Gates of Old Delhi – Part 1

Today’s Purani Dilli or Shahajanabad – the city built by Shah Jahan was a walled city. To get out of this city, there were many gates around the walls. The one to the north was known as Kashmiri Gate. The southern – Delhi gate, the eastern – Lahori gate and so on. During the 1857 uprising, the sepoys closed the gates and barricaded themselves behind these walls. So when the British put down the rising, they did the same to the walls too. Along with these came down these gates. These gates still remain in our vocabulary (Ajmeri Gate, Kashmiri Gate, Delhi Gate, Mori Gate) but only few of them survive physically. And the ones which do would be wondering if it was worth all the effort being a witness to all the change around them. You see the images and drawings of the Old Delhi before 1857 and feel what wonderful experiences these gates have been through. As for the present you just need to get around the old city.

Ajmeri GateAjmeri Gate

I started with Ajmeri Gate. When you walk down from Chawri Bazar Metro station, you are taking almost the same path as people did in Shahjanabad. Though you have to get around the now barricaded gate rather than through it. The once famous Delhi college is just opposite gate but the guard did not allow me inside even to take a photograph. Mirza Ghalib, some hundred and fifty years ago, too had stood here after being invited to be a persian professor. He expected the secretary to come and formally welcome him inside but that did not happen and Ghalib – his ego hurt, never taught at the college.

Turkman GateTurkman Gate

Moving east along the imaginary wall of the city, you come to the Turkman Gate. Overshadowed by the Delhi Stock Exchange it lies forgotten on one side of the road. Though the area was filthy but inside the barricades, the Gate and its immediate surroundings were clean. Standing there and clicking the photos of this gate, I got ‘what-a-mad-guy’ looks from passers-by.

Delhi GateDelhi Gate

You need to go further east to reach the Delhi Gate. The gate which saw Mughal kings ride leisurely through it on elephants now witnesses people rushing past by its sides. The road once led to a Lunatic Asylum just outside the city. Today it leads to..well..New Delhi.

Blast from the Past

The best part about history is the story. And they can be found in plenty at the Purana Quila. The popularity of the place is indicated at the approach road itself. There was a long line of cars and people turning right towards the neighboring zoo but the ones marching straight towards the ‘real’ place were only couples interested in having some space and time to them. Space they get in plenty as they are only a handful of them in what was around 500 years ago a whole city.

The Purana Quila

The story of the place goes like this. Humayun, the second Mughal ruler, decided to build a city and chose this site on the banks of river Yamuna. A walled city called Dinpanah was quickly built. Sher Shah Suri then defeated Humayun, forced the poor guy out of India and took charge of the city. He allegedly demolished all buildings inside and built some of his own (and called it Shergarh). Humayun returned with vengeance and regained the city 15 years later. After a few months, he was enjoying the magnificent view on top floor of his library (Sher Mandal) when he heard the prayer call and in a hurry slipped down the stairs and died. This was perhaps coming. History tells that whoever tried to build a city in Delhi did not survive to rule. (Shah Jahan and the British are other prominent examples after Humayun) . His tomb was later built a few kilometers down south and is now a more popular tourist spot.

Sher Mandal – Humayun fell down the stairs here and died

But this is a story only 500 years old. Much more interesting is another one. In 1950’s areas of Purana Quila were excavated and many civilizations were found to have existed here. They date back to the days of Mahabharat and the city of Indraprastha. A mud hut has been excavated from that age.  Unfortunately, it may be the case that the pandavas and kauravas were not at all like we see in the TV serials with all kinds of jewellery and all. They were, as William Dalrymple puts it, simple cave men who fought with sticks and stones.

The Western Entrance

Just behind the Sher Mandal there is a steep slope. On this slope is the evidence of 3000 years of Delhi. The actual slope is now covered with trees but it is beautifully displayed in a well maintained museum. On entering the museum there is a huge photograph which truly shows the importance of the site. There is a wall with the three thousand years in different layers. Indraprastha at the bottom, then Maurya, Sunga, Saka, Gupta, Post Gupta, Rajput, Sultanate and finally the Sher Mandal on top representing the Mughal era. Far away you can see the buildings of modern Delhi.

May be 500 years from now these would also become just a layer in history.

Dormitory of Mughals

Humayun, it seems did not rest in peace after his death. His body was moved around and finally his wife decided to build a huge tomb for him – unsurprisingly called Humayun’s tomb. In this grave, he must have thought…”Finally, a nice airy room to rest with a high roof and lots of windows”.
But it was not destined for him to remain in peace because even today hundreds of people come to that airy room with high roof and say ‘how beautiful!’. The matters have been made worse by Obama who visited the tomb last month. Reportedly, the footfall here has increased 30% after that.(though I didn’t overhear even one English speaking foreigner)
Graves of some relatives of Humayun

Honestly speaking, inside the monument there is nothing beautiful. May be except the architecture which to an untrained eyes is just a complex maze of rooms filled with graves. There are over hundred graves from the Mughal family at this place which is called the dormitory of Mughals. The old walls are filled with graffiti which makes the interiors simply ugly. The graves too are long past their good days. The restoration work has been in progress but it seems very slow and the focus has been on the exterior than interiors.
Wish Rubina hated the guy
Quite logical because, it is actually the exterior which makes the monument attractive. The view from far away standing in the lawns is excellent with red sandstone merging with the blue sky and the well kept green lawns. Here one gets to see the perfect symmetry and the simplicity of the monument which is a prelude to the Taj Mahal and has a stark resemblance to it. Both are on the banks of same river – Yamuna. Both share a similar story (built in memory of a husband or wife) and both have expansive lawns around them.
Similar to Taj Mahal??
I fully utilized the combination of this rare Delhi greenery, royal surroundings and the warm winter sun to write this post and read a book before returning to the call of the hunger.


A visit to Chandni Chowk is an out of Delhi experience – the Delhi that is experienced in a normal routine with flyovers after flyovers, broad (but still jammed) roads, duplicate malls where once inside its tough to tell which part of the country you are in. That is the New Delhi.
Chandni Chowk is different. Its Old Delhi.

Chandni Chowk

The Moonlight Market

And if the makers of movie Delhi-6 felt that their portrayal would help us get a glimpse of the experience of Chandni Chowk, they were completely wrong. You have to be here to really experience it. In a movie you can only see a part of it. You are not able to feel the people & rickshaws grazing you, smell that unmatchable aroma of kababs, see kilometeres of wires intertwined beyond comprehension such that no one even attempts to touch them, taste the original mughlai dishes at Kareem’s and hear the rickshaw walas continuously shouting in an attempt to clear the way which even one person is sufficient to block.
My Delhi-6 experience started in company of Amit when we got off near the Old delhi railway Station Opposite the massive Red Fort.
We walked, trying to find way towards Chandni Chowk area and utlimately the final destination – Kareems. A turn and after walking some distance we found ourselves facing Sheesh Ganj Gurudwara. I remembered it from childhood when once I had been to this gurudwara where Guru Teg Bahadur had finally fallen after carrying his decapitated head in his hands from Red Fort.
We randomly walked soaking in the feel of the famous Chandni Chowk. Chandni Chowk was developed by Jahanara Begumm – daughter of Shah Jahan when he moved his court from Agra to Delhi after his wife’s death. It is essentially a street – the principal avenue of the Old City. Something like Shahjanabad’s ‘Brigade Road’- a boulevard with shops on either side.
It may have been the attraction of the town in its hey days but now it is a definition of chaos. I tried to find some method to the madness but could find none.

Chaos at Chandni Chowk

No Method in Madness

Though the place still has the archaic feel to it but there are islands of modernity. There are ‘Outlaw’ brands interspersed between the traditional ‘Asharfian’ and several other ‘cloth houses’. Among the many Burqa clad women, sometimes you spot young girls with bright clothes & i-pod in ears. A shining clean, vegetarian Haldirams stands among the numerous dirty roadside, completely non-vegeterian shops.

No method in Madness

Entering the Alleys – The Footwear market

We turned left in a small gali which had endless shops of footwear shops. But the space for footwear was only on walls of the shops. On road, 2 rickshaws grazed by if they had to cross each other. The rickshawallahs repeatedly called out to people walking in front to make their way. It was them or us or may be us on them!!
we carried on through the small alleys. There was some apprehension to go on when the alley suddenly turned dark. But it was an interesting decision to go on. The setting remained the same but the name, owners and the contents at the shops changed completely. The turbaned heads were in prominence near Sheesh Ganj, then people in white, embordieried skull caps appeared manning their leather footwear. And now suddenly out of no where we could see a ‘Sri Ganga Temple’ and shops named Laxmi, Saraswati, Durga – all selling wedding cards.

Dark Alleys

Darkness acting as a divide between religions

By now tired, having no idea where we were headed and Ovi Maps failing in these labyrinths we took a rickshaw and gave him responsibility to make our hungry tummys reach their destination – Kareems – the famous Time Magazine featured ‘dhaba’. As we neared the end of the narrow alley we found a truck attempting to enter it – a truck in a place where rickshaws were barely able to make their way. We defintely believe in the statement ‘impossible is nothing’ as far as driving is concerned.
Soon the massive Jama Masjid came into view. A big bazar with only resturants stood adjoining it. And between the hanging chicken – raw and roasted and smell of kababs sat Kareems – the neatly organised and overflowing with people struggling, waiting and cajoling the waiters to get their seats. Ancestors of the owners worked as chefs in the royal kitchens of Mughal Emperors. The present owner’s great grandfather Haji Karimuddin, who served in the kitchen of Bahadur Shah Zafar, then decided to bring the royal delicacies to the masses after the Mughals era ended. Seeing the menu there you know that why these Mughal rajas were like tall, broad shouldered, meaty hunks or you may call them  ‘Hulks’.


Kareem Hotel – well not exactly a Hotel!

We had to share table with couple of other people but it was all worth the wait and the walk. Seekh Kabab was nice and juicy, mutton was the best I have ever had. The chicken, though immersed in oil was good, the roti very very heavy and the kheer was tasted after long time.
After the chandni chowk walk and a heavy dinner, nothing except sleep was on mind! ShahJahan would have retired to his Bedroom at the Fort across the road but we had to take a long journey back where Delhi suddenly turned new as soon as we crossed the Delhi Gate. Its tough to find this  inconspicuous gate on a map.  The Mughal era map of Old Delhi shows this gate to the south of walled city which once  was a passage out of the city. Now, though it seems like an obstruction between the passages.