NEW DELHI, India — In the crowded neighborhood of Nizamuddin West, the 16th century Do Siriya tomb stands, crumbling, amid a hodgepodge of apartment buildings. Like the rest of this bustling residential area, the streets here throng with men in skullcaps. Here and there a goat or sheep is tethered to the wall. And if anybody knows that there's a supposed archaeological wonder to be preserved, he's more than likely to resent the claim on his property.
“These buildings aren't registered as archaeological monuments, and most of them are private property,” complains Feroz, a white-bearded resident who preferred not to give his real name. “People have been living here for centuries — inside of the very monuments that are now protected. And now the government wants to displace them. What is a monument? If some government minister comes and stays in the hotel over there, will it become a monument?”
First settled more than 2,000 years ago, Delhi boasts a wealth of ancient architecture. Tucked into residential and commercial neighborhoods, its so-called “monuments” give the city a historical richness to rival Rome's. But due to the frustration of citizens like Feroz and the combined pressures of India's huge population, poverty and rural-urban migration, many of Delhi's historical structures may soon be absorbed by a city that's growing out of control. According to the ministry of culture, 12 of Delhi's most important monuments have already been virtually wiped out, and experts say many others are slowly being dismantled or taken over by land-starved citizens.
A center of Indian civilization since before Christ, Delhi has been the capital of many empires — all of which left their mark on the city. From the 12th century Slave Dynasty through a succession of Mughal emperors and the British Raj, Delhi's conquerors left behind an incredible legacy in stone: towering minarets, echoing tombs, crumbling madrasas and — on the modern city's outskirts — entire ruins of centuries-old civilizations. Most have been forgotten.
“All together, in Delhi we have near about 1,200 monuments, but out of those the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has protected only 176,” said K.K. Mohammed, the ASI's superintending archaeologist (Delhi).
All manner of ills threaten Delhi's history. Not long ago, Mohammed was fighting to evict religious leaders who had laid false claim to four ancient Muslim structures in the outlying neighborhood of Mehrauli. In the ruined 14th century fort of Tughlaqabad, rural migrants to the city have set up camp.
But that's not all.
In recent weeks, the ASI has filed a court case against the Indian railways for beginning work on a five-story building within the protective buffer zone of Nila Gumbad, an early Mughal-era monument. It will soon issue show cause notices to 92 more properties throughout Delhi — including two Commonwealth Games projects and a stretch of the Delhi Metro — for violating the 100-meter buffer zone for other protected monuments. And even at the Red Fort itself, where the ASI's headquarters are located, the ASI has identified for demolition 100 tin sheds and toilets built by the Indian army during the period from 1947 to 2003, in which it used the fort as a military building.
The reasons for this chaos are manifold.
With government coffers stretched by so many other pressing problems, the ASI doesn't receive nearly enough funding to protect even the city's most important monuments. Indian governments are notoriously slipshod when it comes to implementing plans for urban development, which not only leaves thousands homeless but also creates a general atmosphere of lawlessness when it comes to publicly owned property. Politicians are reluctant to alienate segments of the population they consider “vote banks” to protect ancient stones. And, overall, India's citizens are more focused on the future's promised prosperity than the past's stories of lost grandeur.
“This is a country where large portions of the population believe that the past is a dark place, a time of colonialism and oppression, and they look forward to an exciting and ultramodern future,” said author William Dalrymple.
Perhaps that's why Delhi has not been able to capitalize on its historical riches. Tourists flock to the Red Fort, Humayun's Tomb and the Qutab Minar — all three of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But many more sites lie anonymous and forgotten, and even at the striking and famous monuments the city has failed to develop the associated programs needed to earn Delhi a place in travelers' minds alongside Cairo, Athens and Rome.
Restricted by rules designed to eliminate graft, the contracts for promoting these monuments must be awarded by government tender to the lowest bidder, leaving little scope for a visionary revolution. Worse still, for the most part the concerned agencies are infected by the same bureaucratic malaise that paralyzes the rest of the country's government-run institutions. The best a tourist can hope for are a few turgid signboards and a gregarious but formulaic (and sometimes misinformed) guide.
“I call it architectural bones without historical flesh,” said Mohammed. “Without historical flesh it is very bare. A historian is able to visualize, but not an individual. It should be a thrilling experience.”
If nothing changes, even Delhi's ancient skeleton may soon be gone.