The Mughals’ last stand
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The Mughals’ last stand

As the living heritage of Shahjahanabad slowly crumbles to dust, take a tour of those parts still standing

brunch Updated: Jun 11, 2018 17:50 IST
Saad Ghani
Saad Ghani
Hindustan Times
Dharampura Lane,heritage of Shahjahanabad,Old Delhi
Age-old havelis can be found aplenty in Old Delhi: they may not be as grand as those in Rajasthan or Old Lucknow, but their magnificence lies in their aura of tenacious elegance(Saad Ghani)

“I reckon they should build a wall around the city again,” quips Rakesh Kumar Jain. Jain, the owner of a haveli in Shahjahanabad, also known as Old Delhi, the area of the country’s national capital that was built in the Mughal era, may not be entirely joking.

Around these two buildings, Dharampura Lane is a depressing sight. Some rickety havelis stand forlorn, bereft of dwellers. One haveli has been turned into a primary school

His beautifully restored haveli on Dharampura Lane in Chandni Chowk stands right opposite the haveli owned by Union Minister Vijay Goel. Goel has turned the haveli into a swanky heritage hotel, which obliquely mirrors the culture of bygone era. Jain’s own haveli has marvellously intricate artistry in its railings, veranda and doors, and its entrance and façade. “Can you see the figures of birds engraved on the railing?” he asks, pointing to the metal handrail of the first floor. “These days such craftmanship is hard to come by because such skilled workers no longer exist.”

The chosen one

Around these two buildings, Dharampura Lane is a depressing sight. Some rickety havelis stand forlorn, bereft of dwellers. One haveli has been turned into a primary school. Most of the havelis are owned by new inhabitants like Jain, who bought his in 1999. “Some builders have purchased a few havelis with the intention of turning them into heritage hotels like Goel Sahab did. They approached me with an offer too, but I refused,” he says.

Perhaps heritage hotels might be a good idea. Done well and bustling with residents, they may return this area to what it was before the colonial British blasted Shahjahanabad in retaliation for the uprising of 1857: one of the world’s most wondrous urban areas. It was described by poet Mir Taqi Mir as “…the chosen city of the world where only the loved ones of fate resided…”, and by all accounts, was synonymous with spectacular opulence, with spirited streets, lavish bazaars, grand havelis and palaces, poets and artists, water canals and beauty.

Perhaps heritage hotels might be a good idea. Done well and bustling with residents, they may return this area to what it was before the colonial British blasted Shahjahanabad in retaliation for the uprising of 1857

Today, the streets and bazaars of the old city resonate with chaos, its vicissitudes of fortune discernible everywhere. Beaten to near dust by the British in 1857, it took a further thrashing in 1911 when the British transferred their capital from Calcutta to the place where the Mughals once ruled from – and built an entirely new city called New Delhi.

Since then, the paucity of planning, lack of efforts to preserve its heritage, and sheer neglect has left the old city in turmoil. You can still see bits of its past grandeur in many architectural marvels that lie concealed from view in the old city’s narrow lanes, but most such clues to its glorious past have crumbled away, leaving many old havelis serving as warehouses and shops as they wait for their inevitable fate.

Hidden treasures

Age-old havelis can be found aplenty in Old Delhi: they may not be as grand as those in Rajasthan or Old Lucknow, but their magnificence lies in their aura of tenacious elegance. These havelis were once owned by Mughal aristocracy, wealthy merchants and jagirdars. The architectural designs and entrances signify the era in which they were built: mehrab-entrances adorned with tracery comprising Persian motifs means construction in the Mughal era, while most havelis built during the British era have tall sandstone entrances in immaculate curvilinear forms, consisting a diverse range of statuettes.

Some havelis in the narrow lanes of Katra Neel in Chandni Chowk have the secret underground rooms where Dilliwalahs used to hide their treasures. During and after the revolt of 1857, people used them as hiding-places to save themselves from British atrocities. Many hidden rooms were destroyed by the English when they banished the population of Delhi and dug up their homes for hidden treasures towards the end of nineteenth century.

There is a rich profusion of well-maintained havelis in Sita Ram Bazaar, which were once inhabited by the natives of Kashmir

What homes remained after Old Delhi’s twin humiliations in 1857 and 1911 were taken over by refugee families who came from newly created Pakistan in 1947. These residents have no idea of the history of their homes. Ask them about the antiquity of their havelis and they give you perplexed looks.

The Delhi of Mir has become a parochial, bemused little city steadily sinking in its ruins.

There’s a street near Fatehpuri Masjid in Chandni Chowk, where once stood the mansion of Haider Quli who oversaw the Mughal artillery during the reign of emperor Muhammad Shah

But if you look closely, you’ll find a rich profusion of well-maintained havelis in Sita Ram Bazaar, in areas such as Kucha Pati Ram, which were once inhabited by the natives of Kashmir. Urdu Poet Anand Mohan Zutshi Gulzar Dehlvi’s ancestors were among the many Kashmiri Pandits who were summoned to Jahanabad (Delhi) by the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, in 1648. His ancestral home still exists in Street Kashmiriyan. And Bazaar Sita Ram is named after one of his ancestors, Pandit Rairayyan Mirza Sita Ram Zutshi. “My ancestors knew 10-12 languages such as Turki, Persian, German, Awadhi, English, French and others. They were translators at the court of Shah Jahan,” he says. “We were given many jagirs in Delhi, Agra and Patiala by Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar as well, and titles were bestowed upon us.” His sister’s children still live in his ancestral haveli, while Dehlvi himself has moved to Noida.

Living, bit lost

The area has a rich history — Ganga Dhar Nehru (grandfather of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru) who was the last Kotwal of Delhi before 1857, lived in Bazaar Sita Ram. Kamala Kaul (later Nehru’s wife) also lived in the same vicinity. Haksar haveli near Chaurasi Ghanta Mandir — which is in ruins now —belonged to a wealthy family of Kashmiri Pandits. It was at this haveli Nehru married Kamala in 1916. The front of the haveli has been encroached by shops, and unauthorised construction was taking place in a corner of the building a few months ago. A recent order by the Delhi High Court stalled the construction at the ‘heritage’ site. The heritage tag seems preposterous. Only the debris of the haveli exists between its crumbling walls.

Entrances adorned with tracery comprising Persian motifs (Saad Ghani)

There’s a street near Fatehpuri Masjid in Chandni Chowk, where once stood the mansion of Haider Quli who oversaw the Mughal artillery during the reign of emperor Muhammad Shah. The street has many well-maintained havelis. Quli’s massive mansion was not far from where Zeenat Mahal would be built later — the palace which the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar built for his favourite wife. Like Zeenat Mahal, only the grand entrance and the front portion of Quli’s residence has survived.

The heritage property tag means that the property cannot be used for commercial purposes, nor can it be renovated in any way without permission from the authorities

At the end of this street — the whole of which once must have been Quli’s mansion — stands a haveli owned by Aggarwal brothers. The textiles merchants use the ground floor as their office. According to SK Aggarwal, the haveli is a notified heritage property on the Municipal Corporation’s list. “There are no benefits in the heritage tag. In fact, it is a pain,” Aggarwal says with a touch of scorn. “We have to take permission from the corporation even to get the smallest of work done.”

The heritage property tag means that the property cannot be used for commercial purposes, nor can it be renovated in any way without permission from the authorities. In 2015, MCD added around 300 heritage properties to its list of 737 heritage sites in Shahjahanabad. Most of these are private properties, though there are a few public and municipal properties as well.

“We have laid down rules and regulations for heritage sites. The owners are required to obtain an NOC from Delhi Development Authority’s Heritage Conservation Committee in case they wish to renovate,” says an MCD official. But since many time-battered havelis are private properties, the MCD can’t do anything.

Shah Jahan’s treasurer’s haveli popularly known as Khazanchi ki haveli in Dariba Kalan is also in ruins (Saad Ghani)

Old Delhi’s havelis are none of Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) concern either. Romel Singh Jamwal, director (conservation) at ASI says, “We are doing our best for the heritage sites and monuments of national importance that we have listed as protected.”

And most current owners pay no heed to the frailty of their mansions. Many merchants of bustling markets of Chandni Chowk bought havelis and turned them into warehouses or use them for lodging labourers.

Shah Jahan’s treasurer’s haveli popularly known as Khazanchi ki haveli in Dariba Kalan is also in ruins. The owner lives somewhere beyond Jamuna, a tenant says. “Jain sahab aate hain kabhi kabhi,” he adds pointing towards the locked door of his office at the opposite corner before hastening towards his room.

The ruinous haveli with its dilapidated bethak overlooking a small, empty hauz in its marble floored courtyard pretty much sums it all up — we allowed the living heritage of Shahjahanabad to languish and rot, and now we wait for its final doom.

From HT Brunch, June 10, 2018

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First Published: Jun 09, 2018 21:41 IST