Giles Tillotson’s history of Delhi reads like a friendly guide
Delhi’s city bounds were based on an attitude of territorial occupation and protection
Aserious lapse in a guide to a city is the inability of its author to submit to the travails of its culture and living routines. For the most part, historic remains appear as static testimonials to a forgotten time, their importance gauged by the forbidding silence within which they exist. In his book Delhi Darshan, Giles Tillotson, however, takes a more voluble track. He assiduously traces a building’s ancestral value—the structural, artistic and craft ideas inherent—and then submits wholeheartedly to historic routines, personalities and private reflections. Talking of Shah Jahan’s elder son Dara Shikoh, he writes, “On ascending the throne, Aurangzeb first humiliated his brother by parading him through Delhi’s streets and then had him beheaded… it is some consolation to think that even in death Dara Shikoh remains a Delhiite…”. Much of Delhi’s Sultanate and Mughal period architecture is embellished with the author’s interpretations that include the specific eccentricities of the ruling class and their precise contribution to the architecture of the time. A genial wit and turn of phrase draws the reader effortlessly into an extraordinary era, making a history book into a congenial and friendly guide. A resident of Delhi for the past 15 years, Tillotson is a scholar of Indian art and architecture. And it shows. His writing on the city comes from both scholarly research and an intimate familiarity with the subject. ‘No indigenous tribe inhabits this domain,’ he writes of Delhi’s occupation. ‘Almost everyone who has ever lived here is of immigrant stock… the Rajput clans and Turkic invaders who built the first cities; the British who began another; the refugees from partitioned Punjab who came here in 1947; the labourers from Rajasthan and Bihar, and the middle class hopefuls…’. The city’s disjointed past adds incoherence to an already messy layout. For those interested in mapping its architecture, Delhi is an impossible city with neither the convenience of New York’s grid
plan nor the friendly street life of Rome— two criteria that make the architectural experience continuous and effortless. As Tillotson indicates, city bounds—and consequently architecture—were based on an attitude of territorial occupation and its eventual protection. This is seen in the seven isolated, at times overlapping, cities that make up historical Delhi and again in the overlay of intersecting avenues and geometric vistas imposed by the designers of the Imperial City, the eighth Delhi. The ninth, or present-day Delhi, also reinforcing this idea of isolated occupation, has developed in parcels of land bought in an ever-expanding reclamation of its rural surroundings. Consequently, the quality of urbanisation has had the effect of a countryside inhabited and made denser, without the characteristic ambience that suggests a ‘city’. Individual buildings and complexes, conscious only of their own identity, free-float in a jumbled landscape. The selection of the material for the book for these reasons is largely subjective. It presents those structures, conventionally understood to be monuments to the architecture of their age—modern projects, colonial complexes, isolated Mughal landmarks that have, through use, age and architectural criticism, come to the public eye. There is no disputing the selective and personal value of Delhi Darshan. However, the disconcerting aspect of the book is its self-conscious division of recorded history and its expression of Delhi as tourist practice, into two complementary parts. The awkward divide seems to suggest that the separation of history was necessary to keep the content scholarly and special, unblemished by the ordinariness of day-to-day experience. Tillotson’s narration in both sections is delightful and anecdotal. It would have greatly benefitted by a fusion. Nonetheless, the book is a thoughtful read for anyone interested in a deeper comprehension of the various city monuments—the unique view of a historian speaking simply and eloquently about buildings we pass by daily with barely a cursory glance.
THEN AND NOW (clockwise from above) Delhi’s Humayun’s Tomb, (circa 1958); the Bahai temple in modern Delhi; and Connaught Place (circa 1858)
DELHI DARSHAN The History and Monuments of India’s Capital by Giles Tillotson PENGUIN `499; 208 pages