To Delhi, from Farghana and Calcutta

February 11 2007

Why the last entry? I have occasional bouts with Chesterton. He is an unfashionable genius, but his image of the early Church “swerving” to avoid Arians on one side and Monophysites on another is unforgettable.


How the Mughals and the British came to Delhi.

Reaching India, as [the British] did, from overseas, and coming there to trade with the inhabitants before they ever dreamed of ruling over them, the English established their first footholds on Indian ground in the seaports Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay; and, of these three British maritime commercial settlements, Calcutta became the first political capital of British India because the East India Company happened to acquire the political dominion over the two great provinces Bengal and Bihar, in the hinterland of Calcutta, some forty or fifty years before they began to make any comparable acquisitions of territory in the hinterlands of Madras and Bombay. Calcutta continued to be the capital of British India for more than a hundred years after the design of bringing all India under British rule had been first conceived by Wellesley (proconsulari munere fungebatur A.D. 1798-1805) and for more than sixty years after this ambition had been achieved. But the gravitational pull of a politically unified sub-continent eventually proved strong enough to draw the seat of the British Indian central government away from Calcutta, where it had been located for the convenience of a British thalassocracy, and to attract it to Delhi, which was the natural site for the capital of a continental empire including the basins of both the Ganges and the Indus.

It was not until 1858 that the British Crown formally displaced the Mughal in India and superseded the East India Company. And not until 1877 that Disraeli made Queen Victoria Empress. But the British didn’t move their capital from Calcutta to ex-Mughal Delhi for another generation after that – not until 1912, under George V.

Delhi was, of course, not merely a natural site; it was also an historic one. The Mughal predecessors of the British rulers of India had governed India from Delhi since the days of Shāh Jahān (imperabat A.D. 1628-59), and before Shāh Jahān’s day they had governed it from the neighbouring city of Agra, which was situated, like Delhi, on the banks of the Upper Jumna. The Mughals, like the British, had been aliens in the Hindu World on which they had imposed a universal state, but, unlike the British, they had never tried to govern India from a site [such as Calcutta] on the threshold across which they had made their entry. It is true that the Mughals had arrived in India as fugitives from their own country; yet, when once they had placed the barrier of the Hindu Kush between themselves and their Uzbeg pursuers, they might have been tempted to establish their seat of government on some site in the highlands of North-Eastern Iran, where the climate, scenery, and fruits would have resembled those of their lost but lovingly remembered Farghānah.

The Mughal Empire was founded when a Timurid prince, Babur, had to flee his domains. Mughal is Persian for Mongol.

Farghana is now both a province and city in eastern Uzbekistan, where it pushes into Kyrgyzstan, north of Tajikistan. Babur’s father was the local ruler there (a descendant of Timur) in the dying days of the Timurid Empire. Wikipedia says of the city now that its “wide, orderly tree-shaded avenues and […] blue-washed 19th century czarist colonial-style houses are said to mimic the appearance of pre-modern and pre-[1966] earthquake Tashkent”.

Babur (ruled 1526-30) extinguished the Lodi Muslim Sultanate in Delhi in 1526 and made his own capital in Agra.

Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) built a walled capital near Agra called Fatehpur Sikri, starting in 1571, with palaces for each of his queens, an artificial lake and water-filled courtyards. But the city, as every tourist knows, was abandoned. The capital moved to Lahore in 1585, and then back to Agra in 1599.

Then, from the time of Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-59), it was Shahjahanabad – or Old Delhi. A new city on an old site. Shah Jahan was also the builder of the Taj Mahal.

It is noteworthy that Bābur and his successors never in fact cast Kābul for the role of an imperial capital.

Though Babur had been forced to establish his rule there in 1504, after the Uzbeks had driven him from Samarkand.

As soon as they found themselves strong enough to descend upon the plains of the Panjab and Hindustan, they not only conquered them; they also immediately planted their seat of government on the sultry banks of the Jumna, in the heart of their newly acquired dominions. On the administrative map of the Mughal Empire, Kābul was merely the local capital of the north-western march and was never the overland equivalent of the maritime capital at Calcutta from which India was ruled by British hands for a century.

No sooner had the British made Delhi their capital than they dreamed, as Shah Jahan had done, of a new city there.

New Delhi was the least necessary thing the British ever did in their Empire, an incredible eleventh-hour project; the greatest Garden City, with its roundabouts and green avenues, in the era of English garden cities, but combining the garden style with a Parisian grandeur.

Its buildings by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker managed to be both European and Mughal – much as the buildings by Italian or French architects in Russia (not even from the reign of Peter the Great onward, but from that of Ivan the Great, more than two centuries before that) had turned out both West European and Russian.

New Delhi became run down after independence, but is now being spruced up, at what eventual cost to the original conception remains to be seen. There seems to be no Singaporean determination to destroy the entire town (which is not yet UNESCO-protected), but minor planning violations in the main Lutyens area are common. The centre of Connaught Circus is being replanned, as a subway station is inserted. The serenity is being spoiled by newly-burgeoning traffic, and the flyovers which the Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit is ordering have a purpose, but make the city less garden-like.

The only British folly to compare with New Delhi, in terms of expense, between the wars was the new naval base in Singapore, which was opened in 1939 – and the fall of Singapore was the most dramatic imperial setback for Britain before her withdrawal from India itself.

A counter-intuitive fact: Delhi is north of Everest.

In a footnote, Toynbee refers us to passages elsewhere in the Study dealing with

the establishment of the capital of the Mughal Empire at Delhi from the reign of Shāh Jahān onwards and […] the previous history of Delhi, first as a frontier fortress of the Hindu World against Muslim aggression and afterwards as the capital of successive Muslim rulers of Hindustan from the Muslim conquest of the Ganges Basin at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the Christian Era down to the replacement of a Lōdī Afghan by a Mughal Turkish rāj in the sixteenth century.

In another footnote, he points out that

Akbar’s attempt to establish a new capital ex nihilo at Fātihpūr Sīkrī was no more successful than his attempt to launch a new higher religion, the Dīn IIāhī.

This was a merging of elements of Islam and Hinduism, and also Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Christianity. He adds:

It is noteworthy that Ikhnaton [sic], who likewise tried and failed to launch a new religion of his own invention, also made a similarly unsuccessful attempt to establish a new capital city at Tall-al-’Amarnah.


A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

17 Responses to “To Delhi, from Farghana and Calcutta”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    “Their lost but lovingly remembered Farghānah.” The word almost sounds like the poetically-untranslatable German word Ferne.

  2. Hiren Says:

    I have been staying in Delhi since 1972 but first time got to know so much about it in one shot. Nice to know. For the future, the way things are going “Ab dilli door nahin”

  3. davidderrick Says:

    For most of his career, Babur was a Timurid prince in search of a kingdom, but not one in India. His advance into India came at the end, and he was Emperor there for only a few years.

  4. […] To Delhi, from Farghana and Calcutta […]

  5. […] A Novel February 22nd, 2007 My post on Delhi reminded me of Khushwant Singh’s Rabelaisian Delhi: A Novel (1990). It romps through centuries, […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    I took the image here from a blog about water,

  7. […] May 15th, 2007 We have met Babur in the post on Delhi. He was the prince of the moribund Timurid empire who, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, […]

  8. […] to this March 2002 article in The South Asian, Lutyens’s New Delhi was put on the list in 2002. Rather worryingly, it is no longer […]

  9. […] Genghis Khan invaded Transoxiana in 1219. Before his death in 1227, he assigned the lands of Western Central Asia to his second son Chagatai, and this region became known as the Chagatai Khanate. In 1369 Timur, of the Barlas tribe, became the effective ruler while continuing the ceremonial authority of Chagatai Khan’s dynasty, and made Samarkand the capital of his future empire. In the map of Uzbekistan, below, you can see Farghana, the home of Babur, which was mentioned in an earlier post. […]

  10. […] is, indeed, the only natural alternative site to Delhi for the location of a capital for the whole of India, and, when the British rulers of India decided […]

  11. […] and Moscow January 11, 2009 The prestige of Delhi […] survived the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire after the death of Awrangzīb so […]

  12. […] and Chandragupta’s work in order to “abolish the Hindu Kush” by establishing their rule from Farghānah to Bihar [c 180 BC-second century CE]; when the Prior Han, feeling their way westward beyond the […]

  13. […] To Delhi, from Farghana and Calcutta […]

  14. davidderrick Says:

    The latest of a succession of Delhis is Gurgaon.

  15. […] To Delhi from Ferghana and Calcutta (old post) […]

  16. davidderrick Says:

    It might be better to describe New Delhi as an Oriental Washington, as Beverley Nichols does in his Verdict on India (1944). He and others criticise its architecture as being rootless and unreal.

  17. […] on Akbar and Christianity, New Statesman, December 19 2005. Post here mentioning Akbar’s attempt to start a new syncretic religion, the Dīn […]

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