The chowk culture

Delhi diaries

The chowk culture

Chandni Chowk, the commercial hub of Old Delhi, is where all the action is. Here, ancient madrassas and temples, schools and shops, ‘havelis’ and ‘mohallas’, all vie for attention. Navina Jafa writes.

As such, walking tours specifically and living exhibits in general serve to revitalise local heritage as well as create an awareness of its value to a city or a nation. To elaborate this point, I cite the creation of a walking exhibit titled ‘Delhi Walk and the Dining Opera’. The culturalscape featured a section of Old Delhi that covered Ajmeri Gate, Hauz Qazi and Bazaar Sita Ram. The exhibit began with a walk from the Anglo-Arabic School in Ajmeri Gate and ended with a special dinner, ‘The Dining Opera’, in the haveli of Begum Samru in Kuncha Mai Das. I began my presentation of the walk with a description of the Anglo-Arabic School. The narrative of this fascinating institution prompted questions of education in relation to Islamic culture.

The Anglo-Arabic School has survived over three centuries. Ghaziuddin Khan, an influential courtier and a general in the army of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, started an institution called the Ghaziuddin Madrassa in 1702. Though it was started as a seminary, it has since been serving the cause of education under the labels of Madarsa Ghaziuddin Khan, Anglo-Arabic School, Anglo-Arabic College, Delhi College, and Zakir Hussain College.
Islamic education

Until 1827, this madrassa was a religious seminary, but under the growing power of the English, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the reigning resident, introduced the teaching of English, Mathematics and the Natural Sciences.

The real architectural sanctity of the monument comes to the beholder’s eyes once he enters Masjid Nawab Ghaziuddin Khan, beautifully constructed in red sandstone. The mosque once had a well and a tank connected to it for the purposes of wajuh (ablutions). There is a mazaar (mausoleum that is regarded as a shrine) of a saint in the northern side of the mosque. The school suffered during the revolt of 1857, when the science laboratories and the library were burnt, and along with the library, innumerable priceless manuscripts were reduced to ashes. As an institution of learning, the Anglo-Arabic School was therefore a mute witness to the checkered history of the city; but neither violent events nor age has marred the glory of the institution.

The next destination on this walk was the 18th-19th century mosque in Hauz Qazi Chowk. The beautiful building is almost completely obscured by illegal constructions and is almost not visible. The mosque has a beautiful water tank, stained windows and arches bearing European influence. The walk into Bazaar Sita Ram was fascinating. Although today this is largely a commercial area, until the mid-20th century this was a residential neighbourhood, where a large number of elite Kashmiri families lived. They dominated the bureaucracy both in the Mughal as well as the British period. Several of them became professional lawyers, doctors, freedom fighters and politicians. Their histories are yet to be recounted as memories and are now only reflected in some of the remaining dilapidated or deserted havelis. The walk proceeded toward a small winding lane in the neighbourhood called Kuncha Mai Das. The entry to this lane was from the 84 bell temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The walk ended at Begum Samru’s haveli where the ‘Dining Opera’ was organised.

An enigma

Begum Samru was a courtesan, who was sold to Walter Reinhardt, and she later married him. Reinhardt was an adventurer and a mercenary in India about the mid-18th century. His nationality is uncertain. Some sources say that he was most likely an Austrian, although others suggest that he could be from France, Germany, or even Switzerland. His nickname was Sombre, but was then distorted to Samru. Begum Samru is said to have converted to Christianity, and in addition to being a colourful character, she ended up being extremely powerful and was a favourite with Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, who regarded her as his sister. To establish her presence and assert her power, Begum Samru built quite extensively in Delhi and other towns in the present state of Uttar Pradesh. The buildings included some large palatial houses and churches that included a basilica in Sardhana near the city of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. The Mughal emperor is known to have asked her for military assistance to subdue some uprisings. Begum Samru’s haveli in Kuncha Mai Das was used by the Begum’s army as a place for her artillery forces. It was later taken over by a merchant family with whom it remains even today.

The audiences entered the haveli and were seated in the traditional Indian style — on mattresses on the floor of the huge, majestic front porch. The story of Begum Samru was narrated to the audience in the words of John Lall:

“Her name was Farzana. She was the daughter of a dancing girl who had been taken away from Chawri Bazar in Delhi to the Doab region by Asad Khan, a nobleman of Arabian origin, who made her his second wife. After the death of her husband, the young widow was driven out of the house by her stepson and returned to Delhi, living for some days near the Kashmere Gate and then moving on to the Jama Masjid area, where she died, leaving her daughter in the care of Khanum Jan, a tawaif of Chawri Bazaar. That was in 1760. Five years later, Walter Reinhardt Sumroo, then 45 years old, came to the red light area and fell for the charms of Farzana, then a girl of 14.”

The audiences were then served a five-course meal of traditional Delhi cuisine.

Accompanying the meal were a variety of live performances. There was a performance by a bahurupiya (impersonator), who dressed and acted like Lord Shiva. There was also a hakim or a traditional Unani doctor. The doctor narrated the history and explained the practice of Unani medicine in Old Delhi and peppered the narrative with interesting anecdotes. His performance was followed by that of a shair, a traditional Urdu poet who sang beautiful verses on the spirit and magic of Delhi.

Many of the traditions showcased in the ‘Dining Opera’, such as the bahurupiya and dastangoi (art of storytelling), are gradually disappearing. Through their narration, the bahurupiya and the dastangoi told the participants about the difficulties they faced in present times.

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