Ek roz apni rooh se poocha, Dilli kya hai?, to yun jawab mein keh gaye: yeh duniya maano jism hai aur Dilli uski jaan

(One day I asked my soul, what is Delhi? it replied: Suppose this world is a body, then Delhi is its heart).

This famous couplet by Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib explains the walled city – Delhi to its core.

In this “seething present”, Delhi is bigger, more sprawling than ever. Officially called the National Territory of Delhi, it is the second-largest urban area according to the UN and is home to more than 25 million people. And in the heart of this megacity lies Purani Dilli, Old Delhi, where the tale of glory and ruins is perceived.

Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021

Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Vanshika jain
Profession: Student
Country: Delhi

Born and raised in Delhi, here I decided to recite this tale of my hometown. A tale of glory, ruins, emotions of not built but of unbuilt as well. Inextricably intertwined with Delhi’s complicated present is her violent history – a history of invasions, assaults, and even massacres. It has been “late lamented” many times through the centuries, yet she still lives. Each time it was razed to the ground, it came back to life with startling vivacity. Nothing dies in Delhi, the ghosts of its past lives roam the streets or bide their time in half-ruined buildings, and they rise up to speak in a thousand stories that are still told about the city.

Holding a strong historical background, Delhi was ruled by many powerful rulers. From the Hindu kings and Mughal Sultans to the Overpowering of the British, the reins of the city kept shifting from one ruler to another. The soil of the city smells of blood, love, and sacrifice for the nation.

The city has a reputation for throwing rulers off the throne, including the British to the rulers of current political parties that had the honor to lead a free India. The flag of victory rose high in 1947, when after independence New Delhi was officially coined as the capital of India. On the other side of Delhi, Old Delhi is the most historic part of the metropolis with its origin dating back to the times of Mughals.

Talking about heritage, it is not just a resource or tangible attribute from the past generation but also lies in the intangible values. Heritage is everything like objects, structures, artifacts, paintings to anything like values, culture, tradition, ritual, the sense of place or community attachment, an everyday lifestyle of the folks. To present this living fabric of heritage through a book of popular history is daunting, therefore, and must necessarily come from a place of deeper understanding.

When I talk about the heart of Delhi and its heritage, where resides its essence and charm, I see a network of narrow lanes and cacophonous alleyways. These lanes sing the stories of the gone and paint down the emotions of people, food, culture, values.

Space is nothing but a void without its people.

So is the case with our Old Delhi. The remains of not just intangible but also tangible resources highlight its heritage. An old man, sitting at a chabutra outside some old haveli, singing the tunes Ghalib to once again escape the urban sprawl of present-day, is where I sense the true heritage.

The spatial hierarchy of old Delhi

Built with Red Fort on one end, the flowing Yamuna on its periphery, with temples in almost each lane, Digambar Jain Mandir, Gurudwara, citadel, and the mosque, surrounded by the bazaars spreading out to the sub lanes with the daunting smell of spices and vibrant textures over the wall.

The urban morphology of the area revolves around densely populated lowly rise a ramshackle building, dilapidated havelis along with the heritage sites and historic buildings. It is the tale of this ‘walled city of Shajanabad’ (present-day called Old Delhi) – where it is impossible to move or even stand still without touching at least five people around you.

The city shares numerous architectural features from cities of medieval times, such as Lucknow, Hyderabad, and Lahore.

Planning of the city is based on the distribution of spaces according to human comfort. The divisions of moholla, gali, bazaars now are alive only in the songs and couplets. Present-day, Old Delhi is a commercial hub with glass ceiling showrooms to the bazaars with stalls on road.

Many of the inhabitants have left the city, leaving behind a dark concrete jungle with barred wires at every node of the street.

I walk down these lanes, smelling the diversity of the built with the unbuilt, and question myself how did we fail so badly.

Alterations to the original construction, vandalism, and growing commercialization have had an adverse impact on the Haveli.

Addressing the deteriorating condition of havelis, which once used to be the pride of old Delhi, where once used to live the royal families of Mughal emperor are now abandoned structures, home to the melancholy of the birds, to fill in the silences. Significant architectural elements of the era are now just mountains of rubble settling in the corner.

Bricks have fallen down, colonnades stand alone with no roof to hold, termites have eaten the wooden frames. Over the years, the intricacy of the Mughal architecture and detailed carvings have somewhere vanished under the layers of frozen dust. The angans or the courtyards, which once were filled with darbars and music of the folks, now have been silent for years.

Most of the haveli fall under private ownership, belonging to the descendants of the bygones. Sadly, more than half of these owners have left them to die in misery. One such haveli is the in Gali Khazanchi, Khazanchi ki Haveli, belonging to the treasurers of the Mughal emperors, the bookkeepers, the structure connects to the red fort via an underground tunnel and have fallen prey to the dysfunctioning and no maintenance from the authorities.

An amalgamation of the old with new

Now when we talk about preserving, we think of redevelopment, plans to curate something new. A step towards to redevelopment of Chandi Chowk, preserving the lost heritage?

I here, raise this question of what development means in the context of Delhi?

Construction of the modern structures, which does not blend with the original palette is only damage to the heritage.

The walled city is fading away amidst modern development and rapid urbanization. The glass showrooms, the modern building material palette, billboards and advertisements overshadowing the structures, sound of the rickshawalas have been replaced by the horns of ola and uber, chain of fast-food restaurants overlapping the voice of chaatvala roaming in some unknown lane of unknown mohalla, a wall with vibrant colored graffiti among vintage colored havelis looks misplaced.

Onto the brighter side, a few havelis have been restored and redeveloped into restaurants, cafes, or hotels for the tourists. The current plan of redevelopment of Chandi Chowk brings out a modern intervention with the approach of preserving the origins.

But why restrict the sense of preserving the heritage by just developments, by drawing out plans on paper and implementing the modernity into everything and anything. Here I mean to suggest another approach of preserving the entire neighborhood or gali and opening it for tourists to symbolize the heritage, finding stories in ruins, and unfolding the unknowns to get into a deeper understanding of the heritage.

In this era of modernity, while growing and running towards new we have left a core part of what used to be called ‘sone ki chiriya’. The place and its people have evolved and so explains the metamorphosis of ‘The Walled City’, Purani Dilli.

In the end, to me, Delhi is not just a city, it’s an emotion. From metro to rickshawalas, a megacity with its heart filled with too many unknown stories to unfold. It will best live in Ghalib and those people still living unknown lanes of unknown mohallas.


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