Friday, August 06, 2004


Last weekend, I peeled back some of the skins of the onion, some of the cities of this city. This week, the cities of Firozabad and Shergarh, in the guise of their two most prominent remaining monuments, the Firoz Shah Kotla and the Purana Qila. They’re very close together, so close that I could walk between them, two cities of this city tight against each other, meeting across the ages.

I took an autorickshaw to Delhi Gate early on Sunday morning and got to Firoz Shah’s Citadel (kotla) at 10. This is the same Firoz Shah whose tomb is at the Hauz Khas. There is really nothing but ruins left over, but they’re kept in a decent condition, and it was a very peaceful place on a Sunday morning. There was groundswork going on, while various people were dotted about relaxing, lovers in hand, 4 men sitting cross-legged on the ground playing cards, a woman lighting a candle for a loved one near the mosque, and a few children (a constant at archaeological sites).

The Citadel was built by Firoz Shah I in 1354 as part of his massive city of Firozabad. It incorporates Ashoka’s Pillar, a famous artifact of Indian history with Ashoka’s edicts on it and over 12 metres in height and 27 tonnes in weight, from the 3rd century B.C., which originally stood farther up the Jamuna River – a contemporary account describes how it was toppled into a capacious pillow, manoeuvred into a 42 wheel cart and hauled to the river by 8400 men…lashed to a fleet of river transports, it was brought to Delhi in triumph and included in the Citadel.

Ferozabad was erected several km. to the north of Tughluqabad, the first city of Delhi, and it “has long since been engulfed by more recent Delhis; below its ramparts, where once refreshingly flowed the Jamuna, heavy traffic now eddies in a sluggish fog of exhaust” (John Keay, India: A History, 2000). It extended from the Delhi Ridge in the north, where he had a hunting lodge, to Hauz Khas in the south.

There is a baoli or step well with water in it, and a turtle bathing in the morning sun. Indentations in the walls of the well contained garlands of marigolds left by pilgrims, and these attracted swarms of bees everywhere.

The mosque, the Jama Masjid, is in ruins, with only a domed gateway and south/west walls left. All 4 sides of the mosque have underground rooms inhabited by hundreds of bats. Crows fly everywhere around the ruins, as you can see when you click here. The mosque is still revered if not used, as there were several shoes and sandals left on the ground, and a woman lighting a candle nearby.

Hard by the citadel is the Khuni Darwava across the road, or “blood-soaked gate”, now in the middle of a busy highway, believed to have been the northern gateway of Sher Shah’s capital, Shergarh, the second city of Delhi I was viewing today. Dara Shikoh’s head was apparently displayed here after beheading by his brother, Aurangzeb – and the British displayed here the bodies of the 2 sons and a grandson of the last Mughal emperor that they shot in 1857. Nice.

The southern gateway was the Lal Darwaza, also called the Sher Shah Gate, which was believed to be the southern gateway. This was across form the Purana Qila, or Old Fort. In front of this was a lake containing Delhi-ites and their children frolicking in pedal-boats, and a pleasant park hugging the lake and surrounding the Fort.

The Purana Qila was built by the Emperor Humayun in 1538. He was the son of the first Moghul, Babur. He laid the foundations of a new city (does this sound familiar?) called Dinpanah, or the Refuge of the Faithful. The inner citadel (does this sound…) was the Purana Qila. Within 6 years, Humayun was shafted, thrown out by Sher Shah Suri who renamed the city Shergarh, and added many buildings to it.

The earliest reference to the site was made in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, which says that the Pandavas founded a city called Indraprastha beside the Yamuna and, indeed, pottery has been found on the Purana Qila site dating to the first century B.C.

The walls are 18 metres high in places, indented with small spaces in intricate patterns for birds (parrots/pigeons) to nest. The mosque is one of the longest and most magnificent that I’ve ever seen so far, merging the red sandstone and white marble…unfortunately I couldn’t go in – the doorways and ceilings are grand and magnificent, highly decorated and beautiful. But that’s not all. The Sher Mandal, in the grounds, was the place where Humayun, who regained the throne, tripped on the staircase and fell to his death in 1556.

The Purana Qila was very well maintained, for the most part, with plenty of people there taking the air on Sunday, unlike Firoz Shah Kotla – lots of kids playing in the water sprinklers…I sat down and had a rest under a tree and watched the dragonflies and bees swirling about in the heat.

I met someone for lunch before coming to Delhi who knows the city well. He assured me that the population was about 9, 10 million – that the 14 million that I’d heard was much too high. He hadn’t been there for a few years, but he was pretty sure that he was right.

Well, I have news for you: it is 14 million. Or perhaps more – nobody really knows. How could this be? In the last official census in 2001, it was 9.4m - how can there be such a discrepancy? How could it rise by ½ in a mere 3 years?

What happens is that the nation’s capital – with its own territory and National Capital Commission – is one of the richest cities in the country. The civil service and bureaucracy and attendant armies of salarymen make the city one of the best paid in the country and also the one with some of the highest prices. It thus keeps attracting vast numbers of people into it from all around, and there are few ways of halting or slowing this explosive growth.

That’s the basic reason for the water, and the power, and the traffic, and all the other crises that Delhi is besieged by, according to The Times of India. You might reasonably ask why this is inevitable.

Delhi is officially 1483 square miles large and 239 meters above sea level. It has a population density of 6,139 people per square mile, and a literacy rate of 76.1% (all 2001 figures). Look at a map of Delhi and you see lots of things called Colonies (strange in a former colony), Enclaves, Extensions. I work in a place called “Green Park Extension”. Suburbs seem to have grown up as planned communities, each with their own name, and then rapidly get absorbed into the enormous mass of the city. Lodi Colony. Defence Colony. South Ex. Greater Kailash. Vasant Vihar. Civil Lines.

And everywhere in the city there is encroachment. What the hell? Encroachment is when someone who has rights to do one thing in the city, does something more than what they’re supposed to. Or someone has no rights just decides to grab what they can. So it is that in most places in the city, you will see people living in the street, next to well appointed houses and streets. Often there will be some derelict land owned by the city – and people just set up tents, lean-tos, shacks, shanties, corrugated metal, tarp or plastic sheeting, wherever it is. Against a fence is a favourite place – you already have one of your four walls in that case!

But apart from trespass, shopkeepers encroach on roads, shop fronts, tiny alleyways, with their goods. Give people a centimetre, and they’ll take 10 kilometres.

The blame for this is kind of shared – between the City, the politicians, the people themselves, and I guess various shadowy figures, such as the land mafia. The City has regulations but not the people to enforce them and, when it has the people, still allows them to be bribed to waive regulations and turn a blind eye. The politicians pander to whatever constituency will give them the most advantage. The people themselves either decide to move to the City in search of work or have no work in the rural areas so move to the cities in desperation – there’s a lot of that. The land mafia are illegally, and continually, indulging in land speculation by buying land near the city and populating it as fast as possible, charging the people they illegally cram into their microdot of space.

Bribery is rife. For example, this Monday, it rained a lake in Green Park, and I had the bus ride from hell in the evening. Draughty bus with a windscreen missing, part of the roof missing, and it was pouring with rain. Then, to top it off, we had a maniac driver driving faster than I’d seen a bus go in this city. Fearing for my life, I was relieved when we slowed down and came to a stop in Tughlaq Road, then puzzled when the driver and two conductors got off for about 10 minutes. I looked quizzically at one of my fellow passengers, and he said, “the police have stopped them, that’s all.”

Me: “It’s because the driver was speeding, right?”

Him (pityingly and amused at my Western viewpoint): “Oh, no, it’s not that. You see, the Traffic Police stop them every week, or every month for…their payment.” Ah.

Lanes, streets, pavements, everything gets encroached upon. That’s why everyone walks in the damn road – someone or something is always on the pavement, except in the wide avenues of South Delhi. People sleep by the roads, on the pavements, on the roundabouts, anywhere. Too many people!!! And, of course, they bring their children and livestock with them – we have a couple of cows in the street outside. No wonder the services of the city are creaking, straining, stretched to the limit.

Doesn’t anyone do anything about this? Yes, of course: in a spectacular drive, the Development Authority removed, between 21 and 26 July, a mass of encroachments, especially in the meat and poultry, the baans-balli, and the fruit and vegetable markets, in Noida, a town just outside Delhi. Then, interference and influence of local political leaders led to about half the timber market, 1/3 of the meat market and sabzi mandi, and nearly all the cloth market returning. “Some political leaders have been inciting the encroachers, who form a strong vote bank for them,” explained one official.

You see, the city sprawls, spreads out over the plain, organic and constantly growing, a gigantic monster from some science fiction film, engulfing everything in its wake, the Delhi blob, a molten lava of people, dwellings, services, shops, enveloping everything. No sooner has a line been drawn in the sand (literally) than another one gets drawn.

14 million. Larger than London. Half the population of Canada, in this one spot on earth. And increasing at 1.5m – 2m people a year.


Blogger Big Mama said...

India through your eyes is amazing. Er...did you say bees ?

August 6, 2004 2:29 PM  
Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Yuk. Makes me think of Beauty and
the Beast. Wonderful writing....

August 8, 2004 6:35 PM  
Blogger JandT said...

Hopefully these memoirs end up in book form after your travels. Wonderful reading!! Look forward to more!!

August 9, 2004 6:51 PM  
Blogger Grassy_Plains said...

Talespinnin' looking good.
Better than watching reality tv.

August 12, 2004 8:33 AM  
Blogger mrs_jazz said...

Thanks for your wonderful
impressions of India and
some not so wonderful but
all quite insightful.

August 12, 2004 8:54 AM  
Blogger Trapper Dave said...

Great!.....and interesting, but I keep tripping over all of the local names........then you break out into a bit of "Tom" commentary and it all seems real. How can you possibly keep it all straight? Mind boggling...14 million and climbing...........

August 26, 2004 9:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home