Delhi Feature

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Some Delhi History

The ancient epic Mahabharata places the great town of Indraprastha on the banks of the Yamuna River, perhaps in what is now Delhi's Old Fort. Late in the first millennium AD, Delhi became an outpost of the Hindu Rajputs, warrior kings who ruled what's now Rajasthan. However, it was after 1191, when Mohammad Ghori of Central Asia invaded and conquered, that the city acquired its Islamic flavor. Other Afghan and Uzbek sultanates handed Delhi back and forth over the next 300 years, until the mighty Mughals settled in. Beginning with the invasion of Babur in 1526, the Mughals shifted their capital between Delhi and Agra until 1858, leaving stunning architecture at both sites, including the buildings at what's now known as Old Delhi.

The fall of the Mughal Empire coincided with the rise of the British East India Company, first in Madras and Calcutta and eventually throughout the country. When several of Delhi's Indian garrisons mutinied against their Company employers in 1857, the British suppressed them, moved into the Red Fort, and ousted the aging Mughal emperor. In 1911, with anti-British sentiment growing in Calcutta, they moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi—the ultimate prize, a place where they could build a truly imperial city that would dwarf the older ones around it. Architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was hired to create New Delhi, a majestic sandstone government complex surrounded by wide, leafy avenues and traffic circles, in contrast to Old Delhi's hectic lanes.

When India gained independence on August 15, 1947, with Jawaharlal Nehru the first prime minister, the subcontinent was partitioned into the secular republic of India and the Muslim nation of Pakistan, which was further divided into West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Trapped in potentially hostile new countries, thousands of Muslims left Delhi for Pakistan while millions of Hindu and Sikh refugees streamed in—changing Delhi's cultural overtone almost overnight from Persian to Punjabi.

Since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (grandson of Nehru) and his successor, Narasimha Rao, began to liberalize India's planned economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Delhi has experienced tremendous change. Foreign companies have arrived and hired locals for white-collar jobs, residential enclaves, and shopping strips have sprouted in every crevice, and land prices have skyrocketed. Professionals seeking affordable living space now move to the suburbs and drive into town, aggravating the already substantial pollution problem. At the same time, North Indian villagers still come here in search of work and build shanties wherever they can, sometimes in the shadows of forgotten monuments. It is they—Rajasthani women in colorful saris digging holes with pickaxes, men climbing rickety scaffolds in saronglike lungis—who build new homes for the affluent. Many Delhiites say, with a sigh, that their city is in a perpetual state of flux.

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