The writer peeks into the past of Paharganj, which has witnessed many historical events in the journey of Delhi
Paharganj’s chequered past is not so well known. Before the Railways divided the area, there was a direct road from it to the Red Fort on which such personalities as Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq went by palanquin to meet the Mughal emperor. Being the ustad who wetted Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poety, he in his lifetime enjoyed a status higher than that of even Ghalib, whose unconventional poetry did not enjoy the patronage of the high and mighty and it was left to the hoi polloi to hail the poet as a trendsetter. Zauq’s house in Paharganj cannot be traced now nor his grave, which was demolished by vandals in 1947 and a public latrine built over it for refugees from Punjab. But of late the place has been cleared of this monstrosity and a memorial erected to mark the last resting place of the Badshah’s ustad, though God knows where his bones are interred. This is unfortunate as he was a great lover of Delhi who even rejected a lucrative offer from the Nizam to settle down in Hyderabad with the oft-quoted comment, “Kaun jaye Zauq per Dilli-ki-gullian chod kar”. There were others of note living in Paharganj, like the descendants of Ghaziuddin Khan, ancestor of the Nizams and the builder of the Ghaziuddin Madarsa at Ajmeri Gate, the first such institution of its kind in the 18th Century. From the side of the gate the road led to Jhandewalan, past the bazaar which was the last habitation point on the Paharganj ridge before the rocky formation that marked its boundary was cut down and Karol Bagh came into being.
Paharganj, located just west of New Delhi Station, literally meaning Hilly Market, was once an important suburb of Shahjahanabad. It was one of five main bazaars of Delhi, and the only one outside the Walled City. Besides, it was the principal grain market in the 17th Century and had the custom house of the emperor, for collecting taxes, according to research done by heritage activist Surekha Narain. In the Mutiny papers it was referred to as Jaisinghpura or Shahganj. Muin-ud-Din Hussain Khan, a cousin of Mirza Ghalib was the thanedar or the SHO of the Paharganj police station during that time and is supposed to have helped in saving Sir Theophilus Metcalfe’s life during the uprising by sheltering him. It was in disguise that the hated Metcalfe escaped from the thana to eventually find refuge in Rajputana, which was not affected by the First War of Independence.
In 1920, when Lutyens was assigned to build New Delhi, Paharganj saw a facelift of sorts. Imperial Theatre, an archaic landmark, was built in 1930. When Imperial Cinema started showing films in 1933, the audience took its time to come in for the (then silent) shows. Screenings didn’t start at fixed times, but had to wait for enough people to come in. Those waiting for the hall to fill up were entertained by dancing girls, performing in front of the screen. Early in its history, cinema drew the same moral censure as the tawaif’s bordello. Paharganj saw the bloodiest riots in 1947, a metamorphosis when one community was forced to desert its roots and the other fled from Pakistan to make a new beginning here. Many took up the food business and soon became known for their products. Some of the famous names established since 1947-48 in the eatery business are still doing well even when the third generation has taken over. Pehalwan da Hotel and Sitaram Bhaturewala are among them.
During the hippie movement in the 70s, the area became a regular part of the hippie trail, with backpackers and college students looking for modest accommodation near Connaught Place. The legacy continues even today, with its budget hotels, cafes and restaurants, specialising in global cuisines, and a horde of cyber cafes. Of late actors and actresses from the West like Kate Winslet of The Titanic fame have lodged in Paharganj during their sojourn in Delhi. The area has shelters and homes run by Salaam Balak Trust, an NGO for street and working children. A heritage walk was held on November 23 to make the new generation aware of the area’s past.
Ram Nagar at the eastern end of Paharganj was the first organised colony for officers of the Controller & Auditor General of India. It was outside the old city and came up in the 1930s. The area belonged to Ram Swaroop, an ice factory owner who was a friend of Ram Saran Das, according to the latter’s son, V.K. Gupta. Ram Saran Das belonged to Bulandshahr and came to attend the 1911 Durbar. In 1913 he was transferred to Delhi as an officer in the Controller & Auditor General’s office and initially lived in Bazaar Sita Ram. He was also instrumental in building Birla Mandir and obtained special permission from Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy, to build Ram Nagar. The place was called Ram Nagar after Ram Swaroop and Ram Saran Das. No. 11 Ram Nagar was the first building built in 1934 by Ram Saran Das. These two may be regarded as the first colonisers of Delhi who lent a semblance of modernity to decaying Paharganj, whose bridge was once known as the place where missing persons could be found.