Doorways to the Past : Havelis of Shahjahanabad

Is it that difficult a midgame to silently step out of our immediate environs, to waft away almost seamlessly to a Past screened by that invisible wall of time, to imagine the cityscape of some 350 years back, to reach out and touch the olden society in history,  standing at the center of the same Shahjahanabad, to reflect on the beautiful stone facades of the grand havelis, built by the Imperial Princesses and Great Amirs of the Mughal Court, the elite quarter that held the society together like a glue.. to imagine how the city looked like in 1739, the year Nadir Shah and his Persian army burned, ransacked and destroyed the great imperial Mughal capital…

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The area around Sitaram Bazar was along a pre-Shahajahanbad road which today links Fatehpuri Mosque area to Turkman Gate, named after the Dargah or burial place of Hazrat Shah Turkman Bayabani, a Sufi saint who came to India from Turkmenistan during the reign of Iltutmish. After the city was built, one of the 14 city gates was located here, and named as Turkman Gate. In the heydays of Shahjahanabad, the area was dotted with beautiful havelis built of Lakhori brick, with characteristic ornamental gateways, cusped-arch entrances, hanging balconies or jharokhas, fluted intricately carved sandstone columns and facades, and floral carvings.

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Obviously the original havelis of Shahjahan’s era are gone now, most of them destroyed, some of them taken over by larger populations dividing and converting them into mohallas (residential colonies ) and katras ( commercial enclaves). Most of the havelis known today, such as Haveli Ram Kutiya ( 1915 ), Haveli Kucha Pati Ram ( Early 20th C) , Dharamshala Pyarelal (1921), Haveli Churiwalan (1890), and Haskar Haveli (19th C)  display characteristic architecture of older havelis, and some newer ones  offer an interesting insight into Art-Deco and colonial influences, and how the architecture has evolved over the ages. And,  still there exists a broken doorway, a hidden façade and an unknown fluted column..that definitely belonged to older 18th Century times..however, there must be efforts to conserve the 19th/20th C havelis as well in their original forms.

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But let us imagine the city and the society when it all began..

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The new capital city of Shahjahanabad was an unique experiment in combining the Hindu Vastu Sastra, the idea of ‘Purusha’ (Man), and the Islamic Sufi concept in Persian architecture; a sacred centre, an axis mundi where heaven and earth met; an unparalleled attempt to reflect the cityscape as the meeting point of the macrocosm of Earth-Soul-Universe, with the microcosm of body-soul-spirit : where the emperor and the palace-fortress were the symbolic center of “ city-empire-universe “ hierarchy; the city laid down to emulate a human anatomy with the palace-fortress as its head; a city where the Great Amirs adapted the layout of the palace-fortress in designing their own mansions – each haveli having a Naqqar Khannah, a library, shish mahal, hammam, garden, and mosque, and busy kar-khanas employing thousands of artisans and craftsmen who celebrated those great “Sahiban-I saif-o-Qalam”,  i.e.  ‘Men of both  Sword and Pen’.

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The stately havelis were poetry in stone glorifying imperial architecture: their exquisite stone carvings, perforated stone screens and exotic stucco and mural works, their intricately chiseled facades and elaborate balconies, with opulently lavish hallways and rooms, speaking volumes of their patrons in the capital city.. the “Sahiban-I saif-o-Qalam”,

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A city, where the shops of Chandni Chowk displayed spicy kebabs, beautifully scented flowers, glass huqqas ( waterpipes), emeralds and pearls; where the Amirs and noblemen gathered in the dark coffee houses to discuss poetry and culture. The Emperor, in the House of Ordinary Audience, routinely awarded gifts and elephants and jewels and money to deserving men; and in the Hall of Special Audience, he inspected inlaid bejeweled swords from Yemen and India, listened to astronomers and astrologers; while watching swordsmen and boxers dancing and sparring before him. Traders from Turkey, Zanzibar, Syria, Yemen, Arabia, Iraq, Khorasan, China, Tibet, and Europe brought rubies, pearls, fresh fruits, weapons, fine clothes, perfumes, elephants, birds, delicate sweetmeats, huqqas, and what not, to the bustling Urdu Bazaar and the unusual Chatta , or “covered” bazaar inside the palace precincts. As one estimate states – not wholly unrealistically- that it was easily possible to outfit one thousand soldiers in one hour from the markets of Shahjahanabad alone.

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The hundred or so Great Amirs of the city routinely patronized  men of fine arts: poets, painters, musicians, calligraphers, dancers, wood and metal-workers, gold lace-makers, rug-makers, woolen-weavers;  while the Amirs themselves being very accomplished soldiers trained in horse-riding, archery, sword fighting, and firearms. And, in the evenings, the elephants of noblemen clogged the narrow streets of famed singers and dancers…

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The beautiful mansions of the Great Amirs ( Let us call them GA’s) were built as per the architectural manual, Bayaz-I Khusbui. Few mansions were constructed along the river front, having their own private docks where the GA took his boat to reach the river-gate of the palace fortress. For the mansions situated along the city gates, a little away from the palace, agents were stationed at the court with a supply of pigeons to convey messages back and forth.

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Sometimes a moat would surround the haveli. Entrance to the haveli was through a lofty gateway called the naqqar khanah, where musician bands and soldiers were stationed. The haveli was clearly demarcated into private and public areas. A Shish Mahal, or Glass Room was the main structure in the mansion, decorated with tiny glass pieces, set amidst flowering trees and cascading canals. An underground Teh-khanah, situated some 40 feet below ground, with a painted blue dome representing the night sky, was the summer respite for the family. The House Garden was crisscrossed by cascading canals flowing into a central pool, in the middle of which, on a central pedestal, stood a summer-house with wetted reeds hung on its windows. A private library where the Great Amir would be composing state papers and poems, a family mosque, a beautiful hammam, a Diwan-Khanah or Audience Hall where the Great Amir would receive guests and held his court, completed the mansions. Rooms and Halls were covered with gold-embroidered carpets, flower vases hung from walls, guests sat on mattresses with velvety flowered satin cushions, stitched with golden threads.

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The great audience hall ( Diwan-Khanah ) of a GA named Mir Abdul Razzaq’s haveli was furnished with colored carpets, curtains, and glass vases and in the middle of the hall stood a large mirror on which he had scribbled a poem. He would offer coffee and jellies to his guests, offered them perfumes and huqqas, and had books of ancient poets for them to read.

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The typical haveli of a GA had a library where calligraphers worked, kar-khanas where artisans and craftsmen produced fine carpets, and a storeroom for perfumes. In Khan Dauran’s household, there were departments for swords, guns, elephants, canons, ammunition, Arabian and Iraqi horses, and artillery.

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But, who were these Great Amirs : the “Sahiban-I saif-o-Qalam”, or the  ‘Men of  Sword’, and ‘Men of Pen’? In the Safavid Empire of Iran, the Seljuk Turkish warrior soldiers were probably the original the Men of Sword, who were converted to domesticated rule by the Persian administrators, who were the Men of Pen; the system worked well because the warriors preferred the rewards of a routine tax collection than the constant raiding and plundering. However the inherent class conflict and lack of trust between them led to the downfall of the Safavid Empire. In contrast, the Mughals succeeded in achieving a synthesis of the two in a unified system of Hindu administrative classes ( Kayasthas, Khattris, Brahmins), the Hindu warrior castes ( Rajputs, Marathas), the Muslim administrative groups ( the Iranis), and the Muslim warrior groups ( the Afghans, and Turanis).

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The Hindus like the Kayasthas and Khattris were the first ‘Men of  Pen’ who learned Persian under Sikander Lodi’s times, and quickly took over as the administrative class in subsequent Mughal Empire. Chandra Bhan Brahman, Sujan Rai, Raja Raghunath were examples of this class.

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In the Mughal society, the Great Amirs  were the perfect combination of the Men of the Sword and Men of the Pen. For the typical GA, schooling began at the age of 4 with study and memorization of the Quran, followed by theology, Islamic law, and the principles of jurisdiction, and tasfir, hadith, kalam, and mantiq. Simultaneously, starting from age of 9, military training like use of matchlocks and pistols, archery and horsemanship, and wrestling were taught to a GA.

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A GA was groomed as per the 17th century manual on manners and culture, called the Mirza Namah, while the term Mirzai denoted the gentlemanliness and sophistication of a GA. He would study medicine, mathematics, poetry, calligraphy and amassed huge libraries in their mansions. As per Mirza Namah, a GA should be knowledgeable on Persian poetry, and should be quick at composition of a verse or two; however he should refrain himself from doing so regularly or he would be taken as a professional poet.

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A GA smoked scented tobacco blended with hashish in his huqqa, and crushed precious jewels like emeralds and pearls in his wine. He would be adorned with a tightly fitted bright dress, and a bejeweled long piece of turban. It was said that a GA named Mirza Abu Said under Shahjahan, known for his legendary Mirzai, would reach the court by the time the session would be ending, because of exceptionally long time he used to take to tie his turban of fine linen on his head, and then he did not prefer to ride because the wind would disturb it.

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A GA would take pride in promoting and attaching poets and musicians to his court. In the evenings, the elephants of GA’s would clog the narrow lanes of famous singers’ houses , like that of Nur Bai. A GA would also organize regular wrestling matches in front his haveli, where young men of his household would participate, and sweets would be distributed to spectators. Sword fighting competitions, hand to hand combat games, hunts, races, games of polo, horsemanship, archery and firearm practice were regularly practiced by a GA, with the finest horses and other resources easily at their command.

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During 1658-78, there were 179 GA’s in the Mughal Court, out of which 73 were Indians, followed by 64 Iranians, and 33 Turanis. The composition of foreigners gradually decreased under subsequent Mughal Emperors, as Deccanis, Bengalis, Awadhis and Gujaratis gained ground. However, due to vacant positions, the number of GA’s at any given point of time was at most 70-100.

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In the Royal Mughal Court, the rules and manners about how to behave by the visitors was laid down in the court manual “ zawabit-I huzur”. It is said that once a GA, after returning from a long campaign, slipped up on many customary rules laid down in the book, prompting Emperor Aurangzeb to order the GA to wear eyeglasses to the court for three days. Sitting six feet above the ground in an elevated balcony covered under a canopy, the Emperor in the Hall of Ordinary Audience, was separated from his subjects as per their ranks. The Royal princesses sat just below his seat, separated by a semi-circular gold railing of 5 feet height, beyond which the GA’s were seated. A similar semi-circular silver railing of 5 feet high in a larger arc separated the GA’s from Amirs and Mansabdars. It was as if to highlight the Emperor as the Sun, the GA’s as Planets, and the lesser mansabdars represented as minor heavenly bodies : to remind the audience that the Emperor was not just the center of his kingdom, but that of the whole universe.

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The famous Mansions of Shahjahanabad in 1739 were :

  • The mansion of Safdar Jang :  built by the favorite son and chosen successor Dara Shikoh during 1639-43 at the cost of Rs 4,00,000; it was the finest and the largest mansion in the city. It was damaged during 1739 Nadir Shah’s attack, later occupied by Safdar Jang from 1744-52. The nominee of Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali ruled the city from this mansion during 1755-70. After the British conquest in 1803, it was converted into quarters for garrison officer, and later into an ammunitions store.
  • The mansion of Dara Shikoh :  cited by ASI as Dara Shikoh’s library, it was later converted to the British Residence.

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  • The mansion of Ali Mardan Khan :  the master builder of Shahjahanabad, he came to India in 1637, and received the title of Amir al-Umara. In 1667, Jahan Ara Begum ordered this mansion to be cleaned and made ready for her arrival in the city.
  • The mansion of Lutfullah Khan :  an Amir in early 18th century
  • The mansion of Majd al-Daulah :  Amir under Muhammad Shah

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  • The mansion of Shaista Khan :  wazir under Shahjahan. In 1757, the Afghan invaders dug it up for buried treasure

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  • The mansion of Raushan al-Daulah :  Amir under Muhammad Shah, he was a prolific builder responsible for building two large mosques, and repairing Qadam Sharif
  • The mansion of Ghazi Ram : astrologer in Shahjahan’s court
  • The mansion of Habshi Khan :  Amir under Shahjahan and Aurangzeb

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  • The mansion of Sa’adat Khan :  the first Nawab of Oudh who resided during Muhammad Shah’s reign, and died during Nadir Shah’s attack. One of the largest havelis, it had 6 gateways. 
  • The mansion of Ismail Khan :  ( details of builder/owner unknown )
  • The mansion of Haider Quli Khan :  amir under Muhammad Shah

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  •  The mansion of Shir Afghan Khan :  an Amir in early 18th century, having poet Gulshan attached to this haveli
  •  The mansion of Sipahdar Khan :  son of Aurangzeb’s foster brother
  •  The mansion of Adinah Beg Khan : Amir under Muhammad Shah
  •  The mansion of Qamar al-Din KhanWazir of Muhammad Shah from 1724 to 1748
  •  The mansion of Muzzafar Khan :  An amir under Jahangir and Shahjahan, he was awarded the title of Khan Jahan
  •  The mansion of Mir Khan : one of the confidants of Muhammad Shah, an accomplished man, he attracted scholars, poets, musicians to his court.
  •  The mansion of Mir Hashim : ( details of builder unknown.)
  •  The mansion of Azam Khan :  Nawab during the reign of Muhammad Shah
  •  Mitiya Mahal  : ( owner unknown) Shah Jahan stayed here during the construction of the palace-fortress
  •  The mansion of Bakhtawar Khan : chronicler who wrote Mir’at al- ‘Alam, history of Aurangzeb’s first ten years of rule
  •  The mansion of Ahmed Ali Khan :  ( details of builder unknown. )
  •  The mansion of Khan Dauran :   wazir of Muhammad Shah. Occupied by Persian soldiers during Nadir Shah’s attack in 1739.
  •  The mansion of Sarbuland Khan :  Governor of Patna and Gujarat before shifting to Shahjahanabad
  •  The mansion of Ustad Hamid :  one of the master builders of the palace-fortress
  •  The mansion of Nawab Shahdi Khan :  (original builder unknown)
  •  The mansion of Sa’adullah Khan one of the finest, built by the builder Sa’adullah Khan who supervised construction of the Jami Masjid

Dis-integration of the Glorious City: 

Below is the timeline for the dis-integration of not only the city, but its society. Before 1739, the city and the mansion of the GA’s were the places where most of the population lived. After waves of destructions started from 1739, the mansions were deserted, the Amirs, the artisans and great many people fled from the city,  and most of mansions were ruined or destroyed. The mansions were converted into muhallahs by refugees and labourers. The grand mansion of Sa’adat Khan became the muhallah of oil-sellers. By 1846, there were 576 muhallahs in the walled city.

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In 1731, the city was described as “brilliant and heavily populated”; in 1747, “city is back to normal after Nadir Shah’s plunder.”; Jean Law in 1758 reported that “ the city is like a desert”; de Modave in 1775 described it as “ a city in ruins”; Polier in 1776 wrote of Delhi as “ a heap of rubble and ruin”; in 1781 Yefremov noted it as “ a destroyed city”; James Forbes in 1785 remarked “not a human being in sight”; in 1790 Mirza Mughal Beg remarked that “ most of the buildings are destroyed”; but after 1803 it changed for the better, and Lady Maria in 1811 described it as “ a populous and bustling city”.

1707 Aurangzeb’s death;  Mughal soldiers return to Delhi
1716 Heavy rains and flood
1719 Earthquake
1730 Plague
1735 Heavy rains and flood
1739 Nadir Shah’s plunder
1747 Nadir Shah murdered, succeeded by Ahmad Khan Abdali
1747 Emperor Muhammad Shah dies
1748-54 Mughal Emperor Ahmed Shah locked in harem; city controlled by the harem superintendent
1752 Ahmed Khan Abdali plunders Lahore & Delhi, takes control of Punjab
1752 Emperor summons Safdar Jang from Oudh for help
1753 Looting of Delhi by Safdar Jang’s  forces
1754 Mahrattas attack the city
1754 Emperor Ahmad Shah is succeeded by Emperor Alamgiri II
1756 Ahmed Khan Abdali plunders Lahore & Delhi for the second time, drives out Emperor Alamgiri II to live in tents at Qudsia Bagh, Persians dug up houses and shops
1759 Alamgiri II murdered
1759 Mahrattas under Sadashiv Rao capture the city
1759 Emperor Shah Jahan II crowned by the Mahrattas
1760 Emperor Shah Alam ascends the throne
1761 Ahmed Khan Abdali attacks the city for the third time, drives out the Mahrattas
1761 Najib Khan nominated as city-in-charge by Abdali
1764 Jats attack the city
1770 Najib Khan dies, Mughal Emperor Shah Alam re-captures the city
1782 Famine
1784 Thieves held traders for ransom
1784 Mahratta general Mahadji Sindhia captures the city
1787 Rohilla Afghans defeat Mahrattas and plunder the city, blind Emperor Shah Alam
1788 Mahratta general Mahadji Sindhia re-captures the city
1803 Lord Lake defeat the Mahrattas and establish British rule, the British  start city re-construction in a massive scale
1811 City revives under the British
1821 Paradise Canal at Chandni Chowk cleared up and water flows again
1828 British established cantonment in the Ridge, Metcalfe built his mansion;
1837 Bahadur Shah Zafar ascends the Mughal throne. “Delhi Renaissance” blooms under Zafar attracting poets, philosophers, literary stalwarts to the Mughal court
1857 sees another dead end:  1857 Uprising & end of the Mughal rule. Ironically, the same British who had helped re-build the city,  planned a complete demolition of Shahjahanabad but thankfully changed their decision. The inhabitants of the city however were driven out, and not allowed to re-enter for years. In such a situation, it is understandable that many of them just moved on, and never returned back. After the mass exodus of 1947 partition, and coming up of Lutyen’s New Delhi,  attachment of people for the old city became further superficial : where majority of traders would go to the old Shahjahanabad to open their shops at the morning and close and come back in the evenings, cleanliness and infrastructural development of such a place therefore was on nobody’s priority list.

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References:45

Thanks to historian Dr Swapna Liddle for leading the heritage walk  “Stories In Stone : An exploration of decorative haveli facades in Sitaram Bazar and Churiwalan neighbourhoods of Shahjahanabad” by INTACH Delhi chapter ( https://www.facebook.com/pages/Intach-Heritage-Walks/199442496810218?fref=ts) , website: http://www.intachdelhichapter.org/  and  India Habitat Center ( www.habitatworld.com )

  1. Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739, by Stephen P. Blake
  2. “A walk around Turkman Gate and Bud Shah Bula” : brochure by INTACH Delhi Chapter
  3. WSJ blog on remaking of old havelis :          http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2014/12/06/remaking-an-old-delhi-haveli-for-love/

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8 thoughts on “Doorways to the Past : Havelis of Shahjahanabad

  1. Very good! Excellent! Thanks for providing an insight into the long-gone world of grand Amirs, and a very useful Delhi history timeline too! Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

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