Few countries, anywhere in the world, can compete with India when it comes to the grandeur of our palaces. I’ve seen grand chateaux in the Loire in France and I’ve also seen great British country houses (such as Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was shot). Few of them match up to our palaces. And certainly none of them has been turned into a hotel that can compare with our great Rajasthani palace hotels: the Rambagh, the Lake Palace and the Umaid Bhawan.
But as much as I’ve admired our palace hotels, I’ve always wondered: where did the other rich people of that era live?
In Rajasthan, we know that the gentry and the aristocracy had their own seats, which they have now converted into heritage hotels in such places as Samode and Deogarh. And we have some idea of how the wealthy Baniyas started out, based on the restoration work of their homes in Shekhawati.
But do we really know how the wealthy lived in Calcutta three centuries ago? Sadly, we have no way of knowing what the life of a wealthy merchant in Calcutta was like 300 years ago. In Bombay, some old residences – usually of officers of the British Raj – survive, but they are used as government buildings, so access is limited.
I was struck by how little we know of the homes of the early Indian rich when I went to Venice. As you probably know, Venice was a republic, which elected its ruler. So it had no royal family and its real masters were the merchants who controlled the city. There is the palace of the Doge (the elected ruler), just off St Mark’s Square, which is fairly grand, but the most interesting buildings are the many private homes scattered around the city and on the banks of the Grand Canal. Some are in states of disrepair because many of the great Venetian families lost their fortunes over time. But some are truly stunning.
Delhi must have had its share of wealthy merchants. But where, I have often wondered, did they live? Any attempt to answer this question is complicated by the fact that at least ten cities have been built on the site we call Delhi. Archaeologists have found Indus Valley artefacts (before 800 BC) in Delhi and there are Ashokan pillars and edicts near today’s Lotus Temple, which must date to around 250 BC or so.
The Delhi Sultanate period (1192 to 1526 AD) is hard to miss in modern Delhi because of the monuments it left behind, including Feroz Shah Kotla and most famously, the Qutub Minar. The Sultanate’s last rulers were the Lodis (1451 to 1526 AD) who built the tombs and monuments in Lodi Garden.
So when you look for the private homes of the wealthy, which Delhi do you examine? My conclusion is that the Mughal period is probably the right starting point because so much of the Delhi we know today dates back to that phase in the city’s history.
For instance, what we call Old Delhi is actually only about 350 years old, which is not terribly ancient, considering that the city was inhabited around 1,000 to 800 BC. But it is a good place to look because Old Delhi has retained its character from the Mughal days. Most of what we call Old Delhi was built by the emperor Shah Jahan who, with characteristic modesty, called it Shahjahanabad. The city was built around 1640-1650 AD (so, by Delhi standards, it is actually quite young!) and remained the capital of the Mughal empire ever since.
Because India was one of the world’s richest countries in that age, the capital’s commercial quarter was one of the most important trading and business centres in the East. The original Chandni Chowk was built around a canal of the Yamuna, which passed down the street, forming a pool that reflected the moonlight and gave the area its name.
But the business of Chandni Chowk was business. The Chatta Bazaar, designed by Shah Jahan’s daughter, housed over 1,500 shops. It was, in those days, so famous that comparisons were drawn with St Mark’s Square in Venice, though unlike Venice, which was mainly Catholic, Chandni Chowk housed three of the world’s great religions: it had mosques, Hindu temples, and was a centre of Digambar Jain worship.
I don’t know when the decline of Chandni Chowk began. Some people say that it was the ruthless reprisals from the British after the 1857 Mutiny/War of the Independence that destroyed the peaceful character of Chandni Chowk, as did the looting that was the hallmark of the East India Company’s soldiers. Other say that the rot set in after New Delhi was created in the 20th century.
Either way, Chandni Chowk is a mess now. It is overcrowded, parts of it are dirty and its wonderful historical mansions are now in disrepair. My friend, Vijay Goel, former MP for Chandni Chowk, has spent much of his life studying its architecture and history. He is devoted to restoring the area and though I often fear that he is fighting a losing battle, I admire his resilience and energy.
Vijay doesn’t see why, in an era where the world’s other great squares have become landmarks, Chandni Chowk should become a slum. By and large, the people of the area have co-operated with him. Some years ago he began holding a cultural festival called Chaudhvin Ka Chand in the area (it attracts five to six lakh visitors) and tried to spruce up the locality by pulling down hideous signboards, whitewashing the walls and putting colour on the streets. As a consequence, Chandni Chowk looked better – but only if you had seen what it had become before Vijay’s facelift. If you did not know what he had done, you would have found that it still looked grotty.
Some years ago, as part of his obsession with Chandni Chowk, Vijay bought a decrepit old haveli. It was in such bad condition that all his friends advised him not to buy it.
But Vijay went ahead anyway and has painstakingly restored it to its original splendour. Because he is not without influence, he has also turned the lane where it is located into a pedestrian street and has removed the open electrical wiring that defaces every road in the area.
Vijay researched the history of the haveli after he bought it and he reckons it is at least 150 years old and was built by a Muslim family. Then it was purchased by wealthy Jain traders who owned it for many years. He only realised how rich they must have been, Vijay says, when he found, during restoration, that there was a secret basement, which was used as a storehouse, presumably for gold. He found two other hiding places for treasure, well concealed in the building.
Because Vijay was restoring, not renovating, he set himself a rule: he would not use fancy imported materials but would stick to whatever would have been available to the haveli’s original owners. So the railings, the marble, the tiles and the fabrics are all typical of the grand havelis of the old days.
I have no idea how much Vijay has spent on this restoration process. But he has created a fabulous haveli that reminds one of the glory that once was Chandni Chowk. In a sense, he has done what many hoteliers did with the decrepit palazzos of Venice.
He won’t get his money back, I think, but he needs some income to ensure that Haveli Dharampura pays for itself. So he has built around 20 or so hotel rooms (modern bathrooms are the one break with tradition that I approve of) and hopes to let them out to culture-loving guests.
He knows that Chandni Chowk is not as salubrious a location as, say, Chanakyapuri. But he believes that there will be many guests who will want to come to Old Delhi for the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, etc, all of which are miles away from the New Delhi hotels. The haveli will make a perfect base from which to explore the Mughal city.
I hope he’s right. We’ve had enough of grand palaces. It’s time to renovate the great residences and to stay in the shadow of the Red Fort and enjoy the culture of the old city.
It works in Venice. And I hope Vijay can make it work here!
From HT Brunch, January 31, 2016
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