Flâneur in Shahjahanabad

By Niyanta Muku

Every time the thought – ‘it’s been a while since I visited old Delhi’ occurs, I just get up and go there.
The flavour, the colour, the hustle and bustle of old Delhi is crazy but infectious, believe me. I don’t lose my temper here while paving my way through the rickety rickshaws, the fruit sellers, the non-existent footpaths. Nothing is organized here but it is the disorder that adds to the fabulousness as well as to the frenzy of the place. Let me throw some light here when we speak of order and disorder. The city structure of Shahjahanabad has impressively stayed intact, from the time it was envisaged by Shahjahan and the other residents of those times. This basic street structure and the hierarchy of street patterns – the Kucha, the Katra – have remained unchanged despite multiple forces and contingencies having transformed Shahjahanabad as a Mughal, British Colonial and Indian city. Having accommodated the impact of all these forces, the city still attracts people from every nook and corner of the world to experience its survival.


Unwinding Shahjahanabad

As Indians we are all accustomed to disorder while confronting the city in everyday life. The disorder in Shahjahanabad is no different but due to the scale and layout of the settlement, it adds different dimensions to the image of this place, making it distinct and exclusive.

Co-existence of darkness and light

Sometimes, I wonder why this chaotic city within a city does not set alight the tempers of its residents. But to my amazement, everyone is easy going, not in a hurry, and quite comfortable – quite unlike the rest of Delhi. Over my frequent visits, I have also engaged in friendly conversations with the rickshaw walas, and other locals who are familiar faces. Most would greet and invite me to have a chat, whereas there were who wanted to know if I am from some government agency! Some Mohalla communities might have disintegrated with time, with families shifting out, and residential space being used as storage or other purposes,but the strong structure of this fabric ensures the tradition and legacy of this place is kept alive. There are still many old families residing in Shahjahanabad – their memories are worth documenting, as they would help us understand the evolution of this place over time. And undoubtedly the success of this place lies in the strength of the community. Sometimes, while wandering in the kuchas and streets, one meets residents and haveli owners complaining of the uncontrolled commercial activities seeping into the fabric and threatening the security of the residents whilst breaking the community structure. Then one starts pondering over the future of this place. The relentless tring-tring of cycle rickshaws, and loud honking of two wheelers break my thoughts, which is good as we designers start thinking about strategies for quick-fixes. I feel this place offers a great opportunity for those who are impatient to work on their patience. This place is alive – one can’t twist and turn and strategize anything here – change happens on its own when it is required – and wherever it is needed.


Securing the shambles of history

At first, the old city is overwhelming but its inherent Mughal charm brought me back here initially, and now my love for the place brings me back frequently – time and again. From the galis of Kucha Pati Ram, which are adorned with beautiful havelis, to the dark alleys of Chitli Qabar, the exotic jewellery market inside the Turkman gate, to the effervescent Chawri Bazaar leading to the Paranthe wali gali and finally to the old Delhi that once belonged to the nobles and the elite where the Queens’ gardens are, every gali, kucha, katra has a story that can be shared. For those who may not be aware, there are buildings that pre date Shahjahanabad – the Kalan Masjid, Raziya Sultan’s grave and Turkman Biyabani’s grave.


The Arch(s) of glory

The Metro has given a new lease of life to this city, and has also made it accessible from any corner of Delhi. Although it has put immense pressure on the infrastructure of old Delhi, the city will adapt to this welcome change. Numerous migrants who come looking to earn a livelihood, end up making this place their home – the Metro is a blessing for them. It was the Metro that brought me here first and successively many more times.
As a Delhi woman, I feel safe even in the shadows of old Delhi’s havelis and galis – I in fact feel liberated here. However, outside of the old city’s walls is another story! Multiple fears abound on wide roads and huge car parks and…where not..

Let me make a revelation here – During my college days, one of my friends wished to break her Ramzan fast at the Jama Masjid and we decided to visit that evening. For some people who had eavesdropped this conversation, we become a group of not-so-good-girls as we were heading to old Delhi. We all stuck to our decision and went to Jama Masjid and had long insightful conversations about impressions leading to dinner at Karim’s. One more thing stuck together that evening – our friendship..That evening became one of our most treasured memories.

The Jama Masjid, a massive sandstone structure that is supposed to have been built on the highest point while Shahjahanabad was laid out, is one of the most thriving public places here. People from all walks of life congregate here.

During a few of my visits, I would end up spending some time at the Fatehpuri Masjid after having relished the fragrance of spices and dry fruit of Khari Baoli. The mosque offers a peaceful haven in the midst of this bustling city to the strollers of Shahjahanabad to absorb its diverse experiences and sensory overload. .

On my last visit, I covered some unexplored territory – the designer house of Chandni Chowk (Katra Ashrafi), where one can acquire the best replicas of Indian designer wear, and special memorable dresses worn by movie stars. And indeed it is worth it – infinite choices at affordable prices, and most of all, shopkeepers interested in showing stuff and offering choices by guessing the customers’ tastes. One must go there just for the experience…

My journey with this city is never ending. Every visit offers a new discovery… a new story…


(all photos by author)


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