Shahjahanabad, the glorious Mughal city that became home to the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan after he decided to move the Mughal capital from Agra — according to numerous poets and travellers — was nothing less than heaven on earth. And it is this city that historian and author Rana Safvi sets out in search of. Her third book, in the Delhi trilogy, titled Shahjahanabad, is an ode to the splendid achievement of the Mughal Emperor under whom Mughal architecture and art reached its zenith. Excerpts from an interview:
How would you describe your book? Is it an attempt to get the country’s attention towards the glorious past of the Mughal Empire in its zenith, or would you call it your attempt to rediscover what remains forgotten… In a sense, the wider array of the Mughal durbar — the poetry, the food, the art and culture that came along with it…
My book is an ode to the magnificent city that was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. What was once one of the finest cities of the world, has today been notified as a slum and that breaks my heart. Most people have no idea of its glory days and only see it as a place to get kababs and nahari. I wanted to give my readers a glimpse of the magnificence and sophistication of the city that the poet Mir Taqi Mir described as, “Dilli jo ek shahr tha alam mein intekhaab” [Delhi which was once the chosen city of the world]. This was a planned city, with shaded trees, fountains and gardens, grand havelis and bazaars, and I wanted to recreate that.
The Red Fort which was at the heart of the city was an architectural triumph supposed to be a heaven on earth, and I wanted to showcase that, too. After all, Emperor Shah Jahan had the verse
Agar firdaus bar ru e zameen ast
Hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast
(If there is a paradise on Earth/ It is this, it is this, it is this)
Inscribed on the Diwan-e Khas. Yet, today the verse itself has faded as has its origins. I attempted to explore that this verse was written for the fort itself and not Kashmir and that set me off on a beautiful journey of discovery which I have described in the book.
How did the idea of the Delhi trilogy come into your mind? Was the first book on its own or did you realise it after its publication that there’s more to this.
Delhi had always fascinated me, but I had never had a chance to explore it properly. When I did get that chance, I realised that though much had been written on it, the soul of Delhi hadn’t been explored. Initially, I intended to write a single book as an update to Gordon Hearns ‘Seven Cities of Delhi’, and I started my research with Mehrauli. Mehrauli captivated me with its ancient past as Delhi’s first city, and home to spirituality and syncretism. In the narrow lanes of Mehrauli, I found glimpses of the soul I was looking for and I knew I had to devote a full book to it. The rest just followed naturally.
Delhi is my destiny and it pulled me here. I had never ever imagined I would become its chronicler. That credit I give to Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki or Qutub Saheb as he is known, the famous Chisti Sufi saint whose shrine is in Mehrauli.
It is very interesting that you clicked these photographs yourself. The research must have undoubtedly been exciting. Can you talk a bit about the process and the experience of writing the book?
The research is the most exciting part, whether field or academic. I would spend 2-3 days a week exploring the places I was writing about, and the rest in doing academic research and writing. I sometimes feel that I am an old soul who finds itself at home in ruins!
Whatever the weather I would explore and record. Photographs and videos of the places I visited, people I met were initially only for my records and references. It is only in the third book that I used them as illustrations in the book as I wanted to show the spirit of the monument as I saw it, not just through words but also through my mobile lens. By the way, most of it was captured on my iPhone. I had taken photographs with a camera but my hard drive got corrupted and I lost almost 3000 photographs. Luckily for me since I also take simultaneous photos with my mobile for research I had them and they were accepted for publication.
I explore in two ways, one I ask someone from the area to accompany me, such as Abu Sufiyan and Ashok Mathur and see their city from their eyes and second I hire a cycle rickshaw for the whole day and just explore aimlessly, stopping wherever I saw anything interesting. I had many adventures in that. The rickshaw walas were convinced I am a foreign tourist and would insist on speaking to me in English and give me a guided tour or should I say misguided. They would look at me suspiciously when I would correct them in chaste Hindustani. Finally we made friends and I would call him a day before to book him for the next day and we would spend the day exploring. Once while I was taking photographs from the rickshaw a street urchin snatched my iphone and ran away. My rickshaw wala, Mohammad and I both ran after him in the crowded street and finally managed to retrieve it. More than anything I was worried about loss of two years research on my mobile.
‘I sometimes feel that I am an old soul who finds itself at home in ruins!’
One has to ask, the Mughals today, are being falsely and unjustly being discredited off their works. Films, too, have had a role to play in this. Authors like you, William Dalrymple and Audrey Trushke are attempting to retain and rediscover their glory…
Our attempt is to record history as well as we can and make it accessible for everyone. The Mughals came to India as conquerors but remained as Indians not colonists. They subsumed their identity as well as the group’s identity with India and became inseparable from it, says professor Mukhia, giving rise to an enduring culture and history.
These days films and serials seem to depict them as tyrants and religious bigots who looted India. We forget their contributions in almost every field. The Mughal Empire was one of the grandest empires of the world and richest empires of the world, controlling at one point in 1700 AD, a quarter of the world’s GDP. It has left a lasting legacy in tangible and intangible heritage. They gave us an administrative framework . They invested in local arts and crafts, and encouraged old and created new skill sets in India, as well in infrastructure building great monuments which are a local and tourist draw generating crores of rupees annually. Art and literature flourished. While original work was being produced in the local and court languages, translation work from Sanskrit to Persian was also taking place.
Another aspect one comes across while reading is a sense of pain towards the lost glory and the inability to maintain and restore these glorious structures… how do you propose one should go ahead with the restorations?
My pain at destruction of heritage anywhere in the world is very real and palpable. When it comes to India, it becomes even more personal and acute. How can we afford to lose it? These glorious structures are ours, a part of our glorious heritage and we have to restore and preserve them. They come under ASI but I feel that we have to awaken this desire in the hearts and minds of the stake holders which would be the locals and our young citizens the future of our country. ASI can only do that much, it is we who have to create an awareness not to mistreat monuments by littering, scratching or in any way harming it.
‘My pain at destruction of heritage anywhere in the world is very real and palpable. When it comes to India, it becomes even more personal and acute. How can we afford to lose it? These glorious structures are ours, a part of our glorious heritage and we have to restore and preserve them’
Another raging debate is that of the British contribution to these structures. While some write about the restoration works that they’ve done, there’s also the fact that after the revolt of 1857, they destroyed a lot of them too… what is your take on this debate?
There is no doubt that after 1857 the British destroyed many structures, especially in Delhi and Lucknow which were the centres of the Uprising. But there is no gainsaying that after that it is the British who established the ASI and gave us a blue print for restoration and conservation. It was Alexander Cunningham who discovered and restored much of our heritage particularly Buddhist heritage sites such as Nalanda, Sanchi and the Mahabodhi temple. Lord Curzon left an enduring legacy through his role in setting the ASI on a sound footing and ensuring the restoration and preservation of India’s built heritage.