Last week, on my Facebook page, I’d posted a brief history of the origins of one of Delhi’s most unique festivals, the Phoolwaalon ki Sair (also known as the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan). In the discussions which ensued, one reader pointed out that the British had banned the Sair-e-Gulfaroshan after the uprising of 1857. (It was restarted in later years, but not before Mirza Ghalib voiced this lament in a letter from December 1859: “Five things kept Delhi alive—the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Jumna bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive?”
Most people with an interest in modern Indian history—especially the freedom movement—would know that the repercussions of 1857 were widespread and often brutal. Thousands of ‘rebels’ were executed; many more, suspected of having supported the movement, were evicted from their homes, exiled, or subjected to other punishments. The British Crown took over from the East India Company in India, and various measures were taken to guard against a repeat of the uprising: Indians, for instance, were summarily classified into ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races, with ‘martial’ races—whose soldiers had sided with the British during 1857—being preferred for induction in the army.
But, as one can see from Ghalib’s letter above, the aftermath of 1857 was to have far-ranging consequences. Delhi, both thanks to its proximity to Meerut (where the uprising had begun) and its status as the seat of the Mughal Emperor—only a figurehead by then, but still—became an important focus of 1857. Therefore, once the movement had been squelched, the British cracked down on Delhi too. And, while Bahadur Shah Zafar and his family (including thousands of salatin, distant relatives of the Emperor) were eventually banished, killed, or deprived of their pensions, there were other repercussions, too—especially on the monuments of Delhi.
The space around the Red Fort (which was occupied by British troops) was, for example, cleared—hundreds of shops and dwellings which had once stood between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort—were demolished, in order to allow for a clear view from the fort. And, since the mosques of Delhi were seen as potential places for congregation (and therefore encouragement of sedition), the mosques of the city became a target.
1. Jama Masjid: The city’s largest, most famous mosque—and the Imperial Mosque, where the Emperor himself would come to offer prayers—was in danger of being destroyed altogether (a fate which befell the nearby Akbarabadi Masjid). Eventually, however, this idea was shelved and Jama Masjid was confiscated by the British, who quartered their troops here. The mosque was returned to the Muslims of Delhi in 1862, but with a list of conditions attached, among which one was that Europeans could enter the mosque without having to remove their shoes.
2. Fatehpuri Masjid: Another important mosque of Delhi, Fatehpuri Masjid was also confiscated, along with the rows of shops whose income used to go towards the maintenance and upkeep of the mosque. These shops were sold to a local entrepreneur named Lala Chunna Mal (whose grand haveli still stands nearby, overlooking the main road). The mosque was returned to its rightful use in 1877, along with the shops (Lala Chunna Mal was given land elsewhere in Delhi as compensation).
3. Zeenat-ul-Masajid: Also known as the Ghata Masjid, the Zeenat-ul-Masajid was built under the aegis of Aurangzeb’s daughter, Zeenat-un-Nissa Begum, in 1707. It was considered to be second in importance only to the Jama Masjid, which probably accounts for the shabby treatment dished out to it in the wake of 1857: it was confiscated, of course, by the British—and then turned into a commissariat bakery for British troops. In 1875, Zeenat-ul-Masajid was returned to the Muslims, but it seems to have not been really put to use as a mosque again for a long time: I’ve seen documents dating from 1929 which talk of the mosque housing a wrestlers’ arena (an akhaara); tennis courts; and stables for tongas.