From 17th Century to 19th Century reputation of Shahjahanabad was akin to today’s London, Paris and New York, a true cosmopolitan city with a definitive charm to attract people from every race, geography & creed into its fold. It eluded people for centuries from far lands and for us Indians, it reflects the nostalgia of by gone golden era when India was the only Golden Sparrow of the world and Mughal Sultanate was the richest empire.
Mughals had a taste for creating grand things and were crazy for leaving mark in future History which led Emperor Shahjahan to create a grand city of Shahjahanabad which literally means ‘Built By Shahjahan’. His desire was to create a city which is more grand and opulent than the capital of Ottoman and Iran which he could materialize after the death of Mumtaj Mahal when he decided to shift from Agra to Delhi. In this quest to achieve immortality, he expended great sum of money in the construction of the city and thus came into existence the 7th city of Delhi, the culmination of a long-cherished dream of Emperor Shahjahan to create the world’s best city in India.
Shahjahanabad was a dream of the Shahjahan but Chandni Chowk, the principal avenue of this walled city, was indeed a dreamland created by his Daughter Jahanara. She was the richest of Mughals in that era, the in-charge of Shahjahan’s Harem and also a successful global trader in her own capacity. She built an opulent caravanserai to cater to her business associates from Central Asia and Europe. The Sarai and its Hamam, before it’s demolition in 1857, was portrayed as the most magnificent and luxurious building by travelers of that era. Chandni Chowk, perhaps, is the most photographed avenues in India since the advent of photography.
History text books we read in schools, numerous accounts of world travelers, poetic mentions by eminent poets like Ghalib, Mir and umpteen other glorified stories of Old Delhi have built a mystic aura around the Katras, Kuchas, Bazaars and Lanes of Old Delhi. Every lane, every corner and every turn in have added a twist to this maze called Shahjahanabad and it throws a volley of surprises not only for first time visitor but even for frequent visitors. Every building and every shop have a legend attached to it and a story of nostalgia to tell.
Walking through these lanes fills you with energy, the energy which has brought this city back to life even after having witnessed bloodsheds of different types and magnitudes for centuries. Cyclic occurrence of many earth shaking events only confirmed the fame of Delhi. Intolerant deeds of Aurangzeb, martyrdom of Sikh Gurus, loot of Ahmad Shah Abdali, brutal carnage by Nadir Shah, ruthlessness of British plunder in 1857 and the bloody partition of 1947, all these events have taken a hunk of soul from this city and whatever was left could not be preserved by Indian Government post Independence thus everyday this grand old city struggles to retain its historical flavor.
After 1857, which marks the beginning of Twilight years for Delhi, Khwaza Altaf Hussain “Hali”, a prominent poet of that era, put forth his feelings which stand true even today:
“Do not go in the ruins of Delhi as every step priceless pearls lie beneath the dust… times have changed as they can never change again”
~Khwaza Altaf Hussain “Hali”
Twilight years of Delhi is believed to have ended with the proclamation of Independence in 1947, however, suppression of 1857 revolt and Hindu-Muslim riots post partition in 1947 were the watershed moments for Old Delhi which changed its face completely and permanently.
So taking a walk, organized by #SALT and FB’s #TCBG_trips & led by Liddle Sisters, along the famed lanes of Old Delhi was exalting and enriching experience where Swapna was narrating story wrapped in history and Madhulika complemented it with reading paragraphs from her book recreating the overwhelming charm of old Delhi.
The Path we followed:
After meeting fellow bloggers and Swapna and Madhulia Liddle at Chandni Chowk Metro Station, we started towards Town Hall and covered Chandni Chowk, Chunnamal Haveli, Katra Neel, Gali Ghanteshwar, Kinari Bazr, Shesh Mahal, Naughara, Dariba Kalan before ending the walk at Jama Masjid.
Swapna Liddle uncovered the stories and legend around these place and Madhulika Liddle did a book reading session presenting the world of Muzaffar Jung who is a Mughal Era detective and the protagonist of her novels.
The Important places we uncovered:
The Town Hall: After conquering the Delhi, British forces bulldozed many iconic buildings and thus completely defaced the real Chandni Chowk. They confiscated magnificent Sarai Built by Jahanara and erected an administrative building the Town Hall. Jahanara’s Mughal style gardens were converted into Colonial Style garden and named as Queen’s gardens with a statue of Queen Victoria installed within. Though after independence, Queen Victoria’s statues was replaced with Swami Shradhdhanand’s who was a nationalist leader of India.
The original Chandni Chowk was located in front of today’s Town Hall and had a water pool which used to glitter in the night with the reflection of Moon especially in full moon night and thus the name of the place was Chandni Chowk, The Moonlight Square. Canals or water channels were laid to bring water into this shallow tank from Yamuna and broad roads were built flanked with trees and rows of shops on either side. Britishers razed the basic spirit of this man-built paradise and further connected the Town Hall with Chawri Bazaar a new road which became famous as Nai Sarak.
Due to the construction of Town Hall, Queens Garden and Nai Sarak, gradually water stopped flowing into the pool and there was no moonlit glitter either and thus The Chandni Chowk eventually ceased to exist and the whole street connecting Red Fort to Fatehpuri started to be referred as Chandni Chowk.
Chunnamal Haveli: Chunnamal Haveli, located near gateway to Katara Neel, was built in 1848 and is one of the oldest yet well preserved Haveli which has lately hosted many prominent personalities in last 150 years. It is spread in one acre of land with 128 rooms built on three floors. It witnessed many historic events and one among such events is the conceptualization of Norh India’s first textile mill – The Delhi Cloth Mill (DCM) which is now owned by renowned Shri Ram Group and the capital raising plan was presented to potential investors in the dining room of this Haveli.
In 1857, after confiscating Mughal Era building especially of resident Muslims, British Authorities auctioned them for pittance. Lala Chunnamal was a visionary businessman from Agarwal Community and with his impeccable business acumen emerged as the wealthiest person of Delhi post 1857. He bought many properties including Fatehpuri Masjid from Britishers and is believed that he owned half of the Old City in that period. In later years, he sold those properties and became wealthier. He was the first one to own a telephone and an automobile in Delhi. He started a bank, The Delhi London Bank, to support his global trades and was elected as the first Municipal Commissioner of Delhi. He owned Delhi’s first theatre Rama Theatre which is now a museum run by Sis Ganj Gurudwara. This Haveli is truly a standing ovation to the entrepreneur spirit of Indian trading community.
Katara Neel: Katra is a gated area served both as a residential and commercial place for its inhabitants. When Shahjahan Shifted capital from Agra to Delhi, Many business and trading communities also shifted to the walled city and occupied areas around Chandni Chowk which was the main business avenue in those days. Each katra had the provision to lock the doors in the night and thus securing the goods and life of the workers and families.
Katra Neel was the gated bazaar of traders dealing in dyes especially Indigo Dye, the Neel which gave it its name. In those days Indigo was the most precious color, a color of royalty. These families were the masters of Indigo trade but used to deal in all other colors also. Today, Katra Neel is a famous wholesale bazaar where one can find largest range of ladies suit and lehengas etc.
On the main road of Katra Neel there are some very old temples such as Kali temple and Kunniji Maharaj Shivalaya which is inside an old Haveli. This road also connects to Gali Ghanteshwar which again has some very old temples and old Havelis.
Gali Naughara: After Katra Neel our next stop was Naughara Complex off Kinari Bazaar. In Hindi, Nau is Nine, Ghara is House and Gali is Lane. So, Naughara Gali is a gated cluster or cul de sac with nine colorful havelis (mansions) of merchants from Jain Communities. This cluster was built in 18th century and its beautiful façade has intricate carvings representing a combination of Hindu and Islamic style of Haveli construction. These havalis are better preserved havelis of Old Delhi and their colorful façades offer a respite from the bustle and cacophony of the old Delhi’s bazaar.
At the end of this cluster, there is a white marble Jain Shwetamber Temple, known as Jauhari Temple, dedicated to fifth tirthankar Shri Sumatinath and is believed to be of Mahabharata era. It’s lavish decoration and intricate artwork unarguably makes it the most beautiful Jain temple of Delhi.
Sheesh Mahal: In Katra Kushal Rai, there is four storied haveli named “Shish Mahal” established in 18th century and was home to Mughal Wazir Ashraf Beg. This is where St. Stephen’s School started in 1841 and St Stephen’s college, the most prestigious college of Delhi University, had its humble beginning in 1881 from here with three teachers and five students. In 1891 college was shifted from to a building near Kashmiri gate near St James’ church and remained there till 1941 when it finally shifted to its current building Delhi University Campus.
Few years back, alumni visited this place and installed a plaque confirming its heritage and academic value of this old haveli.
Surajwalli Masjid: Witnessing a mosque with a Sun as its emblem was a surprise element of the walk as Suraj i.e. Sun with its rays on a Masjid (Mosque) is never heard of phenomenon. Here the emblem of the Mosque is not a crescent but the Sun, a Symbol of Hinduinsm, which again validates the cosmopolitan nature of Old Delhi and this 19th century’s modest mosque is a living testimony to the harmony Hindus and Muslims lived with in those days. For me this was the finding of this walk and here I would like to quote Swapna who remarked that inside the walled city, architectural styles don’t follow the rule of the religion.
Jama Masjid: Jama in Urdu means congregation, so Jama Masjid is a congregational Mosque and In every sense the high point of Mughal Architecture. The foundation stone was laid in 1860 by Shahjahan on a small hillock called Bhojla Pahar near Red Fort. It can be classified as the finest example and a symbol of Mughal’s precision architecture which they mastered during the construction of Taj Mahal.
It had three entrances and the broadest one was royal entrance from Red Fort passing through today’s Meena Baazar. As this was the main and also the royal mosque of Shahjahanabad, it was in direct control of Mughal administration and Imam was given the title of Shahi Imam. For this mosque, Imam was specially called from Bukhara in Central Asia which was the ancestral place of Mughals and hence Imams of Jama Masjid were always known as Imam Bukhari.
After 1857, Britishers demolished many imperial buildings of Shahjahanabad and confiscated the properties of Muslim. There was even a plan to demolish the Jama Masjid and construct a grand Cathedral instead to punish the Muslims of Delhi. Jama Masjid was under control of Biritish force and after many rounds of negotiations it was handed over to Muslims in 1862 with a rider that Englishmen and their forces would be allowed to entre the mosque without removing shoes.
Legend of Sarmad Shaheed:
While standing at the earstwhile royal stairs of Jama masjid facing toward Red Fort, Swapna narrated the legends of Sarmad Shaheed.
The royal entrance has two shrines, one is of Sarmad Shaheed and other is of his master Hare Bhare Shah. Sarmad was a Jew from Armenia and was in loggerhead with Aurangzeb because of his eccentric style of functioning, unusual interpretation of religion and hence was declared guilty of heresy and was beheaded.
As per legends and folklore, his headless body picked up the head and started to climb the stairs of Jama Masjid in anger only to be stopped by the voice of Hare Bhare Shah who was buried in nearby shrine. Hare Bhare Shah asked him where are you going? And Sarmad replied that he was going to lay his case before Almighty on that Hare Bhare Shah cajoled him and asked him to bury his anger as he had reached his destination. After this his body collapsed and near the steps his shrine was built in Red Color next to Green Color shrine of Hare Bhare Shah.
Another legend say that after beheading as soon as his head hit the ground, full kalma was recited from his mouth and the head kept rolling and reciting the praises of the God till it reached the stairs of Jama Masjid. And right at the bottom of stairs his shrine was built.
This was my 3rd heritage walk to the walled city of Shahjahanabad, however, because of factual narration by Swapna Liddle, recreation of scenes from Mughal era by Madhulika Liddle and awesome company of fellow bloggers like Alka Ji, Abhinav, Gaurav, Ambica, Mahesh and Jitaditya, it turned out to be the best walk.
It truly enriched my knowledge and brought me closer to the heritage and history of Delhi. Let me conclude this post by mentioning one line from Zauk, who was the contemporary to Ghalib and an equally talented and famous Urdu Poet:
“Kaun zaye phir Zauk Dilli ki galiyon ko chodkar”
Some 150 years back, Zauk put forth the feelings of each resident and visitor of Old Delhi which still stand true as each time when you roam around the lanes of Old Delhi you never feel like going back to New Delhi. Trust me, give this old city a chance and rest assured, with its timeless charm & enchanting demeanor it will embrace you in its love fold.
This was organized by #SALT which is a Chandigarh-based non-profit started by a group of women interested in preservation and promotion of all manner of vulnerable heritage. Since its inception a few years ago it has organized children’s literature festivals, brought attention to little known music traditions, and promoted monumental heritage by writing and talking about it. Yesterday’s walk was conducted under the aegis of SALT as part of its commitment towards heritage appreciation.
Swapna Liddle: Swapna Liddle studied history, getting her doctorate for a thesis on nineteenth century Delhi. For some years now, she has been organizing and leading walks around historic precincts of the City for INTACH. He is also closely involved with INTACH’s heritage protection and public awareness programmes. She authored a book on Delhi – Delhi: 14 historic walks.
Madhulika Liddle: Madhulika Liddle is best known as the author of the Muzaffar Jang mystery series: The Englishman’s Cameo, The Eighth Guest, Engraved in Stone, Crimson City. In 2003, her short stories won the top prize at the commonwealth Broadcasting Association’s short story competition. She blogs at http://madhulikaliddle.com