ON SEPTEMBER 11, 1803, GENERAL LORD LAKE LED THE BRITISH East India Company’s troops into battle against the Maratha/Mughal/French forces. The Battle of Delhi resulted in British control of Delhi, and indirectly benefited one local man: Bhawani Shankar, a bakshi or paymaster for the Marathas. Used to advancing money to his masters to fund their wars, Bhawani Shankar perhaps sensed an opportunity under the British. He shifted sides and went over to the East India Company: for which he was granted several villages (by the British) and the epithet of namakharam, traitor (by his fellow Dilliwallahs).
… so much so that Bhawani Shankar’s vast mansion near Chandni Chowk is known, over 200 years later, as Namakharam ki Haveli.
This must have been a huge haveli in the 1800s, spreading over a large area near Fatehpuri Masjid. Today, it’s a maze of tiny gallis. Homes and businesses have taken over the outer buildings, rooms and courtyards of the haveli, which stands in Kucha Ghasi Ram, near
My husband and I have come on an exploratory excursion here, re-living earlier walks. Navigating Kucha Ghasi Ram, we pass coal depots, a pre-nursery, and—the most fascinating—a courtyard in which sit two people, sorting heaps of dried roses. They are so hard at work, I don’t have the heart to quiz them about what these dried roses will be used for. Scattered on desserts? Added to potpourris, to be put to use in ways alien to these people and this area?
Odd though it may seem, “cosmopolitan” is an apt description for Chandni Chowk (note: ‘Chandni Chowk’ is one of the squares along the stretch from Fatehpuri Masjid to Jain Lal Mandir, though most people call the entire area by that name). Several years ago, a Danish friend who was walking with me through here said it reminded him of Manhattan: “Busy and bustling.” It is. Very.
When, in 1649, Shahjahan shifted the capital from Agra to Delhi, this space, north of Firoz Shah Kotla, was the area he chose for the grand city he envisaged. Shahjahan focused on building the fort and the imperial mosque, the magnificent Jama Masjid; the rest of the city, Shahjahanabad, was the handiwork of courtiers and other members of the royal family.
I first began to explore this area in the late 1990s, while doing research for my detective novels featuring Mughal sleuth Muzaffar Jang. I had decided I would base Muzaffar in 17th century Delhi: a turbulent, interesting period that I have always found fascinating.
My initial forays into Shahjahanabad were eye-openers, a shock to the senses. The frenetic industry, the rattle of rushing rickshaws, the cyclists and men pushing handcarts piled high with jute-wrapped (increasingly plastic-wrapped) packages. The cows, the goats, the dogs, the seething humanity. The flowers piled outside the Gauri Shankar Mandir. The overwhelming fragrance of spices at Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest spice market.
It would have been as busy in Muzaffar Jang’s time, in 1656. This is how I describe the area in Crimson City, the fourth book of the series: “… the Nahar-e-Bihisht, the ‘Stream of Paradise’, the canal which flowed through the fort before being diverted into the city. Its glittering waters cool and tree-shaded, flanked by broad streets and rows of shops, selling all that the empire produced and imported. You could buy a carpet from Isfahan here, or a handful of saffron. A dancing girl or a glass hookah. A midget, a horse, or a garland of jasmine for a beloved’s tresses. It was an intoxicating place, colourful and rich and noisy.”
The pace has not changed, but the wares have. Clothing, jewellery, electricals, spectacles: these are among the main items sold in the area now. There are no longer the high-stepping Arabian horses, the Damascened swords, the Circassian slaves. The canal is gone, as are the trams (introduced in 1902) which Ahmed Ali describes in his poignant Twilight in Delhi, set in the early years of the 20th century.
But there are moments when I can imagine walking beside Muzaffar Jang. Through Dariba Kalan, for instance, where most shops sell jewellery, as they did in the 17th century; or in neighbouring Kinari Bazaar, prime selfie area, glittering with tinsel and sequins.
For me, though, the one place that most vividly conjures up the spirit of 17th-century Delhi is a mansion, Haveli Khazanchi. Now, with a recent beautification drive in the area, a signpost on the main road points to Gali Khazanchi; we follow this, till the end of the very narrow bylane, where we step through a gaudily painted metal door (“to keep out the dogs”, a passer-by informs us) over a high threshold—and into history. Haveli Khazanchi is one of the rare mansions that date back to Shahjahan’s time. The unnamed khazanchi or treasurer would have been a wealthy man, to afford a haveli so near the high street of Shahjahanabad.
Inside, the haveli looks neglected, forgotten. The plaster is peeling, there’s debris all around, and several arches are held up by bits of wood. But, as I move closer, I see the details. The white marble. The delicate pattern on the scalloped arches. The perfectly formed fluted columns. The carving on the upright base of the platform in front. In the 17th century (and till much later), this platform would have functioned as a dalaan, a baithak where the master of the house entertained his guests. Muzaffar Jang would have been at home here: there would have been Persian carpets, and lamps and flower vases in the niches. Drapes would have hung at the arches: quilted ones in winter, fragile chintzes in summer.
To counter the scorching Delhi summer, of course, the family would have retreated underground, into the cooler tehkhana or basement. Here, at Haveli Khazanchi, we peer through the stone filigree on the arches along the base of the dalaan platform: that, down below, is the tehkhana. It’s too dark, but I can imagine it: the khas matting, the water sprinkled on it to make the rooms cool and fragrant. The quiet.
I haven’t written any more Muzaffar Jang books in the past several years, but right now, I’m plotting the third in a series of historical novels called The Delhi Quartet. This book will extend from the mid-16th century to Nadir Shah’s invasion, in 1739. I have the vague outlines of the novel in my mind, and as I peer into this tehkhana, I can imagine my protagonists, huddling here, using this space to shelter from a ravaging army.
And the army would not have been far.
Just a short walk from Haveli Khazanchi, on the main road, lies the Sunehri Masjid, its golden domes overshadowed by the splendour of Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib next door. Built by a nobleman named Roshan-ud-Daula in 1722, this was the spot where Nadir Shah watched as his soldiers, instructed to punish Delhi for its resistance, went on a rampage. Some 30,000 men, women and children were killed in less than 24 hours.
It is peaceful today as we walk past. Strains of music drift out of Gurudwara Sis Ganj, built to commemorate more shedding of blood: the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675. Today, it is a serene, tranquil place, dominating this stretch with its pristine whiteness. And, for those who like to point to the syncretic nature of Old Delhi, it is one of the main religious landmarks here, with the mosque next door, the Jain and Hindu temples at the head of the road, St Stephen’s Church (a beautiful red-painted building near Khari Baoli), and the Central Baptist Church near Bhagirath Palace.
For me, the one place that most vividly conjures up the spirit of 17th-century Delhi is a mansion, haveli Khazanchi. Inside, the haveli looks neglected, forgotten. The plaster is peeling, there’s debris all around, and several arches are held up by bits of wood. But, as I move closer, I see the details. The white marble. The delicate pattern on the scalloped arches. The perfectly formed fluted columns
Share this on
Or Bhagirath Place, as most people call it, though there is a palace, less than a minute’s walk from the main road. It’s ramshackle, with masses of wires and cables hanging all across. Pigeons roost along the capitals of the columns of the palace, which was built as her town haveli by the influential and wealthy Christian convert, Joanna Nobilis “Farzana”, aka Begum Samru. “Samru” was a corruption of “Sombre”, the epithet applied to the Begum’s husband/lover, Walter Reinhardt, a European mercenary and adventurer.
In Begum Samru’s time, this would have been a grand mansion, with music, wine, and nautch girls (as Begum Samru herself had been, in her youth) dancing for a motley gathering, including Europeans. After Begum Samru’s death in 1836, the haveli was sold to the Delhi Bank, and continued to house various banks for many years, until a Lala Bhagirath Mal bought it in 1940. The “Bhagirath Palace” appellation is therefore relatively new; and nowadays, anyway, it refers mostly to the untidy sprawl of electrical shops around the palace. Fittingly, however, there is still a bank here: a branch office of the Central Bank of India.
BACK IN 1857, though, Bhagirath Palace was owned by the Delhi Bank, and was the residence of its manager, George Beresford. When violence erupted in Delhi, Beresford and his family barricaded themselves in here, but were killed.
Raza Mir, in his historical detective novel, Murder at the Mushaira (featuring Mirza Ghalib as the sleuth), brings the uprising of 1857 vividly to life: the planning, the plotting, the tension as the British besieged Delhi. The aftermath.
He writes, “Fifteen hundred Delhiwallahs died horrible deaths that afternoon. Those attempting to escape the fires and indiscriminate shooting ran into a phalanx of bayonets…”
Mirza Ghalib, 60 years old in 1857, was one of many whose prestige and fame did not completely shield them from the virulence of the uprising and its consequences.
I first began to explore Chandni Chowk in the late 1990s, while doing research for my detective novels featuring Mughal sleuth Muzaffar Jang. I had decided I would base Muzaffar in 17th-century Delhi: a turbulent, interesting period that I have always found fascinating
Share this on
I am many months away from writing the fourth book of The Delhi Quartet, but this I know: when I write it, Mirza Ghalib will be one of the characters. I do not yet know how he will fit in. Will he be the man who guzzled sweetened French wine or English gin when he was flush with funds from the occasional wealthy patron? Or the sharp-tongued poet, witty, cynical, romantic by turn?
Perhaps all of these. Time will tell. In the meantime, though, we decide to go to Ghalib’s haveli, in Ballimaran’s Gali Qasim Jaan. From Bhagirath Palace, my husband and I walk back, along the main road, towards Fatehpuri Masjid, where we began this stroll (the Chandni Chowk Metro station is just around here, and so convenient). Before we reach the mosque, we turn off towards the left, into Ballimaran.
The first time I came to Ballimaran, many years ago, Mirza Ghalib’s haveli was a mess, much of the ground floor occupied by a PCO. Later, with the realisation that Delhi’s most famous literary connection could be better utilised, the PCO was cleared and the haveli turned into the Ghalib Memorial. Ghalib’s verses decorate the walls, along with portraits and reproductions of his clothing, his books, and more. As we wander around, I cannot help but wonder what Ghalib would have made of this.
But, given the poverty he knew, perhaps he would have sympathised with the need to take advantage of Old Delhi’s history. That is one way in which this area has changed—somewhat—since I first began exploring it. Now, at least on the main road, there are signs of the prettification of Old Delhi: the wires and cables have been cleared away, signboards mark the main galis, kuchas, and katras. The main road has been pedestrianised, a parking lot created at one end. The most glittery, most exotic tourist attractions—Kinari Bazaar, Naughara, Parathewaali Gali—have, along with Ghalib’s haveli, become part of a well-worn cycle rickshaw route.
It’s touristy here, and around the major sites, especially the Jama Masjid. But that is the surface of Old Delhi, the veneer. The heart lies beneath, and if you wander, deep into the lanes and by lanes—into Kucha Ghasi Ram, for instance, down the tiny alley that leads to the Namakharam ki Haveli, you might just catch a glimpse of what life is really like here, away from the din and clatter of the high road.
Madhulika Liddle is the author of a series of books featuring a 17th-century Mughal detective, Muzaffar Jang. She is now writing The Delhi Quartet, spanning 800 years of Delhi’s history; the first novel in this series is the recently released The Garden of Heaven