Delhi: Shahjahanabad (walled city)

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Delhi: Shahjahanabad Before 1857

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Shahjahanabad Before 1857

By Mubarak Ali, Dawn, c.2006)

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The Mughal Empire reached its zenith in 1639 when Emperor Shahjahan laid down the foundations of a new city.

The royal treasury was full and there were no serious internal or external threats to the empire.

The Mughal court attracted the best talents and its culture excelled in refinement and sophistication. All these characteristics were fully reflected in the buildings which were built during Shahjahan’s rule. The majesty and grandeur of Emperor Akbar’s buildings gave way to delicacy, tenderness and beauty, which was a sign of cultural maturity.

The vision of Emperor Shahjahan was to build a city that could represent both the strength and beauty of the Mughal Empire; a city which could accommodate the expanding culture and its values and traditions.

The new city was thus named Shahjahanabad. The royal residence in the city was the Red Fort, which in official documents was referred to as ‘Qila-i-Mubarak’ (the blessed fort). It was constructed in such a manner that both the common as well as nobles could visit in the presence of the Emperor. It contained halls for common audience and a separate hall for advisors. The jharoka darshan (window for public audience), naqqar khana (music room), towers, the pearl mosque, and apartments for Haram were important parts of the fort.

The fort was the symbol of royal authority and power. Life within the walls of the fort was kept secret and people outside did not know much about internal activities. However, when people did not get any inside information, they spread rumours about the royalty. Some European travellers received this gossip as true historical facts and mentioned them in their travelogues for the sake of producing juicy scandalous material for their readers.

Outside the fort was the magnificent Jama Masjid, the symbol of religious devotion and allegiance. Later in history, various Mughal nobles and princesses built a number of mosques as a sign of their piety, such as the Fatehpuri Mosque, Akbarabadi Mosque, Aurangabadi Mosque and Sonehri Mosque. Besides these a number of mosques were built in different localities and bazaars to facilitate people during prayers.

During the medieval period, bazaars were not only meant for shopping but were also entertainment settings. In Shahjahabad, some of the most famous bazaars were Faiz Bazaar, Urdu Bazaar, Khanam Ka Bazaar, Khaas Bazaar, and then there were bazaars which were specialised in certain commodities such as jewellery, shoes or bangles. However, the most fascinating bazaar was Chandni Chowk. Those who had witnessed it during its days of glory were full of admiration.

In the heart of Chandni Chowk was a paradise canal and the Chowk itself was lined with trees on both sides, which made the atmosphere cool and soothing. Sir Syed in his book Asar Al-Sanadid wrote that Chandni Chowk was such a beautiful place that one could not describe it in words. In the evening, the princes and nobles came here for walks and engaged in merrymaking.

With the passage of time, the city of Shahjahanabad acquired its characteristics and its inhabitants increased. Its streets, lanes and mohallas became famous for their special charm. Musicians, artists, poets, calligraphers, dancers, storytellers and artisans all gave the city a new life and a new culture.

In no time, Shahjahanabad became the centre of literature and culture. Officially it remained Shahjahanabad but to common people it was Dilli.

When the Mughal Empire suffered a downfall, the foreign invaders stormed the city in the hope to loot and plunder the accumulated wealth of the Mughals. Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali occupied it and not only massacred inhabitants but extorted money and went back to Afghanistan loaded with looted wealth.

However, the city and its people not only survived these catastrophes but revived its waning past glory with great spirit and enthusiasm. The city also witnessed the Marhatta domination. But even though they ruled over the city, they continued to pay respect to the Mughal Emperor.

It was when Lord Lake conquered the city in 1803 that the East India Company acquired all power and the Mughal Emperor became just a puppet in their hands. The Emperor lost his political authority and power and became financially dependant on the East India Company. This changed people’s perception about the fort, for it no longer symbolised political power but became hub of cultural activities.

To the inhabitants of the city, the fort was a repository of past heritage. The empire declined as a result of political vicissitude but its culture survived with all hues and colours and filled the vacuum of political loss by its richness.

Bahadur Shah Zafar also maintained the protocol and etiquettes of the court in spite of his limited financial income, which he got from the East India Company. Courtiers were obliged to take care of all the rituals established since the time of Akbar. The Emperor also had to perform his duties regularly. He had to take care of his exceptionally large family which, according to one estimate, had nearly 3000 members. Each family got its expenses from the royal treasury. But during the downfall, they did not get their expenses regularly and had to live in poverty. Moreover, they were not allowed to leave the fort. Therefore, they spent their time in useless hobbies.

Bereft of political power, the Emperor spent most of his time in celebrating different festivals such as Nauroz, Diwali, Holi ,Moharram, Eids, Dassehra and among them the most popular being ‘Phullon Walon ki Ser’ or the flower festival. According to Zaheer Dahlawi, the author of Dastan-i-Ghadr, he had never seen such festivals in his life.

The language of the fort became standard for literary people. Musha’iras or poetical concerts were a regular feature in which Ghalib, Momin, and Zauq participated along with other poets.

Outside the fort, there were cultural activities. The elite class had enough luxury and resources to take part in these activities. The cultural life of the city was vibrant. Even in the days of political decadence, the city produced great poets, storytellers, calligraphers, physicians, dancers, and musicians. It was a role model for the other cities of the subcontinent.

In those days, to be a Dilliwala was a matter of pride. Life was going on smoothly. Then an incident happened, an incident which no one in the city expected but which changed the course of Indian history.

Urban renewal

Rebuilding illegally

The Times of India, Apr 24 2016

Rajshekhar Jha

The squat houses in Old Delhi are packed tightly together, making life a claustrophobic affair. The old quarter of the capital has virtually run out of space, and the only way to build and sell new houses there is to demolish the old ones and cock a snook at construction laws while erecting modern apartment buildings in their stead. But this is a paying enterprise -enough to kill for.

This fact was reiterated when 35-year-old Fahim, a builder, was shot dead at Punjabi Fatak on March 31. The investigations led the police to a team of sharp shooters from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. It quickly became apparent that the murder was a result of the builder mafia-politician nexus operating in the crammed bylanes of Old Delhi.

The residents of the Walled City say murders like these are a menace they have to deal with every day . “Old Delhi has become a goldmine for builders,“ ventured an elderly man in Ballimaran who even feared to reveal his name. “Old, often historic, structures are demolished overnight under the nose of the civic authorities and replaced by stealthily constructed apartments.“

The competition for a share of the lucrative pie has turned the region into a veritable battleground, where, according to local residents, at least 10 organised builder groups, each with around 100 men in their ranks, tussle for supremacy .

“There's a nasty fight going on,“ said another person, who too refused to give his name. “Everyone knows that Fahim lost his life because he was trying to make it big in the area.“ The turf battle has intensified over the past decade with available space becoming scarcer, and every house owner is now fair game for the builders.

“Once a builder eyes a particular house, mostly on a 100-square-yard plot, he deploys his minions to coerce the owners into vacating it, sometimes even threatening them with death,“ said 70year-old Syed Hanif Khizri, former councillor from Ballimaran, who remembers several families that have been forced to relocate to other places in the capital.

As soon as the mafia manages to run the owner out of the house, the ageing structure is demolished, and within three months a multistoreyed edifice is erected over the old basement, despite new constructions being banned by law in the Walled City since the 1950s.Since only repairs are allowed, building over the old base is crucial. It allows the constructors to claim they had only carried out “repairs“.

A builder at Punjabi Fatak explained that one needed hardly Rs 20 lakh to build a five-storeyed building if it came up on the existing base of an older building. The economics are hugely tilted in the favour of builders. The value of a 100 square yard plot here is about Rs 1 crore, but coercive tactics render it almost free for the builders. Say 10 apartments are built on five floors at a cost, as determined by the Punjabi Fatak builder, of Rs 20 lakh. If each is sold for Rs 20 lakh and even if the plot owner is given one for free, the builder ends up with Rs 1.6 crore in his piggybank to share with the politicians.

Social activist M Nafis, who is well informed about the activities of the builder mafia, said that the smaller builders in areas around Lal Kuan, Ballimaran, Sita Ram Bazar and Chandni Chowk have reconciled to operating under syndicates that have “connections with the politicians and the local police“.

In this murky world, peo ple like Rizwana Begum, who runs a school near Hauz Qazi, live in constant fear of losing their homes to the unscrupulous operators. “They only want to destroy the charm of this heritage zone,“ said Begum. They grumble that they cannot rely on help from the police either.

In any case, the police are helpless when it comes to dealing with illegal constructions. Last year, BS Bassi, the police commissioner then, ordered the SHOs in the area not to intervene in cases of illegal constructions. The move was meant to prevent corruption in the ranks, but has left the men in khaki authorised only to inform the North Delhi Municipal Corporation if they came across constructions that violated the laws.

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