The Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) launched the People of India project on 2 october 1985 to generate an anthropological profile of all the communities of India, the impact of change and the development process on them, and the factors that bring them together.
As part of this all-India project, the first ever ethnographic survey of Delhi was undertaken by the ASI in collaboration with local scholars. For the first time one hundred and forty seven communities of Delhi were studied and their origin, distribution, social organisation, occupation, attitude towards change and development were profiled. Other dimensions of the study included language and human biology. This ethnographic material was also discussed at a workshop held on 16-17 November 1989 in Delhi.
Though the evolution of Delhi from a magnificent medieval city to the imperial capital and then into a burgeoning national capital has been documented many times, the account of the communities which have made Delhi their home is being presented in this work for the first time.
At one level, Delhi is India in miniature, where thirty languages are spoken and where communities from various parts of the country have brought their distinct cultural traits, making it a pluralistic society. At another level, Delhi is part of the north-western region and of the bio-cultural structure of its populations. In spite of a homogenising metropolitan culture, many of Delhi’s communities are deeply rooted in tradition. The major ethnographic features of Delhi are a higher percentage of the scheduled castes, a larger incidences of vegetarianism together with a higher intake of alcoholic drinks, wider prevalence of junior levirate, etc. While the position of women has improved, the adverse sex ratio inter alia is still a cause for concern.
Delhi also offers an example of the rise of national community out of a welter of identities, co-existing, and interacting closely. A bustling metropolis as well as a centre of dynamic political processes, Delhi has the highest per capita income and also the highest per capita investment in infrastructural development. However, sprawling slums and fast depleting natural resources are some of its negative aspects.
K.S. Singh is former Director General, Anthropological Survey of India.
The physiography of Delhi is dominated by the river Yamuna, and the Aravalli range, and the plains in between, formed by alluvium deposits of recent formation. The Delhi Ridge and its four sections, the northern, the central, the south central and the southern constitute the farthest extension of the Aravalli range, its spurs meeting the Yamuna at two points, in the north and the east. Ecologically, the Ridge acts a bather between the Thar desert and the plains and slows down the movement of dust and wind from the desert. This green belt, a natural forest, has a moderating influence on temperature, besides bestowing other known benefits on the people.
The situation of Delhi explains its rise in history. It lay across the major trade routes linking the country's western parts and their harbours, the eastern routes passing through the Indo-Gangetic plains, and the north-western routes leading to Central Asia. It was supposedly well protected with the Aravallis forming the natural ramparts, and the rugged terrain of the north-west and the desert of Rajasthan — the recruiting grounds for the army providing additional protection. It was situated along the Yamuna, a perennial source of water. It opened into the fertile valley of the Doab that supplied abundant grains. In fact, Delhi stood like a sentinel over the Indo-Gangetic plains. The seven cities rose and fell in and around the space sandwiched between the Ridge and the Yamuna.
Archaeology has yet to say the last word on the antiquity of Delhi which is unfolding with each little discovery. In recent years, the antiquity of Delhi has been pushed back with the discovery of the potsherds belonging to the Harappan culture, reportedly about 4000 years old though the continuous habitation of Delhi could only be traced back to 300 BC. The discovery of an Asokan pillar is a landmark. The antiquity ofDelhi is still lost in legendary accounts, which are not entirely matched by archaeological evidence. In the very ancient period Delhi appeared to be the homeland of the Naga who lent their name to the Aravalli (ara-valli, the abode of the serpents). The Nagas' own abode, the Khandwaprastha forest, was burnt down by the Pandavas, and -the Naga retaliated by joining forces with the Kauravas and later by killing Parikshit; his son Janameyajaya took a terrible revenge, annihilating the Nagas and scattering them far and wide. The capital of the Pandavas, constructed after destroying the forest of Khandwaprastha, by the divine architect Vishwakarma under the order of Indra, was raised to his glory and named Indraprastha. It was described as a paragon of beauty which equalled in excellence the legendary Naga city of Bhogawati. Indraprastha also known as Indapatta, Indarattha etc. is mentioned as a town in the Jatakas. Indraprastha survived as a district (pratigana) in an inscription dated AD 1328, and as a village, Indarpat, situated in Purana Quila until recently. Indarpat or Indapat existed as one of the pats or plateaus, alongwith Sonepat, Panipat, Tilapat. Delhi was also earlier known as Yoginipura, the abode of yoginis, the female semi-divine spirits, and one ofthe earliest seats of the cult of mother goddess. The ancient temple of Jogmaya is a relic of that period. Palam was known as Palamba (the suffix ba is Mundari meaning flower).
In the early medieval period Delhi became the stronghold of the Rajputs of the Tomar and Chahaman lineages. It was around this period of Rajput rule that the earliest reference to Delhi as Dhillika occurs in the Bijhli Rock inscription (District Udaipur, Rajasthan) issued by Chahaman Someshwara (AD 1169-70). This inscription refers to the capture of Dhillika. by Vigraha Raj, the first major Chahaman ruler who conquered the land between the Vindhyas and the Himalayas, restored the glory of the Aryavarta and uprooted the aliens. Dhaka is also mentioned as Dhilli/Dilli, as a city situated in the Haritan (Haryana) territory ruled by the Tomars and the Chahamans, in the inscription of1316/17 found at Ladnu in Jodhpur. Another inscription dated AD 1327 describes Delhi as a glorious city in the following words:
Therein lies this town of Milli covered with innumerable jewels, whence sin is expelled through the chanting of the Vedas by those who know the sacred lore and which appears lovely with the tinkling of anklets of beautiful damsels even as the heavenly river with the noise of
It was thus during this period that the transition from the legendary Indraprastha to historical Dhillika, or Dhilli, appears to have occurred.
A rapturous account of Delhi occurred earlier in a Sanskrit inscription dated AD 1276 executed by a merchant Uddhara whose family came from Uchh in the Punjab as follows:
The metropolis of the lord of many hundreds of cities, the charming great city Dhilli flourishes like a crescent-headed arrow on the side of his enemies. Like the earth it is the storehouse of innumerable jewels; like the sky, a source of delight, like the nether regions, the abode of many Daityas, like Maya herself, the most bewitching.
The gradual transformation of Dhilli into Dilli/or Delhi was complete during the Turko-Afghan period when it emerged as a truly magnificent medieval city with its forts, bazars and water systems. Delhi's more eminent poet, Mirza Ghalib described the city as follows: "The world is the body, Delhi is its soul". Delhi's further transformation into the anglicised form, Delhi, occurred during the colonial period. The name continued after independence, in spite of the deanglicization of placenames elsewhere.
Under the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, Delhi lost its status as a state and was reconstituted as a Union Territory and its administration became the direct responsibility of the President of India through an Administrator. In 1966, under the provision of the Delhi Administration Act, 1966, Delhi came under the regime of Lieutenant Governor, a Metropolitan Council and an Executive Council. In November, 1993, it became a state with a chief minister accountable to an elected legislative assembly.
The seven cities which rose and fell in the region lying between the Ridge and the Yamuna (AD 1052 to AD 1648) have been admirably documented by many scholars. Much has been written on the medieval and the colonial and present-thy Delhi, and its architecture. In colonial ethnography Delhi is considered a part of north-western India but no comprehensive account of the communities of Delhi as such exist. This could be due to the fact that most of the Delhi communities, the Rajputs, Jats, Muslims, and Sikhs were segments of the larger communities studied by the colonial ethnographers in the Punjab and further west. The tradition of detailed ethnogrophic studies conducted in the eastern and central parts of India did not extend to this part. Therefore, an attempt has been made to reconstruct Delhi's ethnographic history briefly.
As mentioned earlier, in the early medieval period Delhi became the stronghold of the Rajputs of Tomar and Chahaman (in popular parlance Chauhan) lineages. With the establishment of the rule of the Turko-Afghans, Delhi witnessed the rise of the settlements of Afghans, Turks, Persians, Mughals and various other tribes/communities who came from Central Asia (Mongolpuri is probably the remnant of that period.). The process continued during the Mughal rule when many more communities came from Central Asia and made this city their home. They were also artisans and mercenaries who settled down in Delhi.
Delhi is situated on the right bank of the river Yamuna at the periphery of the Gangetic plains. It lies a little north of 28 n latitude and a little to the west of 78 longitude. To the west and south-west is the great Indian Thar desert of Rajasthan state, formerly known as Rajputana and, to the east lies the river Yamuna across which has spread the greater Delhi of today. The ridges of the Aravalli range extend right into Delhi proper, towards the western side of the city, and this has given an undulating character to some parts of Delhi. The meandering course of the river Yamuna meets the ridge at Wazirabad to the north; while to the south, the ridge branches off from Mehrauli. The main city is situated on the west bank of the river.
Bordering the Thar desert of Rajasthan, Delhi tends towards aridity, but being on the verge of the Gangetic plains, rural Delhi is fertile. Summers are dry and very hot with dry winds blowing, culminating at times in dust storms. But with planned afforestation, natural forests being denuded in the area, the severity of dry summers and duststorms have become milder; humidity has also increased and the severely cold winters have given place to the refreshing ones of today. The south-west monsoon brings rains to Delhi during the monsoon season, i.e., July onwards. The south-east monsoon has a milder impact. Delhi experiences a moderately wet monsoon.
According to the 1981 Census, Delhi is spread out in an area of in 1,483 sq. km. Two hundred and thirty-one villages are located within its periphery apart from major urban complexes under its jurisdiction, and it has a population composition of 5,768,200. But with the rapidly increasing urban complexes, the number of villages are fewer now, having been engulfed by the ever-expanding urban complexes. The population of Delhi has also vastly increased within this period.
Fifteen different cities are believed to have been founded at different times on different sites within this perimeter, and each has left behind its cultural and social remains resulting in the Delhi of today, which is an admixture of civilizations, traditions, a variety of cultures and social backgrounds. They have all contributed to the cosmopolitan nature of this historic place.
The earliest known city of Delhi is Indraprastha, which is associated with the Pandavas. It is said to have been situated on a huge mound on the western bank of the river Yamuna, now occupied by the Purana Qila (oldfort). In the first century B.C., Raja Dillu is believed to have built another city on the site where the Qutab Minar now stands and named it Dilli. The next city was Suraj Kund, built by a Tomar Rajput, Raja Anangapal, in A.D. 1020. The main city was subsequently moved to the old site of Delhi. Anangapal and his successors, who ruled for about a century, converted the town into a fine walled city called Lal Kot. The famous iron pillar is associated with this dynasty. The Tomars were replaced by the Chahamanas and when Prithvi Raj (the last Hindu ruler of Delhi) ascended the throne in 1170, he expanded the city four times. The end of his reign saw the Muslim invasion in 1191 and his defeat in the battle of Panipat. Subsequently, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, a slave of the invader, Mohammed Ghori, to whom was entrusted this conquest, took the liberty of proclaiming himself the first Sultan of Delhi, and retained the old capital. One of his successor, Masud-Din Khilji (1296-1316) built a new city at Siri, about three miles north east of Delhi. A huge tank associated with this city was the Hauz Khas. In 1321, Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlak built another city known as Tughlakabad complete with fortress and walls. His successor Mohammed-Bin-Tughlak built a new capital city called Jahanpanah at a site between Dilli and Siri. This was the fourth of the seven cities of the Delhi plains. In 1354 his successor Firuz Shah, transferred the capital to a new town, Firuzabad, about eight miles north of Dilli and two miles north of Indraprastha.
The Lodis who reigned in the fifteenth century, transferred the capital to Agra. In 1526, Babur invaded and killed Ibrahim Lodi, proclaimed himself Emperor and established the Mughal dynasty. His son and successor, Humayun, began building a new capital at the old site of Indraprastha, which he called Dinepannah, but because of his defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Sun, he could not complete the city, which was later completed by the victor. Humayun came back to the throne at Delhi after the death of Sher Shah Suri but himself died soon after. His son, Akbar, reigned from Agra but his grandson, Shah Jahan, built a new city two miles north of Firuzabad between 1638 and 1658 and christened it Shahjahanabad. The city survives to this day, although with changes, as the walled city of Delhi. In 1804, the city and its surrounding areas came under the sway of the British. With the consolidation of the British power in India, the imperial capital of British India was established at Calcutta, and remained there till 1911. In 1912, by a proclamation of George V, King Emperor of India, the Imperial capital was shifted to the Delhi plains. A new city, the city of New Delhi, was planned and built with a blending of oriental and occidental architectural designs, three miles to the south of the walled city of the Moghuls. This new city has continued to be the national capital of India since 1947 when India attained independence from the British. Ever since, the city has spread out far and wide, though mainly southwards, incorporating all the earlier cities of the Delhi plains.
Right from ancient times and more so today, Delhi has been and remains a melting pot of varied peoples and cultures, giving it a truly cosmopolitan character. Being the capital city, Delhi has attracted various types of people, from every nook and corner of India and from abroad. Especially after Partition in 1947, Delhi started expanding. Partition brought with it hordes of refugees from West Punjab which fell in Pakistan. The Punjabi refugees brought with them their business acumen and determination. They vowed to transform Delhi into a second Lahore, a city that was noted for its beauty and gardens, and to a great extent succeeded in doing so. Trade and commerce flourished. A sleeping political and administrative capital was transformed into a glittering industrial and business centre, with well-laid-out parks, gardens and fountains. The city fathers updated the city with broad roads, well-lit enclaves, flyovers and modern amenities. Here we find the blending of all the best in occidental and oriental, notwithstanding the dominating Punjabi factor. Various peoples have brought in their cultures and retain them to a certain extent. The cultures and societies that have conglomerated in and come to characterize the Delhi of today have lead to cultural exchanges and borrowings and have broadened the vision of the average Delhiite. Taboos of yore are now being shed. There is a new outlook, based on age groupings and social realism. The outcome is a new culture consisting of a harmonious blending of cultures and peoples.
Within this broad framework of culture, the material aspect is gaining ground and the spiritual tempo is keeping pace with it. The blending is subtle but sure; it is a blending of the various cultures of India, the West and the Far East. It is within the orbit and ambit of this blending continuity that an attempt has been made to study the communities in Delhi as they exist today as part of the larger canvas of the People of India. Delhi manifests a part, but an exclusive part of it. The communities belong to various faiths and backgrounds, but all have contributed to the make-up of Delhi as a whole. Of the 147 communities identified and studied, each has a story to tell, a culture to cherish, a religion to follow, and a future to flourish in. Though retaining their traditional ways and beliefs, the people of Delhi seem to share in a new culture formation which is secular in outlook.
The vision of the people of Delhi has broadened, prejudices have weakened and preferences diversified. Today they accomplish things which their ancestors would not have dreamt of. Their liberalized outlook and behaviour, in a setting and set-up, where they cannot afford to do otherwise than to keep up with the popular tempo, have considerably weakened caste rigidities and religious and communal orthodoxies. Though exceptions may be obvious, there is an unmistakeable feeling of a common Indian character in all, and equality and fraternity for all. This realization commonly pervails among all in Delhi.
Hindi is by far the dominant language. But English is still the unifying factor, especially among the upper echelons of society. Knowledge of English, spoken and written, is considered a matter of prestige. A person's social standing is judged by his fluency in English, spoken and written. It has attained great popularity with the younger generation, especially since Delhi parents, of some social standing, are over-eager to have their children educated in English medium schools, so that they can, as they believe, rise in society. Other languages noticeable among the people of Delhi are Urdu, Punjabi and Bengali and to a lesser degree, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam. Haryanvi is popular among Delhi's rural folk. Tibetan is spoken and written in the Bhoti script by the Tibetans. Other Indian languages are spoken by people from other states, though the numbers are insignificant. Official work is however still done predominantly in English.
The demographic composition of Delhi consists first of all of the original population of Delhi which was, and still is mainly Urdu-speaking and Hindi-speaking. The Muslim population of Delhi returns itself as Urdu-speaking. The Punjabi population has increased greatly after the Partition, and has thereafter made a definite impact on the city. The Bengali speaking population was introduced to Delhi in considerable numbers when the British shifted the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912. Thereafter, they have multiplied and made their impact too. The Sindhis with their dialect have also made an impression especially with their business acumen, mainly after the Partition. The populations speaking other languages made their entrance rather late, but have subsequently proliferated here. Delhi also has a fair number of Anglo-Indians whose mother tongue is English. There are also some Chinese-speaking people who are Indian citizens. Delhi, being the seat of power, has invited and attracted peoples of all hues and colours from all corners of India and even from outside. The 1981 Census returned a population of 5,768,200 a number that should be far more today.
Communities are ranked according to their own perception as well as those of others. Economic criteria play a significant part in such ranking, but social criteria are also important. Economic criteria, however, do lend credence and credit to the social criteria as affluence leads to social advantage.
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