For those of us who are obsessed with Shahjahanabad or Purani Dilli, the place represents a different universe of its own with its own culture, cuisine, language, art , architecture and way of life. The place sucks you in and once you get a taste of its elements, no place feels better.
The walled city , in its heyday, boasted of glorious mosques, stunning temples, tombs , dargahs, churches and the omnipresent Red Fort. Even after its decline , in 1919, the city had over 400 monuments. That is equal to heritage of a lot of historic cities of the world put together . So documenting the built heritage of the place is no easy task
There have been some fabulous efforts to that end. Muraqqa i Dehli, Asar us Sanadid and Sair ul Manazil did it beautifully in post 1857 Delhi documenting a lot of precious heritage which was lost post the mutiny. The coverage here was rich with stories of the monuments but also the coverage of people and traditions associated with them. Asar shines the brightest amongst them and takes one straight to heart of Delhi of that era
Then came the British with Fanshawe, Stephen Carr and Gordon Risley Hearn doing their best to record the same. However the scope of these 3 works was limited and the narration dry because of the colonial disconnect with the natives.
In early 20th Century, Maulvi Zafar Hasan covered Shahjahanabad in the most thorough way possible covering 400 plus monuments with all necessary features and back stories. However since the cultural element was missing, the work felt a little lacking. Then Basheeruddin Ahmed Dehlavi probably matched Sir Syed’s efforts via his Waqiaat-e- Darul Hukoomat Dehli . But the work is in Urdu and out of reach of mainstream
Finally in the modern age – Maheshwar Dayal, Shama Mitra Chenoy and Blake have done the most famous works on Shahjahanabad and it’s monuments. But while Dayal’s work is out of print for long, Chenoy and Blake ‘s work is more about the story of development of Shahjanabad with monument coverage pushed into background
Lucy Peck has done another thorough listing of the walled city but with little on their backstories
Which brings me to the latest work by Rana Safvi. The book, a part of her trilogy on monuments of Delhi, takes me back to the glory of Asar us Sanadid by Sir Syed. The author here covers 200 plus monuments which is more than any other modern book. The coverage here is much more personalized and rich since she personally visited, documented and experienced each monument.
To add to that she adds the stories of present Shahjahanabadis and how they remember the Old Delhi of before . She also documents festivals and famous cuisine of the walled city including select recepies.
Finally she peppers the book with images of both present and past ( from ASI archives) to complete the loop.
Rana Safvi delivered the first ever complete English translation of Asar Us Sanadid and now she delivers the modern counterpart to Asar
As the great William Dalrymple rightly said – A Magnificent Achievement