The changing face of Delhi in travellers’ accounts – Dilli hai jiska naam IV: Swapna Liddle

We thought of a series on Delhi that does not talk only of the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad, the Mughalia, aka Mughlai delights and the lip-smacking Chaats of Chandni Chowk or the grand ruins of the seven Delhis and the wide open spaces and broad roads, but a series that also looks at the way Delhi has evolved. We wanted to explore the logic of the city and of the forces that have shaped the idea of the city itself.  It was this idea that made us approach people who have engaged with the city with love and care for decades and we requested them to write for Kafila.

This series is titled Dilli hai jiska naam, and the links to the previous posts can be found at the end.

This is the fourth post in the series, by SWAPNA LIDDLE

The changing face of Delhi in travellers’ accounts : Swapna Liddle

There are many sources through which we can learn about the history of a city, and these are often the writings of its inhabitants, such as personal letters, diaries, newspapers, and official documents of various kinds. When it comes to basic descriptions of a place, however, it is often the writings of travelers that give us the most vivid accounts. Residents often take their surroundings for granted, neither very conscious of nor feeling any imperative to record their own impressions of their surroundings.

Visitors, on the other hand, are struck by the novelty of the place, and the farther they come from, the more this is true. They often also want to record their memories, in words and in images. In the case of Delhi, a particularly large number of European visitors passed through and recorded their experiences from the late 18th century onwards. This coincided with the expansion of the British East India Company’s control over the Gangetic plain, and became a deluge after the Company actually conquered and began to administer Delhi in 1803. Sometimes the records of these travellers were personal aide memoires for a journey undertaken, but often accounts to be shared with those back home, via letters to near and dear ones. Some of these ended up in the form of published journals with a larger readership.

To us today, the words and pictures left behind are a valuable peek into a landscape that has since then changed profoundly, and this article will be largely dealing with that change. At the same time, 18th century observers were also acutely aware that they were seeing a changing landscape, that had been affected by both natural and human factors. Antoine Polier, the Swiss adventurer visiting Delhi in 1776, was aware that the river Yamuna had quite recently changed its course, from just below the walls of the Red Fort, to about a mile eastwards, leaving only a narrow channel separating Red Fort from Salimgarh.

It is this narrow channel flowing between the two fortifications that we see in many of the earliest sketches, such as those of Captain John Luard in the 1820s and Charles Stewart Hardinge in 1847.

“Red Fort” by Charles Stewart Hardinge

It can also be seen in the photographs of the latter half of the 19th century, and in maps right up to the 1910s. It seems that this channel of water remained till the early decades of the 20th century, though probably as a mostly dry stream. It is a map of 1927 that for the first time shows its place being taken by the so-called Lower Bela Road. We know this today as the section of the Ring Road that runs east of the Red Fort.

The word ‘bela’ referred to the sandy bank of the river, which covered the entire area beside the city wall, where the river had once flowed. Even during the heyday of the Mughal empire, when the river flowed close to the fort, for the greater part of the year there was a wide sand bank, where events like fairs and elephant fights were organized. There was considerable seasonal variation in the volume of water in the river. The sandy bed and banks in fact marked out the area which was covered when the river swelled after the monsoon rains. The presence of this sand was explained by a particular characteristic of the Yamuna as it flowed through Delhi. As Bishop Heber, a visitor in the 1820s, put it, even when the river overflowed during the monsoon, it did not confer fertility, because its waters were rich in natron. So high were these salts in the river, “that its waters destroy, instead of promoting vegetation, and the whole space between the high banks of the river, in its present low state, is a loose and perfectly barren sand, like that of the sea-shore.”

Though not covered in luxuriant vegetation, the banks of the Yamuna were not completely barren. One of the soldiers who was part of the British army that routed the Maratha forces at the battle of Patparganj, on the east bank of the Yamuna, remarked, “We saw a great many partridges and hares in our ride this evening; the banks of the Jumnah appeared to abound in game, and during the action on the 11th the wild hogs and deer were flying in all directions, scared out of their senses.” What he did not mention, but others did, was that the waters of the river too had wildlife, specially crocodiles, which made swimming hazardous.

Crossing the river was also a considerable enterprise. Till the early years of the 19th century this was done by boat, or on elephant back, though the latter was not for the faint hearted, as the elephants’ feet sank into the sandy bed of the river. The British soon put up a pontoon bridge with a toll, which made things easier. This bridge however was not strong enough to withstand the current during the monsoon, and therefore had to be taken down each year as the monsoon started, and put back once the waters regained a more moderate flow, usually by mid-October. During the monsoon therefore, boats had to be resorted to again.

The crossing of the river was an inevitable part of the journey of all those who came from the direction of Aligarh, and the Doab generally, and any inconvenience associated with the crossing was offset by the picturesque view that greeted their eyes. A visitor in the 1820s commented, “The best point of view from whence the city and circumadjunct buildings and ruins appear to the greatest advantage is from the river Jumna, immediately in front of the palace…The uneven ground on which the capital is built, the white aspect of its marble buildings, the gilt domes, the magnificent walls and gateways of red stone, broken by the towering height of the minarets and domes of the Juma (sic. Jama masjid) and Leenut (sic. Zeenat ul Masajid) mosques, present views at once interesting and magnificent.”

Not all visitors approached Delhi over the river from the east. Many came from the direction of Agra, over the Mathura road, and approached Delhi from the south. This was the route followed by Thomas Twining, a member of the Twining tea family, when he visited Delhi in 1794. He noted, “As we advanced the ruins became more thickly scattered around us, and at length covered the country on every side as far as we could see. Houses, palaces, tombs, in different stages of dilapidation, composed this striking scene. The desert we had passed was cheerful compared with the view of desolation now before us.”

What Twining and many others after him saw, were the remnants of some of the older cities and settlements of Delhi, starting from the south and proceeding northwards – Kilokari, Khizrabad, Dinpanah, Shergarh and Firozabad, until one entered Shahjahanabad, which was the city that was considered ‘Delhi’ at the time, and which we call ‘Old Delhi’. The older cities had been established at various times in the preceding centuries, by various rulers, and in turn abandoned. Their ruined condition was not attributable simply to the ravages of time. As the building of each new city commenced, the builders frequently plundered the older ones for building materials. This recycling of materials disproportionately affected city walls and houses, leaving tombs and mosques largely intact. The culmination of this process was the construction of New Delhi in the 20th century, which swept up all the stones from the ruins that remained, particularly in the area of the erstwhile Dinpanah, Shergarh and Firozabad cities, leaving only some of the more prominent monuments that can be seen today. Till then, however, this area did look like a wasteland, strewn with ruins, and this is evident from the sketches and photographs of the area in the 19th century.

 “The Area around Humayun’s Tomb” by T. Boys

Ruins of a somewhat different kind could be found towards the north-west of Shahjahanabad. A visitor of the 1790s, William Franklin, noticed that, “The environs to the north-west are crowded with the remains of spacious gardens and country-houses of the nobility, which were formerly abundantly supplied with water by means of the noble canal dug by Ali Mardan Khan.…The prospect to the southward of Shalimar towards Delhi, as far as the eye can reach, is covered with the remains of extensive gardens, pavilions, mosques and burying-places, all desolate and in ruins.”

The canal he referred to was an offshoot of a 14th century canal which tapped the water of the Yamuna from its higher reaches, and which Shahjahan’s minister, Ali Mardan Khan, had extended to Delhi. The importance of the canal becomes evident if we remember the less than ideal quality of the water of the river at Delhi. According to Heber, the canal was “absolutely the sole source of vegetation to the gardens of Delhi”. It was no surprise then, that many of Mughal Delhi’s gardens had been laid out beside the path of the canal, including the large garden of Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara, within the walls of the city. The problem was that the canal needed maintenance to keep its waters flowing, and the disorder that set into the Mughal administration in the second half of the 18th century, led to the neglect of this routine upkeep. As a result, probably by the 1760s, the canal had dried up. Wells were no doubt inadequate to the task of watering the many gardens, and soon these deteriorated.

One of the exceptions to this desolation was Shalimar Bagh, the Mughal garden laid out during the time of Shahjahan, where Aurangzeb had been crowned. The early British officials, such as David Ochterlony and Charles Metcalfe, built country houses in this garden, so it is probable that some effort was made to keep it in a flourishing condition. This must have been an easier task from the 1820s onwards, when the British repaired and re-opened the canal, and water flowed through it once again, watering the gardens on its way to Shahjahanabad.

It was not just the canal that had suffered in the 18th century. In Mughal times the highways of the empire used to be lined with shady trees. These too had mostly died out by the late 18th century, not only through neglect, but due to the depredations of armies which frequently converged on Delhi and besieged it. The soldiers had cut down the trees to serve their own needs, such as, for fuel. This lack of trees, in addition to the ruins, accentuated the impression of a wasteland, which many visitors commented upon. The peace that the early decades of Company rule brought, led to something of a revival, particularly on the Grand Trunk Road, which bordered the canal. A visitor in 1834 remarked that this highway was beautifully shaded with fine trees. He also remarked that on the right side of the road lay a magnificent jheel, a lake, that in the rainy season its surface covered by wild fowl – the Najafgarh lake.

Though the canal periodically dried up and the river had changed its course, the environs of Delhi were watered by a number of natural streams, and we see evidence of this in the maps of the 19th century, as well as in sketches. For instance, a drawing of Safdarjung’s tomb by William Daniell in the 1790s, depicts a water body in the foreground, which maps confirm to be a stream.

“Safdarjung’s Tomb” by William Daniell

This same stream was shown by Daniell as flowing under the Athpula bridge, in what is today Lodi Garden. The last map to show the bed of this stream dates to 1911, and soon after it was entirely obliterated by the construction activity that was involved in the creation of New Delhi.

“Ath Pula” by William Daniell

William Daniell also recorded for posterity the water body known as the Hauz e Shamsi, or Shamsi Talab, a manmade water reservoir dating to the 13th century. His sketch of the building known as Jahaz Mahal shows the water of the tank at its foot, giving credence to its name, which literally meant ‘ship palace’. The accounts of various travelers give diverging descriptions of this body of water.

“Jahaz Mahal” by William Daniell

When the Commander-in-Chief of the British army in India, George Nugent, visited the area in December 1812, his camp was pitched on the bed of the lake, which was quite dry. On the other hand, during the monsoon the lake used to fill with water, which used to overflow in a waterfall that was the focal point of a nearby enclosed garden, known as Jharna. It is not surprising that the Mughals made this spot in Mehrauli a favourite retreat in the monsoon, for it was to all accounts a beautiful place. The waterfall and its surroundings were very vividly described by one visitor thus:

“About a mile from the pillar (Qutub Minar) is a grand water-fall, sixty feet by thirty, formed in the rains by the overflowing of an extensive tank; the water is received into a large stone basin, and afterwards flows into a small rivulet, which runs through a deep, but narrow and romantic valley, formed by a range of abrupt hills.” The beauty of the scenery “is much increased by clumps of fine trees happily disposed.”

Lastly, there was a natural feature that received some, though not much attention – the Ridge. The portion of these low hills that adjoined Shahjahanabad was a rather stony, treeless, largely uninhabited place, though in the 14th century Firoz Shah Tughlaq had set up a hunting lodge here. Not much was added to its landscape in the 19th century, apart from a house built here by the British Resident, William Fraser. After Fraser’s death in 1835 it was bought by Raja Hindu Rao, and came to be known after him, as Hindu Rao’s house, and is now part of Hindu Rao Hospital. The British chose to build their cantonment to the west of the Ridge, only locating a watch tower, or Flagstaff, on it. The main benefit of the Ridge, according to one opinion, was that it “serves to deprive the city of the full force of the hot winds.”

A substantial change would come only in the 1910s, when, with the shift of the capital to Delhi, a project of afforestation would be taken up, to provide the city with a green belt. The result would be the forested landscape that we today are familiar with, and also an unintended environmental downside. One of the species planted here was Prosopis juliflora, popularly known as wilayati kikar. This exotic species soon turned invasive and spread at the expense of many native species, damaging the biodiversity of this habitat.

Today many of the natural features of the Delhi region, even major ones such as the river and the Ridge have taken rather a back seat in the overall image of the city. The streams and lakes have pretty much disappeared altogether, retreating in the face of the urban sprawl. On the other hand, with the growth of urbanism, and new residential colonies, new trees have been added to the landscape; many more than any 19th century traveler or inhabitant would have seen. It is the old images and travelogues that give us a peek into what Delhi was like a century or two ago.

Historian Swapna Liddle, currently Convenor INTACH Delhi Chapter has authored several books on Delhi and is known for her in depth knowledge of the City.

Previous posts in this series:

Restoring Delhi’s Central Ridge:  Pradip Krishen

Basti basna khel nahin: Narayani Gupta


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