Delhi is introduced, interpreted, and celebrated all the time through walks, performances, talks and articles. But not many realise that the person who began telling the stories of Delhi was a young man in his 20s named Syed Ahmad Khan. Two centuries after he was born, his work Asar-us-Sanadid can now enjoy a wider readership because of its translation into English by Rana Safvi in 2018.
Syed Ahmad Khan was not the first writer to describe Delhi, but when he compiled his notes on the ‘remains of the great’ (asar-us-sanadid) into a book, he chose to write not in Farsi but in the accessible Urdu — making him a pioneer. Another first was that it appeared as a book rather than as a manuscript because his brother had just installed a new Urdu printing press in Delhi. Khan’s qualifications to write were not that of a narrow specialist. In those happy days, when education was not one fixed menu, he had studied science, mathematics, Farsi and Urdu. In his 20s, living in his family home in Shahjahanabad (present-day Old Delhi), Khan was a junior official in the East India Company, helping his brother publish an Urdu newspaper, and translating Farsi manuscripts.
Asar-us-Sanadid was published in 1847, and had a quality of eagerness explained by Khan learning the subject as he went along. Khan went to great lengths to transcribe inscriptions (‘He is climbing up with such enthusiasm/That people think he has some work in the sky’ was an affectionate comment about his swinging round the Qutub Minar in an improvised basket-and-poles contraption to read the inscriptions on the higher storeys). The artists’ drawings for the book were based on his own sketches.
There are very few extant copies of the original edition. The better-known second edition, published in 1854, bears the blue pencil marks of the Collector A.A. Roberts, who did a hatchet-job, reducing it by a half, adhering to chronology, giving British scientists a role in the Jantar Mantar project, removing all the poets and artists, and making it an altogether dull book.
Sights, sounds and silences
To Khan, historic architecture was not just patrons, materials, form and function. It was part of a continuous culture, nourished by new infusions. Political history, the overlapping cities and forts, the increasingly sophisticated elements in architecture – these became four-dimensional by reading mosques, dargahs and mazhars as sacred spaces, calm with the presence of mystics and scholars long departed. They were to be experienced in silence, reading the inscriptions, not listening to the patter of a guide. He delineates the complementarity of a vibrant urban culture —music, poetry, dance — and animated bazaars, the tranquil atmosphere of the countryside, fields and hills dotted with ruins. “The charm of the Delhi scene,” as historian Percival Spear would describe it a century later.
In a sentence that sounds startlingly contemporary, Syed Ahmad Khan is distressed by the “recent” increase in the city’s population, making it — and also the bracing hills of Mehrauli — unpleasantly congested. But he insists that “in spite of all these factors, the climate of Delhi is still a thousand times better than that of other cities.” The magnificent Mughal fort (remember that he was writing well before 1857) is described in the second chapter; Shahjahanabad in the third; the artists, poets and musicians in the fourth (the section captioned, charmingly, ‘The nightingale-like sweetly-singing people of Shahjahanabad on the outskirts of Paradise’).
Shining light on Delhi for other historians
It was a challenging task. Delhi’s landscape was not easy to read in the complete absence of any older accounts or images. There was overlap, modification (particularly in the Qutub Minar area), vandalism (of poet Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana’s tomb by the ruler of Awadh). As a teenager, Syed Ahmad Khan was interested in astronomy, so his distress over the neglect of Jantar Mantar is understandable. He would have liked to spend more time studying it: “I will need a separate book to describe the workmanship, use and effectiveness of these instruments.”
Mirza Ghalib, in the ‘Foreword’, describes his friend’s book as one that would “numb the hands of other writers.” Khan’s meticulous account of buildings, even those in ruins, became the template for later books in English. “He who undertakes to write the archaeology of Delhi must constantly seek for light in the pages of Syed Ahmed Khan’s interesting work on that subject,” wrote Carr Stephen in The Archaeology and Monumental Remains of Delhi (1876).
More than 20 years lapsed between Asar-us-Sanadid’s second edition and Stephen’s book. A world separated the two publications. Khan, posted in Bijnor (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), was not caught in the trauma of 1857 (the Great Revolt). Some of the poets he had listed in Asar-us-Sanadid — like Ghalib — sought relief by writing laments to their ravaged city. His own reaction was different. With a sense of grief at seeing an efficient machine derailed, Khan would write Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The Causes of the Indian Rebellion) to understand what had gone wrong. His bond with Delhi was severed. He went on to become a distinguished public figure in north India, remembered today for the institution he founded, the Aligarh Muslim University.
Hopefully, reading Asar-us-Sanadid now will return the young Syed Ahmad Khan to us. The past is in many ways a foreign country, and to walk with a guide through towns of the past is an invigorating exercise.
This article is the first of an eight-part series on Reading A City with Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Read the series here.
Dr Narayani Gupta writes on urban history, particularly that of Delhi. Views are personal.