A reader’s reflective account on “Chandni Chowk: The Mughal city of Old Delhi” authored by Swapna Liddle
The book “Chandni Chowk” was published by Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Limited in collaboration with YES Institute in 2017. The “Walled City/Old Delhi” located in the present urban landscape of National capital region was once a dream project of a monarch to establish it as a new capital for mighty Mughal empire. The oriental accounts referred the term “Old Delhi” for the thirteenth century Mamluk capital Mehrauli, the first city of Delhi. Before the establishment Luytens Delhi, the walled city of Shahjahanabad has a privilege of the term “New Delhi” associated with it. The authors Swapna Liddle treatise on Mughal city of “Shahjahanabad” is a fascinating account articulating its formation, culture, rise & fall integrated with the history of its political transition & turmoil down the centuries. The book started with the story of its birth under Shahjahan, passing over to the puritan Aurangzeb, vulnerable days under forgotten Mughals, its cultural zenith, devastation during the mutiny, post-mutiny transition and its acclimatization with the twentieth century. The rich scholarly content with fine contextual details reflected in the manuscript is reflection of authors doctorate on eighteenth-century Delhi & her great experience of conducting heritage walks in Shahjahanabad. The description of the key events by citing accounts of the contemporaries such as narrations of Bernier and Mannuci in chapter one & two gave the reader an alluring engagement during the journey of exploring the book. The references were cited in the text as superscript in a continuous manner with the diverse range of references presented as notes at the end of the manuscript. This style facilitates the flow of the reading while maintaining the scholarly practice of in-text citation. Embedding heart-rending verses and their translation of contemporary poets like Sauda and Mir provided the readers to explore the plight faced by the citizens of Shahjahanabad during the days of turmoil. The creativity lies in outlining every sociocultural and religious transition of the nineteenth century in a succinct manner. For example, in a concise way schism created between grandson of Shah Waliullah Dehalvi and all the other traditional scholars of Zafar’s Delhi over basic beliefs of Islam were elaborated. It was the newly evolved puritan ideologues from the deserts of central Arabia imbibed by Ismail Dehalvi. All the great scholars of Delhi including Sadaruddin Azurda and Maulana Munawwaruddin, the maternal grandfather of Azad rejected it and they came to refute Ismail in a long debate held at Jama Masjid by Maulana Fazle Haqq in 1831. The chapter “The East India Company’s administration” also depicted vivid description of the cultural, and educational renaissance going on in 19th century Delhi. The chapter “The Revolt and Aftermath” is an account presenting the plight of Shahjahanabad and its citizen under the hands of mutineers and then by British forces after 14 September 1857. How the social order has been uprooted in the midst of the chaos and massacre, the author cited the heart-wrenched verses of “Zahur”.
Sada tanur Jhonke tha jo ladka nanbai ka
bhara hai iske sar me ab to Sauda Mirzai ka
The street cook’s lad, who did nothing but stoke the fire,
Now he fancies himself a Mirza
The last part of the same chapter articulated the response, growth and modifications happened in the plan of the Shahjahanabad during post-1857 era. The second last chapter sketched the transition happened in the city from Mughal capital to the British capital. The author focused on the modern infrastructural changes, upcoming civic bodies, coronation durbar, political winds of twentieth-century Delhi and demographic shift with the mass movement of immigrants from the newly created state of Pakistan. The book ended with the last chapter titled “Shahjahanabad Today”. This chapter is a wonderful connection of present vibrant, encroached and overcrowded “Purani Dilli” with its glorious past. The Chandni Chowk though no more left with a pool reflecting the moonlight but its eateries, culture, shops and worship places have the lot to offer for the visitors. The origin of the localities with its translated names like Katras (Commercial enclaves) and Kuchas ( lanes) is helpful for the English readers. The addition of nineteenth-century paintings with each chapter add the rich visual perspective to the text. For me as a reader, the “Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Delhi” is a fascinating journey that also provided much insightful learning on the title. Its an account talking on culture, society, ethnic composition, literary & political environment intermingled with the historical timeline of Shahjahanabad from its birth up to present days.
Swapna Liddle account will provide you a wonderful journey to the days mesmerized by the 18th-century poet, Mir Taqi Mir.
Dilli jo ek Shahar tha aalam me mein inthikhab
rahte the muntakhab hi jahan rozgar ke
There was a city, famed throughout the world,
Where dwelt the chosen spirits of the age
Note: The English translation of the poetic verses has been taken from authors account.