City Hangout – National Archives of India, Janpath
Delhi’s best kept secret.
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There is no reason for this treasure tucked at the Capital’s heart to remain rundown and unexplored. As the storeroom of the non-current records of the Indian government, the National Archives of India (NAI), in Janpath, has thousands of rare old books, documents and lithographs piled up on various floors.
Anyone with a passing interest in India’s political and cultural past can produce best-selling history books by hanging out here. While researching here for his book The Last Mughal: the fall of a dynasty (Delhi 1857) , author William Dalrymple discovered previously unexamined manuscripts that present the Indian perspective of the 1857 mutiny. “All the Urdu research for the book was done there,” says Mr Dalrymple. “The archive contains the biggest and fullest colonial archive in India.”
You do not have to be an author, scholar or a PhD student to feel at home in NAI. Not many are aware that it also has a library having more than 1,80,000 books on Indian history. The membership is free and all you need to present is an identity proof. Historian Mushirul Hasan, the new director general of the Archives (He joined in June 2010), says, “I want NAI to be like London’s British Library, which is wonderful in terms of collection, conservation, preservation and most importantly, accessibility.” Prof. Hasan intends to make the place Delhi’s most intelligent destination where non-scholars can freely come in, browse through the shelves, dig into boxes filled with British-era confidential documents, read letters written two hundred years ago, roll out long farmans (royal decrees) of Mughal kings and feel the touch of 4th century Sanskrit manuscripts printed on animal-skin parchments.
It is a tough undertaking. NAI’s annual budget is Rs 21 crores, less than the budget of Hrithik Roshan’s flop film Kites. “The mission is extremely difficult to achieve but nonetheless I’ll try my best. It will be deeply satisfying to me as an historian,” says Prof. Hasan. The 60-year-old director general has his tasks cut out for him. “The place is a bit ramshackle and the catalogue is not computerised,” says Mr Dalrymple. “Yet the Archives remain open for longer hours than most archives and contains large amounts of previously unaccessed material, unlike the British Library India Office archives (in London), which are now well-used and contain few surprises.”
Where Janpath, near Hotel Le Meridian
Professor Mushirul Hasan, director general, National Archives of India
Bestsellers in waiting
Take ideas from the list
Old and rare
Tawarikh-i-Kashmir, a two-volume Persian book dating back to the 13th century
Touch it, feel it
Sanskrit manuscript from 4th century AD, from Kashmir
Home Revenue department’s secrets
Foreign Department’s details
Which to pick first?
Take a walk if tired of reading
Emperor Akbar’s royals seal
Shh, this is library
The Archives’s café
Prof. Hasan at work