Throughout history, multiple rulers have lived their dreams of establishing an empire in India. Most of them made Delhi the centre of their rule and their Capital. As rulers changed and empires transformed, so did the names of Delhi — thus today, Delhi is known as the City of Seven Cities. Join us for a saunter through Shahjahanabad with Rajika Seth – our history-loving contributor from Delhi.
In this virtual tour we explore a few sites in the walled city of Delhi, Shahjahanabad, named after the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who established it. Shahjahanabad is popularly known as Old Delhi or Purani Dilli today. The focus of the tour will be the hustling and bustling ‘Chandni Chowk’.
Our first stop is the Bhai Matti Dass museum. The museum was built to commemorate Bhai Mati Das, a disciple of Guru Teg Bahadur, the 9th Sikh Guru. Bhai Mati Das was executed by Mughal Emperor Aurengzeb in 1675 because he refused to convert to Islam.
Bhai Matti Das was sewn into two halves and his Guru was made to watch him from Sunehri Masjid right across the road. The Guru wasn’t spared either. He was gruesomely beheaded by a banyan tree, also across the road and now part of the vicinity of Gurudwara Sis Ganj. Guru Teg Bahadur’s head was taken to Punjab. His body was snatched by his followers and buried in Rakaab Ganj Gurudwara in Delhi.
The museum walls are covered in vivid colourful paintings depicting stories from not only those times, but also of Sikhism in India. These are sure to transport you back in time!
Across the road from the museum you can see both Sunehri Masjid and Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, co-existing peacefully now for many years! They are accompanied by the Hindu Gauri Shankar Temple and the Dighambar Jain Temple further along the road, also coexisting peacefully for many years!
Right outside of the museum, you’ll see a fountain- this is Lord NorthBrook Fountain – the spot of all killings. Even during 1857, the last Mughal Emperor was killed here.
Our next stop is the Birds Hospital. Nestled within Dighambar Jain temple is an unusual spot- a hospital for birds. It was started by the Jain temple authorities, under the guidance of one of their gurus. You will find birds of all sizes here. Big and small, some who’ve been hurt through strings of kites, or gulels/ catapults, some who are hurt by bumping into fans, some hurt by snakes and other animals, some affected by the weather and others who need medical care. A common sight here is of people bringing in birds and leaving them for treatment. And I’ve met strangers coming to visit their birds and take them home post recovery!
Per protocol, they first let the birds rest, after which they do a full check- up. Medicines are then given accordingly by the specialist doctors. 35,152 in-patients and 37601 OPD patients came in 2016-17. They have 300 cages on a sharing basis, but if the bird is very sick, she may even just get her individual abode! Isn’t it fascinating?
Another story about birds is about bird fighting! In fact, not far from here in another part of old Delhi men gather around every sunday and entertain themselves by watching and betting on birds who are trained and made to fight each other. They make a clearing with the owners of the birds on opposite sides and then bam, open cages for fighting! What can I say, it’s been and continues to be a favourite past time of many people who live around this area. Sigh.
Next stop – Red Fort. Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal also built the walled city of Shahjahanbad that housed the Red Fort. The Red Fort remained the residence of Mughal emperors for nearly 200 years until 1857.
With the foundation for the fort being laid out in 1639, it took eight years for construction to be completed. Can you guess how much it cost to build the Red Fort at that time?…. Rs. 1 crore. Doesn’t sound so crazy now, but to think then..that was a lot of money folks!
Located on the west bank of river Yamuna, It has 21 circular and octagonal bastions. The fort has four gates — Lahori Gate (in the west), Yamuna Gate or Khzir Gate (in the east), Delhi Gate or Akbarabadi Gate (in the South) and Jahangiri Gate (in the north).
After the Mutiny of 1857, the British army not only captured the fort but also demolished most of the buildings and gardens. They constructed several barracks to accommodate the army or used parts of it as quarters, hospitals and mess for the British soldiers. Over 3000 people were killed. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last king of the Mughals was defeated, and many had to leave their beloved city forever. You’ll be surprised to know that most Muslims were complete barred from the city and rich Hindus were not only allowed, but also given mosques to run banks and bakeries. The British had sowed the seed of divide and rule, the minute they set foot in India.
The Red Fort, a supreme seat of power, has witnessed several historical events. It is seen as symbol of national pride and Independence. It is from here that the Prime Minister of the country addresses the nation on Independence Day. The Red Fort is a site where the past and the present coalesced to mark a newly independent nation’s step towards the future. In 2007 the Red Fort was categorised as a World Heritage Monument, thus, becoming the third World Heritage monument of Delhi.
India’s largest mosque is one of the last monuments built under Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign. Its construction started in 1650 and was completed in 1656, after which it remained the royal mosque of the emperors until the end of the Mughal dynasty.
Estimations consider that the total cost of the mosque’s construction reached Rs. 10 crore, a sum which only comprised labour wages and didn’t include the building material. As per the custom of this time, the stones were gifted to Shah Jahan by other kings, princes and noblemen. More than 5,000 workers were employed to achieve the construction of this huge monument. The Mughals lived well huh?
I have a story to share- you can decide – folklore or not. Apparently, the mosque needed to face the direction of Mecca, but after the construction was completed, they realized this hadn’t been considered. This was a grave mistake. So, a Fakir was called to find a solution. And what did he do? He simply pushed the mosque and altered its direction! Believe it?
Inside you can find relics of the Quran on deer skin, Prophet Muhammad’s hair and foot print in marble. See it for yourself.
All the kings were crowned in the masjid and even today on a Friday afternoon you can see thousands of people praying. The food in the area is divine and it is one of the most amazing sites you’ll see in all of Old Delhi.
After soaking in history, it is time to get engulfed by culture, and walk the narrow lanes of Chandni Chowk. The streets are full with people, rikshaws and hawkers, shops are quaint and small, selling all kinds of trinkets! And every few shops, you’ll find something delectable to eat.
Tucked away in a crowded lane in Dariba Kalan is Delhi’s oldest jewellery market. Some also believe it’s Asia’s largest jewellery market. I’m talking about Delhi’s oldest perfumery shop, Gulab Singh Johri Mal. Steeped in history, it is an explosion of scents.
The 200 year old scent shop was built in 1816 and is known all over India for its perfumes called ittars, extracted from fresh flowers and sandalwood oil.
The story goes that Gulab Singh, the owner, would showcase his best ittars in the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II. A large section of the nobility were his loyal customers.
Celebrity customers have remained the norm. Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, former Pakistan president General Pervez Musharraf are just a few.
They made Belgian cut glass decanters with different kinds of perfumes for the Mughal queens and princesses, who were not permitted to come to the bazaar. If you look carefully, you will surely to spot a decanter or two.
My favourite fragrance is that of ‘Petrichor’ – fresh smell of wet soil, just after the first rain. They’ve got it in a bottle! Love it.
Dariba Kalan has a gruesome story! A Persian king invaded India. One day, 900 of his soldiers got into a fight with the local people who lived here and were killed. As revenge, he killed 1,50,000 innocent people right here on this street as he sat and watched from Sunehri masjid. Since then, a door here was named khooni darwaaza (bloody door).
Another fun fact about the jewellery shops here. People believe if you keep your safe open you make more money. So if you look carefully you’ll always see open safes.
Also by now you may be hungry. You can either walk through to the oldest jalebi shop (1884) in town, Kalan Sweets, or come with me to another sweet shop.
The lanes of Dariba Kalan lead you into Kinari Bazaar – the one stop shop for wedding clothes. But beyond the barrage of colours, fabrics and embroideries also lies a hole-in-the-wall 90 year old shop that sells ‘Khurchan’, a sweet delicacy made of milk. The name Khurchan means ‘leftover scrapes’ in Hindi. Its preparation is simple: boil the milk, scrape off the leftover from the karahi’s (pan) bottom, slap it on a tray, sprinkle bhoora (powdered sugar) and serve. Priced at Rs 370 a kg (atleast this used to be the case), the mithai brings many well-heeled Delhiites to this congested part of the city.
During his Lahore bus ride in 1999, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee carried Mr Jain’s khurchan as a gift for his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif. A sweet way to kickstart talks, except three months later, India and Pakistan started the Kargil war.
Our next stop is a heritage building called Naughara that also hosts a 19th century Swetambara Jain temple. It used to be inhabited by one of the Mughals. The architecture of the house is Mughal style and people have been living here for the last 150 years. The revolt of 1857 ushered in the Jain community into the area, wiping out traces of the Mughals almost completely. Today there are eight families, of which seven are Jain.
The best thing about this building – it’s a moment of peace and tranquility amidst the madness of the bazaars.
I know I am famished, you must be too. So our second last stop- paranthe wali gali to devour some deep fried parathas and digest it with a lassi.
Main things you need to know- the food is divine, each shop claims to be old and original and it has inspired a similar street in London. My favourite is the lemon masala parantha.
Situated on the Main Road of Chandni Chowk, the Mahavir Bhawan is one of Delhi’s oldest community spot for the Swetambar Jains. This beautiful and ornate building was built in the year 1910 and what attracts me to its heritage is its small but fully functional library and the view from its balcony.
While the library is a treasure trove of books, what is most exciting to see is its visitors for whom it has become a refuge from the outside world. With newspapers becoming more and more expensive for people to afford, most readers in the library come to catch up on news and current affairs.
If you sneak to the balcony and look outside, all of Chandni Chowk will be at your disposal. On the left, it starts from the Red Fort and toward the right goes all the way up to Fatehpuri Masjid.
Shahjahanabad is embedded in history and culture, and there is so much more to see! If you enjoyed this, come with me again and we will explore another part of charming Old Delhi next time.
That’s a lot to take! Make sure you download the Urbanaut App to see more of Rajika’s recommendations for Delhi and to plan your visit. We’ve got so much more on the app – give it a whirl.
Featured Image: Jama Masjid – a highlight of our saunter through Shajahanabad