Book Review: Where stones give history a voice
Rana Safvi’s informative account of the monuments of Delhi’s oldest surviving cities encourages readers to love and understand history
Debarghya Sanyal September 26, 2015 Last Updated at 00:28 IST
WHERE STONES SPEAK:
HISTORICAL TRAILS IN MEHRAULI, THE FIRST CITY OF DELHI
Author: Rana Safvi
Publisher: Harper Elements
Price: Rs 499
Rana Safvi’s Where Stones Speak is, albeit unintentionally, a well-timed book. Even as the National Democratic Alliance rolls out a list of urban centres across the country scheduled to attain the next level of infrastructural development, under the Smart City project, Safvi’s book reminds the reader that such projects and the monuments they erect lack neither precedents nor the possibility of successors. Cities and urban centres have risen and fallen, kings and their most glamorous dreams have been eroded to ruins by time, and all that remain are tales and legends to piece together a seemingly probable history.
Delhi, where the NDMC area — comprising Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House, Supreme Court, North and South Blocks and buildings abutting Central Vista and all the diplomatic missions — was the only area to qualify for the Smart City list, is a composite of several historical cities and royal capitals. Safvi identifies 14 Delhis from Indraprastha to Lutyens’. Each has been favoured by kings in their own time. Only seven survive, and the oldest among these is Mehrauli — a testament in stone to the eras of the Rajputs, Sultans, Mughals and British. (What we know as Old Delhi today, or Shahajahanabad as it was called in its heyday, is in fact an accomplishment in late medieval architecture and urban planning. In Mehrauli, we find much older buildings and complexes, making it the real Old Delhi.) And it is this Delhi to which Safvi takes the reader for a guided tour, bringing together poetry, history, anecdotes and photography.
When one traces the history of urban settlements in and around present day Delhi, there are several questions that will remain without a definite answer. The origin of the name ‘Dilli’, for instance. Was it Raja Dhillu and his capital Dhillika that gave the city its present name? Was it the loose or dheeli soil in this region? Or was it Chand Bardoi’s Killi-dheeli katha (The Tale of the Loose Nail) about the Iron Pillar in the Qutub complex?
And there are other enigmas — missing cenotaphs, a mishmash of architectural styles, hazy dates, conflicting historical readings and contradictory legends.
Safvi’s narrative reflects a strong urge to not overlook the contradictions or the gaps. She attempts to lay bare all the contradictory legendary tales about each particular monument and the period to which it corresponds. This is confusing at first; as the book progresses, however, the reader will understand that discrepancies in versions of history and legends shed light on the process through which not only architectural styles but entire cultures intermingled with time to construct the blueprint of the city we know now.
For instance, the pillars of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque originally belonged to 27 Hindu and Jain temples of Quila Rai Pithora. The legend of the Pandavas and the temples they built inspired Mughal emperor Akbar II to rebuild the Yogmaya temple on the site of an ancient temple believed to be the last of the original five. The first monuments built by the Mamluk sultans employed Indian artisan unfamiliar with Islamic architectural designs, and therefore reflect motifs characteristic to North Indian Hindu temple art.
Safvi explains that the discrepancies in monuments and legends are also a marker of passing time and changing eras. The Qutub Minar, centrepiece to both Mehrauli and the book, has a different design theme for each storey, each differing in height and having a different set of flutings, balcony designs and window carvings. This was because each new storey was added by a succeeding sultan. The purpose of the Minar, too, is a matter of debate. Was it a Mazina to the Quwwat-ul-islam mosque, from where the muezzin could call the faithful to prayer five times a day? Or was it a watchtower? Was the Qutub used for more than one purpose? The fact that Safvi does not try to pinpoint a single probability as the answer to her questions goes to show that she portrays the Minar as it is — the central symbol of transience and change in the Mehrauli historical complex.
Simultaneously, Safvi also tries hard to connect with the lay reader. Her annotations, end notes and the last chapter, which enumerates the Delhi Sultans in their chronological order, makes it that much easier for the reader to understand the lanes of history through which the book treads.
Moreover, by incorporating couplets from Urdu ghazals, snatches of popular hymns, shlokas from the Gita and Hindi poems, she not only provides welcome pauses in the narrative, but also indicates how the beliefs, customs and experiences of successive eras have trickled down into the popular culture of modern Delhi.
Safvi’s love for the “stones that speak” is evident in both the detail and the enthusiasm with which she tries to patch legends, scholarly theses and architectural knowledge. Having said this, the narrative happens to have a potential Achilles’ heel — its editing. Typos abound. Grammatical errors are not uncommon. There are also a few instances of sequencing errors in paragraphs, especially in the first chapter, making it a jagged read.
However, these are not flaws that a revised print cannot eradicate. Nor do they manage to outweigh the prime narrative. What’s more, the beautiful photographs accompanying each chapter, as well as the colour plates, amply make up for whatever gaps the text leaves.
Whatever its shortcomings, Safvi’s book is worth having at hand if you decide to go for a walk in Mehrauli’s time-lanes. This is not just about history, but rather the urge to love and understand history.