The Desolation of Delhi: From British Siege to COVID Onslaught

Much of the historical carnage in Delhi has found expression in Urdu poetry — from the maudlin to the political. 

4 min read
Hindi Female

Delhi is no stranger to tragedy. The second wave of the COVID pandemic that ravaged the city in April-May leaving an approximate 25,000 dead, is only the latest in a long saga of death and destruction visiting this city over the centuries. Horrific scenes of people gasping for breath in the face of an acute shortage of pumped oxygen, heaped pyres in make-shift cremation grounds, over-flowing graveyards bring back memories of other, older, tragedies, of near Biblical proportions that have ravaged Delhi in relentless waves.

This Delhi, our present-day modern megapolis, is said to be the 11th Delhi built on the ruins of its past Delhies.

Successive waves of Jats, Mongols, Afghans, Rohillas, Marathas, British attacks, followed by the horrific communal violence in the years leading up to the partition, the outflow of the inhabitants of Shahjahanabad, the influx of ‘refugees’, the sprouting of refugee camps, the looting of evacuee properties, and more recently the Sikh ‘riots’ — as they were dubbed in 1984 and the North East Delhi ‘riots’ of 2020 — have time and again wreaked unimaginable havoc in the lives of ordinary citizens.


Delhi’s Misfortunes As Expressed In ‘Shehr Ashob’

Much of this carnage has found expression in Urdu poetry over the years, ranging from the morosely maudlin to the overtly political. So, if there is a Hakim Agha Jan Aish declaiming the fate of Delhi with a sweeping statement such as:

Nahi.n haal-e-Dehlii sunaane ke qaabil
Ye qissa hai aansuu bahaane ke qaabil

The state of Delhi is not worthy of recounting
This is a story fit only for the shedding of tears

There is also Daagh Dehelvi referring to the Purabiyas, the (uncouth) men from the East who unleashed mayhem upon the city on the orders of the British occupiers:

Ghazab mein aayi rayyat bala mein shehr aaya
Yeh Purabi nahi aaye khuda ka qahar aaya

Calamity has seized the populace, misfortune befallen the city
The coming of the Purabiyas has spelt God’s doom for the city

In Urdu, there has existed a body of poetry known as ‘shehr ashob’, literally meaning ‘misfortunes of the city’, to express political and social decline and turmoil, written for the misfortunes that had beset great cities such as Lucknow and Delhi.

While much of this genre of poetry was melodramatic, self-pitying and exaggerated with a great deal of rhetoric and play upon words in the best traditions of elegiac poetry such as nauha, marsiya and soz, shehr ashob also afforded ample opportunities for the poet to paint graphic word pictures of what he saw and experienced at first hand.

Using the conventional imagery of the Persian-Arabic tradition, shehr ashob allowed the poet to speak of his personal sorrows and losses while, ostensibly, bemoaning a crumbling social order.


The Havoc & Destruction Unleashed Upon Delhi

A collection of 40 poems called Fughan-e-Dehli (The Lament of Delhi) presented a graphic picture of the havoc and destruction wrought first by the mutineers from Meerut and then the wrath unleashed by the British forces bent upon vengeance after the siege and sack of Delhi in 1857.

Muhammad Sadruddun Khan Azurdah, a poet, scholar and magistrate, attacks the people of the Fort and holds them responsible for the calamity:

Aafat is shehr mein quile ki badaulat aayi
Waan ke aamal se dilli ki bhi shaamat aayi
Kaale Meerut se kya aaye ki shaamat aayi

Misfortune befell the city because of the fort
Due to their evil deeds retribution came upon Delhi
Calamity arrived with the black men from Meerut

On 20 September 1857, Delhi fell. British soldiers entered the Jama Masjid, desecrated it and set about unleashing the most terrible atrocities.

In one week, 25,000 people were killed, the rebels and their sympathisers summarily executed, 160,000 inhabitants driven out of the city limits and forced to camp in the open countryside.

Qazi Fazal Husain Afsurdah holds the soldiers and spies guilty for the madness that spirals out of control and catches both the ‘guilty’ and the ‘innocent’:

Fauj kya aayi qayamat aayi
Mukhbiron ne kar diye fitne barpa
Begunah aur baguna pakda gaya

Calamity came with the coming of the soldiers
The spies added fire to the fury
Both the guilty and the innocent were arrested


A City in Ruins

Ruing the slaughter of an age (ek jahan qatl hua), Zaheer Dehlvi writes:

People have been pulled out of their homes
Corpses line the road, layers upon layers
Neither grave, nor shroud, nor mourners are left

When the dust of the Ghadar has settled, what remains is a city in ruins. As the 19th century draws to a close, Altaf Husain Hali, opens his Marsiya-e Dehlii (An Elegy to Delhi) thus:

Tazkira Dehlii-e-marhuum kaa ai dost na chhed
Na sunaa jaa.egaa ham se ye fasaana hargiz

O friend, I beseech you, speak not of the Delhi that is no more
I shall not be able to hear this story at any cost

In prose, there is Shahid Ahmad Dehelvi’s Dehli ki Bipda (The Misfortune of Delhi), a bitter, first-hand account of a once-proud resident of the city who felt forced to flee his home and the madness and mayhem he witnessed.

As we, in Delhi, wait for the third wave to hit us, we are reminded of another instance from our city’s past. On 22 March 1739, when Nadir Shah ordered the massacre of Delhi’s citizens, over 20,000 men, women and children were killed in cold blood in a few hours. The figure of the cruel invader watching blood flow like water in the streets of Delhi captured the imagination of generations of poets.

Kasey na maand ke deegar ba tegh e naaz kushi,
Chunee ke zinda kuni khalq ra wa baaz kushi

This is what an old nobleman from Delhi is believed to have said to Nadir Shah after the slaughter of Delhi. Roughly translated, it means 'You will have to revive them if you want to kill them again, for you have all but decimated them.'


(Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:   Delhi   Urdu poetry   1984 Sikh riots 

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