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Sepia Dreams: Visiting Shahjahanabad, one haveli at a time

From residences of famous Bollywood actors to abodes of great poets, we take you on a trail of Walled City through its havelis.

delhi Updated: Nov 01, 2018 14:20 IST
Etti Bali
Etti Bali
Hindustan Times
Old Delhi,New Delhi,Shahjahanabad
Ghalib Ki Haveli in Ballimaran in Old Delhi has been turned into a museum .(Photo: Shivam Saxena/Hindustan Times)

“Usko falak ne loot ke veeran kar diya,

Hum rehne vale hain ussi ujde dayaar ke.”

These lines by 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir encapsulate the spirit of Delhi. The city rose from the dust of numerous attacks and plunders, like a phoenix, throughout history to rebuild itself seven times. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 and its aftermath, when the city was taken siege by the British forces from the Mughals, a scene of similar ruin took over Delhi. Monuments, including the Qila-e-Mualla (Red Fort) and Jama Masjid were destroyed, so were shops, gateways, streets and havelis. The mansions of erstwhile courtiers, wives of emperors and poets fell prey to the violence.

Now, a stroll through this old city of Delhi lays bare the wounds. The havelis have now been reduced to flats, which fight for space with shops and local businesses. Activist and resident of Pahari Imli, Old Delhi, Sikander Mirza Changezi feels that heritage walks will help create awareness about the dilapidated condition of these havelis. “These havelis have their own identity. The youth is mostly unaware of this heritage. Walks and tours will help create interest as well as raise awareness about these havelis,” he says. A 24th descendent of Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, his family moved to Delhi during Shah Jahan’s reign. Since maintenance is expensive, “many residents have sold their havelis and that has resulted in shops and guest houses being opened. This has completely ruined the heritage value,” he says.

But among these, certain glimpses of Shahjahanabad can still be seen. From residences of famous Bollywood actors to abodes of great poets, we take you on a trail of Walled City through its havelis.

Begum Samru ki Haveli

An estimate of the grandeur of Begum Samru’s Haveli in Chandni Chowk can be taken from the sprawling Bhagirath Palace market that has taken roots in its place. If archived photos are to go by, the once majestic haveli, with Greco-Roman pillars, winding staircases, open terraces and Mughal arches, must have been the pride jewel of the city of Shahjahanabad. Born Farzana, Begum Samru was a trained nautch girl who, according to historical accounts, married (or) started living with a mercenary by the name of Walter Reinhardt Sombre. Over the years, Sombre came to be pronounced Samru by locals, hence giving the Begum her name. She played a vital role in saving Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, first from a Sikh army (in 1778) and then again from Rohilla forces (in 1787).

Today, you would need a keen sense of adventure and a tolerance for narrow alleys to reach the haveli. A Lloyd’s Bank opened in one part of the haveli. The plaster on the columns is crumbling, laying bare the bricks. The white paint is yellowing, speckled with paan stains and moss. Daily wage workers and immigrant labourers have no connect with the heritage. Locals rarely pay attention to it. But a little tender loving care is all that this haveli needs.

Ghalib ki Haveli

One of the most famous and most visited havelis of Old Delhi belonged to poet Mirza Ghalib. Born in Agra on December 27, 1797, Ghalib lived in Delhi between 1860 and 1869. It is said that a hakim (physician) gifted this haveli to Ghalib as he was an admirer of his poetry. Situated in Gali Qasim Jaan, the haveli once hosted many mehfils and ghazal evenings. Today, there is a caretaker who sits under a fan during hot summer days and who doesn’t seem to know much about the place. There is a museum in the haveli now, housing replicas of some of Ghalib’s favourite things. His trademark robes and topi (hat), some utensils and book of poetry are some of the things replicated and preserved, as the originals were lost over the years after the British rule.

When you visit this haveli, don’t forget to have your fill of nalli-nahari, fried chicken, tea, and black halva available in the famous food market of Ballimaran.

Zeenat Mahal

Named after the favourite and youngest begum of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, Zeenat Mahal is situated in Bazaar Lal Kuan. It is said that the Badshah himself stayed here briefly after surrendering to the British. There are many anecdotes of her bravery during the time of the uprising of 1857, but the days of glory are long gone. Only the facade and some doorways (called phataks) remain now. An old woman resides in one part of this haveli. “We moved here in 1947, when I was 2-3 years old. Ab toh logo ne polish aur safediyaa karaa ke huliya hi badal diya hai (Paintjobs have completely changed the appearance of the haveli),” she says, requesting us not to reveal her name. “Log bahut tang karte hain. Kehte hain aap coverage kyu dete ho. Mere liye mushkil ho jaati hai,” she says. Her concerns are not unfounded because a lot of shops and standalone vendors have encroached upon the space. She used to live here with her brother, who recently passed away. “Kya bataoon kitna ajeeb lag raha hai,” she says. There is an air of desolation and desperation about the haveli. The creaks in the walls, rusted frames and neglected stained glass windows—all stand testimony to the ignorance this place has been subjected to. Unlike the lady who still has some well-wishers sending help her way, Zeenat Mahal hasn’t been fortunate.

If you are going from Lal Kuan Bazaar towards Chandni Chowk, then stop by Chain Ram’s, near Fatehpuri Masjid for their famous bedmi poori and Karachi halwa.

Naseem Bano ki Haveli

Naseem Bano ki Haveli in Ajmeri Gate still has the essence of grandeur—visible in the courtyard, the many staircases and open terraces. Two men, enjoying a siesta under the arched doorway, look somewhat startled at the company of unexpected guests. A man, lazying on a bike outside, tells us that his parents have seen Naseem Bano carry Saira Bano in her arms here. Now, a tailor has opened his shop, young children run along the corridors and a cat finds refuge behind a bicycle. Multiple families live in the haveli now. Narendra Gandhi and his family, who moved here from Gujranwala (now in Pakistan) in the aftermath of 1947, were among the 22-24 families who sought refuge in this haveli. “I was 10 years old when we moved. The haveli was burned in places and roofs were missing. During the riots, gunshots were fired from the terrace,” he recalls. The octogenarian now lives here with a German Shepherd, Roxy, and some house helps.

Exploring this side of Old Delhi (Ajmeri Gate) was among the best experiences, because of the stories that unraveled. Situated almost along the boundary walls (faseel) of the Walled City, this part was the first point of contact for those entering the city. So, during the revolt of 1857, this area was the one that took the attack first.

Haksar ki Haveli

Situated in Sitaram Bazaar, Haksar ki Haveli served as the venue for former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s wedding in 1916. It was sold to the Delhi Yarn Association in the 1970s. It now lies in ruins. If you can make your way through rubble and debris, and peep through the gaps in the gates, an even desolate sight will greet you. Almost everything that once was, has been destroyed. Talks of builders turning it into a multi-storey residential complex have been doing the rounds, but it has met with opposition from the locals.

Akshay Kumar’s house

Chandni Chowk’s Gali Paranthe Wali is not just famous for its parathas. This is also the locality where Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar grew up. In the house in Maliwara, where he still has a room, there resides a family, or maybe many, but we were not allowed to talk to anyone or take photos from the inside. So, we parked ourselves at a tea vendor’s stall right opposite the house. “Paidaaish yahin ki hai Akshay Kumar ki. Saamne hi rehta tha (He was born here and lived right opposite),” says the 68-year old Jai Prakash, while brewing tea. Pointing to a corner, he adds, “Yahaan toh nahaata tha. Chai bhi pee hai yahaan ki unhone (Here, he used to bathe. And would drink tea here).” Akshay has, in the past, gone on record to say that he still visits the house. “Unke ghar ki building kaafi puraani hai. Bantwaare se pehle ki. Aaj bhi voh raat-beraat aate hain, aur raat hi mein chale jaate hain,” shares Prakash.

Interact with Etti Bali at @TheBalinian

First Published: Nov 01, 2018 14:20 IST