Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories': Beyond The Popular Monuments of India

Historian Rana Safvi talks about her passion for finding out the lesser known monuments of India and chronicling their stories

The Shahi Hamam was built for Shah Jahan's wife, Begum Mumtaz Mahal in the Shahi Qila Palace in Burh
The Shahi Hamam was built for Shah Jahan's wife, Begum Mumtaz Mahal in the Shahi Qila Palace in Burh CRS Photo, Shutterstock

A firm believer in the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb (syncretic culture), Rana Safvi, 65, has been researching on and documenting India’s rich cultural heritage and sharing the knowledge through books, articles, blogs, podcasts and videos. She holds master’s degree in medieval history from the Centre for Advanced Studies, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University. She has written five books so far and translated three on culture, history, and monuments of India. In 2011, she started the Twitter forum #shair, which was responsible for popularising Urdu online. It's a unique platform which is still going strong with over 30,000 members, said Safvi. And if you are a keen traveller, her latest book, 'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories', will be an inspiration to include some of the lesser known monuments into your travel bucket list. The book has been much appreciated not only for its focus on lesser known monuments but also for Safvi’s skills in story-telling.  

Here is an interview with the woman who refuses to let age come in the way of her explorations. “In my case, my love for monuments is the reason that I am willing to climb every mountain and swim every ocean during my explorations,” says Safvi.

In 'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories', you have focused on lesser known monuments of India. Why did you think it was important to uphold these lesser known monuments?
India is a vast country with an ancient history. The most important contemporary sources for ancient history are  archaeological sites such as those related to the Indus valley Civilisation, rock cut caves and temples, edicts of Asoka etc. Built heritage is thus important in supplementing written sources. Some monuments are less visible  than others but that does not mean that they are less important as sources of our history and heritage. We all know about the Taj Mahal but not the Aahukhana (deer park) in Burhanpur where Mumtaz Mahal was given her first temporary burial before her coffin was moved to Agra. Burhanpur was the capital of a Mughal subah and a very important city as it was the entrance point to the Deccan. It has a number of important monuments which I have described.

Monuments are also repositories of oral and community history which is something I have tried to capture in the stories in my book.


A post shared by Rana Safvi (@ranasafvi)

Please tell us how you shortlisted the monuments and gathered information about them. How long it did it take you to complete this book?

From 2016-19, I travelled extensively to places off the beaten track in India. I used to make a note of ‘must visit’ and then plan. I tried to be as efficient as possible by mapping places in one state and then visiting them. I would do my academic research before I went so that I knew all the places I must visit in a particular area and the important elements of that monument. I took help from the gazetteers published by ASI in the 19th and 20th centuries. Once my travels were over, it took me a year to do my academic research and finish the book.

Do you photograph the monuments you visit? How difficult or easy is it to photograph the monuments?

For me photography is a hobby. I use an iPhone as well as a DSLR to record my visits. I take extensive photographs of each monument I visit. As I end up writing about them much later, the photographs are an important resource for me to compare with written information on it. I also take videos describing my feelings at that moment so that I can capture it on paper and retain the freshness of a first look. There are certain difficulties in terms of physical limitations to access every nook and corner, given that I am 65 years old but I try and not let that come in the way of my explorations. In my case, my love for monuments is the reason that I am willing to climb every mountain and swim every ocean during my explorations. There have been occasions when I have been stopped from photographing a monument, especially if it is an encroached monument that the current owners want to hide. I have stood my ground and refused to budge, unless photography has been specifically forbidden by government authorities.

Are we, as a nation, negligent of our architectural heritage? Why are many of our ancient monuments in a decrepit state?

The ones that are under private ownership are mostly well looked after but in certain cases their character is changed. It is the unlisted monuments that are suffering. There is a group of 15th century tombs in Delhi’s Zamarudpur area which are completely encroached upon; while one is used as a cattle shed and collection point for ragpickers, one is used for drying clothes, the others are walled up. It was only persistence on my part that I could photograph and document them.

Any anecdotes that you would like to share about the time you were researching and writing this book?

One of my most memorable moments was in Barabar Caves in Bihar. Barabar Caves are the earliest example of built heritage with the appearance of the ogee arch on Lomas Rishi caves. The Barabar group of granite hills  were excavated on orders of Emperor Asoka for the Ajivikas an ascetic sect in 3rd BCE. The surface finish of the caves is unbelievable. I could see myself reflected in the walls of the cave. But that was not all. My ASI [Archaeological Survey of India] guide asked me to close my eyes when we entered the small and pitch dark antechamber. Even though open eyes wouldn’t have mattered as far as vision was concerned, it enabled me to internalise and then he started chanting ‘buddham sharanam gachhami’. I could feel the sound reverberating off the cave walls. I can’t describe my feelings. I can only say that I was transported to a different world.

Among other things, the Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb is your area of expertise. Do tell us what that means? Why is it important? Has modern life affected this refined lifestyle?

From childhood, if one phrase stands out in my mind from my history lessons it was, ‘unity in diversity’. This diversity came from years of migration to the fertile plains of India of people from different countries in Asia. And the unity, which came from the coming together of different ethnic, cultural and religious communities, which resulted in ‘The Wonder that is India.’ This concept of cultural pluralism is what is called ‘secular’ in India. Indian secularism does not conform to the Western definition but implies respect for all religions, celebration of religious toleration and equality for all religions. That we call it ‘sickular’ shows how we misunderstand our own ancient traditions and ethos. This is the unique syncretic culture of India called Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb. In today’s world where polarization is growing, and people doubt this, for me it’s a lived reality. We still eat gujiyas on Holi and play with colours, we light lamps and eat sweets on Diwali , we embrace and eat siwai on Eid and hang a star on Christmas. This is our common heritage and cultural identity. The rest of the praying, fasting etc, which goes on in our houses, is our religious identity and should be kept private and personal and separate from our public life. This is what I keep trying to promote through my writings, podcasts and videos.  This is what we must all try to preserve. 

You have been presenting the many sides of Delhi through your books. What is it that attracts you to Delhi? 

Delhi was home to many dynasties, each of them leaving their own stamp. A romantic version has it that there were seven cities in Delhi. The absolute diversity and richness of the monuments here attracted me to become their chronicler and tell their stories. For me monuments aren’t just bricks and stones but spaces where people lived, breathed, loved, betrayed and died. That’s the story that compelled me to document them.

How would you like your readers to see your various books focused on monuments -- as travel books, as history books?

My books are a unique combination of both. I give the reader a glimpse into the past of each monument and city that I describe and recount its history from contemporary and secondary sources and bring them to the present, with exact instructions how to reach there and what considerations to keep in mind while visiting it.

Apart from Delhi and excluding the monuments mentioned in your book on the lesser known monuments, have you written about other cities or historical places?  

I used to write a fortnightly column for The Hindu from 2017-19 titled ‘Where Stones Speak’. 'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories' is a result of those articles. Of course, I have included many new places and added much more information than an 800 word column could contain. I have also curated an app called Audio Odigos for Resbird. This was under the scheme of Monument Mitra of the ASI where I curated 12 historical monuments.

Apart from Delhi, which other historical city would you like to explore and write about?

The two cities that I would love to explore and write in detail about are Champaner in Gujarat and Gaur/Pandua in West Bengal.

If you were asked to rank three best monuments in India (known/lesser known) according to your choice, what would they be? Why?

My favourite is Fatehpur Sikri in Agra followed by Firoz Shah Kotla in Delhi and Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. Fatehpur Sikri was the first time that I actually engaged with any place as a historical monument. I was in my early teens and I fell in love with the red stones. That love affair continues till date and hopefully all my life. Firoz Shah Kotla is not only a unique fort with an Ashokan pillar, a Tughlaq era fort but also home to jinn-saints whom people visit to make supplications. The mix of old and new fascinates me. That place has a unique character. And Burhanpur because it reminded me of life and death, there are many tombs there, of dreams that died there, and of things that could be. It was a place I shed a tear for the state of preservation of important relics. Burhanpur is a treasure house for those who love architecture, history and heritage. But in its current state of preservation, I fear for it.


A post shared by Rana Safvi (@ranasafvi)

If you had to choose three favourites from  'A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories', which ones would you choose?

That is difficult but it would be the title story set in Thaneswar, The Kalinjar Fort and Burhanpur (once again).

Thaneswar [about 160km north-west of Delhi] fascinated me with its play on words and how meanings change over the years. It reminded me of the story of Sheikh Chilli I heard as a child with their underlying message of the importance of simplicity in life and when I went there I wasn’t disappointed. There was a sense of serenity there which was precious. The Kalinjar Fort [the fortress is located in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh] is majestic and its ruins impressive but it is the two Shiva statues carved on the rocks there that are breath-taking. While one is easily accessible the other is quite hard to reach and not many do. I defied my physical abilities to do so and though I suffered for it in terms of aches and pains I would not have given up on that opportunity and am ready to do it again!  I have already explained my fascination for Burhanpur. The people there have such a sense of loss for what could have been theirs had the Taj Mahal been built in Burhanpur instead of Agra.

Are more books in the pipeline? If yes, any clue about the theme(s)?

I am now working on a translation of a 20th century Urdu text describing the life of the Mughal survivors after the fall of Delhi which should be published this year. 

You have also translated a few books - do throw some light on what made you choose these particular books.

These were books which coincided with my own interests in architecture and heritage. The Uprising of 1857 changed the character of the country and I wanted to share the experience of an eye witness account of those tumultuous days to non-Urdu readers. ‘Asar-us-Sanadid’ is a seminal book on Delhi architecture and an important reference for all. I was already using it for my Delhi trilogy and I wanted to make it available for wider readership. The four accounts from 19th and 20th century that make up ‘City of my Heart’ show a Delhi where there is peace and harmony, with communities participating in each other’s sukh-dukh (happiness and sorrows) and a way of life that is almost lost. I could not but translate it and share it with everyone.

Please tell us a little about your involvement with Urdu Shayri? Has there been any change in the style and composition over the years? Has modern fast life affected this very artistic form? 

I started the twitter forum #shair in 2011. I was living in the Middle-East and it was a way of staying connected with home. I never realised it would strike a chord in everyone’s heart and become so successful. When I started writing I incorporated poetry into my text and that has become my style. Every age has its own challenges and art adapts to those.