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A Glorious Symbol

Narayani Gupta

By N.L. Batra
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 161, price not stated.

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

A century and a half ago, Alexander Cunningham of the Bengal Engineers developed a fascination for the historical monuments of India. He was to have the distinction of retiring twice, first as major-general, and the second time from the post of director-general of the Archaeological Survey. No guesses as to which meant more to him. Mr. Batra also has had a long career as an engineer and archaeologist and enjoyed his work so much that he decided to write a book about one of the great monuments he had a hand in looking after. On page 92 there is a photograph of him in 1960 atop a dome of the Jama Masjid, supervising repair-work, obviously monarch of all he surveyed.      This book is unusual in being about one work of architecture. There have been books on the Taj Mahal, but the Jama Masjid has never enjoyed this degree of attention. It is particularly satisfying to have the text of the inscriptions in the Masjid, with translations. It is instructive to have sectional and axonometric drawings, which will be as useful to the lay reader as to the student of architecture. The chapter ‘The Return’ has nuggets of information—I did not know that the number of steps on the three sides were not of equal number, and I always got the detail about the minarets’ slant confused—and it is reassuring to have an engineer explain that they were designed so as to fall into the courtyard if there was an earthquake rather than on the prayer-halls.       The photographs—some of the familiar aerial views of D.N.Dubey and many lively ones by Dhruba Choudhury of the marvellous range of activities that swirl around the centre-piece of Shahjahanabad—make this a book one can have endless pleasure in leafing through. Mushirul Hasan’s foreword is a pleasant mix of poetry effortlessly quoted (Ghalib, Akbar Ilahabadi, Iqbal) and of gentle reminders that the Masjid is not the responsibility only of a trust, but of the government agencies and the citizens of this great city.      For a book with a modest volume of text, there are a great many chapters, grouped under five parts. Part One (four chapters) traces the history of Delhi architecture, culminating in that of Shahjahan. I am not sure that Babur could have been “impressed by the mosques [of the Ottoman Turks] at Constantinople”, and am curious to know ...

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