Lost Cities & the Wiping of Histories

Lost Cities & the Wiping of Histories

How can you miss something that is not there?  Something you never even knew existed?

Invading hordes, greedy empire-builders and present-day despots have often used this logic to destroy monuments and cities with deep cultural, economic and political significance. This has been done not just to mark their supremacy but also to cement it, by obliterating the very memory of what ‘was’.

In the first half of the 19th century, the British East India Company used this tactic with great success, in a calculated way. Their first targets were three big power centres in India – The Peshwa headquarters housed in the fortified Shaniwarwada in the heart of present-day Pune; the  Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad; and the grand capital of the Nawabs of Awadh – Lucknow. 

The entrance to Shaniwarwada, 1860 | British Library

The first was destroyed after a mysterious fire spread from the ‘mental asylum’ that the British had set up within the once-powerful fort. The timing couldn’t have been better. In 1819, the Third Anglo-Maratha War had marked the decisive victory of the British over the Peshwa and his Maratha confederacy (though Gwalior had stayed out). The defeated Peshwa was packed off. Yet there was growing resentment against the British in Pune as the empty Shaniwarwada became a rallying point and remained a symbol of Maratha force. The raging fire of  1828, which destroyed everything within, symbolically removed all material evidence of what was – symbolic or otherwise. Today, we have nothing but ruins and tame gardens within the complex.

The Siege of Delhi in 1857

In the case of Delhi and Lucknow – the destruction was a mark of retribution. Both cities had been rebel strongholds during the Revolt of 1857 and theatres of great violence, from both sides. Each suffered the consequences. More than 90 per cent of the monuments within the Red Fort were destroyed.

British Soldiers looting Qaiser Bagh in Lucknow

Lucknow was sacked, buildings were razed and palaces looted. According to the account of an American journalist, sent to gauge the mayhem – “what couldn’t be looted was simply burned”. 

Today, we have no idea what Shaniwarwada was like even in the early part of the 19th century. Over 160 years later, we only have a handful of paintings and photographs that capture a sliver of the glory of  Shahjahanabad and Lucknow.

The site of Pataliputra

Our History of Lost Cities

Not all monuments and cities were destroyed by the sword or gunpowder. Through history, there have been great cities that disappeared as civilizations, empires and fortunes rose and fell. From the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, to the great capitals of Pataliputra, Ujjain, Paithan and Madurai. The ancient port cities of Poompuhar and Muziris were lost thanks to the vagaries of nature. Others like Chaul and Surat to apathy and neglect.

An interesting study of the most populous cities of the world, from 1500 CE to 2018, published by the ‘Financial Times’, London, was quite an eye-opener.

The ruins at Hampi

According to the data they used, in 1500 CE, Vijayanagara (capital of the empire named after it) i.e. Hampi in present-day Karnataka, was the second-most populous city in the world after Beijing.

The remains of the city of Gauda

In that period, Paris was way down in 8th position, below Gauda in present-day Malda district of West Bengal. London didn’t even figure in the top 10.

By 1610 CE, Agra, the capital of the Mughals, became the third-most populous city after Beijing and the Ottoman city of Istanbul. In 1700 CE, the most populous city in India was Ahmedabad. In world rankings, it was just below London and Paris. By the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution ensured that the tide turned, and fortunes changed drastically.  

Our Lost Cities series on LHI Circle, our new offering, takes a deep dive into the pages of history to understand what some of the subcontinent’s great cities were like. Using rare paintings and photographs, reports from archaeological excavations, decades of research by scholars and contemporary accounts, we hope to piece together the most in-depth and detailed look at our Lost Cities.

First up, we have renowned Historian and Author of multiple books on Lucknow, Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones giving us a glimpse into what this capital of Awadh looked like before it was destroyed by the British after the Revolt of 1857. She takes us on a journey back in time through some rare pictures and paintings of the city before much of it was destroyed.

On LHI’s new premier service LHI Circle, you will find a special film with Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, as she takes us to ‘Lost’ Lucknow; and on the 10th of July at 7 pm, LHI Circle subscribers will also get a chance to meet her through a live session. 

Do join the LHI Circle and travel with us to India’s Lost Cities.

Cover Image Courtesy: Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

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