Just Like That | Journeys through the vanishing havelis of Old Delhi - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

Just Like That | Journeys through the vanishing havelis of Old Delhi

Sep 02, 2023 06:24 PM IST

Reflections on the exploration of Shahjahanabad, the old walled city of Delhi, and its decaying havelis, which once rivaled European capitals in grandeur

When I was writing my first book, Ghalib: The Man, The Times (published in 1989), I used to frequently visit, for research purposes, Shahjahanabad, the old walled city in Delhi built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to which he shifted his capital from Agra in 1648. The emperor moved into his new palace, the Red Fort, also called the Qila-e-Mualla (Fort of Exalted Dignity), and built the ‘walled city’, protected by a rampart 6,664 yards in circumference, with 27 bastions and 14 gates. Within this space, a new city was born, with wide boulevards like Chandni Chowk, and the Nahar-e-Bahisht (Canal of Paradise) flowing through it. Kuchas, mohallas, katras (names of different sections of the city), galis (alleys), and the grand havelis of the amirs (noblemen) and raisis (the rich) soon came up within it.

Inside Golden Haveli at Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo) PREMIUM
Inside Golden Haveli at Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

When I was writing my first book, Ghalib: The Man, The Times (published in 1989), I used to frequently visit, for research purposes, Shahjahanabad, the old walled city in Delhi built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to which he shifted his capital from Agra in 1648. The emperor moved into his new palace, the Red Fort, also called the Qila-e-Mualla (Fort of Exalted Dignity), and built the ‘walled city’, protected by a rampart 6,664 yards in circumference, with 27 bastions and 14 gates. Within this space, a new city was born, with wide boulevards like Chandni Chowk, and the Nahar-e-Bahisht (Canal of Paradise) flowing through it. Kuchas, mohallas, katras (names of different sections of the city), galis (alleys), and the grand havelis of the amirs (noblemen) and raisis (the rich) soon came up within it.

During my visits to Shahjahanabad, I was struck by the decay of a city that once rivalled the capitals of Europe and the rapidity with which its old structures, especially the havelis, were being callously demolished, dismantled, or crumbling due to neglect. The pity is that once a building is demolished or mutated, the past disappears without a trace. History may repeat itself, but historical buildings rarely do. Under the crush of new preoccupations, memories are invariably short. The new buildings that come up on the debris of the old do not wish to remember the past.

This gave me the idea to write my next book Mansions at Dusk: The Havelis of Old Delhi, which was published in 1992. My motivation was to chronicle what little of these once imposing structures still remain—along with the lifestyles associated with them—before they too disappear. I found an enthusiastic supporter of the project in ace photographer, Sondeep Shankar, who provided the pictorial accompaniment to my text. This was sometime in 1990, and for the next year, every weekend, he and I would walk in the galis of Shahjahanabad, recoiling against the desecration all around, but also discovering the beauty and architectural elegance of these mansions.

It was an eventful journey. Sondeep and I have been locked in a room by occupants of havelis who suspected us to be ‘agents’ of rival claimants to the property. Access to the havelis was not always easy. Days of careful spadework would precede the attempt to take pictures. Sometimes, access would be suddenly denied. When we began, we had no idea of the adventure the book would prove to be. But such obstacles notwithstanding, there were always compensations that only Shahjahanabad could offer. The warmth and hospitality of the people who readily offered us assistance, the pace and rhythm that only a historical city can have, the lunches at Paranthe Wali Gali or at Karim’s—all of these would allow us only reluctantly to return to our synthetic existence in New Delhi.

While a colonial bungalow had a drive leading up to it, a haveli mostly presented a blank, walled façade on the outside, broken only by a richly decorated arched gateway. Indeed, for the outsider, a haveli, in terms of its privacy, was as forbidding as a fortress. It was commonly said that inside a haveli, “Parinda bhi par nahin maar sakta” (even a bird cannot have access). In basic format, a haveli had two broad divisions: An outer area where the owner entertained visitors, and an inner area which constituted the personal living area, the mahalsarai and zenana (ladies’ quarters). The diwan khana, corresponding to the modern drawing room, was the most prestigious centre-piece of the public area.

Further inside, the haveli has been called an ‘introverted garden’. Here privacy was embellished by apartments and pavilions, nestled amidst exquisitely laid out gardens and pools, fountains and trees. Two integral features were the aangan or courtyard, and the tahkhana (basement). The verandah surrounding the courtyard was mostly two-tiered: The outer verandah (dalaan), and an inner verandah (dar-dalaan). The tahkhana could be fairly deep underground in order to remain cool in summer. Some of them were ornately decorated. For instance, the tahkhana of Safdar Jang, an influential and rich nobleman in the 1750s (after whom a residential area in New Delhi is named), had marble pillars and fountains and was 78 feet long and 27 feet wide.

A view inside Golden Haveli at Chandni Chowk. In 2019, Vijay Goel, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former member of parliament, decided to restore this haveli. Goel had experience in renovating havelis – he has restored Haveli Dharampura in Gali Guliyan, located just over 100metres away from Golden Haveli.(Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)
A view inside Golden Haveli at Chandni Chowk. In 2019, Vijay Goel, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former member of parliament, decided to restore this haveli. Goel had experience in renovating havelis – he has restored Haveli Dharampura in Gali Guliyan, located just over 100metres away from Golden Haveli.(Sanchit Khanna/ HT Photo)

Shahjahanabad began to wither away with the decline of the Mughals. The first nail in its coffin was the revolt of 1857. After the British recaptured the city, they wantonly destroyed large parts of it, and a major portion of the interior of the Red Fort, replacing its ‘fairy-like’ pavilions with ugly barracks. The second blow came when the British decided to move their capital to Delhi in 1911 and build a new city, New Delhi. Shahjahanabad was left to fester in decline, like a courtesan past her salad days, unable to find patrons any more.

What was inevitable, and even more saddening, is that the elite of the walled city, steeped in its culture, decided to move away to the more prestigious ‘colonies’ of New Delhi. It was the conscious repudiation and denial of a legacy. Those who still had to visit the old city, because their shop, workshop or warehouse was located there, chose to live at dual levels of identity. When in their old habitat, they allowed themselves to lapse into the cultural lehza (idiom) of the place, including its sartorial requirements, such as a dhoti kurta, and sit on a gaddi (thin mattress), supported by the masnat or gao takiya (bolster pillows). At the end of the day, they changed into safari suits and receded into the more ‘upstream’ if non-descript socio-cultural mainstream of the newer city.

Recently, attempts have been made to revive the ambience of the old city. Vijay Goel, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, has lovingly restored one haveli. But for the most part, Shahjahanabad has lost most of what prompted Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to assert: “Kasra zindagi shad bashad ki dar Shah-e-Jahan abad bashad” (The man who fortunately finds residence in the city at Shahjahanabad, leads a happy life.)

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).

Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers

The views expressed are personal

Unveiling 'Elections 2024: The Big Picture', a fresh segment in HT's talk show 'The Interview with Kumkum Chadha', where leaders across the political spectrum discuss the upcoming general elections. Watch Now!

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On