The Story of Delhi: Eight Cities in One

The story of Delhi is improbably grand, revelling in its relics of once glorious empires – Hindu, Mughal and British, which dominate the skyline in marble and sandstone, and saturate the atmosphere with a poignant elegance. A fleeting visit to a monument exceedingly recent in the more than a millennium of Delhi’s history, evoked for me the quintessence of India – its multi-facetedness.

It was India Gate, built to commemorate the deaths of thousands of Indian soldiers in the First World War, who of course had no direct cause against Germany. As I walked back across spacious lawns to the Rajpath (and a large measure of Delhi’s magnificence is its majestic open vistas across to very imposing public buildings), I met a naked saddhu, or holy man, who wears no clothes because he has cast off all worldly trappings. It was such an apparent paradox in a society that values modesty so much and in a setting of such permanent architectural grandeur. There are infinite, subtle levels of meaning to appreciate about India.

Eight Cities in the Story of Delhi

No fewer than eight cities have been built on Delhi’s site; and not on top of each other, either, in the customary archaeological layer-cake. The present capital evolved horizontally, so that it is possible to take a time-trip through the great epochs of Indian history without leaving Delhi’s precincts, transported from exquisite Hindu temples via India’s greatest mosque, to the neo-Classical symbols of colonial dominance. And in the challenging decades since Independence, Delhi has continued to expand both horizontally and vertically, so that the modern metropolis now covers a greater area than all its predecessor seven cities combined. India continues to astonish.

Despite the fact that Delhi does not have the economic clout of Mumbai, it is the air and rail hub of the sub-continent, and of course the home of India’s government. It has always commanded the great trunk roads of the country, and operated historically as the gateway to the rich plain of the Ganges. Delhi is the only one of India’s great cities to offer more than a millennium of urban development.

While Mumbai and Chennai were but trading posts, and Kolkata, originally a fishing village, Delhi was the successive capital of the three great empires. It was from here that Hindu and Islamic dynasties ruled India, until finally the Mughuls were replaced by the British, who moved their seat of government there from Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1911, finally completing their imperial fantasies in stone in time to hand them over to the new nation of India in 1947.

Early History and The Story of Delhi

Though the name Delhi (or Dehali or Dilli) is derived from the first medieval city of the site called Dhillika, excavations inside Purana Qila, an early Mughul fort, indicate that the date of the oldest habitation in the Delhi area is around the 3rd or 4th century BC. This ancient settlement, known as Indraprastha, was believed to have been founded by the Pandava brothers, the mythical heroes of the Mahabharata, the ancient, national epic tale of India, the inspiration for a decades-long television ‘soap’.

But the first of the seven cities to leave visible remnants in stone was Dhillika, begun around the 8th to 9th centuries by the Tomars, who built beautiful temples and efficient water-works at Lalkot. They were succeeded in the 12th century by the Chahamanas, who extended the area of the town by constructing secondary defensive walls, now called Qila Dai Pithora. Until around 70 years ago, it was possible to easily retrace the individual heritages of Delhi’s seven old cities by dint of visiting them from south to north, since its growth has been a steady drift northwards to take advantage of the cooling breezes from the hills. However, recent developments have somewhat blurred the edges of the old historic sites somewhat.

Yet the dividing line between old and new is still sharp, and the transformation from Old Delhi to New Delhi is quite startling; from a labyrinth of small hectic streets, crammed with temples, mosques, bazaars and people that is Old Delhi, to the majestic elegance of ‘garden-city’ New Delhi a large part of which was designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944). All part of the amazing story of Delhi.

Hindu Rule in Delhi

It is certainly one of the most intriguing capitals of the world, part of that attraction stemming from its unique Indo-Islamic style of architecture and tolerant blend of influences. Hindu rule in Delhi more or less came to an end in 1192, and an epoch of Islamic ascendancy began with the Turkish invader, Muhammed-bin-Sam, who hailed from Ghor in Central Asia.

Delhi began to erect its massive museum pieces of Indo-Islamic architecture in earnest at the close of the 12th century, when the conquering Muslims made it their capital in India. But gradually the conquerors themselves became Indianised and developed a composite culture, which is still evident in the Indian way of life to this day. It permitted the flowering of the poetic language of Urdu, and richly prolific styles of music, dance, dress and cuisine. Delhi was at the heart of this cultural fusion and played a significant role in the process.

The story of Delhi continues, as out of ruined Hindu temples and inside the old Tomar fortress, the victorious Qutbu’d Din started building his amazing tapering five-tier tower, the Qutb Minar in 1199 to add to the story of Delhi. Often described as the Seventh Wonder of Hindustan, it is one of the earliest monuments to the Afghan period in India, though some would scoff that it is a cross between a factory chimney and a candlestick, with its terracotta frills.

On the day I visited it was Friday, and a holiday for Delhi’s Muslims, a fine time to visit the tower and the other main attraction, the first mosque to be built in India, appropriately called Might of Islam. This Quwatu’l Islam Mosque has pillars and arches rampant with sculpture and relief work in a stunning blend of Indo-Islamic styles. There were families picnicking amongst the princely summer pavilions, parties of school-children being marched around the strange seven metre high Iron Pillar, which has been rust-free since the 3rd/4th century, when it was created by a Hindu king Chandragupta II, plus an Indian brass band ‘oomphaing’ away the peace of the Friday afternoon.

 Islamic Dynasties and The Mughals

After a parade of Islamic dynasties and five cities at Delhi, the Mughals made their appearance in style and add to the story of Delhi. Babur, the conqueror from Kabul, arrived in 1526, introducing the formal Persian garden to India, though he preferred to base himself at Agra rather than Delhi. But the second Mughul emperor, Humayun, laid the foundation for the sixth capital on the bank of the Yamuna River around the ancient site of Indraprastha.

The 16th-century Humayun’s tomb is built in a style reminiscent of Persia and celebrates the beginning of the magnificent Mughul era of architecture culminating in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri. It stands in spacious gardens, for the Mughuls had brought with them their love of horticulture, and ability to use water in channels and fountains, to create a vision of paradise on earth. Yet it was not always a garden of heavenly peace, for numbers of bodies of murdered princes and emperors of the Mughul dynasty lie buried in the vaults. The tomb had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century, but the Aga Khan’s Trust pledged to restore the building and surroundings and the project was finally completed in 2013.

Humayun’s great-grandson, Shah Jehan, constructed the seventh Delhi, of which the famous Red Fort is its citadel on the riverbank, perched on the eastern edge of what was once a walled city. As you enter the gates of the Fort, there’s an excellent little covered market known as Chata Bazaar. Small shops stock delightful, though questionable ‘antiques’, jewellery, delicate ivory carvings, the usual brassware and sandalwood chests and boxes that infuse the air with that inimitable therapeutic perfume of the Orient.

I found some superb reasonably priced miniatures, one of a laughing camel that I instantly purchased; along with some woody, scented oils like Heena. It is not hard to imagine imperial elephants swaying by into the Fort, draped in cloth-of-gold, with a Mughul prince perched up aloft in his silver howdah. The Red Fort is the ultimate symbol of Mughul magnificence and power and totally unmissable. As a Persian couplet, inscribed in letters of gold upon the walls of the Hall of Private Audience, relates: ‘If there be a paradise here on earth, Tis here! It is here! It is here!’.

The Red Fort

The cool elegance of marble predominates behind the red sandstone walls, which gave the Fort its name. At one time some of the walls of the royal chambers were inlaid with precious stones, the ceiling of the Diwan-i-Khas lined with silver, and the glittering figure of the great Mughul emperor would strike terror from his Peacock Throne. All are long-gone but they still are still part of the story of Delhi, as what remains are exquisite pietra dura panels reminiscent of the Taj Mahal (and Florence), and such wonderful details as a marble basin carved in the shape of a lotus flower in the Painted Palace, from which flowed the Canal of Paradise. For me, the most unforgettable experience was the Pearl Mosque, aptly named, for it is built of pure white marble and has marvellously ornate facades carved with floral tendrils.

Opposite the Red Fort is the main market street of Chandni Chowk or Silver Square, and important area in the story of Delhi, definitely the commercial hub of Old Delhi, with hustlers a mile-a-minute. Hawkers of sinister-looking patent medicines touted for custom, and an awesome dentist squatted by piles of molars to attend to his patients with pliers. Astrologists and fortune-tellers of every persuasion blithely ignored the maelstrom of human activity around them.

Chandi Chowk

Once Chandni Chowk was an imperial avenue down which Shah Jehan rode, leading lavish cavalcades of courtiers. Nowadays, everybody rides down the avenue – lumbering bullock carts, skinny horses drawing gaudily-decorated carriages, and noisy scooter-taxis, honking for all they are worth. But at the end of the avenue, in a suitably elevated position, is India’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid. It was built by Shah Jehan in the mid-17th century of that same combination of materials as the Red Fort, red sandstone on the exterior, marble within, its onion-shaped domes and tapering minarets characteristically Mughul.

With the death of Shah Jehan’s son, the fanatical Aurangzeb (who nevertheless had brought Delhi to its period of greatest power and grandeur), initiated the decline of Mughul rule in the early 18th century. Delhi was sacked by a Persian named Nadir Shah, who made off with the fabulous Peacock Throne; and then by an Afghan conqueror. Gradually the British East India Company became the real controller of most Indian states, of which the Mughul one at Delhi was no exception. Lord Lake captured Delhi for the British in 1803, although the Mughul monarchy survived nominally for another 50 years or so. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the old Mughul ruler Bahadur Shah, was dethroned, and so the reign of the Mughuls ended in India.

 Delhi Under British Empire

For the next half-century Delhi lost its importance, but only temporarily. The historic city, with its strong traditional association as a royal seat of power, once again became the capital of India in 1911 under the British Empire, replacing Calcutta. A decision to build a splendid new Indian metropolis, echoing the glory of the British crown, gave birth to New Delhi.

Battle over the style of architecture to be employed was truly royal, between the proponents of either the Mughul heritage (favoured by the King and the Viceroy Lord Harding), against the two British architects Lutyens and Baker, who proposed a mixture of classical and imperial styles. Though they were squabbling among themselves, they won the aesthetic struggle. Lutyens went as far as to ridicule the King’s preference for the Mughul style, by proclaiming ‘Fancy Shakespeare being asked by Elizabeth to write an ode in Chaucerian meter’.

So in true Indian tradition, what Delhi got was a fusion between the two. The architects grudgingly agreed to include some typically Indian features, such as spacious courtyards, colonnades, verandahs and fountains. And now every year the Rajpath, the broadest avenue of Delhi, is the scene of a magnificent pageant to mark Republic Day (26 January), bowling its way between those grand government buildings resembling an Oriental Whitehall.

Sir Edwin Lutyens’ most important assignment during the British period was to design of the Viceroy’s House, now known as Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of India’s President. Standing behind massive gateways, at the head of a long pathway guarded by Britannic lions and fountains, the Viceroy’s House was intended to be the ultimate symbol of the British Empire, described at the time as ‘majestic like an Englishman dressed for the climate, the very essence of art for empire’s sake’.

As AG Butler wrote at the time: ‘Should the civilisation of the British Empire perish, there will be this relic left in India, exulting in a grandeur which is peculiarly English and a quality of clean arrogance superbly phrased like a speech at Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V.’ How the mighty are fallen, and even at the time, Baker described Lutyens’ circular coliseum as a ‘dreary-go-round’.

Becoming New Delhi

As early as 1926 in the story of Delhi, Imperial Delhi was renamed New Delhi, by order of the British King, Emperor of India, George V. Ironically, what impresses contemporary visitors now, as it did in the past, is the physical legacy of imperial power and grandeur, so evident in the Mughul (and British) character of the town planning, with its wide straight roads for royal processions and movement of imperial troops in emergencies. One wonders what a wandering sadhhu makes of all this, ambling across the lawns of the capital of questionably the largest ‘democracy’ in the world.

The ongoing culture and history of India’s crafts are vividly brought to life in one of my favourite museums – the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi. It is one of the largest of its type in India, and holds over 35,000 examples of textiles, jewellery, clay, stone and wooden objects and much more. Originally inspired by the freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, it evolved over a period of 30 years, starting in the 1950s and 60s.

Between 1975 and 1990, the beautiful building we see today, whose architect was Charles Correa, was built, blending traditional architecture with contemporary design. The museum has an active, lively atmosphere, clearly enjoyed by Michelle Obama, who visited in 2010, accompanied by a large group of schoolgirls. They would have seen makers from different parts of India at work creating examples of living traditions of the country, with their products on sale in the museum’s shop.

Delhi’s climate can be extreme, it can cold and foggy in the winter months and overpoweringly hot in the summer, before the start of monsoon. However, Delhi is not about the climate, or the pollution, it is about the layers of history that are still visible in the living, every expanding city of today. For more information on New Delhi, visit the government’s Incredible India website.