Neophyte New Delhi has been quick to discard most of them on the rubbish heap of history,
choosing to validate a bare minimum with a name, an identity and a place of visibility.
Where it was possible to make the law look the other way, many of these monuments were razed to
the ground to make way for colonisation and development. Regarded as no more than inconvenient
piles of rock, many have been pulled down, built upon, built around.
Invisible City: The Hidden Monuments of Delhi explores this other Delhi – the little-known,
seldom-visited, largely unheard – of Delhi, the Delhi that has been rendered almost invisible.
Rakhshanda Jalil has co-authored partners in freedom: Jamia Millia Islamia and journey of faith
(forthcoming) with Mushirul Hasan.
Among her books published in recent years are: Neither Night Nor Day, A Winter’s Tale & Other
Stories by Premechand, Circle & Other Stories, Through the Closed Doorway and Black Borders.
Rakhshanda Jalil is Media and Cultural Coordinator at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia.
Premola Ghosh is chief, Programme Division, at the India International Centre, New Delhi. A
self-taught artist, she has held solo exhibitions, and illustrated books.
Dhruva Narayan Chaudhuri has published and exhibited his photographs worldwide and won many
prestigious awards. He is the author of Delhi: Light, Shades and Shadows.
When I joined my parents in Delhi, we lived in Subzi Mandi, quite close to the Roshanara Garden
where Emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter is buried. there was greenery all around and the air was
fragrant with maulsari blossoms I had to take a tram that ran through Sadar Bazar past the
Fatehpuri mosque, down Chandni Chowk, along the Sunehri Masjid, Gurudwara Sis Ganj and ended near
the steps of the Jama Masjid. I had never seen a mosque so grand and majestic as this one. I
could see the huge battlements of the Red Fort. Them I took a tonga to get to my school in
Daryaganj. There were other beautiful mosque on the way and the school was next to the massive
grey stone city wall. After we shifted to New Delhi, which was in the process of being built, I
had to go to the same school by tonga and later in bicycle. The road ran along the city wall from
Ajmeri Gate past Turkman Gate to Dill Darwaza into Daryaganj. And still later when my father
acquired a car, I was driven past the Khooni Darwaza and kotla Ferozshah with its Ashokan pillar.
The place was redolent with history from 600 B.C. to modern times. I wanted to know more of its
hoary past. I did so in an unplanned manner. At times I cyckes all the way from Safdarjung;s Tomb
past Vijay Mandal, Hauz Khas, Yusuf Sarai, walls of the Qila Rai Pithora to the Qutub Minar,
Mehrauli, the mausoleum of Bakhatiyar Kaki, Shamsi Talab. It was strewn with parts of mosques,
palaces and front. Then by car along the same route to Sultan Garhi, I went to the Humayun’s
Tomb, the mazaar of Nizamuddin Auliya, on Thursday evenings to listen to qawwali and pay homage
to Amir Khusrau and Asadullah khan Ghalib. Many Sundays I went to Tughlaqabad and visited the
tomb of its founder Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq or further Suraj Kund. Once I spent three nights in Qutub
Minar’s dak bungalow to look for Balban’s tomb and the Jamali Kamali mosque. I wandered around
the Qutub monuments, Alai Darwaza, Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque with its iron pillar and lltutmish’s
grave. One moonlit night I felt ghosts of the past closing in on me and hurried back to the
safety of my room in the dak bungalow guarded by a chowkidar.
All that changed in August 1947. Muslims who formed almost half the population of Delhi were
forced out of the city. They took with them Urdu and the city’s cultural life. Their place was
taken by Hindus and Sikhs fleeing from the newly-formed state of Pakistan who brought with them
the Punjab language and dhabas. They had nowhere to stay. So the government built as many new
homes and markets in as quick a time as it could. The British had carefully planned New Delhi for
a limited population. They left old monuments untouched. Independent India’s new rulers did not
have time to plan for the future. Huge parts of the old city wall were pulled down to make way
bazaars. New colonies sprang up everywhere smothering ancient monuments; they did not believe
these were worth preserving. It was heartbreaking. More than roads perpetually clogged by
vehicles of all sots, it is the murder of some of our past heritage that saddens me most. The
worst victims of our government’s vandalism were monuments in the southern half of the city,
stretching from the Purana Qila in the east of the Lodi Garden to Safdarjung in the west and
going beyond Tughlaqabad and the Qutub Minar. This has fast become an invisible city, which is
the theme of this book.
Rakhshanda Jalil has done a thorough job of research to locate these monuments and inform the
readers about their builders, the time when they were built and the legends that grew round them.
She does so in felicitous prose. The illustrations by Premola Ghose and photographs by D.N.
Chaudhuri helps to wipe away some tears over the dead past. This book should be made compulsory
reading in schools and colleges. It will make the present generations aware of Delhi’s
Delhi lives. It has been built over again. The debris of its past is scattered all around.
Blythe, blasé and heedless, the city has been quick to discard as many of the inconvenient dribs
and drabs of its past as it possibly could. Delhi has allowed the cloak of oblivion to fall,
hiding several inconvenient piles of old rock that stand in the way of urbanization and
development. Through years of misuse, it has coaxed the forces of urban renewal to obliterate
several of these blots on its shining new horizon.
Where it was possible to make the law look the other way, Delhi has let many of these monuments
be pulled down, chopped and carted away or cannibalised, brick by brick, stone by stone. Where
wanton disregard for the laws of the land has not been possible and stray vigilante groups have
raised voice of protest, Delhi has allowed reluctantly and with ill-concealed contempt – some of
these structures to stay. Like guests who have long outstayed their welcome, the city has,
through sheer dint of brutal neglect them to mute spectators.
And yet, despite the odds stacked so heavily against them, many of Delhi’s lesser-known monuments
survive. In great part, this is to do with the sturdy good sense of their builders. Unknown and
unvisited they stand in islands of neglect, rendered virtually invisible by the could of
unknowingness that hover around them. Some of us might drive past them, or walk our dogs in their
unkempt grounds, or take a shortcut through them, keeping a vigilant eye for the louts who
invariably hang about here, nut they seldom cause a blip on our radars.
Rarely do we stop to ask why we are so entirely heedless of our past. Why have we allowed a
cordon sanitaire, as it were, to fall on our city, demarcating two clearly-defined spaces: one
neatly labelled ‘organised’, the other falling under a broad category of ‘unorganised’. Other
epithets can be used for these two categories: clean/filthy, authorised/unauthorised,
orderly/chaotic, spacious/cramped, cared for/ uncared for, and so on.
Pockets of abysmal neglect exist alongside oases of privilege. Yet it seldom causes so much as a
raised eyebrow let alone any real degree of concern or introspection, either on our part or on
the part of those who head out civic bodies.
Many years ago, struck by this study of contrasts, I began to visit the urban villages of Delhi,
one by one, and each time I marveled anew at the chaos and chaos and clutter of these villages
and the glitter of shining India, often barely a few yards away. At the heart of each urban
village, reached through many a winding alley, past many a malodorous heap of rotting rubbish, I
invariably found an old monument.
I began by writing a stray essay or two on the villages themselves, graduating to a couple of
articles on the ruins I had changed upon by happy serendipity. Three years ago, I began writing a
monthly column, called ‘Invisible City’, for the First City magazine. While I had enough material
to get by for the first few months, I began scouting for newer and lesser-known monuments to
write about each month. Soon, this search became an adventure, a journey of discovery in to the
unknown in which I was joined by family and friends. Acquaintances and readers of the column
began to pitch in-with reports of ‘some old building’ they could spot from their balcony, or
sightings of ‘something’ they drove past but whose name they didn’t know. On sunny winter
afternoons these became enjoyable excursions. On scorching hot days or in pouring, they were
less-then-pleasing experiences. But the pot of gold at the end of these monthly rainbows was
always very rewarding. The thrill of finding something new-yet completely unknown-either buried
deep inside an urban village as in the case of Zamroodpur, or in the heart of a bustling
neighbourhood as in the case of Sarai Shahji, has still not deserted me. Even today, as I sit
down to turn my columns into essays for this book, I feel elated every time the curtain of
invisibility lifts and these old building reveal something of themselves.
In the three years that I have writing and researching these monuments, I have ended up with more
questions than answers: Why do certain monuments fall off the tourist map? Who decides whether a
certain historical building is worth a visit or whether it ought to be consigned to the rubbish
head of history? Should historical monuments be allowed to crumble to dust or put to good use by
being incorporated into new constructions, or should they simply be razed to the ground and built
over? Who is to decide what stays and what goes? Also, what stays in which form and is put to
which specific use? Does a monument have a sell-by date pasted on it? Does history not have a
sanctity that is above current use? Must we judge history as ‘relevant’ and ‘irrelevant’? For
that matter, is the past itself expendable? Must it make way for the present? Clearly, there will
be more questions than answers till someone somewhere decides that there is more to conservation
issues than mere catchy phrases. Till that happen, I hope some of you will find something of
value in this book.
Mir Taqi Mir, one of the greatest Urdu poets, who could not bear to be away from his beloved
Delhi even for a short while, wrote:
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