The Muzaffar Jang Walk, Version #2

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).

7_ Naughara_Doorway

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.


25 thoughts on “The Muzaffar Jang Walk, Version #2

    • Yes, as I was writing up this post, I was thinking that you’d relate to a good bit of this – Katra Neel, Naughara, Dariba…

      You must come back. Maybe next time we can go somewhere very different – Nizamuddin Basti and Humayun’s Tomb, perhaps, taking in Rahim’s Tomb and a couple of others en route. :-)


  1. This is exactly what I love about Delhi. One minute it is infuriating, so polluted and crowded that your head is about to burst, next minute you see a beautiful monument bang in the middle of a road and history comes alive.


    • Very true. And very true, especially, of Shahjahanabad, which is (except on Sundays), so bustling and crowded, it can get unnerving. Even simply stepping into a place like Naughara can be like suddenly finding yourself in a little oasis of calm.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So many things and places to discover in Delhi!
    Since I just finished reading ‘The Crimson City’, I could recollect the events related to the landmarks.
    When did the water channel disappear and what events led to it? While I read your book, I was imagining, how beautiful it must have looked. Then I wondered if people threw their garbage and other wastes in it, like people do it in other water-bodies nowadays.
    The Katra Neel and its doors made me think of the Jewish ghettoes in Europe. The doors there were also closed by the city at night, for their ‘protection’.
    Now, I’ve learnt what an otla is, then what is a kotla?
    That shivalaya looks very pretty and I was just bowled over by the floral pattern on the gateway. That is private house, I presume. Are such structures (or for that matter, Chandni chowk as whole) protected or can the owner pull everything down and build a new ‘modern’ house there?
    The Surajwali Masjid, how intriguing!
    Do you think, you could post a photo of Jama Masjid. I particularly loved the ending, which is set at the Jama Masjid and the hopes and wished of the protagnists for the future.
    The next Jung adventure will fall in tumultous times, or is there some time to squeeze in another adventure before Shah Jahan is deposed off by his son, Aurangzeb?
    Thank you for this wonderful post and the beautiful photos. Oliver asks for more!


    • “When did the water channel disappear and what events led to it?

      I’m not sure about this, but I’ve definitely seen old black-and-white photographs which show the water channel (with trees on either side), so its disappearance is not that old. I suppose it must have had something to do with the general ‘modernisation’ of the area in the early 1900s, when the colonial bank buildings here were built, etc. I’ll ask Swapna, maybe she knows.

      (Incidentally, the water channel may not have been too dirty back then. If you look at old photos of Chandni Chowk, it looks definitely cleaner and more litter-free than it is today).

      A kotla – like Ferozeshah Kotla or Kotla Mubarakpur – is a ‘small fort’ (though, as in the case of Ferozeshah Kotla, it’s not really small, maybe just small in comparison to larger forts like Tughlaqabad. It’s derived from kot (as in Faridkot, Sialkot and Daryakot), which means ‘fort’.

      I’m not absolutely sure of the laws governing protection of privately-owned heritage properties, but I doubt if they’re anything to write home about. Even if there are laws, their implementation is very iffy. For example, protected buildings (especially the many, many medieval tombs which dot Delhi) have been summarily encroached upon and turned into houses. :-(

      I’ll put up a photo of Jama Masjid. I didn’t take one this time, because they’ve become very strict about photography – you can only take photos (even from a cellphone) only if you’ve paid up Rs 300 or so. So, even though I did have my cellphone with me, I didn’t take it out of my bag. The man at the gate was trying to bully all of us into having one person stand outside with all the cameras and phones, but we refused.

      I am definitely going to squeeze in at least one (if not two) more MJ adventures in Shahjahan’s reign before Aurangzeb comes to the throne (though I’m wondering if one of those adventures should be at that tumultous time when Aurangzeb was deposing his father… all that political turmoil might make for some good crime drama, actually).

      Thank you for these interesting comments, Harvey!


      • So is this the Chandni Chowk channel?
        then part of it must have been underground.

        It seems to have been there in 1867

        And in the photo below it seems to have disappeared, or is it a different view?

        If it is so, then the channel must have been covered up in the late 1860s or so.


        • Lovely pictures, Harvey! Yes, that first one is also a view of the channel – don’t whether it was underground between the fort and Chandni Chowk, or whether it made its way into the city through another route.

          It may be that the channel was covered up by the late 1860s, as you mention. I must ask Swapna if she knows. (By the way, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the last view – the photo – is a view from the Fatehpuri Masjid end of the channel, not the Red Fort end (which is what the other two images show).


  3. This is such a funny co-incidence – you making this post when you did. I happen to be in India right now (in Bangalore). And just last evening, I did my usual bookstore chakkar here – and guess what, “The Eight Guest” was there and I picked it up. Since I am a fan of your writing on this blog, I had been wanting to get a copy of the book – and since I am a total sucker for mysteries, it would have been a 2-for-the-price-of-1 thing. I come back to my hotel and there is your post about the walk. I don’t get up to Delhi as much, but I love the heritage walk concept. I did one in downtown Kolkata just a year or so back when I was there.
    After reading the book, I just may be moved to do this walk in Delhi as well, especially if I can relate them to the book in my head, once I have read it. I have been to Delhi numerous times, but never to the Chandni Chowk area. So this would be a new experience as well.
    Some nice photographs. One wishes that we (Indians as a whole) were able to maintain some of our historic architecture better – it is sometimes a testament to the original builders that they survived as long as they have. However, the heritage walk that my wife and I did in Kolkata enabled me to look past the exterior layers of the years and really connect with the places and their stories in a way that I never expected.


    • That is a coincidence, indeed! I do hope you enjoy the book. :-)

      Yes, I love the concept of a heritage walk. Sadly, I’ve never been able to do one outside Delhi (though I’ve heard good things about the heritage walks in Kolkata, too), but I’ve probably been on enough heritage walks in Delhi to compensate for the lack elsewhere! As someone on this walk yesterday remarked, “We often don’t know what lies beneath the surface of our own city, what the real history of our own city is.”


      • This is so very interesting. It reminds me of William Dalrymple’s book “City of djinns” in which he says that 7 histories of Delhi are buried beneath the surface.


        • I’ve read the book, but have forgotten much of it. He’s a little mistaken there (though that’s probably forgivable, since that’s not even purporting to be a historical work)… because scholars believe that Delhi could have been anywhere between 10 to 15 cities; the 7 is a popular notion, no more.


  4. Wonderful post! Thanks for such exquisite details from what I see as treasures lost in the daily lives, as people take it for granted, and don’t see real value in preserving. One day, all of these will be gone. I wonder how these are still in place and do people who live in the area realize the significance of these places?

    I know growing up in Gwalior, our school was in an old historic building that should really be a heritage building. No one told us how old or important the place is and no one cared to protect it. The link below has an image that I associate my childhood school memories to. I can clearly remember the beautiful carvings on the walls that were just amazing..


    • Beautiful carvings on the Shivalaya/Katra Neel distracted me and reminded me of Scindhia Chhatris in Gwalior and I got side tracked. I forgot to ask you the question I meant to ask in the first place when I started writing.

      How do you visualize the story and places and events? I mean in the context of the MJ series. Do you first think about the events and then place them on the sites that you are familiar with or it’s the other way round? It’s more of a writing process question, which may be awkward to answer. I would understand if you chose not to answer this.

      Also, it is so interesting to see how things appear so accurate and believable in the story, it’s no coincidence because you have your research and historic accuracy going for you. It would be awesome to attend one of these heritage walks!

      Great job!


      • Thank you so much for the appreciation, Ashish! :-) And any time you’re in Delhi, let me know – I’ve taken several blog readers-turned-friends on heritage walks. Would be happy to show you around as well.

        There’s no fixed way my mind works when it comes to plotting. There are times that a concept (usually not a particular place, but a concept) comes to mind, and I think I should use that in a story. For example, Crimson CIty‘s ‘the body in the bathhouse’ murder came about because I thought it might be an interesting twist on the locked room trope – to have a dead body found in a hamaam. There are no longer any hamaams in Shahjahanabad (there used to be a huge imperial hamaam north of Chandni Chowk, but the British destroyed it in the wake of 1857). so there was no real place I could see to refer to. The only other Shahjahan-era hamaam in Delhi is the one at Red Fort, which is exquisite but is kept locked to the public. Fortunately, there are photos of it online, and I remember peeking at it through the grubby glass windows of the building at a time when you could at least do that… and I did a lot of research on Shahjahan’s hamaams in other parts of the subcontinent, especially Lahore – they’re really quite fantastic. Compared to Indian public buildings today, one wonders at the sad decline in aesthetics…!

        But, to get back to your question: no, it’s only very occasionally that places inspire me, at least in the case of the Muzaffar Jang stories.


        • Thank you for walking us through the process Madhu. It is so very interesting! I absolutely enjoy these details. Interestingly, I am at just about “the body in the bathhouse” part of crimson city. No, haven’t finished the book yet. It is totally mesmarizing and as usual I take my sweet time to relate to events, places and people rather than giving in to my curiosity and read through quickly!

          It was also great to know about your research on Shahjahan’s hamaams. We must do everything to preseve these historical monuments before it’s too late.


    • I think the fact is that most people tend to overlook what’s in their backyard, so to say – unless it’s an acknowledged ‘tourist sight’. I remember, we lived in Srinagar for three years, and the only places we visited – invariably with friends and family who were visiting us – were the well-known sights: the Mughal Gardens, Pari Mahal, and – once – Hazratbal. A couple of years ago, after the yearning for Srinagar got too much, I persuaded my husband to join me for a trip back to the Valley. I made it a point to this time do fairly thorough research, so we saw some wonderful sights (especially old mosques) which I’d never even known of.

      What saddened me, though, was that so much of the traditional Kashmiri architecture – those carved wooden balconies so often seen in old Hindi films, for example – had become far fewer than there had been back in the 1980s.

      The Shindeji ki Chhatri looks beautiful. :-) I have lived (though only for a year, as a child) in Gwalior, but never heard about this.


      • Exactly my point! It was only later I realized the importance of the place. Like I said before none of us at that time knew the value of our old architecture and workmanship (some who are local perhaps still don’t) so I am not surprised that you hadn’t heard of the Shnideji ki Chhatri. And I am sure there are tons more that we still don’t know.

        So many of our cities like Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Gwalior etc. have seen these transformations and how embedded the historical artifacts have been in the new industrial world! I hope we can save our heritage for future generations!


        • It’s really sad (and frightening), the way heritage is disappearing here. Not the ‘big’ buildings, the ones that are protected by the ASI and so forth (though not even those are always protected in reality), but the small everyday places – like the old, privately-owned havelis in Old Delhi. Because they’re privately owned, despite whatever laws the government may enact (and there are laws regarding changes that can be made to a heritage structure, including privately-owned ones), the breaking of those laws is rampant. There are encroachments galore (in my wanderings, I have come across several medieval tombs which have been converted into houses – and not just by poor people desperately in need of shelter, but by relatively wealthy middle class folk, car parked outside and all). And, there’s the fact that little repair (mostly none) or renovation is ever done to privately-owned heritage structures, resulting in their eventual collapse.


          • I also see the difficulty in policing such a large number of historical artifacts that it is almost impossible to keep them pristine given our population explosion and lack of places for people to go. It must be up to our people to respect our history and architecture.


            • True. INTACH, though, has been pushing for the government to introduce incentives – monetary help, subsidized electricity and water, etc – to encourage owners of ‘private’ heritage to invest in conserving what they own. But, ultimately, it’s all up to individuals, whether or not they have the will to protect their heritage or not.


  5. Hi Madhulika, I am a frequent visitor to your blog but don’t comment much. This post reminded me of my forays in the Chandani Chowk area around 1995-1998 when I was a frequent visitor to Delhi. I had noticed many of the points mentioned by you about house architecture in the by lanes as I am interested in these things but was not knowing about the water channel in the chowk! In Jehaan Aara’s time the place must have looked fabulous especially on a full moon day!!


    • Thank you for commenting! Yes, the water channel must have looked quite wonderful on moonlit nights (or on all nights, actually – the streets and shops would’ve probably been pretty well illuminated, so I’m sure the water would have reflected even those lights. If you do some searching on the Net, you can see some old photographs – from the very late 1850s or the 1860s, some newer than that – which show the water channel. In the daytime, of course, but it gives you a good idea of how the area has changed.


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