The majestic havelis of Old Delhi are symbolic of its rich history and cultural grandeur. Delhi has been ruled by a number of dynasties – including the Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Sayyeds, Lodhis and lastly the Mughals and British – all of whom imparted their own architectural flavour to Dilli’s buildings. In fact, during Mughal emperor Shahjahan’s time, Delhi was known as a City of Havelis.
A lot of these were severely damaged during the Revolt of 1857. Rest are only a shadow of their previous self thanks to the toll of time and government apathy. Yet, their almost palpable royal aura and old world charm makes them worth a revisit.
Perhaps the most well maintained of all havelis in Old Delhi is Seth Chhunnamal ki Haveli in Katra Neel. Seth Chunnamal, a brocade merchant, used to be the richest man in Delhi. During the Uprising he bought the Fatehpuri Masjid from the British for Rs 19,000 and later sold it back to them for a whopping Rs 1,39,000. Legend has it that the poverty-stricken Mirza Ghalib used to stand beforeChunnamal’s haveli and scowl at his opulence!
The three-storey structure, at one time with 128 rooms, is now managed by Chunnamal’s 10th descendent Anil Pershad. Beautifully carved Brazilian mirrors and a dozen magnificent chandeliers adorn the dining room. There are over-bridges connecting various sections of the haveli.
Not far from it, is Ghalib’s humble haveli in Ballimaran. The mansion originally had arched corridors on three sides enclosing an open courtyard. Now only one is open to the public and the haveli has been converted into a memorial. It is adorned with photographs, paintings and compositions of the great Urdu poet.
Also in Ballimaran, is the interestingly fabled Namak Haram ki Haveli (The Traitor’s Mansion). The haveli is said to have been owned by Bhawani Shankar, one of the most trusted companions of Jaswant Rao, a great Maratha warrior. Bhawani Shankar later deserted him and went over to the British side. Labelled a traitor hence, his haveli was accorded this name.
Then there are the havelis of royalty. Zeenat Mahal ki Haveli in Lal Kuan hardly looks like a place for a queen but is said to have once housed Shahjahan’s favourite begum Zeenat. This marvel stood over four acres carved out of red sand stone. Today, only a double arch entrance breathes amidst the ruins with numerous shops and a girls’ school in its place.
Begum Samru’s Haveli, though not exactly belonging to royalty, retains its arcades and colossal doors. Begum Samru was the wife of a French Mercenary, Walter Reinhardt. Hence, this haveli was built to combine Greek and Roman architectural styles with hexagonal Corinthian columns, balustrade terrace, spiral staircases and manual lifts. It is now known as Bhagirath Place.
The closest to recent history, and yet in the worst of conditions, is Haksar Ki Haveli in Sita Ram Bazar. The crumbling ramparts of the haveli were the venue for the wedding of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla Nehru in 1916. For the locals, the haveli is nothing but a dumping ground now.