The vacant cubicles in Mina Bazar have a history and could be used for cultural events to add colour to the area

The Mughals built their edifices with such finesse that even in this modern age of wonderful buildings one cannot help marvelling at their ingenuity. Take any palace in the Red Fort and one has to admit that its execution couldn’t have been bettered. The British tried to disfigure some of them and demolished some others after the First War of Independence of 1857. Then, following Independence, the Indian Army set up abode in the Fort and started living in the Victorian-type barracks constructed during the Raj era. Still falling short of accommodation, soldiers and their families were allotted the 32 cusp-arched alcoves or cubicles on either side of the Chhatta Chowk or Mina Bazar. Now with the Army evacuation, 22 of these have been reopened after breaking the cemented walls that had been built during the past 60 years or so to provide privacy to the solders’ families.

One, however, remembers that not all of the alcoves had been walled up. There were some in which wives of Army officers could be seen looking down at the visitors to the Chowk. Among them was an old lady who spent most of her time either looking down or just sitting on an easy chair and gazing vacantly as though trying to reminisce of times when she was young and life was full of gaiety for her. There was a young one too who would keep eagerly looking out for her children and waiting for them to return from school. Occasionally celebrations were also held in these modified homes — a birthday, an engagement or a wedding or some other family gathering. But there were no loudspeakers blaring out and everything was done without causing any sort of disturbance to the tourists who flocked to buy objets d’art, antiques, mementoes, trinkets and other souvenirs.

There was one shop, opened during the Coronation Durbar of 1911, which had a whole stock of photographs of those times, including one of King George V riding out at the head of a procession on a horse, instead of an elephant. Another much valued photograph was of the king and his consort, Queen Mary, giving ‘darshan’ to the people of Delhi from a balcony specially constructed outside the Mussaman Burj by Akbar Shah Sani near the Khwab Gah or dream house of the Mughal emperors, where the monarch slept, especially in the afternoon. That was Shah Jahan’s idea of relaxation after an exhausting morning and forenoon during which the two durbars — one in the Dewan-e-Aam and the other in the Dewan-e-Khas — were held. The former one was for the general public and the latter for the nobles, during which the emperor sat on the fabulous Peacock Throne till 1739, when the invader Nadir Shah took it away, along with the prized Kohinoor diamond and other treasures in the fort. That was in the reign of Mohammad Shah Rangila, who used to sleep in the Khwab Gah with some newly-acquired concubine or the other.

The Chhatta Chowk, where the Mina Bazar was held in the top and bottom shops on Thursdays, was meant only for the princesses and other inmates of the royal harem. No males were allowed, except for the emperor, though an amorous prince or two might discreetly conceal himself from prying eyes to catch a glimpse of someone in the harem who had stolen his heart. The arched alcoves above the Chowk (built on the same pattern as the ones in the Agra Fort) were also used to display merchandise and jewellery. But some believe that they were meant for transacting royal business. One didn’t expect Shah Jahan, with spectacles perched on his nose there, but lesser personages, the munshis and contractors busy working on royal accounts and keeping track of the money spent on various things, like the daily expenses on meals, entertainment, grocers’ bills, purchases from jewellers, money taken on credit (during the sunset years of the Mughal Empire) from the Seths of Chandni Chowk and the like.

However, some historiographers are of the view that the alcoves or top portion shops were also utilised for holding dances by the kaneezes (maids of honour) during the Mina Bazar. Gossip would have us believe that the sound of ankle bells (ghunguroos), the beat of the drum and the silken voices of the singers could be heard right up to the Mardana or male quarters, and no doubt excited the young royals. When Jahandar Shah, grandson of Aurangzeb, ascended the throne for a year or so, before being assassinated by his eventual successor Farrukhsiyar, he had deputed Nimaat Khan Kalan to play the sarangi in one of the alcoves. The sister of the artiste, Lal Kanwar, had stolen the emperor’s heart and he exalted her to the title of Begum Imtiaz Mahal and married her, though she had been a common courtesan of the city and had friends among women who sold melons and mangoes or bangles.

No wonder then, that in some of the alcoves bangles were sold for the princesses and their maids who, after getting tired of the bejewelled ones, yearned for common glass bangles, whose jingle attracted many a romantic heart among the princelings of the Salatin or poor relations’ quarters in the fort. Now that the alcoves have been reopened, it would not be a bad idea if they were utilised for artistic purposes and not just left vacant for bats and owls to keep company at night. The sound of music, dance, skits and mushairas could add more colour to the otherwise drab Chhatta Chowk.