Delhi’s historic monuments – and 1857

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?”

A view of the Jama Masjid, with its surroundings still intact, from a photograph taken in 1858 by Felice Beato.

A view of the Jama Masjid, with its surroundings still intact, from a photograph taken in 1858 by Felice Beato.

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.

A view of the Jama Masjid today.

A view of the Jama Masjid today.

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).

The Fatehpuri Masjid - a view of the facade.

The Fatehpuri Masjid – a view of the facade.

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.

The Zeenat-ul-Masajid, also known as the Ghata Masjid.

The Zeenat-ul-Masajid, also known as the Ghata Masjid.

22 thoughts on “Delhi’s historic monuments – and 1857

  1. I knew about the aftermath of the uprising of 1857 in human mortality terms, but didn’t know that it had such an effect on the historical buildings as well. I was going through Felice Beato’s photos at the ‘Old Indian Photos” just day before yesterday. This post comes as a good addition with good facts to it. Thank you, Madhu!

    • That’s a coincidence, about you having seen Felice Beato’s photos recently, Harvey! His photos of Delhi are also compiled in a very good book, which has text by the eminent historian Narayani Gupta. Ms Gupta’s style of writing (I’ve read her work elsewhere too) is most unacademic – in a good way. Very user-friendly, so the book is extremely readable yet informative.

  2. Interesting post, Madhu … Btw, is Zeenat-ul-Masjid the mosque in Daryaganj? Your post reminds me that I should pay more attention to the local landmarks the next time I visit the Chandni Chowk area! :-)

    • Thank you, Harini! And yes, Zeenat-ul-Masajid is in Daryaganj. There’s a theory about its alternate name, Ghata Masjid: some believe that it’s derivedfrom ghaat, since at that time the Yamuna – the darya – would have flowed by this way, and the mosque would have been very visible from the river and its ghaats.

  3. I have major a gripe with this post. It’s too darn short. Just when one’s beginning to get the feel of how Mosques were connected to the revolt, and why after the latter the Brits were so cagey about congregation, Bam! The End. Appetite whetted, check. Appetite sated, you’re kidding me, right?

    A lovely post, as always. Very informative in a nice, readable way. (Excepting of course that one little problem). Agree completely re Prof Narayani Gupta’s writing style. Enjoyed very much reading her ‘Delhi Between the Two Empires’.

    • You flatter me. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed this, Abhik. :-)

      I have still not got around to reading Narayani Gupta’s Delhi Between the Two Empires, even though I’ve got a copy lying on my bedside table. But wherever I’ve read something by her, it’s been uniformly readable. Very nice person, too – she used to be my sister’s guide, I think, and later also associated with INTACH’s Delhi Chapter.

  4. Even though I have seen most of these monuments during the 60s, I am only now learning the history behind them. Even our school teachers could not enlighten us other than who built them and when. Thanks for a very informative post.
    I have seen several compilations of old Delhi pictures on youtube, very interesting to see what Delhi looked like at one time.

    • “I have seen several compilations of old Delhi pictures on youtube, very interesting to see what Delhi looked like at one time.

      Yes! I remember, there’s also a very good quality video clip (from the 1930s, I think) of people walking through Red Fort, etc. In fact, I am always keen to see what Delhi looked like even a few decades ago – for example, there are scenes of Mehrauli in The Householder, and it looks unrecognsiably different.

      • Mostly it is your write ups on various monuments that have piqued my curiosity. The song “hum hain rahi pyar ke” from Nau Do Gyarah gives you a glimpse of India Gate area and the road to Agra with various monuments on the way. Too bad, that our Tourism dept does not do much to preserve these historic buildings. Just the thought that Zeenat-Ul-Masajit was used as stables or akhada, one wonders, how could they do that ? I still remember the Cannaught Place which used to look so regal, all the state emporiums in a circle where Palika Bazaar is now, the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara without the high walls looking majestic as you drove by, the Hanuman Mandir was not called “Pracheen Mandir” …. Delhi has changed so much, I am nostalgic about the Delhi I first saw and people of our parents generations must be nostalgic for the Delhi they remember.

        • The Tourism Departments don’t have so much to do with preserving historic buildings, Neeru. It’s the Archaeological Survey of India (the ASI). Over the past few years, they’ve improved their act somewhat and have started to use much more monument-friendly conservation techniques, but I’m not sure to what extent these are used, or if they’re only used in the more prominent sites.

          It’s not very surprising that the British should have allowed Zeenat-ul-Masajid to be used as a stables or an akhaara – for them, it was just another building, and that too one belonging to a community they blamed largely for the events of 1857. That it should be desecrated was of no consequence to them at all.

          Incidentally, talking about Hum hain raahi pyaar ke, I did a post on World Heritage Day some years back in which I listed ten Hindi film songs which were shot at World Heritage Sites:

          (Not sure if you’ll be able to see this, since it’s a list, and I know you’ve been having trouble seeing list posts on my blog. What is your net speed? I know list posts take a long time to load; that’s because people embed videos in the comments, and so the page gets very ‘heavy’).

          • Someone in India once told me that the Tourism department was responsible for the shabby condition of our monuments, thanks for the correct information. Your world heritage post sounds most interesting, will definitely go through it. I will try a different computer when reading the lists. Thanks for the tip.

            • I hope you can see the post! I think you’d appreciate it. As always, it drew lots of comments from people, both putting in songs (often from later years) which had been shot at world heritage sites, as well as – in some cases – identifying sites which people had asked about. It turned out to be enlightening for me too.

  5. And why have I missed this post until now? :(
    Let me echo Abhik’s plaint – why was this so short? Here I am, merrily reading (devouring!) every word, when it ends! And I’m left scratching my head in despair – where is the rest of it?! (Seriously, it is very unkind of you to do this to us!)

    Your post introduced me to many facets of history that I didn’t know – while I knew temples and mosques were desecrated by the British in the wake of the mutiny, I didn’t know to what extent; nor did I know that it took decades for it to be returned. Thank you for a most informative post – albeit an ‘incomplete’ one.

  6. Very informative post. I am searching for some pointers about a story that a Bhopal begum requested the Britishers to open the Jama Masjid for general public and got it restored after the mutiny. Any pointers please ?

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