Delhi may have seen the rise and fall of seven cities in its 3,000-year history but it is for a reason that old Dilliwallahs remember only Shahjahanabad as Shahar (Urdu for city).
In the 377 years of its existence, the Shahar has always been a lot more than a human settlement. It was here that Delhi flourished as one of the greatest cities of the medieval world: A unique melting pot of art, architecture, language, cuisine, poetry, the performing arts, craftsmanship and social mores.
It was here that Delhi got its first lessons in communal harmony. The Mughal court patronised the Ramlila savari, a tradition that still continues in the galis of Chandni Chowk during Navratri. Persian, and later Urdu, were the official languages but the spoken dialect, Hindustani, developed from a curious mix of Khari Boli, Persian and Arabic. The Hindu-Muslim synergy became the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a way of life that withstood the vicissitudes of Partition and subsequent communal onslaughts.
It was also here that Delhi made its first attempts at modern urbanisation. Back in 1863, the city got its first municipal committee and, a year later, the Town Hall. Between 1892 and 1901, Delhi got piped water, sewer lines and electrical lighting. It was here that Delhi first dabbled with modern architecture. The Art Deco bungalows of Daryaganj built in the early 20th century can still humble the swankiest of glass-and-steel towers of New Delhi in style.
“People went to the Shahar to see and ride in trams, perhaps the ricketiest, slowest and oldest trams in the world, but the only ones in north India. Not even Lahore could boast of trams. The Shahar remained the heart and soul of Delhi,” publisher Ravi Dayal wrote in Seminar.
Not anymore. Today, Shahjahanabad has virtually fallen off the civic map. Purani Dilli is a moving mess of handcarts, rickshaws and pedestrians on sunken roads with electric wires hanging precariously overhead. Hundreds of dilapidated buildings, many of them heritage structures, are death traps. The havelis of Chawri Bazar, Chandni Chowk and Nai Sarak have turned into garages and warehouses. The sewerage is choked. Four out of five families live in dingy one- or two-room accommodations built by private builders. In many katras, hazardous industrial units run in dark alleys.
And of that indefinable cultural edifice that was Delhi’s identity, the less said the better.
Experts trace the collapse of the old city to 1911 when the British decided to move their imperial capital to New Delhi. “With the Imperial Delhi coming up, Shahjahanabad became old. It was rejected as a slum… a potential area of danger, insanitation and crime,” says AK Jain, former commissioner of DDA and author of Dillinama: The Cities of Delhi.
The indifference was so obvious that Viceroy Hardinge cautioned the Municipal Committee of Delhi in 1912: “We shall not forget, when building a New Delhi outside our walls that there exists an old Delhi besides us which claims our interest and our assistance.”
Shahjahanabad continued to wait for salvation, even after Independence. The first Master Plan of Delhi in 1962 described the walled city as a “slum, congested, filthy and obsolete” and proposed that 45% of the population be shifted out.
Jain recalls that the only time two old city pockets — Dujana House (near Jama Masjid) and Turkman Gate — were redeveloped was during the Emergency years. But it was met with much violence. “This was a clear expression of separation of planning programmes from cultural, heritage and social needs of the community,” he says.
Subsequent master plans have been more charitable, the latest designates Shahjahanabad as a special conservation zone. But then, the one thing Shahjahanabad never lacked was plans.
Consider the Rs 168-crore Jama Masjid Redevelopment plan. Waiting for years to see it take off, local residents finally moved court in 2014. The Chandni Chowk redevelopment plan — that promises a cleaner skyline (by tucking away overhead cables), cobbled roads, twinkling streetlights, vehicle-free roads and ample parking space — has been “inaugurated” twice since 2005. Meanwhile, the rest of Delhi got yet another makeover during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“There are extremely strict laws for the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone. Why can’t we have similar discipline in Old Delhi too? Unless preserving Old Delhi becomes a priority and a definite agenda is set, conserving it will not be possible,” says OP Jain, heritage expert and former head of INTACH.
In a month-long campaign starting on Tuesday, Hindustan Times will highlight the state of neglect of the walled city, be the voice of its residents for basic civic dignity, and seek help from experts to suggest roadmaps for revival. And we ask every Dilliwallah, each one of you, to be part of this public campaign. We aspire to be a megacity, but what’s Delhi without its dil?
“Dil va Dilli dono agar hai kharaab; Par kuch lutf us ujde ghar mein bhi hain,” (Both heart and Delhi may have been worn out, But some little pleasures still remain in this ruined house) — Mir Taqi Mir
It is not too late yet to mend this heartbreak.