The vanishing legacy

The vanishing legacy

Havelis of Shahjahanabad

The vanishing legacy

The many magnificent ‘havelis’ of Old Delhi, fragile reminders of the city’s glorious past, are fast disappearing in the dust of maddening crowds and the chaos of commercialisation. Time we care for them lest they vanish without a trace... Nafeesah Ahmed takes a closer look at some of these ‘once-grand’ mansions in their current plight

Yesterday’s Shahjahanabad is today’s Purani Dilli, a city that survived the ravages of time and multiple invasions over the centuries. What was once the capital city of the mighty Mughals, established in the mid-17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan, has now been reduced to a city where maddening crowds and chaos reign supreme. Where, it is difficult to pass through narrow lanes without having to jostle for space with fellow pedestrians and bicycles, rickshaws and autos, stray cattle and hawkers sprawling over bite-sized spaces alongside the occasional troop of monkeys.

Amidst this chaos, confusion and modern day construction, it is these very lanes that also hide the remnants of most late-Mughal and Colonial period havelis — a fragile reminder of Shahjahanabad’s glorious past. A broken jharokha (an overhanging enclosed balcony) here, a dislodged pillar there, an exquisitely carved yet crumbling façade or a decrepit wooden doorway leading to an equally dilapidated courtyard, all lie still in a time-induced coma, forgotten, till an inquisitive visitor comes searching.

While most of these magnificent havelis are privately owned, a majority of them can be found in a run-down condition. Rapid commercialisation and expansion of the wholesale trade, illegal construction and rampant encroachment have eaten into most of the residential spaces and turned almost every other haveli into a godown, office space or shop.

Those who wanted out of the mayhem have long sold their properties and moved to better addresses in New Delhi, while others are still holding on to their ancestral homes purely out of choice or because they are forced to, as a number of these havelis are embroiled in tenancy and multi-ownership feuds. Lack of funds to maintain the deteriorating structures is another major concern for owners. We take a closer look at some of these ‘once-grand’ mansions in their current plight.

A heritage walk

For the seasoned visitor, navigating the galis (lanes), kuchas (streets), mohallas (localities) and bazaars of Old Delhi is fairly easy. But for a first-timer, it can be extremely daunting and it is best to have someone guiding you. The Sunday Herald teams up with Surekha Narain, founder of Delhi Metro Walks, for a quick tour of a few havelis around Chandni Chowk.

Using illustrated maps and old photos, Surekha introduces us to the history of Shahjahanabad. She then takes us past important landmarks starting with the Town Hall and the late-colonial bank buildings to bring us to Rai Lala Chunna Mal’s Haveli, in Katra Neel, the first on our itinerary and probably the only well-preserved one in the entire of Old Delhi today. We would have walked right past it, if it wasn’t for Surekha, who pointed out its faded, crumbling façade to us.

Anil Pershad, who is the sixth generation descendent of Lala Chunna Mal, still lives in the 19th century haveli with his family and graciously shows us around. Of the 128 original rooms, some are closed, while others are rented out as shops on street level, leaving only a few for use by the family. The room that gets all the attention is the living room, which has mostly been retained in its original state — with a beautiful high ceiling, antique Brazilian mirrors and chandeliers, decorative tile-work and ornamental mouldings.

We sit in the quaint little courtyard outside, as Pershad regales us with stories about his famous ancestor, Lala Chunna Mal, a textile merchant and money lender, who was appointed the first Municipal Commissioner of Delhi under the British Raj. After the uprising in 1857, he found favour with the British and emerged as the wealthiest person in the city. He was also one of the first in Delhi to own a car and a telephone.

Used to the general public, film stars and other celebrities who come calling, including the likes of Kate Winslet, it is obvious that Anil Pershad is proud of his lineage and the haveli. His only grouse is with the Delhi Rent Control Act that prevents him from receiving any more than a paltry sum of Rs 70 per shop for the 139 shops that he owns on the ground floor. Reason enough for him to be upset, and time for archaic laws to be revised, which keep haveli owners like Pershad from putting money back into maintaining these heritage properties.

Walking the lanes

Stepping into another lane, we make our way towards Haider Quli, which was named after the Mughal Commander of Artillery under one of the later emperors, Muhammad Shah, who was in power during 1719-48. The original mansion has long-disappeared and the surrounding courtyards and gardens have been built over with newer havelis, yet the area still retains the name of Haider Quli, and has today turned into a residential and commercial complex with offices, restaurants, shops and warehouses all around. It is hard to believe that a massive sprawling mansion once stood here, the only reminder to which is a dilapidated sandstone gateway at the entrance.

Moving out, we walk past the Fatehpuri Masjid to reach the wholesale spice market — Khari Baoli. Meandering through the various shops selling dry-fruits and nuts, herbs and spices, both local and exotic, we stop at a small eatery for a typical Old Delhi breakfast, or in our case brunch, comprising bedmi aloo, nagori halwa and jalebi served with cups of piping hot masala chai.

Continuing our brisk session, we slip into some more narrow galis, past the dark and dusty coal market, to reach the curiously named Namak Haram Ki Haveli (or the haveli of a man not true to his salt), in Kucha Ghasi Ram. Surekha goes on to explain how the owner — Bhawani Shankar Khatri, a trusted companion of the Maratha King Jaswant Rao Holkar, was notoriously disloyal to him, joining hands with the British during the battle at Patparganj in 1803. The residents of Chandni Chowk did not take too kindly to his treachery and Bhawani Shankar was stuck with the tag of a ‘namak haram’ (traitor).

His haveli, once a beautiful complex of gardens, pavilions and waterways, is long gone. All that remains is a weathered, stone-arched Mughal-style doorway, a decorative balcony and some wooden doors. With not much to look at, we carry on to finish the rest of our walk through the Bagh Diwar Dharamshala, the Old Delhi railway station, and finally end up at Hardayal Municipal Public Library, which is our last stop.

The exploration continues

As we thank Surekha for expertly guiding us through and with a promise to join her for another walk soon, we realise that the entire day lies ahead of us and the idea of trying to explore some havelis on our own, seems inviting. Surekha quickly draws out a rough map for us to follow and sends us in the direction of Mirza Ghalib’s haveli in Ballimaran.

Having ferried many a curious tourist, our rickshawala knows exactly where to take us and soon we are in Gali Qasim Jaan, in front of the legendary Urdu poet’s home. This is where Ghalib spent the last few years before his death in 1869. Not much is left of the original haveli, but the Delhi government has attempted to convert it into a museum that tries to capture the life and times of Ghalib through his couplets, old photographs, replicas of his manuscripts, clothes and a few artefacts. But overall, the place looks tired and in dire need of maintenance.

Our next destination is Lal Kuan, again a short rickshaw-ride away. Locating Zeenat Mahal Ki Haveli isn’t very difficult with some help from the locals. What was once a beautiful haveli built by the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar for his favourite wife, now lies in ruins. All that remains are the beautiful jharokhas and an imposing gateway. We are not at all surprised to see that shops, offices and a primary school have taken over the remains of Zeenat Mahal.

Elated at having been able to track down two of the famous havelis without much trouble, we walk further up the road to look for the next one in Lal Kuan, that of Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, personal physician, chief confidante and a close friend of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Major portions of his haveli are believed to have been burnt in the aftermath of 1857 as the Hakim was suspected of conspiring with the British. Our only landmark is the Excelsior cinema, which was built later on a section of the haveli grounds. Today, the cinema too has shut shop and now lies in absolute squalor. Hesitantly, we ask around if any other part of the haveli still exists, only to be greeted with blank stares and amused looks of the passers-by.

We turn away disappointed and pin our hopes on finding the next on our list, Haveli Khazanchi in Dariba Kalan, the jewellery market. It is said that it belonged to the Khazanchi’s or the accountants and book-keepers of the Mughal treasury, and that a tunnel used to connect the haveli to the Red Fort, so that money could be transferred safely to the royal coffers.

The haveli today stands in an extreme state of decay with its once beautiful arches and marble pillars giving away bit by bit. Though, even in its miserable state, there is something quite striking about it. We take a few pictures and turn to leave, once more heading out into the busy street to cross over into Bhagirath Palace, a market for wholesale electrical and surgical goods.

Ask around and no one knows that it was once Begum Samru’s Palace, the widow of a French mercenary Walter Reinhardt. Her life history has several interesting versions, including the one that says she was a dancing girl who went on to acquire her husband’s vast wealth and rule over Sardhana, a small principality near Meerut. Known for her leadership and administrative qualities, Begum Samru also led troops into the battleground herself.

Her 19th century imposing kothi stood out in the entire of Shahjahanabad and was one of the earliest colonial-style mansions, with grand circular columns on the façade, large rooms and acres of greens. Some sections of the haveli still stand, although a portion is currently being used by a bank and the rest, the market has encroached upon.
As the sky turns dark and Bhagirath Palace comes alive with the lights and flashy LED signboards, we head home with mixed feelings — a sense of accomplishment, marred by a strain of despondency. It is hard to believe that over the years no concrete effort has been made to protect these age-old havelis, or to provide a much-needed facelift that Shahjahanabad is desperately crying out for.

All is not lost

In a bid to restore and preserve Delhi’s heritage buildings and ancient architecture, the Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) was formed by the Delhi government. A policy was also framed to undertake extensive restoration work in Old Delhi besides providing grants and loans to property owners who wish to convert their traditional havelis into hotels, guesthouses, museums etc. Sadly, we are yet to see the full-fledged implementation of these plans in the old city, although a senior SRDC official recently confirmed that the policy to revive and restore the notified havelis is still on the cards and awaiting budgetary allocations.

We, as a country, have very often lost key chapters of our rich heritage, mostly owing to our inability to act in time, and to our apathy towards our past. However, for the sake of Shahjahanabad’s rich historic importance, we hope something is done soon, for it has been glaringly obvious for years now that these havelis won’t be able to hold the fort for long.

(Surekha Narain has over 40 walk routes in Delhi, out of which 10 are in the Old City. More details are available at

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