Chandni Chowk

By Swapna Liddle

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Conceiving the City

Through history there have been several grand empires, and they have frequently provided the bases on which great civilizations have been built. The Persian, Roman, Ming, Ottoman, and Mughal empires immediately come to mind. They encompassed vast territories, commanded rich resources, and patronized a variety of talents. The human and material resources that came together under their aegis, particularly in their cities, led to the creation of rich cultural civilizations.

The Mughal empire, founded in the sixteenth century, was one of the richest, most populous and extensive of all time. In its heyday, its political and economic influence was felt far beyond its shores, but more importantly, its cultural impact has reverberated down the centuries, long after the empire itself came to an end. An important part of the legacy of this empire lies in its cities, and of these cities, Shahjahanabad probably best exemplifies the grandeur that came to be associated with the word ‘Mughal’. At the same time, it also represented certain other core attributes of the Mughal empire, such as the composite culture that grew on the foundations of the rich cultural diversity of its citizens.

Shahjahanabad came into being at a time when the Mughal empire was at the height of its extent and prosperity, and there was a long tradition of monumental construction behind it. The illustrious ancestor of the Mughals, Timur, had built a grand capital at Samarqand. The Mughals carried to India this Timurid legacy, and married it to the strong local tradition to produce a distinct Mughal style. Architecture particularly flourished under the emperors Akbar and Jahangir, and the best examples were created in Agra and Lahore, which had developed as the principal seats of the empire.

It was at Agra that Shahjahan ascended the throne of his ancestors on 14 February 1628. While his father and grandfather had presided over some remarkable developments in the arts, such as architecture and painting, Shahjahan’s particular interest lay in architecture. He commissioned a large number of buildings, and exercised a close personal supervision over the department that was responsible for the execution of building projects. The emperor spent some time every day in the Diwan-e-Khas, his court of special audience, where he consulted with various functionaries to dispose of the business of the empire. An important order of business during these meetings was the examination of designs of buildings, which were laid before him by the architects and superintendents of construction. One of the chief historians of Shahjahan’s reign, Adbul Hamid Lahori, wrote: “The royal mind…pays full attention to the planning and construction…the majority of buildings he designs himself, and on the plans prepared by the skilful architects, after long consideration he makes appropriate alterations and amendations. When the plans have been approved….Asaf Khan [the father of Shahjahan’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, and during the early part of Shahjahan’s reign a trusted minister]…writes explanations of the royal orders for the guidance of masons and overseers of buildings.”i

The result of this attention to architecture was a spate of construction, particularly in Agra and Lahore. Many of the buildings in the palace complexes of the forts there, which had been built during Akbar and Jahangir’s reigns, were pulled down and replaced with newer, grander ones. The crowning glory of the Agra ensemble was the Taj Mahal, the unparalleled mausoleum to Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631. This tomb was on a scale more monumental by far than any project so far, and was constructed over a period of twelve years, at the cost of five million rupees. It brought honour, rewards and renown to its architect, Ustad Ahmad.ii

For Shahjahan, a reworking of the interiors of the fort at Agra did not adequately fulfil his ambitions as a patron of architecture and urban design. The city of Agra, which had grown in a sprawl around the fort, equally did not afford much scope. What was needed was a new city – a truly grand gesture of imperial intent, by which the name of the founder would be remembered. As an eighteenth century history in the Persian language put it: “…exalted emperors always had it in their mind to adorn their reigns with some permanent records, and signalize their times by the establishment of some everlasting landmarks, and consequently this wish was reflected from the mind of Shahjahan in the conception of a city…” iii

The historian Muhammad Salih, who was an official chronicler of Shahjahan’s reign, gave another reason. According to him Agra was a crowded city, with no wide roads. This led to difficulties in the periodic grand processions and assemblies that were part of the emperor’s court ritual, as people trying to enter the gates of the fort were crushed.iv

So, the royal engineers were sent out to find a suitable site for the new city, and they settled on a spot north of Delhi, on the bank of the river Yamuna. The site was just south of the small fort of Salimgarh, built by the Suri ruler Islam Shah in the sixteenth century. Delhi had a long history as a capital of empires. The Delhi Sultanate, which saw the reigns of a succession of rulers – the so-called slave sultans, the Khaljis, Tughlaqs, Syeds and Lodis, for the most part ruled from Delhi. Shahjahan’s great-grandfather, Humayun, too had built a capital city there – Dinpanah, which later came to be called the Purana Qila or ‘Old Fort’. Akbar too initially ruled from Delhi, building his father’s mausoleum there, before making Agra his primary capital. Apart from this aura of royal power, there was a spiritual significance that the city enjoyed. It was the resting place of several prominent Sufi saints. In particular, Delhi contained the shrines of the Chishti saints Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya, and Nasiruddin Chiragh-e-Dehli. These saints were much revered by the Mughals, as they were by both the Muslim and non-Muslim population through much of north India.

What does not figure in the Persian histories of the period, but undoubtedly was a factor in how Delhi was viewed, was its association with Hindu myth and tradition. Ancient tradition associated Delhi with Indraprastha, the holy place where Indra, the king of the Gods, had performed sacrifices and worshiped Vishnu. This spot on the bank of the Yamuna was then blessed by Vishnu, who called it ‘Nigambodhak’, where a knowledge of the Vedas could be gained simply by taking a dip in the waters.v The name ‘Nigambodhak’ literally meant ‘that which makes known the knowledge of the Vedas’. In popular belief, this spot was marked by a place on the banks of the river, called Nigambodh ghat.

In this way, by locating the city in Delhi, and near Nigambodh ghat, Shahjahan was drawing on strong traditions of spiritual and temporal power that the populace associated with the site. By establishing a capital city here, the Mughals could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. Delhi was already an important city of the empire. Even when it had ceased to be the capital after the early part of Akbar’s reign, the Mughal emperors had been regularly visiting Delhi. They did this mainly for three reasons – to visit the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, to visit the tomb of Humayun, and to hunt in Palam, which abounded in game, particularly nilgai.

Shahjahanabad Today

I enjoy visiting Shahjahanabad, and frequently go there. The Delhi Metro, today, efficiently transports numerous tourists, shoppers, and others who want to experience the many attractions of ‘Old Delhi’, into the heart of the city. This neighbourhood of Delhi, which many simply call Chandni Chowk, means different things to different people. I see in it centuries of history, as well as a vibrant contemporary culture.

The history lies in its many landmarks. The Red Fort is a well-kept monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The story of the tribulations, as well as the good times it has seen, is evident in its beautiful Mughal buildings, and equally in the mid-nineteenth century barracks beside them. The Yamuna river, which once flowed close beneath its eastern wall, has, long ago, changed its course. Now, when I look down from the terrace, close to where the emperor gave darshan to his subjects, I see, not the sandy bank he saw, but the Ring Road. The incessant buzz of traffic has replaced the elephant fights and melas that were once held here. The stream of water that once passed through the gardens and buildings of the palace complex, has dried up, too.

There is a faded elegance in the beautiful courts and palaces where the Mughal emperors and their extended families once lived and worked. Most of the buildings in the complex were destroyed after the Revolt of 1857. Within the few that survived, many of the inlaid semiprecious stones, and the gilding, have long ago been removed by plunderers. Yet, these structures are a testament to the high point of Mughal architecture, and throng with visitors, who come from all corners of the globe, to marvel at them.

The Red Fort does not communicate directly with the city, as it once did, through its great portals, the Lahore and Delhi Gates. Both are now surrounded by barbicans, built by Aurangzeb, who enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the people of Delhi, after his usurpation of the throne. The high red walls of the complex, however, still dominate the city that spreads out around it.

The street in front of the Lahore Gate of the Red Fort is usually busy, even chaotic. The traffic, a bewildering variety of motorized and other vehicles, the crowds, and the buzz, can be overwhelming. The details may have changed, but to me, the spirit is not very different from the time when this was the Urdu bazaar and the bustling Chowk Sa’adullah Khan. No royal elephants go down the Chandni Chowk street, but it is frequently used for colourful religious and other processions. The religious processions are numerous and varied, because this is a neighbourhood that retains the religious diversity that characterized it during Mughal rule. On this one street which stretches westwards from the Fort, you can find Jain and Hindu temples, two mosques, a gurudwara and a church.

At the head of the street, the Jain Lal Mandir has stood since the time of Shahjahan, and its attached charity bird hospital is well known throughout Delhi. Not far from it lies Dariba Kalan and the mohalla Dharampura adjoining it, dominated by the Jain business class, as in Shahjahan’s time. People come from all over Delhi to shop for jewellery in Dariba, and to indulge in jalebis from the ‘Old and Famous Jalebiwala’. Off Dariba lies Kinari Bazaar, full of the glitter of gilt laces, sequins, and, these days, Swarovski elements. Home dressmakers as well as professional dress designers come here to source these accessories for their creations. No wedding is complete without a trip to Kinari Bazar for some bling.

Dariba Kalan and Kinari Bazar are only two of several specialist markets in Shahjahanabad. Khari Baoli, close to the Fatehpuri Masjid, is known for its spices, nuts and dried fruits. It is also dense with some iconic eateries, including the original outlet of Giani ice cream, and Chaina Ram, the famous sweet shop. Katra Neel, named after the indigo that was once used here to dye fabrics, now trades in fabrics and ready-made clothes generally. Behind the Jama Masjid is Chawri Bazar, where dealers in hardware and paper ply their trade. Once this was where courtesans lived, but the advent of a more puritanical age has led to them being shifted out.

Some old landmarks of Mughal Shahjahanabad have disappeared. The Kotwali Chowk is no longer known by that name, because the police station that once gave it the name was pulled down in the last century, to make way for the expansion of the Gurudwara Sisganj. This gurudwara was built in the late eighteenth century to commemorate the place where Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed in 1675. The Sunehri Masjid, where Nadir Shah sat and oversaw the massacre of Delhi’s citizens in 1739, however, still stands in this square. A new landmark, a fountain, was added after the Revolt of 1857, and since then, the chowk has popularly been known as the Phawwara, or Fountain Chowk.

Chandni Chowk, the square that has given the most important street of Shahjahanabad its name, was transformed profoundly after the Revolt of 1857. But the Clock Tower that the British subsequently built in the centre of the square, has also disappeared, having collapsed in 1951. The Town Hall building no longer houses the Municipal offices, which have moved to a new building, Delhi’s tallest, outside the limits of Shahjahanabad. The chowk is still full of bustle, though. People feed pigeons in front of the Town Hall, leading to huge flocks of these birds gathering here. The pavement in front of the building is also a resting place for workmen, especially house-painters, who sit there with their simple tools, waiting to be engaged by customers. Not far from here is the Haveli of Chhunna Mal, built in the 1860s by that rich merchant, still dominating the street with its wide frontage.

One major landmark that has survived is the Jama Masjid. Its lofty position and impressive portals dominate the area around, and a bird’s eye view of Shahjahanabad can be had from the dizzying height of its southern tower, which is open to visitors. Its vast courtyard and the long and broad flights of steps on three sides can accommodate hundreds of worshippers for congregational prayers. The Khas Bazar, which linked the mosque to the Red Fort, was destroyed in the aftermath of the Revolt. What has taken its place is a more or less informal gathering of hawkers. At the foot of the mosque is the shrine of Sarmad, the Armenian mystic friend of Dara Shukoh.

No trip to Old Delhi is complete without a taste of its street food. I particularly look forward to winters, when a special treat is sold by hawkers at street corners. This is daulat ki chaat – a light-as-air dessert of milk, sugar, nuts and saffron. I also like the nankhatai – delicate biscuits, that are freshly baked by hawkers on simple cast iron skillets carried on carts. More permanent establishments include the standing-room-only Natraj, the purveyor of sublime chaat – particularly dahi bhalla. Many visitors also like to go to a famous culinary destination – the Parathe Wali Gali. The string of small restaurants on this street specialise in parathas – deep fried flat breads stuffed with an amazing array of savoury and sweet fillings. Probably the oldest restaurant in Old Delhi is Karim’s, west of Jama Masjid. Though it was established only slightly over a hundred years ago, its cuisine harks back to the glory days of the Mughal emperors. Run by the descendants of a cook at the royal kitchens, it serves up food that people from all over Delhi come to savour.

Food is an integral part of the culture that gives Old Delhi its distinctive identity. This culture, itself, is a product of centuries of development, and intermingling is an integral part of it. When it was founded as an imperial project in the seventeenth century, merchants, artists, artisans as well as the nobility and bureaucracy, had flocked to it from far and wide. Subsequent migrations have continued, some steady and some in waves, as in 1947. All those who have come to the city have enriched it with their diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious and culinary traditions, producing the ‘typical’ culture of the place.


i W.E. Begley and Z. A. Desai, eds., The Shah Jahan Nama of Inayat Khan, translated by A.R. Fuller, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1990, p 570.
ii W.E. Begley and Z. A. Desai, Taj Mahal, the Illumined Tomb, University of Washington Press, Seattle 1989, pp 75, 266
iii Samsam ud Daulah Shahnawaz Khan and Abdul Hayy, Maathir ul Umara, (translated by H. Beveridge and revised by Baini Prashad), Janaki Prakashan, Patna 1979, vol 2 pp 265-66.
iv Quoted in Stephen P. Blake, Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi 1993, p 27.
v The Padma Purana, Part IX, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi 1956, pp 3011-15

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