Granted my earlier visits had been limited to meetings with modular furniture makers and interior contractors, but charm was still the last thing I expected to find in Delhi. An insidious allure that gets under your skin even as you wilt in the heat and the pollution smothers your lungs.
“Do tourists really get to know a city or its people in one short visit?” asked Meenakshi, my sweet blogger friend, dubiously, when I told her how contrary the grace and hospitality we encountered was to the brash, aggressive Punjabi stereotype we had expected to find.
Perhaps not. We were, initially at least, insulated in the best part of town. The wide boulevards of Lutyens’ Delhi, the magnificent architecture of Rashtrapathi Bhavan (presidential palace), the impressive ceremony of the changing of the guard, and not least, our gorgeous, historic hotel: The Imperial.
And yes, the stereotypes did make more than fleeting appearances as we progressed to the grittier parts. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had underestimated this much derided city.
Populated almost entirely by ‘outsiders’ and having suffered and survived every significant political and cultural upheaval of the past millennium, Delhi is a microcosm of the historic memory of our nation. And just as diverse and complex. Embodying a legacy of carnage and rebirth whose profound influence surely transcends time.
The brashness and aggression seems understandable. We in the South, and our ancestors before us, have led placid lives in comparison. Hence the brains and none of the brawn! (Might as well lay claim to some of the brains if I am going to be branded ‘Madrasi’ anyway, right?)
Exploring the layers of history, some of the seven cities that are reminders of those marauding invaders who decided to call ‘Dilli’ home, one can’t help ponder the meaning of citizenship. What gives one the right to call a place home? How far back do you have to go to call yourself a resident? How much of collective history has to be shared to prove kinship? And how much retrospective hate do you carry forward?
Most people tend to forget that ‘India’ as a concept did not exist up until the eighteenth century. ‘Hindustan’ – a Persian word rooted in the Sanskrit Sindhu – referred to the people on the banks of the river Indus. Not the religion. The religion, in case you didn’t know, borrowed the Persian/Arabic term much after the 13th century Islamic invasions, to differentiate native faiths from those brought in by the new comers! Common usage began many centuries later.
It was the Mauryas who first cobbled up a confederation of states between 300 – 185 BC that, under Asoka, extended across all of the north and quite a way south of the Vindhyas. Emperor Asoka eventually converted to Buddhism and was instrumental in spreading the Dhamma across South and South East Asia.
Between 320 – 550 AD, the Guptas – the first non Brahmin, Vaishya dynasty – ushered in a golden age with an empire diminished in territory but grander in culture and the patronage of art, architecture and science.
Their decline reduced the region once again into several lesser fiefdoms until the 12th century when Muhammad Ghori arrived from West Asia to set up the Delhi Sultanate, followed by the Mughals from Central Asia. Each dynasty built a new capital city on the shifting banks of the Yamuna (near present day Delhi). And each massacred entire populations in turn.
The English, avenging the Sepoy mutiny, added to the body count with the decimation of the Muslim population of Old Delhi in 1857. It took another half a century, and a glittering show of might, for the capital of India, by then the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British empire, to permanently shift (from Calcutta) to spanking ‘New Delhi’.
Just sixteen years after the inauguration of New Delhi, the British Raj was history. But Delhi’s thirst for blood wasn’t appeased yet. The decision to split the country on the basis of religion brought on a fratricide of such magnitude – including a cross border migration of nearly 15 million people – that it filled the skeletal remains of Delhi’s past dynasties with refugee camps. The partition and its aftermath doubled the city’s population overnight and fundamentally altered its character and demographics. Every single Delhiite I know has at least one relative that was a refugee.
It is impossible to ignore the weight of such a convoluted past while ‘doing’ Delhi.
Whether you are a history buff or culture vulture, there is enough here to keep you occupied for more than a week. We spent several memorable days traipsing across storied parks, magnificent tombs and mosques and impossibly crowded (and dirty) medieval streets and bazaars with Chavi Sharma of Delhi Heritage Walks, and Ramit Mitra of Delhi by Foot.
Rain washed out our plans for a Qawwali evening at the Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah. But we still managed to wade through to a couple of Ramit’s favourite eateries, for kebabs, ‘ishtew’ and khameeri roti at five in the evening!
But most memorable of all was my meeting with blogger friend (and supremely talented poet) Meenakshi, and a Sunday morning at Hauz Khas with a delightful couple – younger than our daughter, and as passionate about travel as we are – who we met on our boat on the Nile! It is uncanny how we relate to total strangers sometimes.
Many years ago, on a trip to Southern Spain, we connected with another, much older, American couple and stayed in touch until they both passed away. I was moved to tears when their daughter wrote to tell us we were now family. Our relationship with our younger friends promises to be just as long, and even more special.