A redeveloped section of Chandni Chowk (Photos: Sondeep Shankar)
IF YOU STOP at Fatehpuri Masjid, built in 1650, and look down Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, you get an unrestricted view of the Red Fort. There are no low hanging wires to obstruct the vision, nor is there any vehicular traffic. Perhaps Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s accomplished daughter, who designed it as an octagonal chowk (public square) with a large pool at its centre would have had such a view.
Nadir Shah, who sat on the terrace of Sunehri Masjid in 1769 watching his soldiers pillage the bazaar, probably had no time to gaze elsewhere. A century later, the British who vandalised Fatehpuri Masjid, built by one of Shah Jahan’s wives, Fatehpuri Begum, looked up at the Red Fort to see what imperial grandeur looked like as they dreamt of making India the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown.
For now, more than 150 years later, it is the ordinary Delhi pedestrian who can walk the path of history on a 1.4km street of sandstone, dotted with bollards that double as benches, going back in time while watching the very modern spectacle of sari and lehenga shopping in one of the national capital’s oldest streets.
Thanks to a five-year-long project initiated by the Delhi government, executed by the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) set up in 2008, overcoming many hurdles including, at one point, justified outrage from conservationists as well as the imposition of a court-supervised nodal officer, Chandni Chowk has attained a semblance of symmetry and cleanliness. Much like India, it is a street where the past co-exists with the present, sometimes cheek by jowl. There is the State Bank of India building on the remains of Bhagirath Palace which was once where the colourful Begum Samru had her palace. There is the multiculturalism the city is justifiably proud of—the Digambar Jain temple, the Gauri Shankar temple, the Central Baptist Church and the Gurudwara Sis Ganj. There is the Town Hall, dating back to 1863 when it was the Delhi College of Higher Studies. And then there are the Metro, the public toilets under construction, the crisscrossing wires down the narrow bylanes and alleys. A monumental task awaits the SRDC.
For now, though, the consensus among conservationists and historians is that it is a good beginning. Historian Swapna Liddle says the history of the street is very layered, and we have to ask ourselves what it is that we would consider ‘restoration’ or ‘authentic’ heritage. “All one can aim for is that the interventions be a reference to that past, for instance, maintaining the original width of the road, indicating in some manner the place where the water once flowed [it would not have been practical to try and revive this], and preserving the line of sight from the Red Fort to the Fatehpuri Masjid. By and large they have managed to do this. Putting the services underground has been a major improvement,” she says.
Chandni Chowk—originally, when built by Jahanara Begum, the name was reserved for the actual chowk in front of the later Town Hall—was the main ceremonial avenue of Shahjahanabad. It was exceptionally broad, with a channel of water flowing down its middle and trees beside the channel providing shade. There was a pool in the middle of the square, which reflected the moonlight, giving it the name Chandni Chowk. The street was lined with shops, but typically, the shopkeepers lived on floors above.
It changed considerably over the years. In the period after the First Independence War of 1857 almost all the buildings on either side (with the exception of some temples) from the Red Fort right up to the Gurudwara Sis Ganj were demolished. Another important change was the closing of the water channel and the pool. New British structures were added—a clock tower, a tramline. Even these disappeared over time.
The biggest challenge to the redevelopment project, according to SRDC Deputy General Manager Nitin Panigrahi, was fighting a perception battle with traders that restricting cars would mean less business. “Before we started work, stakeholders had to be reasoned with data or empirical evidence from other historic cities so as to allay their unfounded apprehension about the project,” he says.
In the context of Chandni Chowk, he says the SRDC successfully convinced stakeholders that unless motorised vehicles were restricted, it would not be possible to decongest the street or restore its lost glory. For operational convenience, they decided to close the road in a phased manner which helped them demonstrate the surge in the number of visitors. The rise of the number of passengers at the Chandni Chowk Metro station also strengthened their credentials since it reflected the gradual shift to public transport for reaching this area after work began in December 2018.
That was not the only stumbling block. In 2018, says urban planner AGK Menon, he was alerted to major construction work in progress at Chandni Chowk. On enquiry he was told that the Delhi government was redeveloping Chandni Chowk under the supervision of the Delhi High Court. “This was surprising because, for such an important public project, while one knew about the earlier proposals, the details of the present construction work in progress were not available in the public domain,” he says.
The loss of the cultural heritage of Shajahanabad hurts. Redeveloping it as a faux Dilli Haat is unimaginative. Bollards and stone benches have replaced what was once a charming street with a central waterway
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Through further enquiry, he, along with heritage conservation architect Smita Datta Makhija, former Convenor of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission Ashok B Lall and expert landscaping planner Sujata Kohli, found that the scheme under construction proposed to build seven public toilets, 18 transformers and several rooms for public services such as the police on the central verge of Chandni Chowk. Though the proposal would also put all electric wires underground, which was a laudable intervention, the new construction on the central verge would be a disaster for this historic area.
“We tried to discuss this travesty with the officials, politicians and even the Chief Minister, who all said it was too late to make changes at this stage and that the high court had approved the project and was closely monitoring its progress,” says Menon. Therefore they had no option but to approach the high court for relief. Initially the judge was upset at their intervention at this stage of the project, but was persuaded enough to order that the issues raised should be considered by the Lieutenant Governor (LG) who had headed the committee that had initially approved the project.
The LG asked the officials, the architect and the litigants to work out a compromise. After several iterations, site visits and alternatives, it was agreed that the toilets and the police booths would be removed from the central verge and most of the transformers too would be relocated. So finally, these changes have been implemented.
MENON BELIEVES THE government has done a commendable job by beautifying the street and through their interventions its heritage significance has not been as compromised as it might have been. Among the suggestions that the INTACH Delhi Chapter had initially made when they drafted the dossier nominating the area to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites was that Shahjahanabad should be conserved holistically, and therefore other streets and attributes of this remarkable Mughal city should also be dealt with along with Chandni Chowk. “There is now talk that some other streets will be upgraded. We hope that the lessons learnt in the Chandni Chowk project will be followed,” he adds.
While pedestrianising the main street the impact on the interior markets is inadequately assessed and therefore these projects wind up half baked. It requires a much more comprehensive redevelopment with oneways, service lanes and customer facilities
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Panigrahi has every intention of doing so, as he says to make it a complete success, the SRDC needs to extend this initiative to neighbouring streets/roads by creating a seamless network of footpaths and non-motorised vehicle lanes in the entire area. There has to be a paradigm policy shift from car-centric planning to people-centric design, which also prioritises footpaths, cyclelanes, vending zones and public utilities. The decades of neglect of road users, whether pedestrians or cyclists, have not only turned most streets into a mess but also adversely affected the environment, public health, as well as law and order.
In the absence of inclusive public streets, citizens can hardly be blamed for embracing motorised transport for even short trips in the neighbourhood. To ensure last-mile connectivity, we first need to assure people about first-mile convenience in their neighbourhood so that, irrespective of age, they feel safe to step out in the street.
It isn’t always easy to make changes in a city where the past is so present. Shajahanabad, one of the seven cities of Delhi, was an extraordinary Mughal settlement which was once a thriving trade and commercial centre. The Government of India had nominated this historic precinct (along with Imperial New Delhi) for inclusion in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2013. The current Union Government withdrew the nomination in 2015, though it continues to be in the Tentative List of UNESCO. The Master Plan of Delhi also identifies this precinct as a Heritage Zone.
Shahjahanabad had over the years deteriorated considerably, and the redevelopment of Chandni Chowk (and the Jama Masjid area) had been on the anvil for a long time, but the project never got off the ground until the SRDC was formed in 2008 and the Delhi government started work on it in 2018.
Yet the loss of the cultural heritage of Shajahanabad hurts. Redeveloping it as a faux Dilli Haat is unimaginative. Bollards and stone benches have replaced what was once a charming street with a central waterway. That loss is inexcusable, notes conservationist Amita Baig. “It constitutes the loss of our sense of identity. Sure, the British did it but they had colonial intent. We, on the other hand, valorise our heritage. The prime minister still speaks from the Red Fort, but we can erase its central axis, its genius loci,” she adds.
Also, while pedestrianising the main street the impact on the interior markets is inadequately assessed and therefore these projects wind up half baked. It requires a much more comprehensive redevelopment with oneways, service lanes and customer facilities. Indian spenders don’t walk in Chandni Chowk with bundles of jewellery or saris. “That understanding of how we use our bazaars and how we service them is what we lack in project design and even more in implementation,” says Baig. “It is to me simply façade changes, cleaner, neater undoubtedly; but devoid of its historicity and cultural roots. We live in such times,” she adds.
Panigrahi, who also wears, with enthusiasm, the hat of Deputy Commissioner, Transport Department in the Delhi government, says the project busted the myth about the necessity of making parking lots before pedestrianisation. Almost 1,500 cars which usually parked every day in Chandni Chowk disappeared without any congestion in neighbouring roads despite two major parking lots (1,500 cars in Gandhi Maidan and 800 cars in Dangal Maidan) becoming non-functional. It has given the government confidence as it approaches the redevelopment of the 4.5km Jama Masjid precinct and the 3.5km Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Marg.
Chandni Chowk chronicler and photographer Sondeep Shankar, who had three family homes across Old Delhi, says he is conflicted about the new design, its McDonaldisation and standardisation. He misses the hustle-bustle of the eateries, many of which have shut down, and the squawking and the hawking of every kind of traffic.
An era has passed, leaving mere memories and vintage prints. As one of Chandni Chowk’s most famous residents, Mirza Ghalib, wrote: ‘Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle/ Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle’ (Thousands of desires, each worth dying for/ Many of them I have realised, yet I yearn for more).
(Sondeep Shankar is a Delhi-based photojournalist)