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January 7, 2019

Ruins of the past

Opinion

January 7, 2019

Throughout history, it was customary for ruling dynasties to build palaces, fortresses, temples and public buildings to display their power and wealth.

When a new dynasty replaced an old one, its rulers constructed their own buildings instead of residing in existing palaces. This was done to mark the beginning of a new era. As long as the old buildings remained functional and were used for residential or other purposes, their structures were maintained. However, if they were abandoned, these building began to decay with the passage of time and gradually fell into ruin.

This can be evidenced in Mehrauli in the old city of Delhi where various royal dynasties built new buildings and laid down the foundation of new cities.

When the Tughlaq Dynasty (1320-1413) came into power, its ruler founded a new city called Tughlaqabad. Today, the ruins of the buildings constructed in Tughlaqabad serve as mute testimony of the rise and fall of this dynasty. The city, which was once the hub of commercial, cultural and political activities, has now been reduced to dilapidated buildings. A permanent silence reigns over these sites to reflect the decline of a dynasty that ruled the vast empire, including the south of India.

Mughal Emperor Humayun was fond of astrology, and built a new city called Dinpanah on the basis of his astrological view. We can still find the Sher Mundal, which served as Humayun’s library. During one of his visits to the library, Humayun accidentally fell down a flight of stairs and died because of a head injury. We can also find the ruins of a fort that was built by Sher Shah Suri. The vast area of the fort along with the structure of the old mosque represents its past glory.

It is ironic that the inhabitants of these once-flourishing cities eventually migrated to other areas, leaving these places deserted. Historians and archaeologists did make attempts to resurrect the past glory of these sites.

Various countries often preserve historical monuments as cultural heritage sites because these buildings not only signify the skilful use of construction material, but also symbolise professional skills, a remarkable sense of beauty, and strong knowledge of architecture and its functional use. Therefore, a historical monument represents the past and displays the cultural and social values of the time during which it was constructed.

If historians stand amid these ruins, they can visualise a time when these sites were bustling with people caught up in their daily routines. They can see the grandeur of the royal court where nobles walked through the corridors of the palace. Historians can also hear the sound of music that would emanate from the royal palace. However, when their visualisation of the past comes to an end, they find themselves back in the midst of these ruins. At times, this inspires them to reconstruct the past and bring to light the passing glory of a lost culture.

When tourists visit these ruins, observe the solid walls of the palaces and fortresses, read the poetry inscribed on them and examine paintings, they feel a sense of admiration for the past. When they touch these walls, they feel they are part of the site’s history. Many of them also witness a sense of sorrow and begin to realise that nothing is permanent in this world.

It appears that it was fairly common for people to draw figures on the walls of these sites. For instance, when rumours of Egypt’s Queen Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s ‘affair’ with her vizier began to spread, some labourers who were resting in her temple during lunch time drew a figure on the wall of the queen and her lover in a compromising position.

In his BBC Urdu series, Raza Ali Abidi observes some verses inscribed on a building at the Rohtas Fort that were written by soldiers who were returning home. These inscriptions have become part of the historical monuments and represent the thought processes of these soldiers.

In her book titled ‘Pleasure of Ruins’ that was published before 1913, Rose Macaulay discusses the historical buildings of Europe and points out that when tourists visit churches that were constructed during the 15th century and observe religious paintings on their walls, they witnesses a sense of pleasure and spiritual satisfaction.

When they return to home after visiting these sites, they take with them books, pictures, posters, postcards and models of these buildings and sites. Many of them also decorate their houses with these souvenirs to show an interest in their cultural heritage.

In order to attract more visitors and tourists, governments across the world tend to preserve these sites and renovate old buildings. These sites, in turn, become a valuable source of revenue. This commercial attitude has protected many old buildings from falling into ruin. Through these buildings, history is kept alive and people continue to be fascinated the past.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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