Monday, February 21, 2011

Delhi going going gone

Sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved or less cared for. Occasionally there is an outcry as the tomb of the Mughal poet Zauq is discovered to have disappeared under a municipal urinal or the haveli courtyard house of his great rival Ghalib is revealed to have been turned into a coal store; but by and large the losses go unrecorded. I find it heartbreaking: every time I revisit a favourite monument, it has either been overrun by some slum, unsympathetically restored by the ASI or, more often, simply demolished. Ninety nine per cent of the havelis of Old Delhi have been destroyed, and like the city walls, disappeared into memory. According to historian Pavan Verma, the majority of the buildings he recorded in Mansions at Dusk only ten years ago no longer exist. Moreover, the losses are accelerating. In 1991, the MCD tore down much of the outer wall of Qila Rai Pithora, one of the last pre-Islamic structures surviving in the capital. Shah Jehan’s great Shalimar Garden, where Aurangzeb was crowned, now has a municipal housing colony on its land. Two years ago, there was an attempt to concrete over the historic sultanate-period Hauz Shamsi in Mehrauli.

Already, one of the most beautiful legacies of India’s colonial past – the bungalows of New Delhi designed by the great Edwin Lutyens – has nearly gone: those in private hands have been destroyed in the welter of demolitions between 1980 and 2000. It is unclear if the same fate awaits the Lutyens buildings owned by the government and that no fewer than 1,114 houses built across 1,000 acres will be demolished: an unprecedented act of mass vandalism. The wholesale destruction of arguably the greatest colonial townscape in the world would be an act of cultural destruction comparable to the bulldozing of Bath or the wiping out of Washington. Yet in Delhi, there has been little outcry.

Only Rome and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains; yet in Delhi familiarity has bred not pride but contempt. Every year, more ruins disappear, victims to unscrupulous developers or often, unthinking bureaucrats.

Read: Slips show as Delhi sleeps, by William Dalrymple

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