Book Review

Shahjahanabad: The Delhi that Never Became ‘New’

Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by Swapna Liddle

--Paulami Biswas

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Genre: Popular History

Extent: 176 pp

Price: Rs 399

This book keeps the promise of crushing time into a single space called Delhi. It bunches together stories from ancient to modern Delhi almost with an efficiency of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The one thousand years or more covered in this book, contain histories, stories, myths, fables, fiction and facts on Delhi, specifically on Shahjahanabad, the Mughal city of old Delhi that prospered under the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan. The book doesn’t claim to add to the vast historical scholarship on Delhi’s past, but selects with great competence the relevant facts that help the reader to visualize an era bygone but still so much alive. It mainly stresses on the architecture and roads that survived through ages and that embody the colours and cacophony of hundreds of years.

The book begins with how in Shahjahan’s time the royal engineers were sent out to find a suitable site for the new city and settled on a spot near the river Yamuna. The author does not forget to mention the significance of the space in the ancient tradition that associated Delhi with Indraprastha, ‘the holy place where Indra, the king of the Gods, had performed sacrifices and worshipped Vishnu.’ She links it with Shahjahan’s intention to find a place which already had a spiritual significance. Though at each juncture of history the change was not this syncretic. From time to time Delhi was ravaged by the attacks of Tamerlane, Nadir Shah, Ahmad Shah Abdali. The series of battles fought in Sultanate and Mughal times, the bloodbath of 1857, the devastating violence of Partition, all played important roles in moulding the nature of the city. The most noteworthy fact the book wants to establish is that the past was never erased through all these transformations; rather it remained as prominent and visible as the present.

The buildings of Delhi, the royal palaces, the British structures are the central characters of this book. We hear the whispers of the history played within them. And with expert efficacy the author connects them to the history played on the streets. The detailed stories of the Mughal royal family get diluted in the stories of the bazaars, the mosques, the gardens and the lanes of Chandni Chowk. Just after the news that prince Dara Shukoh built a large mansion north of the fort, spending a sum of four lakh rupees, the reader encounters the mohallas in the neighbourhoods, the Katra Nil (indigo dyers), Churiwalan (bangle makers), Dhobi ka Katra (washermen) and Qassabpura (butchers).

Drawing information from and citing wonderful paintings from various books on Delhi, the author shows a world where royalty and the public constantly interact. The culture of Jharokha-e-Darshan (‘viewing’ the monarch), hunting expeditions, royal processions on the streets, sought involvement of the common people. The various religious and secular festivals conducted in the palace were another way of connecting with the subjects.

Following the established scholarship, the author stresses on the War of Succession of 1657 as one of the major blows to the foundations of the Mughal Empire, and calls the post-Aurangzeb era as the ‘time of troubles’. The dismantling dynasty, the troubles in the royal family affected public life as well. The author enlivens this change by unearthing remarkable stories from the archive. The 1729 shoe-sellers’ riot was one such event that rang in the empire already breaking up. City life never came to a standstill though. As the author cites, the eighteenth century was the era of the great masters of poetry – Mir Taqi ‘Mir’, Mirza Mohammad Rafi ‘Sauda’ – an era that would culminate with the emergence of Mirza Ghalib in the nineteenth century. The cultural life of the capital, the Mushaira, Qawwali cultures survived through wars, riots, deaths and darkness. Spiritual men, Sufi saints remained like profound shelters for both royalty and the common public in times of difficulties.

After the short intervention of the Maratha rule, Delhi entered the British era, the colonial rule that could never fully take possession of the old lanes of Chandni Chowk, that could never make sure that Delhi got over its past, that could never remove old memories. The British buildings and institutions, the Delhi College, the St James’ Church, the Metcalf House never replaced but added to the architecture of old Delhi. British enclaves like Civil Lines and New Delhi developed alongside the old spaces around the Red Fort and the Jama Mosque. The new never overcame the old, the old never intruded upon the new. History flowed in its own way, allowing intermingling of cultures and looking forward to an era that would keep the promise.

The reader travels a long way through the history of Delhi, from medieval paintings to modern day colour photographs and realizes that no war, no rampage, no violence, no decadence could rupture the continuity. Old Delhi remains ‘Old Delhi’ forever. No New Delhi could ever erase the histories and memories it contains in its fold. Through all changes, developments and advances, it will forever remain the Mughal city of Old Delhi, the Chandni Chowk, the Shahjahanabad.