Havelis in Old Delhi which once stood out for its grandeur, today tell the tale of the ever-evolving Delhi. Havelis at least a hundred years old are declared heritage buildings; this puts restrictions on even the owner's right to construct. However, the heritage status rarely makes a difference, as most of them lie in ruins.
Old Delhi- once known as Shahjahanabad, was the creation of the Mughal Emperor Shahjahan, who wanted to distinguish himself from the other rulers. Fond of architecture, he wished to establish a city outside Agra. He had ordered his mubandis (architect planners) to find a site in the North for him to erect an architectural city. The mubandis had earlier suggested Lahore. However, it was too small and crowded. Due to its location near the bank of Yamuna and proximity to many famous Sufi Saints, Delhi was selected.
The making of Shahjahanabad drew the attention of many. As a result, more people settled in, and Havelis were built. These Havelis had an inward-looking courtyard with an arched-shaped chardiar mehrab for its main entrance.
In our quest to find old Havelis, we started at Chunnamal's Haveli. Located in the middle of Chandni Chowk's market, google maps had different plans for us. Due to the narrow and commercially occupied lanes of Chandni Chowk that we see today, even maps cannot spot the location correctly. The map took us to Jama Masjid, another part of Shahjahanabad, where we could not find Chunnamal's Haveli but discovered more Havelis, some abandoned, some encroached.
Most Havelis in Old Delhi follow a similar architectural pattern. They offer a platform outside, called the gokha, where even strangers can sit and rest. Created for hot weather, Havelis serve the purpose of ventilation, with courtyards surrounded by the rooms. These Havelis also have zenana or the inner part of the house for women, located either at the back of the courtyard or on the upper floors. The zenana has high walls of jali (screened window) and bamboo blinds for curtains to allow women a peep into the outside world without compromising their privacy. The front room of the courtyard or the ground floor was where the men stayed and operated their businesses. Thus, Old Delhi as we perceive it today was not just a marketplace but also a market-cum residential location.
The Havelis also have jharokhas, and most of them are built with lakhori bricks, lime, stucco, and red sandstones, which are difficult to find today.
These Havelis, claims Nirmal Kumar, Professor of Medieval Indian History at Sri Venkateswara College, have been here for more than a hundred years, where generations have lived. As a result, the Havelis were partitioned and bifurcated over time, resulting in a significant deterioration of the buildings. Kumar highlights that due to the restriction on construction and unavailability of materials that were once used to build these Havelis, the preservation of Havelis is further neglected. In the case of the Chunnamal Haveli, only one-sixth of the Haveli is used for commercial purposes, while the rest lies in the middle of Chandni Chowk in ignorance.
Right opposite the Chunnamal's Haveli is Ballimaran lane, better known as Ghalib's lane. Only a part of Mirza Ghalib's Haveli survives today in the form of a museum, while the rest is either recreated or encroached. However, not all Havelis can be transformed into museums, as these Havelis share common walls with other buildings, making it difficult to carry out any construction work.
Havelis, however, over time, have changed its nature. Kumar talks about the Haveli of Begum Samru in Lajpat Rai Market. Born as Farzana to Arab merchants, she was sold to an Austrian Mercenary- Walter Reinhardt, who had acquired the title of Le Sombre. Thus, Farzana was known as the concubine of Le Sombre. The term Sombre was Indianised over time and became Samru. Farzana started to identify herself as Begum Samru. Soon after Reinhardt's death, Begum Samru converted to Christianity and was renamed Joanna Nobilis Sombre; however, she was already famous as Begum Samru.
Begum Samru's transition from Islam to Christianity has also affected the nature of Haveli, claims Kumar. He also mentions that many Havelis, earlier owned by Muslim families, have been bought by Hindus or vice-versa—resulting in changing the nature, architecture, and aesthetics of the Haveli. This is how, despite being such a thing of the past, Havelis have kept evolving and existing today.
Shubhra Mathur, a Sociologist Scholar whose family is one of the oldest residents of Shahjahanabad, is the sixth generation in Mathur's family. Her house is almost one hundred twenty years old, or even older. Mathur brings out a very different yet essential point on how it is like to be a resident of Old Delhi.
Residing in Nai Sarak, Mathur claims that the way she feels about the Haveli is different from what her parents think. The lane where she stays was earlier a residential area; however, everything has now been commercialised. "Now, we are only three families left out of so many. Three [families] also because one of us is always reaching out to the another. The minute one of us decides to leave, the other two families will also move out," Mathur says.
The accessibility to the area around has changed; the moment one steps out, one can see more rickshaws than people walking on the streets. The houses encroach, and shops are everywhere, making it very difficult for the residents to move around, laments Mathur. "In a few days, I will be moving out for my Ph.D. What I fear is I will only have my parents live here. Accessibility here is an issue. When my grandfather was in the hospital, I remember we had to wait at night for the ambulance to reach...We do not own a car because there is no space to keep one." It is also challenging to refurbish the Havelis from time to time, as it is expensive and the materials used earlier are not found anymore.
With time, a lot has changed, making it difficult for the residents to continue staying in Havelis. What has not changed is the architecture; Kumar claims that the narrow winding staircase of the Havelis makes it difficult for people after a certain age to climb upstairs. As a result, many families have migrated out of Old Delhi to different parts of Delhi. They have either abandoned their Havelis or rented them out to people. Therefore, the owners are no longer attached to their Havelis, resulting in its deterioration.
While Mathur, as a resident, highlights different sets of challenges, explaining why it is challenging to continue staying and preserving Havelis, Kumar, as a historian, looks at the issue of preserving Havelis differently.
Since the entire landscape of Shahjahanabad is declared a Heritage site, "there are just too many Havelis for the authorities to even bother," says Kumar.