“THEY used to write missives reviling and insulting him, seal them, and inscribe them, ‘By the head of the Master of the World, none but he may read this'.” - The Travels of Ibn Battuta in the Near East, Asia and Africa, 1325-1354
Delhi has a rich tradition of political protests and this was one of the ingenious ways by which the people showed their anger. Their ire was directed at Mohammad bin Tughlaq, who ruled Delhi from AD 1325 to 1351. Ibn Battuta, the famous Moroccan traveller, who was a member of Tughlaq’s court for several years, vividly describes the modus operandi of the feisty protesters. At night, when the city sleeps, the protesters would throw their letters into the audience hall of the palace through the windows. “When the sultan broke the seal, he found them full of insults and abuse.”
Tormented by this fly-in stream of insult-bombs and unable to pin down the blame on any single person or group, Tughlaq came up with the idea of punishing the entire population of Delhi and ordered all of them to move to Daulatabad in Deccan, thousands of miles away.
But, the people refused. In response, Battuta says the sultan proclaimed that “no person should remain in it [Delhi] after three nights. The majority of the citizens left, but some of them hid in their houses. The sultan ordered a search and his slaves found two men in the streets, one of them a cripple and the other blind. They were brought in and he ordered the cripple to be flung from a mangonel and the blind dragged to Daulatabad, a distance of 40 days... all of him that reached Daulatabad was his leg.”
Protests, music, meat and sweets, and, of course, the unbroken tradition of power, all of these have remained the same in Delhi since the days of Tughlaq. For instance, samosas, enjoyed by the sultan and his guests, still rule the snack platter of Delhi’s power elite as well as the aam aadmi. The link is also visible in the city’s neighbourhoods like Siri Fort, Tughlaqabad and Hauz Khas, which are mentioned in Battuta’s chronicles. The water tank in Hauz Khas and the royal mosque at Mehrauli, both recorded with precise details by Battuta, too, have stood the test of time.
Conservationist Jaya Jaitley, who has her office in Hauz Khas, says such neighbourhoods are unique as they have sustained humanity without substantial gaps. She says compared with the elaborate rituals and the cultural refinement of the Tughlaq era, modern Delhi has failed to create its own distinctive culture and architecture. “The Tughlaqs could have remained happy with the earlier power zones. Instead, they created their own style and contributed their bit to the history of the city by adding a new capital zone. Our contribution, however, is the crazy urban boom of Delhi. The only architecture we have contributed is that of the glass and chrome structure of the malls that are not rooted here,” she says.
Battuta paints the picture of a water-sufficient Delhi, evident from the descriptions of Mehrauli’s Shamsi Talab and of the tank in Hauz Khas, both of which were major water systems of the city in the medieval era. This, unfortunately, is no longer the case, says urban historian Sohail Hashmi. Jaitley warns that water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource and the ancient water bodies should be safeguarded for the future of the city.
Jaitley, however, believes that politics represents the biggest continuity from Battuta’s era to the present. The other continuity is the cohabitation of violence with non-violence. She says although sultans like Tughlaq destroyed a lot of monuments in their zeal to enforce Islamic rule, they left untouched artefacts that did not interfere with their faith. This is evident from the metallic pillar near Qutb Minar. The pillar, believed to be erected during the Gupta era, was not adorned with human figurines and, therefore, was spared. However, given the rapid spurt of population, Delhi needs to wake up to the pressure it exerts on its heritage sites even without actively disturbing them, says Jaitley.
Battuta, however, is criticised for the pompous description of his own skills in the Tughlaq court. Contemporary historians believe that his description of the forcible relocation of the citizens of Delhi by Tughlaq, too, was highly exaggerated. Yet, in recording the landmarks and lifestyles of medieval Delhi, Battuta seems to be truthful and to the point.