From Imperial Dehlie, painted by Mazhar Ali Khan – British Library
My name is Shahjahanabad, the city that was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. Of course, I won’t blame you if you know me as Old Delhi or Purani Dilli. When the emperor decided to shift his capital from Agra, in consultation with architect-planners, hakeems and astrologers, he chose this piece of land on the banks of the Yamuna. In 1639, he gave orders for the fort to be built and, along with it, the city. The architects Ustad Ahmad Lahori — architect of the beautiful Taj Mahal — and Ustad Hamid were appointed to give me shape. I hope I’m not being immodest if I say that I regularly inspired my lovers to pen verses and prose in my praise. Chandar Bhan Brahman, a noble in Shah Jahan’s court wrote, “Its towers are the resting place of the sun… Its avenues are so full of pleasure that its lanes are like the roads of paradise. Its climate is pleasant and beautiful.” (Source: Stephen Blake’s Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739 )
While, on the one hand, the Qila-e-Mubarak, known today as the Red Fort, was being built, royals, nobles and common folk who had been given land were busy building their mansions and houses. Prince Dara Shukoh built his haveli on the banks of the Yamuna. Since it was on Nigambodh Ghat, he called it Nigambodh Manzil. It is here that he undertook the monumental work of having the Upanishads translated into Persian. I occupied an area of 1,500 acres enclosed within walls. I had lofty gates — the Raj Ghat, Nigambodh Ghat and Qila Ghat Darwazas provided the Hindus of the city access to ghats (riverside platforms); Lahori, Kashmiri, Ajmeri, Kabuli and even Dilli Darwaza were on the roads leading to these cities. The Dilli Darwaza led to the old city of Delhi (Mehrauli). Didn’t I tell you I am named Shahjahanabad, not Dilli?
I was a planned city: you could call me a smart city. Blake, in his book, writes that the street plan seems to have followed the rules ofvastu shastraand my design seems to be based on the semi-elliptical design calledkarmukaor bow, which was suitable for a river or seashore. If I was the bow, river Yamuna was my bowstring. Today, I am known as the birthplace of Ganga-Jamunitehzeeb(etiquette). I was an amalgamation of Indo-Islamic ideas, culture and architecture. The poet Ghalib had said, “The existence of Delhi is dependent on many spectacles: The Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily crowds at Jama Masjid, the weekly jaunt around the Yamuna bridge, the annual fair at the Phool Waalo’n ki Sair — now that these five things are gone, Delhi isn’t Delhi.”
Today, the Red Fort is a shell of its former self; Chandni Chowk is a traffic nightmare; the crowds that assembled on the steps of Jama Masjid to watchdastangoiperformances, cockfights and enjoy conversations, are now composed of tourists or the faithful who go to offer prayers; and the Yamuna has receded. But the syncretic festival Phool Waalo’n ki Sair still continues. Just as the Mughal emperor used to make floral offerings at the dargah of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and the temple of Yogmaya Devi, the President of India and the Lt. Governor of Delhi do the same today. The procession, which once used to set out from the fort to Mehrauli, now begins at the Town Hall.
The people who lived here were all incomparable. As Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who wrote Asar-us-Sanadid (Remnants of Ancient Heroes, 1847) said, “In reality, the people of this place are such as cannot be found in any other place. Every individual is a collection of thousands of good traits and a bouquet of lakhs of skills and talents.”
Indian Express 28th July 2019