Sunday, 17 July 2011

Delhi's lost Oxbridge

I took a walking tour today round Hauz Khas, the most enjoyable district of South Delhi I've been to yet. The guide, Kanika, was a young woman with that charming, peculiarly Indian way of speaking that is just wonderful to listen to. Her history of Hauz Khas was peopled with "terrible chaps" and "mellow fellows" who said "nothing doing" in response to their subjects' misbehaviour and asked them "not to be carrying out any coups, please". All delivered in the smooth, melodic, Indian-accented tones that are one of the pleasures of living here.

Anyway, Hauz Khas. The name translates as "royal reservoir". The reservoir still exists, though much smaller than it used to be, and the village (which now sits bang in the middle of a huge deer park) grew up around the Madrassa (Islamic theological college) that clings to its Eastern and Southern shores.

Delhi is full of surprises. When you first arrive here it seems so ugly: sprawling, messy, dirty and noisy. The more time you spend here though, the more beauty you uncover. The madrassa at Hauz Khas was founded in the fourteenth century, about 150 years after Cambridge split from Oxford, but in its day it must have been easily as beautiful, tranquil and scholarly as those longer-lasting institutions. And it's still breathtakingly lovely.

Back when the reservoir was bigger, the madrassa buildings were constructed directly on the water's edge. You can still see the stairwells from which teachers and students must have launched boats. The buildings are Tughluk in style, meaning they are built from the hard, difficult-to-carve local stone, solid in style and simple in decoration. But the whole effect is graceful, stately and tranquil. It doesn't take much imagination to see this as a seat of learning, with earnest scholars listening to instruction to the sound of the lake lapping the foot of the walls below.

Since the madrassa was founded, history has marched back and forth over Delhi innumerable times. The teachers and students who lived here were long since kicked out of its way. As I walked around the still-beautiful ruins, I felt enormously lucky to be from a country where ancient institutions of learning survived the centuries, and particularly so to have been able to study at one of them. Who knows what learning would have come from the shores of this lake if history had been different?

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