Jama Masjid: Restorations plans for Delhi’s grand old mosque put on fast track
The centerpiece of Shahajahanabad – one of the seven great cities that shaped modern Delhi – and India’s largest, grandest mosque, Jama Masjid, is a mess today. The filth and chaos around the imposing 361-year-old domed structure with a sprawling forecourt belie the stories of the yore that describe its grandeur and importance in the city’s history.
However, there is hope. Comprehensive plans are now under consideration, which seek to restore the glory of this monument as well as help the urban sprawl around it so that the two co-exist peacefully.
When the issue of degradation of the monument and the areas around it was first flagged in 2004 in a public interest litigation (PIL), the Delhi High Court had ordered the authorities to redevelop Jama Masjid and its precinct, spreading over 23 acres. A plan was prepared and approved by the court two years later. However, it had a quiet death in paper files.
On the ground, the hold-up due to dilly-dallying by the authorities worsened the situation. Slow moving traffic on pock-marked narrow roads, encircling the structure, illegal constructions in the neighbourhood, rampant encroachment in the lanes leading to the masjid gates, unauthorised hawkers and illegal parking have turned this tourists’ dream into a nightmare.
“The Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) -- entrusted with the responsibility of refurbishing the Walled City -- has forwarded two plans, prepared by noted architect Pradeep Sachdeva and the corporation itself, to the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) for review and comments after Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal issued directions to expedite the project,” an official privy to the development told Hindustan Times.
“The SRDC has requested SPA to accord ‘top priority’ to the plan as the next date of court hearing is December 29,” the official said.
Once SPA approves the plan and it gets court’s nod, a three-member sub-committee, comprising principal secretaries (urban development and tourism department) and former journalist Satish Jacob, will decide the course for its implementation.
“The first plan was approved by the court and DUAC 7-8 years ago. It should have been by now. Because of the delay, the community living around the mosque, is suffering and also impacting the structure,” said AGK Menon, urban planner and conservation consultant, on the proposals sent to the SPA.
The passage of the king
The view from the Shahi Darwaza – eastern entrance of the mosque – says it all. The green patches and the tombs of India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Shah Nawaz Khan of the Indian National Army, located few metres away from the structure, have been taken over by the homeless, vagabonds and pick pockets.
The pathway (starting from Netaji Subhash Marg) leading to the stairs of the gate and the water channel in the middle are occupied by vendors selling garments, spices, dry fruits, CDs, utensils and other knick-knacks.
This passage once connected the Red Fort’ Akbarabadi Darwaza, also known as Dilli Darwaza, to Jama Masjid’s Shahi Darwaza. Shahjahan used to take it to go to the mosque.
There was a crossing in between, which was called Saadullah Chowk, named after a trusted noble of Shahjahan, who along with the governor of Delhi, Khalil Ullah Khan, supervised the construction of Jama Masjid.
This zone, surrounded by Kasturba Hospital Road (south), Netaji Subhash Marg (east), Parade Ground parking road (north) and the mosque (west), will be redeveloped as part of the project.
The sprawl also comprises shrines of Sufi saints Sheikh Kalimullah and Sufi Sarmand.
The cultural centre
Until 1857, this area was the epicenter of socio-religious and political activities, and was called Khas Bazaar. Several noblemen had built their mansions in the vicinity.
The bazaar was popular for preachers, quacks, professional storytellers, vendors, and entertainers. Dance performances used to be held at Saadullah Chowk.
Author and historian Swapna Liddle in her book — Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi -- has written that young male singers in the bazaar were immensely popular and would earn a great deal of money.
“Preachers too installed themselves atop wooden stools and delivered sermons suited to the religious calendar. Astrologer, diviners, quacks making fabulous claims for their medicines, particularly aphrodisiacs, all attracted large number of credulous customers,” her book describes the 17th-century market place.
Weapons, fabrics, fruits, and wild animals or birds were also sold at the bazaar.
The shops and residential quarters were, however, pulled down after the British regained the control of the city post-1857 mutiny.
The idea was to have unobstructed view of the mosque and its neighbourhood from the fort because the British considered it the venue of congregation of rebels.
The open land before the mosque was converted into Edward Park in 1922. It was divided and renamed as Subhash Park, Urdu Park, and Dangal Maidan after the independence.
The clean-up operation
The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) took up a beautification drive in 1975. Shops and encroachments around the mosque were removed. The authority built Meena Bazaar — with 690 shops and kiosks — to rehabilitate displaced shopkeepers.
To authority dug up 15-feet to construct the underground market — known for machines and industrial tools—in the front of Shahi Darwaza. DDA added 22 steps to the original 22 steps before the darwaza to make up for the depth.
Gardens with fountains and ponds were also added. However, squatters returned to the site and another anti-encroachment drive was conducted in 2008.
Redevelopment plan and disagreements
Pradeep Sachdeva was appointed by the erstwhile Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to draft the plan. It was submitted to the high court in October 2006. Certain modifications and changes were incorporated following the suggestions made by the Delhi Urban Art Commission (DUAC) in 2009.
After MCD’s trifurcation, the project was given to the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, and in 2012 it was handed over to the Public Work Department (PWD), and later to the SRDC.
A government official said disagreement over a proposal to relocate Meena Bazaar on a plot opposite the Parade ground parking is delaying implementation.
Sachdeva’s plan proposes restoration of the foreground into a pedestrian plaza starting from Shahi Darwaza upto Netaji Subhash Marg with gardens and relocation of Meena Bazaar.
The SRDC’s design, prepared by its consultant (tourism project) Vijay Singh, says the market should not be moved.
The shopkeepers of Meena Bazaar are also opposed to relocation. But, some other shopkeepers say the chaos is now hurting their business. “The area needs to be spruced up to bring tourists and visitors. Several research scholars come to my shop in search of rare manuscripts but return disappointed due to the poor condition of the area,” Nizamuddin, who owns 78-year-old book store, Kutub Khana Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu, in Urdu Bazaar.
The SRDC has sent the Meena Bazar shopkeepers’ representations to the SPA for review, said an official.
“Relocation is for the betterment of the historic mosque to maintain cleanliness and safe environment in the precinct. It is imperative to maintain its historic aesthetics in coherence with the iconic structure” said Sachdeva, who has also designed Dilli Haat and the Garden of Five Senses.
Instead of shifting Meena Bazaar, Singh proposes its redevelopment as centrally air-conditioned market.
His plan also recommends decongestion of the area by constructing underground tunnels at Nukkad Faiz Bazaar-Daryaganj crossing, Netaji Subhash Marg-Nishadraj Marg traffic signal, and Heritage Road Dharampura-Netaji Subhash Marg.
“We have already done beautification thrice earlier but the mess has remained. We need to utilise the space optimally, keeping in mind the interest of all stakeholders,” said Singh, who was the deputy commissioner (DC), city zone in the unified MCD.
His plan divides the area in front of Shahi Darwaza into three levels. For the top level -- foreground of Jama Masjid, he suggests gardens with concretised space for worshippers.
It also proposes community activities, a heritage bazaar, a banquet hall, Meena Bazaar shops, and underground parking facility with additional parking space at the second level below the ground.