A new lease of life

A new lease of life


A new lease of life

The traffic-choked streets, the cacophony of blaring horns, the narrow, dingy lanes flanked by run-down buildings, and the hole-in-the-wall shops — these sights and sounds of Shahjahanabad, the Walled City of Delhi, can get pretty overwhelming at times. Yet, tucked away in these very lanes of Shah Jahan’s once-imperial city are 2 heritage havelis that have been making headlines worldwide.

Both, Haveli Dharampura and Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli have privately undergone an extensive conservation and restoration process, bringing hope to 100s of historical buildings languishing in every corner of Old Delhi.

After all, a city with a glorious past, which has seen the rise and fall of many an empire, deserves better, and it’s time we recognised its importance. As Swapna Liddle, a noted historian, author and co-convener of INTACH Delhi Chapter, emphasises, “Shahjahanabad is of great cultural importance as it’s the only planned city that is still living. This characteristic can be best seen in its rich collection of traditional havelis; by protecting these structures we can preserve this historical precinct.”

Located within walking distance from  Jama Masjid in Chandni Chowk, towards Gali Guliyan, Haveli Dharampura, believed to have been built around the late 19th century, flaunts a mix of Mughal, Hindu and European architectural elements. They can be seen as we enter through the multi-foliated arched gateway and move into the central courtyard. Our eyes are immediately drawn upward. Glancing back is a 3-storey structure that stands proudly.

Fighting odds

It’s almost difficult to believe that this heritage property was in the most deplorable of conditions before being rescued and restored into a boutique hotel by Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Goel and his son Siddhant, with help from architect Kapil Aggarwal. Getting here, however, proved to be a herculean task as they had to fight issues like an overloaded structure burdened with careless construction and multiple unorganised alterations, decay in the woodwork, dampness and huge cracks in the walls, stone columns hidden behind layers of synthetic paint, open pipes, dangling wires, and, to add to the woes, a collapsed roof.

Moreover, since no prototype of a restored property in Old Delhi was available as a reference point, project Haveli Dharampura, which they thought would take a few months, stretched over 6 years. The structure was strengthened and the ad hoc construction, demolished. Top priority was given to retain the original design of the haveli, while engaging traditional methods of construction such as the use of lime mortar instead of cement.

As Goel walks us around the haveli, he points out to the cast iron railings custom made in Jaipur and the main entrance door, which he says, was carved in Shekhawati, Rajasthan. He travelled extensively across northern India, sourcing the best of raw materials, artefacts and craftsmen, making it evident that the heritage enthusiast would leave no stone unturned in his efforts to bring the haveli back to its former glory. The hard work and dedication has paid off, and how!

Haveli Dharampura offers top-notch hospitality services with its 13 rooms, 2 restaurants, a spa, a library, an art gallery, space for cultural performances, and the rooftop viewing gallery that offers a 360-degree view of Delhi.

From the expert’s point of view, historian Liddle says, “Haveli Dharampura has seen interventions in terms of new additions to the ornament and structure as it is to be used as a boutique hotel. Commercial use provides a viable model to turn the heritage nature of the havelis into an asset rather than a liability. This ensures the preservation of historical structures and the revitalisation of the area as a whole.”

Ancestral home

Not too far away from the Goel Saab Ki Haveli lies Deoki Nandan Bagla’s ancestral home, popularly known as the Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli. Located in the midst of the wholesale market of Chotta Bazaar in Kashmere Gate, this 19th-century structure was in an equally bad shape as Haveli Dharampura. Being the co-owner of the haveli, Bagla’s only wish was to restore and renovate his property so that he could find prospective brides for his 3 sons. And if he had a nice house to show, he believed, it would make this task easier.

Unsure of where to start from, he approached conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis, who stepped in only to realise that there were no blueprints or floor plans to refer to. Tipnis’s team worked tirelessly, drawing up a comprehensive conservation plan and preparing elaborate diagrams and documents. Next came the process of obtaining requisite clearances from various government bodies, after which the work finally began.

Mix of old & new

Six years on, the Khemka haveli, in its last leg of restoration, greets us with a bright living room, a modern kitchen and well-appointed bedrooms that are complete with period furniture. For a layman, it is difficult to gauge the level of preservation and restoration work that has gone into this project. For instance, you might overlook the fact that the huge doors, windows and fanlights in the drawing room have been painstakingly repaired and not replaced with new ones, while the original wood has been put to use wherever possible. The 4x4-inch tiles in the kitchen, the bathrooms and the verandah were specially handcrafted in Khurja (Uttar Pradesh) to replicate the original tiles that were used in buildings of a similar age in Shahjahanabad.

Bagla’s enthusiasm is unmatchable as he shows off on his tablet the pretty design of the customised mosaic tiles that will soon adorn his verandah entrance. The Baglas even set up a lime mortar mill in their courtyard to stay true to the conservation process. While cement was the easier alternative, they went with lime plaster to employ traditional methods of construction. Liddle says, “In the Khemka haveli, emphasis has been on retaining the original elements and recreating them wherever they have been lost to time. This is a viable conservation model for those who wish to embrace heritage structures as an alternative to living in a new house in another part of the city.”

In the absence of state support and amidst a host of challenges faced by these passionate individuals, both their newly restored havelis can, in their own way, provide good restoration models for the way forward. That’s inspiring!

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