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From Chawri Bazar to the Lodhi Garden: A colourful tour of the seven cities of Delhi

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Jharna, meaning waterfall, is located in Mehrauli and was built as a retreat for the Mughals in the 16th century. This must have been a grand place once. Today there’s no trickle of water let alone a fall. But kids still seem to have a good time.

It was half-past three one hot August afternoon when I surfaced from the Chawri Bazar metro station in Old Delhi to join the “Street foods of Delhi” walk. Kanika Singh and her husband-to-be Awadhesh Tripathi would lead the group.

Chawri Bazar is a bustling place. All of old Delhi is. It’s a good idea to walk on the footpath, whenever you can — providing there is one — so as not to impede the motorists, scooterists, cyclists, tongawallahs or rickshawallahs.

Eye for beauty

Our first stop was a delight. Down a lane and through heavy wooden doors then up a steep flight of stairs is the 18th-century masjid of the Nawab of Rukn ud-Daula. Lord knows who he was, but he did have an eye for beauty. We stepped out onto a small terrace with intricate floral stone carvings, latticework and arches. Nuruddin, the elderly imam, was the only inhabitant that afternoon.

At street level once again, it was a one-minute walk to another hidden find called Jain Coffee House in Raghu Ganj where they have been serving fruit sandwiches to the locals for ages before their hideout was busted and made them famous: Two slices of white bread, a layer of cottage cheese and jam, and sliced fruit of your choice.

Our next stop was the Jama Masjid. It was the holy month of Ramzan and the day-long fast would be coming to an end. The courtyard outside the masjid was packed with families waiting for iftar to begin. Children were their irrepressible selves.

Main course

Having whetted our appetites, we headed towards the main course of the evening, chicken and fish fry at Haji Mohd. Hussain’s roadside establishment is a three-minute walk from the Jama Masjid. Overlooked by the Michelin pundits, Mr Hussain nevertheless does roaring business. I have no idea what the vegetarians ate.

Over the following months, I signed up with Kanika & Co. for the remainder of their schedule. New Delhi is home to over 20 million people. Some of the public transport is so crowded there is a 10% chance of one bumping into a long-lost relative. Just kidding. It is a 20% chance…. But seriously, in Delhi’s urban sprawl it is still easy to come across traces of one’s past.

Of the 3,650 ancient monuments and archaeological sites listed across the country by the Archaeological Survey of India no fewer than 174 are in Delhi itself. And these do not take into account other innumerable unlisted structures — small tombs, dargahs and graves — scattered around the city.

Tale of seven cities

Sometime in the 11th century, a chap by the name of Qutubuddin Aibak built the second city of Delhi (it has seven) and named it Mehrauli. Today it is a densely populated neighbourhood in the southern part of the metropolis. The Qutab Minar, the dargah of the 13th- century Sufi saint Bakhtiyar Kaki, the mosque of a 16th-century poet Jamali Kamali, the Jahaz Mahal, the tomb of Adham Khan, son of Akbar’s wet nurse, and Balban’s tomb are all located here. It is also the venue of an annual procession of flower sellers the Phoolwalon ki Sair.

Early morning in Chandni Chowk

Later that same August I joined a walk in Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi. I had been on the street-food walk which had started in the afternoon in the same area. Usually, during the day, Old Delhi’s narrow streets teem with people and vehicular traffic of all kinds. It is the business heart of Delhi. Wholesale and retail markets that trade in hardware, books, silver jewellery, electrical goods and electronic items, clothes and spices are to be found here. Early in the morning, though, it is a very different place. You can see the sidewalk, for starters.

In 1675, Guru Tegh Bahadur of the Sikhs was executed by Emperor Aurangzeb for leading a resistance movement against the Mughal Empire’s forceful conversion to Islam. Sometime in the 18th century, the Sikh community built a gurudwara on the site of his beheading, the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib at Chandni Chowk.

Ethnic market

Hauz Khas is a locality in south Delhi, the name of which is derived from a royal water reservoir that once fed the city. Today, the former village is an ethnic market crowded with cafés and restaurants in its narrow lanes. Surrounding the reservoir is the district and deer parks. Within the grounds are several monuments dating from the pre-Mughal period.

In September of that year, I joined the group on the “1857 Uprising: Kashmere Gate walk.” This would be my fifth heritage walk in Delhi. It was still monsoon season and the summer heat had yet to abate. It was hot and humid. But you know the saying, no one cares how hard you worked to take the photograph…

Cooler, dry ochre

I did the Kashmere Gate walk again in November. The air was cooler but by then the lush green had given way to a dry ochre. By now, Kanika & Co. were used to my wandering off and just so long as I wasn’t too behind the main group I was left to do my thing.

The Archaeological Survey of India manages a museum on the site of the Dara Shikoh library in Kashmere Gate. The building is a converted Mughal mansion. Bought by the British government in India, considerable pains were taken to convert it into a suitably British-looking structure. The most striking aspect is the row of Ionic columns and panelled glass windows reaching up to the high ceiling.

In an island in the middle of a busy road near Kashmere Gate lies what’s left of the British Magazine. During the 1857 uprising, the British officials in charge of the magazine decided to blow it up rather than let it fall into the hands of the rebels.
In an island in the middle of a busy road near Kashmere Gate lies what’s left of the British Magazine. During the 1857 uprising, the British officials in charge of the magazine decided to blow it up rather than let it fall into the hands of the rebels.

In December of that same year, I signed up for a heritage walk to Tughlakabad Fort and Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq’s tomb in south Delhi. Built by Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq in 1321, it is now in a state of ruin. However, only he is to blame for this.

Ghiyasuddin’s own goal

As the tale goes, Ghiyasuddin was so taken up with the idea of building a great fort in his name that he dictated that all labourers in Delhi should work on the fort and leave whatever else they were working on. That mightily peeved off no less a saint than Nizamuddin Auliya, whose step well came to an abrupt halt. The saint put a curse on Ghiyasuddin’s fort and, as they say, the rest is history.

The following year, the family and I made a visit to the famous and yet to be magnificently restored, Humayun’s Tomb in the neighbourhood of Nizamuddin. Today it stands in a garden complex dotted with smaller tombs. Close by is the Sundar Nursery and the shrine of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, whom we briefly mentioned earlier.

Not far from Humayun’s Tomb is the Khair-ul-Manazil. Constructed in 1561 by Maham Angah, Emperor Akbar’s wet nurse, it stands opposite the Purana Qila on Mathura Road.

Earthen pot saint

A ten-minute walk from Khair-ul-Manazil is the Dargah Matka Pir. Matka Pir roughly translates to earthen pot saint. Sometime in 1257, Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakar settled at this site from Iran. The story goes, he kept a silver pot filled with water by his side as he meditated. He used the water on anyone who approached him with a problem. Word soon spread that the Sufi mystic cured people of illness and troubles with the water from his pot.

I’ll wrap up this photo essay with what is a favourite spot for many denizens of Delhi – Lodhi Garden. Spread over 90 acres, it is popular with morning walkers from all walks of life. Some come to meditate, others to hold their “prabhat shakhas” or morning meetings, some come to do yoga and yet others to walk their pets.

The gear

Most of these photographs were taken between 2012-15 with the Panasonic GF1 and a 1.7/20mm lens. The photograph of Adilabad was taken with a Panasonic LX100. Lodhi Garden photos were taken in 2005 with a DSLR system.

Read more from Farhiz Karanjawala

14 COMMENTS

  1. Lovely essay trip, blown away by reflection shot tomb, and that pretty little girl with mother paying respects. Are those pots in trees empty or is their offering inside? India what a gorgeous country.

    • Thank you John. The earthen pot is the offering, it would be empty inside I think. What makes one wonder is how and who placed them so high. There must have been a ladder somewhere….

  2. What a wonderful series of images, and the story.

    I love the rich diversity of the images, the vivid colours, and like John above the reflection shot is amazing. However I love the image with the light rays in the park, and the person walking across dressed in red.

    Thank you for sharing these memories with us.

  3. I’m with Dave (above) on the second last image of the light rays in the park.
    Simply a personal preference I know, but for me it’s a standout special. Light, composition and the flash of red.

  4. An excellent set of images and a wonderful story. I am with Dave and Wayne. My favourite image is the second last image. Thanks for sharing

  5. “..Can’t quite say what drew me to this scene but it was a darn sight more interesting than Metcalfe’s Folly.” Can’t quite say what drew me to this scene? ..Cartier-Bresson’s “Picnic on the banks of the Marne”.

    I think the word for these is “gorgissimo!” (..is that a word?) and “Sightseers at the Qutab Minar in Mehrauli” is what paint and paintbrushes and cameras were created for!

  6. Very nicely illustrated story, reminds me to my monthly trips to Dehli in the years 1995-2000. Guided by our colleagues from Dehli we had excellent dinners at hidden places. Qutab Minar and the mosque were close to our office. Thank you very much.

  7. A fine series of pictures Farhiz. Quite overwhelming to European eyes. The penultimate one has lovely lighting and is very atmospheric. You also prove that regardless of camera, you can capture some informative pictures.

    • Thank you, David. These were taken before my X Vario days. The GF1 was partly an experiment to use a single lens and camera for a length of time. It was also the last time I used a DSLR. Not going back to those again I think.

  8. A lovely series of images, Farhiz, with so much of Delhi for us to enjoy as we here (in UK) endure a wet and cold February. Your essay too is well written and peels back the many layers of history over the centuries, including our own British layer. I too loved the penultimate picture but many others as well, particularly the silhouette before the marble screen in the dargah and the street scenes. Thank you!

    • Thank you, David. I’m relieved that you and others didn’t find the history too much or too boring. Names and dates can be a bit much to take. As for that second-last picture, let’s put it down to photographer’s luck, but I’m happy that other pictures resonated with you because as with any other city it’s the people who make it what it is.

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