By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
‘Old Delhi’, adjacent to the Indian capital ‘New Delhi’, was the capital of the Moghul Empire from 1639 to 1857. The British ruled from there from 1911 to 1931 when the newly minted New Delhi was readied for occupation.
Old Delhi had seen ups and downs like no other city in the Indian sub-continent. For most of the 218 years of Moghul rule, Old Delhi was a haven of peace and communal harmony and the epicenter of poetry and music in North India. But come 1857, during and after the Indian army mutiny, the city saw unprecedented destruction and mass killings at the hands of the British.
This last phase also saw the rise of what was later labeled “communalism” – a social and political divide between Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Muslims, which eventually led to the division of the Indian sub-continent into a largely Hindu India and a largely Muslim Pakistan.
Old Delhi was built by the Moghul Emperor Shahjahan circa 1639 and named Shahjahanabad. According to the city’s historian, Rana Safvi, Shahjahan decided to shift his capital from Agra to where Old Delhi now stands, on the advice of and in consultation with architects/planners, hakeems (Muslim doctors) and Hindu astrologers.
The architects were Ustad Ahmad Lahori (who built the Taj Mahal) and Ustad Hamid. After their plans and efforts took shape, Chandar Bhan Brahman, a high caste Hindu and a noble in Shahjahan’s court wrote: “Its towers are the resting place of the sun… Its avenues are so full of pleasure that its lanes are like the roads of paradise. Its climate is pleasant and beautiful.”
Rana Safvi wrote in the Indian Express that when the now famous landmark, Red Fort, (originally named Qila-e-Mubarak) was being built in 1639, members of the royal family, nobles and common folk built their mansions and houses. Prince Dara Shukoh built his Haveli (mansion) on the banks of the Yamuna at Nigambodh Ghat, and called it Nigambodh Manzil. It is here that liberal minded Dara Shukoh got the Hindu ‘Upanishads’ translated into Persian, signifying Hindu-Muslim harmony of the highest order.
Shahjahanabad, which was spread over 1,500 acres, was a walled city with several gates. Being on the banks of the river Jamuna, holy for the Hindus like the Ganga, the Muslim Emperor built bathing ‘ghats’ or platforms for his Hindu subjects. These still exist as Raj Ghat, Nigambodh Ghat and Qila Ghat.
Safvi quotes Stephen Blake (Shahjahanabad: The sovereign City in Moghul India 1639-1739) to say that the street plan followed the rules of Vastu Shastra the Hindu architecture guide. Safvi has no hesitation in saying that Shahjahanabad was the birthplace of “Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb (the etiquette of Ganga and Jamuna), an amalgamation of Indo-Islamic ideas, culture and architecture.
The annual flower show in Mehrauli south of Old Delhi, called Phool Waalo’n ki Sair has been a Hindu-Muslim cultural fair since Moghul times. Just as the Mughal Emperors made floral offerings at the dargah or shrine of the Muslim divine Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, and the Hindu temple of Yogmaya Devi, Indian leaders do so to this day.
The population of Old Delhi was not only communally diverse but were very distinguished. They were the pick of north India. Safvi quotes Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who wrote Asar-us-Sanadid (Remnants of Ancient Heroes, 1847) to say: “In reality, the people of this place are such as cannot be found in any other place. Every individual is a collection of thousands of good traits and a bouquet of lakhs of skills and talents.”
The Emperor was no high and mighty recluse. He was available to the common man on a daily basis, says Safvi. People would gather by the Yamuna for Jharokha Darshan or an audience with the King, a practice started by Emperor Akbar following a Hindu Kingly tradition. The Emperor would dispense instant justice or give instant solutions to common people’s problems.
The Jama Masjid (Old Delhi’s biggest mosque) was built a few years later, along with the equally famous Digambar Jain temple which came up thanks to a Jain soldier in Shahjahan’s army. Many Hindu temples came up during the reign of Akbar Shah II (April 22, 1760 – September 28, 1837).
Great poets, musicians and dancers flourished in Shajahanabad which had libraries and gardens and madrasas (schools). The Delhi palace also had the dazzling Peacock Throne on which invaders had an eye.
Destructive Invasions From Iran and Afghanistan
However, Delhi saw destruction of the highest order when Nadir Shah of Iran invaded it in 1739 and when Ahmad Shah Abdali of Affhanistan struck seven times between 1738 and 1767, and again when the British indulged in an unbridled pogrom and carnage in 1857 to punish Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar for leading British-Indian army mutineers.
The brutality of the British is brought out vividly by the Pakistani writer Khan Zia in his book: Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis.Hundreds of mutineeers and collaborators were hanged or blown by cannon shot daily as the public watched. People were bayoneted or shot dead at will.
“The revenge was appalling. Old men were shot without a second thought; groups of younger men endeavoring to escape from the city were rounded up and executed in the ditch outside the gates. No one with a colored skin could feel himself safe. The murders were committed without compunction or regret. Many who had never struck a blow against us —– who had tried to follow their peaceful pursuits —- and who had been plundered and buffeted by our own countrymen, were pierced by our bayonets, or cloven by our sabers, or brained by our muskets or rifles (The History of the Indian Mutiny, by Sir John Kaye, Allen & Co., London, 1876)
‘There was also revulsion and contrition at the senseless and indiscriminate slaughter among the more sensitive in the British ranks: “Many of the citizens were shot, clasping their hands for mercy. It was known, too, that a large proportion had wished us well. Helplessness ought to be respected in either sex, especially in those who had never done us wrong. It is as unmanly for an officer to drive his sword through a trembling old man, or a soldier to blow out the brains of a wounded boy, as to strike a woman (A History of the Siege of Delhi by an Officer Who Served There, by William Ireland, Edinburgh, 1861).
Once the killing had subsided, the entire population was driven out of Delhi. Tens of thousands of inhabitants were expelled into the country and forced to give up their possessions to the soldiers at the gates. The city appeared like a deserted charred house.
Ugly Head of Communalism
Among the rebels were Islamic Jehadis, mostly led by Punjabi Muslim traders who urged the Emperor Bahadur Shah to take up the Islamic cause, a plea which he rejected completely as the majority of his subjects were Hindu. The Muslims had noted that the Sikhs and Hindu Gurkhas were fighting on the side of the British.
William Dalrymple says in The Last Moghul: “Thousands of Muslims are wandering houseless and homeless; the Hindus, pluming themselves on their assumed loyalty, strut about the streets giving themselves airs.”
To keep the Hindus and Muslims divided, Viceroy Lord Canning, wrote to the Board of Control of the East India Company in London saying: “The men who fought us at Delhi were of both creeds. As we must rule 150 million people by a handful (more or less) of Englishmen, let us do it in the manner best calculated to leave them (Hindus and Muslims) divided.”
(The featured image at the top shows the Moghul Emperor Shahjahan who built Shahjahanabad in1639 which later became Old Delhi after the British built New Delhi in 1931)