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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Transcript of my talk on Delhi at the India Habitat Centre, 20 Dec, 7 pm

Invisible Delhi: the Lesser-Known Monuments of Delhi and the Delhi We See But Don't See

There is a Delhi we see and a Delhi we don’t. There is the Delhi of Lutyens, and the Delhi that came up after 1947 with its tree-lined boulevards, well-kept colonies, flyovers, malls, parks, schools, colleges, and much else. And there is the other part that we don’t quite see. This other Delhi, which I like to call Invisible City, holds an embarrassment of riches in the form of countless little-known, seldom-visited, largely unheard-of tombs, mostly nameless pavilions, mosques, madarsas, pleasure gardens, baolis, cemeteries, and much else. Yet few Delhites bother to notice most of them let alone stop, enter, see, and touch some of these beautifully crafted relics. And the great pity is, that unlike the West, entry to almost all of these monuments is free.

Why is this so? What lies behind the average Dilliwallahs blitheness for the past? Is it merely because most of us are migrants from other cities and have still not, after decades, put down roots? And why has neophyte New Delhi been so quick to discard and dump the great majority of these old monuments on the rubbish heap of history, choosing to validate a bare minimum with a name, an identity and a place of visibility? Related to the city dwellers’ blasé disregard for the past is a general but larger question about the past itself: 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 oblivion? Do the custodians of these monuments – the ASI and the Waqf Board – too have a selective approach when it comes to their preservation and upkeep? Are some more worthy of their attention and others less so? If so, why?

Perhaps the answers lie in the way city planners and developers envisage the city itself. Perhaps it isn’t just the people of Delhi who see these old monuments as dribs and drabs from long-forgotten history lessons occupying, in many cases, prime real estate. Perhaps the city planners, too, see them as inconvenient stumbling blocks standing in the path of a cleaner, more modern, more cosmopolitan Delhi.  And that might explain why the two have connived to coax the forces of urban renewal to obliterate these blots on the shining, new cityscape.

Wherever it was possible to make the law look the other way, these old buildings were razed to the ground, chopped and carted away, brick by brick, stone by ancient stone to make space for modern housing estates – all in the name of ‘colonisation’ and ‘development’. A process started after the Revolt of 1857 when buildings in front of the Red Fort were razed and large parts of the According to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act no building activity may be permitted within 100 m and permission has to be taken from the ASI within a ‘protected area’ of 200 m even for e/renovations. There is also a fine of Rs 1 lakh or a prison term for two years for violations and I would be very interested to know how many cases are registered let alone the guilty punished as per law. This law is so routinely flouted that it is a travesty. Anyone here who has been to the villages of Khirki, Mubarakpur, Zamroodpur, Mohammadpur, and many, many others will know what I am talking about. When not pulled down or broken, the great majority of the so-called 174 ‘protected’ monuments have simply been built around. Boxed in by tightly-packed rows of unauthorized constructions that have rendered them virtually invisible, most of the monuments that I have been studying over the years have become, in a very real sense, un-visitable.

From the early 1990s, 1991 to be precise when TOI commissioned me to write a series on the urban villages of Delhi when I first began writing about these monuments, I have seen at first hand the slow effacement of many of these monuments. From one visit to the next, I have seen bits and pieces of old walls pulled down, encroachments extended, balconies of private constructions jutting out and into government-owned land, people blatantly using the wall of a ‘protected monument’ as the fourth wall of their house, sewers spilling dirty water onto or into these monuments.

I have seen baolis covered over and by the next visit built upon. I have seen more and newer constructions in areas where no construction should have been permitted in the first place. I have in mind the frenzied pace of unauthorized building activity in the vicinity of Khirki Mosque near Press Enclave and Teen Burji (in village Mohammadpur on Africa Avenue) where private residences push and jostle their way virtually up to the monument and parts of the mosque walls have been demolished. Teen Burji, for instance, stands hemmed in and gnawed away not by time or urbanisation, but by greed and corruption. It is said, that till the early years of the last century, villagers had occupied the tomb, built small mud houses and used it as a cattle shed. Those were cleared out, but the village and its denizens have been nibbling away slowly and steadily at the space that Teen Burji occupies, engulfing it in its amoeboid grasp before swallowing it up entirely.

The amoeba of greed has already gobbled up a couple of smaller monuments in the vicinity. A narrow gully leads straight from the rear of Teen Burji to another tomb that is now a store of sorts. This pretty domed building with arched niches on its façade originally had doorways on three sides that have now been blocked by adjacent houses. Further up, a mosque is similarly broken down and ‘assimilated’ into adjacent buildings. Along the southern end of Teen Burji is an octagonal tomb, now virtually inaccessible due to the gaggle of buildings close by. Only its eastern wall is visible, its roof has collapsed, while the rest has been absorbed into a private residence.

Along Africa Avenue, opposite Block B-2 of Safdarjung Enclave and to the north of St Thomas Church at the south-east end of Mohammadpur Village, stands a Tughlaq period building with its distinctive sloping walls and small dome. This was once the tomb of Musa Khan, an unknown Afghan nobleman. Its north and south openings have been walled up, its eastern opening modified to a narrow doorway. The saffron flag fluttering atop proclaims it is no longer a tomb but a temple. This change in function has happened in other instances too. I have in mind Gurudwara Dukh Bhanjan in Sadhna Enclave which has completely transformed a small Tuqhlaq period chhatri into a fully functioning gurudwara. Then there is the small Tughlaq period tomb in N Block of Greater Kailash I that has been completely renovated and turned into the Mahavir Library. That this is in complete violation of the law that says that any building that served a religious purpose till August 1947 will continue to do so seems to be a minor matter of little consequence.

In some cases where wanton disregard for the laws of the land has not been possible, where stray vigilante groups have raised voices of protest, the city 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 reduced them to mute spectators. The building all around R K Puram are a good example. Close to the market in Kidwai Nagar lie the remains of a grand three-tiered mausoleum. This is the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani – Mir Adil (Chief Justice) during Bahlol Lodi’s reign and Minister during Sikandar Lodi’s rule. Son of a nobleman called Mubarak Khan Lohani, Darya Khan died when Ibrahim Lodi was the emperor and was buried in this grand and spectacularly unusual mausoleum. Unlike any other tomb in Delhi, either of the Lodi period or before or after, this is a majestic three-storeyed affair. For years, its sole moment under the spotlight had been when the effigies of Ravan and his brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakaran were erected close beside it during the Dusshera festivities. For years no one paid any heed to the damage the noise and air pollution must have been doing to this already fragile monument, till the INTACH moved the High Court to put an end to the onslaught in 2005.

Blatantly violating the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites Remains Act that prohibits lighting of a fire close to a protected monument to prevent any damage to the structure, the police, the Ram Lila organisers as well as the area MLA insisted on burning Ravana within the Tomb enclosure. Scarred by the New Delhi Municipal Council's earlier attempt at ‘beautifying'’ its surrounding, this ancient legacy already stands in the midst of an ugly blue fountain. Newspaper reports carried the Ram Lila organisers and local worthies saying, ‘It was not on the monument just close to it. Only Ravana was near the monument.’ To my mind, the issue is not only about the burning of Ravana in a protected monument, but a reflection of how lightly history is taken. With the law enforcers as well the law framers abandoning their duty, it is unfortunately monuments like the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani that are the sufferers. Dependent on the police to take action for their complaints, the ASI is helpless and unable to protect their territory if the law enforcers decide to turn a deaf ear. After the Ram Lila and the hullabaloo temporarily over, the tomb of Darya Khan Lohani slinked back into oblivion, unvisited and unknown by those who live in the dense colonies clustered all around it.

And, yet despite the odds stacked so heavily against them, many of Delhi’s lesser-known monuments survive. In great part, this is more to do with the sturdy good-sense of their builders than any especial effort on the part of the Archaeological Survey of India who is their official guardian. Unknown and unvisited, they stand about on islands of neglect, rendered virtually invisible by the cloud of unknowingness that hangs about them. Some of us, especially those who live in South Delhi, 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 ‘such parts’, but they seldom cause a blip on our radars. A measure of unknowingness is granted every time you ask for directions. People either shrug or ask: Achha, woh raja rani ka mahal? Or Quila? An old building, for most, is an old building, indistinguishable and not really worth knowing by its correct name.

While several of these monuments are liberally sprinkled all across South and Central Delhi in the midst of bustling planned colonies, a great many are buried deep inside ‘urban villages’ such as Zamroodpur, Kotla Mubarakpur, Shahpur Jat, Hauz Khas, etc. Go to any of the ‘urban villages’ (an oxymoron that makes sense only after you have actually gone to one!) of Delhi and you will be struck by the chaos and clutter of the villages and the glitter of shining India, often barely a few yards away. An invisible cordon clearly demarcates the two spaces, one neatly labeled ‘organised’, the other ‘unorganized’. You can add other epithets too: clean/filthy; authorized/unauthorized; spacious/cramped; cared for/uncared for, and so on. Why we have allowed pockets of abysmal neglect and wanton disregard for the law to co-exist – that too in such close proximity – with oases of privilege. rests on a capricious reading of the law itself. In this case it lies with a much-abused term – lal dora area. Lal dora is an Indian revenue term dating to the British period, literally signifying a border marked with a red pen to demarcate the jurisdiction of a village settlement. Through years of misuse, it has come to imply the territory of a village within which building norms and controls of local government bodies are not applicable. Most urban villages in Delhi are laid out on a certain template: outer rings ‘develop’ into high-value commercial areas while the heart of the village which also usually contains one or more old monuments increasingly becomes an inaccessible and poorly-serviced backwater. And it is these monuments that are worst casualties of this so-called development.

At this point, I want to show another set of images that speak for themselves. Evidently, the better located monuments have a better deal when it comes to care and conservation. I have in mind the Agrasen ki Baoli at Hailey Road, the shikargaah constructed by Firozshah Tughlaq which is located inside the uber-prestigious Teen Murtri House. Compare these VIP locations with those inside, say, Zamroodpur, Begumpur or worse still Kotla Mubarakpur and you realize that the same law doesn’t work in the same way in different parts of this city. Let me hasten to add that while I am mindful of the resource and other constraints under which the ASI works, I do want to show you the difference between the state of affairs in visible and less-visible parts of the city. I also want to show another set of images – from the ultra exclusive Delhi Golf Club. Here we see how ASI-owned buildings are renovated entirely according to the whims of a set of people who regard these buildings as no more that picturesque backdrops.

I also want to show some pictures of a happy middle way: examples of monuments that exist in bustling neighbourhoods, are reasonably well-kept, and very much in use as parks and common ground for leisure. I have in mind the cluster of tombs called kale Khan, Bhure Khan, Bade Khan ka Gumbad in D Block and J block of South Ext Part 1 and Moth ki Majid in Mayfair Gardens near Hauz Khas.

We end up with a different set of questions than the ones we set out with: Should historical monuments be allowed to crumble into dust or “put to good use”, that is, by being incorporated into new constructions? Or , should they be simply 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? Is the ASI’s way of walking a tightrope between care and conscience and deliberate brutal neglect the only way to deal with the fraught situation facing the lesser-known monuments of Delhi? Clearly, there will be more questions than answers till someone somewhere decides that there is more to conservation issues than mere catchy phrases. Till the people of this city do not take pride in ownership, till they do not appropriate these spaces I fear there will be no easy answers.


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