More baolis in Mehrauli… and the English Picturesque in Delhi

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

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So our friends Jen and Christine breezed through Delhi on their whirlwind tour of the Golden Triangle. I take it their visits to Agra and Jaipur were a bit stressful and so I decided I’d take them slightly off the beaten path in Delhi… to a place I wanted to explore a bit more, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Walking through the trail is a very strange thing, which seemed even stranger because I entered it from the Mehrauli village, as opposed to using the only half-heartedly official looking entrances off of Anuvrat Marg. From the village, you really just stumble upon the trail by squeezing through someone’s backyard—well stocked with chickens and water buffalos. It’s just a beaten dirt path, white and bright blue plastic bags form an even layer of trash across the grounds and bands of huge pigs wander about looking for a rare morsel of food. There’s an occasional goat in a tree, there’s no tourists to speak of. The only others around are local kids playing cricket in some of the clear patches of grass, and then suddenly you’re there, a truly live archaeological site. Some of the ruins, still being excavated were only recently discovered in 2002. Some sites have been better preserved than others. My favorite thing there is of course the baoli, this one is Rajon ki baoli.

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Another one of my favorite sites is Metcalfe’s folly (actually one of at least three follies), which sits just above the still being excavated ruins and right around the bend from the Jamali Kamali mosque and tomb. Metcalfe’s folly was built by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, fourth baronet and the governor general’s last British resident at the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (thank you Wikipedia).  The folly was built in 1850s and was made to blend in with the ruins around it—this makes it a rather unique example in the history of English picturesque gardens, i.e. it was the only folly among actual ruins that I can recall in the short and florid history of the English picturesque garden—should one be so bold as to include Mehrauli amongst those gardens. Indeed, one could write a wonderful essay that incorporates Mehrauli into the rather stable (not to say stale) histories of Stowe, Stourhead, Blenheim and Rousham—the masterpieces of William Kent and Lancelot Capability Brown that so inspired the fevered thinking of Uvedale Price. Such an essay would finally open up a history of the English picturesque as a historical phenomena sealed from the West, save for mentions of the apocryphal ‘concept’ of sharawadgi and the pagodas of Kew gardens (two topics that lie trapped within a predictable Orientalist discussion). Such an essay might be a provocative metonymous history of the British colonization of India. And such an essay might be especially relevant on account of the fact that there are forces in India today like the conservation architect M.G.K. Menon of INTACH (which is a local affiliate of UNESCO) who want to clear Mehrauli of its locals in order to ‘properly’ preserve the ‘unprotected’ ruins (according to British colonial standards). I should mention here that no matter how wonderful and magical it was to happen upon these ruins, it never did erase the images of poverty always surrounding us here.

delhilgeThe above is an image of Sir Thomas Metcalfe participating in a celebration of ‘Id with the Mughal emperor. See the entire wonderful 12 panel painting from Metcalfe’s Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi here. 

Metcalfe’s follies are rather unremarkable, as they were simply markers of  vantage points from which one could view the Qutb, his own house and other sprinkled archaeological sites. The Qutb appears tiny from one’s position inside the follies—in which one can truly appreciate the affective powers of perspective. Metcalfe’s country home, which he called the ‘Dilkhusha’ (Urdu for “Delight of the Heart”) was built along with the follies, as part and parcel of the whole panoramic complex. Dilkusha was actually an extension of an existing Mughal structure, a tomb built by Akbar for his stepbrother Mohammad Quli Khan. Metcalfe’s extensions, however were removed by the Indian government after independence (though some of its ruins are still visible).

Just around the corner from one of the follies is the Jamali Kamali tomb and mosque which date back to the time of Humayun (16thc.) This was also a wonderful place to see made all the more special since the Chiu sisters and I were the only ones there. The guard actually unlocked the tomb complex just for us, all we had to do was to remove our shoes. This was the tomb’s incredible ceiling. I’m pretty sure that the enamel color is original.

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This piece by William Dalrymple is all that I’ve found on this so far… hopefully many of these thoughts will materialize in the form of an article or at least a lecture on the British Picturesque in India.

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