This is the much awaited, revised and enlarged, edition of a book acclaimed for its innovative approach as well as evocative prose.
The essays in this volume are about old monuments and villages in New Delhi. The author investigates both, the medieval history of these sites and changes that have occurred in these areas in more recent times. Relying upon Persian documentation and field-work, the author narrates the histories of these sites over the last millennium. It is a history of how, ever so gradually, the present has erased and rewritten the past of New Delhi.
Sunil Kumar is professor of medieval history in the Department of History, Delhi University and taught previously at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. His publications include The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate, Permanent Black and Demolishing Myths of Mosques and Temples?
Three Essays Collective. He has also participated in the current revision of the NCERT history textbooks and is the managing editor of the Indian Economic and Social History Review. Sunil resides in Saket near the sites discussed in this book.
Travellers to South Delhi might see two interesting monuments one new and the other old. The new one is in Saket, in the middle of a newly laid out park by the edge of the fortifications of the first Sultanate city. It is a statue of Prithviraj Chauhan, and the old ruined city is rather casually referred to by scholars and laypersons alike, as Qila Ra’I Pithora, the fort of Prithviraj Chauhan. The park and statue were laid out during the Lieutenant-Governorship of Jagmohan Mishra, a senior member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. He wanted to create a resplendent capital, with wide boulevards, green parks, well identified heritage spots and a clean environment. Nothing particularly wrong with any of these goals except that in Jagmohan’s vision the inhabitants of the city needed to be cleansed and sanitised until all those responsible for the mess that the city was in- the underprivileged, the low castes and the non-Hindu were marginalized on its outskirts.
In the construction of the park and statue it did not cross Jagmohan’s mind that the medieval city that he had appropriated as Qila Ra’I Pithora had nothing to do with Prithviraj’s capital at all. Prithviraj’s capital was Ajmer not Delhi. This was the capital of Delhi Sultans like Iltutmish, Balban and ‘Ala’ al-Din Khalaji and known as Dihli-I kuhna, or “Old Delhi”. Govind Rai’I, the governor of Prithviraj (not Prithviraj himself), had his small fort near Mehrauli called Lal Kot. Interesting details, but do they matter?
To gauge the full significance of these stories, travel to the second and much older monument in South Delhi, the Qutb Minar. If you are a tourist and known nothing about the place there is a good likelihood that you will hire a tour guide, accredited by the Archaeological Survey of India, no less. The gentlemen ( they are generally, all men) carry with them a patronizing air of authority; these are venerable historians who will, for a paltry sum of money, educate you about the mysteries of the strange monuments before you. Over the next hour and a half you will hear about Prithviaj’s temple, his Vijaysthamb (his victory tower – the Qutb minar ), built for Prithviraj’s daughter so that she could perform her sun worship while facing the Jumna every morning. The details of Muslim iconoclasm would be laid bare even as the details of the old Hindu temple (not Jain, mind you) are carefully drawn out. By the time the visitor leaves the Qutb precincts, the area would appear as the cradle of Hindu civilization vandalized by foreign Muslim invaders. That the Government of India should honour its glorious past by raising a statue to Prithviraj Chauhan would appear, then, as a fairly normal, nationalist thing to do.
It would be a mistake to assume that the writing of these local histories comes from simple ignorance-non-professional historians recapturing the past without much attention to “facts” or sensitivity to the production of evidence. The writing of history is not the monopoly of professional historians alone. As the events relating to the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the American invasion of Iraq have clarified, the common-place renditions of the past need to be taken very seriously because the world acts on the basis of these interpretations and not the academic tomes or the debates that grip our universities. To understand how the subject of Prithviraj Chauhan has a larger resonance, for example, notice how the Government of India decided to name its Inter Regional Ballistic Missile (IRBM) “Prithvi” after the famous Rajput ruler who had defended Delhi from “foreign” Muslim invasions. That these are not matters of arcane historical details but great geopolitics was evident in Pakistan’s riposte: they named their IRBM “Ghauri” after Mu’izz al-Din Ghuri, whose generals had captured and ruled from Delhi. Had the fate of billions of people not been involved this could have passed as name calling in a school yard fracas!
Historians as they write about the past have their feet firmly planted in the present. It is the debates of their immediate world that often provide them with questions and issues, the language and the metaphors which they use in their research. The essays in this volume are strongly touched by the politics of the 1980s: the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, the Mandal commission, the Hindutva mobilization, the disjunctions cause by economic reform, the push to modernity and India’s search for a global influence. These subjects may seem incredibly remote from the concerns that should grip a medieval historian, but they were not. So much of the communal rhetoric and hatred that grips India today resides upon well integrated assumptions about monolithic community identities and the impact of the omnipresent state on the lives of Indians. In medieval studies, not only are Hindus and Muslims cast within homogenous categories but the state is equally monochromatic: a Hindu or a Muslim state, and, as alternatives, a centralized in contrast to an effete decentralized one. As I queried the historiographies on which these readings were grounded, I discovered I was also challenging so much of the rhetoric on which the politics of the present was mobilized. This book is about the present in Delhi’s pasts but it is equally about the pasts in the city’s present. And since we are still uncertain about where “history will take us next” –a different take on how history, and the past and present are connected- these essays were penned with a great concern about the future.
I am grateful to the Three Essays Collective or bringing out a second edition of these essays and for the indulgence they showed in including an additional essays.
To think of Delhi today is to imagine a city with a geographical span almost the size of greater Chicago and a population nearly equal to New York, a city that was a capital, much like London, of a dominant political formation in north India for nearly a millennium. In much of the literature of the past and the present, Delhi seems to be almost coterminous with India; the making of the state and the city often appears inextricably intertwined. It takes considerable skill to actually disaggregate this history, to imagine a Delhi (leave aloe a state) that was not always of this size.
In 1947 and independence, the modern capital of New Delhi occupied an extremely small area. For the better part, the plain of South Delhi was an agricultural tract. Walled medieval cities, the capitals of the Sultans of Delhi, large and small, only occupied a portion of the ‘plain of Delhi’. There were also a plethora of villages in this tract of land, some with a history of residence much older than the medieval towns.
We are better informed today- if still rather simplistically-about the history of the walled cities of the rulers of Delhi. The rise and decline of dynasties paralleled the fate of their capitals. Lofty citadels ignore by succeeding dynasties crumbled into disrepair and became the haunt of pastoralists, palaces were reapportioned into dwellings of peasants, villages sprouted on old parade grounds and along city gates. Epitaphs of the medieval cities of Delhi seldom wandered from this script. Ozymandias-like, t he ruins stood as testimony to the fate of proud rulers whose accomplishments lay in ruins.
Three essays in this volume relate to areas in New Delhi that date from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the period of the Delhi Sultans. They are about sites in South Delhi that I first visited in the 1970’s as I developed my interests in medieval history during graduate study. My wife and I would cycle to these sites and spend hours wandering through the ruins. In the 1980’s as a teacher at St. Stephens and later the history department at Delhi University, I revisited these areas. I was now a father, leading adventurous expeditions into the unknown, having a great time with my daughter and son. I was mixing pleasure with business. Many of the sites that I visited were in relatively obscure villages. I wondered if it was possible to interweave their histories in my classes, bring my subject more alive to a body of students falling fast asleep with a surfeit of lectures on Sultanate campaigns and Mughal revenue administrative systems.
My interest in these areas continued through the decade and overlapped with my research on the Delhi Sultans. It was exhilarating to discover stray episodes relating to the early history of these sites even as I worked on a more recondite history of the Sultanate. My long interaction with these sites also gave me a chance to notice changes that they were undergoing and to reflect upon the interface between the past and the present. As it turned out, I was no longer just a medieval historian visiting old ruins but also a chronicler, noticing and recording developments that were apparent in these villages.
The 1980’s especially after the 1982 Asian games, introduced a period of extraordinary change in New Delhi. These were, on the one hand, salutary sings of ‘progress’ brought about by efforts to modernize, develop municipal services and an appearance befitting the nation’s capital. There was a complacent pride in the air even as the nation and its middle class seemed to be coming into its own at the end of the millennium. The tragic event s of 1984 and 1992, however, underlined the presence of other, more xenophobic nationalistic current that were also very much a parcel of the city’s and the nation’s drive towards modernity.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, years after independence, the nation seems to have renewed a search for its identity and its roots. History textbooks are subjects of debate and revision, Hindutva ideologues and globalism increasingly threaten the country’s pluralistic cultures. The pasts of the subcontinent are a threat to the manner in which some would want to shape its present. As I wandered through the medieval villages of New Delhi I was struck by the sheer longevity of documented human interaction that some of these sites had witnessed. Many of these places had seen continuous human habitation for a millennium. They had complex histories of demographic changes, shifting political associations and ideological formations. While these areas had experienced their share of violent transitions, their pasts were equally layered with years of peace. It was a rich heritage, but an embarrassing, dangerous one for a modern audience looking for simple, linear correlations a between the past and the present to legitimate narrow, presentist interests.
The essays in this volume are about old monuments and villages in New Delhi, some of which few have ever heard about. Others are extremely well known. But underlying all these essays is the larger conundrum of how we need to face our pasts without erasing them. I hope the essays in this book will serve to communicate the urgency of this issue.
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