Chandni Chowk’s often overlooked place of worship silently turns 300
- Though the boulevard has been revamped but the prospects of the historical mosque have remained unchanged.
Nestled next to the mighty Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib and a sea of shops at the busy Chandni Chowk stands a three-century-old mosque. Overshadowed by the shops that make up the bustling market square, the Shahi Sunehri Masjid at Chandni’s Chowk Fountain Chowk is often overlooked by visitors as they chart their way through the historical market square that has undergone a massive facelift as part of the area’s redevelopment project.
Though the boulevard has been revamped but the prospects of the historical mosque have remained unchanged.
It was built by Nawab Roshan-ud-Daula Zafar Khan in 1721 during the reign of Muhammad Shah in the memory of his spiritual mentor or peer Shah Bhik. Historical texts suggest that the Nawab occupied an important place in the Mughal court. Located adjacent to the Kotwali, the mosque was historically known as Sunehri Masjid Kotwali due to its proximity to the main police station of the city. The area surrounding the Kotwali was colloquially knows as “Aafat ki jagah” or a place of mischief.
“A stream would flow through the area and form a whirlpool in the jungle area next to the mosque. It was heavily forested with animals such as lions and cheetahs inhabiting the area. It was said that anyone entering the jungle wouldn’t return. Due to these reasons, the vicinity of the mosque earned its reputation as a risky place, and later the Kotwali was set up here,” said Maulana Mohammad Furquan Qasmi, imam, Sunehri Masjid.
A mention of the same can be found in Waqiaat-e-Darul-Hukumat Delhi authored by Bashiruddin Ahmad Dehlvi. On the history of the Kotwali Chabootra (an area bordering the present-day mosque), the book states: “The area has always been mischievous…at one point, a river used to flow from here and thousands of boats would capsize. Later, a dense forest developed in the area, and lions started inhabiting it as a home. No one would make it alive from here.” The mosque also finds mention in social reformer and educationist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s book on Delhi—Asar-al-Sanadid (The Remnant of Ancient Heroes) as well.
The area’s notoriety continued even after the mosque took shape with the Sunehri Masjid becoming the backdrop of one of the violent incidents in Delhi’s history — the Qatl-e Aaam — or the massacre that was ordered by Nadir Shah in 1739, after some of his soldiers were attacked in the city. From the courtyard of the mosque, Nadir Shah oversaw the massacre, in which thousands of people are said to have been killed.
Historian and author Rana Safvi who has written an English translation of Asar-al-Sanadid said Khan’s book described the Kotwali chabootra as a scene of calamities and troubles. “The Kotwali that was next to the mosque was possibly a site of action. Further, Nadir Shah also oversaw the massacre in Delhi from here. Hence, the reputation of the area as a site of troubles,” said Safvi.
Cut to the present, the mosque is a much peaceful place today, and uneventful on most days.
Multiple arched gateways of the mosque coupled with tiny domes that dot the mosque’s railing continue to exude an aura of the past. A valuable inscription through which the mosque’s antiquity can be traced continues to adorn the entrance gateway of the central ‘mehrab’ of the mosque. The inscription — penned in Nastaliq (a style of the Persian script) — mentions its year of construction as well as the name of Nawab Roshan-ud-Daula. The pillars of the mosque are engraved with motifs now painted in a combination of green and golden colours. The three bulbous copper-gilded domes due to which the mosque gets its name stand tall though the plating has paled over the years.
As per historical texts, the domes of the mosques were damaged early on due to which the Nawab transferred the domes from another Sunehri Masjid built by him to this mosque. The other mosque that goes by the same name currently stands in Daryaganj but without any domes.
Over the years, the interiors of the mosque have been whitewashed due to which many intricate carvings have been concealed. While the original sandstone of the mosque’s verandah was replaced with marbles some years ago, the interiors consist of the original marble. Due to water seepage, paint in several corners is chipping away while the boundary wall has also sustained damage.
Qasmi said though the mosque has not been repaired, it received touch-ups as part of the Chaudahvin Ka Chand festival that was organised in 2003. The mosque was decked up in flowers back then. He said the mosque needs conservation efforts from experts. “We don’t need a stop-gap measure. The mosque needs to be structurally conserved along with the facade,” he said.
Ashok Mathur, 52, a resident of Chandni Chowk, recalled that the mosque was prominently visible till the late 80s since there was significant ground space in front of the Kotwali adjacent to the mosque. He said the construction of newer high rises in the vicinity of the mosque have overshadowed it. “Once upon a time, the mosque would protrude prominently on the Chandni Chowk square since the Kotwali building adjacent to it had an empty ground in the foreground. The dome was quite prominent back then,” said Mathur.
Besides newer construction, hoardings of various shops compete for attention with the mosque. Ghulam, a 20-year-old, whose family has a small cloth shop right next to the stairs leading up to the mosque, said while the mosque was relatively smaller in size than the other historical mosques in the area, it used to be frequented by tourists before the pandemic. “The mosque has an interesting history and tourists come here to enquire about it. However, despite the significance of the mosque, it has not received due care and attention,” said Ghulam, who goes by his first name.
Patrons of the mosque said it was in desperate need of support. Mohd Abid, who owns a shop in Bhagirath Palace, said due to its prime location, the mosque was preferred by locals and shopkeepers in the area.
“Water seepage in the ceiling and the washrooms is a perpetual problem. During rain, huge streams of water trickle down. Massive repairs are needed but the Waqf board is not doing anything to address these concerns,” said Abid.
Mehfooz Mohammad, section officer, Delhi Waqf Board, said that the board will get the mosque surveyed and take necessary steps for its conservation. “The board is exploring the possible efforts that can be undertaken for the conservation of the mosque. We are already in touch with conservation experts and have held consultations in this regard,” said Mohammad.
Both traders and residents of the locality are of the view that the mosque needs to be conserved with the aim of highlighting its prominence and crucial space in Delhi’s history. Sanjay Bhargava, president Chandni Chowk Sarv Vyapar Mandal, whose outlet is among the four shops located on the mosque’s ground floor, said the mosque has not received its due. Bhargava said it was in desperate need of repairs.
“It is a beautiful mosque. Authorities should take note since the mosque is not protected by the ASI,” said Bhargava.
Historian and author Swapna Liddle said for conservation efforts to be undertaken, it was crucial for stakeholders to decide on a conservation plan to preserve the mosque. “One needs to take the first step. Someone needs to take up the mandate of conservation work,” said Liddle.
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