With its distinctly different Rajpath (Royal Street) and Janpath (People’s Street) maintaining their distance, New Delhi still retains its original features of being an imperial outpost. The constructs of the British architect Edwin Lutyens may have begun to crumble and make way for high-rises and underground parking, but pretentiousness remains the very soul of the Indian capital. Legend has it that today’s New Delhi sits on the site of seven older settlements. But it lacks continuity, an attribute necessary for any city to acquire character. The story is similar almost everywhere in Southasia, with the possible exceptions of Kathmandu and Kabul, cities that have maintained their primacy throughout history.
There is little connection between Pataliputra of yore and today’s Patna. Benaras had lost its prestige by the time of the Mughals, and Lucknow ceased to be the Paris of the East after its long seizure during the Sepoy Mutiny. Remember Vijayanagar, Tanjore, Prayag or Ujjain? Their skeletons exist, but they no longer matter in today’s world. Cities that continue to expand have much shorter histories. Bombay grew out of a fishing village, Calcutta emerged from a scratch in the ground, and the oldest history claimed by Madras barely goes beyond three centuries. Bangalore was considered a boondocks until the British decided to adopt it as a cantonment site.
Southasia lacks a common commitment to urban civilisation. Perhaps that is why this region does not have a single world-class city, and urban infrastructure – physical, social and cultural – is uniformly abysmal all over the Subcontinent. It seems that Southasians loath cities even when they cannot escape living in one, and urban settlements cannot develop if their own residents dislike them so much. Roots of anti-urbanism in the Southasian psyche go deep, and may have something to do with myths, traditions and religious beliefs.
If the ‘Aryan invasion’ hypothesis is to be believed, the most urbane civilisation of the world – in Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Lothal – fell to the barbarians from Central Asia because the city-dwellers of the Indus Valley had become effete, with no fighting spirit after centuries of luxury. So, the victorious invaders shunned cities, destroyed planned settlements, and herded their cows and horses onward to the Ganga plains, as survivors of once-flourishing urban civilisation fled southwards across the Vindhyas.
The opposite explanation for the demise of the cities of the Indus Valley is no less anti-urban: it posits that change in the course of the river meant that urban agglomeration could not survive in the absence of water. This logic is based on the assumption that builders of marvels of civil engineering in Harappa or Mohenjodaro had neither the ingenuity nor the energy to plan, design and build hydraulic structures to meet their water needs. In other words, they were fools. In contrast, ascetics in their jungle hideouts developed the skill of building flying chariots and explosive missiles, which then god-incarnates of the Aryan race used to destroy opulent cities of Rakshasas, such as Lanka. Implication of this logic is that innovation needs solitude and pristine surroundings, rather than teamwork and the bustle of the marketplace.
The case against cities in the minds of Hindus was strengthened as Buddhism and Jainism spread faster in urban settlements across the Ganga plains and beyond. Buddhists challenged the monopoly of the Hindu sages over knowledge, and began to run world-class universities for anyone interested in the life of the mind. For Hindu priests, this was sacrilege, and they retreated into their rural hideouts to decry sinful cities. Each of 16 mahajanpadas in existence around 300 BC (Anga, Magadha, Kasi, Kosala, Vajji, Malla, Ceti, Vamsa, Kuru, Pancala, Maccha, Surasena, Assaka, Avanti, Gandhara, Kamboja) had at least one capital city, and possibly a few more commercial towns. These were the places people went to better themselves. With the resurgence of Hinduism, devotees once again begin to beat paths to the ashrams of ascetics.
Perhaps caste consciousness was also at play when Hindu priests looked down upon urban life and celebrated rural tranquillity. Cities value skills necessary in this life, rather than knowledge of the other world or prospects of the next birth. This means that occupational castes – traditionally the lowest in Hindu hierarchy – make adequate money, and live more comfortably and confidently, to the chagrin of the twice-born. Warriors too despise cities, because it is merchants who hold sway in towns rather than military commanders. By the time of emergence of the Mughals, there were few cities left in the entire Southasian region.
The Mughals did have a taste for monumental architecture, but they were not great city builders. Cities empower people, and imperial powers would rather have one city and large swathes of hinterland than a number of towns competing for authority and influence. Most of the Ahmednagars and Muzzaffarabads were built by rebellious commanders, rather than on the orders of the imperial court. Out of necessity rather than preference, the East India Company began to build warehouses and lay railway lines that helped in the emergence of trading towns. But none of these settlements were planned to grow into cities. New Delhi was the first city the British Empire planned as its Jewel in its Crown.
Postcolonial regimes in Southasia have continued with inherited policies. Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh and Islamabad have been planned as ‘capital’ cities – different in form, but essentially copies of the Lutyens prototype. Their residents are expected to be the nuts and bolts of functioning machines, rather than the living organs of throbbing cultures. And Southasia continues to remain bereft of urban civilisation. Perhaps the future lies in creating a network of small towns that Southasians can comfortably manage, rather than concentrating populations in dystopian cities without soul or character. Meanwhile, Islamists and Hindutva forces alike chose cities for propaganda purposes – of words and deeds – for the very same reason: citizens of urban agglomerations lead atomised lives, and are easier targets. Building urban communities would perhaps be an effective antidote to the wave of communalism and extremism sweeping Southasian cities.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.