DELHI IN THE FIRST HALF of the 19th century represented the zenith of a long Indo-Islamic cultural tradition. The city’s Mughal past had given rise to a highly distinctive way of life, one dedicated as much to piety as pleasure, and its residents had a well-developed sense of Delhi’s primacy among Indian cities. They paid fealty to the emperors Akbar Shah II and later Bahadur Shah Zafar, either by invoking their many solemn titles—from ‘Shadow of the Blemishless’ to ‘Choicest Offspring of the House of the Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction’—or simply by referring to them as ‘The Presence’ and affectionately calling Red Fort, their vast palace, the ‘Haveli’. Delhi too, after a verse of Amir Khusrau’s, was known as ‘Hazrat-e-Delhi’ or ‘Delhi, the Presence’, assumed to be touched by the same god whose regent on earth was the Emperor, while prominent citizens proudly suffixed ‘Dehlvi’ to their names.
Delhi was the centre of the Mughal empire and if the empire was now much-diminished—on its last legs, in fact—this decline seemed to make Dehlvis even more determined to continue living their lives in the old way: squeeze every last pleasure out of Delhi’s many gardens and bazaars, extol its poets such as Mirza Ghalib, Zauq (ustad to the poet-emperor Zafar) and the younger Dagh, celebrate the beauty of its women, enjoy its rich foods, and honour its pirs, going back to the most loved, the medieval sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya.
I asked: tell me now what is Delhi?