Historian, author and translator Rana Safvi writes on the culture, history and monuments of India. She has authored several books on the history of Delhi along with translating various accounts of the city from Urdu to English.
Her latest book titled 'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories' hit the stands in December 2021, and has received much critical acclaim since then. The book "takes the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations." It takes you back in time and on a journey to explore the vast architectural heritage of India.
We talk to Rana about her dedication to documenting disappearing heritage, the role of monuments in history, and the importance of restoring and protecting buildings for the future.
From your blogs, social media posts, books, or articles in newspapers/ magazines – the one thing that shines through is your love for history and storytelling. Can you tell us more about your love for history and passion for writing?
Like most children I grew up on stories and my mother was a gifted storyteller. I must have unconsciously imbibed that art from her. History is my field and while studying for my Master’s degree I was trained in writing well researched papers using primary and secondary sources. As a non-academic writer of history, I have the luxury of combining that training with storytelling to write about our built heritage and culture in an engaging way and raise awareness amongst the public.
The Hora Mahal shorn of all it's trappings
You have a desire and dedication to document the heritage and the disappearing culture in India. Why is this important to you?
The importance of our built heritage has never been fully appreciated. As in the case of Delhi whenever a new city was built, the old was stripped to provide readymade building material.
My primary research has been on the monuments of Delhi, which have faced and continue to face various challenges. A case in point is Qila-e Mubarak now famous as The Red Fort built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan 1648. Its magnificence was a symbol of power and stood grandly testifying to the might of the Mughal Empire. The city of Shahjahanabad, now called Old Delhi, was built around this Qila.
The Red Fort - the Prime Minister addresses the nation on every independence Day from here
The Uprising of 1857 saw the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar exiled to Rangoon (now Myanmar) and the formal taking over of the Mughal empire by British East India Company (EIC). By the Government of India Act in1858, power was transferred from the EIC to the British Crown and India became a British colony. In the aftermath of the Uprising, the Muslim population of Shajahanabad (Old Delhi) was specifically targeted as the British perceived the Uprising of 1857 as a “Mohammedan conspiracy making capital of Hindu grievances” against them. As documented by Zahir Dehlvi in Dastan-e Ghadar the Muslim populace of the city, was severely punished and those who escaped punishment fled from the city to find shelter in other cities. The character of Shajahanabad changed. The old order gave way to the new.
The Red Fort of Delhi was turned into a British army camp. As many as 80% of the buildings inside the Red Fort were demolished to give way to barracks. The ones which remained were stripped of their precious stone decorations and defaced. New roads were created and residences and residents were removed to provide easy access to the British army in case of another ‘revolt’.
In 1947, India was partitioned to create two independent countries: India and Pakistan. This was a particularly bloody and tragic partition, displacing millions and seeing an unprecedented loss of lives. This transfer of population also affected monuments as some original caretakers/ owners left for Pakistan.
With the advent of refugees, a new culture was introduced especially in Awadh (erstwhile state of Awadh) and Delhi.
I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when there was a lot of nostalgia and an urgency to preserve our culture and I grew up soaked in it. However, by the 90s there was more emphasis on modernity and in the race for learning new ways and adapting to the fast-changing world, that urgency was replaced and so our connect with our past was put on a back burner.
It is only in the past decade or so that the realization dawned on me that unless we document our culture and heritage it will be lost for future generations. Preservation is not the only issue, transmission of that culture is equally important.
Thus began my journey of documenting Delhi’s built heritage I have expanded my research interests now, so that it is pan-India in scope. I firmly believe that it’s only when we add a human touch to our monuments that people will feel an affinity for it, a sense of public ownership if you will, and help in preserving them. The neglect of many precious monuments is costing us dearly.
As far as our old cultural practices are concerned, it needs urgent documentation for that has been forgotten in the rush to keep pace with the world. Thus, I began writing about the culture of Awadh where I grew up. We no longer have the resources, time, or the luxury of domestic help to maintain the old way of life but we can at least try on special occasions. We try to celebrate festivals such as Eid in a traditional manner. We keep an open house, wear our traditional clothes, and cook heirloom recipes and replicate that old way of life and hospitality for a day at least.
In your book, A Saint, a Folk Tale, and Other Stories you take the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations. What kinds of spaces and places are we introduced to?
Indian architecture offers one of the most glorious forms of built heritage anywhere in the world. India, With its geographical expanse, rich history and diversity, India offers a veritable feast for the senses in every way, especially in regard to its spectacular range of built heritage buildings. Starting from with the earliest cave shelter paintings, the first urban cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, rock-cut architecture, to medieval temples, palaces, and forts, the Taj Mahal, colonial-era buildings and modern skyscrapers, India has it all.
In my new book I takes the reader into parts of India which are beyond the usual tourist destinations. I have covered the earliest surviving ogee arch an architectural feature in India, rock cut caves, temples to mosques, forts and mausoleums and graves of famous Urdu poets, in various parts of India. The often overlooked monuments of India are rich with history, architecture and scenery begging to be explored.
What intrigues you about monuments in India. Why do you believe their preservation is important?
Monuments are tangible forms of art. and it’s the most common way in which we all get to engage with times gone by. Our memories are connected to our surroundings. and physical objects particularly, this is especially true of buildings.
When I walk in the Red Fort of Delhi today I sense an unmitigated loss and even despair—a loss which isn’t just limited to the beauty and splendour of certain architectural structure. I want to convey the glory days of the Mughals, the fall of Delhi in 1857, the occupation of the Fort by the British, subsequent changes and not for the better, the Freedom struggle, imprisonment of officers of the Indian National Army there and on that very spot, the hoisting of the Indian tricolor there on the day of Independence. The Red Fort has witnessed all of these national events. In some ways, it continues to be a witness into modern events.
Today, the Red Fort is a shell of its former self; Chandni Chowk is has become a commercial hub. The crowds that assembled on the steps of Jama Masjid to watch dastangoi performances, cockfights, and enjoy conversations, are now composed of tourists or the faithful who go to offer prayers; and the River Yamuna has receded.
Delhi's Jama Masjid
For me it’s essential to preserve them our buildings as part of our heritage and tell their stories of grandeur and loss.
Which monuments related to Muslim heritage and Islamic history in India are in need of restoration and protection?
The non-ticketed monuments are in dire need of protection, as they have become de-facto playgrounds for the people living around it. For example, on a recent trip I found cricket being played in the 15th century dargah of Sheikh Yusuf Qattal in Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai area. One of the stone marble screens forming the wall of the shrine is broken. While the functioning dargahs and mosques are very well looked after, those that function solely as monuments and are non-ticketed neglected and need protection.
The pavilion where Mumtaz Mahal is said to have been given temporary burial before shifting to Agra's Taj Mahal
In the course of my travels, I have found many such neglected monuments and buildings. The deer park or Ahukhana in Burhanpur, where Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631 and was given temporary burial, is a witness to an important piece of history. Yet, it lies in shambles, hardly visited by anyone. A few local people are leading a charge for its restoration and preservation, and I hope my writings can help. I have described these monuments in detail in my new book.
Ahukhana or deer park
Can you share some unknown stories about Islamic heritage in India?
There are many stories lost to time echoing in spaces, and bouncing off the empty walls and soaring arches of these grand buildings. I would like to mention one story about a rather famous monument, which highlights the importance given to calligraphy in Islamic Art.
Lithography of Akbarabadi Masjid from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan ''s Asar us Sanadid
The Taj Mahal is one of the most famous recognizable monuments of the world. Built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a paradisical tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, it bears his imperial vision of architecture. There has been much conjecture on the name of the architect. It is only after the discovery of Lutfullah Muhandis’s book Muntakhab al-Hisab in the 1930s that it was determined that the architect was Ustad Ahmed Lahori, father of Muhanddis. In the book Muhandis, eulogizes his father’s accomplishments as a scholar and architect and mentions that he was commanded by Shah Jahan to build the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Delhi.
The AMU Jama Masjid
However, there is one artist who was allowed to sign his work in the Taj Mahal and that is Ustad Amanat Khan, the calligrapher has inscribed his name in one of the calligraphic panels in the cenotaph room. The same Amanat Khan made the calligraphic panels for Akbarabadi Mosque in Delhi. This was a mosque commissioned by Shah Jahan’s wife Nawab Akbarabadi Begum in 1650. It was used by the Indian sepoys in the uprising of 1857 against the British East India Company and the mosque was destroyed by the latter after they suppressed what they termed the ‘mutiny’ or ‘revolt’.
Signature of Amanat khan in the cenotaph chamber of Taj Mahal
In the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857 and the systematic persecution of the Muslim community, especially the elite who the British felt were mainly responsible for the ‘revolt’, Sir Syed set about thinking of ways to rehabilitate the community. One of them was to integrate them into Indian society via Western education and thus was born the idea of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, which went on to become the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). These calligraphic panels, to cite the AMU’s gazette, were presented to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan for use in the Jama Masjid of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College by Shahzada Sulaiman Jah Bahadur. The latter had bought them from a scrap dealer in Aligarh, who had the rubble of 1857 monuments brought for sale.
Thus, a mausoleum and two mosques across three cities are interconnected through two and a half centuries by a single artist. This is a fact most Indians don’t know.
Calligraphic panel in Taj Mahal
Why do you think understanding our past helps our future?
It is important to understand and study the challenges of the past, not only in the context of the past, but also using today’s lens. To understand ourselves we need to understand who we are, where we come from, and question where are we headed. This does not just apply to the history of rulers, but of everyday people and their habits, culture, and environment. Everyday people are ‘living histories’ and a study of their lives and times gives us a sense of connection to our pasts.
In traditional dress for Eid
Our way of life, our houses, language, our food, our clothes our festivals and ways of celebrating are all a reflection of our past. Our culture developed over centuries, and was not a random product of impulsive acts. History connects these dots for us and roots us in time.
And of course, the famous adage that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it emphasizes that we must understand our past in order to better our future and not make the same mistakes.
What are your thoughts on the inclusion of women in travel writing?
For me, documenting oral history is of utmost importance. Why not use the words of people who live around and nearby a monument as a source material? After all, they are invested in it the land and its surrounding. I have always found it easy to strike up conversations especially with women, who would might typically shy away from talking to male strangers.
Forts and palaces are studied for their military strength attributes, and their potential to ward off attacks. Any discussion of such buildings is likely to centre around fortifications, and the role of women within the palace is diminished so that they are almost rendered invisible. Today many scholars are writing about this invisibilization of women in history. For me it is important to research and study their roles in the monument complex I am studying.
Begumpur Mosque Delhi
For me an example, to consider is Delhi’s Quwwat-ul Islam Mosque. It is not just the first mosque to be built by the new Turkish rulers in India but also the site where Raziya bint Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1236-40), pressed her claim to be succeed her father. How many people know this? Her story and grave lying almost forgotten in the by lanes of Old Delhi is one of the highlighted stories in my new book.
Apart from history, in my travels I have also found that women travellers are far more likely to put themselves in imaginary situations and wonder how people might have lived. For example, traditionally women have been water bearers and clothes washers, so for us as women writers at a fort or palace, we will seek out to know the distance to the closest water source as that would be an important consideration. We would be interested in finding out more about the domestic arrangements not just the cannons and stables.
When travelling to isolated monuments or areas as a solo woman traveller, for me safety and security is essential are of paramount importance. I try to relate my experiences and convey helpful tips in my writing not only for those traveling alone but also for women traveling with children. There are very few women travel writers now in comparison to men, but their our number is growing.
What do you think the future of Islamic art looks, what are the opportunities and potential?
There is tremendous global interest in Islamicate / Islamic cultures these days as can be seen from various Instagram pages and Twitter handles. The rich and varied artefacts from these cultures housed in museums across the world as well as monuments see many visitors.
Given this interest there are many opportunities for practitioners of the art, whether miniature paintings in the Persian style, calligraphy, or other decorative arts as well as taking up the study of Art history, which is a very exciting field with much scope and potential as a career.
For more information check out https://ranasafvi.com
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