Dec 15, 2007

About Queen Harish : Some History

Queen Harish feels nostalgic of a time she has never lived ... Nevertheless, her 21st century lifestyle reflects it, as much as these quotes by William Dalrymple in "The City of Djinns".

The trouble was that, unlike most other periods of Delhi's history, there seemed to be very few good primary sources. There were the usual dubious court chronicles, but the accounts of the different palace intrigues – the competing factions -, the endless rounds of murders, blindings, stranglings, stabblings and poisonings, seemed only to confuse, not in any way to illuminate the age. It was Mozaffar Alam, the Mughal historian, who told me about a book which became my favorite Delhi texts : the Muraqqa'-e- Delhi.

The Muraqqa' is a wonderfully gossipy account of Delhi taken from the diary of an impressionable young visitor named Dargah Quli Khan. Khan was a Muslim nobleman from the Deccan who paid an extended visit to Delhi from 1737 to 1741 as part of the entourage of Safdarjung's great rival : Asaf Jah, the first Nizam of Hyderabad.

For all its humiliating decline, khan saw Delhi as a vibrant and sophisticated city, fill of glamour and intrigue, the beauty of its palaces and shrines, he thought, was rivaled only by the strangeness of the city's society and its dazzling complement of poets, dancers and mystics. His account brings the whole city alive: the dry bones of the period are suddenly fleshed out and take on a recognizable human face. Typical of the account is the picture he gives of the festival held at the great Sufi shrine of the Qadam Sharif, which sheltered the supposed footprint of the Holy Prophet.

"Every Thursday the courtyard of the Dargah is so full of visitors that it is difficult even to approach the place and touch it,' he writes. 'Pilgrims and ascetics come from countries and cities far and near to seek the fulfillment of their desires."

But when Khan goes on to describe the crowds a little more closely, this picture of a prayerful pilgrimage undergoes something of a transformation: "On seeing beautiful women carrying in their hands porcelain bottles of perfume, the crowds become uncontrollable …the ecstatic people move around as though being swept into a whirlpool…gradually the singers gather and the Mehfil (gathering) becomes gay. Men and beautiful women also join in. Pleasure seekers retire to the corners and find the privacy to enjoy their desired company."

If this sort of thing could take place at the most sacred shrine in Delhi, then the festivals at the lesser Dargahs – such as that which grew up around the grave of the saintly Emperor Bahadur Shah 1 – could be even more lively. Quli Khan is clearly not sure wether he should be disapproving or excited about the orgy busily going on all around him.

(At night) chandeliers of all kinds are hung so that the place dazzles like sunlight and overshadows the moon.

Hand in hand, the lovers roam the streets while (outside) the drunken and the debauched revel in all kinds of perversities. Group of windsome lads violate the faith of the believers with acts which are sufficient to shake the very roots of piety. There are beautiful faces as far as the eye can see. All around prevails a world of impiety and immorality. Both nobles and plebians quench the thirst of their lust here.

Having described the main shrines and Sufi festivals and mystics, khan goes on to list the city's secular personalities: the nobles, the musicians and the great femmes fatales. These figures range from Azam Khan, 'one of the chief nobles of the Empire' whose principal claim to fame is his vast harem and his insatiable appetites ('a pederast, he is also found of beautiful girls…whenever he is informed of the availability of a lad or a fine wench he endeavours to be the buyer'); through Taqi, 'one of the famous eunuchs and the ringleader of the conjurors of Hindustan' ('his house is the abode of delicate beauties, some as fair as the dawn while others are as dark as volatile passion'); to the great musicians such as the blind drummer Shah Nawaz who played his own stomach as if it was a tabla drum, or the disgusting Surkhi, a glutton who 'snorred and expectorated loudly' but whose horrible habits were overlooked by his hosts because of the unique beauty of his voice ('as melodious as a nightingale'), his brilliant mimicry and his ready wit.

Best of all were the dancers and courtesans –beautiful women like Ad Begum whose speciality was to appear naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one noticed:'she decorates her legs with beautiful drawnings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them; in place of the cuffs she draws flowers and petals in ink exactly as found in the finest cloth of Rum.'.

The most famous of the courteseans was Nur Bai, whose popularity was such that everynight the elephants of the great amirs completely blocked the narrow lanes outside her house.

Even the greatest nobles could only gain admittance by sending in presents of large sum of money: 'whosoever gets enamoured of her gets sucked into the whirlpool of her demands,' writes Dargah Quli Khan, 'and brings ruin upon himself and his house.

Many people have become paupers after their association with her but the pleasure of her company can only be had as long as one is in possession of riches to bestow on her.' Meeting Nur Bai was clearly one of the highlights of Khan's visit to Delhi and at the end of his description he quietly drops in the fact that he 'had the good fortune of spending some time in her company…'

But if it was the courteseans that captured Dargah Quli Khan's imagination, his real admiration was reserved to the Delhi poets. One of the most interesting description in the Muraqqa' is of the famous Mehfils, the literary or musical evening for which the city was then renowned.

'Although Hazeen (a Persian Sufi) leads a life of purity and charm, there is always a large crowd gathered in his house,' wrote Khan. 'In the evening, the courtyard of his house is swept and sprinkled with rosewater and colourful carpets are spread out on a raised platform. The great poets then start the recitation of their work. Hazeen's verses make the audience ecstatic and inspire them to polish their own skills.'

Other Mehfils, however, attracted crowds for non-literary reasons:

(The poet Miran) is humble, well-mannered and hospitable.(But) he is also a connoisseur in the art of attracting charming new faces… As a result Miran's Mehfils always attract the beautiful and their lovers. Dancers begin to assemble from morning onwards… A large number of pretty young lads are lured to the show including both Hindu and Muslim catamites. Good looking women gather in such large numbers that the mere sight of them appeases the appetite, although (of course) for the lecherous this does not suffice.

Khan was in Delhi in 1739, during the Persian invasion, and he witnessed the bloody massacre when Nadir Shah's soldiers went berserk and massacred 150,000 Delhi-wallahs. In most histories the massacre is said to mark the end Mughal Delhi's greatness, yet Khan clearly sees the invasion as only a temporary setback for the city. Certainly, it dimmed the brightness of some of the Mehfils-one noble was forced to 'lay his capital at the feet of the Emperor' during the invasion and afterwards his Mehfils are described as 'subdued'- but there is no indication that Khan regarded the invasion as the end of an era; only with hindsight would that become clear. Instead, despite writing soon after Nadir Shah had returned to Persia, the overwhelming impression that Khan tries to convey is still of a bawdy city of joy, a place remarkable for its wild parties, its lively celebrations and orgiastic festivals.

It is, of course, an image of the city very far removed from the way most Delhi people conceive their home today. Modern Delhi is thought of either as a city of grey bureaucracy, or as a metropolis of hard-working, nouveau-riche Punjabis. It is rarely spoken of as a lively city, and never a promiscuous one. Yet, as I discovered that December, the bawdiness of Safdarjung's Delhi does survive, kept alive by one particular group of Delhi-wallahs.

You can still find them in the dark gullies of the Old City-if you know where to look.

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