Shahjahanabad: How a planned city came undone

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByZehra Kazmi and Saudamini Jain
Jan 29, 2018 03:11 PM IST

Crowded roads, endless traffic snarls, unauthorised construction and crumbling infrastructure show how Shah Jahan’s meticulously planned city, once known for its grandeur, has fallen apart due to years of apathy.

On April 19, 1648, Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, first stepped into the Diwan-e-Khas, or the Hall of Special Audience in the newly completed Qila-e-Mubarak or the Red Fort. The occasion called for a grand celebration. A great velvet canopy stood in the fort’s courtyard, halls were decked with silks from Turkey and China. Shah Jahan sat on a raised throne, awarding gifts and ranks to his nobles.

At the centre of this settlement was Qila-i-Mubarak (Red Fort), the palace-fortress. The city was encircled with a wall with 14 gates, from where Shahjahanabad gets its sobriquet of Walled City.(Virendra Singh Gosain / HT Archive)
At the centre of this settlement was Qila-i-Mubarak (Red Fort), the palace-fortress. The city was encircled with a wall with 14 gates, from where Shahjahanabad gets its sobriquet of Walled City.(Virendra Singh Gosain / HT Archive)

This fort was to be the epicentre of Shahjahanabad, the emperor’s new capital. Shah Jahan had personally overseen the planning of the city, directing a primary mosque or the Jama Masjid to be built, gardens to be laid, canals to be rebuilt, boulevards to be constructed.

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For more than 30 years, Shahjahanabad thrived, not only as the capital of the Mughal empire, but as a centre of culture, where art, poetry, music, artisanship all flourished. “Shahjahanabad was a statement of a way of life achieved after many centuries”, writes Shama Mitra Chenoy, a professor of history at Delhi University in her book, Shahjahanabad: A City of Delhi 1638-1857.

The present-day Shahjahanabad is a tableau of chaos, bursting at the seams with people. More than the dilapidated buildings, the traffic jams, unauthorised construction and crumbling infrastructure show how Shah Jahan’s meticulously planned city, once known for its splendour, was undone by apathy and a lack of planning.

A Planned City

Shah Jahan had a passion for architecture and from the outset, Shahjahanabad was a planned city. When he decided to shift the capital from Agra in 1639, he instructed architects, engineers and astrologers at the court to hunt for a suitable site, between Agra and Lahore.

Delhi was the chosen site – its location was apt, it had been the capital of kings before and it was the final resting place of saints, bringing the touch of the scared. According to Stephen Blake, one of the first historians to study the pattern of Shahjahanabad, the semi-circluar design of the city was partly guided by the ‘karmuka’ or arched bow-shape design in ancient Hindu texts of vastu shastra.

At the centre of this settlement was Qila-i-Mubarak, the palace-fortress. The city was encircled with a wall with 14 gates, from where Shahjahanabad gets its sobriquet of Walled City. Parts of the wall can still be seen. Five of the gates survive.

By 1656, the Jama Masjid was constructed on an elevated site near the fort; it still remains Delhi’s biggest mosque. Two main boulevards, Chandni Chowk and Faiz Bazar (in present-day Daryaganj) are famous, crowded markets, but Nahar-i-Bahisht, a canal in the middle of Chandni Chowk, no longer exists.

Shah Jahan had a fondness for laying out gardens, a practice introduced by the first Mughal emperor Babur in India.

“To him, as to all the Mughals, Paradise was not just a walled garden, but a beautiful city,” writes Narayani Gupta, who teaches history at Delhi University, in her essay, The Indomitable City. Shah Jahan had a garden called Khizrabad laid out south of the city’s Akbarabadi Gate; his daughter Roshan Ara Begum constructed one near Lahori Gate, as did other nobles.

While the Mughal builders worked to a plan, certain things were left to the choice of the residents. “The Mughal system of planning was based on give and take. Private enterprise and individual initiative also became part of planning,” says Swapna Liddle, convenor of INTACH and author of Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.

The royal planners constructed things such as walls, gates, the major avenues and laid down certain rules -- for example, the facades of shops in the Chandni Chowk bazaar looked the same – but the design of houses, katras and mohallas was left to individual choice.

“In every mohalla or locality, building activity was locally negotiated with your neighbours. It was an informal situation…but now that community spirit is gone,” says Liddle.

How the Red Fort bore the brunt of several assaults

In 1739, Persian invader Nader Shah carried away jewels and valuables, including the Peacock Throne, which by some estimates was worth 12,000,000 pounds. Later, the silver inlaid ceiling of the Diwan-e-Khas, the Hall of Special Audience was removed by the Marathas. By the time of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time, parts of the fort were already crumbling and Rs 500 per month were set aside to perform repairs.

The next assault came from the British, who, after quelling the 1857 uprising, rces ransacked Red Fort. They stole jewels and marble slabs and auctioned off the gilded domes of the Moti Masjid, the mosque within the fort, and the Diwan-e-Khas. The colonial administration added two structures disrupting the fort’s original design. The first was a railway line that spliced through the Red Fort complex. The second were barracks to house the colonial army, which moved into the fort as an assertion of authority. When India gained independence in 1947, the British soldiers in the barracks were replaced by Indian ones. In 1979, it was decided that Red Fort would be handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India, but in fact, the army finally moved out only in 2003.

The Decline of Shahjahanabad

The twilight of the Mughal empire set in motion the decline of Shahjahanabad.

In 1681, Aurangzeb left for the Deccan, never to come back to the north, and with him left most of the nobles. Then came a series of natural calamities: in 1716, heavy rainfall caused huts to collapse, killing 2,000 people; in 1719, there were a series of earthquakes; in 1730, plague; and in 1735, heavy rain caused the canal to flood.

In 1739, came a terrifying time that Delhi had not seen since Timur centuries ago. Nadir Shah, the Persian king, marched in with his army. Some locals, it is said, threw stones at the Persians. This enraged Nadir Shah, who stood on the roof of the Sunehri Masjid, near Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Old Delhi, and ordered a massacre. Some 30,000 people were killed and Shah left two months later, with the Peacock Throne, gold, silver, and other valuables worth 700 million rupees.

The city – ever so resilient – did recover from the invasion. But the dilapidation of Delhi had long set in. The Mughal empire was in disintegration, relying on Maratha protection against repeated assaults from Afghanistan. In this decaying Delhi, a new form of poetry about the decline of urban life – Shahr Ashob – developed.

Forced to flee to Awadh after Ahmed Shah Abdali’s sacking of the city in 1748, the poet Mir Taqi Mir wrote of Delhi:

“Dilli jo ek shahr tha, aalam mien intekhaab,

rehte the jahan muntakhab hi rozgaar ke,

usko falak ne loot ke veeran kar diya,

rehne wale hain hum usi ujde diyar ke.”

(The city of Delhi, chosen of the universe; where only the best in their professions lived; that city has been looted and laid to waste by the heavens, and I am a resident of that destroyed garden.)

In present day ‘Old Delhi’, as it is called, vestiges of the lost glory, of a Delhi that was ‘aalam mien intekhaab’ still remain. Here and there, on a rickshaw or while walking, a glimpse of a haveli or a jharoka can be seen. Names such as Katra Nil, where indigo workers lived or Dariba Kalan, a mohalla of jewellers, or Haveli Haider Quli, the residence of a military commander or Zeenat Mahal, the haveli of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s wife, testify to a connection with history. An older way of living survives but barely, in the food, in kite flying or kabootarbazi, a taste for Urdu shayari.

While conducting a heritage walk in the Chawri Bazar area recently, Asif Khan Dehalvi, who runs Delhi Karavan, recounts how he noticed a woman peering from the window of a house. She listened intently as the storytellers told tales of the market’s history. “After the walk was over, the woman got into a conversation with my colleague. She said, I have lived here for so many and I didn’t know anything of the history,” says Dehalvi.

A lack of knowledge, neglect, encroachment and the pressures of overpopulation threaten to swallow up what remains of Shahjahanabad’s heritage and culture. To counter this, the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRC) was set up with the specific aim of restoring heritage sites and developing the area keeping history in mind.

But the SRC needs to redouble its efforts, feels Liddle. “In many cases, buildings are listed as heritage, but even the owners don’t know. There should be a level of inspection and interaction with the people who live here,” she says. “There is an acknowledgement that this is a historic locality, and hence, it requires special treatment.”

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