I am excited as I’ve stumbled upon the “Delhie Book” of Thomas Metcalfe.
Does not ring a bell? Well, Metcalfe was an officer of the British East India Company, and the Governor-General’s Resident at the Imperial court of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in early 19th century Delhi. He ran the ‘Delhi territory’ from 1835 to 1853.
Metcalfe was a unique character. He built himself the palatial “Metcalfe House” near present day ISBT, which is unfortunately out of access to the public after being converted into a Government office. After passing into the hands of the Government, it served as the Central Legislative Assembly in the 1920s, eventually paving the way for the Rajya Sabha, until the inauguration of the Parliament House in New Delhi. The colonial house was originally built to challenge the Red fort itself. It had a huge library with over 20,000 books, rare artifacts and Napolean memorabilia, but much of this treasure was destroyed during the Uprising of 1857.
Metcalfe also built the quaint “Dilkhusha” (Heart’s Delight) as a retreat for himself…an old Mughal period tomb near the Qutb Minar converted into a house for relaxing in the rainy season! He altered the landscape, created water-courses around the tomb, and even built a boathouse and a lighthouse! That’s not all- the cenotaph of the Mughal lying there (Muhammad Quli Khan, a relative of Akbar) was removed to make way for Metcalfe’s dining table. Today the remains of this retreat can be seen inside the sea of fascinating ruins at Mehrauli Archaeological Park. The interior can still dazzle visitors with its profusion of intricate work in blue paint. From the balcony, the view of the Qutb is enchanting.
Metcalfe also built quaint pavilions and ziggurat-like structures near the Qutb, to mimic old ruins and add to the charm of his estate. These odd buildings are collectively referred to as “Metcalfe’s folly” today 🙂 All of these created an idyllic ambience for relaxing in the monsoons. Metcalfe is even said to have leased out his retreat to honeymooning couples!
Despite his peculiarities, Metcalfe’s one love was the heritage of “Delhie”. He ordered a series of paintings and sketches of the monuments & ruins of this city, to be created by local Delhi artists. The paintings were compiled into an album called Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi (or Dehlie Book) in 1844. It was then sent to his daughter Emily as she started from England, where she had been studying, to join him in Delhi. The original album is now part of the British Library.
So what’s so exciting about this Delhie book? It has over a hundred paintings of both Mughal and Sultanate period monuments that make Delhi so special, and also includes scenes from the daily life of “natives” in those days. Metcalfe added descriptions and stories to these pictures, often in emotional language and in beautiful calligraphy. The album also has historical value, for many of the structures were destroyed or damaged in the Uprising that followed only a few years later. What that means for my blog, dear reader, is a series of “then and now” pictures that I won’t be able to resist! Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you 😉
Emily Metcalfe on her part wrote a diary of her times in Delhi, a nostalgic account of days spent at the Mehrauli retreat, and of picnics on top of the Qutb Minar itself! Can you even begin to imagine that? Step by step up the spiral stairwell, basket of fruit in hand, until you reach the top of the tallest minaret in the country? What a sweeping view of the city that would give! You can read her accounts in the book “The Golden Calm: An English Lady’s Life in Moghul Delhi: Reminiscences by Emily, Lady Clive Bayley, and by her father Sir Thomas Metcalfe“. A whole different world that was!