Grief in the Havelis of Old Delhi

Ravaged by the vagaries of time, the havelis of Old Delhi still echo the past with remnant traces of grandeur and aristocracy. Salma Rehman explores these vintage mansions which hope to relive their grandiose past as the government plans for their restoration in the near future.

“Lagta nahin hai dil mera, ujde dyaar me
Kis ki bani hai aalime-naapedar me”

(My heart no longer finds solace
Amidst these ruins crumbling;
Whose will has prevailed
in this fleeting world.) - Bahadur Shah Zafar

While ambling through the maze of narrow winding lanes and the bustling bazaars of Old Delhi, the Shahjahanabad of the yore, I came across this imposing mansion with classic arcades and colossal doors. Once cherished with royalty, Begum Samru ki Haveli is now known as Bhagirath Place which houses State Bank of India’s main Old Delhi branch.

The majestic four storied building was constructed in 18th century as a palace for Begum Samru, wife of French Mercenary, Walter Reinhardt. The mansion is an architectural heritage as it combines Greek and Roman styles in its hexastyle Corinthian columns, balustrade terrace, spiral iron staircases, manual lifts.
A mistress of imperial endeavor, the walled city of Shahjahanabad which now stands as Old Delhi, was built in 16th century as Shah Jahan shifted his capital here. Further as the foundation of the city was laid down the noble members build their mansions or havelis here.

The basic inspirations for all mansions in the city was the Qilla-i-Mualla, the ‘Fort of exalted dignity’ as the havelis incorporated in themselves the essential elements of fort forbidding any access to the common man.

Scattered in many kuchas, katras, mohallas and galis (lanes), the havelis have similar features like arched gateways, chattas (the low roofways), the aangan (the courtyard) or sehan, tehkhana (underground chamber) and the roshandans (for ventilations).

Left as signatures of traditional aristocratic living, there are numerous such mansions, across the city, which survive with traces of architectural technique and gracious lifestyle.

Adjacent to the Fatehpuri Masjid, the Namak Haram ki haveli was named after a servant who betrayed the owner of this mansion during the struggle of 1857. Surviving with obliterations of time, the haveli is home to 17 families living here since independence.

“I came here when I got married and haven’t left this place since,” says 72 years old Kanti Devi. She also complains that the residents have made renovations destroying the actual structure. The only surviving doorway of the haveli still has the intricate architectural details of Mughal era.

The story of the Haksar ki haveli in the heart of Baazar Sita Ram is no different. The crumbling ramparts of the haveli were the venue for the wedding of Jawaharlal Nehru and Kamla on 8th February 1916. For the locals, the haveli is nothing but a dumping ground now.

“This was the place where the pheras took place,” tells Shakuntala Gupta pointing to the verandah. She is one of the members of Gupta family which resides in a small extant section of the haveli.

The Zeenat Mahal ki haveli in the Lal Kuan lies atrophied in the similar manner, where only a double arch entrance breathes amidst the ruins. This marvel carved out of red sand stone was a personal haveli owned by Begum Zeenat Mahal, the favorite queen of Shahjahan.

“The government shattered the whole existence of the haveli and built a school here. Tourists are being fooled by the locals to think the haveli still exists,” says Noor Jahan, one of the tenants living in a section above the entrance gate since 1947.

However, some havelis can still be seen to hold their sway unaffected by the time and change. Though commercialized to a vast extent, the Chunnamal ki Haveli has a section which breathes in grandeur. Anil Pershad, 67, is the tenth descendant of Lala Chunnamal who was once regarded as the richest and most influential figure in Chandni Chowk.

Beautifully carved Brazilian mirrors and a dozen of magnificent chandeliers adorn the dining room of the haveli. Also there are over-bridges connecting various sections of the haveli.

Echoing with the recitals of Mirza Ghalib, his legendary mansion has the lingering aura of the last days of his life. Located amidst the hustle and bustle of Ballimaran in Chawri Bazaar, the mansion also has a memorial museum studded with photographs, paintings and compositions of the great Urdu poet.

There are numerous other vintage mansions like Razia Begum ki haveli in Chawri Bazaar, Ahsanullah Khan ki haveli, Gaddar ka Mahal, Maulvi Muhammaed Bakar ki Haveli and Shareef Manzil in Ballimaran, which are the architectural jewels of Old Delhi hit by vagaries of time.

Prof S.M. Azizuddin Hussain, the Dean of History department at Jamia Millia Islamia says some mansions like Raja Nahar Singh ki Haveli and Nawab Jhajjar ki Haveli were completely destroyed in 1857.

“After independence, some havelis got destroyed as they were called enemy property,” says Prof Azizuddin. He also complains that the government has not been able to preserve the extant havelis and has allowed drastic changes in the overall structure of Old City.

“These havelis are of utmost relevance, they must be preserved. Unfortunately, we do not have any love for our heritage,” laments Prof. Azizuddin.

However, there is hope for these dilapidated structures of the past, as the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) has identified 738 structures including the havelis across the city. These buildings were excluded from the original list of MCD which was brought out almost a decade ago.

“We have forwarded recommendations to the Delhi government for the renovation and restoration of the original façade of the structures after detailed process of identification and classification,” says Ajay Kumar, Sr.Project Manager, Intach Delhi chapter. “This effort will certainly help recover the fading beauty of the city.

With hopes persisting amidst the ruins, we wait to see the legacy of the city burgeon with its old grandeur and living up to the spirits of what Sir Syed Ahmed Khan said.

Kasra zindagi shad bashad ki dar Shah-e-jahan abad bashad
(The man, who fortunately finds residence in the city of Shahjahanabad, leads a happy life.)


More by :  Salma Rehman

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Views: 3434      Comments: 6

Comment The govt. that came into power right after Independence and criminally allowed the heritage to crumble, the rich Urdu language to die MUST be made accountable to THE NATION. Why Independence? These men have been hobnobbing with The British since long before 1947 BUT THEY LITERALLY LET US DOWN by letting the rich architectural wonders in every corner of our country slowly go into oblivion!! They were busy in CEMENTING their own positions!

sangeeta mehrotra
17-Apr-2016 07:09 AM

Comment Thank you so much Ghazal for pointing the fact about Zeenat Mahal.

Salma Rehman
23-Feb-2013 15:07 PM

Comment I am planning to do a coffee table book on Havelis in Delhi. Will you be interested to be a part of this. If yes, please share your contact details, for us to get in touch. Do mention your email id as well.

You may mail to

08-Jan-2013 01:29 AM

Comment Very touching piece.
Please note however that Zeenat Mahal of the Lal Kuan Haveli was the wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar and not Shah Jehan.

04-Aug-2012 10:14 AM

Comment Beautifully written. Really good research.

31-Mar-2012 05:22 AM

Comment A very nostalgic description! Very touching! May I mention that many times where systems don't work; individual effort shines. All it needs is a 'sirphira' (eccentric), commiitted person who may start preservation and renovation process with whatever s/he has and I'm sure, help would pour in. It would be better than lamenting. Something would be done.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
23-Nov-2011 23:14 PM

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