Published:  02:02 AM, 07 January 2018

The eternal city

The eternal city

Sohail Hashmi describes the future the history of Persian and Arabic inscriptions  carved on stone tablets in the structures as depicted by the author.

The 2017 publication of the English translation of Sair-ul-Manazil is part of a journey that began almost 200 years ago when Charles Theophilus Metcalfe, the then British agent of the East India Company, and William Fraser asked Mirza Sangeen Beg to make a list of the important structures then existing in Shahjahanabad and in the ruins of the earlier cities. The agent was, perhaps, only interested in this list from the point of view of revenue and ownership records, but Mirza Sangeen Beg went far beyond his brief.

He described the buildings and copied the Persian and Arabic inscriptions carved on stone tablets in these structures. He thus preserved for the future the history of the construction of most of the heritage structures of Delhi, for it is in the inscriptions that names of patrons, builders, names of calligraphers, engravers, supervisors, architects and others were preserved, as were the years of construction. Originally written in Persian, it was first published in 1821 but the text remained by and large unrecognized for the next 160 years, until Dr Sharif Husain Qasimi translated Sair-ul Manazil into Urdu in 1981.

Among the academicians familiar with the Urdu translation was professor Narayani Gupta of Jamia Millia Islamia, who asked her student Nausheen Jaffery to render it into English. Nausheen, the niece of the renowned Persian scholar Yunus Jafri, prepared the first draft of the translation but fell critically ill shortly thereafter. Twenty years were to pass before the text was edited. The Arabic and Persian texts retained in the original in the Urdu translation were rendered into English, compared, checked and rechecked before the manuscript was finally ready for printing. The text of the inscriptions, now perhaps for the first time available in English translation, is a treasure trove of information about people associated with the commissioning, repairs and modifications to many of these old buildings.

Gupta later asked Swapna Liddle, then a researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia, where Nausheen, too, had studied, to edit the translation and fill in the gaps. Nausheen's original text has been greatly enriched by the contributions of many scholars, and the book would not have happened if professor Masood Alam, Dr Ehtesham-ud-Din and Dr Akhlaque Ahmad had not contributed their time and energy in translating the Arabic and Persian texts into Urdu, to be later translated into English by Amaal Akhtar and Shad Naved. With Sair-ul-Manazil, Indira Chandrashekhar of Tulika makes a significant foray in the field of publishers engaging with the eternal city.

The well designed and brought out volume with illustrations by Neeti Banerji is a valuable addition to resources on Delhi. Sair-ul Manazil, the second of the known texts describing Shahjahanabad, was published 80 years after Muraqqa-e-Dehli, authored by Dargaah Quli Khan around 1740. Like Sair, the Muraqqa, too, is a description of monuments and significant personalities of Delhi - sufis, marsia khwans, poets, musicians, singers, mimics, dancing girls and others, who added color and character to the life of the city. As for monuments, the Muraqqa, with the exception of Chowk Saad Ullah Khan, Chandni Chowk, the Reti of Mahabat Khan and a couple of other public places, confines itself to descriptions of sufi shrines.

The Muraqqa and the Sair, and later texts like Asar-us-Sanadeed (1847 and 1865) and Waqeaat-e-Dar-ul-Hukoomat Dehli (1919), by Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad, belong to a tradition of writing travelogues and descriptions of cities, their inhabitants, their customs and practices with resonances in India going back to the 14th century Rehla of Ibn-e-Batuta and the 11th century Kitab-ul-Hind of Abu Rehan Albairuni.

Syed Ahmad Khan and Bashir-ud-Din follow the device first used by Mirza Sangeen Beg of describing structures along an arterial road as one approaches or passes them. Surprisingly, Syed Ahmad Khan makes no mention of Sair, though it is difficult to imagine that he was unaware of it, published barely two-and-a-half decades prior to his magnum opus.

There were other texts about cities, including Khusrau's verses about Ayodhya, the city and its residents, the accounts of his other journeys or the descriptions left behind by his contemporary Zia-ud-Din Barni, and scores of others drawing upon the tradition of such accounts in Turkish, Arabic and Persian. These descriptions of cities, people and journeys were a method of documentation from before we were colonized. It saw the land, the buildings and the inhabitants as a continuum, not as standalone phenomena. Many of them suffer from biases but so do the texts left behind by Tavernier, Bernier, Metcalfe and others. We have learned to navigate our way around those and will learn to circumvent the biases in these texts as well.

We need to realize the wealth that exists in these texts in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, rapidly being lost in public libraries across India. This is material that may not attract those interested only in the broad sweeps of historical processes, but there is enough here to tell us how people lived, what they wore, what they ate, their beliefs, rituals, practices, songs, festivals, everything that made life sensual and worth living and dying for.

The Muraqqa translated by professors Chandrashekhar and Shama Mita Chenoy was published in 1989, and Sair is out now, almost 30 years later. A good and complete translation of Asaar is still awaited, Waqeaat needs many years of work and there are hundreds of texts in Urdu and Persian that need to be made available in English and other Indian languages.

Given the way our history is being invented and the manner in which everything that happened in the last 800 years is being airbrushed from memory, there is a need to retrieve this knowledge and make it more accessible. Hopefully, the work of Jaffery will initiate this neglected project and will carry on the tradition of scholarship that her uncle, professor Yunus Jafri, represented, and from which we have all benefitted.


The reviewer is a Delhi-based historian. The write-up has also appeared on  www.indianexpress.com

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