Rendezvous for many a date. A square for confabulations. Red Fort’s Chhatta Chowk was many things to people noble and common

News that the Chhatta Chowk of the Red Fort may get back its original vaulted roof will gladden history lovers. The chowk was designed by Shah Jahan after the Mina Bazar of the Agra Fort, though some may differ. But a ramshackle bazaar next to Azad Park of the Jama Masjid area was named Mina Bazar in the 1960s. Now it has only dhabas (relocated after Indira Gandhi’s emergency), including one claimed to be that of the famed Maseeta Kababa, most of whose descendants migrated to Pakistan. In the aftermath of the Partition they continued to send kababs in mud “handies” by air for special customers in Delhi but not any more. Interestingly, Ghalib was very fond of kababs made by Maseeta, whose counterpart in Lucknow was Tunda. After the devastation of 1857, Ghalib wrote to a friend in Jaunpur that Shahjahanabad had become such a despicable place that dogs growled about in Maseeta’s shop (below the steps of the Jama Masjid), as the kababia had stopped using it for fear of the avenging British.

But to go back to Chhatta Chowk, Shah Jahan had intended the bazaar to be a weekly market where the ladies of his harem came to buy and sell both precious articles and those of daily use, particularly the ornaments with which women are fond of adorning themselves. The bazaar was held every Thursday, a day that most Muslims revere as one reserved for offering fateha at the graves of their near and dear ones and also making supplications at the shrines of saints, 22 of whom lie buried in Delhi, and venerated as Khwajas. However some Sayyid graves were also the venue of such salutations, with people lighting agarbattis at them and offering “niyaz” on nuktidanas (small yellow sweet balls), sugar bubble-like batashas and less sweeter white ilaichidanas. These were distributed to those present, among them a lot of children. The practice continues. Well, Jumairaat, preceding Jumma, the day on which man is said to have been formed out of clay by God, was picked by the emperor for the weekly bazaar in keeping with tradition. On that day the gates of the fort were closed even to the nobles, petitioners and military commanders, as also the ulema, and women supervised all the arrangements.

Jahanara and her sister Roshanara, the daughters of Shah Jahan, led the other princesses to the Mina Bazar, where also congregated the residents of Suhagpura (abode of royal widows and their progeny in the Lal Qila). Princes too were not allowed, though some of them sneaked in or peeped from behind trellis work, the ornamental jalis adorning the walls. Some of the sellers were from Chandni Chowk, like the women dealing in bangles and bindis for the forehead, as also henna for the hands and hair. To attract their customers these women had coined a flattering lingo like, “these bangles just suit the wrists of the princess, though they are only of glass and the ones of gold and silver, studded with diamonds, would look better on them. But then even glass ones gain value when they are fitted into delicate, royal hands”. Such praise did not fail to find its mark. Remember royalty, used to articles of gold, sometimes hankered for those of baser material and so glass bangles found enough customers who liked the jingle they made while exquisite hands moved in rapid gestures, such as washing the face, bathing, cuddling a lover or beckoning a kaneez or maid, of whom there were any number. These women too exercised great influence and were not devoid of honour even after death as is evident from the tomb of the maids (Sahelion ka Burj) near the entrance gate of the Taj Mahal.

The Mina Bazar also was the place where romance sometimes blossomed. Shah Jahan, as Prince Khurram, had his first glimpse of Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Bano) at the bazaar in the Agra Fort. After that he persuaded his step-mother, Nur Jahan, to help him gain the object of his desire, who happened to be her niece, being the daughter of her brother, Asaf Khan. At the time of the latter Mughals, many a prince found his sweetheart at Chhatta Chowk during the Thursday bazaar. Mohammad Shah Rangila (1719-1748) often spotted a sexy kaneez and she ended up becoming his concubine. But after Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739 things changed and instead of the laughter of princesses and their coquettish maids, the noted poet Mir Taqi Mir just heard the sound of weeping shehzadis on the verge of starvation. However, when things returned to normal, Mohammed Shah and his successors (up to the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar), continued to patronize the royal market until the Revolt ended Mughul rule and British soldiers began disfiguring Chhatta Chowk. Its much battered vaulted roof was replaced subsequently and it is only now that it would perhaps get back its original shape. Meanwhile the Mina Bazar of Agra Fort lies lifeless as it is not a shopping arcade like its counterpart in Delhi.