Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Old Delhi (Shahjahanabad)
Delhi is one of those palimpsest cities, a place where older cities are buried or lie ruined under newer ones. For most purposes, however, it's only the last two that survive: that would be New Delhi, a British creation of the 20th century, and Delhi proper, which is to say Old Delhi, or the Walled City, or--to give it its original name--Shahjahanabad. That's what we look at here.
Shahjahan moved his capital to Delhi from Agra in 1638, and around his Red Fort a walled city grew. (The fort is on the right bank of the Yamuna or Jumna River, so the walled city is roughly the west half of a circle, with the fort at its center.) Originally there were many gates, mostly named for the places that they led to: in clockwise order, starting at "six o'clock," they were the Delhi Gate, the Turakman Gate, the Ajmer Gate, the Lahore Gate, the Kabul Gate, the Mori Gate, and the Kashmir Gate. All the gates on the south side of the city were demolished by order not of some marauding army but of India's city planners in 1950. (The same thing was happening in Beijing at about the same time, though there the heavy hand was that of Mao, not of British-educated professionals.) Here's one that survives as an archaeological monument: it's the Kashmir Gate.
The same Kashmir Gate is now backdropped by a Delhi Metro stop of the same name. But don't imagine that everything nearby is equally modern; we'll come back to this side of town in a while to prove the contrary.
For the moment we've come to Chandni Chowk, or "silver street." This is the main street of the Old City, which it bisects with an east-west line connecting the Red Fort with the Fatehpuri Mosque near the Lahore Gate (say, at 9 o'clock). A branch canal originally ran down the middle of Chandni Chowk, which was lined with uniform and pillared galleries. To the north lay the estates of nobles, to the south, the crowded neighborhoods of merchants and craftsmen. Before the construction of the Jami Masjid, the emperor rode this way every Friday on his way to pray at the Fatehpuri Mosque.
You can sense property values driving owners today to keep stacking on new floors. Things have changed a lot since Francois Bernier wrote in 1663 that the streetside galleries were divided by partitions into shops, behind which were warehouses and above which the owners lived--unless they were very rich, in which case they lived elsewhere. He saw, in other words, a two-story streetscape. Oh, he also mentions that in the hot weather the merchants slept on the gallery roofs.
New over old.
There are only a few buildings along the street that ever saw an architect.
The chief example of an architect's hand: the municipal hall.
Its other side.
A side lane, shaded against the sun. We're too early to shop. Sorry. If we came a bit later, we might well see what Bernier saw over 300 years ago: "pots of oil or butter, piles of baskets filled with rice, barley, chick-peas, wheat, and an endless variety of other grain and pulse...." (Archibald Constable translation.)
Could get something to eat, though.
From above, Old Delhi doesn't look old at all--merely congested. When Bernier came by, in 1663, most of the buildings away from the main streets were thatched mud huts, periodically swept away by fire. An easier-to-overlook change is the loss of open space, because Old City housing as recently at 1960 was built around private courtyards that occupied about a quarter of all the space within the walls. It's hard to say how many of these old courtyards survive, but from this perch atop one of the Jami Masjid minarets the answer is "not many," unless you count rooftops.
Another view from the mosque. It's clear that a lot of the Old City isn't old at all.
On the east side of the Jami Masjid, there's heavy traffic. As the "CNG" indicates, however, this bus, like all the others in Delhi's fleet, burns natural gas. So do auto-rickshas and taxis. It's been an amazing transformation that skeptics thought would never happen, but the city's air is still foul from other sources.
A fruit-vendor, ice-water at the ready. The open space between the Red Fort and Jami Masjid didn't just happen, although visitors are unlikely to ask why it exists. Answer: in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857, the British cleared some 80 acres to push the city back from the fort's walls. Now you know.
What's this? A parking lot in the Old City shows how the antiquated Indian Ambassador has been shoved aside by the arrival of newer models. In 2014 the axe fell: no more rolling coconuts from Hindustan Motors.
Some old ways survive, though.
A scene that official India would sooner not show: a garbage sorting and transfer station.
Cycle rickshas are still abundant, though prohibited from New Delhi.
A quiet day in 1980.
Another scene from that year.
Look much different? This is the first of a dozen or so photos taken in 2010 on a little stroll into the Sita Ram Bazaar, officially the Kucha Tiku Shah colony. It's just east of the Ajmere Gate Road.
Is it an alley or a powerline conduit with pedestrian access?
Bicycle access to boot.
For removing building rubble in this neighborhood, trucks don't cut it. Better: burlap horseback panniers.
Back before 1857, this neighborhood was filled with the homes of the rich and powerful.
Upstairs, balconies had privacy screens.
There are still lots of fine old homes in not so fine condition.
A relatively intact example.
A narrow but elegant entrance.
Another, now with a bicyle ramp.
We've finally made it back to the neighborhood of the Kashmir Gate, which was actually built in 1835 by the British, then blown up by them 22 years later.
An odd facade: it looks old as the hills but judging from the curvature is probably post-1947.
The other side of the street has got to be older.
The shop's closed.
The idiom is new.
Perhaps a century old, the building has gained a budget-priced top floor.
Wonder where the doors lead?
Here's an open doorway. We can go look.
Alas, on the back side there's no palace, no courtyard: just a narrow street and more shops.
Fine woodworkers may be hard to find now, but it's easy to find technicians keeping up with the times.
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