A Brief History of Shahjahanabad
Carrying on with my Dilli Darshan posts, I’m going to put up a series of them about Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). Shahjahanabad is the 17th century Mughal walled city that also contained the Mughal palace and court, and which was the occupied part of Delhi during the time the British took increasing control of the city throughout the first half of the 19th century. Which means that Shahjahanabad was what they took increasing control of, and was the core area that Delhi grew out of in the late 19th c. and throughout the 20th c.
The 19th c. also saw the consequent dimming of the Mughal empire (which had been in decline throughout the 18th c. as well), and it’s eventual snuffing out after the unsuccessful 1857 rebellion against British rule. Shahjahanabad was the main site for all this. After 1857 the British took complete control of Shahjahanabad, converted the walled palace area into their garrison in the city, and destroyed many structures within both the palace and city areas. They initially resided within the walled city, but later moved out to the Civil Lines area just north of Shahjahanabad, and the cantonment was subsequently moved to the area that is now Delhi University’s North Campus. Of course once the decision came through in 1912 to move the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi, the focus slowly drifted to the site south of Shahjahanabad that came to be known as New Delhi.
The present urban fabric of the walled city can be traced back to the late 19th c. and early 20th c., when the British directly and indirectly reorganized the city. The sprawling havelis of Mughal nobles and royalty were replaced by smaller havelis, houses and shops. After independence and partition in 1947, these structures were further subdivided and altered by refugees moving into the empty houses and shops left behind by fleeing Muslim residents of Shahjahanabad. The Shahjahanabad we see today is a result of these series of subdivisions, combined with the particular nature and scale of commerce that has taken place here over the past few decades.
Some of this commerce has it’s roots in the distant past, with certain shops, streets and localities tracing their trade back to Mughal times. Other areas have more recent commercial histories, though in the lore of contemporary Delhi, these trading areas are no less potent in their mythos than the older ones.
The fact that Old Delhi (I’m going to use Old Delhi and Shahjahanabad interchangeably throughout these series of posts, so non-Dilliwalas please bear with me) has become/remained a center of commerce since the 1940s is itself an interesting phenomenon. My take is that since it was always centrally located in expanding Delhi (whether expanding in the 50s or 80s); was not affected by zoning and development laws in the same way as the rest of Delhi was (similar in this sense to many of Delhi’s urban villages); and was a preexisting built up area (so there was no need to build from scratch), it became a magnate for small-scale industries and wholesale commerce in ways that other areas of Delhi were not allowed to become, or had to be planned and constructed to become. This led to the present matrix of commerce that takes place in Old Delhi till today.
I feel that this grip on Delhi’s commercial psyche is slowly being loosened (and probably has been since the early 90s when India’s economy opened up), but to what extent this is true is to be seen, and in any case Old Delhi still holds a special place for people looking to purchase particular kinds of goods.
The focus of these Shahjahanabad photos is to capture the old city with its architecture (such as they exists today) as well as contemporary life in the city, since both occur simultaneously in this space, and cannot be extricated from one another, especially when the canvas of the photographs is the broad urban landscape.
Khari Baoli & Katra Neel areas (& Lahori Gate & Fatehpuri Chowk)
As I’ve said before, my whole Dilli Darshan project is based on and heavily influenced by Luck Peck’s Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, and these Shahjahanabad posts are no different – I’ve organized my exploration of the walled city in much the same way that Peck organized her descriptions. So I begin with the north western corner of Shahjahanabad – in the Khari Baoli and Lahori Gate areas.
Beginning with Fatehpuri Chowk, which lies at the far end of Chandni Chowk road – the most famous stretch of Shahjahanabad (arguably apart from the area around Jami Masjid). I had never been to Fatehpuri Chowk before these visits, and it really gives a sense of what the city would have looked like in decades past.
As far as I can tell, Fatehpuri Chowk is actually the single name given to two chowks (road intersections) that are very close together. Chandni Chowk road and Khari Baoli road are offset by a few dozen feet, and the two intersections caused by this offset are both covered by the name Fatehpuri Chowk. Fatehpuri Masjid, which lies at the end of Chandni Chowk road, is responsible for this offset, since the road needs to skirt this mosque (which also gives the chowk its name). In any case, this offsetting has now led to Chandni Chowk and Khari Baoli being very different entities, as we shall see below and in subsequent blogs.
Fatehpuri Chowk where Khari Baoli road begins, looking towards Fatehpuri Mosque (which is directly behind the set of shops visible at the center of the image). One minaret of the mosque is sticking out to the right
Khari Baoli Road
Khari Baoli road, beginning from Fatehpuri Chowk, is a wholesale spice market, and the activity of porters, sellers and shoppers is quite fascinating, as is the pungent odor of the area!
A dilapidated old structure near Lahori Gate, of which no gate remains today. Lahori Gate was one of the many entry points into Shahjahanabad, only a few of which are still in existence in any state. However, Lahori Gate remains the name of the area
Building near Lahori Gate, on the “inner lane of the outer wall“
Naya Bazaar Road
Naya Bazaar road passes in front of Lahori Gate, and in this area accommodates a wholesale grain market.
Many buildings on the wider Shahjahanabad streets would have looked like this – a balcony on the first-floor creating a covered arcade on the ground-floor where the shops are. Today, buildings like these on heavier trafficked streets are much altered
SP Mukherji Marg
This road (marg means road) is where the Old Delhi railway station is located, which was the main railway station for Delhi before the New Delhi station was built, though Old Delhi station is still heavily used. The part of the road the I cover here is some distance from the station, though many old hotels are located on this stretch and, I believe, still operational.
Church Mission Marg
This roads leads from SP Mukherji Marg back to Fatehpuri Chowk.
Khari Baoli Area
Moving from main roads into the narrow alleys within Khari Baoli neighborhood. The various neighborhoods of Shahjahanabad are really interesting to explore, bringing out different aspects of the city and the changes that have happened to it in past decades.
Katra Neel area
Katra Neel is on Chandni Chowk road, adjacent to the Khari Baoli area.