Delhi of yore


The ironies and mysteries of time

Sair-e-Delhi (Hindustan key dil Delhi per aik nayab kitab) by Khawaja Hassan Nizami Dehlvi, Book Fort Research and Publications, Lahore, pages 118, Rs 200/


Delhi had several bazars that dealt in specialised goods such as the English goods which shows how the British manufacturers had made inroads in the Indian life


These days the city of Delhi is choking with smog; however, there was a time when it breathed fresh air into its citizens, thanks to its many gardens such as Qudsia Bagh, Company Bagh, Nicholson Garden, Roshanara Bagh, etc, so much so that it was known as the city of gardens. Khawaja Hassan Nizami Dehlvi’s book “Sair-e-Delhi” penned down in early 1920s informs us about the state of this city in the colonial time and the eras before that.

In the colonial time, the better-off visitors to the city were greeted at the railway station by the representatives of the various hotels urging them to put up at their respective hotels, the poor ones had the facility to reside at the various inns whereas the “Gora Sahibs” preferred Cecil and Maiden hotels. The Hindus were not far behind because they had set up two dharamshalas — one at Lachmi Narain and the other at Company Bagh — to provide free lodging and boarding to the Hindu passengers. There were hotels that cooked separate food for the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, available at all times, the quality conscious using the “desi ghee” while the cheaper ones cooked in animal fat.

The novelties of Delhi included bangles, utensils and jewellery of silver as well as nihari, kebab and haleem in food and sohan halwa and qalaqand in sweet. The most popular daily item of consumption of the rich and the poor were roasted chickpeas.

Delhi had several bazars that dealt in specialised goods such as the English goods which shows how the British manufacturers had made inroads in the Indian life. In addition, there were bazaars that were wholly dominated by certain communities such as the one in the Saddar area dominated by the Punjabi Saudagaran (whereas we have been told that the Punjabis can only be either good farmers or soldiers). It seems that the idea of the departmental store had also taken roots because the “Khatoon Store” made available all types of goods to its customers.

The intelligentsia of Delhi as expected boasted several men of letters such as poet Daagh Dehlvi’s son Waheeduddin Beykhud and son-in-law Nawab Sirajuddin; the last “dastaan go” (story-teller) of the city Mir Baqar Ali; the prose writer Rashidul Khairi, who advocated the cause of women; the calligraphist Malik-ul-Kalam Munshi Syed Laiq Hussain; and the pride of Delhi Hakeem Ajmal Khan, to name a few.

Later on, Nizami takes us to the ruins of old Delhi which are scattered over several miles. The city had the distinction of being the capital of the British colonists as well as the Mughals and several Sultans before them. It had a chequered past being looted and plundered as well as destroyed and built on several occasions by the Khilji and Tughlaq sultans. Among the ruins is the Chandni chowk that houses Sonehri Masjid from where the invading Persian Emperor Nadir Shah ordered the historic rape of the city and the general slaughter of its inhabitants.

Equally bloody is the history of the gate of old Delhi which is known as the “bloody gate” because the severed heads of the sons of Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khana and the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar as well as the butchered head of Prince Dara Shikoh and his son were displayed for days to terrorise people. Among the ruins are the remnants of the old fort built by the Hindu rulers of Koros and Pandos. It was renovated by King Sher Shah Suri who added a mosque and a house to it by the name of “Sher Manzil.” It was the same house from whose stairs the Mughal Emperor Humayun took the tumble and died. A mausoleum was built at the grave of Humayun that houses many other graves including the grave of the rebel Prince Dara, which was kept unmarked on the orders of his brother Emperor Aurangzeb. Among these graves are also the resting places of those Arabs who had been especially brought from Mecca by Humayun’s wife Gulbadan Begum to recite the Holy Quran at the grave of Humayun.

Yet another place of considerable interest is the mausoleum of Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia, who is known in popular parlance as “Mehboob-e-Ilahi” and “Sultan Ji”

Yet another place of considerable interest is the mausoleum of Khawaja Nizamuddin Aulia, who is known in popular parlance as “Mehboob-e-Ilahi” and “Sultan Ji.” About seven centuries ago, Sultan Ji decided to construct a “bowli” (well). For some reason, he did the construction work at night but as the then reigning Tughlaq Sultan Feroz Shah had developed some differences with the saint, strict orders were passed not to supply even a drop of oil so that oil lamps could not be lit to illuminate the construction site. Legend has it that with saintly powers, the mystic turned water into oil till the construction was completed. In winter, the water of that bowli had the tendency to boil itself into white colour and provided relief to those who suffered from diseases of skin. So much was Nizamuddin Aulia loved and revered by the Delhites that Jahanara Begum, who was the daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan, willed that she be buried in the precincts of the mausoleum of the mystic and a donation of rupees three crores be made to it after her death. At the foot of the grave of the pious Nizamuddin Aulia lies the remains of the Mughal ‘Caligula’ Emperor Mohammad Shah Rangeela, who was notorious for lewd practices. He had selected this burial place because he had a firm belief that he got the emperorship of Hindustan with the blessings of Nizamuddin Aulia, the tiding of which was given to him in a dream by the saint himself well before he assumed the throne of Delhi. As a mark of gratitude, the colourful emperor made a daily contribution of rupees five thousands for the upkeep of the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia. Such can be the ironies and mysteries of time.