AT the present moment the city of Delhi has a most painful interest attached to it, having become the centre of a mighty conspiracy for the overthrow of our Eastern Empire, and apparently for the extermination of our countrymen in India. As we know too well, this has been in part accomplished, and a vigorous attempt is being made for its completion. A short sketch of the place, therefore, will not be unacceptable to the public, even to those who at other times take no interest in the East.
The capital of the mighty empire founded by the Mogul descendants of Timoor-lung (corrupted by Europeans into Tamerlane—the original signifying TIMOOR THE LAME) is nine hundred and seventy-six miles from Calcutta by the travelling road. A knowledge of this fact will lessen the impatience of the public at our troops not being on the seat of action immediately after landing at the City of Palaces, as our capital on the Hooghly has been named. But the ignorance of the English public of Indian geography is astonishing, and can only be equalled by the dim idea they possess regarding Eastern character and the tenets of Oriental faiths. But what makes any enlightenment on this latter point hopeless, is the blindness of those who profess to be guides in explaining them. Why, not long since, we saw it gravely stated in the work of an Oriental missionary, that the Mohammedan religion denies the possession of souls and a future life to women. But in this the writer only repeated the idea which has, by some extraordinary means, taken possession of the English mind. For it must be extraordinary—since the Koran asserts the liability of woman to future rewards and punishments not less than a hundred times; and how this could happen if the Prophet had inculcated the doctrine of their annihilation at death, is hard to tell.
No situation could be better chosen for the metropolis of Hindostan than Delhi, the Indraput of the times before the Mohammedan conquest. It shows the powerful grasp of mind, as regards the statesmanship required in a conquering race, possessed by the Patan, and after them the Mogul, rulers in fixing on it as the head- quarters of their power. Its position is nearly central, and, consequently, equally near to rebellion in whatever part it might show itself; whilst it is the point best suited for collecting troops to send towards the north-west frontier, where the Affghan mountaineers are always watching the moment to descend on the plains of India, and whence conquest had always come to the country before we subdued it by sea, and from which point Anglo-Indians alone expect foreign danger, as on the other frontiers impassable mountains and deserts block the way. Had the English gone to India with the intention of conquest, and not as humble traders, they would, without doubt, have chosen some spot not far from it as the seat of their power, instead of the pestiferous mud-banks of the Hooghly, where, in a few years, the very stone of the houses is rotted, and two-thirds of our countrymen perish ere they have passed a couple of summers. But our necessities fixed us, not the foresight of such men as Clive, Hastings, or Wellesley, on a spot the worst adapted for retaining our conquests that, perhaps, could have been devised. For were there no other disadvantage of position with respect to Calcutta, the climate, which is utterly destructive of vigorous mental exertion, is enough to cripple our statesmen for half the year in the performance of their duties. This is proved by the inconvenient journeys which the governor-generals are forced to make to the hills every few months, in the vain search of health, and the broken constitutions with which they return home after a few years' service. But in the midland, where Delhi is situated, a man could pass half his life without moving from the scene of his labours, without more impediment from ill-health than the ordinary lot of man brings. But, supposing this advantage to cease, the strong hand of power would be in the heart of the land, where every motion would be felt as along the vibrating thread of a spider's web.
Such being the advantage of Delhi's situation, it is no wonder that the Hindoos hold it as a proverb that he who possesses Delhi and the emperor's person is the virtual ruler of India. Perhaps we may yet find itadvisable to place the residence of our governor-general in this quarter when the present insurrection is crushed, so imitating the conduct of all the invaders who have subdued the land before us, and thus stamped the site with the approval of ages and nations who had no national or religious prejudices to bind them to it. Once or twice the seat of government has, indeed, been removed from this quarter by the caprice of the sovereigns, but it was soon found imperative to return to the old spot. Even if there were nothing else, it has always been the policy of conquerors to place the capital in the heart of the country, and at some distance from the sea- coast. A maritime metropolis should alone be kept for the landing of troops.
Such being the governmental advantages of Delhi, it can hardly be conceived but that it, or some neighbouring city, would have been chosen by Clive, if he had had the selection of a capital, when he made preparation for our assumption of the Mogul power. He saw this when it was undreamed of by others, and says, in a letter written in 1765, when going to take his second governorship, "In a manner of speaking, I may say to-morrow the power of the Mogul is ours." But by circumstances he was bound to the former trading station of Calcutta, which, from the predilections men feel towards an old settlement, and the expense which would attend a removal of the government offices, still continues the seat of our power, after so many more advantageous places have come into our possession.
Few are aware of the remains of former magnificence still existing in this old imperial city, whose ruins extend over a larger space than our own metropolis, and display greater architectural glories than the latter would if reduced to a like state. A competent authority has said that the former possessors of Delhi built like giants, and finished their work like jewellers. The buildings are mostly of a fine red granite, inlaid with tracery and flowers of white and coloured marbles and precious stones. But such a fine artistic taste pervades these ornaments, that they are never out of place, nor produce a tawdry effect, but constitute a fine whole, like the decorations of our Gothic cathedrals, grand in the extended glance, yet striking in the close examination by the beauty of individual parts. However, when we know that what is called Gothic architecture was the invention of the Spanish Arabs, and by architects educated in their schools carried to most parts of Europe in the middle ages, we shall cease to wonder at this similarity of structure in buildings so far apart as Delhi and York Minster. The Jumna Musjeed, or Grand Mosque of Delhi, is in fact one of the finest Gothic edifices in the world, and, except in the broad and high flight of steps leading to the entrance, a picture of it might be taken for a cathedral front. This magnificent place of worship was built by the Emperor Jeh ânquer, at the cost of ten lakhs of rupees. Two minarets at the sides alone distinguish its structure from that of our own churches. These rise to a height of a hundred and thirty feet, constructed of marble and red stone, used alternately, to produce a finer effect. in our damp climate and smoky towns the beauty of this combination would soon be lost by an accumulation of moss and soot, but in the pure sky of India it is unimpaired for ever. The pillar-like minaret is not, however, an invariable characteristic of Mohammedan architecture, as in Morocco mosques are seen, especially those of an old date, with the massive square tower, by many imagined characteristic of Christian temples. In the days of Moorish science these were used as astronomical observatories. The Jumna Musjeed is two hundred and sixty- one feet in length; the front is covered with marble of surpassing whiteness; the cornice has ten compartments, which are inlaid with Arabic inscriptions in black stone of the same kind, which, from the elegant form of the Oriental letters, produce the finest effect; the inner pavement is of white marble slabs, ornamented with black borders, and is exceedingly beautiful; and the coolness produced by lining the walls and roof with white marble slabs is in delicious contrast to the suffocation of an Anglo-Indian church. But until we copy from the natives the principles of building adapted to the climate, as well as many other things, we must always expect to be in India like an unskilful rider on a headstrong
horse—in constant fear of a fall. The pulpit is of marble, and the kibla is adorned with delicate fringe-work. The summit of the minarets gives a wide view over the city and surrounding country. Besides this fine edifice there are other mosques; but it is unnecessary to particularise them further than to say they are all beautiful in their kind, and some show traces of what we call the early Norman school of architecture.
The imperial palace, the pride of Delhi and wonder of the early travellers, was built by Shah Jeh ân. It is of red granite, and far surpasses the Kremlin in magnificence, being a structure in all respects worthy of the governors of one of the mightiest and most splendid empires which the world has seen—that of the Indian Mohammedans. The entrance-gate surpasses anything of the kind in Europe, and is so high that a man can ride through it mounted on an elephant. But this fair outside is not all: on entering, the visitor proceeds down a long aisle, like that of a cathedral, ornamented with inscriptions from the Koran, and flowers, all beautifully cut with that delicacy and patience for which Eastern workmen are so famed. In the middle of this is an octagon court. The apartments are all ornamented in the same manner with inlaid flowers and foliage of precious marble. Many of the rooms are lined with white marble, inlaid with flowers and leaves of green serpentine, lapis lazuli, and blue and red porphyry, so arranged as to give the appearance of natural plants creeping over the walls. Some of the flowers have as many as sixty separate pieces of shaded stone used in their structure, that a more natural appearance might be produced.
The private hall of audience, where in former times the Great Mogul used to receive particular persons, and confer titles of nobility, is a pavilion of white marble, opening on one side to a large garden, and on the other to the palace. Round the frieze is the motto which Moore has translated in "Lalla Rookh:"
If there be an elysium on earth,
It is this! it is this!
The pillars and arches are inlaid with gold and carved flowers, exquisitely delicate, and inscriptions in the most elaborate Persian character. The floor is of marble, beautifully inlaid.
The public hail of audience, where the Shah used to sit in state tohear the complaints and receive the petitions of his subjects, is in the outer court of the palace. This, like the other, is of marble, but larger. Three sides are open, and the fourth is closed by a black wall, clothed with inlaying and inscriptions. The throne is in the centre, raised ten feet from the ground, so that the monarch could see and be seen by any one who wished to address him, but who might be impeded by his attendants.
That splendid peacock throne, which we have all heard of from our infancy, was carried off by Nadir Shah, and now graces the palace of Teheran. But still, even in its present state, that of Delhi is the most noble palace the world can boast, excelling anything which the poverty of a European imagination could ever produce, either in ancient or modern times. And such is the building which our press is urging on the Indian army to reduce to dust when we recapture Delhi! We are fond of boasting of civilisation, and the respect for art which it gives, and at the same time vituperating the Easterns as being now, and at all times, barbarians; but, I ask, would an Eastern king ever commit such an act as destroying this, the finest monument of architectural skill in existence? No. For when the ignorantly-abused Turks besieged Vienna, they particularly averted the fire of their artillery from the quarter of the church of St. Stephen's, as, like brave men, they fought with human beings, and not with the manifestations of genius.
It would be a nobler monument of our triumph, more impressive to the natives, and more worthy of our fathers' example, when, by the assistance of Heaven, we take the city,* to preserve the palace as the seat of our governor-general, and as an illustration of our moderation in the use of victory. Shame ought to burn the cheek of those writers who not long since were edifying us with homilies full of pious horror at the cruelties of Commissioner Yeh, of Canton, but who now are inciting to the commission of greater atrocities on the capture of Delhi than ever apparently entered into the head of that individual, or have been recorded in authentic history. But the cant of civilisation, like many other fine things when put to the test, is only like the Dead Sea fruit—a brilliant lie. England, however, ought to prove that she has something better to restrain her passions—Religion. For if in the suppression of this rebellion we commit half the crimes urged on us by the daily and weekly press, our doom as a nation is sealed. We shall have proved ourselves unworthy to rule, and, as on the Spaniard before us, the curse of God will come in every form that a nation can suffer.
With all this former splendour in outward show, the Mohammedan rulers did not, as Prince Woronzow declared was his policy with the city of Odessa, look after the ornamental, and leave the useful to come when it could, for as the water of the Jumna, on which Delhi stands, is rendered impure by flowing over beds of natron, an aqueduct of a hundred and twenty miles in length was built to supply the inhabitants with water. For the last three miles near the city it is cut through the solid granite rock, in a channel thirty feet deep and thirty-five broad. The engineer of this astonishing work was Ali Mirdân Khan, a Persian noble. Were there nothing else to prove the contrary, this alone would show the falsehood of the charge of barbarism so confidently and ignorantly brought against the Orientals. Barbarians do not build large and splendid cities.
* Delhi has fallen since our excellent contributor's article was in type. With it also the rebellion has been struck at the heart. A great deal may remain to be done before British rule is re-established throughout the breadth and width of India, especially in Oude, but that is a matter of detail compared with the great and decisive blow struck at Delhi, and that without the aid of succours from England, although it is to be regretted with a sad loss of valuable lives. While there has and still will be, no doubt, severe retribution, we happily, however, hear of no undue severity having been exercised by the avenging army; as to palaces, and mosques, and other works of art, the British wage not war against such; there is no fear of their being destroyed except by accidents inevitable in a siege.
Last modified 10 October 2007