Sunday, January 15, 2006

tomb-living englishmen

In City Limits

Mehrauli Archaeological Park

Once upon a time there was an Englishman who lived in a tomb. He lived in the tomb two centuries after the man who was buried in it, a noble by the name of Quli Khan. He called his tomb-abode Dilkusha, pleasing to the heart. And no, this is not the beginning of my blockbuster magic realist novel, though it could well be.

The tomb is about a hundred and fifty metres south east of the Qutub Minar, at the north end of the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, which stretches south and west from here for well over a hundred hectares of trees and lawns and spectacular ruins. The area of this archaeological park is loosely that of the vast estate of Thomas Metcalfe, British resident of Delhi in the mid nineteenth century, and the aforesaid tomb-liver. Here he laid out an English style country estate over the remains of a long abandoned town, Mehrauli having declined, shifted and shrunk to where it is now, a ‘village’ rather than Delhi’s first city.

A carriageway sweeps past one of the finest mosques in Delhi, the early sixteenth century Jamali Kamali, where the small tomb of the saint Jamali has the best preserved plaster moulding and fresco work of any medieval ceiling in Delhi, as rich and vivid in colour and pattern as if made yesterday. Off to the right are the remains of a sixteenth century ‘housing colony’, with staircases and fireplaces still intact. Beyond which lies the roofless walls of Sultan Balban’s thirteenth century tomb, with the first known ‘true’ arches of Sultanate architecture. Then there is of course the Mughal tomb of Quli Khan, which Metcalfe made his own, with its steep staircase and watercourse descending down to a Lodi period dovecote. A Mughal gateway leading from the Qutub turned into a guesthouse (with swimming pool; for bachelors), a spectacular early sixteenth century stepwell, the Rajon ki Bains, the remains of a medieval Sarai, and of many more Lodi, Mughal British houses, gardens, tombs and mosques. None of which was apparently enough for Metcalfe, for he dotted his land with several strategically located ‘follies’, structures built in the nineteenth century to resemble those built in the fourteenth. Now we know the true origins of Punjabi Baroque. Or perhaps of the word palimpsest.

‘tis a beautiful place, this archaeological park. To wander through ruins, to sit in the sun on grassy knolls, to play cricket, to muse about the ironies of history, and the passing of time. To wonder how beautiful this departed city must have been. Oh yes, it is a beautiful place. Not yet Lodi Gardens, but we could do without the pushy power-walkers anyway. Don’t even think about permanently relocating, though. I’ve already booked the tombs.

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