City Walk – Historian William Dalrymple’s Guided Tour, Mehrauli Ruins
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
More than 50 experts from different fields have been pooled in for the ongoing Delhi Walk Festival. Only three of them are foreigners.
While no walk can have more than 30 participants, the only exception is for this man’s walk—“His group limit is 40 because he is he,” explained an organizer.
The ‘he’ was Delhi’s longtime dweller William Dalrymple. The famous author of City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi conducted a long dusty walk one Sunday morning yesterday through Mehrauli’s deliciously dense jumble of forgotten graves, gateways, and domes in south Delhi. With the humble hawai chappals as his walking gear, the historian gossiped about obscure late Mughal emperors as casually as we do about our current politicians.
At one point, Mr Dalrymple took the people to Baagh e Naazir in Mehrauli Archaeological Complex and nudged them to gaze upon a ruined gateway as if it were a profound object of beauty. The derelict building, however, began to look appealing after he pointed out barely perceptible details such as a Persian poem inscribed on the top of the gateway. “It was built by Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela”—gushed the walking guide. “He’s the guy I would have loved to have dinner with… he revived the imperial atelier… music… paintings… stability….”
Parts of the archeological’ complex’s grounds were taken over by local cricketers. They looked curiously at the walkers as if wondering why a huge crowd is walking about the abandoned monuments for no apparent reason. In one instance, a romantic couple inside Quli Khan’s Tomb was briefly rattled as the group sat at the monument’s platform to listen to Mr Dalrymple read an excerpt from one of his books.
In another monument, just a few steps away, Mr Dalrymple walked up a steep staircase to show panoramic views of the region. It was thoughtful of him not to linger on the ground level — large parts of the old walls were covered in pornographic drawings.
“I’m pretty angry at our archaeologists,” says Shreya Bakhshi, a business woman from Kalkaji. This was the first time Bakshi was seriously navigating through her city’s monuments and “it hurts me we aren’t taking care of our heritage despite the fact we are such heavy tax payers.”
While crossing a grassy slope on way to Jamali Jamali monument, a fruit vendor appeared from the opposite side with a wicker basket on his head, chanting “shakarkandi shakarkandi’ over and over again. Perhaps sensing the profile of the walking group, he immediately changed into “Sweet potato sweet potato.”
Later, settling down on the stairs of the Raja ki Baoli, Mr Dalrymple dramatically announced a discovery he had made earlier in the morning. It concerned Daulat Khan, the stepwell’s Lodhi-era builder. It was Khan, revealed Dalrymple, who shaped a great moment in history by going to Kabul and inviting Babur to India—“with a gift of green mangoes pickled in honey.”
The group was charmed enough to good-heartedly amble through the Sufi shrine of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhityar Kaki where a flower-seller scolded the walkers for not buying her flowers.
The final destination was Zafar Mahal, “the last great monument of the Mughals.” Here, in front of the empty grave where the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar wanted to be buried, Mr Dalrymple ended the walk by feelingly reading out a sentimental poem by Zafar.
“On special demand”, Mr Dalrymple again led the same walk a day later.
Amid Mehrauli’s forgotten graves