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Saturday 4 July 2020

Mosquitoes of Delhi scared Mughals and Brits, too

While books written in Persian in the era of Akbar talk of floral extracts' use as mosquito repellants, the Brits found the Mughal Red Fort uninhabitable because of the menace of the same pests

Chief Minister of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal makes an appeal for cleanliness every year around this time, showing videos and photos of his family cleaning his courtyard, to avoid the dengue virus-carrying mosquitoes from thriving nearby. Delhi has but not acquired the fear of mosquitoes recently. Even the Mughals and the British were frightened of outbreaks of diseases caused by mosquito stings.

Historian Faizan Ahmed says that the Yamuna flowed just behind Lal Qila at one point before it changed its course. On one side, there was the entire ridge area. Mosquitoes troubled people of the region even then. It is written in Ain-i-Akbari and Akbarnama that all efforts were made to drive the mosquitoes away. Drugs and herbal extracts used to be sprayed along the banks.

Some books of the time written in Persian mention mosquito repellents made of certain flowers as much as the flora was used to prepare Ayurvedic and Unani medicines. Smoke was used as repellants in palaces. Yet when somebody acquired vector-borne diseases, mention these books, there were specific treatments available at the time.

When the British captured the Red Fort in 1857, they were upset with the view inside. There were water-supply drains and gardens, which the Mughals found aesthetic. But the British began remodelling the interiors of the fort as they thought the streams would breed mosquitoes. They broke quite a few structures inside and replaced them with new constructions. In some cases, for example, the entry to Diwan-e-Khas, where a stream of water would wash the feet of all guests, was demolished but the British were simply unable to understand the Mughal engineering that used to turn the water stream on whenever someone stepped on the threshold.

After the announcement by Ronald Vivian Smith that Delhi would be the new capital of India, a Delhi Durbar was held on 12 December 1911. It was attended by a crowd of thousands. Then King George V of Britain had announced that the Empire was “very happy” to tell the people of India that the British government would take the capital of India from Calcutta (now Kolkata) in order to better administer the country on the advice of the government and its ministers. With this announcement, Delhi moved to another chapter of history. While the decision was criticised in the media back then, the England-based newspapers warned their countrymen eager to visit India of swamps, heat, mosquitoes, boils, pimples, snakes, insects, etc.

A glimpse of how people tackled mosquitoes before independence is provided by Herbert Charles Fansway’s book Delhi: Past and Present. The author describes the life of Delhiites before independence with great sincerity. He writes that people loved to have picnics for which the mango orchards in Mehrauli were found suitable. People used to spend the night there, too. In a given guest house made specially for such hangouts, there used to be 20 beds. The book mentions that nets were used on all beds to keep mosquitoes away.

Architect AK Jain says that on 15 December 1911, four days after the announcement of moving the country’s capital to Delhi from Calcutta, George V laid the foundation stone of New Delhi near the Kingsway Camp, Coronation Park. Henry Wogan Lancaster’s name was proposed as the architect to design the first Viceroy residence (now Rashtrapati Bhavan), around which there would be the Parliament House, South Block, North Block, Commander-in-Chief Housing (Teen Murti Bhavan), etc. in a ‘New Delhi’. Edwin Lutyens, however, was appointed as the chief architect of New Delhi.

A committee was formed in 1913: the Delhi Town Planning Committee. In charge of this was Lutyens. He rejected Coronation Park as the centre of the new, grand capital. He said that there was little space here. Mosquitoes swarmed all over the place, he complained.

Yet, secretariats and other office buildings for lesser mortals were built here. The present Delhi Assembly is one of these buildings. Lutyens later developed Raisina Hills.

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