Book Review: K.A. Nizami's "Ehd-e-Wusta ki Dilli" traces six centuries of Delhi as a cultural capital

Print edition : January 29, 2021

“Delhi in Historical Perspectives” by K.A. Nizami. Translated from Urdu by Ather Farouqui, Oxford University Press, 2020.

The Qutb Minar, completed in 1220 by Altamash, bears testimony to his love of Islamic architecture. According to K.A. Nizami, the Hauz-e-Shamshi and the Qutb Minar ushered in an era of political and cultural fusion in the history of Delhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A fine translation of K.A. Nizami’s Urdu book, “Ehd-e-Wusta ki Dilli”, which chronicles the history and culture of Delhi across six centuries.

DELHI’S age-old literary, cultural and aesthetic moorings have always inspired writers, artists and historians alike. There is a renewed interest in perceptions of culture in medieval and colonial India, reflected in the increasing publication of books on the lost cultural credence of Delhi. The noted medieval historian Professor K.A. Nizami’s Urdu book, “Ehd-e-Wusta ki Dilli”, translated into English as “Delhi in Historical Perspectives”, provides authentic historical evidence of the city of Delhi across six centuries (from 1300 to 1800), and creates a narrative space that debunks several myths hitherto propagated as incontrovertible historical fact.

The Sahitya Akademi award-winning translator Ather Farouqui has tried to retain the linguistic flavour, social ethos and literary sensibility of Urdu in his translation. In his Translator’s Note, he explains : “Delhi in Historical Perspectives abounds, like a literary text, in culture-specific words, symbols, metaphors, similes, idiomatic expressions, and other literary devices. They are so embedded in the text’s language that it was quite difficult for me to transplant them in another verbal space and linguistic matrix. The problems that I encountered during the translation of the book concerned lexical and cultural equivalences. In order to negotiate them, I have tried my best to strike a balance between the foreignness and domestication of the target language.”

Farouqui’s text moves judiciously between this sense of “foreignness” and “domestication”, even as the inconsistencies of the original text have deliberately been left unresolved.

Nizami’s assured depiction of Delhi’s resplendent polychromic culture down the ages draws from sources such as diaries, royal decrees, proverbs, travelogues, sermons, biographies, tracts, monographs and governance manuals in Persian, Hindavi and Urdu.

Early history

Tracing the antecedents of Delhi, Nizami refers to Persian annals that describe it as “Inderpat”, as well as mention made of it in the Mahabharata. And yet, Delhi formally emerged as a city only in the 11th century when Tomar Rajputs took over the mountainous Aravalli region. Nizami says that the most reliable evidence about the early history of Delhi is inscribed on the iron pillar of Masjid Quwaatul Islam adjacent to the Qutb Minar.

He writes: “According to this inscription, Anangpal of the Tomar Rajputs founded Delhi between 1053 and 1109 A.D. It refers to Delhi as Delhi, a name that has endured and resurfaced at various points of time during its long history.” He adds: “For example, the 13th/14th century poet Amir Khusro, in a panegyric to Jalaluddin Khilji, the founder of Khilji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate writes: ‘I may either be rewarded with a horse or may be allowed to select one from the stable. /Or I may be allowed to soar high in the blue and reach Dehlu’.” (page 4).

Nizami cites the Persian travelogue, “Safarnama-e Khusro”, said to be written between 1045 to 1050, for its vivid descriptions of Delhi. Ibn Batuta, the legendary Moroccan traveller who visited India during the reign of Muhammad Bin Tughluq, also produced an evocative description of Delhi.

However, it puzzles Nizami that the iconic Iranian scholar Abu Rahyan Al-Beruni (973-1050), known as the father of Indology, did not mention Delhi: “There is no mention of Delhi by the great historian Al-Beruni either in Kitabul Hind or in Qanoon-e-Masoodi”(page 4).

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Besides compiling Kitabul Hind, a veritable encyclopaedia on India, Al-Beruni, a great admirer of Indian philosophy and metaphysics, also translated Patanjali’s classical text Yogasutra into Arabic. He travelled to India in 1017 and produced a comprehensive and nuanced narrative of the early 11th century, but Delhi seems to have escaped his attention. Nizami then absolves Al-Beruni by pointing out that Delhi was not a single habitat in medieval times: “While the seven cities of Delhi are well known, the real number could be even larger.

In Masalik-ul-Absar, Abu Bakar bin Khalal has mentioned as many as 21 cities that made up the city of Delhi” (page 7).

As for the question why medieval rulers disdained architecture although they called themselves connoisseurs of fine arts, Nizami’s explanation appears more psychological than the well-documented historical appraisal: “All rulers, including Feroze Shah, Sher Shah, Akbar and Shahjahan, appropriated existing buildings for their own selfish use, primarily treating them as a source of raw material for constructing their own edifices. More than the shortage of building material, the weakness of human nature was responsible for these desecrations.” (page 8)

Altamash, who ruled over Delhi for more than 25 years, made the city a glittering hub of artistic, aesthetic and literary activity.

The Hauz-e-Shamshi and Qutb Minar bear testimony to his love of Islamic architecture. For Nizami, these two structures ushered in a new era of political and cultural fusion that paved the way for an extensive and pluralistic pan-Indian civilisational framework.

Under the Mughals

The second chapter documents the evolution of Delhi under the Mughals. It was Shahjahan who shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi. Shahjahan was also instrumental in popularising an exclusive market for nobility set up by the spouses of high ranking officials of his court. Nizami writes: “The fun lay in the spectacle of the emperor and his begums engaged in haggling over prices, the exchange between customer and shopkeeper marked by heated arguments, banter and colloquialisms of the market place. The emperor would say that such and such begum was selling at rather high prices and add that he would not waste even a penny on her wares.”

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Nizami also refers to Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara and Aurangzeb’s daughter Zebunnisa, both of whom who patronised the arts and literature. Zebunnisa founded the Baitul Hikmat (house of wisdom) for which the ulema wrote books, dedicating them to the princes.

Nizami records how a host of Urdu poets, including Mir Taqi Mir, Sauda, Ghalib, Momin, Dard and Dagh made the city of Delhi the object of their creative gaze. The third chapter acquaints us with how Ghalib perceived the city and how he portrayed its distinct features, including its eccentricities, in poetry and prose. During Ghalib’s time, Delhi was the citadel of learning and the forerunner and initiator of dialogue between the West and the East. Ghalib was the eyewitness to the decimation of Delhi during the first war of independence and Nizami says that this took a heavy toll on him: “Ghalib too was tossed around by the turbulent waters and his sufferings, emotions and sensitivity that shaped the contours of his poetry.” (page 163)

The outstanding feature of the book is its immaculate translation. Ather Farouqui takes pains to provide the English reader with the sense of a different semantic space and culture. For example, for the word “khaneqahs”, he offers as many as three equivalents—tombs of saints, monastery and hospice—in his effort to strike a judicious balance between “foreignness” and “domestication”.

It is a less trodden path of translation that deserves accolades.

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