Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review - Chandni Chowk – The Mughal City of Old Delhi by Swapna Liddle

“The royal mind…pays full attention to the planning and construction…the majority of buildings he designs himself, and on the plans prepared by skilful architects, after long consideration he makes appropriate alternations and amendments…..” Abdul Hamid Lahori, chief historian of Shahjahan’s reign. (p.3 Chandni Chowk)

Mirza Shahabuddin Baig Muhammad Khan Shah Jahan, third son of Jahangir, also known as Salim, and grandson of the great Mughal emperor, Akbar, ascended the throne on 14th February 1628 in Agra. Akbar had presided over some remarkable developments in arts, paintings and architecture, but his grandson Shah Jahan, was obsessed with monuments and architecture, like his great grandfather Timur, who built the city of Samarkand.

It is during his reign that Shah Jahan commissioned a number of buildings, best known among them the Taj Mahal for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Once the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan’s attention went on to build another monument like the Agra Fort, but at a much larger scale. A mission was sent around to find the next spot and Delhi, by the Yamuna River was chosen to be where the Red Fort was to be constructed. On 12th May, 1639, the foundation stone was laid, exactly 368 years ago!

In her book, Chandni Chowk, author and historian Swapna Liddle recounts with vivid detail the making of the historic, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site from 2007, Red Fort , and the growth of the area around it to be known as Shahjahanabad, which is now called Chandini  Chowk.  The book has borrowed from her unpublished Ph.D thesis in some chapters like 4 and 5. The scholar and historian of the 19th Century, Delhi, has in this book, covered the entire period of Shah Jahan’s reign in Delhi and the final take over by his own son Aurangzeb, when Shah Jahan fell quite ill and died on May 9, 1666. Mayhem ruled thereafter, as Aurangzeb beheaded Dara Sikoh, the eldest son and heir apparent of Shah Jahan much to the grief and disgust of the people of Shahjahanabad. Then until 1809, a reign of instability continued till the British take over in 1809.

What I especially liked in the book, is the ‘feel of Shahjahanabad’ and it gave me a taste of the culture of the place and although the Mughal women were much in pardah then as well, when you look at this fact that  the area called Chandni Chowk, was designed mainly by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara.

All the important mosques in the city were built by members of the royal family. Somewhat to the west of Fatehpuri mosque…which was built by Fatehpuri Begam, was Sirhindi Masjid, built by Sirhindi Begam. At the northern end of Faiz Bazar was the Akbarabadi Masjid, built by Akbarabadi Begum. All the ladies were wives of Shahjahan, and were known by appellations that referred to the towns where they came from, instead of having their personal names taken in public.” (p.17, Chandni Chowk)

There was a general hustle bustle around Shahjahanabad, alive from morning to night with activities – jewellery, elaborately embroidered clothing, horses, horse-cart, entertainment halls, rich men’s havelis, and the like. As the Mughal empire weakened over the years more people came from outside and made their living quarters there. It was however, Nadir Shah, who traveled from Turk and decisively defeated the Mughal force. Since Shah Jahan, it really never was the same. Gradually, in 1809, the British wanting to increase their territory came into Red Fort and took the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah and put him in exile in Burma. After many years of ups and downs, an era of stability reigned under the Company’s Rule, to be disturbed by the 1857 Mutiny, which started in Meerat and continued briefly in Delhi at Chandni Chowk. Soon the British were to make their new Capital City in Delhi and they would put a cover on Shahjahanabad as ‘unfavourable’ for their Imperial capital city.

The author, Swapna Liddle, has packed in a lot in this one book and really it must be read, if you love Delhi. But more so, if you want to preserve in your mind and on your bookshelf/Kindle, the history which is fast erasing out as new politics spread across the country.

I quote from a review which best describes what has gone into the book, “Swapna Liddle draws upon a wide variety of sources, such as the accounts of Mughal court chroniclers, travellers’ memoirs, poetry, newspapers and government documents, to paint a vivid and dynamic panorama of the city from its inception to recent times.”(Ref: HERE )

Parting lines, I would so much love to quote from the book –

A famous courtesan of the times was Nur Bai, who enjoyed a rich lifestyle ….Apart from being an accomplished singer; she had a critical taste for poetry, brilliant conversational skills and an extremely sophisticated manner… It is rumoured that many had squandered their fortunes for the pleasure of her company. Those less talented could rely on sensationalism. One courtesan was notorious for her style of dress, for instead of wearing any garment on her lower limbs, she would have her skin painted to mimic fabric. This would then show through her sheer outer clothing, and until closely scrutinized, would give the appearance of a garment.”   (p.59, Chandni Chowk)

Just imagine! She had set up a fashion we are following now, 368 years later!

Publisher: Speaking Tiger 
Pages: 176 with Notes
Price: Hard Cover: INR 300

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