Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Old walls and old wells

I still
cannot get over the sheer number of ancient sites and monuments in Delhi. We Europeans tend to think of Asian cities as modern affairs - either squat concrete or shimmering steel-and-glass - and that Europe is where you go for truly old urban architecture. But there are few places in Europe that come close to rivaling Delhi's wealth of heritage buildings - as a few posts on this blog have attested.

My latest bit of exploration into Delhi's history is probably the most dramatic - the Purana Qila or Old Fort, which lies north of Humayun's tomb and south-east of India Gate and the Rajpath. As with Old Delhi, the "Old" bit of the name is not really accurate: this is the site of the sixth of the cities that have stood here, and was Humayun's (he of the beautiful tomb) centre of power in the sixteenth century (though it is reputedly also where the first city, Indraprastha, stood). It's also where Humayun met his end - after falling down a flight of steps, which seems a cruelly undignified way for a man of his standing to go. Its massive walls tower dramatically over this part of Delhi, and the main gate was clearly designed to impress:

There's not much that survives inside the walls though, other than Humayun's graceful little observatory and a mosque, dramatically positioned overlooking the valley of the Yamuna river and featuring some wonderful mosaic work on its facade.

From its defensive position, the Purana Qila looks down on the whole valley - although the river itself has shifted course away from its walls these days. Of course, nowadays the valley features some rather less beautiful architecture, which provides some interesting contrasts:

The once-impregnable fortress is now a favourite spot for an evening stroll for the citizens of Delhi, who come and have their photos taken outside the ancient buildings. As you can see, the occasion gives rise to unmitigated joy and gay abandon on the parts of the participants:

But if you don't fancy a walk and would rather a sit-down activity, you can always opt instead to take a boat around the slightly swampy-looking boating lake that sits at the north-west foot of the walls. It looks like a pleasant excursion, but I can't help thinking that the sight of these garishly coloured pleasure boats and giant ducks pottering about beneath the towering, defensive ramparts looks a bit incongruous. I wonder what Humayun would have thought of this particular usage of his citdael.

Finally, just outside the main gate to the Purana Qila is the Khair-ul-Manazil, or "best of houses", a now rather dilapidated mosque and madrassa, which apparently was commissioned by the wet nurse of one of the Mughal emperors (I never knew wet nurses could be so powerful outside of Blackadder). The building itself doesn't stand out greatly against Delhi's other monuments, but it does feature a working hand-drawn well, which was being put into use when I popped in for a visit:

This is one of the things I find so fascinating about Delhi - in a rapidly modernising city, older ways of life still flourish. There is always something happening, wherever you are, and few things are allowed to go to waste. In the middle of a semi-derelict historic site, a working well that produces clean water (well, it looked clean anyway) and a family making use of it. The guard came in just after I took this photo and was given some of the water to wash his hands and mop his forehead. What they used the rest of the water collected in the urns for I have no idea - but I was happy for the photo op.

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