In 1911, when the British colonial government announced its decision to move the imperial capital of British India to Delhi, many received the news as a restoration of the city’s place in its natural, political location. After all, the name of ‘Dilli’ had been synonymous with the rise and fall of successive dynasties in the subcontinent. The city seemed to exert a divine will of its own; punishing menacingly, as it did with Muhammad bin Tughlaq, those who did not submit to its ordained status. In its more recent history, the city came to manifest the imperial or modernist grandeur of the likes of Shah Jahan, Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens and even, Jawaharlal Nehru. It is for these reasons that the conglomerate of settlements that goes by the name of Delhi, often seems to invoke a narrative of extraordinary greatness especially in its past. And it is for these reasons again that elude us from seeing that the most remarkable thing about Delhi is just how unremarkable it has always been. Even if one is to trace the city’s history back to the mythic ‘Indraprastha’ (from the epic, Mahabharata), we would do well to recall that the Pandavas and Krishna built the city by reclaiming a dense patch of feral landscape. In its subsequent history, the town was eclipsed by far more important townships and political centers that emerged either in the Gangetic mahajanapadas or the Kaveri delta. Neither in its ecological make up, weather pattern or topography, did Delhi hold any comparative strategic advantage. The rich archaeological remains of baolis and hauz are testament to the dire need for irrigational infrastructure despite its proximity to the river Yamuna. Even the Mughals—the dynasty which is most popularly associated with the grandeur of Delhi—had a chequered relationship with the city; much of their time and energy being invested equally in Agra. And yet, it was this precise ordinariness of location—a veritable Goldilocks complex of being least offensive—that worked to Delhi’s advantage.
December 2021, volume 45, No 12