Progress consists not in destroying yesterday but preserving its essence, which had the strength to create the better today. — Ortega Y Gasset

With the onset of rapid and unbridled urbanization ofShajahanabad – once the capital city of Mughals,the heritage has since been disappearing at a daunting rate. Despite some efforts from the local government and organisations, the urban cultural heritage is being neglected and historic buildings are either transformed beyond recognition or obliterated over the years by unauthorised encroachments.

Winner | RTF Essay Writing Competition May 2021

Category: Essay: Complex Pasts – Diverse Futures
Participant: Nabeel Nusrat
Profession: Architect
City: New Delhi

One such fascinating urban precinct in Shahjahanabad is Khari Baoli which is arguably Asia’s largest spice market. This historical place is comfortably poised at the western end of Chandni Chowk and usually escapes the exploration radar of most of the travellers visiting the walled city.

The story of Khari Baoli goes back to the year 1551 when the foundations of a Baoli were laid by Khwaja Abdullah Lazaar Qureshi during the reign of Islam Shah, son of Sher Shah Suri. Later in the year 1650, Fatehpuri Bazaar was built by Fatehpuri Begum (one of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s five wives)adjacent to the Fatehpuri Mosque. It was named as Khari Baoli (Khari or Khara meaning salty and Baoli meaning stepwell), the saline stepwell from which travellers used to bathe in or quench their animals’ thirst.

As time progressed, the drive for rapid urban growth resulted in a less equitable urban development.Khari Baoli was declared as a Central Business District according to the Zonal Development Plan (1856 – 65) paving way for development and that’s exactly when things started to go haywire.As it’s reputation became more widespread, innumerable amount of traders and vendors flocked the Khari Baoli market to set up their businesses, bringing more influx of labourers in search of work and consumersin search of quality products which over the years transformed it exponentially resulting in destruction of the unique fabric of this space.

But there are still some important historical landmarks that stood the test of time and are now taken as a point of reference by explorers when identifying this space as a part of heritage.

Exploring Khari Baoli
When I got down from the rickshaw at Fatehpuri Mosque, I stood there in dismay and observed the facade which has been illegally encroached upon by the users along these years.

Fatehpuri Mosque was built in the year 1650 by Fatehpuri Begum. The British auctioned the mosque after the 1857 war to Rai Lala Chunnamal who preserved it. Later, in the year 1877 it was acquired by the government in exchange of four villages and was restored to Delhi Durbar. The mosque is built using red sandstone and has a fluted dome with mahapadma and kalash on the top. Flanked by minarets, the mosque has a traditional design with the prayer hall having seven-arched openings and has single and double-storeyed structures on both sides.

At present only the entranceof the mosque is visible, interposed between various commercial hoardings, trying to prove its historical importance. Upon entering the mosque I reached the central courtyard and frankly this is one of the few breathable spacescramped up betwixt the congested built form of Shahjahanabad.

Next halt was Haveli Haider Quli which has been addressed in a lot of articles and books but now it’s just a ramshackle building with a huge entrance that yawns in the face of history.Haveli Haider Quli was the residence of Haider Quli who was in charge of the Mughal artillery.The Haveli once had acentral courtyard and a park but with time it was hemmed in by a rabbit warren of permanent and temporary shops for various businesses. The Baoli which gave this place its namelies buried under the main road of the market. Sadly, there is no trace of the Baoli but after asking around with the local shopkeepers, I came to know of an opening of the lost Baoli from the godown of Shop no. 136 which once used to be the part of the Haveli but is barely accessible at present.

The local shopkeepers suggested me to visit the Gadodia Market which is the epicentre of Khari Baoli. As soon as I entered the Khari Baoli street the strong whiff of spicesassaulted my olfactory receptors from everywhere which resulted in a sneezing fit while I weaved my way through a cluster of handcarts. Handcarts are a distinctive feature of this place and also the biggest issue which needs to be resolved.

Finallyon reaching the entrance of Gadodia market,I noticedtraces of tinkering on the facade which has changed it’s identity beyond recognition.Gadodia Market was one of the original mixed used developments in the city designed by Seth Laxmi Narayan Gadodia in the 1920’s with a mix of commerce, storage and residences. The four floor structure is a heritage site and originally had a central courtyard. The design of this structure is rich which is a fusion of colonial and Indian architecture with repeating four-petaled floral patterns, ornate carved brackets supporting overhanging eaves and lovely raised canopies at the corners of the flat roof.In the past couple of years,the central courtyard has been encroached upon byshoddily built structures leaving a narrow alley like path running around it which often gets choked with handcarts with porters waiting for goods to be loaded or unloaded.

I gradually climbed the narrow staircase and reached the terrace of Gadodia market to get to a better vantage point to survey Khari Baoli’s full glory and all I could see was order in a seeming chaos which made me contemplate how the public realm functions in a highly congested space likethis.

The terrace was once used for Patangbaazi (Kite flying), Kabootarbaazi  (Pigeon rearing) and for drying spices and vegetables but now it’s just a grimy space vandalized by anti social behavior.

As I moved further along the street towards Sadar Bazaar, I observed many heritage structures struggling to even get noticed amidst an ever changing urban landscape which has deviated from the heritage it was once celebrated for.

Plausible Interventions

In context to the history of this whole precinct, there is a need to restore the original essence that Khari Baoli represented. So striking a balance between heritage and end-user needs is essential. There are myriad of possibilities and rational interventions that can augment this space to make it aesthetically pleasing and historically relevant.

The built fabric in and around the precinct is very dense with fine grain and labyrinth of narrow alleys so creating a clear ground and air space for uninterrupted views along the street is a must to provide a sense of direction and openness.

Traffic congestion is a major issue caused by confused traffic and pedestrian flow resulting in bottlenecks at the nodes. In order to solve this issue, creating physical permeability through continuous movement and visual permeabilitythrough landscaping should be incorporated.Traffic congestion is caused by handcarts and to solve that a separate handcart lane with designated loading and unloading bays at uniform intervals will define movement paths.In addition to this, creating spatial distribution according to the user requirements will result in a pedestrian friendly environment. Traffic regulation on a time based uni-directional circulation system will also filter traffic movement according to usage.

Facade encroachment is another issue which has destroyed the character of the space. Hence, urban architectural controls should be in place to bring homogeneity to the facade with the help of uniform hoardings to eliminate randomness. The present day elevations should be restored to their original character as it was in the 19th Century with amalgamation of modern and traditional design elements.

Unauthorised encroachments at Haveli Haider Quli and Gadodia market should be removed and alternate provisions shall be made beforehand. This will restore the shared open spaces and initiate dialogue.

The terrace of Gadodia Market should be properly redesigned for a better user experience. Reviving the cultural activities at the terrace will make the space much more lively and create a point of interest. The architectural elements should be revived to maintain it’s heritage character. This will allow people to discover the structure and know it’s historical importance.

Revival of the Baoli is an outlandish proposition but if properly executed it will make a significant impact on the whole precinct and elevate the heritage value of this precinct because honestly speaking there is no significance of the Khari Baoli without the Baoli which gave this place an identity.

Despite the fact of all these design propositions, in orderto successfully execute it thestakeholders of this place should work parallel to the designers and make it a collaborative process. As there are many different organisations working at every level there should be a special taskforce comprising of designers, nodal officers, labour union representatives, merchants etc. to overview the work at ground level.In the end, having a firm political intention to properly execute the project will do justice with everyone.


Rethinking The Future (RTF) is a Global Platform for Architecture and Design. RTF through more than 100 countries around the world provides an interactive platform of highest standard acknowledging the projects among creative and influential industry professionals.