Monday 13 July 2020

D is for Delhi

Delhi, like India, is almost a British invention.  For much of the Raj, Calcutta was the capital of the continent.  Before that, Delhi held sway over only the Moghul kingdom.  When the British moved capitals they grafted an entire new district onto the city based around the governmental apparatus and the grand buildings which housed it.  The result is New Delhi.  Significantly, the capital is still called by this name.

New Delhi was laid out with classical thoroughness by Lutyens. Inevitably, the broad, wooded avenues and huge sweeping lawns lend the whole an air of stockbroker Surrey in the midst of unseasonable August heat.  The architecture gives a few nods in the direction of the vernacular, with a Moghul tower here, Indian ornamentation there, and the characteristic red sandstone everywhere.  But it is a half-hearted attempt; the studied balance, severe straight lines and the grandiloquent effect of the hilltop group answering the arch of India Gate betrays it for the failed Palace of Versailles the architect secretly aspired to.

The key element of this bolting together of new and old, oppressor and oppressed, is Connaught Place.  This great double circus of colonnaded, stuccoed buildings is the pivot of Delhi; as with the government buildings themselves, which are bound to it by roads placed like girders in a bridge, it is attractive but alien.  Its symmetry is too perfect, its architecture too undigested.  But it is the undisputed centre of Delhi - or of one of them.  The best shops are here, and the burgeoning business developments, including the first tentative skyscrapers, cluster round it. It is the equivalent of New York's Midtown, complete with Central Park.

The analogy can be pushed further, for above Connaught Place begins the blurring of identities as new gives way to old.  Although Old Delhi is very different from Harlem - the people appear to have reached an accommodation with poverty, and there in no racial divide from 'downtown' - it shares the same position as an uneasy counterpoise to the more placid areas of power, which are safely gathered at the opposite end of the city.

At the heart of Old Delhi lie three important landmarks: the Red Fort, a huge brooding presence on the banks of the Yamuna river; the great Jami Masjid, the largest mosque in India; and Chandni Chowk, perhaps the liveliest of the market streets.  All three are linked by a web of cramped twisting streets awash with stalls, hawkers and crowds.  It is only from one of the minarets of the Jami Masjid that you can rise above this lively din and gain some sense of perspective.  From there the bi-partite structure of the city becomes clearer; so does the size of the place.

Unlike Manhattan, Delhi is not circumscribed by natural boundaries; it has been squeezed not up, but out.  Distances are emphasised by the paucity of natural milestones along the way; most of the shops, offices and residences seem interchangeable.  The scale in all wrong: it is as if a cathedral had been built simply by magnifying the plans for a church.  In their dubious marriage of Moghul and colonial worlds, and in their vagaries of size and style, Old and New Delhi stand as a neat introduction to India today, and an even neater metaphor of how it got there.

A Partial India: A to Z

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