delhi’s shahjahanabad unraveled: heritage, sacred places, markets, and food

No visit to Delhi would be deemed complete without a visit to Shahjahanabad, popularly referred to as ‘Old Delhi’ after the creation of Lutyens’ ‘New Delhi.’ But it is an overwhelming place. A sensory overload. After all, what do you expect from 400 years of continued habitation and history packed into 6.1 sq. kilometres.

This pocket of land has seen it all. The zenith of Mughal rule. India’s First War of Independence. The sure and steady takeover of Delhi by the British, culminating in India’s independence in 1947.

It has been razed to the ground and bathed in blood three times over the course of time. Yet, it has bounced back on its feet. Livelier. It has seen executions in the name of religion, and yet, coexistence continues to exist within its walls. Devoid of any ‘city planning,’ apart from the Fort area, Chandni Chowk, and Jama Masjid, it has grown organically over the centuries with bundles of overhead electric wires and unpaved paths put up, as and when needed, to meet infrastructure needs. Yet, there are heritage treasures in its midst which are some of the most stunning in the country.

This chaotic wonderland, which defies all rules, had its foundation stone laid on 19 April, 1639 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. For nine years, thereafter, construction took place under imperial orders, and in 1648 it was declared ready for use as the new Mughal capital.

Agra, Shah Jahan’s earlier capital had become overcrowded, hindering the grand processions he so loved and scope for aesthetic architectural growth. So, he decided to move his seat to Delhi. Nothing unusual in that. Delhi already had great political and spiritual significance. Shah Jahan’s predecessors had ruled from here. Sufi saints were buried in its soils.

An incredibly talented architect, Shah Jahan personally got involved in his new city’s design. It was shaped like a bow and arrow with Red Fort [his home-cum-office] at one end and a main thoroughfare with a canal of water, now called Chandni Chowk, slicing through its width. Originally, the term ‘Chandni Chowk,’ meaning ‘Moonlight Square,’ had only referred to a pool of water in the main square [where the Town Hall now is] because it mirrored the moonlight on a clear night. Fourteen gates punctuated the city walls, named after the cities the highways led to.

Whilst the rest of Delhi has evolved with time, Shahjahanabad is stuck in a time warp where historical epochs live concurrently, giving it a unique identity and vibe.

Here’s Shahjahanabad unraveled. A run-down of its highlights and secrets. Wishing you happy travels, always!

NOTE:
You may also like to read: Photo Essay: Delhi’s Red Fort, Stories Told and Untold.


SHAHJAHANABAD’S GALIS, KUCHAS, KATRAS AND THEIR RESIDENTS

Over the centuries, Shahjahanabad’s poets have effused much about its galis, kuchas, and katras. So, what exactly do these terms mean?

Gali is a Hindi word and means narrow alley. Kucha, on the other hand, is a Persian word and means street. Katras are gated cul-de-sacs lined with houses or shops around an open courtyard, usually occupied by people of the same trade or caste.

Though currently the area is a cacophonic maze crammed with homes and shops piled atop each other, it was very different when it started out in 1648 right up to the 1800s.

After building the Fort, Chandni Chowk, and Jama Masjid, Shah Jahan gave the land within the city walls to his nobles and asked them to develop the city, as they wished. The affluent built large estates housed with havelis [mansions] and gardens, and quarters for their staff. The poorer folks built humbler homes. With the downfall of Mughal fortunes in the 1800s, all of these got partitioned into bits and pieces. And so, Shahjahanabad’s galis, kuchas, and katras were born.

When the British Crown took over Shahjahanabad after the 1857 First War of Independence, many of the existing Mughal structures were razed to the ground. One such was an ensemble comprising a caravanserai and gardens built by Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, Jahanara. In its place, the British put up the colonial Town Hall.

But some remnants from those early years did manage to survive like the Naughara, a cul-de-sac of nine havelis built by the Jain Jeweler community in the 18th Century and occupied today by their descendants. Another patch is Kucha Pati Ram, near Chawri Bazar, lined with evocative crumbling havelis. Look up from the uneven ground of any street and you will still be met with traces of poetic stone facades of bygone eras.

One of Shahjahanabad’s most celebrated residents was Mirza Ghalib [b. 1797 – d. 1869], a Persian and Urdu poet. Born a noble and perennially broke because of his lavish lifestyle, he spent his last years in a rented haveli in Ballimaran, a small part of which has been turned into a memorial.

Another colourful resident was the indomitable Begum Samru [b. 1753 – d. 1836], proud owner of a 4,000-troops-strong mercenary army. Her estate eventually became the Bhagirath electronics market. Lala Chunna Mal, whose haveli lines Chandni Chowk, was so wealthy he bought Fatehpuri Mosque from the British in 1857, and owned most of the walled city in his heyday.

Hidden in Shahjahanabad’s interiors are a few secrets, however, which rarely divulge their existence to the casual eye. Near Turkman Gate, nestled deep inside a maze of narrow dark alleys, is the 13th Century unadorned grave of Razia Sultan [b. 1205 – d. 1240], the first Muslim woman ruler of the sub-continent. A short walk away is the 14th Century Tughlaq-era turquoise green Kalan Masjid perched high up on a flight of steps. Close to Ajmeri Gate is the ethereal Anglo-Arabic School dating back to 1692 with the exquisite marble mausoleum of its founder, Mughal nobleman Ghaziuddin.

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A MELTING POT OF MULTIPLE FAITHS

Just 6.1 sq. kilometres in area, Shahjahanabad’s chequered past has resulted in nearly every religion finding a place within its walls, and living in peaceful coexistence. At any given time, it would not be uncommon to hear church bells, mantras, the gurbani, and azan all play out simultaneously from sacred structures steeped in myths and history.

The cornerstones of this historical precinct, 400 years ago and now, are its mosques built during Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s rule. They still tower over the old city in all their grandeur—the majestic Jama Masjid which became a prototype for mosques thenceforth, and the poetic Fatehpuri Masjid built by one of Shah Jahan’s wives.

In between, are two Sunehri Masjids, because of their shimmering domes. One became a site for hatred. The other of love. Sunehri Masjid in Chandni Chowk is the exact spot wherefrom the Persian Nadir Shah announced the annihilation of the city and its residents in March, 1739. Sunehri Masjid, near Red Fort’s Delhi Gate, was a gift by the Mughal empress dowager Qudsia Begum for her lover, a eunuch called Javed Khan, in the mid-18th Century.

Apart from its iconic mosques, Shahjahanabad is filled with places of worship of multiple other faiths. Its most famous Hindu temple is the Gauri Shankar Mandir. The handiwork of a Maratha soldier called Gangadhar in 1790, it was built over an 800-year-old Shiva lingam inspired by a series of dreams he’d had, culminating in a promise he made to the gods as he stood cornered on the battlefield.

The sizable Jain merchant community since the city’s early years has led to multiple Jain temples, all exquisitely crafted in their trademark fashion of gold-leafed frescoes and translucent effigies.

Of special mention is the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir [1878 built over a 1656 edifice] just across Red Fort. There is an interesting story of how Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who had banned musical instruments, heard bells ringing from the temple only to find there were none. Humbled, he lifted the ban specifically for the temple.

In addition, there is the 19th Century Shwetambar Jain Jauhri Mandir in Naughara with colourful glass mosaics and dazzling frescoes, and the Digambar Jain Naya Mandir [1807], the first to have a spire during Mughal rule, and the mid-18th Century less touristy Digambar Jain Meru Mandir, both in Dharampura. Look out for the room with a series of pedestals topped with little idols in the latter. Across the road is the relatively new [eighty years old] very lovely Shri Padmavati Purwal Digambar Jain Mandir sheathed in gold foil and painted marble.

With the coming of the British, initially through the Company and then the Crown, Shahjahanabad was introduced to churches. It was not long before Christian places of worship arose all over the city, each unique in design and ambience, no two ever alike, but unified in their use of Urdu for prayer plaques.

Four churches worth exploring are the Central Baptist Church [1858] considered to be the oldest mission church in Delhi, the red spired St. Stephen’s Church [1862] which holds the honour of having the only stained glass rose window in Delhi, St. Mary’s Catholic Church [1865], an oasis of peace in Italian Romanesque style, and the Holy Trinity Church [1905], a byzantine-styled church in Turkman Gate.

Bathed in tales of blood-bath and sacrifice is the Sis Ganj Gurudwara where the 9th Sikh Guru was beheaded on 11 November, 1675, on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The present structure was raised mainly after 1930, over a 1783 shrine, and receives pilgrims across all religions from far and wide in the true spirit of Shahjahanabad.

NOTE:
You may also like to read: Lal Mandir to Jama Masjid: The magic of Chandni Chowk during Ramadan.

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ATMOSPHERIC MARKETS AND DROOL-WORTHY FOOD

Since its very inception some four hundred years ago, Shahjahanabad’s markets have been an integral part of its landscape. After all, what is a city without a bustling economy!

Soon after the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan declared his new capital, traders and manufacturers flocked to it, bringing with them their skills and monies. Specialized markets from carpet weaving to agricultural seeds to oars sprung up, and it was not long before nearly everything and anything was being manufactured and traded within its walls, sans any interference from the rulers.

One of India’s largest, oldest and busiest wholesale markets back then, and even today, they comprise a free, unhindered, economy in the literal sense.

Some of the main markets in Shahjahanabad are the Dariba Kalan for all things jewelled, Gadodia Spice Market for spices, Khari Baoli for dry fruits, Bhagirath Palace for electronics, Kinari Bazar for wedding paraphernalia, Katra Neel for cloth, Chawri Bazar for copper, brass and paper products, and Nai Sarak for books and stationery.

No matter how tried for time you may be, do not miss a walkaround in the Gadodia Spice Market. As you manoeuvre your way through sacks of spices and sneezing shopkeepers and customers alike, enveloped in the spice-clogged air, marvel at just how many variants there are of turmeric, chilli, and mustard seeds.

Another market not to miss is Kinari Bazar, named after the humble ‘kinara’ or borders which edge Indian garments. It is a visual extravaganza with its world of bling for everything to do with the big fat Indian wedding. A perfect wrap up to the sensory overload is Shahjahanabad’s oldest bazar, Dariba Kalan, which literally means ‘incomparable pearl’ in Persian. In the 17th Century, princesses of the Mughal household shopped here for their pearls and emeralds, just like Delhi’s current rich do.

Can food be far behind with hard-selling shops and frenetic buyers? With recipes dating back to the Mughal era, both street and restaurant food abound in Shahjahanabad’s main thoroughfare, Chandni Chowk, and winding narrow lanes.

Here is a quick synopsis of its most renowned eateries, where to find them, and their chief claim to fame:

Jalebis and Samosas at the Old Famous Jalebi Wala [1905], and Aloo Tikki and Dahi Bhalle at Natraj Dahi Bhalla Corner [1940], are both in Chandni Chowk. Fried Parathas at Paranthe Wali Gali, where most of the eateries are 150 years old and run by the founding family’s 5th or 6th generation, are an institution in themselves. Kuremal Mohan Lal’s Fruity Kulfis are much raved about for their intoxicating mix of Fresh Fruits with Kulfi [Indian ice cream]. And lastly, on Matia Mahal, there’s Shahi Tukda to be devoured at Cool Point and yummy authentic Mughlai Food at Al-Jawahar and Karim Hotel, the latter founded by none other than a royal Mughal chef’s son.

A street-food dessert indigenous to Shahjahanabad and only available in its galis, and that too from November to February, is Daulat Ki Chat, a kind of souffle which melts in one’s mouth. Khemchand Daulat Ki Chat at the end of the Paranthe Wali Gali is said to serve the best in town.

There are, of course, many many more eateries in this foodies’ paradise. Just follow the crowds. 😊

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Ready to discover the wonders of Shahjahanabad aka Old Delhi for yourself? I hope this guide helps you make the most of your explorations. ❤

Travel tips:

  • Shahjahanabad aka Old Delhi is a large area and requires multiple trips to cover its attractions. It is a good idea to start off with a tour or two to get one’s bearings and then explore deeper on one’s own.
  • Old Delhi is an incredibly safe area and the locals are very helpful to visitors.
  • Most shops are closed on Sundays. From Monday to Saturday, it is packed to the brim, with shops, places of worship, and eateries open late into the night. The Central Baptist Church in Chandni Chowk is only open on Sundays to the public; During the week it functions as a school. Jain Temples close at noon.

4 thoughts on “delhi’s shahjahanabad unraveled: heritage, sacred places, markets, and food

  1. Indeed, no other city in India has a history like Delhi…old Delhi! I have been to old Delhi many times, for work. That was more than a decade ago. Back then, I did not dig heritage and my visits were functional and focused. Whenever I will find time, I intend to join a walking tour in this part of Delhi.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: a heritage buff’s guide to the eight cities of delhi | rama toshi arya's blog

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