I believe I was 12 years old when I went to see Delhi for the first time in a tour bus called the Hop-on-Hop-off bus. As I sat on the bus, in one day I managed to catch all the major attractions. The Mughal architecture of Humanyun’s tomb, the older Gardens and tombs of the Lodhi Dynasty, and the British offices of Lutyens Delhi. By the end of the day, I felt I had a good idea of what Delhi is, where its history comes from, and how it is a melting pot of various backgrounds and the rich history and culture that they bring with them.
Now though, if I take the Hop-on-Hop-off bus again I will notice the glaring mistake in my observations about Delhi. While surely you can easily spot Safdarjung Tomb or India gate, or a Trip Advisor article called “Ten unknown monuments of Delhi” can lead you to visit Isa Khan’s Tomb, but you will still not be able to notice what Delhi has to offer. For that, you will have to switch off your google maps and start walking through the interior streets of Delhi.
As you walk through Chandini Chowk on a Sunday afternoon, there is a lot around you that might attract your gaze. The criss-cross of the illegal electrical connections forming a covered passage for you, the bright-coloured items being sold by the street vendors, or the smell of the fresh jalebi and kebabs being cooked right in front of you.
But as you walk through the galis of Chandini Chowk, you might stumble into one such gali called Billi Maara. Even if you stumble into Billi Maara you might still not notice a small signboard hidden on the sides:
Sign board for Ghalib ki Haveli
This Haveli of possibly one of the greatest poets of not just India is a 300-year-old structure. It stands in between two shops, with no other indication other than that sign board that can let you know that this is a historical monument. Inside it, illegal electrical connections pass through to other homes so that they can run their homes. If you step in further you will notice a staircase randomly on the side which leads up to an STD IPO shop. People don’t live their lives around the monument, but instead through it.
Take another example of the Tomb of Ghalib. Located near the Nizamuddin Dargah in Old Delhi. It looks nothing like an actual Tomb. It has trash scattered around it, and no signboard that lets you know that you have reached the tomb. The open area around the tomb is used as a cricket ground by the local children. The people are not in awe of these monuments but are normalised to the spectacle.
The entire area of Katwaria Sarai, Ber Sarai and Jia Sarai has many such monuments where you will notice apartments being constructed using the architecture of the monuments and structures. The bricks of today’s time meet and clash with the bricks of the Mughals, and you might even notice the locals using that space illegally as garbage dumps and places to dry their dirty laundry.
One of the old tombs of Delhi, now a place for drying laundry
And that is the thing about Delhi, the number of people that are there in one city forces you to merge into one with its history. After partition when people first came to Delhi, one of the biggest refugee sites was Humanyun’s Tomb, which is technically a monument. Following this, when DDA (Delhi Development Authority) starting creating affordable houses to accommodate the growing population of Delhi, they built the flats and houses not around, but through these monuments.
Humanyun’s Tomb as a refugee camp after the Partition
You might be out for a simple evening walk but have an encounter with the same thing that a worker constructed in the 1500s. You might just be out for a drive near the Qutub Minar area and look to your left and notice the tomb of someone from the Lodhi Dynasty. History is no more a spectacle for the people of Delhi, it is a part of their everyday life. It is not just near, but through this history that they carry out their everyday lives. That is when you realize it isn’t just that Delhi has monuments in it, Delhi in itself is a lost and unnoticed monument, which is right now crumbling and deteriorating.
Take the Haveli of Ghalib as an example. It is currently declared a World Heritage Site by the Archaeological Survey of India, but its condition makes it look like a worn-off old house. Not only is it completely unnoticeable due to the lack of any kind of advertising or promotion for the site, but it is also completely unmanaged or well kept. On the inside, all the pieces that originally belonged to Ghalib are rusting away and catching dust, while his sculpture looks like it hasn't been cleaned in ages. In the above examples, it might seem like there is a certain romanticization of a city fusing with its history, but that is not the reality. In reality, the city pushes through history like a bulldozer and destroys everything in its path, and perhaps that is the price that one pays for “Urbanisation”