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The physiology of a defeated Shahjahanabad

A new book on the Capital's historic quarter illuminates the sweeping changes that followed the crushing of the first war of independence against the British in 1857

View of Chandni Chowk, in 2015. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
View of Chandni Chowk, in 2015. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

At the end of 1862, the Jama Masjid was handed over to a committee elected by the majority of the Muslim inhabitants, but they were made to sign an agreement which, among other duties, required them to report any use of seditious language. The rules to be enforced in the mosque were also set down by the government, (and) included the clause that ‘European officers and gentlemen civil and military can enter without restriction as to shoes’. The Red Fort was now occupied by the army, and lived in by many British officials and their families. Indians could enter only by paying a fee, and were let in to attend the gora bazaars, which were events modelled on the meena bazaars, or women’s bazaars, of Mughal times.

The city was slowly rebuilt along new lines. On the northern side of Chandni Chowk, in the place where Jahanara’s sarai had stood, the Town Hall was built between 1860-65, out of provincial funds and subscriptions. It was originally known as the Lawrence Institute, after John Lawrence, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab Province. It housed a chamber of commerce, (a) literary society and museum. In 1866, it was bought over by the municipality and became the Town Hall. The garden north of Chandni Chowk was re-landscaped and renamed Queen’s Garden. It included a cricket ground, a bandstand, and a menagerie containing various animal species. South of it, in the middle of Chandni Chowk, a clock tower was built. The Mughal-era hammam had been demolished, and where it had stood, was now one end of a new road, officially named Egerton Road, but popularly called ‘Nai Sarak’. In the Kotwali Chowk, a new fountain was built—the phawwara, which in time led to the square being popularly called Phawwara Chowk or fountain chowk. The channel of water that had flowed along the middle of the street was bricked over.

View of Chandni Chowk circa 1860.

The railways came to Delhi, the first train steaming in on New Year’s Eve 1867. The railway line was built across the northern half of the city, cutting the city in two. It necessitated the demolition of many houses, the owners of which were compensated with property confiscated after the Revolt. The railways had a positive impact on the trade passing through Delhi. Prosperity increased, at least among the trading class. Between 1868 and 1869, the total tax collected from the bankers, piece goods merchants, grain merchants and traders in food in Delhi district doubled.

That some of the gaiety had returned to the city was noted by a visitor from Calcutta in 1866—Bholanath Chander. He visited Shahjahanabad during Diwali, and noted the ‘illumination, and the exhibition of dolls, toys and confectionary’ and the ‘whole street lighted up by little glass lamps, cherags, and candles’. He also remarked that the ‘Mahomedans now fully enjoy the Hindoo festival’, though in the mistaken belief that at one time they had not.

While the traders had prospered, the old, mainly Muslim, aristocracy had been impoverished. Many were reduced to manual work, or poorly paid jobs as schoolteachers. Many of them, along with the other poorer population, lived on the fringes of the city along the city walls—Mori Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate and Khidki Farrashkhana. Former noblewomen were reduced to spinning gota for a subsistence. Famines in the 1860s further compounded the problem by pushing up food prices.

After the revolt, the city had been placed under martial law. In 1861, it came back to civil administration, but under the Punjab Province rather than the North-Western Provinces, to which it had earlier belonged. The municipality, inaugurated in 1863, became an important agency for the civil management of the city. Not surprisingly, the municipal commissioners were mostly members of the mercantile elite—prominent Hindu and Jain merchants, who had supported the British cause during the Revolt. Among the few Muslim members of the municipality was Mirza Illahi Baksh, a member of the royal family, who had covertly helped the British during 1857, and his son. The municipal council was essentially a conservative body with a limited role; through the 1860s, 75 per cent of municipal expenditure was spent on the police.


The 1860s-70s was a time when a number of schools, including girls’ schools, were opened with the efforts of both Hindus and Muslims. The Anglo-Arabic School was set up in 1872, and was housed in Ghaziuddin Madrasa from 1889. The Anglo-Sanskrit School was established in 1869, in a haveli donated by Lala Chunna Mal near Katra Neel in Chandni Chowk and financed by him. The Delhi College had been reduced to the status of a high school after the revolt, which it remained till 1864, when college level classes were started. The college, though it had not recovered from the damage done to its library and laboratories during 1857, still enjoyed a good reputation. It therefore came as a shock when, in 1877, the government announced that the college classes would be shifted to Lahore College.

An indirect effect of the Durbar was that it drew to Delhi people who would have a long-term effect on the city.-

Ironically this announcement was made in the wake of the Imperial Assemblage, or Durbar of 1877, held in Delhi, by which it was hoped to show the British sovereign’s ‘interest in this great Dependency of Her Crown, and Her Royal confidence in the loyalty and affection of the Princes and People of India’.


For the people of Shahjahanabad, the Durbar had limited meaning. The Durbar site was well outside the city walls. Even during the Viceroy’s one procession through the city, the streets were lined with soldiers, who effectively insulated the cavalcade from the people. As a concession to the people of Delhi, two mosques, the Zinat-ul-Masajid and the Fatehpuri Masjid, which had been confiscated after the revolt, were reopened for worship. An indirect effect of the Durbar was that it drew to Delhi people who would have a long-term effect on the city. Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of the Hindu reform movement, the Arya Samaj, visited Delhi for the Durbar. As a direct outcome of the visit, a branch of the Samaj was formed here the following year. Around the same time, a branch of the Theosophical Society, a neo-Hindu movement, too, was established.

From the second half of the 1870s, there began a phase of increased sectarian activity and conflict. Active proselytization, based on public preaching at bazaars by Christian missionaries, had been going on since soon after the Revolt. Soon, there was a mushrooming of sectarian organizations. Apart from the new movements such as the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj, orthodox Hinduism was represented by the establishment of the headquarters of the Bharat Dharam Mahamandal, and the Sanatan Dharam Sabha in the 1890s.

There was also a host of purely local Hindu bodies that sprang up in the 1880s and ’90s, many of which were caste-based. In 1878 a Jain Sabha was set up in Dharampura locality, adjoining Dariba, presumably as a response to the Arya Samaj. Among the Muslims, the Anjuman-e-Islamia, founded in 1875, performed the role of promoting the interests of Muslims.

The negative side of the increasing assertion of religious identity were sectarian riots. These conflicts afflicted the city on several occasions during the 1880s and ’90s, and centred around issues such as cow-protection and rival religious processions. The latter included conflict between Jains and Hindus. The issue of proselytization and conversion also caused conflict between Christian missionaries, Muslims, Arya Samajis and Sanatan Hindus.

The constructive outcome of these sectarian movements was the founding of educational institutions. Two among these stand out in particular. St Stephen’s College was founded in 1881 by the Cambridge Mission. With humble beginnings in a haveli just off Kinari Bazaar, it soon got a new building near Kashmiri Gate. In 1899, Hindu College was established to provide an education on Sanatanist Hindu lines. The college received financial backing from Kishen Das Gurwala, and was set up in Kinari Bazaar. Then Lala Sultan Singh sold some property in Kashmiri Gate to the college, and it came to occupy a spot just across the road from St Stephen’s.

Despite religious disputes that cropped up from time to time, the people of Delhi were able to overcome their differences in times of greater trouble. The famine of 1898-1900 and the subsequent plague scare brought various communities together, and this solidarity was expressed by Hindus greeting Muslims emerging from the Jama Masjid after Eid, members of the two communities accepting water from each other, and Muslims participating in Holi celebrations.

This is an edited excerpt from the chapter “The Revolt And Its Aftermath" in Swapna Liddle’s book Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City Of Old Delhi.


Swapna Liddle leading a walk in Delhi. Photographs: Courtesy Swapna Liddle.

Swapna Liddle’s Old Delhi secrets

A ‘haveli’ that hosted Nehru’s ‘baraat’ and the mosque Shah Jahan’s wife built

Kucha Pati Ram: In a city that has become increasingly commercial in its land use, it is refreshing to see some streets that are still predominantly residential. The houses of this neighbourhood, just off Hauz Qazi, are beautiful, some with richly carved traditional doorways and balconies, others with equally rare though not so old, Art Deco-inspired doorways in terrazzo. In nearby Gali Prem Narayan is the ruined Haksar haveli where the Nehru baraat stayed during the wedding of Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru.

Fatehpuri Masjid: Few visitors go to Fatehpuri Masjid, commissioned by Fatehpuri begum, one of the wives of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. After the revolt, it remained closed for 20 years. It was restored for worship in 1877, as a “boon" of the Delhi Durbar. The spacious courtyard does not have the impo-sing grandeur of the Jama Masjid, but is in a more human, intimate scale. Stepping into it from the bustle of the bazaar outside, one is suddenly in an oasis of peace. The attached public library is an added attraction for those wanting to research the history of the city and more.

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