Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Delhi: Living with Heritage

In New Delhi, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) conducts a heritage walk through the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. This is an urban village and a historic one. The local community, too, has organized a walk through their village called the Shan-e- Nizam: Discover the World of the Basti (part of the Hope Project). Basti means an urban village.

Nizamuddin has the dargah (tombs) of several Sufi saints and is named after the most famous one, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya. His fame and influence was such that the ruler then, Sultan Ghiyasuddin, felt himself threatened. The Sultan decided to march to Delhi with his army and have the saint beheaded. As legend goes, Khwaja Nizamuddin was unperturbed when the news was brought to him. He calmly pronounced “Dilli Door Ast” (Delhi is still far).

He prophesied correctly...... the Sultan and his army never reached.

To have an idea of how old this settlement is, Nizamuddin lived during the time of the Delhi Sultanate (i.e. pre-Mughal times) and died in 1325 A.D. The present tomb one can see here dates back to 1562 A.D.  which makes the village of Nizamuddin significantly older than even (what is now known as) Old Delhi, the walled city of Shahjahanabad founded by the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639 A.D.
Thursday, after the evening Namaz (prayers), there is a Qawwali performance in the courtyard of the Dargah. Qawwali is a genre of music originating from the Sufi tradition and lies somewhere between folk and classical music. To me (and I'm no expert), the singers appear to follow a question & answer format or an argument & rebuttal as they debate and discuss matters of life and faith. The musical accompaniment is usually just the harmonium and the tabla (percussion). Here in the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, members of the same family have been performing the Qawwali for more than three centuries now.

The Basti has shops and tombs and new houses and medieval mansions, everything blending into  the confusion of crowded, narrow winding alleys. It is easy to walk past the Dargah without realising it is there. Thus the usefulness of the heritage walks to orient oneself and find the historic structures one is looking for.

Of course, in Delhi, capital city to seven different empires, historic buildings are a dime a dozen. Which, perhaps, explains the somewhat callous attitude to built heritage.

The famous Urdu and Persian poet, Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), used to live in the Nizamuddin Basti and is buried here. Both his haveli (mansion) and his tomb are protected monuments. Yet in December 2009, the Times of India reported that his haveli was rented out for a wedding reception party. This building is of architectural value, associational value (Ghalib's home), locational value (for being part of the historic fabric of Nizamuddin) and, in general, of so much cultural significance to the city of Delhi, and part of the common cultural heritage of North India and Pakistan. Yet it is blatantly used in a way that violates every principle of cultural conservation, the reuse neither planned for nor compatible with the historic structure, and being a protected monument, completely illegal to boot. The story isn't uncommon. As Ghalib wrote:
اگا ہے گھر میں ہر سو سبزہ ویرانی تماشا کر
مدار اب کھودنے پر گھاس کے ہے میرے درباں ک

उगा है घर में हर सू सबज़ह वीरानी तमाशा कर
मदार अब खोदने पर घास के है मेरे दरबां का
ugā hai ghar meñ har sū sabzah vīrānī tamāshā kar
madār ab khodne par ghās ke hai mere darbāñ kā

Vegetation has sprouted everywhere in the house, just look at the desolation 
The caretaker's only job now is to dig up the grass
Mirza Ghalib
(1797-1869 A.D.)
Ghazal 10, Verse 7

The Aga Khan Trust has recently been doing a lot of work in this area together with the Archaeological Survey of India (under whose protection these buildings are). The courtyard around the original marble dargah of Mirza Ghalib has been cleaned up and landscaped, some interpretative signage being put in as well. The locals seem bemused by the activity, happy that the structure is getting the respect it deserves and wary at the same time about what these changes may entail for them.

Perhaps, a case can be made here for a more extensive local outreach programme and perhaps some more community participation in the conservation plans.

But then again, participation frequently brings conflict. And conflict can be the end of the project - good or bad. So the architects and planners may have decided to go ahead and just get the job done. One can only guess if participatory planning in this context may have been good or bad.

Also in the village, a 700 year old Step-Well or Baoli is being conserved and revitalised by the Aga Khan Trust and ASI. Decades of garbage has had to be removedand the spring that fed the well can flow freely once more. The dry, arid climate of Northern and Western India led to the development of the Baoli, with a long series of steps leading deep into the ground. At the bottom of the steps, is the actual well, usually part rainfed and part groundwater.
 Agrasen ki Baoli near Haley Road, Connaught Place in New Delhi

The Baoli in Western India is called a Vav, one of the most fantastical examples being the Rani ki Vav in Patan, with the surface of the retaining walls on either side of the steps completely and elaborately carved with extraordinary sculptures all the way from top to bottom.

The water-side activities on the steps were probably meant to replicate the traditional Ghat, the long series of steps on the riverbanks that led straight down into the water as seen in the historic cities of Kashi (Benaras), Ayodhya, Ujjain and many other Indian cities located on major rivers. The range of activities and the social significance of conducting them by the water probably meant that certain places preferred to have an elaborate Stepwell where people could walk down to the water's edge rather than just dig a simple well where you threw a bucket in, filled it up and pulled it out.
Ghats of Benaras, also known as Varanasi or Kashi in Uttar Pradesh

Author: Shahana Dastidar 
All images sourced from Wikimedia Commons

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