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Delhi’s best kept secret

An exclusive look into the treasures of the National Archives of India, which is on its way to become the thinking man’s coolest hangout zone.

entertainment Updated: Jul 03, 2010 00:54 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times

As Delhi furiously upgrades itself for the Commonwealth Games in October, why should this treasure tucked at the Capital’s heart remain rundown and unexplored? As the storeroom of the non-current records of the Indian government, the National Archives of India (NAI), in Janpath, has thousands of rare old books, documents and lithographs piled up on various floors.

Anyone with a passing interest in India’s political and cultural past can produce best-selling history books by hanging out here. While researching here for his book The Last Mughal, author William Dalrymple discovered previously unexamined manuscripts that present the Indian perspective of the 1857 mutiny. “All the Urdu research for the book was done there,” says Dalrymple. “The archive contains the biggest and fullest colonial archive in India.”

Making it cool
You do not have to be an author, scholar or a PhD student to feel at home in NAI. Not many are aware that it also has a library having more than 1,80,000 books on Indian history. The membership is free and all you need to present is an identity proof.

Historian Mushirul Hasan, the new director general of the Archives, says, “I want NAI to be like London’s British Library, which is wonderful in terms of collection, conservation, preservation and most importantly, accessibility.” Hasan intends to make the place Delhi’s most intelligent destination where non-scholars can freely come in, browse through the shelves, open boxes filled with British-era confidential documents, read letters written two hundred years ago, roll out long farmans of Mughal kings and feel the touch of 4th century Sanskrit manuscripts printed on animal-skin parchments.

Mission Archives
It is a tough undertaking. NAI’s annual budget is Rs 21 crores, less than the budget of Hrithik Roshan’s film Kites. “The mission is extremely difficult to achieve but nonetheless I’ll try my best. It will be deeply satisfying to me as an historian,” says Hasan. The 60-year-old professor has his work cut out for him. “The place is a bit ramshackle and the catalogue is not computerised,” says Dalrymple. “Yet the Archives remain open for longer hours than most archives and contains large amounts of previously unaccessed material, unlike the British Library India Office archives (in London), which are now well-used and contain few surprises.”

Where: Janpath, near Hotel Le Meridian.

First Published: Jul 02, 2010 16:48 IST