Updated: July 28, 2019 6:30:19 am
My name is Shahjahanabad, the city that was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Of course, I won’t blame you if you know me as Old Delhi or Purani Dilli. When the emperor decided to shift his capital from Agra, in consultation with architect-planners, hakeems and astrologers, he chose this piece of land on the banks of the Yamuna. In 1639, he gave orders for the fort to be built and, along with it, the city. The architects Ustad Ahmad Lahori — architect of the beautiful Taj Mahal — and Ustad Hamid were appointed to give me shape. I hope I’m not being immodest if I say that I regularly inspired my lovers to pen verses and prose in my praise. Chandar Bhan Brahman, a noble in Shah Jahan’s court wrote, “Its towers are the resting place of the sun… Its avenues are so full of pleasure that its lanes are like the roads of paradise. Its climate is pleasant and beautiful.” (Source: Stephen Blake’s Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739 )
While, on the one hand, the Qila-e-Mubarak, known today as the Red Fort, was being built, royals, nobles and common folk who had been given land were busy building their mansions and houses. Prince Dara Shukoh built his haveli on the banks of the Yamuna. Since it was on Nigambodh Ghat, he called it Nigambodh Manzil. It is here that he undertook the monumental work of having the Upanishads translated into Persian. I occupied an area of 1,500 acres enclosed within walls. I had lofty gates — the Raj Ghat, Nigambodh Ghat and Qila Ghat Darwazas provided the Hindus of the city access to ghats (riverside platforms); Lahori, Kashmiri, Ajmeri, Kabuli and even Dilli Darwaza were on the roads leading to these cities. The Dilli Darwaza led to the old city of Delhi (Mehrauli). Didn’t I tell you I am named Shahjahanabad, not Dilli?
I was a planned city: you could call me a smart city. Blake, in his book, writes that the street plan seems to have followed the rules of vastu shastra and my design seems to be based on the semi-elliptical design called karmuka or bow, which was suitable for a river or seashore. If I was the bow, river Yamuna was my bowstring. Today, I am known as the birthplace of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (etiquette). I was an amalgamation of Indo-Islamic ideas, culture and architecture. The poet Ghalib had said, “The existence of Delhi is dependent on many spectacles: The Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily crowds at Jama Masjid, the weekly jaunt around the Yamuna bridge, the annual fair at the Phool Waalo’n ki Sair — now that these five things are gone, Delhi isn’t Delhi.”
Today, the Red Fort is a shell of its former self; Chandni Chowk is a traffic nightmare; the crowds that assembled on the steps of Jama Masjid to watch dastangoi performances, cockfights and enjoy conversations, are now composed of tourists or the faithful who go to offer prayers; and the Yamuna has receded. But the syncretic festival Phool Waalo’n ki Sair still continues. Just as the Mughal emperor used to make floral offerings at the dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and the temple of Yogmaya Devi, the President of India and the Lt. Governor of Delhi do the same today. The procession, which once used to set out from the fort to Mehrauli, now begins at the Town Hall.
The people who lived here were all incomparable. As Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who wrote Asar-us-Sanadid (Remnants of Ancient Heroes, 1847) said, “In reality, the people of this place are such as cannot be found in any other place. Every individual is a collection of thousands of good traits and a bouquet of lakhs of skills and talents.”
I was divided into mohallas (areas) according to profession, caste and craft. Dariba, originally named Durr-e-Bebaha or incomparable pearl, was the jewellery market and still remains so. Gali Chabuk Sawar is where all those who were in the profession of breaking in wild horses lived. The names of mohallas such as Dhobiwara (named after washermen), Maliwara (named after gardeners), Mohalla Kagazan (where paper merchants lived) or Katra Neel (where indigo traders lived/worked) are easily understood.
On April 18, 1648, the emperor graced the fort with his presence and I began to thrive. Every day people would gather by the Yamuna for jharokha darshan. This was a practice of granting an audience to ordinary people that was started by Emperor Akbar, which he had, in turn, borrowed from the Hindu kings. The emperor would appear on the balcony of Musamman Burj and give quick redressal of problems to his subjects. The Jama Masjid was built a few years later to accommodate the growing number of people in the city. The Digambar Jain Lal Mandir evolved from three images of the Tirthankars that a Jain soldier in Shah Jahan’s army kept in his tent. Many more temples were added later especially under Akbar Shah II (April 22, 1760 – September 28, 1837). Today, the Naya Jain Mandir and Bada Jain Mandir in Dharampura are my pride and joy.
My biggest benefactor was Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, Jahanara, who laid out the Chandni Chowk market, Begum ki Sarai and Begum ka Bagh on the street now called Chandni Chowk. A canal called Faiz Nahr ran through the middle of street and at its centre was a beautiful pool of water. The moonlight reflecting in the water gave the street the name Chandni Chowk. The pool and the canal have disappeared, and while it is still a bustling commercial area, Chandni Chowk is no longer quite as beautiful. Great poets, musicians and dancers flourished here. I was the centre of the Renaissance of my age. I had beautiful libraries and gardens; madrasas (schools) and colleges.
If I, as the capital city, was the centre of the world, the Fort was my beating heart. The Peacock Throne in its Diwan-e-Khas dazzled viewers. Perhaps that is why I always attracted invaders. In 1739, the Persian Nader Shah looted and massacred my citizens and took the throne. Later, Ahmad Shah Abdali’s invasions (1748-61) devastated me, and even my true lover, Mir Taqi Mir, moved to the more prosperous Lucknow in 1782. I don’t think anyone else has described me so beautifully: Dilli jo ek sheher thha aalam mein intekhaab/ Rehte thhay muntakhab hi jahaan rozgaar ke (Delhi was once the chosen city of the world/ Where only the chosen ones of the time lived). I always got back on my feet, and, in May, 1857, when the Indian soldiers of the East India Company rose up against their masters, it was to me that they came. They crowned the old Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was just a figurehead, and fought valiantly against the imperialists. But they lost and the British soldiers and armies looted me once I fell into their hands in September 1857.
Many have described me as the Garden of Eden and perhaps that is why like Adam, the last Mughal Emperor and his wife, Zeenat Mahal, were banished from my bosom for partaking of the forbidden fruit of freedom from the British rule. But I was made of stern stuff. I bounced back and was in the thick of things again. I don’t think I can ever forget April 4, 1919, when Swami Shraddhanand, a staunch Arya Samaji, addressed people at the Jama Masjid, saying that the need of the hour was Hindu-Muslim unity, against the common enemy, the British. Simultaneously, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlu, a Muslim, was given the keys to the Golden Temple, the Sikh shrine at Amritsar, and the entire country resounded with the cry of “Hindu-Muslim ki Jai”.
It was at the Red Fort that the INA prisoners were imprisoned in 1945 and where the leading lawyers of the age fought for their innocence against charges of treason, torture and murder levied by the British government. It was in the Jama Masjid that, in October 1947, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad reminded people of their sacrifices for India, and exhorted them not to leave their motherland.
Recently, there was a clash over parking on my streets and a temple was vandalised, but the dispute was resolved amicably by my residents. Much has changed since the 17th century, but I’m glad the peace and harmony with which my residents live haven’t.
(Rana Safvi is a writer, translator and chronicler of Delhi)
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines