Sunday, August 08, 2010

Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 3

(Continued excerpts from The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple)

By now in the city itself, in the high-walled privacy of the courtyards of the grander houses like that of the young courtier Zahir Dehalvi in Matia Mahal, the servants were beginning to stir, throats were being cleared, and bamboo blinds were being rolled up to reveal water channels and fountains in the cloister gardens. Soon bolsters and sheets were being tidied away to leave the verandas of the courtyard free for breakfast - of mangoes or aloo puri for the Hindus, or perhaps some mutton shorba for the Muslims. Servants would draw water from wells, or head out to buy fresh melons from the Sabzi Mandi; in some of the richer houses coffee might be prepared. From the masculine side of the house came the first gurgle of the hookah. In the zenana, children were being dressed, cholis, ghagras and angiyas buttoned and laced, peshwaz and saris wrapped. In the kitchen the daily ritual of chopping onions, chillies and ginger would begin, and the chickpeas and channa dal set to soak; elswhere, the different inhabitants of the zenana would begin their day praying, sewing, embroidering, cooking or playing.
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Before long, the older boys would be heading off down the lanes to arrive at the madrasas in time for the beginning of the day's study:  to work on memorising the Koran by heart, or to hear an explication of its mysteries by the maulvi; or maybe it would be a day for studying the arts of philosophy, theology and rhetoric. Far from being a tedious chore, this was for many a thrilling business: one eager pupil who came to Delhi from a small town on the Grand Trunk Road used to go to the lectures at madarsa-e-rahimiya even in the pouring monsoon rain carrying his books in a pot in order to protect them from getting wet. The elderly Zakaullah remembered running at breakneck speed through the gullies of Shahjahanabad, such was his excitement at the new learning - and especially the mathematics - he was being taught at the Delhi College. Even Colonel William Sleeman, famous for his suppression of the Thugs and a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts, had to admit that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable.
'Perhaps, there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans in India', he wrote on a visit to the Mughal capital.
He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages what young men in our colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin - that is grammar, rhetoric, and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Mohammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford - he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna; (alias Sokrat, Aristotalis, Aflatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sena); and, what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life. 
The reputation of Delhi madrasas was certainly sufficient to inspire the young poet Altaf Husain Hali to flee his marriage in Panipat and walk fifty-three miles to Delhi alone and penniless and sleeping rough in an attempt to realise his dream of studying in the famous colleges there: 'Everyone wanted me to look for a job', he wrote later, ' but my passion for learning prevailed.' Delhi was after all a celebrated intellectual centre and in the early 1850s, it was at the peak of its cultural vitality. It had six famous madrasas and at least four smaller ones, nine newspapers in Urdu and Persian, five intellectual journals published out of the Delhi College, innumerable printing presses and publishers, and no fewer than 130 Unani doctors. Here many of the new wonders uncovered by Western science were being translated for the first time in to Arabic and Persian, and in the many colleges and madrasas the air of intellectual open mindedness and excitement was palpable.

Also in the series:
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 1
Delhi - Those Times and Lives - 2


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