Book Review- Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi

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Book Review- Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi

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The Book Shahjahanabad: The Living City Of Old Delhi introduces us to the walled city of Old Delhi, which was once, the most important city of Indian Subcontinent. The book is written by Rana Safvi, a renowned writer who has written extensively on Delhi and this book as the third in the series completed her Trilogy on Delhi named ‘Where Stones Speak’. The book covers the whole area of the Old Delhi and its surrounding environs. It starts with a small preface after which there are 18 chapters.

The first chapter is concerned with Qila e Mualla or the Red fort. The Red Fort was completed in 1648 and was very different then from the fort that we see now, with almost 80% of its buildings inside demolished post the mutiny of 1857. The author introduces us to all the buildings which do not exist anymore like the Karkhanas, royal apartments, etc. In the parking lot of Fort, there is also a Mass Grave memorial for the British killed in the mutiny of 1857 .It is the longest portion of the book and lucidly written, one can genuinely feel how elegant the fort used to look in its glory days.

Then the Author goes on to talk about the fortifications of the city, which no longer exists now( apart from a little portion in Kashmiri gate), its wicket gates(all destroyed) and the main gates of which only four remain out of thirteen. They are Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate and the Kashmiri Gate.

Akbarabadi Masjid is also mentioned which was second only to Jama Masjid in terms of capacity and beauty, but was destroyed by the British after the mutiny of 1857. A Dargah also exists in Jama Masjid complex, known by the name Dargah Asar Sharif, which is as old as the mosque itself. Behind the Jama Masjid, one can find the first ISKCON temple as well.

As the book progresses, we find more and more about society, how and where people lived and it starts with the chapter on Matia Mahal and goes through the Turkman gate, Chawri bazar, Khari Baoli, Chandini Chowk, Dharampura and at last Kashmiri gate and settlement outside the walled city. All these areas have their own identity, and are marked with distinctive old mosques with their own identity, havelis, most of them turned into godowns and storehouses, and even if still inhabited, has lost its aesthetic look and converted into ugly looking flats, and the forgotten Mazars and Khanqahs of great Sufi saints who lived and taught in the glory days of the city. The remaining gates still hold a vibrant locality and is filled with people all day, be it Turkman Gate, Ajmeri Gate or any other. And some of these localities are older than the establishment of the city itself. For example, the locality around Turkman Gate can be dated to the the reign of Raziya Sultana. The Dargah of Shah Turkman exists there from 1240 AD. These localities evolved in what can be said as a typical ‘Ganga Jamuni Tehzib’ way, incorporating all those outsiders who shifted here even after the Mutiny of 1857. Dharampura is full of Jain Temples built beautifully and excellently conserved, all the idols, screens and paintings are kept intact the way it used to be . Places like Turkman Gate and Chawri bazar are dotted with numerous Churches and Temples built from the late medieval to the early modern ages.

A separate chapter is dedicated to the Kuche-Katre-Mohalle of Shahjahanabad, the old colonies and lanes, alleys and corner which had a history of their own, named after influential people. Shahjahanabad is also famous for its vibrant markets full of people and having all kinds of goods, from needles to books

. My favourite part of the books was about the markets of Shahjahanabad. The author has written about Chawri bazar, Chandni Chowk, Sitaram Bazar in such a detailed manner, explaining how beautiful it used to be then, full of trees, beautiful havelis, shops and in case of Chandni Chowk, Faiz Nehr flowing in the middle with a huge square pool in the middle. These markets are still lively, but in a bad state, congested, and we cannot imagine how beautiful it used to be two centuries before.

The chapter on Kashmiri gate introduces us to the horror the city and its inhabitants faced, full of remnants of the first war for independence in 1857. The whole of Kashmiri Gate is marked with British era buildings, batteries and the famous Lothian cemetery and St. Stephens Church.

The last chapters talk about the settlement beyond the walled city like the ridge, rakabganj, the gardens inside and outside the walled city, for example Roshanara Garden, Qudsia Bagh etc, royal festivals, food of shahjahanabad and the mutiny of 1857. The settlements outside the city are often ignored and we don’t know much about them, it was an amazing experience to read about the countryside and the villages, palaces, mosques that used to exist there. The Ridge near the Delhi University North Campus was a focal point of the mutiny of 1857 and there are numerous battlefields there where the rebels fought the company. Interestingly, an Ashokan Pillar also exists there, near the Bara Hindu Rao Hospital, which was earlier Fraser’s kothi.

The third last and second last chapter talks about the festivals of the Mughal court and food of Shahjahanabad, something which we love to talk about. By reading about the festivals, one can feel the environment of inclusiveness which existed in the Mughal court and how religious affiliation mattered little. The food of Shahjahanabad is famous all over India and it is so sophisticated that one really needs to read and research before experimenting at home, this chapter does exactly that, gives the recipes of major spices used and the Author herself has written one of  her family’s recipe.

The last chapter is about Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the Siege of Delhi in 1857. Just like the chapter on Kashmiri gate, it gives a feeling of eeriness and sorrow, and can be phrased in a line “ Char Din ki Chandni fir Andheri Raat”. It feels helpless as you read about the last days of Zafar as the Emperor, uniting people, doing all what he could to fight the British and then failing at the end.

The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in history . It not only tells us about how the city used to look in the past and how it changed but also tells us about the other places and monuments we have not even heard of and have no idea about. Local histories are well explained in the book and oral as well as textual and archaeological evidences are efficiently used. It acts like a guide for anyone interested in Shahjahanabad and wants to explore more than the Jama Masjid or the Red Fort. It also raises awareness about fading heritage, lack of civic amenities in the city and how educationally and socially it is lagging behind, despite the fact that it once had the best institutions of knowledge which are now declining.

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About Mohd Rafay Hussain

An undergrad History Student at Delhi University who is keenly interested in cultural anthropology and historical development of societies, cultures,traditions and religions

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