With not a hill in sight in the vibrant and cluttered Paharganj in Central Delhi, the locality’s name is testament to the transformation of the capital’s topography over time. Where hotels and street-side shops now abound, and where tourists throng, was once a wholesale market of considerable antiquity. However, just how old this market is a question of some ambiguity.
Historian Stephen Blake, in his book ‘Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739’ writes of Paharganj as the largest and most important of the “suburban mahallahs” of the city of Shahjahanabad, located outside its walls to the east, and as the principal grain market of the city.
However, urban historian Dr Narayani Gupta suggests that Paharganj and Daryaganj both pre-date Shahjahanabad and were markets located outside Ferozabad — the mid-14th Century capital of Feroze Shah Tughlaq. “When the site for Shahjahanabad was selected and the city was built, Daryaganj became part of the enclosed city, while Paharganj remained outside it and the city shaped around it. Wholesalers preferred to park their goods outside the city wall to avoid town duties,” she said.
An early 19th Century Persian text, ‘Sair-ul-Manazil’ by Sangin Beg, which was recently translated by Nausheen Jaffery, draws a vibrant picture of Paharganj.
“Here there is the Panwarion ka mohalla, Sabzi Mandi, Khand ki Mandi, Sabun ki Mandi, Gur ki Mandi and other mohallas. There are shops of grocers, shops of Kishan Chand Sarraf and other artisans. There is also a baoli and the buildings of the police Sarkar which is connected to Sarai Basant. Then there is the Muhalla Maltola, Muhalla Khati Laddu, Katra Basdeo Zanjabeel and other localities and Misri Khan ka Phatak. Here there are houses of the people and the dargah of Hazrat Sayyid Hasan Rasul Numa,” it reads.
But what is the hill that its name alludes to? “The Ridge, of course,” said Dr Gupta. She suggests that while there is nothing to point towards it today, the market may have been located on a mound of the Delhi ridge, much of which has flattened out and been built on today.
“The topography of Delhi has changed completely and the Ridge was a dominant part of the landscape. Mehrauli was once almost a hill station, where nobility from Shahjahanabad would head to during the summer. There is a painting of the Jama Masjid with hills in the background! This area would have looked very different at one time,” she said.
Ecologist Dr CR Babu agrees that this was possible. “The Delhi Ridge is the last part of the Aravallis which begins in Gujarat. It, along with the Yamuna, is the major life-supporting landform of the city. However, it has lost most of its original characteristics. Over the century, it has flattened out because of denudation and weathering, and because of human interference. There has been massive destruction of vegetation and construction,” he said.
Dr Babu said that where Paharganj stands would be part of the Central Ridge, which extends towards New Delhi.
Though city development has turned the Central Ridge area flat, he said the persistence of some small mounds and undulations point towards what the terrain of Paharganj could have looked like centuries ago.