Historical Charm of Old Delhi

The name Old Dilli or Purani Dilli carries many sentiments for the people who have resided in Delhi for a long time. Be it the bazaars of Chandni Chowk or the authentic cuisines found in the busy streets of Jama Masjid, Old Dilli has certainly lived up to its hype for any explorer. The origins of Old Dilli would equally fascinate people, given its rich historical appeal. So what is the historical story of this mesmerizing place? Let’s find out.
The Red Fort was the imperial palace during Shahjahan’s time. Source: The Indian Express

The Red Fort was the imperial palace during Shahjahan’s time. Source: The Indian Express

The original name of the region encompassing present-day Old Delhi is Shahjahanabad. As the name suggests, Shahjahanabad was built by the Mughal Emperor, Shahjahan and it was the last important city by an imperial ruler in medieval India.

In 1638 AD, Shahjahan decided to found a new city, and this decision was guided by two factors. The first reason is driven by sentimental considerations. Shahjahan wanted to distinguish himself from his predecessors and create something beautiful that would make him memorable to his future generations. The second reason is guided by pragmatic considerations. Shahjahan realized that Agra, the capital that he inherited from his father, was becoming increasingly unsuitable due to erosion, overpopulation and overbuilding.

In 1639, Shahjahan selected a place somewhere in the middle of Agra and Lahore because it served as the Axis Mundi (the centre of the earth and the intersect of the celestial and the mundane). As the Axis Mundi, Shahjahanabad would be the Dar-al-Mulk (seat of the empire) of Shahjahan as well as the Markaz-i-Dairah Islam (centre of the circle of Islam).

The city became a victim of the turbulent times that followed soon after when Aurangzeb usurped the throne. The geographical exploitation and manipulation of the British have also altered several aspects of the city.

Shahjahanabad in the present day is called Old Delhi because it represents a cultural and architectural break from the architecture of New Delhi, most of which was designed by the British.

Although a lot has changed in the city of Shahjahanabad since its inception in the 17th century, the hustle-bustle and the picturesque view continue to attract a large of travellers even today. One only has to go to Old Delhi to immerse in its wonderful past and relive the glory days of the Mughal period!

One interesting aspect about the plan of Shahjanabad is that it seems to have been based on a design from the ancient Hindu texts like Vastu Sastras (rules of architecture).

Shahjahanabad was initially a walled city and the walls were originally made of mud before they were replaced with red sandstone. Enclosed within the walls were two hillocks, the Jhujalal Pahari and the Bhujalal Pahari.

The Bhujalal Pahari occupied a spot near the centre of the enclosure and this, later on, became the site for the great Friday Mosque, or the Jama Masjid that we know today.

The entire city centred around this mosque and the imperial fort/palace of Shahjahan.

The imperial palace is more popularly known as the Red Fort today. Within the walls of this fort, we find the Public Audience Hall, where much of the public celebration took place. Shah Jahan’s magnificent marble throne was installed in this Hall.

The angle of the Public Audience Hall and the Emperor’s throne, in particular, was set with such precision that the emperor faced the heart of the entire city of Shahjahanabad!

This was, perhaps, a symbolic attempt of Shahjahan to present himself as a just ruler who was directly in touch with his subjects.

To the north of the Imperial Palace, was the Shah Burj or the King’s Tower. To the south of Shah Burj was the emperor’s Private Audience Hall, where the marvellous peacock throne of Shahjahan was installed. The Private Audience Hall had an inscription that seemed to indicate that the place was like a “paradise on earth”.

The entire city of Shahjahanabad was divided into Bazaars, one of the most important being Chandni Chowk which we are quite familiar with. The chief architect and designer of this market were Jahanara Begum, the emperor’s own daughter.

Jahanara Begum also built a garden known as Begum ka Bagh which was a sight to behold. Many travellers have commented on the beauty of this garden which was like a safe haven for women and children. It is believed that Jahanara Begum organized many festivals in this garden, most notably the Pankhon ka Mela, which was exclusively attended by the ladies.

Sadly, this beautiful garden was not preserved and hence, all we can find today at this spot is a big market for electrical goods.

There used to be another mosque, built by Shahjahan’s first wife, Akbarbadi Mahal, in the southern part of the city. It is believed that the emperor used this mosque for daily prayers until the Jama Masjid was completed in 1656. The imperial women contributed to many other aspects of the city’s architecture, including gardens, Havelis, etc., and some of these exist even today.

The dazzling display of splendour and wealth at Shahjanabad, attracted many newcomers into the city when it was founded. The markets were filled with craftsmen, traders, and other kinds of commercial groups who catered to the needs of the buyers.

An illustration of Chandni Chowk from 1867. Source: Columbia University

An illustration of Chandni Chowk from 1867. Source: Columbia University

An illustration of Shahjahan, the founder of Shahjahanabad. Source: Pinterest

An illustration of Shahjahan, the founder of Shahjahanabad. Source: Pinterest

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