Amidst the hard times fallen upon it, the heart of Delhi, called Old Delhi, or Dilli 6, is still beating, if not with the same vigour of its early days. Delhi has been a witness to the rise of empires, falls of civilisations, and some glorious days, built hundreds of years ago, and it’s believed that the city has been destroyed and rebuilt six or seven times. Clearly, Old Delhi is no longer a city of consequence, let alone a world capital which it was once, when the Mughal empire was still powerful, and one of the wealthiest in the world. Like all powerful cities of the world, a wall or faseel encircled it. It was 8 km long and 13m in height, with 7 gates in different directions. One could circle around the entire city in about three hours on horseback. Today, only a portion of that crumbling wall which once protected the city has survived, situated adjacent to Delhi Gate near Daryaganj.
AK Jain, former commissioner of planning (DDA) and author of Dillinama: The Cities of Delhi, knows the tale of the Shajahanabad or Old Delhi as if it was just yesterday that the Mughals came to Delhi. He explains, “Delhi was chosen as the capital by Shah Jahan after it was identified to be geographically superior and naturally abundant. The responsibility of planning the city and building the fort was assigned to a group of architects including Ali Mardan, who was the minister of the emperor. The city was surrounded by gardens from three sides; the Red Fort was built along the banks of the Yamuna river, which touched its back walls, and was located not far from the hills of bhojla, where Jama Masjid would later be built. Ali Mardan brought a canal (nahr) from the western side, which entered into the city from Khari Baoli crossed the whole street of Chandni Chowk (the widest and longest street of the city) and entered the Red Fort.”
According to Jain, the rich architectural legacy of the city is such that comparing it with other cities would be unjust. He said, “Delhi was built to suit its warm climate. Also, in general, Mughal architecture is more complex in its geometry, with its onion-shaped domes and high-rising minarets. But it was the culture of the city that made life worth living here and what brought people from distant lands to its gates.”
In the past, what truly set apart the culture of Delhi from the rest of the world was the fact that it was a result of the fine mingling of two distinct religions — Hinduism and Islam — poles apart ideologically and in belief. Dr Yunus Jaffery, a scholar of Persian from the old city, in his 80s and whose ancestors taught Persian to Mughal Princes, says, “The composite culture of Delhi was an improvement of human mind and spirit, a fine sample of communal harmony.” Jaffery is considered the eyes through which William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns, saw Delhi and, apart from getting printed in Iran regularly, he has also edited a book called Persian News Letters from Mughal Delhi, along with a German historian named Margrit Pernau. He continues: “The perfect example of that harmony was Phool Walon Ki Sair, when Hindus and Muslims would travel together along with the royal procession from Delhi, led by shehnai players and dancers toward Mehrauli every year. Hindus would offer floral pankha (fan) to the temple of Yog Maya and Muslims would offer it to the shrine of Khawaja Bakhtiyar Kaki.”
Today, many of those havelis are on their death bed; some around around the markets of Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar have been turned into warehouses. Half-hearted attempts by successive Delhi governments to revive the Chandni Chowk area have failed.
Once a language of the bylanes of the city and the royal court, Urdu now exists only in a handful of households of Delhi, nearing extinction. Pure Delhiites at the time spoke a mix of the high languages of Shahjahanabad, which included Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Sanskrit vernaculars. And the result of this mix was Urdu. It is through the streets of Delhi that poetry flowed and even the court of the emperor could not flee its enchantments. To have no knowledge of the latest work of a famous poet of the time was almost equal to a sin. One’s status in society was judged according to one’s knowledge of poetry. But gone are the poets: Zauq, Meer, Ghalib and Zafar. And gone with them is the poetry of Delhi’s life.
Upon my second visit to his home in Ganj Mir Khan, midway through a discussion on the old city’s culture, Dr Jaffrey was left wondering what happened to the refined haveli culture of the city, with their glamour, the arches, the courtyards and the life they symbolised. Today, many of those havelis are on their deathbed; some around the markets of Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar have been turned into warehouses. Half-hearted attempts by successive Delhi governments to revive the Chandni Chowk area have failed.
AK Jain says, “The redevelopment and conservation plans for the Walled City have been on hold due to the politics played around them by the Delhi governments of the past. Nothing gets implemented and the plans remain on papers only.” He did assert, though, that all is not lost for Delhi. But the waning hope for the revival of the old world of Delhi still awaits desperately needed measures.
The azaan (call for prayer) resonating from a mosque and mixing into chimes from a nearby temple is not exclusive to Delhi, but it is here that the seeds of communal harmony were sown by emperors who ruled it. Only the city built by them is standing today, that too in the form of dilapidated buildings and structurally co-dependent havelis. One can mourn the sight of a once-great city in its twilight — it is easy to dislike Delhi, for it is arrogant, slow, ugly, lacks basic infrastructure, narrow lanes are crowded with rickshaws, garbage fills up corners, beggars infest the streets. But in spite of all the chaos, Delhi still remains to be loved and saved.