Of Ramlila, Mughals and kullas: Into Shahjahanabad's wondrous alleys
The city that Abu Sufiyan and Ashok live in.
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Shahjahanabad — the walled city — has always fascinated me and I love spending time there, trying to recreate its history. So when two of its residents offered to take me on a tour of their city, I was thrilled.
Abu Sufiyan, a young digital marketing strategist, is a descendant of the Mughals. His great grandmother belonged to the Mughal family and was one of the residents of the fort, and displaced after the revolt of 1857. His great grandfather came from Multan. Post-1947, they shifted from a huge haveli near Kashmere Gate to the Suiwalan area.
Ashok, another resident of the walled city, is in his mid-forties and a freelancer; four generations of his family have lived in Shahjahanabad. The British brought his great grandfather here and settled him in Roshanpura, the designated area for the Mathur Kayasthas, who were the hereditary scribes, bookkeepers and administrators of the Mughal Empire.
The other areas that the Mathurs lived in were Chira Khana, Kinari bazar and Chehal Puri. Ashok tells me the famous singer Mukesh was from Chehal Puri.
At the Hauz Qazi mosque. Photo: Rana Safvi
The place we started our walk from was Churi Walan and, as the name suggests, bangle makers lived here in the 17th century. Ashok tells me Shahjahanabad was called shahr and even today those families which had moved out from this part of the walled city to New Delhi or Noida say they are going to the shahr when they visit the area. This is, perhaps, an abbreviation for Shahr Panah or city of refuge as Shahjahanabad was called in the Mughal era.
As we walk down the narrow alleys of Shahr Panah, stopping to look at the havelis and shops, I get a peep into its culture.
Abu Sufiyan tells me that till he moved to Chandigarh for higher studies, he had no idea Hindu-Muslim differences existed. Inside the walled city, they all lived like one big family. Ashok says that if one has to experience community living, one must study the walled city.
He shakes his head in sadness, and says, "Hell is creeping into our heaven as differences are now sought to be emphasised, not embraced."
The names and architectural style of the havelis themselves describe a glorious past. "Just see the wrought-iron balconies and columns of this haveli, it's a clear giveaway that it was built in the colonial era," Ashok explains.
Sawari — a procession of Ram, Sita and Lakshman at Shahjahanabad. Photo: Ashok Mathur
As we pass a halwai's shop readying hot samosas, Ashok points to the savoury "andarsa", which he calls Sawan ki goli (monsoon drops) — once upon a time, it was cooked only in the monsoons.
We are now walking in the neighbourhood of Sitaram Bazar. A dilapidated wall, some rusted iron gates and a huge tree growing inside what seems to be an empty lot come into view. On all sides are small shops.
"This is the Haksar Haveli," Ashok tells me. "Jawahar Lal Nehru got married to Kamla Kaul in this house." I wonder why the Haksars or the Nehru family haven't tried to look after the haveli.
A big square looms ahead. "On the right is the area of the Banias and Kashmiris and on the right, the Muslim neighbourhood." We walk towards the right and as I admire a lovely red gate, which — like everything else in this area — has definitely seen better days.
A local resident joins us and tells us this is "Nehruji's sasural" (Jawaharlal Nehru's wife's home). The Kaul haveli, where Kamla Kaul grew up and her baraat stayed.
There's a palpable sense of pride that they hosted the first prime minister's wedding.
Sufiyan is a gifted photographer. He is busy clicking the doorways that we pass. There's one particularly beautiful stone doorway with floral carvings on the top and two finely sculpted gatekeepers.
In front of it are iron rails, piles of wooden boxes and a vendor selling his wares. "You know this door was intact a month ago when I passed it." A crack is clearly visible now. I wonder if we really deserve our heritage given how uncaring and downright callous we are about it.
It's Navratri and there are carts selling Puja ingredients. "If you keep this cowrie in your safe, it brings prosperity," says the vendor. We go into Chaurasi Ghante ka Mandir, a temple dating back to the Mughal era. The street is full of varieties of food stalls, with absolutely delicious aromas wafting the air. Abu Sufiyan tells me this is because of the Sawari — the Ramlila procession that is taken out during Dussehra.
"If Matia Mahal is the place to go to during Ramzan, Hauz Qazi and Sitaram Bazar are a must during Dussehra," says Ashok. He points to a beautiful stone facade, with a lovely pool and masjid inside. We walk in to see a courtyard — which was a garden built in the 18th century — and find that the descendents of the original owners still live in it.
It's Navratri and there are carts selling Puja ingredients. Photo: Rana Safvi
Inside the garden, a small place for prayer has been turned into a beautiful private mosque with a charming pool for ablutions. The son of the house tells us their family history. He is the descendant of Malak Yaar Parran, a 13th century saint whose shrine rests near Pragati Maidan.
Just outside the courtyard-house, a group of daily labourers plays a board game on the street, with few pebbles and a bottle cap. When I ask, they tell me they are playing what is called Baggi Bagh. I find it difficult to understand, so one of them explains: "Yeh Ludo ka muamla hai (it's same as a Ludo)."
Ashok tells me that the mashk or waterskin carriers would gather here in the evenings and his grandmother would send them off with some money. The mashk carriers walk in the front, reverentially sprinkling water on the streets on which the carriage of Rama, Sita and Lakshman will pass. They are Muslims who have performed this task ever since Bahadur Shah Zafar established the first Ramlila committee and the first ever Sawari walked in Shahjahanabad.
Sufiyan points to a beautiful balcony of a corner house in the Nai Sarak area —his grandmother used to stand there with other women from the neighbourhood to watch the Sawari go by, he tells me.
Now, Ashok takes us into a narrow alley lined with iron shutters. These were the baithaks [assembly rooms] of Roshanpura, where the Mathur families gathered and discussed everything under the sun, settled disputes and arranged marriages. Now the families have shifted out to more spacious and modern areas and these baithaks are mostly godowns, resulting in the loss of knowledge of family traditions.
At the end of the alley, he shows us his grandmother's haveli. It was known as the Madarsa because a madarsa was run on the first floor. The courtyard was so big that at any given point, 20-30 children would be playing cricket in it. The family kept an open house, as was usual in the walled city.
We walk towards Ashok's house and pass a lane that houses a mandir that Sufiyan had taken me to the previous day. This is the ChitrGupt temple with Urdu verses inscribed on its walls; even the entrance has an Urdu inscription describing the construction of the temple.We pass by a man sitting at the entrance of a haveli.
"Meet Arun, he and his ancestors have been feeding the Mathurs for many generations. Arun, please send some kullas to the house."
Ashok now knocks on a doorway. He wants to take us to a dargah, which he says is the centre of Shahjahanabad. In fact, his house and the dargah share a wall. A woman from the family of traditional caretakers of the shrine comes out and takes us inside. Ashok prostrates himself at the shrine while Sufiyan and I recite the fatiha for the saint and make our supplication.
The caretaker points to a jamun tree, known to be full of birds before a mobile tower was built close to it — today, the dargah misses their chirping.
Next door is Sharif's meat shop. Ashok describes how the Mathur men, in their freshly-starched kurta pajamas, would come to buy meat here; when they couldn't, the Sharif would just deliver it to their homes.
We now pass a beautiful haveli gate, now shut. Most of the Mathurs in the area moved away some years ago.
Kullas at the walled city. Photo: Rana Safvi
"There's no proper car parking, the areas and lanes are crowded and full of godowns. Youngsters don't want to live here. Many families moved in the '50-'60s to New Delhi," I am told.
Sufiyan, whose family is unwilling to leave their roots, tells me how difficult it is for young women from Shahjahanabad to get marriage proposals from outside. "People presume we are backward and conservative. In fact, they don't even want to marry their daughters to the men here as they feel they will not be able to adjust."
In Chandigarh, he faced religious prejudice that he feels changed with time. Here, he experiences social prejudices from those who live outside the walled city and think it's only a fun place for feast, but not for living.
We enter a beautifully preserved haveli that belongs to Ashok. His cousin, Suresh sitting there greets me with a Salam Alaikum. I fold my hands in a namaste.
We meet his parents. Ashok tells us how his extended family would come to see the Sawari and Arun's father would send in innumerable kullas and chat.
They would pay a day or so later, money was never an issue.
Andarsa ki goliyan. Photo: Rana Safvi
His cousin, Suresh Mathur, tells me that Shahjahanabad is the only city where three badshahs walked together: Ram, Hussain and a Jain diety, as processions of Ramlila, Muharram and a Jain festival usually coincided and were taken out at fixed times during the day to avoid any clash.
And then we walk towards Dariba Kalan. Pramod has a bread pakora stall in the same place his father sold nan khatai in colonial India. "Now people are health conscious and don't like eating sweets, so we changed to this. It is made with a paste of mung dal," he says. And I can testify to its taste — it was yum.
An elderly Muslim gentleman on a motorcycle stops in front of the stall and calls out: "Ram Ram Pramod ji". Pramod returns his greeting, and hands over a packet of bread pakora to him. Ashok has some bread pakora packed for my driver.
Both Sufiyan and Ashok walk me back to my car, and I come home with enough memories for a lifetime.