Acclaimed writer William Dalrymple’s lifelong obsession with India and its history has resulted in an array of bestselling novels, with his most recent book The Anarchy all set for a TV adaptation. The award-winning author speaks about Delhi, his favourite Mughal structures, and the most underrated heritage sites of India. By Amitha Ameen
In what ways has Delhi changed since you wrote City of Djinns?
Irrevocably. It has gone from a city of about half a million to 26 million. But very few of the things I love have disappeared. In a way, it is everything I love plus a modern city. The downside is obviously the environmental crisis, and it does worry me.
In The Historian’s Eye, the photographer in you comes out. Where does he sit on a bench already occupied by the historian and the travel writer?
I was always a photographer first. It is not like you have to resign from one job to take up the other. You can do all of these things. Obviously, my focus has been on history in the last three years doing The Anarchy. Now, it’s all sorts of different stuff. I try to visit the places that I write about. I don’t necessarily need to take photographs, but I usually do.
What are some of the most underrated historical sites in India?
The state that is most underrated is Madhya Pradesh. Mandu, Sanchi, Khajuraho, Eran, Maheshwar, Gwalior—there is just so much to see! In many ways, Madhya Pradesh is the heartland of India, with the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Guptas.
What is the worst historical myth you’ve heard from a tour guide?
When have I ever heard an accurate rendition of history from a tour guide? So many of the guides retell rubbish. But you are [now] getting a new breed, particularly from Delhi where high-quality heritage walks are being conducted by graduates who have studied history.
Five essential India reads?
Favourite modern travel book: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.
Favourite ancient myth: Some version of the Mahabharata. There is no better introduction to the mind of ancient India than that. I came through Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata but there are many other versions available.
Modern Novel: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
Book of history: There are so many but the one that started me off was The Great Moghuls by Bamber Gascoigne.
Book of poetry: There are so many wonderful translations now in Penguin Classics.
Which is your favourite Mughal structure in India?
It has to be the Taj Mahal. Other than that, the Moti Masjid in Lal Quila.
Places that act as virtual time portals in India?
Mandu in Madhya Pradesh, Hampi and Badami in Karnataka, Kanchipuram and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.