The Imperial City of Delhi

In December 1855, Mr George Beresford sat down at his desk and wrote the following words,

The book was published in 1856, by subscription and the first pages are devoted to listing the 114 names of those who had paid, in advance for a copy of Mr Beresford’s book. Lieutenant E.D.F. Lewis of the 17th BNI, Officiating Adjutant 1st Regiment, Sultanpore, to the delight of the author no doubt, paid for 6 copies. He was not alone – Mr Parry of Lucknow ordered 6, while Captain Matheson subscribed for 5. This book, with its 75 pages of descriptions of Delhi would travel far and wide, finding its way to homes and camps in Bannu on the North West Frontier Province, to Bhagalpur in Bihar, to the lonely outreaches of Sylhet and the lofty heights of Simla. From Lucknow to Benares, to Cawmpore and Calcutta, Mr Beresford had written a book at least some of India wanted.

Nor was Mr George Beresford a simple amateur with kindly well-wishers. When he was not managing the Bank of Delhi, he was pursuing his many interests as a learned Oriental scholar, a keen archaeologist and one of the early photographers of the 19th century. His book reflects his passion – to give his readers an insight into the Imperial City of Delhi, its magnificent history and wonderous sights. It was “the modern city of Delhi was founded by Emperor Shah Jehan about the year 1620 A.D.” and built from and on the ruins of the 7 preceding cities which was the focus of his book.

Delhi contains many good houses, mostly built of brick, amongst others is the Palace of the late Begum Sumroo, situated in the centre of an extensive garden near the Chandnee Chowk; it is now occupied by the Delhi Bank. The principal street, called the Chandnee Chowk, is probably the finest in the East…It as well as some the other principal streets, is well drained, swept and watered daily…” He takes visitors to Delhi on a veritable tour in the first few pages, from Chandni Chowk to the Jamma Masjid which “always presents a crowded and busy scene…” and then onto Khanum bazaar “where may be obtained looking glasses, sandalwood boxes, Benares and Delhi toys…The north of the masjid the shops were mostly those of cot leg and wedding box makers, fireworks and confectionaries. He recommends most sincerely “the street leading from the Jumma Masjid to the Ajmere gate,” as “one of the best in the city.” Here, a great number of bangle makers plied their trade, next to iron and brass merchants, settled alongside stores selling cooking ware with exotic names, “lotahs and towahs.” Eventually, the visitor would find himself in the vegetable market and then onto the west end of Chandni Chowk with the “somewhat ruinous mosque called the Futtehpoorie Masjid…”

From here it was but a short walk towards the Lahore Gate, each side of the road crammed with shops devoted to grain merchants and druggists “the vicinity of the latter being unpleasantly indicated by the powerful odour of assafoetida.” He takes the visitors past the Delhi Magazine which, (after the rather unfortunate incident in Benares in 1850 when the magazine boats containing gunpowder and arms blew up), contained but a small quantity of that “dangerous material….and as further protection, lightning conductors have been erected over the building..” They now wander past the gates of Delhi College, which in Mr Beresford’s estimation was something of an “irregular building” but as the visitors were nearing Cashmere Gate, they could pause to look at Skinner’s – St. James’ Church, with the Skinner residence directly opposite, and then behind the church on the banks of the river, the Delhi Gazette Press. This was, in 1855, the extent of the modern city of Delhi.

However, Mr Beresford wanted to show his readers the wonders of Delhi, beyond the markets and the gates, the artisans and the merchants. He takes them headlong into a long description of the Jamma Masjid, however not without first obtaining admission from “the Commandant of the Palace Guards.” He then rushes them onto The Palace where he admonishes Emperor Aurangzeb for his religious prejudices having removed and destroyed two stone elephants which graced the Delhi Gate and “at the same, he ordered the place where they stood to be enclosed by a screen of red sandstone, which strengthened, if it did not beautify the approaches to the palace…” He then marvels at the mosaic paintings executed by one Austin de Bordeaux who had defrauded several princes in Europe with fake gems which he had himself made. A wanted man in Europe, the Florentine Bordeaux found a refuge in the court of Shah Jehan at Delhi where he used his artistic mastery to decorate the Public Hall of Audience – Diwan Aum-with flowers and birds and a picture of himself playing the violin..

From the album “Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi” The Diwan-i ‘Am from the west -Sir Thomas Metcalfe

Mr Beresford then transports his readers to a Delhi which even in his time no longer existed, to the opulence and spectacle of the Moghul court at the height of its power.

A long description of the famed Dewan Khas or Hall of Audience exclusive for the reception of nobility follows and the history of the long-lost Peacock Throne. In 1855, the Palace was home to Bahadur Shah, his family and courtiers – much of the grounds were still private and Beresford now leads his visitors to the Imperial City a little further afield half a mile away, to Feroze Shah’s Lat.

The fortress of Feroze Shah was already a ruin in Beresford’s time but was best known, not for the remaining buildings but for the impressing stone pillar or Lat.
“The first sensation on viewing this immense block of stone is that of wonder, as to when, where and how it could have been quarried, and next by what means it was raised to its present position.” Nor is a simple pillar – it is richly decorated with an inscription of “very ancient character.”

Photograph of Firozshah Tughlaq’s Lat in Delhi from the ‘Earl of Jersey Collection’ taken by Samuel Bourne ca 1860

The pillar which stands 42 feet high is made of polished sandstone and dates from the 3rd Century BC. Constructed under the patronage of Ashoka , this and other pillars like it are known today under the more common name of Ashokan pillar. This particular example was moved from Topra, in the Ambala district (now in Haryana) by Firoz Shah Tughlaq (r. 1351 to 1388) to his new city, Firuzabad, that he founded in 1354. How the pillar was brought to its position could be gleaned, informs Mr Beresford, from the translation of Captain H. Lewis of the Bengal Artillery of the Shems-i-Seraj Ufeef’s biography of the Emperor Feroze Shah.

Mr Beresford’s love of archaeology is seemingly boundless. He holds forth a small but interesting description of another pillar, unseemingly blown up in the powder explosion but of which five pieces were recovered out of the ruins of an old well and stand on “roadside in front of the Maharaj Hindu Rao’s residence to the west of the city…”

“The pieces of the pillar were transported for safekeeping to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta in 1866, but were brought back and restored in its original place in 1887, where it still stands today.”

The Feroze Shah pillar was successfully translated by James Prinsep in 1837. However, that is another history altogether.

Mr Beresford, the unrelenting guide, takes his visitors next to the Jantar Mantar or Observatory, one and a half miles from the Ajmere Gate, on the road to what is now called the Qutb Minar. The image below is very likely what Mr Beresford would have seen and what he wanted his readers to experience.

Samrat Yantra, Jantar Mantar, Delhi, early 19th century, source – British Library

His description reads more like a geometrical textbook

“The largest of the buildings is an immense equatorial dial, named by the Rajah the Semrat Yunter, or the prince of dials, the dimensions of the gnomon being as follows:
Length of the hypotenuse ft 118 5
” ” base,………… 104 0
” ” perpendicular,… 56 75

The Delhi observatory was one of five built 130 years before George Beresford wrote his book, during the reign of Mahomed Shah by Raja Jai Singh of Amber, who evinced “a great zeal for the science of astronomy.” All the structures in Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Mathura and Varanasi were all completed between 1724 and 1735 and their sole purpose was to compile astronomical tables and as a way to predict not just the times but the movements of the sun, moon and planets.
The accuracy of these immense instruments did not fail to impress Mr Beresford and his admiration for this long-deceased astronomer is evident as he includes a translation to the preface of the astronomical tables calculated by the Raja and named “Zeej Mahomed Shassy” in honour of the reigning emperor.

From mysterious pillars to bewildering observatories, Mr Beresford now relentlessly turns his attention to the Mausoleum of Sufder Jung, five miles from the Imperial City of Delhi, a structure which resembles a miniature Taj Mahal before spiriting his readers off to the wonders of the Kutub Minar complex, 11 miles from the Kashmir Gate “near to the village of Mehrowlee.”

Sudjer Jung’s Mausoleum in Delhi,” from the Illustrated London News, 1857
Author’s own photograph, 2009

The 22-foot high iron pillar of Delhi which weighs more than 6 tonnes is thought to have been fashioned during the time of Chandragupta Vikramaditya (375–413) though other estimates are putting it at 912 BCE. Initially the iron pillar was the centrepiece of a Jain temple complex which was destroyed by Qutb-ud-din Aybak. He then used the rubble in building the Qutub Minar and Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque. As the pillar is 98% pure wrought iron it stands as a testament to the skill of Indian blacksmiths and superior material has withstood corrosion for over 1600 years. Qutb-ud-din Aybak left it well alone.

The Qutab Minar. Watercolour by an Indian painter between 1800 and 1850
The Qutb Minar, ca 1865

Mr Beresford then draws his readers to a very different structure, the Qutb Minar.

Author’s own photograph, 2009

“This extraordinary Pillar is unique of its kind, and stands alone in unrivalled majesty; in height it exeeds the loftiest column in Europe…” A minaret and Victory Tower, it is an elaborately decorated 27 sided structure 240 feet high, five storeys tall with 379 steps inside which lead to the top. Construction commenced in 1193 by Qutb-ud-din Aybak to celebrate the victory of Mohammed Ghori over the Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan, in 1192. Serving as Ghori’s general at the time of the conquest, Aybak would decorate the lowest portion of the tower with eulogies to Ghori. However, Aybak, after the untilely death by assasination of Ghori in 1206, would himself establish the Delhi Sultanate and start the Malmuk Dynasty. The tower essentially marked the beginning of Muslim rule in India.
His son-in-law and successor would add the next three floors, however lightning would destroy the top storey in 1368 and the remaining two floors would be replaced by Firoz Shah. Unlike the other red sandstone fronts, Firoz Shah would face his additions with white marble. The inside of the tower has intricate carvings of the verses from the Quran.

Although Mr Beresford recommends exploring the complex at length he advises the reader to miss the ruins of Toghlukabad, “…unless the visitor has an abundance of leisure….as there is but little of interest, and he must travel over a wretched road to obtain a view of them.”

Mr Beresford, ever thorough, now whisks his readers off to the Tomb of Humayun or as he writes, “Humaioon” which he then follows with a lengthy history of the Moghul Emperor Humayun, his virtues, his victories and his death. On the road back to Delhi, Beresford points out more sites – the Purana Kila or old Fort of Delhi, the Royal Gardens of Shalimar, which “have long since exhibited a melancholy picture of the fallen state of the house of Timour.”

Humayon’s Tomb, Delhi with the Barber’s Tomb in the foreground
Author’s own photograph, 2009

As abruptly as it began, so ends Mr Bereford’s book. There is no closure, just those last lines to the Shalimar Gardens. Perhaps Mr Beresford intended a second book or had in mind to write a longer history of Delhi for the discerning subscribers.

We will never know.

The learned Orientalist, keen archeaologist and avid photographer would find his death in Delhi barely 18 months after the publication of his book, standing on the roof of the Delhi Bank with his wife Sarah and their daughters, fighting a losing battle against the bazaar mob, in his sight the city for which he had so much admiration. His writings, his photographs and archaeolgical studies would be lost in the fires of the 11th of May 1857. Of his subscribers – the 114 names on the first pages of his book- many would be dead not long after Mr Beresford, those unlucky enough to be in Delhi would follow his fate the very same day.

The book stands as a tribute to the Imperial City of Delhi and ironically, as its eulogy. The Delhi of Mr Beresford disappeared forever on the 11th of May, 1857.

The Handbook of the Imperial City of Delhi – G. Beresford (1856)