The city of lost havelis

The city of lost havelis
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First Published: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 09 00 PM IST

The façade of Churiwalon Haveli.
The façade of Churiwalon Haveli.
Updated: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 09 00 PM IST
New Delhi: “The pitiable condition of Chandini Chowk makes one long for a fairy’s wand to restore it to its old grandeur.”
The façade of Churiwalon Haveli.
These are the opening lines of a chapter on Chandini Chowk in The Delhi That No-One Knows by Ronald Vivian. A ‘heritage’ walk down Chawri Bazaar and Chandini Chowk proves him right.
“This, dear friends is haveli Churiwalon ki,” beamed an enthusiastic Surekha Narain, our walk conductor. I stared at the iron door she was pointing at. The door had intricate floral patterns on it, more in focus than the patterns on the truncated façade. The so-called haveli or rather its façade stood squeezed between other relatively new but dilapidated structures. Having lived inside a grand, partially functional haveli in Haridwar, I was disappointed by the lack of grandeur of this one.
But the other 19 walkers, especially the nine foreigners, were more sympathetic. They began bombarding Narain with questions. Can we go in? Is there more left or just the façade? How come the authorities didn’t bother to preserve this? Happy with this response Surekha unwinds Old Delhi’s history for us.
We’re told that what we now know as Old Delhi was built by emperor Shahjahan and this walled city was called Shahjahanabad. “The Taj Mahal guy?” whispers Giovanna, who works with the World Bank and has been living in Delhi for two years now. I nod my head but am surprised by the information myself. The eight gates of Shahjahanabad namely Nigambodh, Kashmiri, Mori, Kabuli, Lahori, Ajmeri, Turkman and Delhi Gate still stand strong. But the walls that connected them no longer exist.
Chandini Chowk, Shahjahanabad’s main street, was designed and built by Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara Begum. A canal ran through this city square and because it reflected moonlight in all its glory it acquired the name Chandini Chowk which translates into moonlit square.
We make our way towards Bazaar Sita Ram and halt in front of something that looks like the ruins of a ruin. I’m a little annoyed by the heap of bricks that I’m being made to observe. Narain announces that this is Haksar haveli, where Jawaharlal Nehru married Kamala Kaul. “The first prime minister?” gasps Jasmine, an American on a WHO mission in India. I stare at the heap in disbelief now. The couple from Barcelona start a debate as to how it’s amazing that authorities didn’t bother to preserve this place. Kirit Desai, who runs a cinema theatre in Delhi, explains that it’s difficult without the cooperation of the people living in the locality. Everyone agrees. The discussion throws up newer angles. Why would the poor people staying in this ramshackle place bother about something as expensive as preserving heritage architecture? Also, these structures have multiple owners, leading to decreased responsibility. Perhaps the World Bank should help…which makes Giovanna smile and shrug her shoulders.
The next highlight is Chunnamal haveli in the Katraneel section. I am awed by its size. The three-storey tall structure used to have 128 rooms. From the exterior, I’m not too sure whether all of it still exists yet the structure seems to be better preserved than the havelis we had seen. Chunnamal, a brocade merchant, used to be the richest man in Delhi. During the 1857 mutiny he bought the Fatehpuri Masjid from the British for Rs19,000 and later sold it back to them for a whooping Rs139,000. He was the first person in the region to possess a phone and an automobile. Legend has it that the poverty-stricken Mirza Ghalib would stand in front of Chunnamal’s illuminated house and scowl at his opulence.
Cycle rickshaws take us to haveli Haider Kuli. The gateway is still charming but most of the interior is a renovated shopping-cum-residential complex. Here we meet Narain Prasad, the chairman of the Indraprastha College for Women. Prasad’s family has been residing in a mini-haveli inside the haveli complex for three generations now. Courteous, he takes us inside his house and shows us around. While Narain introduces Haider Kuli as a powerful military officer Prasad brushes it aside and says, “He was a coolie at one point of time, he saved the emperor’s son’s life and was rewarded with this haveli.”
We pass through Fatehpuri Masjid, and make our way towards Namak Haram haveli and finally arrive at Queens Garden or what was formerly known as Jahanara ka Bagh or simply Begum ka Bagh. We’re told that the stretch of road was famous for maalishwalas.
Our final stop is Hardayal Municipal Library. It’s the naming of this place that’s rather queer. During the Independence struggle a bomb was thrown at Lord Harding, a British officer. He miraculously escaped. The British built the Lord Harding’s Library at spot where the bombing took place. Post-independence the Delhi administration named the library after Hardayal, the man who bombed Lord Harding!
The walk wasn’t comparable to the tours of awe-inspiring Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb. It wasn’t even comparable to the delights Chandini Chowk’s more famous spots offer. But sauntering through these lanes you can feel the dying pulse of an invisible city. The haveli façades that wobble as fading footnotes of history offer you the briefest glimpse that there existed a glorious past.
The ‘Summer Bonanza’ heritage walk costs Rs500 per person and includes breakfast.
Surekha Narain will also be conducting a two part ‘1857 Mutiny Walk’ on 23 and 30 August. The walks begins at 7am and end at 10am and will cover better preserved heritage structures like Badli Ki Sarai, Kashmere Gate, Flagstaff Tower, Mutiny Memorial etc. The charge per walk per person is Rs300. For further details contact Surekha at 9811330098 or at surekhan@hotmail.com
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First Published: Mon, Aug 10 2009. 09 00 PM IST