'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Delhi, Once More

It is just past 7 am on a chilly November morning. I get off the overnight train from Allahabad at the New Delhi station. I have the day to myself, no one to meet, no appointments to keep; I can walk as much as my dozen kilo luggage (laptop and everything) would permit me.

I check Google maps and decide to walk in the general direction of Old Delhi. Very soon, I am among its narrow gallies and mohallas of Muslim dominance. The place is already buzzing; carts, autos and rickshaws are active, shops and eateries just opening, people setting out for the day's work...

A chai shop looks inviting. I take my time over a single chai then another (tea is served in a glass tumbler kept inside a porcelain mug with a handle; I have never seen anything like this before) and check Maps again; and a label catches the eye: 'Razia Sultan Tomb' - well within a kilometer away.

I could recall the story of Razia from Amar Chitra Katha - a young princess chosen as successor by her father, the 'Slave Sultan' Altmash, from among many children, she defies opposition from siblings and influential nobles to ascend the throne of Delhi and rules a very turbulent kingdom for nearly 4 years. Caught up in a nasty civil war, she meets a soldier's end along with her newly married husband - who was until a short while previously, leader of a faction opposed to her being in power! Quite a tragic story of love, hate and violence. Questions rise within: the slave dynasty had their citadel near the Qutub Minar, nearly 20 kilometers from this place; and Razia was killed somewhere in Haryana. So, why was she buried near here? And considering her terrible end, how did she get a proper tomb burial at all?

I ask the chai guy for directions to the tomb. He has no real idea!

I set off in the direction indicated by Maps, run into a zone with exceptionally narrow and tangled gallies and ask again, picking a manifestly Muslim guy. "Yes, it isn't far from here but not easy to find. You will have to..." he proceeds to give some complex instructions. I follow his directions for a while... and ask another similarly turned out guy...

The process goes on for over 30 minutes and as per Maps, I have been walking all around the site without quite getting there. ... a young chap finally says: "I live near the tomb. I will take you there; else you will search all day!". Within 3-4 minutes, he has guided me to what looks like a small 'clearing' among extremely close-built and characterless blocks of housing and disappeared into one of them.

The place turns out to be a small and mostly roofless - but functioning - mosque; in front are two graves with only sky above. The graves look very old and eroded and have no inscriptions or anything decorative about them. There is a board nearby claiming this to be Sultana Razia's resting place but I can't make out which of the two graves is supposed to be hers and who rests in the other. A young man appears with a bucket to collect water from a tap in the mosque compound; he has no answers to my queries...


Later in the afternoon, I ended up having to sit in a 'Dominoes' outlet in Daryaganj for an hour to charge up my cellphone. There I took one more look in Maps at the area around and saw the phrase 'Ghalib Haveli'. Faded memories of a slow and mellow TV serial on the poet, laden with poorly understood but heart-felt ghazals, flooded in. Soon, I find these lines on a web page..

"Ballimaran ke mahalle ki woh pechida daleelon ki see galiyan
Saamne taal ke nukkad pe bateron ke posheede
Gud-gudaati hui paan pi peekon mein wo daad wo wah-wah
Chand darwaaze par latke huye boshida se kuch taat ke parde
Ek bakri ke mamiyaane ki awaaz
Aur dhoondhlaayi huyi shaam ke be-noor andhere
Aise deewaron se mooh jod kar chalte hain yahan
Chudi-waalan unke katri ke badi bee jaise
Apni boojhti hui aankhon se darwaaze tatole
Isee be-noor andheri see gali qaasim se
Ek tarteeb chiragon kee shuru hoti hai
Ek quran-e-sukhan ka safa khulta hai
Asadallah Khan Ghalib ka pata milta hai."

That was the ibteda (opening) of a song from 'Mirza Ghalib', directed by Gulzar and starring Naseeruddin Shah. An online source comments:

"Even if you dont understand the meaning of some of the words, it beautifully captures the sentiments you would experience when you visit Ghalib’s Haveli in Gali Qaasim Jaan in Old Delhi, even today. It is no easy task finding the Haveli in the narrow lanes of Ballimaran, but ask a few locals and find an enthusiastic rickshaw-wala and you will find yourself there.. "

Admittedly, the above passage is in somewhat dense Urdu; but it is also undeniably atmospheric - I could imagine being gently transported along narrow gallies lined with carved havelis and a few trees here and there - it is a mildly foggy winter evening, with lamps just getting lit and the chirping of homecoming birds mixing with poems being recited to appreciative "wah, Wah!" sounds...

But 21st century reality is different. Ballimaran is now a well-known area of Old Delhi; it has hardly any haveli left and no trees (and no chirping of birds or bleating of lambs) and overflows with all kinds of trade and traffic. And Ghalib's residence is quite easy to find... and it is a serous disappointment. Some of his poetry and manuscripts and personal articles and portraits are on display but restoration (or whatever) has turned the interior into something like a dimly lit 'ethnic' restaurant.

Still, it was quite nostalgic, after so many years, to revisit some much-loved music, especially the ghazal 'Aah ko chahiye ek umr', in Jagjit Singh's soulful rendition.


During the rest of the day, I checked some usual boxes, tramping around the Jama Masjid and Red Fort (here, a cloak room gave my shoulders a welcome breather) even managing a peep into the bookshops of Daryaganj where Mills and Boon novels are sold at "100 rupees a kilo"...

And I managed a quick dekko of Purana Qila ('Old Fort'; actually, it is only the 'Second Newest' among the many forts that dot Delhi) and found in Sher Shah's mosques and fortifications - and the octagonal library from where Humayun had his fatal fall - a solid and understated grandeur, rather removed from the experience of watching Shah Jahan's ornate marble and sandstone creations in the Red Fort.

Back home, I figured out that I had missed out on the 'kotla' (citadel) of Firoz Shah. This quite long-lived and very enigmatic(*) medieval sultan performed arguably the first genuine act of Desi archeology by bringing "2 Ashokan Pillars from Meerut and Topra, carefully uprooted and wrapped in silk, to Delhi on bullock cart trains - one of which he re-erected in his palace"; I recall reading in Charles Allen's 'Ashoka', the Brahmi inscriptions on the still very much standing Kotla pillar was among the principal sources for James Princep's ground breaking work in Indian epigraphy.

The gateway of Purana Qila:

(*) - I need to explain the word 'enigmatic'. Admittedly, I only quote from Western sources.

The Readers Digest Library of Modern Knowledge says: "Firoz Shah abandoned the policy of launching wasteful raids on neighboring states. Instead he developed commerce and agriculture, building mosques, hospitals and canals for irrigation. His reign was later regarded as a golden age... Although benevolent, he did not allow Hinduism to be practised or temples to be built."
Britannica says: "Firoz was the son of a Rajput princess whose rule has been depicted by medieval chroniclers as one of peace and prosperity... (He) rewarded Sufis and other religious leaders generously and listened to their counsel. He was indeed a pious ruler from the Muslim viewpoint; he created charities to aid poor Muslims, built many colleges and mosques... and made largely unsuccessful attempts to convert his Hindu subjects and sometimes persecuted them... His weakness as a ruler was politically more significant than was his piety... He was justly famous as a builder... he constructed five canals for irrigation, the most important of which ran for 150 miles and a number of reservoirs and wells for that purpose.".
And Will Durant asserts quite succinctly that "Firoz Shah offered a reward for every Hindu head brought to him and paid for 180000 of them".


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