The centre falls apart

Capitals, even those we consider ancient and continuous, tend to be transient

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 20 April, 2018

I have always been strangely drawn to the husks of old capitals, places that once believed they were at the heart of things, but now have been swallowed by the forest, or been consigned to neglect, or, perhaps worse still, must suffer the indignity of the vague interest of tourists.

Travel about an hour southwest of London and you’ll reach Winchester, from where Anglo-Saxon kings forged the little Dark Age nation of England. Not much remains from that time. A modern statue of a bearded warlord holds up a sword at one end of the town. There’s an atmospherically old cathedral and castle, though neither structure had much to do with Winchester’s political heyday in the 9th century. In between, the town feels exceedingly ordinary, with its desultory high street and chain shops, its glowering youth rolling their skateboards down the pavements, its older residents slumping from betting shops to brightly-lit pubs. This former capital is nothing if not provincial.

The word ‘capital’ in English (and its equivalent in many European languages) traces its origin to the Latin word for ‘head’ (the German hauptstadt does the same without borrowing from Latin). In that lexical imagining, the country is a body and the capital is its mind, its director. In both Hindi rajdhani and Urdu dar-ul-hukumat, the capital is the home of government, where sovereignty inarguably resides. I’m quite fond, however, of the Persian word for capital: paytakht, literally “the feet of the throne”. That word captures for me a real truth about capitals. The throne can always just get up and walk away.

It makes sense that the Persian language should be sensitive to the impermanence and volatility of political power. Over the millennia, the various empires and kingdoms that held sway over the broader Iranian region used at least 28 different sites that we can feasibly refer to as capitals. Some of these erstwhile capitals still exist as large, thriving cities inside and outside Iran: Shiraz, Isfahan, Tabriz, Bukhara, Samarkand, Baghdad. Many others are evocative ruins: Persepolis, Merv, Ctesiphon, Pasargadae, Susa. Tehran, the current capital, has only been a political centre since the very end of the 18th century, around the same time a brash young country called the United States of America invented a capital city called Washington in the middle of a swamp. That is a very short time indeed: how long is the history of the US when set against the many millennia of Iran?

India, of course, is full of former capitals, thanks to our antiquity, our vastness, the volatility of our climate and rivers, and recent centuries of upheaval and change. Over a decade ago, I visited Murshidabad in the rural north of West Bengal, where once-glorious buildings peeked through the brush, vines clambering over their walls, trees sprouting from the stone. There was something incongruous about coming across these ruins in the midst of the squalid obscurity of the modern town itself, knowing that people lived at all times in the shadows of a grander age. Murshidabad was once a great political and economic hub, the seat of nawabs and a flourishing textile trade. After the British seized Bengal and developed their new centre in the south, decline was inevitable. Kolkata sucked up the wealth of Bengal and grew into a grand imperial capital during the 19th century. Eventually, power fled from Kolkata to another centre, to the wide boulevards, green plots and bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi. Though Kolkata remains a major metropolis in its own right, anybody who knows its twilit streets might feel that the city, like Murshidabad, is haunted by another time.

Capitals tend to be transient. Even those capitals that we consider ancient and continuous haven’t always been as permanent as we believe. A slew of other cities preceded Beijing as the political centre of China. Paris has shared its role as the capital of France with Tours, Troyes, Versailles and other towns in the last millennium. Delhi was rarely a Mughal capital and, for some rulers, the capital was not a city at all, but the roving universe of the court.

A geographical political centre of a state is paradoxical. It at once claims authority over the whole of that entity, while at the same time holding itself apart. That tension is rarely sustainable. New capitals are always coming into being in attempts to solve that problem. See, for instance, the concoction of Brasilia in Brazil, Abuja in Nigeria, Astana in Kazakhstan, and Naypyidaw in Myanmar. They were all created to make a capital in the interior of their countries, away from older, larger, more culturally significant cities. They were built literally to be central, to find themselves on the middle of the map, to signify the nation in the form of an imagined city.

But if geography and history offer any lessons, it is the warning of the poet WB Yeats: Inevitably, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” The capitals of today will almost certainly not be the capitals of tomorrow. Future Kanishks will make a habit of touring the shrunken remains of our once great centres, and wonder what once was.

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