The following article is a replug on World Heritage Day.
The history of Delhi goes way back. Naturally, now that people want to know about what each corner of the capital holds in terms of history, heritage walks are the answer. A few spots in Delhi have made name being host to such walks. However, there is a lesser-known heritage walk which some groups conduct in Delhi. It is called a walk through the Necropolis of Delhi. The walk takes one around several old tombs spread over a large area in South Delhi. One such heritage site is in Ram Krishna Puram, in South Delhi. A site in the vicinity of which I grew as a child.
This five-tomb complex is located in Sector 5 of R.K Puram, which since the 1960s, has been a colony of the babus working in the Government offices. It has always been a quiet and somewhat sleepy place. To some extent, it still is. While growing up in the late seventies and eighties, we knew this place as just as ‘Gumbad’. There were several other such structures in other sectors of R K Puram too.
We referred to them all simply as Gumbad. These perceptibly old structures had a forlorn look about them. They were all crumbling down and in different stages of decay. They were also all nameless. No one knew, least of it us, about the history of these structures, their makers and about the people who rest there. Overgrown with wild grass and shrubs, they served as hangouts for antisocial elements and no one else dared to venture there. We as kids, sometimes wandered about in those structures, feeling adventurous.
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Recently, I visited that Gumbad in Sector 5, R K Puram. I was surprised to see that not only the structure but the entire complex, including the open areas around it, have been cleaned and restored, with well-laid out lawns. Now, this structure had a name too (there was a well-designed signboard announcing its name), and its place in history had been fixed.
The place is called Wazirpur Gumbad Complex, having a total of five tombs of different shapes and sizes, belonging to the Lodhi Dynasty period (1451-1526). The complex also has a very impressive looking, and expertly restored baoli, one of the best I have seen in Delhi.
When we saw it as kids, the baoli used to fill us with wonder and allowed our imagination to take over. Its mysterious wild vegetation growth covered steps seemed to lead to some hidden underground world, where ghosts and goblins lurked in wait. Today, the whole complex is a well-maintained picnic spot.
Another such tomb, with a huge and impressive dome, has also been restored and identified with a signboard as ‘Bijri Khan Ka Maqbara’ in Sector 3, R.K Puram.
I have often imagined the visual spectacle the city of Delhi would have presented to a traveller who would have entered it in the middle of the 19th century. Except for the population centres of the walled city of Shahjahanabad and the Mehrauli area, it must have looked like a vast plain with well spread-out clusters of villages interspersed with numerous forlorn-looking monuments.
Today, with Delhi having expanded and overgrown in all directions in a largely unplanned manner, most of these old monuments have almost lost their visual presence. In this busy cosmopolitan, many of these monuments have receded into oblivion with their purpose and significance having been lost to the general public.
If we look closely, Delhi’s vast plane is dotted with scores of such monuments, built over the last millennia. Three of these, namely Qutub Minar, Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, are on the UNESCO world heritage list. Next in line are some better-known ones, that have made it to the national or state-protected list. That leaves scores of other monuments that are lying unknown, little known and largely unappreciated.
In recent years, some of these monuments got some right attention from the administration. Some have been restored and some others got back some sort of identity. Furthermore, many little-known monuments today have been bestowed with information boards that highlight their historical significance.
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Just before the Covid 19 pandemic, there was a joint effort of the Tourism Department, Govt. of NCT of Delhi, Delhi Tourism and Transportation Development Corporation and INTACH’s Delhi chapter. Under the project, signages have been installed near monuments which till now were only little known by the residents and the visitors. A total of 32 such historically important sites were identified to be highlighted. Significantly, these sites were witness to some important historical events which shaped the city of Delhi as we see it today.
R.V Smith, a champion of lesser-known Delhi monuments
Installation of these signages was preceded by the passing away of a historian, a storyteller and a writer, who was the champion of these little-known monuments. His name was Ronald Vivian Smith, known popularly as R V Smith. R V Smith enjoyed and was knowledgeable enough to remove centuries of dust and anonymity settled on these Delhi monuments and instead, cover them with a cloak woven with fables, anecdotes and some timeless perspective.
He passed away on April 30, 2020, at the age of 82. With his passing away, these lesser-known monuments of Delhi lost a long-standing and trusted friend. Of course, it was an irreparable loss for the lovers of history, culture, stories and fables, like I and many who saw and fell in love with this city of Delhi through his writings.
Through his narration which brimmed with anecdotes and fables associated with a particular monument, he infused that monument with character and life. Once you have read an account of RV about any such monument, your perspective about that monument changed or better said, improved, in many respects.