoritative status. Ironically, many of Khan’s statements about pre-Saltanat Delhi have been deployed more recently for furthering Hindutva communal agendas.
Building Histories focuses on five historical sites. Of these four have enormous prestige: Qutb, Purana Qila, Red Fort, Jama Masjid. The fifth, the Rasul Numa shrine, is a site which as heritage has limited appeal, mostly of a local nature. Its choice might seem incongruous, but it is quite pertinent to Rajagopalan’s larger argument about contestations over defining heritage and popular interventions which at times could successfully undermine the authority of official institutions in this matter. Each of these sites is taken up for a distinct case-study, though not necessarily according to the chronological sequence in which they were built. Quite creatively the author discusses them in the order in which each figured in a prominent manner in nineteenth- or twentieth-century contexts, so that the Qutb complex, the earliest of these sites, is the last to be taken up for scrutiny.
The mutinous sipahis of the Bengal Army, within a few hours of their arrival in Delhi on 11 May 1857, had established the headquarters of their regime in the Red Fort, with the consent of the Mughal Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar who was nominally the head of the new government. The Red Fort continued to be the seat of the sipahi regime till the fall of Delhi in the latter half of September. As the British unleashed indiscriminate violence on a massive scale upon recapturing the city, several hundred residents of the Mughal palace were either massacred or else left the city to seek refuge outside Shahjahanabad. The Red Fort was promptly appropriated by the British and became the headquarters of the Delhi Field Force. It remained under military occupation even after the revolt had been suppressed. Meanwhile a substantial part of the fortified space was levelled to the ground. Some of the surviving structures, such as the Diwan-i-Am and Diwan-i-Khas, escaped demolition not because the British recognized their value as heritage, but due to the need for roofed structures for offices, for accommodating soldiers and for their medical treatment.
Having destroyed the Mughal Red Fort, colonial officials set about refashioning it by constructing military barracks in the areas that had been cleared in the process of demolition. In attempting towards the end of the century to present the Red Fort as heritage, heritage salvaged and made secure by an imperial administration that claimed to be enlightened, the British carefully concealed the history of its systematic destruction. This history was inseparable from the history of the revolt, which too was rather inconvenient from the point of view of a state that did not consider it prudent to revive memories of the uprising. Rajagopalan points out that a junior European employee of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was admonished by his superiors for having included some details of the ‘mutiny’ in the draft of a notice to be displayed at the Red Fort for providing historical information to visitors. Omission of this reference had the concurrence of John Marshall. It is not surprising that even today visitors to the monument are only made aware of its seventeenth century history, with a few details from the first half of the eighteenth century appended by way of indicating the supposedly bloody end of the Mughal empire. There are no clues pointing towards the crucial role the monument played in the revolt of 1857, its place in the history of the struggle against colonial rule, the main factor that made it symbolically the ideal location in Delhi for the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on Independence Day.
In projecting itself as the guardian of India’s built heritage, the colonial state claimed also to be the authoritative interpreter of the meanings of historical sites. These sites furnished colonial historiography with the validation that was necessary for a version of the past that could be used for manufacturing consent. The Purana Qila and the Qutb complex served this ideological purpose admirably. Incidentally, the showcasing of these two sites along with Humayun’s Tomb (identified as the precursor of the Taj Mahal and hence important to the history of the preeminent expression of Mughal architectural achievement), was closely tied up with the project for building a new imperial capital: their presence underlined the imperial status of Delhi. The Purana Qila in particular was central to Edwin Lutyens’s original design of which the centre-piece was a grand processional road leading from the seat of the Mughal and Sur rulers, to Raisina Hill. Not only did the monument have a known Rajput past, it also came to be associated, by the beginning of the twentieth century, with the legendary Indraprastha of the Pandavas. ‘Today’, Rajagopalan notes, ‘most contemporary histories of Delhi make an obligatory nod to Indrapastha as the ur-city of Delhi—even if acknowledging it as a myth’ (p. 124). The special status of the Purana Qila was reaffirmed when it was represented on a postal stamp comprising a series issued on the occasion of the inauguration of New Delhi (1931), the only building which was not one of those constructed as part of the new capital. All the stamps of this fascinating series are reproduced in the book (pp. 136-137).
The moment in the recent history of this monument that Rajagopalan focuses on is 1947-48, when it became a huge refugee camp for the displaced Muslims of the city. For the administration, the inhabitants of the camp were essentially the responsibility of the government of Pakistan, initially at least. The arrival of Gandhiji in the city on 9 September 1947 resulted in a qualitative change. Gandhiji’s visit to the Purana Qila camp and his unequivocal statement that this was ‘our’ camp went a long way towards defining nationhood in secular terms at a time when the situation was very grim and hope for the secular position was fast receding. Abul Kalam Azad’s famous speech around the same time (October 1947), at the Jama Masjid, had the same objective. The use by Azad of the grand mosque of Shahjahan for a major political address was not something unusual, since the Jama Masjid had been frequently utilized as a political space which due to its sacred character could not be easily regulated by the state. Rajagopalan explores in some detail the use of the mosque for nationalist mobilization, gatherings in which non-Muslims participated alongside Muslims, during the 1920s and 1930s. In choosing this moment in the modern history of the monument, she successfully destabilizes stereotypes which locate it in a narrative of bigotry.
Simultaneously, distortions of colonial historiography which have made possible Hindutva assertions about sites such as the Qutb complex for communal mobilization in recent decades are unravelled with dexterity. The campaign to ‘liberate’ the complex, depicted as an example of the iconoclasm of rulers of the Islamic faith due to the historical re-use of material from Hindu and Jain places of worship to construct structures such as the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, reached a feverish pitch in the wake of the Ayodhya offensive. This campaign coincided with the complex being declared a World Heritage Site; it might be safe for the time being, to some extent for this reason. There are other ways however in which the agenda to dilute the medieval (equated, as in colonial periodization, with ‘Islamic’) heritage of Delhi is being pursued relentlessly, of which the repackaging of some ruins of the late pre-Saltanat and Saltanat eras (Qila Rai Pithora) as the remains of the citadel of Prithviraj Chauhan is only one prominent recent example. Rajagopalan concludes with reflections on this continuing falsification of history and appropriation of buildings to serve divisive political objectives. This is a book about Delhi, its past and its present, as much as about a political minefield called ‘heritage’.
Amar Farooqui is with the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.
In projecting itself as the guardian of India’s built heritage, the colonial state claimed also to be the authoritative interpreter of the meanings of historical sites. These sites furnished colonial historiography with the validation that was necessary for a version of the past that could be used for manufacturing consent.
This is a book about Delhi, its past and its present, as much as about a political minefield called ‘heritage’.
Book News Book News
Exploring Agency in the Mahabharata: Ethical and Political Dimensions of Dharma by Sibesh Chandra Bhattacharya, Vrinda Dalmiya and Gangeya Mukherji looks at transactions between the modern discourses and ancient vocabulary of the Mahabharata. Drawing on several interdisciplinary approaches, the essays reflect on a range of issues in the Mahabharata, including those of duty, motivation, freedom, selfhood, choice, autonomy, and justice, both in the context of philosophical debates and their ethical and political ramifications for contemporary times.
Routledge India, 2018, pp. 268, R895.00