Utterly ruined

Utterly ruined


Few would believe that in the walled city of Shahjahanabadi purani Dilli and amidst the squelch, squalor and maddening traffic of Bazaar Lal Kuan stands a haveli (mansion) of Begum Zeenat Mahal, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s beloved queen, someone who detested the avaricious English in India.

Today, this mansion is gorged by the ever increasing demands of commercialisation that surrounds it.

Zeenat Mahal happened to be one of the most formidable women in medieval India. She could be put in the same category as Noorjahan (Shahjahan’s wife), Lakshmibai, Razia Sultan, Ahiliabai of Holkar, and Chand Bibi of yore. Though she lived in the Red Fort, she owned her own mansion in Delhi at Lal Kuan as well.

Begum Zeenat Mahal was a very domineering woman, tenacious in nature and with a determination as sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar. She was a pretty, doe-eyed maiden, half the age of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who had lost power and authority in time of great turmoil.

Zeenat Mahal was the queen who accompanied Zafar in exile to Rangoon. It was this vivacious and bewitching beauty that implored the ageing and graying Zafar to delve into romantic poetry. In fact, it was he who had composed the ghazal:

Le gaya loot ke kaun mera sabro-o-qararBeqarari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisi to na thhi(Who is it who has eluded my heart of its peace? Never has restlessness like this been unbound). 

There was a time when Begum Zeenat Mahal used to come to her haveli; the height of its entrance was reduced in 1900 to a couple of feet. She used to be seated in her palanquin and was led inside by her traditional naqqarkhana (drummers). A danka (announcement) was made when she used to come so that the residents would come to greet and salute her. The most picturesque remnants of this haveli are two jhorokhas (parlours) made of red sand stone.

A cursory glance of the haveli is enough to make one nostalgic — its gate made of red kota (sand) stone and has the traditional mughal arch flanked by huge iron-studded wooden doors. While there may not be much left over of this unprotected monument, it has still managed to retain its architectural charm. 

Till recently there was a plaque atop the haveli that mentioned that Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar started building this elegant edifice for his queen. The plaque, which is in Persian, could not be clearly deciphered.

Some of the ‘sepoy mutiny’ rebels who had switched over to the British side had attacked the haveli, but the solid wooden gates held the fort. After normalcy prevailed in the first week of October 1857, the English recaptured Delhi and harmed it as a result of their dislike of the begum.

According to Basheeruddin Ahmed’s Waqueat-e-Darul Hukumat-e-Delhi, this haveli covered an area of almost four acres at the time of Zeenat Mahal’s residence.

There was a huge marble fountain with a few hujras (cabins). There was a huge cellar.

There was also a Nagina Mahal (jewel palace) whose entrance was from the backyard.

The basic structure of the haveli existed here till the late 1950s as the gateway opened into a courtyard, encircled by a series of rooms with carved kota stone pillars supporting red sandstone arches. Except one, all have been turned into petty structures.

The marble fountain had beautiful inlaid waterways. Inside this was the secluded pavilion with 14 arches and dalaans (open space), quite typical of any haveli. The pavilion, built in the shape of the one at the Red Fort, was surrounded by marble courtyards on all sides. Huge banyan trees gave pleasant shade in the summers. In summer, it was surrounded by the khus (scented jute screens) covering to avoid excess heat and the warm air. There were also two tunnels from this haveli, one that went into Red Fort and the other to some unknown destination. 

Writer and diplomat, Pavan Kumar Varma opines, “When one buys nahari from the road facing Zeenat Mahal’s haveli, all this and more comes to mind and one wishes that the haveli was somehow restored to its pristine glory as a memorial to a once gallant queen and freedom fighter who opened the doors of Red Fort to the rebel sepoys from Meerut on the morning of May 11, 1857. Beauty, brains and courage were her hallmark then.”