Written by Asad Ali | Published:March 22, 2017 12:07 am
It can be difficult tracking down the palace of an orphaned 18th century Kashmiri nautch girl who fought many battles, revived a city ravaged by war, and saved a Mughal emperor from defeat and death. But the McDonald’s close to Begum Samru’s palace, off Chandni Chowk road, is an effective landmark. Historian Swapna Liddle sees the unfortunate humour in it, as she begins her Old Delhi walk for a group of us. It could be worse, perhaps. “Years ago, I visited Ironbridge, a historic midlands town in England where the Industrial Revolution began. The group I was with said that you know you’re in the middle of town when there’s a McDonald’s there,” says Liddle. We cross the smiling Ronald McDonald’s on the right on the Chandni Chowk main road, and follow Liddle, who negotiates the alleyways with deft familiarity.
The “palace”, also known as Bhagirath Palace, is a pale shadow of its former self. One can see the detailed pillars and columns, now dirtied by time and man, and the façade, which is a tale of faded majesty, with a clutch of electronic goods shops that have taken over the main floor, facing the street. “Begum Samru was a dancing girl during the time of Shah Alam II. She married an European mercenary soldier called Walter Reinhardt Sombre. After his death, not only did she inherit his money, but also his troupe of soldiers. She eventually headed this group of mercenary soldiers and also protected the Mughal emperor of the time when he was under threat from forces such as those of Ghulam Qadir. It’s sad how it’s maintained these days,” says Liddle, “There is some effort on part of organisations like Yes Institute, which try to create some cultural awareness through various initiatives, but much more is needed.” Liddle’s opinions come from a space of deep insight and experience. Her PhD thesis was on the city’s cultural and intellectual life in the 19th century, and, she works with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), raising awareness on history through various initiatives, including walks around the city. Liddle’s last book Delhi: 14 Historic Walks, is still a popular draw.
The Red Fort is nearly 200 metres from where we are. Liddle explains the precise planning of the stretch from the fort’s Lahori gate to Chandni Chowk. “The first stretch of the street outside the fort was the original Urdu Bazaar, which ended at Kotwali Chowk. This chowk ended in a large octagonal square, which was Chandni Chowk.” Chandni Chowk had a large pool at the centre, which reflected moonlight, and hence the name. However, Kotwali Chowk has a bit more of history than the romance of a moonlit Chandni Chowk. It’s at Kotwali, which had the police outposts, that Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed. “Later, in the 18th century, the Sikhs were given the space to build a memorial, and that’s the landmark Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib,” says Liddle. As we walk across this chowk, Liddle points to the adjacent masjid. “It’s the Sunehri masjid, built sometime in the 1720s. This is the spot where Nadir Shah sat and supervised the massacre of the citizens of Delhi.” Liddle’s recently launched book, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi, talks about the events that preceded the murder of Delhi’s citizenry (there’s some amount of bhaang involved in the plot).
As we traverse Chandni Chowk, in the distance, there’s the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, and, as we navigate the neighbourhood, more Jain temples crop up with increasing frequency. There’s a fair share of Hindu temples too, says Liddle, but the Dariba neighbourhood mostly had Jain merchants — and places of worship grew from patronage. In fact, Shah Jahan had invited Dipchand Sah, an Aggarwal Jain merchant of Hisar, to set up business here and on the land allotted to him, Sah built havelis for his 16 sons. Subsequently, the major temple that was also built came to be known as the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir.
As we dive into another street, called Galli Khazanchi, we find ourselves at a doorway that opens into a spacious courtyard. It’s a small proto-haveli almost, and there are still enough hints inside of better times the property has seen. Three floors surround the open courtyard which also has a small marble pool. “This is Khazanchi (treasurer) Haveli. This must have belonged to one of the several Jain bankers who lived here.” Liddle talks about the structural similarities between the palaces and the homes of the emperor’s subjects. “These havelis mimicked the Mughal court. You have the Diwan-i-Khaas-o-Aam in the Red Fort and here you can see raised platforms within the courtyard where the owner would have his own little durbars,” says Liddle, “To me, this is Shahjahanabad. In just one building you can see what Shahjahanabad was and what it’s become now.”
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