“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ~William Shakespeare~
Call it Dilli 6, the Walled City, or as I like to call it, Shajahanabad, when I think of Old Delhi, this quote from “Romeo and Juliet” comes to mind.
At the face of it, Old Delhi, popularly known by its moniker Chandni Chowk, looks nothing more than a maze of buzzing streets, a labyrinth of dangerously perched electrical wires, thousands of locals and tourists, rickshaw pullers, market dwellers, and a gust of pulsating activity. Walking in this sea of crowd is a challenge like none other. But if you can look past the madness, there lies a city that is crumbling under the deadweight of its own monumental history.
Owing to one of my many travel projects, I got one where I was assigned the task of finding Delhi’s depth, something that can resonate with its melting pot culture, its rich historical past and its philosophical flavors. My profound research about my own backyard gave me an opportunity to see Delhi outside the “Tu jaanta nahi mera baap kaun hai” purview.
It made me realize that Connaught Place may be Delhi’s heart, but Old Delhi is its soul.
Just when I was proud and amazed of Delhi’s rich past, a realization hit me in the face that I am yet to explore my own city! I have travelled far and wide (read my Kashmir story here), almost to a point where I can proudly say that I have seen more than 60% of my country and seen it well. But Delhi? I don’t know shit about it. Ask me about cheap drinking places and I’ll drop names in a heartbeat, but that’s pretty much the extent of my local knowledge. Thanks to my travel project, that was about to change.
Just when I was planning to visit all the hidden places I found during my research, I got a confirmation from my friend that her trip to India is finally coming through! I was delighted because there is no better way to see Old Delhi than to show it. I was excited to play my role as a local guide and started planning for her impending visit. As she landed in Delhi, I gave her one night to rest it out and decided to go hunting in the annals of Chandni Chowk the next morning.
I will share my tips and tricks at the end of this blog, but first let me share with you the 4 awesome hidden places in Old Delhi that made waking up at 5 AM, on a cold winter morning, totally worth it!
This was such a chance find! I knew there is a house burrowed deeply in the by-lanes of Gali Qasimjan that has more history to it than “famous” Mirza Ghalib Haveli. But its exact location? Even Google map doesn’t know! I followed the tight lanes and kept going until a nondescript sign on a gate said “Ahata Kaley Saheb.” I, obviously, went in. All I saw was a web of more lanes and nothing that looked remotely close to ruins that at some point belonged to Nawab Qasim Jan, a prominent courtier of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Mughal durbar. Ghalib is believed to have taken temporary residence here after serving time at a British prison for loan default. Kaley Saheb was a saint and the said haveli was gifted to him by Ghalib’s sister-in-law.
I was still looking for this “ornate” haveli or maybe a sign of it, but to no avail. I didn’t know who to ask or where to go. So, I sat on a staircase wondering what to do. Just then a rickshaw puller comes in and opens a gate to a blue-ruined mansion that I recognized instantly from my research.
There it is!! I almost jumped with excitement and we pushed past the rickshaw puller to go inside. He was clearly baffled by my elation. What could possibly be so exciting about this crumbling place? For him, this century old structure was just a parking spot for his rickshaw!
“Beauty lies in the eyes of beholder” This quote rings true each time I visit the ruins. While most people may dismiss this place as mere shambles, I try to imagine how life would have been here, visualize the opulence of a bygone era, the rhetoric of Ghalib that may have amused someone standing right where I stood.
This one was my favorite, mainly because of its controversial title, Randi ki Masjid. This name has thankfully been dropped, but its history reeks of deep patriarchal system existent back then.
The masjid is named after Mubarak Begum who was a mistress of David Ochterlony, British General for East India Company. She later married the general and was known to be one of his favorite wives. She exercised great influence on her husband and was infamous for being everyone’s mistress inside the walled city, hence the name randi, aka prostitute. The building in question was an Anglo-Mughal bagh tomb that was acquired by her after her husband’s death. But her unpopularity among Mughals and British preceded her, ensuring that no “respectable” man would visit the structure and was given a name, Randi ki Masjid. The stigma is no more attached to the building. Instead, what you see is a clean historical structure amid busy streets of Chawri Bazaar.
Luckily, this place could be found on Google Maps and so I started walking towards it. The street was humming with day’s action. I had a hard time concentrating on the map, dodging the traffic and people at the same time. Just then the voice-assistance on the maps announced that I have arrived. I looked around, looking for a building that matched the photos I saw during my research. Such an imposing structure is hard to miss. But I could not find it and Google Maps said otherwise.
So, I turned to look around and found a tiny gate leading up the stairs. I went up to find what I was looking for. There it was, the beautiful renovated masjid, hiding in plain sight, an oasis of peace in the middle of a throbbing market. I was absolutely blown over by the structure’s simplicity and its tranquility. After spending about 10-15 minutes, just when I was preparing to leave, a man came up and threw a shade at me for coming into their prayer house with my shoes on. Just then, he forgot about the shoes and fired at me for being a woman in their prayer house! Guess not much has changed in the 100 years!!
My love for ruins and abandoned buildings stem from a belief that all these places have a tale that they want to share with anyone who is crazy enough to seek them!
I saw this cinema hall, abandoned and lonely in an eventful Chawri Bazaar street. The world passes by as this building stands still in time. I see a bruised and battered poster of Sholay on the wall. Just then something in me said that I should find a way to enter this building, and find I did!
I started asking around if there is a way to see this rundown cinema from inside. Someone suggested that we should go to the backside and request the guard to let us in. I followed the street behind and found a public bathroom. An old man, bitter and angry, sat guarding the hall and the loo. I asked if I can use one and see the other. He yelled something at me and asked me to get lost. Well, first I override his authority and use the washroom. Then I went and sat by his side, on his decrepit bed and asked about his story. I could see him soften instantly.
In a world where people are too busy, and too self-centered, showing genuine interest in someone’s story or, plight in this case, can be a real icebreaker. He told me that he comes from Punjab and has no money to eat, no kids, no family. He is alone and 70, dying a slow death just like this crumbling, abandoned cinema hall. He shared his daily struggles of how he bought vegetables and rice everyday to feed himself at people’s mercy. He had no income and nowhere else to go. Despite that, he offered me some of his rice that he was cooking right there. I politely declined and requested him to see the cinema hall. He was happy to let me in. In fact, he encouraged that I go see it. There was nothing to see except its dusty halls. But, I liked the interaction that went into gaining the access! It is never about the destination anyway, it is always the journey that matters.
Now on to my absolute favourite!!
This one may seem like a misfit in a post about architectural finds and historical sites, but trust me, it holds merit.
The only café in Old Delhi is bang opposite Jama Masjid’s gate number 1, nestled in crowded and snug Motor Wali gali. Here you will find a lovely, intimate space that acts like a refuge for people, tired from day’s walking. This café is housed in a 200-year-old heritage mansion with stained glass windows complete with upbeat interior. I loved sitting here in the sun, enjoying the music and resting my tired feet while I sipped on machine-made Cappuccino. I could hear azaan in the distance emanating from the mosque close by. It was a perfect end to a day that started on a cold winter morning at 6 AM!
I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is its body and Delhi, its life! ~Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib~
In the end, I would like add that adventure travel is not just about jumping mountains or swimming raging rivers. It is about leaving the comforts of your home to walk into the unknown, even if it is your own backyard!
Do you have stories of your own that can add color to Shajahanabad’s history? Do share with me in comments.