The city of Delhi is as full of surprises as a good treasure-hunt. You may suddenly find a ruined arch many hundred years old beside a recently-built bungalow, or see the reflection of a highrise building in the waters of an ancient step-well. We all have to discover Delhi for ourselves. It is possible to spend many happy winter afternoons wandering, wondering, imagining ... but before venturing out, it is pleasant to have someone tell you where to go, and what to look for. Percival Spear’s book was written 50 years ago, and you will soon see that it is different from other ‘guidebooks’. Spear speaks to us. He was an Englishman who taught history at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He himself became interested in Indian history and is today known as the author of Volume 2 of the Penguin History of India. He also enjoyed learning the history of Delhi, on which he wrote three books. One of them was Delhi - Its Monuments and History, which was printed in two editions (1943 and 1945) and was used as a textbook for schools. Copies of this book are not easy to find, and we have prepared this annotated edition because we think that no other book has quite replaced it. Spear’s writing is full of his love for the place and a sense of respect for the individuals who have made the city - architects, rulers, poets, pious men. These qualities are missing in more sophisticated guidebooks. As he talks to readers, he leads them through the city, on foot, on bicycle, and even by car along the long stretches of Lutyens’ New Delhi.
Though Spear would have been happy to have visitors to Delhi use his book, I think he was writing essentially for the children of the city. In those days, there was no TV and little cinema to make claims on children’s leisure hours, school homework was sensibly limited, and the town was small, with a few trams and only one bus- service. Places like Sultan Ghari and Masjid Moth lay in the middle of fields far out of the city. To visit the Qutb or Hauz Khas meant leisurely rides by tonga, and the time there was spent in pleasant picnics undisturbed by canned music from players or transistors, and interrupted only by the rising crescendo of the brain fever bird or the shriek of homing parakeets. The pace was slow, and allowed visitors not just to ‘see’ monuments but to spend some time there absorbing the ambience ...
Spear would be as bewildered by today’s Delhi as the two old village women of Munirka who said sadly, ‘Ever since the tarred roads were laid out, we can never find our way from Mehrauli to Munirka’. The town of 7 lakh people Spear knew now holds a restless 93 lakhs. Most of them have come to the city recently, and are so busy, trying to survive or push ahead that they have not had time to look at Delhi. As the population grows, many of the smaller monuments ‘disappear’ or get hidden behind housing blocks. Very few of the inhabitants of Panchsheel Park have visited the neighbouring Begumpuri Masjid, which figures as a major monument of the Islamic World (Michell, p. 268). The landscape that Spear knew - the rugged hills of the Ridge, the river, the streams and fields, also’ disappear’ under new’ colonies’. The tiny blue boards of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are obscured by gigantic hoardings and by road signs. It is easy to see the signboards for the National Zoological Park (the ‘Zoo’ to most of us) but difficult to find the nearby Humayun’s tomb, the stupendous architectural marvel which is known as the precursor of the Taj Mahal. The colours and the polish of the buildings have been worn off by time and vandalism, and stones and pillars have been stolen. Many of Spear’s students, Hindu and Muslim, could read Persian, and many monuments were a literary as well as artistic delight. Today few people can decipher the inscriptions.
All this makes it more important than ever before that we should know and care for our monuments. Delhi is frequently compared to Rome - and this is understandable, because both cities have an embarras de richesses as far as historic architecture goes. Between sunrise and sunset, there is so much to be seen for free (with only a nominal entrance fee at the Lal Qila, Humayun’s Tomb, and Safdarjang’s Tomb).
When we visit the monuments, we are treading the footsteps of visitors over centuries.
On Tuesday I visited the mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya .... The same night I circumambulated the tomb of Khwaja Kutbuddin, and visited the tombs and palaces of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban, of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, and his minaret, the Hauz Shamsi, the Hauz Khas, the tombs and gardens of Sultan Bahlol and Sultan Sikander Lodi.
This was a diary entry of a visitor in 1526 (obviously the monuments were not closed at sunset in those days!). His name was Zahiruddin Mohammad, popularly called ‘Babur’ (Tiger). Babur was referring to three centuries of Sultanate architecture, to which his own dynasty was to add many more monuments. Later, the British, always fascinated by the charisma of Delhi, built a capital meant to last 500 years.
There is no obvious way to organize a book on Delhi’s monuments. It could be done geographically, moving from south to north (the average Delhi tour ‘does’ ‘New Delhi’ in the morning and ‘Old Delhi’ in the afternoon). It could be in historical order, which means one will zigzag from place to place. Spear’s is a third pattern - he starts with the area which would have been most familiar to the children, who then all lived in what is called ‘Old Delhi’ (i.e. north of Delhi Gate). For him, as a student of the fortunes of the Mughal dynasty, the Lal Qila ofShahjahan was the obvious central reference point. Starting from the Qila and Shahjahanabad, he moves to the Civil Lines, where the homes of several Europeans were located, and the University of Delhi. He then conducts the students south to Firoz Shah Kotla, and still further to Purana Qila, Humayun’s tomb and Nizamuddin. Later they take bicycle rides out to Sayyid and Lodi Delhi, and to Safdatjang’s tomb. Whole day excursions are organized to the still further Qutb complex, and Suraj Kund. Then there is a motorcar drive through New Delhi after a fascinatingly long session at Jantar Mantar.
The first map at the end of this book is reproduced from Spear’s book, and gives us an idea of what Delhi looked like in 1943. The second map fills in the main roads subsequently built. Delhi has become so built up that many of the routes he describes are no longer in use. Because of his informal style of writing, some of the buildings he describes could not be identified with certainty. It is also possible that some may have been demolished in the last fifty years. We hope that this edition, annotated and also illustrated with lively sketches by a gifted young artist and student of architecture, will induce citizens and students of Delhi to follow in Spear’s footprints, and bicycle tracks!
This book is teeming with people. Bringing history to life by imaginative interaction with monuments can be done so easily in Delhi. Until the 1960s, students of class 10 had to answer a compulsory question on the monuments of Delhi. In Delhi University, for the compulsory English language paper, there was a frequently repeated question asking students to narrate ‘a conversation between Old and New Delhi’. Spear’s little book, and Hindi and Urdu books called Hamari Dilli were read as textbooks.
One of the interesting things about Spear’s style is the throwaway fashion in which he refers to incidents of history or to ‘famous’ people. He was steeped in history and assumed the students were likewise. They probably were: in those days when curricula were less burdensome, interaction between teachers and students was closer, and the reading habit more ingrained. Present-day readers will greatly benefit by reading Spear’s Twilight of the Mughals, which describes Delhi in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the present edition, the Chronological Chart is our attempt to situate in time the people and the buildings he describes. Likewise, Spear was familiar enough with Urdu and Persian terms, but for present-day readers who might not be, we have appended a Glossary.
Spear occasionally refers the reader to other books. In our notes, we have also cited books and authors, in abbreviated form. The full titles and other details will be found in our Bibliography. In the small city of Delhi which Spear knew, it was possible to indicate which books could be found in which libraries with a sense of certitude. The number of libraries in Delhi has grown, but the older books are difficult to locate, unless they have been reprinted. Our annotated bibliography will indicate which of the books he refers to are available. It also suggests others which should be of interest. We have also compiled an Index for easy reference and cross-reference.
We have thoroughly enjoyed working on this, and hope it will draw lots of Delhiwalas out into the wonderful history with which they are surrounded.
Fourteen Years After: Foreword to the
Foreword by Narayani Gupta
How to Read This Book by Percival Spear
Foreword by Percival Spear
Part I - The City
The Mosques of Delhi
The Civil Lines
Part II - Around The City
Firoz Shah Kotla
The Lodi Tombs
Part III - The Qutb District
The Great Mosque
The Qutb Minar
The Lal Kot (Mehrauli)
The Bijay Mandal
Part IV - New Delhi
The Jantar Mantar
Part V - Architecture Of Delhi
The Architecture of Delhi
Afterword - Fifty Years On by Laura Sykes
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