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Said-ul-Ajaib: Home to a 14th century Tughlaq chamberlain is now a cafe and boutique hub

If Mehrauli was a mandi and a place for blue-collar workers, Said-ul-Ajaib emerged as a space for business and art. The early cafes and experimental artists’ studios were attracted to the area for its bohemian appeal reminiscent of the lofts and attics of the western world.

Written by Ekta Chauhan , Sadaf Hussain | New Delhi |
Updated: June 25, 2022 7:57:07 am
delhi urban villages, urban villages of delhi, saidul ajab, champa gali, saket, delhi villages, rural delhi, delhi history, tughlaqs, Indian ExpressThe wheat and sugarcane farms of Said-ul-Ajaib are long gone and have been replaced with hand-tossed pizzas and low calorie sugarcane juices. (Sadaf Hussain)

One of the Delhi’s greatest poets, “Khuda-e-Sukhan” Mir Taqi Mir, wrote: “Dilli ke na the kuuche auraaq-e-musavvar the jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi (These are not Delhi by-lanes, these are an artist’s canvas. Every sight I see looks like a painting.)”

Just like art is free of forms and formats and appeals to each person differently, the city of Delhi also has meant different things to its inhabitants through the ages. It is a political centre, heritage site, artists’ retreat, nightlife capital, farmland, startup capital, and much more. As we bring to you the last part of our series on Delhi’s urban villages, we explore Said-ul-Ajaib’s topsy-turvy journey towards urbanisation in a rapidly globalising city.

While strolling down the famous Champa Gali in Said-ul-Ajaib village, one seldom notices the addresses of boho cafes and gourmet restaurants. The addresses of these places still carry a khasra number as opposed to a plot or a house number. The khasra number is a remnant of Said-ul-Ajaib’s rural past — these were allotted to agricultural lands for revenue purposes. The wheat and sugarcane farms are long gone and have been replaced with hand-tossed pizzas and low calorie sugarcane juices. But urban transformation is rarely linear, places urbanise over decades and generations, creating a haphazard but beautiful mosaic of lifestyles. One small turn from its “Insta-worthy” spots , and Said-ul-Ajaib throws up men smoking hookahs, women in purdah, conflict over village shrine, havelis and sacred trees.

Also from the series on Delhi's urban villages |Eid in Hauz Rani: One roof, many cultures and customs

A changing history

Though the official name of the village is “Said-ul-Ajaib”, it is colloquially pronounced Saidlajab, perhaps due to the slightly difficult phonetics of the name. It is one of the smallest urban villages of Delhi, located in the shadows of the grand Qutub Complex to its west and the upscale Saket colony to its north. The current name of the village is, however, a corruption of the name of a 14th century chamberlain in the court of Feroz Shah Tughlaq, Sayyid al-Hujjab.

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Historian Sunil Kumar, in his book The Present in Delhi’s Past, writes the Sayyid would have resided closer to the royal court in Firozabad but also maintained a residence on the outskirts of the capital, where he was eventually buried. His saintly qualities were known widely beyond the court which earned him the title “Maaruf” (an extremely devout person respected for his piety) by none other than the great sufi saint of Delhi, Nizamuddin Auliya. His title also reflected his distinction of having performed the Hajj.

The (changing) story of his shrine, however, became both a history of the village as well as an episode of reinterpretation of memory and history. According to Kumar, the popularity of the shrine diminished after the 15th century following a change in the composition of the local population. As the local devotees migrated following the breakdown of the Delhi sultanate’s authority after the invasion of Timur, they were replaced by Mewat Muslims and Jats. The shrine held little importance to either of the groups. Thus, while the settlement continued to carry his name, Sayyid al-Hujjab meant little to its residents.

In the 1913 survey, ‘Survey of Mohammadan and Hindu monuments of Delhi’,’ done by Zafar Hassan, it was noticed that the khanqah of the Saayyid now housed a family of Khem Chand, a mosque in the village was jointly owned by Tulsi, Nanak and Cheku, and a tomb was occupied by Ratia. Thus, in over five centuries the landscape of the village had completely changed. The original structures are nowhere to be found now. The demographic character of the village was transformed and none of the original Muslim inhabitants resided in the village by 1980s. The total marginalisation and subsequent migration of its Muslim inhabitants and the change in the sociological character of the village is reflected in its name as well. In an 1807 topographical map of Delhi drawn by the British, the name of the village was corrupted to Sieud Lujab. While this was not the only misspelt Indian name by the British, it did conveniently pass down as history, was never corrected, and continued to evolve till it was corrupted to the current “Saidlajab”.

New spiritual structures have, however, come up with their own “histories”. Kumar, in his study, reports that by the early 2000s a new structure appeared which was dedicated to the “pir” of the village. The structure continues to exist and attracts devotees every Thursday offering gur-chana (jaggery and chickpeas). Worshipped mostly by women, no one knows whose grave this is. Thus, Said-ul-Ajaib presents an intriguing example of how history and heritage is not static and is continuously re-negotiated by the people. The past is imagined through the present conditions and in a rapidly changing city, people not only imagine (and expect) their future but also reimagine their past.

Said-ul-Ajaib, beyond the cafes

If the past was about parley among communities and royal dynasties, the present Said-ul-Ajaib transacts with the neo liberal and urban forces of real estate, entertainment and the service industry. Due to its “lol dora” status, construction in the area enjoys lenience from the administration, thus driving down rents and other stringent legal requirements. Being located on the outskirts of the city, the area had a “rural vibe” that attracted artists looking to escape from the usual hustle and bustle of the capital. The rather sleepy area exists in the shadows of Saket and got its popularity by piggybacking on the connectivity of the yellow line of the Delhi Metro. The saket station (closest for Said-ul-Ajaib) was inaugurated in September 2010 and it put the area on the map of the city. With connectivity came the artists, cafes, start-ups, fashion boutiques, low-rent houses, and private educational institutes.As local authorities took note of the increasing popularity of the place, provisions for roads, electricity and water were made. The infrastructure remained unplanned and rather ad hoc, driven by demand and often political pressure from the influential landlords and building lobby.

With connectivity of the yellow line of the metro came the artists, cafes, start-ups, fashion boutiques, low-rent houses, and private educational institutes. (Sadaf Hussain)

Vidushi Sabharwal, a young professional living in a rented apartment in Said-ul-Ajaib, chose to move here because of the view of the Qutub Minar from her house and the lower rent price. However, it is only a glistening facade for the sorry state of infrastructure in the area. While private development took off, public amenities have been slow to catch up in this “unauthorised” zone.

Sabharwal’s building always had water and electricity issues. Even though they had authorised official water connection, the residents were dependent on tankers every day which would transfer the water into the building’s common tank before supplying it to each resident. Another young tenant of the area, Ananya, says that it is a “love-hate” relationship between the tenants and the landlords. The landlords want to rent out the properties to young professionals and students as they are completely dependent on rental income. At the same time, they see them as a threat to their culture. This is especially the case with women who become subject to moral policing by the conservative landlords.

Exploring the role of rent in making of the city, Sushmita Pati in her book Properties of Rent argues that (male) landlords in the urban villages suffer from a sense of guilt of having “sold out” and thus feel anxious about losing the remaining engagement with their culture. Taking the case study of another urban village in the city (Munirka), Pati argues that there is a persistent feeling of being cheated by the state and persecuted by the city dwellers among these landlords. Their hubris of influence, then, exists only in their relationship with the tenants over whom they can exert maximum control.

Cafes, Instagram and the endless search for ‘hidden spots’

If Mehrauli was a mandi and a place for blue-collar workers, Said-ul-Ajaib emerged as a space for business and art. The early cafes and experimental artists’ studios were attracted to the area for its bohemian appeal reminiscent of the lofts and attics of the western world. This was seen as a place of experimentation where dirt roads and plastered walls could be treated as blank canvases. This organic transformation was replaced by a commercial one with startups setting up their offices in the area. They found the area ideal for their young employees who could find accommodation and entertainment in the busting lanes of Said-ul-Ajaib. Owing to its popularity, the area is now quickly moving towards gentrification with rents skyrocketing.

Part II from Delhi's urban villages series |Celebrating the land Gods of rural Delhi in Khirki village

This is a familiar story for Delhi; a place is “discovered” and soon falls prey to the city’s endless search for real estate. It was the same story with Hauz Khas that started out as a quaint spot for dining in the early 2000s, transformed into a clubbing hub, before quickly becoming crowded, rowdy and unsafe. The attention of the city then shifted towards Shahpur Jat with its unconventional and alternative boutiques. The commercial spaces of the village are now coveted by luxurious private boutiques, pushing the karigars (craftsmen) to dingy factories and dingy dwellings.

Many café owners who started with the purpose of creating an alternative space do not recognise Said-ul-Ajaib anymore. Chef Amit Suman who works at a boho-style café says that when he started, the typical crowd consisted of young students and couples looking for budget experiences. The area provided them with a relief from the city. It was also an opportunity for chefs like him to experiment with food and educate the palate of the city by bringing in flavours from around the globe. After a few Bollywood movies, such as Imitiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal 2, were shot here, masses thronged to capture the “best kept secret” with their snapchat filters and an insatiable search for newer and “unique” pastures of leisure. But as Champa Gali became the city’s latest best known “hidden spot” and a favourite for Instagram reels, its charm was reduced to a fraction.

The early cafes and experimental artists’ studios were attracted to the area for its bohemian appeal reminiscent of the lofts and attics of the western world. (Sadaf Hussain)

Shivani, a student at JNU, found Champa Gali in 2013 and was attracted to its quaint alleys and artisanal coffee shops which were perfect for long hours of writing. She recalls visiting Said-ul-Ajaib and seeing a handful of educational institutes, a few food carts and people heading towards the Garden of Five Senses. Champa Gali was still in its formative stages and was surrounded by garages. She says that it still continues to be a relatively cheap option for students like her but it is definitely getting congested. The open spaces are being taken up by car parkings and construction has become a non-stop activity in the area.

A rurban khichdi

Said-ul-Ajaib has become somewhat of a khichdi of rural and urban. While some might dismiss it as “unplanned” and “disorganised”, it has its own flavour much like our beloved Indian dish khichdi. It is organic, comfortable and a familiar chaos. However, it is a tragedy that we have forgotten its rich layered history. For most residents, travellers, tenants and workers of the area, the name Sayyid al-Hujjab holds no significance and the area is probably just another halt in their long journey towards urbanisation and modernisation.

Said-ul-Ajaib’s medieval appeal of being close to a sufi shrine is now replaced by its attraction of Qawwali music and sufi nights. Perhaps, Mir’s poetry comparing the lanes of the city to an artist’s canvas was correct. The artist paints freely, haphazardly but beautifully. The city continues to evolve adding layers to its own morphology; medieval palaces with only a few remnants, an ancient shrine now enveloped by tall buildings on all four sides, water bodies replaced with car parkings and peasants replaced with professionals. Its urban villages continue to exist as the libraries of the city’s oldest chapters and crucible for its experimentation with urbanisation.

We often think of “Old Delhi” as the current Shahjahanabad area. However, a number of urban villages in the city (especially concentrated in South Delhi) trace their history to the Sultanate era. This five-part series focuses on the history and culture of Delhi’s “urban villages”. We would explore the everyday practices and living culture of these communities and situate them within the larger history of Delhi.

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