By Isaac Roque:
“Dilli jo ik sheher tha aalam me intekhab
rehte the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar ke
Jis ko falak ne loot ke veeran kar diya
Hum rehne wale hain usi ujde dayar ke.”
(Delhi, that was a city unique in the world, Where lived only the chosen of the time
Fate has looted it and made it deserted, I belong to that very destroyed city)
These words, penned by an Urdu poet many years ago, echo my disappointment at the Government’s recent withdrawal of Delhi’s nomination for the title of UNESCO World Heritage City. I spent most of my childhood living ‘Yamuna paar‘, growing up in the suburban shadow of the Capital, a world away from her charms and contradictions, yet within close reach of her aura. Regular trips to Dilli always left me wanting more.
Later on, as I grew older, I would travel around this historic city, much like a tourist rather than a native; chalking out plans for different monuments each time, reading up on the history of each monument, mapping my routes and taking my time to soak in the indulgent details of every space. Here was a wealth of such grandeur and immensity, powerful influences from countries beyond its shores, all fusing into a glorious amalgam against the backdrop of all that chaos, heat and dust.
Delhi, as a capital city has more than earned her place as a heritage city in every sense of the word. The past comes alive here every day, it is not some ancient relic, it enjoys an intangible presence in the aromas, the noise and the overwhelming cultural diversity that is so characteristic, and predates that of most modern metropolises. Age has not wearied her, modernity and history are at the heart of Delhi’s vitality.
When friends from abroad visited us, their sense of wonder was paralleled by my own as I rediscovered what had always been right under my nose. Perhaps, years of separation in ‘phoren‘ lands, had rekindled that wonder. From the unrestrained extravagance of colonial monuments, to the majestic edifices left behind by the Mughals & their predecessors; churches, mosques & temples, bazaars and malls, centuries old street food served fresh, tombs & traffic jams, cars & rickshaws swimming past old ruins, the pristine gardens a far cry from the littered streets: each of these an essential component of Delhi’s paradoxical allure.
Imagine my horror then, on learning that the Centre recently decided that Delhi would not be given a chance to be awarded the distinction of being a heritage city. It is not about the validation this tag brings, but rather the threat that ensues from such a decision. It has been said that this decision was taken due to concerns about urban development, and the consequent restrictions such a tag would have brought. While such concerns are justified, it has to be said that being a World Heritage City does not seem to have significantly hindered urban development in the other capital cities who enjoy this title. With this title, any urban development would have required careful consideration and planning, but without such protective measures, Delhi’s extraordinary heritage once more stands at the mercy of the powers that be.
Despite ongoing renovation at many major sites, the conservation of many of our monuments leaves much to be desired. The examples are numerous and the state of apathy they lie in, is deplorable. Some of these buildings are barely recognizable, due to encroachment or sheer neglect. Besides having enormous potential for tourism, these pearls of splendor are an integral part of Delhi’s identity, and once lost, they are lost forever. In a world where urban landscapes are becoming sterile, and differ little from each other, these elements from bygone days infuse vigour and variety. My only hope is that we will not abandon this rich legacy of our collective past, to a future of indifference.
Featured image credit: Rajkumar/Flickr