R.V. Smith takes a peek at the salt mandis of Shahjahanabad whose vestiges can still be found in place names
Without salt, life is devoid of savour and Shah Jahan was very well aware of this because salt was brought by the maund (40 seers) for the royal household from Namak-ki-Mandi in Agra City every week. It is still there, situated in the market area of Seo-ka-Bazar, Kinari Bazaar, Kashmere Bazaar and Johri Bazaar. So when he built Shahjahanabad, the emperor had some of the bazaars named after the ones in his former Capital. Phatak Namak owes its origin to those times. Situated near Hauz Qazi on the right of the road leading to Ajmere Gate, the phatak as such was erected later but there was always a salt market there. Caravans of camels brought salt to the city and it was all Lahori namak or rock salt. Sambari namak from the salt mines of Sambar in Rajasthan was sold by the pansaris (grocers).
Salt was very cheap those days. In the time of Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316), it was sold at the rate of 2 and a half seers for a jittal. The sultan had fixed the rates for all essential commodities: wheat per maund was 7 and a half jittals (a jittal was a little more than a rupee), sugar per seer was 1 and a half jittals, gur per seer one third of a jittal, rice per maund 5 jittals, 2 and a half seers of butter or ghee cost 1 jittal, and oil was 3 seers for a jittal.
In Shah Jahan’s time, the prices of these commodities had increased only marginally. So one could get 2 and a half seers of salt for Rs. 1.50. Now one kilo of salt costs Rs.15, for which one could get two maunds of wheat those days. Phatak Namak continued to sell salt in wholesale trade till about a hundred years ago, say old timers. Now only the name remains and one has to buy salt from the market shops. An interesting story about salt concerns a village on the outskirts of the Capital, where no salt was available because of a dacoit named Jaswanta, who had banned its sale. The reason was that the dancing girl he loved had been murdered by a village youth whom she had spurned. The man was hunted from pillar to post and eventually tortured and killed by the desperado but still his thirst for revenge was not satiated. There came a day when the son of the Pradhan of a neighbouring village came to wed a village girl. When the food was served, it was tasteless because there was no salt in it. The bridegroom, Jeevan Singh, who happened to be a wrestler, lost his temper and asked his father-in-law why he and his wedding party had been insulted thus. When he heard the story of Jaswanta’s revenge he got up from the pandal, saying he would get married only after he had dealt with Jaswanta. How he disposed of the dacoit chief and ended the ban on salt is part of folklore.
Phatak Namak had its counterpart in Telion-ka-Phatak, near Turkman Gate, which was called Hauz Muzaffar Khan in earlier times because of a hauz or tank that existed there. When the Trinity Church foundation was being laid in early 20th Century, the digging revealed the remains of the tank and so the church site was moved to the interior of the Turkman Gate locality. Telion-ka-Phatak was the centre of the oil trade in the Walled City. The telis (oil sellers), unlike the proverbial Gangu Teli, was an influential community, that had become much richer than in the days of Raja Bhoj, because of the big demand for oil which, along with salt, is an essential ingredient for cooking. However, the oil sellers were supposed to be possessive of their young daughters. The reason was that along with the “fishbone” of the foreleg of a mutton piece, the bodies of such girls, if they died before the age of 13, could be stolen and misused by tantriks. In the pre-Partition years, a teli’s daughter died suddenly after returning from school. The grieving parents buried her and when they went to the cemetery on the third day, they found the mud grave dug up and the body missing. A search resulted in the remains being found some distance away but the heart was not there. Exorcists, whose help was taken, opined that it could have been used along with goat “fishbone” by some lover to charm the woman with whom he was madly in love. The gorkands (gravediggers), who were arrested, were finally let off for want of evidence and migrated to Karachi. You can make what you like of the story, but halal meat sellers even now crush the “fishbone” (called Shiani-ki-haddi) before putting it in the waste box or cut it up with the mutton pieces so that it’s not misused.
The third well-known phatak is known as Phatak Habsh Khan, situated in Tilak Bazar, Fatehpuri. This gate was built by Sidi Miftah, an Ethiopian, who became a Mughal nobleman in Shah Jahan’s times. He was nicknamed Habsh Khan because of his African features. There is a Shidhion-ki-Masjid too near Filmistan cinema in Karol Bagh. Sidi Miftah is said to have achieved siddhi and was held in esteem by those who regarded him as a majzoob (a mystically inclined person), though some think Sidi meant Negroid descent. However, Phatak Namak is now just a name for a non-existent trade while Telion-ka-Phatak, with its early Mughal period cusped arch, and the Shahjahani Phatak Habsh Khan, disfigured by alterations, are better known landmarks as an All India Radio team learnt recently. But all three phataks have tales to tell, like the missing gate of Banaras Bank Ahata in Agra which reminded one of Warren Hastings, the Chait Singh affair and the harassed Begums of Oudh.