Blog regulars will probably know that I am the creator of a series of historical detective fiction books. Featuring Muzaffar Jang, a 17th century nobleman who lives in Shahjahanabad during the tumultuous last years of Shahjahan’s reign, the series now consists of four books (the latest, released late last year, is Crimson City). When the second Muzaffar Jang book—a set of short stories called The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries—was released, my sister Swapna Liddle (a historian, who’s been conducting heritage walks in Delhi for over 15 years now), did a ‘Muzaffar Jang Walk’, focusing on monuments, areas, concepts and more which are mentioned in the Muzaffar Jang books.
It’s been a few years since then, and we were toying with the idea of a reboot. So, when a private group approached me to do a ‘heritage appreciation walk’, I suggested Swapna’s name as the walk leader. With me, to read relevant passages from Crimson City, at the appropriate places we visited: a paragraph about Katra Neel at the katra, something about Khaas Bazaar at the Shahi Darwaaza of the Jama Masjid (from which Khaas Bazaar—not the untidy and very daunting warren now at the foot of the steps—could be seen). A little about Sarmad, something about Chandni Chowk.
Some photos from the walk, therefore, with brief descriptions to explain things. We began at Gate #5 of the Chandni Chowk Metro Station, and walked our way to Town Hall, to start with.
(Note: You can click each of these photos to see a larger version of it).
The Town Hall. ‘Chandni Chowk’ (‘Moonlight Square’) is, technically, only this little stretch of road, where the road widens into a square or chowk. The water channel that ran down the length of this road widened into a large pool at this point, and the reflection of the moonlight in its water gave the chowk its name. Now, of course, everybody refers to the entire stretch between Fatehpuri Masjid and Jain Lal Mandir as ‘Chandni Chowk’.
After 1857, the British destroyed several Mughal imperial buildings in Chandni Chowk, among them a hamaam and a luxurious sarai that (along with vast gardens) had been established by the princess Jahanara Begum. In place of the sarai, in the early 1860s, the British built the Town Hall.
The gateway to Katra Neel. Close to the Town Hall (and, contextually, playing an important part as a setting related to one of the crimes in Crimson City) is Katra Neel. A katra is a commercial space, a lane in which traders—more often than not of a common commodity—would both live and work. It would have gates at either end, which would be closed at night, securing the residents as well as their property.
Katra Neel was originally the ‘katra of the indigo dyers’ (‘neel’ means ‘indigo’). Indigo was not the only dye used, though it was one of the most expensive. Today, the dyeing has died out, but nearly all the shops here sell fabric or clothing.
An otla at the entrance to a shivalaya. Katra Neel was (and still is) largely occupied by Hindu Khatri families. One interesting feature of this lane is the number of small Shiv temples, or shivalayas, dotted along the stretch. Most date to the 19th century. Here, Swapna stands at the entrance of one (alas, its lovely sandstone façade brutally painted over!) and points out an interesting feature of old havelis and houses: the otla. That’s the name given to the square platforms on either side of the doorway. A platform built with the express purpose of providing seating space. For gossip, for people-watching, and general lazing around.
A shivalaya in Katra Neel. This is a closer look at the shivalaya shown in the previous photo. There’s a regular household around—possibly that of the priest who presides over the worship here—and, in the middle of the small courtyard, there’s this ornately carved sandstone chhatri or pavilion. Someone on the walk remarked that the dome and the pillars looked distinctly ‘Islamic’, which made Swapna point that that is a somewhat warped, British-perpetuated view of subcontinental architecture: domes, fluted pillars, cusped arches and the like have been, as can be seen from this shivalaya and the others in Katra Neel, used pretty freely and without discrimination when it comes to religion.
Inside a haveli. Snaking off from Katra Neel is a tiny alley named Gali Ghanteshwar. Here, very close to Chandni Chowk itself, is a haveli worth a peek. It’s not as old as my favourite, Haveli Khazanchi (this one is 19th century), and there are obvious additions to the décor that are new and thoughtless. But enough remains—pretty cusped arches, dalaans (pillared verandahs), European-style columns in the balconies, and a carved white marble ‘throne’-like structure that projects into the main courtyard. (Swapna explained that most haveli architecture tended to draw inspiration from the Red Fort’s Diwan-e-Aam and Diwan-e-Khaas, and this oddity mimics the Emperor’s elevated throne).
Inside Naughara. From Katra Neel, we crossed Chandni Chowk, went down to the famous Parathewali Gali, and then walked on down Kinari Bazaar, named for the kinaari (‘edging’, or decorative borders for clothing) which still are among the main items sold here. Just off Kinari Bazaar, and entered through a doorway which opens onto the bazaar, is Naughara (‘nine houses’), also known as Naugharana. Like the katras, this was made to be a self-contained little neighbourhood (consisting of nine houses), with its own temple and well, all within the cul de sac it occupies.
A doorway in Naughara. What makes Naughara special for me is the beauty of the carved doorways that comprise the façades of these houses. Nearly all of them are intact, and some (despite being lovingly covered over with enamel paint) are really quite pleasant to look at. This one, fortunately, also retains part of the original, unpainted sandstone—the panels below the arch depict carved flowers, vegetation and birds (parakeets).
A plaque in the old St Stephen’s College building. One of Delhi University’s most respected colleges (and its oldest), St Stephen’s began life in this part of town. Just down the road from Kinari Bazaar, before one turns onto the wide stretch of Dariba Kalan, is Katra Khushaal Rai. This road, if you walk far enough, has some beautifully carved haveli doorways, but nearer to Kinari Bazaar is a small haveli which was where St Stephen’s College was established in 1881. Its first principal was Revd Samuel Scott Allnut, and the college began with three teachers and five students. It functioned in this haveli till 1890, when it shifted to an ornate building (now the Election Commission office) near Kashmiri Gate.
The haveli is occupied (as many are in this area) by several different families, and except for some arches in a wall, little remains of the original architecture. But yes, there’s a plaque just inside the main doorway, which commemorates its academic history.
Surajwali Masjid, Dariba Kalan. Kinari Bazaar (which is also known as ‘Chhota Dariba’ or ‘Dariba Khurd’—both meaning ‘Little Dariba’) is a small lane branching off from the wider, more expensive Dariba Kalan (or ‘Bada Dariba’—‘Big Dariba’). This has been, since Shahjahan’s time, a jewellery street—there are dozens of jewellers’ shops here. There are other interesting landmarks, too, such as this one, the Surajwali Masjid. No, I don’t know the history to it, but this is such an intriguing idea, a reinforcing, perhaps, of Swapna’s remark that architectural elements in Shahjahanabad at least don’t follow ‘rules of religion’. The many-rayed sun is almost an emblem of Hinduism, after all—but here it is, and beautifully gilded, its rays undulating prettily, decorating the façade of what looks like a 19th century mosque.
Chheepiwaada Kalaan Gate, leading to Kucha Ustad Hamid. We walked down Dariba and emerged at the biggest landmark this side of the main road: the Jama Masjid. And here, next door to the imperial mosque, is this red-painted arched gateway, which leads to Kucha Ustad Hamid. Ustad Hamid (pronounced ‘Haamid’) was one of the two architects of the Red Fort, and lived in this kucha or street. We didn’t go in, but the gate is historic enough in itself.
From here, we went up the steps into Jama Masjid for a while, to admire the beauty (sadly, right now rather dusty) of this magnificent mosque. For those not in the know, the Jama Masjid derives its name not from ‘Jumma’ (Friday) as so many people seem to believe, but from the word for congregation—‘jamaa’ in Hindi is a close relative when it comes to etymology. Congregational mosques have been called ‘Jama Masjid’ for centuries before Shahjahan built this one: there’s a Jama Masjid at the Feroze Shah Kotla, and the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque (beside the Qutb Minar) was also popularly known as the Jama Masjid when it was built.
So that was it. After Jama Masjid (on the steps of which were taken some group photographs), we parted ways with the rest of the walkers, and went our way.