Delhi, with its long, continuous history and various cultures, continues to hold the interest of historians, writers, and poets. In an interesting chapter on Delhi in the Routledge Handbook of Asian
(2023, edited by Richard Hu), Pilar Maria Guerrieri, builds on the work of HC Fanshawe(1902, Delhi Past and Present, John Murray) and RE Frykenberg (1986, Delhi through the Ages: Essays in Urban History, Culture and Society, Oxford University Press) and many others talks about Delhi’s nine cities.

There is not much scholarship on the first six cities of Delhi-Qila Rai Pithora, Siri, Tughlaqabad, Jahapanah, Firozabad, and the City of Sher Shah. Shahjahanbad was built in 1648 by Shah Jahan and the frame of reference in Sawaneh-i Dehli is almost intact in its old form. New Delhi, founded in 1911,
when the capital was shifted from Calcutta to Delhi, and Greater Delhi, evolved after the Independence because of the heavy influx of population, completing the picture of an old, vast and populous Delhi that we know today with its history, crowds, chaos and power centres all existing together.

Over the last decade, Ather Farouqui has spoken about and written on various aspects of Delhi’s literary and cultural past. Sawaneh-i Dehli (A Biography of Delhi) is the third book on Delhi translated by Farouqui after Delhi in Historical Perspectives and Bazm-i Aakhir (The Last Gathering), besides The
Life and Poetry of Bahadur Shah Zafar
, the four books reveal interesting aspects of the rich history of Delhi. Like in his other books, in this book too, Farouqui not only translates from the original text written in Urdu which has changed quite a bit now, but he also uses his knowledge of historical research to cross-check many details in the book in hopes to clear some misconceptions about the identity and personality of Sawaneh-I Dehli’s author Mirza Ahmad Akhtar Gorgani.

The manuscript and its author

Relying on information collected from Syed Zillur Rahman’s book History of Unani Medicine in Delhi, which Farouqui subjects to close scrutiny, it is learnt that Gorgani, the grandson of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, left Delhi in 1857 and after living in several cities finally settled in Kairana. He practised medicine and wrote a number of books.

Farouqi does not agree with the view that the manuscript of Sawaneh-I Dehli, first published in 1894, was a secret document about the fateful year of 1857 which finally revealed Gorgani’s identity as a prince. “While this fable has been circulating in India and Pakistan by word of mouth, it appears patently concocted after one has studied the book.” It is unbelievable, Farouqui argues, that anyone could have lived in Kairana, a place close to Delhi, incognito. Moreover, Farouqui conjectures, Gorgani might have settled in Kairana with the consent of the British. Closely decoding “the subservient tone in which he has described British officials”, Farouqui is also of the opinion that the British might have endorsed the project of the writing of this book.

Farouqui is also unsparing in his criticism of the British for creating many fictions about the Mughals and the events of 1857 to justify their rule in India. A serious reader of 19th-century historical and literary sources, Farouqui does not agree with the British view of the later Mughals “as powerless, pleasure-seeking, and hedonistic”. He remarks, “The Mughals, to the very last, were highly intelligent, cultured, and sophisticated. It is a British fiction that since the later Mughals were no good, a vacuum was created that the East India Company was obliged to step in and fill.”

Using his training in reading old Urdu text Farouqui relies on Urdu Academy’s text for his translation because it was supposedly based on the original text preserved in Hardinge Library. Taking his inevitable potshots at Urdu Academy’s alleged ignorance about “the rules of textual criticism”, as the Urdu Academy’s text was illegible in many places, Farouqui still had to do some guesswork to translate and edit the original text.

Observations about Delhi’s history and rulers

Following an established custom of beginning a book, in the preface of the book Gorgani thanks god, the Prophet and presents himself in extreme humility. Then he begins his account of Delhi with its ancient history and mentions Indraprastha and the Pandavas complaining that “unfortunately, the Hindus did not correctly document their history.” Providing a quick review of its various rulers and events in ancient and medieval times some of the details arrest attention. He talks about the city of Delhi “spread over a radius of seven miles”, certainly a far cry from the vast metropolis of today. In 1650, “a boundary wall of bricks and mortar was built at the expenditure of one and a half lakh”. After this wall could not survive the rains, another stronger wall of stone was built with an expenditure of Rs 3.5 lakhs.

The author of Sawaneh-i Dehli is not very precise about the years of accessions of various rulers of Delhi and the dates of the construction of various monuments in Delhi. Two tables carefully prepared by Marghub Abidi provide details of differences in the dates of the accession and death of Delhi rulers and the years of the construction of important monuments of Delhi documented in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aasar-us Sanadeed and Gorgani’s Sawaneh-i Dehli. The difference is usually one or two years though in some cases it appears more glaring. Thus the year of construction of Maqbara Safdar Jung is mentioned as 1650 by Gorgani and 1753 by Sir Syed, Maqbara Sultan Sikandar Lodi as 1373 by Gorgani and 1517 by Sir Syed.

In the second chapter of the book, Gorgani dwells on the maharajas who ruled over Delhi. In some cases, his exaggerated precision follows the pattern used in many ancient Indian texts. For instance, he writes that the dynasty of Raja Birban “ruled for 423 years, 6 months and 23 days.” In other places, there are monotonous details about various rulers of Delhi before Raja Prithviraj Chauhan, known as Rai Pithora. An issue of some controversy now, Gorgani categorically states the Central Asian origins of the Aryans who gradually pushed “the land’s original inhabitants, the Dravidians, to the southern part of the vast country.” His account of the British rule in India is very fast-paced though he pauses to mention important events like the beginning of the telegraph system, railways, the royal proclamation by Queen Victoria and the assassination of British viceroy Lord Mayo by Sher Ali Afridi, a prisoner in Port Blair.

Translator’s notes and comments

Farouqui engages with Sawaneh-i Dehli very minutely and critically through his detailed notes at the end of the chapters which clarify some ambiguities in the original text. At other times he contradicts Gorgani’s description and interpretation of historical personages and details. A very important historical figure today, not merely for ideological reasons, Gorgani’s description of Prithviraj Chauhan surprises a modern reader. Gorgani writes that “allegedly, he was more interested in enjoying a life of ease and comfort and handed over the reins of governance to his chiefs and courtiers.” Quoting Satish Chandra’s famous book Medieval India, Farouqui faults Gorgani’s account as subjective and presents Prithviraj “as a great fighter”, “a patron of poets and pandits”, and a military commander with “many victories to his credit.” Gorgani’s account of the Mughal dynasty as having ruled for 498 years with 26 rulers is also corrected by Farouqui when he writes that the dynasty lasted 331 years and had 19 rulers.

Interestingly, at many places in the text, Farouqui had to do a reverse translation. Thus the text of the contract which the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II signed ceding Diwani’s right to East India Company was “sourced from a book of history in English” but appears in Urdu translation in Sawaneh-i Dehli. It has been translated back into English from Urdu by Farouqui. Similarly, the correspondence of Lord Wellesley about a proposal to fix the pension of Shah Alam II is translated back into English from Urdu by Farouqui.

Unqualified praise of the British

Gorgani follows the British periodisation of Indian history dividing it into “the Hindu period” and “the Muslim period”. He praises the British rule in unqualified terms. Thus talking about the period of emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar he writes: “The country was practically governed by the English, and peace and tranquillity prevailed everywhere. The people were safe and at liberty to lead their lives free of worry. The ruling government was just, and the subjects were happy and content.” Gorgani is critical of the soldiers who rose in revolt in 1857 calling them “imprudent”, “mischievous”, “no less than barbarians”, who “settled their scores on the pretext of the revolt”. Commenting on the suffering of the populace of Delhi during the revolt of 1857 he notes that “thousands lost their lives.”

As against the behaviour of the rebel soldiers, Gorgani writes, “The British authorities showed exemplary generosity and open-heartedness at that deadly moment of hunger and want. God will give them compensation for the noble act. In keeping with the holy spirit, they granted each of the afflicted a stipend of five rupees per month.” Not demanding and expecting any equality with the British and accepting the inferior status of the subjects, Gorgani turns very servile in his attitude to the British rulers: “I have no hesitation in saying that India has been fortunate to have a government full of compassion and restraint. This state of affairs places an outstanding obligation on us to follow the command of our rulers and pledge our loyalty to them.”

Not a great book of history, Sawaneh-i Dehli is an important book nevertheless to see the power and hold of colonialism on the minds of the people, the book revealing more about the time it was written than the history it purports to tell. Are there some lessons for our present historians in Sawaneh-i Dehli vis a vis their relationship to power?

Mohammad Asim Siddiqui is a professor in the Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.

Sawaneh-i Dehli: Biography of Delhi, Mirza Ahmed Akhtar Gorgani, Translated from the Urdu by Ather Farouqui, Roli Books.