“Whoever built new cities in Delhi has always lost it.” – William Dalrymple, The City of Djinns.
While the actual context and implication of the above Persian prophecy is debatable, a larger interpretation of it could be that whoever has destroyed Delhi and rebuilt it, has never been able to rule over it. Some misfortune, some societal changes have always forced the dispensation to change hands and bid adieu to its builder.
The present-day city is said to have been a culmination of seven great capital cities, with the latest city being New Delhi which was inaugurated as the Imperial Capital of the British Indian Empire in 1931.
Rulers of Delhi during their reign ornated the city with monumental architectures both as a statement of power as well as a strategic need for fortification of the new capital they established. The remains of the magnificent ancient and medieval architecture speaks volumes of the lost glory of those times. But, ironically enough, while the cities were built and the remnants of those structure have survived the ravages of time, the reign of those rulers were ephemeral.
Quila Rai Pithora, the first city of Delhi, the capital of Prithviraj Chauhan, (c. 1180 AD) was built by way of fortification of the walls of his grandfather’s fort. He erected massive stone walls around it and extended its original boundaries. The date of completion of the first city of Delhi is not very clear, as most historians put it sometime during the late 12th century. Unfortunately, his eventual defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ghori in the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192 ended the Chauhan rule at Delhi - the great king having reigned for only 12 years.
“Ya base Gujar, ya rahe ujar (May this be inhabited by herdsmen or remain unoccupied)” - this famous foreboding was made by the revered Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya to Ghiyassudin Tughlaq, founder of the Tughlaq Dynasty, who established his new capital at Delhi and called it Tughlaqabad.
It took four years to build the city and merely 15 years later, it was abandoned. Historians say shortage of water in the area caused the abandonment. A more interesting alternative offered suggests that Tughlaqabad was doomed because of Ghiyasuddin’s picking a silly feud with Nizamuddin Auliya. Now, whether it was the water, the saint or the prophecy of Delhi, Tuglaqabad remained abandoned and Ghiyassudin ruled for a total of four years.
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The second Mughal emperor Humayun established the city of Dinpanah (shelter of the devout) in the year 1533 AD. In Swapna Liddle’s book, Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, the foundation laying ceremony is described as follows: “All the great mushaikh (religious men), the respectable saiyids (descendants of Muḥammad through his daughter Faṭima), the learned persons, and all the elders of the city Delhi accompanied the king to the spot. His majesty with holy hand put a brick on the earth, and then each person from that concourse of great men put a stone on the ground.” However, the opulent king was forced into exile after being defeated by Sher Shah Suri in the Battle of Kannauj in 1540.
He was followed by Shēr Shah Suri who rose from the lower ranks of the Mughal army to become emperor. He efficiently administered the army, looked after tax collections, built roads, rest houses, and wells for his people. After routing Humayun in the battle of Kannauj in 1540, Sher Shah Suri decided to construct another city in Delhi, since at that time building a city was considered the ultimate sign of victory. Sher Shah razed Dinpanah to the ground and started building his own capital introducing ornate elements in architecture. He called his new city — Shergarh. However, yet again, his reign was cut short when he died in a gunpowder explosion in 1545.
Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast (if there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this ) - are lines inscribed on walls of the Diwan-i-Khas at the Red Fort in Delhi. The builder, Emperor Shah Jahan built the last ancient city of Delhi when he decided to move his capital from Agra to Delhi.
Shah Jahan had a passion for architecture and from the outset, Shahjahanabad was a planned city. The city and its grand fort was completed in 1648. Shah Jehan was 47 when he decided to move his court from Agra to Delhi. He had just lost his wife; his children were now grown up. The building of a new city used the middle-aged emperor’s bid for immortality (City of Djinns).
His empire was prosperous and borders secure. His new capital was flourishing and the old adage of Pax Mughala was writ large all over the empire. As faith would have it, he could not rule for more than 10 years from his new capital, and his own son caused his undoing. He was confined in the Agra fort for the remainder of his natural life.
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Nearly two and a half centuries later, India was the crown jewel in the British Empire. An empire needed grandeur - New Delhi was the chosen place, and Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker would be the chief architects to carry through the creation of one the world’s greatest urban establishments – as one London newspaper headline would eventually read, “The New Delhi: A City to Rival Paris and Washington”. Thus, began a two decades long romance led by Lutyens and Baker, who built the Parliament House, North and South Blocks, Rajpath, Rashtrapati Bhawan, and the India Gate. New Delhi was unveiled in 1931.
This was the British, heady in power and glory. Post the First World War, the British Empire was the largest the world had ever seen, surpassing that of the great Mongol ruler - Genghiz Khan. It was said that the “sun never set over the British Empire”. New Delhi was a testament to the glory and ever increasing power of the British.
But the prophecy of Delhi, was cruel and unforgiving - in just 15 years, they lost India and the empire with it.
Nearly a century after, the central government announced the redevelopment project to give a new identity to the ‘power corridor’ of India. The plan includes the construction of a new Parliament, prime minister and vice-president’s residences along with 10 building blocks that will accommodate all government ministries and departments.
The Central Vista revamp envisages a new triangular temple of democracy, with seating capacity for 900 to 1,200 MPs, that is to be constructed by August, 2022 - in time for the 75th year of India’s Independence.
Architecture has always been a ruling dispensation’s favourite means of expression of power and authority. Monuments, buildings and statues are often built to leave a legacy of a government or a personality for future generations. Destroying and remaking of a space is an instrument of a power statement by a particular dispensation.
Hitler and Albert Speer’s design for the remaking of Berlin as an ideal capital for the Thousand Year Reich is one of the many examples from the recent past. Interestingly, art and architecture were deliberately used by Mughal Emperors to communicate ideas central to their rule. They used them symbolically, to represent the source and legitimacy of their rule, as well as to assert presence, power and authority in all areas of their expansive empire.
Whether the current regime through its architectural statement of power meets the same fate as the previous authors of imperial Delhi remains to be seen. But power articulated through monumental architectures have not survived long in the history of the city.
(The author is an advocate at the Delhi High Court. The views are personal.)