“Waqt sabka saath deta hai, waqt sabka saath chodta hai,” said Noor Jehan (70), seated inside the shambles of her home in Chandni Chowk’s Zeenat Mahal. As she said this aloud, to no one in particular, Noor Jehan probably echoed the sentiments of the palace she inhabits.
Both the structure and its occupant have seen better times. Zeenat Mahal, built in 1846 by its namesake — the beloved third wife of the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar — was the largest mansion in the area, with intricate murals, jharokhas with jaali work, and formidable doors.
Today, only the rusting door and two balconies, from where women once peeked out to see the street, remain. Traders and vendors have set up shop, an all-girls’ school came up in 1979, and a few six-storey buildings have risen from the ground that was once the queen’s palace. The gateway of Zeenat Mahal is a notified heritage (grade I) building, as per the 2010 list of heritage sites under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. But the heritage tag is only on paper.
“People keep coming here to ask about Zeenat Mahal, its history, why I don’t get it renovated… they don’t see that I have nothing… sometimes, not even enough money and energy to cook. Who cares about the haveli in this state?” said Noor Jehan, as she tended to her 68-year-old paralysed brother, Abdul Rauf.
Inside her tiny two-bedroom setup, built near the main entrance of Zeenat Mahal, plaster is peeling off the walls, grills are rusty and the structure rickety. When Noor Jehan moved here in 1953 with her parents and five siblings, living here was a thing of pride.
Zeenat Mahal is one of many havelis that dot Old Delhi, or Shahjahanabad as it was once known — some dating back to the Mughal era, others built during colonial rule. And like Zeenat Mahal, many, if not most, are in such a dilapidated state that restoration is an uphill task.
The Indian Express visited 12 havelis in Old Delhi and Kashmere Gate and found crumbling structures, lost to years of neglect and awaiting government intervention. While some have been privately restored, others are in trouble due to lack of finances, intent and difficult municipal and banking laws.
The issue has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, the Delhi High Court stayed ongoing construction in Haksar Haveli in Sitaram Bazaar, from where Jawaharlal Nehru’s baraat had left to marry him off to Kamala Nehru on February 8, 1916.
Today, no trace of the centuries-old haveli remains — it has become a dumping ground infested with rats, its arched doorways with Persian couplets and fish motifs now lost. In its order on April 4, the court had noted that Haksar Haveli is “on the verge of being destroyed by builders for their financial lust”.
According to conservation architect and former convener of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) A G K Menon, “750 havelis have been documented by the Trust in Shahjahanabad”. “We have produced booklets on how to conserve these havelis, too, and want municipalities to urge owners to understand the process. Problems are plenty — for owners, the buildings are less important since the land has more value. They’d rather demolish it than restore. The government has to enable owners to get something out of restoring them other than pride and nostalgia. Municipal and banking laws have to change to make ‘adaptable reuse’ possible,” said Menon.
Inside the lanes of Kucha Ghasi Ram in Chandni Chowk is Namak Haram Ki Haveli — a name only old-timers in the area seem to know. What was once a sprawling mansion with a baoli has been broken into pieces of land where shops and homes now coexist.
“The story goes that sometime in the 19th century, the owner of the haveli, Lala Bhowani Shankar, would pass on information from the Mughals to the Britishers, and vice-versa. So the house earned this moniker, the palace of the traitor… I heard these stories while growing up from Babu Nawal Kishore and Babu Har Kishore, who inherited the haveli from their grandfather, Kunj Bihari, in the ’60s,” said Satyaprakash Goyal, who is in his 70s.
Today, the only hint that the haveli ever existed is an arched doorway with floral and geometric designs, along with three tiny balconies, a deserted hall and a baoli that has been turned into a godown. “We saw snakes in the baoli while growing up… the elderly would play taash and chaupar in the hall. There was a fountain, too. Ab sab khatam ho gaya hai,” said Goyal.
Walking through the lanes of Sitaram Bazaar, Kucha Ghasi Ram and Lal Kuan in Old Delhi, the kivaads (gates) reveal past stories and present miseries of the havelis, which now hold 10-20 families or have been turned into godowns.
Inside one such haveli in Lal Kuan, rented out to a textile merchant, pillars and doorways have been whitewashed.
“We’re told this is a pre-Mughal era building… no one knows who built it. It’s beautiful, the pillars are carved, but we have whitewashed it. The current owner, who bought this six years ago, doesn’t want to restore it and doesn’t want the MCD to give it a heritage tag… it becomes hard to sell or repair it then,” the merchant said.
While the MCD has notified 700 structures in Shahjahanabad as heritage properties, and introduced building bye-laws, several residents of havelis wonder what purpose that serves.
A D Biswas, chief town planner, North Corporation, said, “We are a regulatory body, we identify structures and ensure restoration happens according to building bye-laws, and no encroachment or illegal construction takes places. There is no other incentive the MCD provides.”
Barely 200 metres from Haksar Haveli is Atal House in Sitaram Bazaar, where Kamala Nehru grew up. Now, close to 20 families live here while a few lawyers’ offices exist on the ground floor. Cracks punctuate the walls, and little has been done to preserve it. The same holds true for the famous Chunna Mal Ki Haveli in Chandni Chowk’s Katra Neel.
“Municipal laws dictate that houses in several areas of Shahjahanabad cannot be used for commercial purposes… if the owners restore it but can’t turn it into a restaurant or a guest house, there’s nothing in it for them. Banks don’t let you mortgage a property this old… we are losing history and memory of a civilisation by losing these havelis,” said Menon.
Abu Sufiyan (25), who lives in Ballimaran, and runs a blog called ‘Purani Dilli Walo ki Baatein’, said, “A lot of original Old Delhi dwellers have left the area, and immigrants don’t have that connect with the heritage here… that’s one reason too we are losing these havelis.”
When old meets new
Inside a lane opposite the Jama Masjid, past cramped shops that sell ittar and kebabs, lies The Walled City Cafe & Lounge. Open till midnight, it serves a potpourri of cultures — Mughlai, Continental and Italian dishes. Its novelty, however, lies in its history. It’s built on the top floor of the 300-year-old Nawab House, and is run by Omaiyer Fehmi (20).
“I want to make heritage cool… I was in Turkey when I noticed cafes on the streets and how they were using their heritage. That’s when I realised the scope of Nawab House, which has been in our family for eight generations,” said Fehmi.
In 2016, the Fehmi family began renovating the Nawab House with help from local masons and kaarigars from Jaipur. Crumbling and eaten up by termites, the structure was restored with additions to maintain the “heritage” feel. The cafe, with its colourful furniture and stained glass windows, has been functional for over a year. Since Nawab House is not notified as a heritage building by the MCD, it was easier to restore it, Fehmi said.
Even as most havelis in Old Delhi slowly wither away, some are being given a new lease of life. A few lanes away is the Dharampura Haveli, owned by Union Minister Vijay Goel, which is now a heritage boutique hotel frequented by foreigners.
Fourteen rooms across three floors, a courtyard with a fountain, and a terrace from where the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib can be seen make up the haveli, which has been functional for three years now.
Kapil Aggarwal, principal architect of the haveli, said, “It took us six years to finish, and the biggest challenge was the lack of documentation. So we first documented whatever was remaining — ornamentation, pillars, carvings — and looked at other havelis in the area to see common characteristics. There were buildings with Mughal and Jain influences.”
During research, he found that while the haveli was purchased by a Jain family in 1870, it was built much before that by a Mughal noble. “As it’s a notified heritage property, we had to take permission from the urban development ministry, MCD, fire department… but because Mr Goel was involved, the process was faster. The government has done nothing to preserve these havelis. I don’t see such a restoration project taking off in the area again; It’s time consuming and requires a lot of money,” said Aggarwal.
Manisha Saxena, secretary, Arts and Culture Department (Delhi government), is acutely aware of the challenges: “We have undertaken restoration of lesser-known monuments in Delhi. But we haven’t worked on havelis. It should be like Panjim, Goa, where the outside facade of old buildings cannot be harmed… a good way to start would be by giving incentives to owners.”
While some, like Goel and Fehmi, have found a way to marry heritage and business, diamond merchant Rajeev Gundhi (60) has managed to routinely restore his 135-year-old, 42-room haveli, commonly called Chickoo Ki Haveli, in Chandni Chowk. “Only four of us live in the house… we don’t want to sell it because where else will you find so much space?”
Once in a while, the haveli is rented out for film shoots — it has featured in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK as well as Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi. “We don’t want the heritage tag… then we will need permission for even whitewash. Those who have money will spend but those who don’t can’t help it… that’s when the government should help. This lane had so many havelis — all gone now,” said Gundhi’s son, Ashish (30).
A few kilometres away in Chhota Bazaar in Kashmere Gate, Seth Ram Lal Khemka haveli serves as a shining example of what restoration can achieve. Spread across 1,100 gaj, with 40-plus rooms, Devkinandan Bagla’s haveli is one of the rare heritage properties in the area that have been restored recently.
Along with conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis, Bagla (62) spent five years on the process. “I wanted to sell it but then property rates across the city are so high and I didn’t want to spend that much for less than one-third space that we enjoy now,” said Bagla.
Bagla, who spent close to Rs 60 lakh, added, “I got a grade II notified heritage property tag in 2010 but no incentives. I spent two years just getting permission from the Archaeological Survey of India and MCD.”
Once work began, Tipnis and her team used old material such as gur, urad dal, methi powder and lime plaster for restoration.
“The verandah was built in 1840 but it’s older than that since lakhori bricks were used. My maternal grandfather, Snehi Ram, bought it from someone in 1905-10. The living room was where my ancestors once invited the Britishers on Sunday evenings… this was the dancing floor. In fact, it’s believed that emperor Humayun visited the lane when his guru died,” said Bagla. Swapna Liddle, convener of INTACH’s Delhi chapter, said the way forward is to stop looking at heritage as a luxury: “It’s a fallacy to think that a lot of money is required to restore a haveli… even minimal restoration can add many years.”