Delhi's undiscovered dimension - history

Agrasen ki Baoli, a 15th-century step-well in New Delhi. Step-wells were carved into the earth to reach underground water channels, and can be found throughout the city.
Agrasen ki Baoli, a 15th-century step-well in New Delhi. Step-wells were carved into the earth to reach underground water channels, and can be found throughout the city. (Rebecca Dalzell - Rebecca Dalzell/For The Washington Post)
Travel map of New Delhi, India
By Rebecca Dalzell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2011; 5:30 PM

From the back of a honking autorickshaw on Press Enclave Road, Delhi feels nothing like Rome.

The rutted thoroughfare passes construction sites and the shiny Select City Mall and is jammed with cars, rusty bicycles hauling bananas and sari-clad women dashing from one side to the other. But if you get out across the street from the mall and walk up a short path through a cluster of trees, you'll discover a building as monumental as any on the Palatine Hill: the 14th-century Khirki Mosque.

Though it's the size of a city block, the mosque, hidden behind tall apartment buildings, is invisible from the surrounding streets. No signs point the way to it. Walking through the dusty, labyrinthine alleys of Malviya Nagar, in South Delhi, in search of it, you can easily take a few wrong turns before coming upon it suddenly around a corner. With three-story sandstone walls, tapering turrets and latticed windows, it towers like a fortress. A chain-link fence encircles the site, the long grass around it strewn with trash tossed from the garish pink and yellow balconies above.

It's not particularly welcoming. When I walked through the deserted site last fall, trailed by a stray dog, it reeked of urine. Climbing up the crumbling staircase and standing in the shadowed doorway, I heard voices at the other end, a group of young men hanging out in the opposite entrance. Alarm bells went off in my head; in most other places I would have retreated.

But heritage tourism in Delhi comes with a bit of adventure, which heightens the sense of discovery. Inside, long rows of pointed arches stretched before me into darkness, and four open courtyards splashed light on the stone floor. The thick square pillars are gray and unembellished, focusing the eye on the mosque's perfect symmetry and form. As in a Norman church, this purity and simplicity feels mystical, as if calls to prayer might echo still.

Built in the 1370s by sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, one of the great builders of Delhi, Khirki is an early example of a semi-covered mosque; most in India are open. It stood in Jahanpanah, a walled city 40 miles around with half a million people. With his productive public works department, Firoz Shah built mosques as neighborhoods needed them; Khirki clearly served a large community.

A staircase near the eastern entrance leads to the roof, which is covered with dozens of bubblelike domes, some fallen, and round towers at each of the four corners. It overlooks modern eyesores: electrical wires, clotheslines and the mall beyond the treetops. It all seems ephemeral beside the mosque.

Ruins, ruins everywhere

Delhi is filled with more than 1,200 such monuments, dating back 1,000 years. They're as ubiquitous as ruins in Rome, with Mughal tombs in neighborhood parks, half-fallen walls by the sides of roads and blackened battlements in residential enclaves. Yet protecting them has been a struggle, especially given India's rapid development. Delhi's population is growing at 4 percent each year, which will make it the world's fifth-largest city in 2015, with more than 20 million people. In the race to house them all, preservation has not been a priority.

Critics complain that the government often looks the other way when heritage sites are threatened. Urbanization has destroyed theoretically protected monuments. The Archaeological Survey of India, a government agency that monitors 3,600 sites nationwide including 174 in Delhi, has neither the funds nor the manpower to police them all. Under 1992 regulations, new construction is barred within about 100 yards of historically significant buildings, yet some of the apartment blocks near Khirki Mosque have gone up since then. Hundreds of monuments have been legally protected only since 2009.

"The protection we have is empty," says Nalini Thakur, a leading conservationist and a professor at Delhi's School of Planning and Architecture. "Delhi is under tremendous pressure of development, and it is killing our heritage."

What Delhi needs, conservationists such as Thakur say, is to become a UNESCO World Heritage city. It is their longtime goal to join the likes of Edinburgh and St. Petersburg in winning that designation, and they hope to apply for recognition this year. History would then be central to Delhi's identity.

But sites such as Khirki Mosque suggest the city's shortcomings as much as its wealth. There are rarely informational signs outside sites - you have to guess at their names or whether you've even found the right place - nor is there security or good maintenance. UNESCO requires that World Heritage cities have effective management and legal protection for its sites, and until recently, Delhi has fallen short.

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