Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
DELHI is the most historic city in all historic India. It may not be the oldest — who shall say which is the oldest among rivals all coeval with time? — though it puts in a claim for a respectable middle-age, dating from 1000 B. c. or so. It has at least one authentic monument which is certainly fourteen or fifteen hundred years old. At that time Delhi's master called himself Emperor of the World, and emperors, at least of India, have ruled there almost ever since. Mohammed, an Afghan of Ghor, took it in 1193; Tamerlane, the Mogul, sacked it two hundred years later; Nadir Shah, the Persian, in 1739; Ahmed Shah Durani, another Afghan, in 1756; the Marathas took it three years later. Half a century on, in 1803, General Lake took the capital of India for Britain. And British it has been ever since — except for those few months in 1857, when the Mutiny brought the ghost of the Mogul empire into the semblance of life again; till Nicholson stormed the breach in the Kashmir Bastion, and dyed Delhi British for ever with his blood.
Look from the Ridge, whence the columns marched out to that last capture: the battered trophy of so many conquerors remains wonderfully fresh and fair. It seems more like a wood than a city. The rolls of green are only spangled with white, as if it were a suburb of villas standing in orchards. Only the snowy domes and tall minarets, the cupolas and gilded pinnacles, betray the still great and populous city that nestles below you and takes breath after her thousand troubles.
Yet Delhi is still seamed with the scars of her spoilers, and still jewelled with remnants of the gems they fought for. If you take them in order, you will go first, not into the city, but eleven miles south, to the tower Kutb Minar. Through the dust of the road, rising out of the springing wheat, among the mud-and-mat huts before which squat the brown-limbed peasants, you see the country a litter of broken walls, tumbling towers, rent domes. There are fragments of seven cities built by seven kings before the present Delhi was. Eleven miles of them bring you to the tower and mosque of Kutb.
Kutb-ed-Din was a slave who raised himself to Viceroy of Delhi when the Mussulmans took it, then to Emperor of Hindustan and founder of a dynasty. Whether he or his son or the last of the Hindu kings built the tower, antiquaries are undecided and others careless. It is enough that here is one landmark in Delhi's history, one splendid monument reared for a symbol of triumph by a victor whom now nobody can certainly identify. It is a colossal, five-storeyed tower, two hundred and forty feet high, of nearly fifty feet diameter at the base, and tapering to nine feet at the top. Tiny balconies with balustrades mark the junctions of the storeys: the three lower are red stone, the two upper — dwarfed just under the sky — faced with white marble. All the red part is fluted into alternate semicircles and right angles, netted all over with tracery, and belted with inscriptions under the balconies. But the details strike you little: the vertical lines of the fluting only give the impression that this is one huge pillar with a red shaft and a white capital — a pillar that might form part of the most tremendous temple in the world, yet stands quite seemly alone by reason of its surpassing bigness.
Pant to the top. It will do you good, though the view is nothing. The country is an infinite green-and-brown chess-board of young corn and fallow, dead-flat on every side, ugly with the complacent plainness of all very rich country. Beyond the sheeny ribbon of the Jumna, north, south, east, west, into the blurred horizon, you can see only land and land and land — a million acres With nothing on them to see — except the wealth of India and the secret of the greatness of Delhi.
Then look down past your toes and you will see the evidence of some of Delhi's falls. From the ground you will have noticed ruins about you; but there the Kutb Minar dwarfs everything. Now you see that you stand above a field of broken arches, solitary pillars, stumps of towers, and in the middle of what must once have been a town of mosques and tombs. Before it was that, it was a town of Hindu temples and palaces. In the court of the ruined mosque stands a solid wrought-iron pillar — little enough to look at, but curious, because it is at least fifteen hundred years old, and there is nothing else quite like it in the world. It bears a Sanskrit inscription to the effect that this is "the Arm of Fame of Raja Dhava, who conquered his neighbours and won the undivided sovereignty of the earth."
Poor Raja Dhava! The temples of generations that had already forgotten him are swept utterly away; the mosque of their conquerors stands now only as a few shattered red arches and pillars with defaced flowers wilting on them. Beyond that is the base of what was once to be a tower more than twice as high as the Kutb Minar, but was never even finished. The very tower you stand on has been buffeted by earthquake, and great part of it is mere restoration. And Delhi, which in the year One stood here, has drifted away almost out of sight from the summit and left these forlorn fragments to decay without even the consolation of neighbourhood.
Poets and preachers have already pointed the necessary moral: let us go back to the city. Here at least is the Jumma Musjid, the great mosque, saved complete out of the storms — a baby of little more than two hundred years, to be sure, but still something. It is said to be the largest mosque in the world — a vast stretch of red sandstone and white marble and gold upstanding from a platform reached on three sides by flights of steps so tall, so majestically wide, that they are like a stone mountain tamed into order and proportion at an emperor's will. Above the brass-mounted doors rise red portals so huge that they almost dwarf the whole — red galleries above them, white marble domes above them, white marble minarets rising higher yet, with pillars and cupolas and gilded pinnacles above all. Beside the gateways the walls of the quadrangle seem to creep along the ground; then, at the corners, rise towers with more open chambers, more cupolas and gilded pinnacles. Within, above the cloistered quadrangle, bulge three pure white domes — not hemispheres, like Western domes, but complete globes, only sliced away at the base and tapering to a spike at the top — and a slender minaret flanks each side.
The whole, to Western eyes, has a strange effect. Our own buildings are tighter together, gripped and focused more in one glance; over the Jumma Musjid your eye must wander, and then the mind must connect the views of the different parts. If you look at it near you cannot see it all; if far, it is low and seems to straggle. The 'West could hardly call it beautiful: it has proportion, but not compass. Therefore it does not abase you, as other great buildings do: somehow you have a feeling of patronage towards it. Yet it is most light and graceful with all its bulk: it seems to suit India, thus spread out to get its fill of the warm sun. It looks rich and lavish, as if space were of no account to it.
Between this mosque and the Jumna river stands the fort — the ancient stronghold and palace of the Mogul emperors. A towering wall encloses it, Titanic slabs, always of the same red sandstones, moated and battlemented. You go in under the great Lahore Gate — its massiveness is lightened by more domes and arches, more gilt and marble on top of it, — you come in — alas and alas! — to barracks and married quarters and commissariat stores. You look for turquoised hubble-bubbles, and you find the clay of Private Atkins. It is disillusion, and yet it is very Delhi. The remains of Aurungzebe's palaces are lost among the imperial plant of Aurungzebe's inheritors.
Yet search diligently for the remains; since, except in Agra, you will never find anything like it in the world. You come first to the Hall of Audience, an open redstone portico with a wall at its back, and are about to pass it. The gleam of marble arrests you. Within, against the wall, is a slab of white marble; above it a throne of the same with pillars and canopy. But it is not the marble you look at — it is the wonderful work that veins it; the throne is embroidered with mosaic. And the wall behind is a sheet of miniature pictures — birds and flowers and fruit — all picked out in paint and precious stones. You marvel, but pass on to the Hall of Private Audience. Then, indeed, your breath catches with amazement.
It is an open, oblong portico or pavilion on columns, with an arched and domed squarer pavilion beside it, whence a bay-window steps out of the wall to look over the swamps and the river below. The whole is all white marble asheen in the sun, but that is the least part of the wonder. Walls and ceilings, pillars and many-pointed arches, are all inlaid with richest, yet most delicate, colour. Gold cornices and scrolls and lattices frame traceries of mauve and pale green and soft azure. What must it have been, you ask yourself, when the peacock throne blazed with emerald and sapphire, ruby and diamond, from the now empty pedestal, and the plates of burnished silver reflected its glories from the roof? The Marathas melted down the ceiling, and Nadir Shah took away the throne to Persia; yet, even as it is, the opulence of it leaves you gasping. It is not gaudy, does not even astonish you with its costliness: it is simply sumptuous and luxurious, surpassing all your dreams.
After this chaste magnificence you may refresh your eye with the yet purer beauty of the Moti Musjid, the Pearl Mosque — a fabric smaller than a racquet-court, walled with cool grey-veined marble, blotched here and there blood-red. Just a court of walls moulded in a low relief, with a double row of three arches supporting a triple-domed roof at its end — simple, spotless, exquisite.
You have passed below the cloud-capped towers, out of the gorgeous palaces — and here is Silver Street, Delhi's main thoroughfare. The pageant fades, and you plunge into the dense squalor which is also India. Along the houses run balconies and colonnades; here also you see vistas of pillars and lattice-work, but the stone is dirty, the stucco peels, the wood lacks paint. The houses totter and lean together. The street is a mass of squatting, variegated people; bulls, in necklaces of white and yellow flowers, sleep across the pavements, donkeys stroll into the shops, goats nibble at the vegetables piled for sale down the centre of the street, a squirrel is fighting with a caged parrot. Here is a jeweller's booth, gay With tawdry paint; next, a baker's, with the shopkeeper snoring on his low counter, and everything an inch thick with dust. At one step you smell incense; at the next, garbage.
Inimitable, incongruous India! And coming out of the walls, still crumbling from Nicholson's cannon, you see mill-chimneys blackening the sky. Delhi, with local cotton, they tell you, can spin as fine as Manchester. One more incongruity! The iron pillar, the ruined mosque, the jewelled halls, the shabby street, and now the clacking mill. That is the last of Delhi's myriad reincarnations.