Written in Persianised Urdu, it was an account of the most prominent monuments of Delhi, including the Red Fort where the Mughal emperor still held court. What was also unique: it contained 130 lithographs prepared by Faiz Ali Khan and Mirza Shahrukh Beg. Yet for over 170 years, this resource remained unavailable to people who couldn’t read Urdu.
All that has changed now with historian Rana Safvi translating it into English and editing it.
The Delhi that Sir Syed had documented was ravaged by the Revolt of 1857. But the stunning lithographs based on his own sketches got TOI curious to find out how some of these monuments exist (or not) on the ground today. We tried to capture them from the same angles that Sir Syed had captured them in his sketches. It was some contrast.
Rana Safvi was with us in this journey of exploration. We started with the Red Fort, which is today only about 20% of what it originally was, the rest having fallen victim to British retribution. Sir Syed was already lamenting that the palaces have lost their old glory; today, the lament has become a heart-breaking cry of loss.
Delhi s iconic monuments
“I was shocked to see the contrast! The British destroyed so many buildings inside the fort, including the Moti Mahal that was knocked down just because the British felt it blocked the breeze from the Yamuna from flowing towards the barracks. Such was the callousness with which Delhi was destroyed,” Safvi told us.
The Naqqar Khana had arcades that were smashed clean; the Diwan-i-Aam had arcades too that were knocked down and its courtyard turned into an English-style lawn; the Imtiaz Mahal, an ornate palace gilded with gold, is a wreck today.
At the Purana Qila, the Sher Mandal stands tall from the time of Sher Shah Suri. When Sir Syed sketched it, it was surrounded by hutments—the village of Indarpat existed here, which was later evicted when the British were making New Delhi. Today, amid a properly landscaped terrain, the Sher Mandal stands in peace, free of clutter.
The Khooni Darwaza was another contrast. When Sir Syed documented it, it was known as Kabuli Darwaza. To the right of it, when seen from Delhi Gate, were a Mughal jail and another building called Mehdiyan. Today, even the Khooni Darwaza is hidden amid thick foliage while Maulana Azad Medical College stands where Mehdiyan once stood. Heritage was forced to make way for modern growth.
Sir Syed wouldn’t have recognised today’s Delhi.
Photo credits: Anindya Chattopadhyay
Lithographs courtesy: National Archives of India via Tulika Books