A historian with mild manners and a loud voice organizes heritage walks in Delhi all year round. He attracts a small but loyal crowd who follow him week after week along the corridors of yesteryears as he regales them with stories of times long gone. This week I join that eclectic group of people who woke up bright and early on Sunday morning to walk around a famous historical garden in Delhi.
There is a lady with fiery silver hair. A tall gentleman whose wife helps refugees in Tunisia. Two architecture students whose pens always hover in anticipation over their notebooks. Two sisters wearing similar jackets who studied in a school very close to the garden. A mother with her child. A man with his mother.
We start in 1936. The origin story. Imagine a vicereine driving around land that has been newly designated the capital of the colony her husband has been sent to rule. She spots a beautiful, if dilapidated, mausoleum and then yet another, and then one more, all within a five-mile radius. She proclaims, “let there be a park” and so there is.
It is now the 14th century. A young king, the third of his line, abdicates his throne to pursue a lifelong interest in Sufism. Before he does, he orders the building of a tomb on behalf of his father, the second of his line. The architect believes the top of the dome to be where his god resides, and the mason believes the lotus to be the seat of his god. So together they build a lotus atop a dome.
Soon we find ourselves in pre-historic times. People are coming together to cultivate land and are in need of storing grains. So, they begin building pots. Massive, red-baked, earthen pots that store grain and seeds for the community. Because these pots hold the ‘seeds of life’, they come to signify fertility and fecundity and centuries later, young brides begin gently kicking the pot filled with seeds as they enter their marital homes.
Suddenly it’s the 20th century again. 1960’s to be exact. A quiet stuffy afternoon in India’s second decade of independence. Two boys bunk school to roam the halls of a tomb that is surrounded by its own private garden. They climb through the dilapidated stairways and stuff themselves in the nooks and corners of the silent tomb, lazing and languishing.
Just like this, what started out as a heritage walk on art and architecture becomes a trip through time, where in patterns that sometimes resemble zigzags and crisscrosses and other times the unending circles of the Tibetan infinity knot, the historians spins stories after stories that leave me dizzy. Until I filled with a deep sense of unease. It’s eating away at me, taking out all of the goodness of what I have learnt.
I recognize it to be fear that stems from the knowledge that our future does not stretch out as far ahead of us as our past does behind us. That somehow after centuries of slow and steady progress, we have decided to make a clean break and are charting into terrifying territories that we may never return from. Will heritage walks exist in 23rd century? What stories will future historians share if we never build anything to last?
The walk ends. I chase after a young boy selling tea. With a cup of steaming hot tea, I sit on the steps of the last tomb, surrounded by endlessly green gardens as far as the eyes can see.