Tuesday 5th October was a significant day. I handed in my honours thesis and my mother had her seventieth birthday. Both of us were very busy on the day but we managed to talk to each other on the phone. Technology helps to minimise the 700 odd kilometres that lie between us.
I have not written any posts in the last month because I needed to minimise distractions. However, now I have finished I have loads of time to reflect on the last four years. Given that I now have time to watch the Commonwealth Games, my thoughts have turned to Delhi.
Most of the history that I have done focuses either solely on European cultures or on the interaction between Europeans and indigenous people. Earlier this year I did a seminar called ‘place and meaning in the past’. We had to choose from a list of places around the world and give a presentation on their history. Generally the places were not related in any way to places we had studied in our undergraduate degrees. I chose to look at Delhi. I am really pleased that I did – what a fascinating place!
Of course doing one seminar does not make me an expert on the history of Delhi, but it has made me interested in it. I believe that the history of a place cannot be done properly unless the historian is conversant in at least one of the languages spoken by a substantial proportion of the inhabitants of the place. William Dalrymple notes that the Uprising of 1857 has usually been examined with reference to English language sources. Yet the English were only one of the groups that were part of the Uprising. Dalrymple and his colleagues have examined Persian and Urdu documents of the period. The result is Dalrymple’s, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 It is a well crafted book – but one that makes disturbing reading.
Another European historian whose histories of India have been informed by an impressive understanding of some of the languages spoken there is Annemarie Schimmel. I gained much from her book, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. This book is well illustrated and very readable.
Through my reading I discovered the importance of poetry in Delhi through the ages. Like many Australians I have an aversion to serious poetry. However, John Hirst in The Sentimental Nation: The Making of the Australian Commonwealth (pp. 15-25) opened my eyes to the need to consider poetry as an historical source. I was restricted by my lack of knowledge of the languages of Delhi, but with the kind assistance of Indian friends I found some poems which reflected what I was writing about. This poetry enabled me to glimpse the emotional relationship that the inhabitants had with the city of Delhi.
The photo at the top of the post shows the place of worship of one of the many religions in Delhi. The Delhi government tourist website lists nine religions represented in Delhi – Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Bahai Faith. Not only was there a diversity of religions in the city, but there was also a diversity of languages spoken, Hindi, English, Urdu and Punjabi being the major ones spoken today. In the past Persian was the language used by the Mughal rulers. Delhi attracted people from all over India, Asia and Europe. Globalisation is not a phenomenon that emerged in the twentieth century. The history of Delhi demonstrates that communication, exchange of ideas and goods has been occurring for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
I reiterate that this seminar has not made me an expert on the history of Delhi, but I was struck by the power of history when I sought help from Indians I knew. They were eager to help and share their culture. My interest helped in a very, very small way to develop the relationship between India and Australia. Ultimately history helps to build windows of understanding between the present and past. As I saw from this case, it can also help to build windows of friendship between cultures.
- Baha’i International Community, Photo of Baha’i House of Worship – New Delhi, photo ID 5049, Baha’i Media Bank
- Delhi Tourism: Official Tourism Website for Government of NCT of Delhi
- William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
- Annemarie Schimmel, The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2004).
Check out the Archaeological Survey of India for photos and the history of these world heritage sites in Delhi:
- Qutb Minar
- Humayun’s Tomb
- The Red Fort