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Delhi's undiscovered dimension - history

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.

It also lacks the tourist infrastructure that is a matter of course in most historic cities: information booths, maps and interpretive signs. Apart from its three World Heritage sites - the Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutb Minar complex - and major attractions such as the Lodi Gardens, Delhi doesn't publicize its monuments or make them easy for tourists to access.

That may be slowly starting to change. Spurred by last fall's Commonwealth Games, the city launched its first hop-on, hop-off bus (www.hohodelhi.com) - to mixed reviews - and the tourist board has teamed with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to provide informational booklets on board. INTACH also restored and lit 17 monuments near the Games sites so that they stand out at night.

These are early steps in INTACH's Delhi Heritage Route project, which would link monuments around the city with landscaping and guides, as on Boston's Freedom Trail. Supported by the World Monuments Fund, INTACH hopes that the heritage routes would make historic sites focal points for neighborhoods and give locals a sense of ownership.

"We need to project heritage," says A.G. Krishna Menon, head of INTACH's Delhi chapter. "In any other city, a place like Khirki Mosque would be a star attraction. But we have to make these sites accessible to both tourists and citizens, so they become part of the city's image."

Treasure hunt

For now, the curious are basically on their own. Though it's challenging, seeking out Delhi's lesser-known monuments is hugely rewarding and can overturn grating first impressions of the city. I arrived loath to spend an entire week there, but after finding sites recommended by conservationists, I left wishing that I had more time to explore. With a detailed Eicher city map, available in most bookstores, and a patient driver, I approached Delhi like a treasure hunt.

As at Khirki Mosque, the startling juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere. As much as purists may bemoan concrete encroachments, historic sites woven into the fabric of the modern city feel especially powerful, like humbling whispers from the past.

When the British began building New Delhi in 1911, they wiped away nearly everything that stood on the site of their modern new city. Architect Edwin Lutyens designed a gleaming city of tree-lined boulevards and perfect order, spiraling out from India Gate, the memorial to British soldiers at the heart of his plan. Now home to luxury hotels and embassies, New Delhi seems to possess nothing hinting at what came before, and little is known about the villages that did.

You would hardly expect to glimpse the area's past life at a stepwell on residential Hailey Road, two blocks from Connaught Place, New Delhi's commercial center. The stone wall on the street is easy to pass by. But then you turn into a metal gate, walk through an archway and gasp: Before you, 100 steps tumble three stories down, bounded by thick walls with pointed niches and arcades. Though mere municipal infrastructure, the 15th-century Agrasen ki Baoli is classically grand and looks far sturdier than the office blocks behind it.

Simply built by carving into the earth to reach underground water channels, stepwells can be found around Delhi but are rarely this large. There must have been a village nearby, and people would have come here not just for water but also to sit out the heat. It may also have been used for religious rituals, which perhaps explains why the British left it alone. The well's modest purpose gave me a rare sense of everyday life 500 years ago, a connection hard to feel at royal palaces like the Red Fort.

A jewel box

Though Agrasen ki Baoli and Khirki Mosque sit amid apartment buildings, neither is the sort of neighborhood focal point that INTACH hopes the Delhi Heritage Route would create. The Hauz Khas madrasa is. At the edge of chic Hauz Khas village in South Delhi, this elegant, two-story Islamic seminary overlooks a reservoir and treetops, and was built in 1354 by Firoz Shah, who is buried in an ornate tomb here.

In the Tughlaq era (1321-1398), students from around Central Asia came to the madrasa to learn about Muslim jurisprudence, astronomy and medicine. Contemporaries praised the beauty of its long, pillared halls, carved balconies and fragrant courtyard. It is still a peaceful, contemplative spot, only now the young men sitting in the archways bring guitars and girlfriends here for the romantic view. In the United States, these precipitous perches would be fenced off, made safe and austere. Kept open, the madrasa is part of the local back yard.

On my final afternoon, I went to Mehrauli Archaeological Park, behind Qutb Minar. The park's more than 300 ruins date from the 11th-century city of Lal Kot to the 19th-century Mughals. At the highest point in South Delhi, they cluster around a ridge that drains the monsoon rains, which made it a healthy place to settle. This fascinating jumble includes a 12th-century water tank and brilliant blue tiles in Quli Khan's tomb, where East India Company agent Sir Thomas Metcalfe bizarrely set up a country residence in the 1840s. His landscaping remains in the surrounding area, with small pavilions, or "follies," on hilltops.

Though you could pass days here, I had just an hour; it was hard to know where to start. Inside the main gate, I turned right up a bumpy dirt road and stopped at the 1528 Jamali Kamali mosque and tomb. As I peered through the locked gate, a caretaker appeared and motioned me inside. Leaning on a walking stick, he led me up to the sandstone prayer hall, with its five large arches and niches decorated with Koranic inscriptions. Up to 800 people would have come here on Fridays, a crowd hard to imagine in the park's pastoral calm today.

The caretaker walked across a courtyard to the simple square tomb, and we took off our shoes and stepped inside. Bright reds and blues popped before my eyes: The plaster ceiling is intricately carved and painted, arabesque shapes fanning out as in a kaleidoscope. Nearly every curve in the pointed arches is covered with blue stars or circles. In the middle of the small chamber lie two graves, one unknown and the other belonging to the Sufi saint and poet Jamali, whose verses are inscribed on the wall.

When we left and closed the door, it was like clicking shut the lid of a music box. Inside, vibrant colors swirled around us; outside was drab stone. Finding the tomb made the city feel magical. Its magnificence, like Delhi's, was utterly unexpected.

Dalzell is a writer and urban historian living in New York.

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