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Delhiwale: The wall of the walled city

You may think the old wall that once defined Delhi is gone. But it still runs, quietly, along the altered cityscape

delhi Updated: Jan 01, 2018 11:06 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
The wall of the Walled City survives in places — but is best seen near Delhi Gate in Daryaganj.
The wall of the Walled City survives in places — but is best seen near Delhi Gate in Daryaganj.(Mayank Austen Soofi / HT Photo)

Flâneurs go to the Walled City for its street cuisine and to experience its famous and obscure monuments. But what about the Walled City’s wall — yes, it exists.

The wall of the Walled City survives in places — but is best seen near Delhi Gate in Daryaganj. A 13-metre-high rampart of random rubble, this segment of the Mughal-era fortification faces the brick buildings of Ansari Road, which have offices of some of India’s best-known publishing companies.

Built in the 1650s, the wall surrounded emperor Shahjahan’s new capital Shahjahanabad (the seventh city of Delhi is relatively a new city but today, ironically, is known as Old Delhi).

The wall was originally 6km long, with 13 gates and 14 smaller wicket gates, called khidkis. Most of them are lost.

In the stretch along Ansari Road, the wall has a tiled urinal, a dumping yard, a police post, a Durga temple and a milk booth. Cars are parked across its entire length.

One way of experiencing the wall is to climb a slope leading to its top. Here you’ll see trees curving around the battlements; their branches snaking through spear holes and clasping each other like Lodhi Garden lovers.

The wall has a succession of arched niches with a walkway above. The niches are littered with discards of urban life, such as wood shavings, empty cigarette packets and beer cans. The day we were there, one of the niches had a blanket, indicating that it probably served as the night shelter of a homeless person. In a few others, idle men were playing cards. Some also had park-like benches.

During the Mughal rule, the wall marked the boundary of a civilized world. In his biography of Mirza Ghalib, author M Mujeeb, while discussing the sophistication of Delhi’s great Urdu poet, refers to the wall. He writes: “(Ghalib’s cultural conditioning)… was narrow-mindedly, obstinately urban. It regarded the city as an oasis in a wilderness, the city wall as the bulwark of culture against a surrounding barbarism.”

Beyond the wall were ruins of the older cities of Delhi, a few Sufi shrines, some villages, and further beyond, wilderness.

Over the years, the Walled City’s wall has been demolished to make way for highways and buildings. The damage began in 1857, after the British put down the historic uprising led by Delhi’s last Mughal. The colonisers destroyed much of the wall so that the city could never be secured from within. In addition, to place their cannons more strategically in any future rebellion, they built Mortello Towers across the wall.

A small circular fortification, each Mortello Tower — named after a fortress in the Corsican coast — was connected to the wall by a narrow bridge. The tower at Ansari Road, however, is inaccessible. The bridge connecting to it is broken.

Nearby is a rootless tree with leafy branches — seemingly dead and alive at the same time, much like the Old Delhi wall.