Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The heart of the city

All cities have a character of their own. Cities such as Delhi, which have a particularly rich history, have an inner core- an inner soul that defines the character of the city as it was meant to be.

Delhi is today singularly marked by indifference of its citizens towards the city. As a columnist recently wrote, we drive past millennia of history without even bothering to look around. Indeed, it is difficult to rouse the kind of passion in the average Delhiwallah about his or her city compared to a Mumbaikar or Kolkatan. There are reasons for this , the most important being that in most of the urban sprawl that is Delhi/ NCR today, the is the lack of an inner soul that binds.”The city of migrants” seems to drift like a migrant at time, defying comprehension for the drift, for it is here, among the ramparts and monuments that dot the city, that the millennia of history that shaped India as we know it today, are hidden,.

It has been nearly a 1000 years since Delhi’s recorded history begins, and a tumultuous 370 years since ” Purani Dilli” (Old Delhi-also called Shahjahanabad), was founded. The reign of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, then that of the lesser Mughals like Shah Alam, later the sunset of the Mughal empire during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar , the eventual transfer of power to the Britishers, existence in a neglected state thereafter , and finally, the stab of Partition which saw large-scale migration. from the area- all have affected the spirit of this old place, these few square miles of area which have had a profound effect on Indian history.

But nothing dies forever. In the old city, you can still see pigeons being flown, in the time-honoured tradition of “Kabutarbaazi”. You can see still see the colorful kites flying, fluttering above the rooftops. And once you have done the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, and venture into the quaintly-named labyrinthine streets of the old city, you will feel the soul of the city, never mind the grimy surroundings. It is here that India existed, in its time-tested tradition of communal amity. This is reassuring in an age where cynicism is increasingly taking the centre-stage in our lives, and secularism seems like just another cliché.

And so, it was on a moderately hot and profusely sweaty day, that I decided to take a journey through the old city. I was very graciously accompanied by Sumbul Siddiqui, who had grown up here and retained the kind of affection for the place that only an old-timer could muster.

We take a rickshaw ride from Daryaganj, where I have parked my car, and we check out the famed Sunday book bazaar. There is an assortment of books- textbooks, childrens’ books, story books. It is renowned throughout Delhi as the place to buy second-hand books from, but since it is only ten in the morning and the bazaar has not opened on a full scale yet, we move on and take a rickshaw. After some haggling, the fellow agrees to fifteen rupees and drops us at Chandni Chowk, in front of the imposing Red Fort (Lal Qila).

The city of Shahjahanabad, the seventh of the eight cities of Delhi, was established by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, about 360 years back, and it was the abode of the inimitable Urdu poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Shahjahanabad was ruled over by the Mughals, the last of whom was Bahadur Shah Zafar. Chandni Chowk, which means ”moonlit square”, was established by Begum Jahanara, the daughter of Emperor Jahangir, at around the time that Shahjahanabad was built.

Hidden in the gallis of the old city, after one has done the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and the Sisgunj Gurudwara, there are treasures to be found. Like the curiously -named alley,”Patli Gali”. Like the markets or “Katras”, neatly arranged by sections, the haveli of Mirza Ghalib, the old mansions, the beautiful Fatehpuri Masjid, the Kabootarbaaz (pigeon-flyer) on the streets, the covered well of Lalkuan, the quaintly-named streets such as “ Khari Baoli” , and of course the delicacies such as Tikkis, Paranthas, Kababs, Jalebis, Kulfis and what have you. All the while, a mass of humanity moves alongside you, ahead of you and behind you, exhorting you to walk on. The Old City is crowded, hot and dusty- and is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Chandni Chowk was built as the main street of the then-new Shahjahanabad. It was the main shopping street of the city in the years gone by, and at the time of Shah Jahan, it definitely was a fashionable avenue.It was along this promenade that the Mughal emperors would proceed in their processions of splendour, seated on the back of the imperial elephant; a caravan of mace-bearers, horseriders, footsoldiers, palace guards, sepoys, water-bearers, and other people ahead of and behind them. There was a water channel flowing in the middle of the street those days, which has since been closed. The water supply for the channel came from an octagonal pool in the middle of the road. The name “Chandni Chowk” comes from the reflection of the moon which could be seen in this water pool in those days. The Britishers later closed the octagonal pool and the water-channel and built a clock-tower on Chandni Chowk, which existed there as one of the prominent landmarks of the area, before collapsing in 1951, never to be rebuilt again.

We walk past the Digambar Jain temple, built by Jain merchants during Shah Jahan’s reign; the Gauri Shankar temple; and the Sis Gunj Gurudwara, where Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to abandon his religious beliefs .We walk past the Dariba Kalan, the jewellery lane, which, according to legend, in Mughal times used to be adorned with rare stones and riches. Rare jewellery from all over the world used to find their way here. Today it is just another jewellary market, but nothing like the days of yore. We make our way past hordes of Sunday revelers, merchants, mendicants, policemen and hangers-on. Cycle rickshaws have resumed plying on the road today, it being Sunday, and the general air is that of a laid-back atmosphere, many of the shops being closed on Sundays in Chandni Chowk.

We walk into one of the "Katras", through a half-closed gate. There are very few shops open in, but what amazes me is the neat network of tentacle-like Galis inside the Katra. There is a huge network of shops inside this building, Katra Asharfi, and there is no way of making out from outside what kind of life exists inside these walls. Mainly clotheswear is sold here, and as Sumbul informs me, people come from other parts of the city to buy stuff at Chandni Chowk, especially during special occasions like weddings. For some, the Old City is like religion (plus good savings) and they even come from abroad to buy stuff for special occasions, as one of her relatives did.

We walk past the Paranthe Wali Gali, the street of Parantha delicacies in Chandni Chowk, and decide to give this street a miss, because we have just had breakfast .We have Nimbu Paani at one of the roadside shops ; it’s refreshing , and what’s more , it’s available at Old City prices- only Rs.8/- per glass. We are in the search for a chemist shop to buy some band aids, and the shopowner helpfully gives us the directions. The greatest part of the Old City is that there are no airs- people like you or dislike you, and are generally helpful. The synthetic atmosphere of the rest of the city is mercifully missing here.

By the roadside we can still see an old haveli. The delicate latticed work stands out; the arches remain-, but the windows are broken, the wood is well-worn. Parts of the building are broken, other parts have been turned into shops and commercial establishments, and eminently “modernized” with iron grills and glass windows, which is typical of many such old buildings in this area. But I can’t help wondering that a vestige of the magnificence of there erstwhile days, remains. She still stands out among the rest.

We can see the town hall on our right. It has a chequered history, having been built by the Britishers in 1865, after having defeated the mutineers in the 1857 struggle. It was initially an educational and cultural institute and later was turned into the municipal headquarters. Today, it stands still like any other building on this stretch, a mute spectator to the passage of time and the reversal of fortunes.

We move on to Nai Sarak, which is the place selling clothes and books. Many of the shops are closed today, but this is definitely the place to come to if you are in the need of buying any book, for pleasure or business. A signboard reads” Munshilal Manoharlal Publishers Private Limited”. They sell-“books, magazines, catalogues, reports”. What catches my eye is the elegant building the shop is situated in. It is one of those old buildings that have seen the ravages of time, yet remain beautiful.

It is here that I discover the “Patli Gali”. It is a narrow ally, just off the street “Nai Sarak”, with the entrance, situated amongst two buildings just wide enough to let one person pass. It leads us to a row of bookshops (open,this time).

“You want any books?” one of the shopkeepers enquires.

We are interested only in looking around. A few shops are open, selling law books, engineering books, college books, any book one might require. There are also residences inside, not grand havelis but simple residences as seen in other parts of the city .The Gali meanders inward in a serpentine way, like all these streets of the Old City, and the omnipresent temple is also seen.

Sumbul stands at the entrance of the building to demonstrate how narrow it actually is. This place must be one of the hidden gems of the Old City I had never seen before. There’s a proverb in Hindi ” Patli gali se khisakna.” Which means “ to escape by the narrow alley.” This narrow alley would give no such chances of escape. Thieves,beware!

We visit the haveli (house) of Mirza Ghalib in the crowded locality of Ballimaran.This was one of the buildings where Mirza Ghalib had spent some part of his life.The house is adorned with his famous couplets, and has been suitably restored by the government from its earlier stage of dilapidation.

Mirza Ghalib was the peripatetic poet of Urdu. Having spent his life in the service of verse, but also wine and occasionally women, he was one of the icons of the tehzeeb, the culture that characterized Delhi during the days of the Mughals. Having witnessed Delhi in its most culturally advanced phase under Bahadur Shah Zafar, he also later witnessed it under its saddest day-the cataclysmic events post-1857 when the rampaging Britishers razed large sections of the Old City, killed thousands of people, pillaged and looted property and brought the proud city down on its knees. The carnage had a profound effect on Ghalib, and the pain and the shock that he witnessed during the ravishing of this once-beautiful city, remained with him till his days of death. But he refused to abandon his city even in its worst days. He had taken the poet, Ibrahim Zauq’s (his contemporary and rival) verse to heart:
“Kaun jayen Zauq, dilli ki galiyan chhod ke?’”
(Who would think of abandoning the streets of Dilli, O Zauq?)

The Old City symbolizes a large part of Indian history. Regal elegance, external attacks, British domination, revolt, repercussions, the trauma of Partition –this area of a few square miles has witnessed it all. Today, it is another trading locality where crores of money are transacted every day, but its place in Indian history remains assured forever.

As was perhaps inevitable, winds of change, some of them not so desirable, have come in. The communal amity of yesteryears is marked by the advent of mutual distrust. And so you have “Hindu Mohallas” and “Muslim Mohallas”. History acknowledges the efforts of the rulers such as Bahadur Shah Zafar, who took pains to maintain the communal amity of this place, in trying times and under difficult circumstances. People such as Ghalib had an equally large number of friends in both communities and were accessible to both. Hindustani culture as it has evolved over the ages has taken elements from all religions -even languages have borrowed from each other. Here, in Old Delhi, you learn the true importance of that synergy – it is the only area in India where you have, in close proximity, a Hindu temple, a Jain temple, three mosques, a Gurudwara and two churches. Probably our religious leaders could take a leaf out of this. Instead, as reports bear out, religious animosity is increasing and a polarization has begun even in the Old City, ironically here where the nearby “Urdu Bazaar” gave rise to a most unique language, Urdu, a synergy of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and Turkic, an example that synergestic co-existence can be possible.

Sumbul located her old tution school, the “Rabea Girls Public School”, in Balllimaran- it’s like walking down memory lane (literally) for her.

Two kids willingly stand and pose for photographs in front of an arch. Just happy to be there. I click them and show them.

We move on to the Fatehpuri Masjid, which was built by Fatehpuri Begum, one of the wives of Shah Jahan in 1650, as a place where women, too, could offer prayers. This mosque has had a turbulent history- it was a prominent centre of resistance for the Indian forces during the 1857 mutiny, and in retribution, Britishers took control of the building after crushing the mutiny and sold it to Rai Lala Chunamal, one of the prominent traders of Delhi at that time. It was reacquired by the Britishers in 1877 and handed over to the Waqf, so prayers could be carried out once more.

It is a beautiful, small mosque, well-preserved and devoid of Jama Masjid’s mad rush. It is situated in a busy street, and one hardly realises that there is a gem of a building inside. There is a Hauz (water body ) for ablutions, and the building is made in red sand stone and marble, typical of Shah Jahan’s time. It is well-kept and well-maintained, and I am pleasantly surprised to see a Sardarji and his family sitting with the ulema and listening to his words. Hoorah! Communal amity still lives.

We do a round of the Masjid. People are sleeping in the shade, others are simply sitting, and the atmosphere is one of calmness after the mad rush of the streets.

We come out onto Khari Baoli, the “street of spices”. Spices and condiments of every sort are sold here, in wholesale, in technicolours of brown, red, yellow, green and other colours. The unmistakable aroma ligers in the air. I make a mental note to come back here sometime, for culinary supplies.

We ask for the directions to Chawri Bazaar and are promptly guided. People are in general helpful here, unlike the sundry surly characters that you often encounter, and endure, in the rest of Delhi.

The names of the streets we pass, are enchanting-“Gali Chabuk Sawar”,” literally the “lane of the rider with the whip. History goes into the naming of these places, “Ballimaran” literally means” lane of the oarsmen” and it was here that the oarsmen who made oars for the boats that plied on the Yamuna, resided at one time.

We are now in Lal Kuan, which had again a prominent significance in the history of Delhi- it was here that Begum Zeenat Mahal, the queen of Bahadur Shah Zafar, lived in her haveli. This area saw heavy fighting in 1857, and it was at this place that the emperor was imprisoned, a pitiable and dejected man, before being deported to Burma.

The decline of the Old City began at that time. The decimation of the inhabitants of the old city, and a strong bias against and persecution of the Muslim population by the British rulers, later fructified into the” divide and rule” policy used by the Britishers to drive a wedge between the followers of the two major religions on the subcontinent. The probable byproduct- Partition and its miseries. Delhi was one of the worst-affected cities in the cataclysmic events of 1947.

As a matter of fact, the erstwhile military ruler of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, originated from the Old City, and resided in the quaintly-named ” Nahar wali haveli” , the “mansion with the canal.”

One feels tempted into asking,” What if? What if 1857 had not taken place? What if the persecution that followed the Mutiny had not taken place? What if the perceived sense of discrimination had not, later on, given rise to the demands for a separate country? What if 1947 and its carnage had not taken place? Would Delhi then have been a better place, would we have seen its tehzeeb today and witnessed the finest traditions of a synergestic culture even today? Would Babri Masjid, Gujarat and the 2008 Delhi blasts not have taken place? Would Ghalib’s beloved Delhi have remained the epitome of the best that Hindustan could offer? Would our religious and political leaders on both sides of the religious divide have then shut up and just let us be? “

Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions.

The name Lal Kuan was given on account of a well which was made by one Mr.Lal Chand. The well lies covered today, and a temple has come up above it. Only a plaque announces its location today.

Further on, we enter into one of those narrow alleys, hardly two metres wide. People live here as they have done for ages, though I must admit it is quite congested. We walk a little inside and come back. These are close-knit neighbourhoods, so people are inquisitive and ask you where you want to go. A Mohammad Rafi song blares from one of the houses-it just adds to the old-world charm of the place:
“Pukaarta chala hoon main, gali gali bahaaar ki”
( I wander, searching, amongst these splendid streets)

It just sums up the mood, though these streets may not be as splendid as they were at one time.

Outside, the shops on the streets are selling everything from utensils to kites. Kite-flying is still a big passion in the old city, and colourful kites in various shapes and sizes adorn the shops. Braving the hustle-bustle, we make it to Chawri Bazaar, decide the heat and humidity is too much, and take a rickshaw, to the famous Karim’s restaurant.

Karim’s is on the southern flank of the great Jama Masjid- the huge mosque built by Shah Jahan. It is a gigantic red sandstone and marble institution, much in the style of Shah Jahan’s typical architecture, and is the epicenter of the Islamic religion in India. One feels awed by the sheer size of the structure.

Karim’s, situated in "Gali Kababian "(street of the kebabs), is, of course, an culinary institution in its own right. The hotel ownership claims its descent from the Mughal cooks employed by Babar and his descendants. The food is good, the butter chicken (which I learn to my surprise is actually a Muglai and not a Punjabi dish) is delicious and the ambience is comfortable; the AC works, which is a huge relief in this heat. Karim’s does not deject us, like always.

Outside, the Jama Masjid is the epicenter of activity. The tall minarets loom large over the city skyline. Inside, there are legions of pigeons, fluttering about. People have gathered from all around- there are tourists, devotees, vagabonds, photographers. Children run about, making good use of the huge courtyard. And outside, boys carrying metal toothpicks offer to clean my ears. I decline out of purely practical reasons of hygiene and safety, though I was curious to try it out. Ear-cleaning is an old vocation here, going back to the Mughal times.

The Jama Masjid was built in 1656, and is also called Masjid-i Jahān-Numā , literally meaning “the world-reflecting Masjid” in Persian. It is said that in the olden days, the Emperor could directly see the Masjid from the Red Fort, without the intervening visual obstructions that have come up since then. It was also an important area around which the events of 1857 unfolded. British plans post-1857 included blowing up the Masjid and building a church there. One can only thank the turn of history that sanity and better sense finally prevailed upon them, and the Jama Masjid was spared, but only after they had razed many of the cultural treasures of the city,like true rampaging vandals.

The market in front of the Masjid is Meena Bazaar, built by Shah Jahan on the lines of a similar bazaar that he had seen in Peshawar. Covered markets were a novelty in India then, in the 17th Century. One can very well call this place the forerunner of the malls of today. It was here, in the days of yore, that expensive goods used to come from all over the world- exquisite carpets, rugs, shatranjis, jewellary, precious stones, costumes, embroidery. Today, it has shops mainly selling an assortment of cheaply priced items-bags, clothes, bedding materials and other things.

Exiting Meena Bazaar, we enter a shop selling Islamic motiffs. On display is the "Lohe Qurani", a plaque consisting of letters from the Quran, which gives the revelations from the Quran; and the "Dua e Safar", a motiff which Muslims use before starting a journey or auspicious activity. A number of these were being sold in the Meena Bazaar, too.

The trip is coming to an end, and as we walk towards the parking lot, I see the final thing that characterizes the different facets of life in the Old City- a boy with his pigeons, the kabootarbaaz.

In less hurried and more genial times, pigeon-flying was a popular activity, patronized by the Mughal emperors. Along with kite-flying, it was the way of life that depicted the leisurely pace of life in the city. Pigeon-flying originated from Agra and was developed into an art form by the Mughals. It remains today, but like the rest of the lifestyle of the Old City of yore, in a more diminished form.

The heat and humidity remain as oppressive as ever as we walk towards the car for our journey back, to a fundamentally different world. But I am happy that the trip has been every bit worth it. We have captured facets of a lifestyle that may not survive the onslaught of “modernity.” As cities change, cultures evolve and people challenge their identities, the way of life in the Old City may matter lesser and lesser to many. But for me, there is no doubt that Bahadur Shah Zafar’s soul still lives here, along with that of Ghalib, Zauq and the other luminaries of that time. Ghalib’s verses still reverberate :
“Hazaron khwaishen aisi, Ke har Khwaish pe dum nikle,
Bahut nikle mere armaan, Lekin phir bhi kam nikle.”

(Thousands of desires, Each worth dying for ,
I have realized many of these, Yet I yearn for more)

I wonder whether Ghalib’ s soul has finally realized his desires and found peace in his beloved city of Dilli.

(Abhimanyu Bishnu, Jul 2009, Delhi
With sincere gratitude to Sumbul Siddiqui for having made this possible)

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