HERITAGE: A talk and an exhibition compel R.V. SMITH to examine the various traces of Mughal culture in today’s Delhi

Mughal culture has not totally disappeared from Delhi, remarked London-based British writer and historian Dr. Rosie Llewellyn Jones during a recent visit. She thought it was something unique to the Capital as most cities in Europe had put their past behind while embracing the new. As if to bear out her statement, an exhibition called “Mughals : Life, Art and Culture” was inaugurated at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Janpath last week, courtesy the British Library, London, IGNCA and Roli Books. The showpiece at it is a facsimile of the acclaimed treatise, “Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire”. It contains an extensive collection of illustrated manuscripts and paintings, “from scenes of courtly life, including lively hunting parties, and formal portraits of emperors, to illustrations of works of literature” which have never been published before. Among the exhibits are Shah Jahan’s recipe book (he was a great gourmet in his youth); “Notebook of Fragrance” (the Mughals had a large assortment of scents); an 18th Century manuscript, “Book of Affairs of Love” by Rai Anand Ram Mukhlis (which has one illustration of Mohammad Shah Rangila making unconventional love), “Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi” by Sir Thomas Metcalfe (the Scottish Nabob), illustrated for him by the great painter Mazhar Ali Khan; a route map from Delhi to Qandahar (once part of the Mughal empire); a riverfront map of Agra (when the Yamuna flowed near the Agra Fort) and a bird’s eye-view of the Red Fort (a citadel that surpassed even the Camelot of King Arthur). Besides there are Mughal miniatures and the only portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar taken by Capt Robert Tytler and Charles Shepherd in 1858 as he lay ill on a stringed charpoy after the recapture of Delhi by the British, his hookah by his side.

But to go back to what Dr. Jones said, a walk down Chandni Chowk will confirm that quite a lot of Mughal culture is still preserved as though by a wave of a fairy’s wand. The shop from where Ghalib bought his bottle of Old Tom near the Fountain may not be there, nor Faiz Nehar but Ghantewala Halwai, whose sweets were savoured by Mughal emperors from Shah Alam to Zafar, is still popular. Parantha Gali, where the descendants of the owners and their servants (all from the Chambal region) who fought during the Uprising of 1857, alongside the rebel sepoys, ply their trade despite the challenge from fancy sari emporiums, still talk of the “Ghadar” as though it was a yesterday occurrence.

In fact, one milkman in the gali had up to 1970 a lathi in his shop which was wielded by his great-grandfather those days. The sugandis or perfumers stock the ittars fancied by the Mughal begums from the days when Nur Jahan’s mother, Asmat Begum, discovered ittar-e-gulab. The chat and kulfi enjoyed by the Bankas, the Dulcimo Macaroni of Delhi, who got the name from their slanted, dandy angular walk, have not lost popularity either despite the ice-cream craze. Zeenat Mahal may be in a shambles but Hakim Ahsanullah Khan’s haveli and that of Lala Chunna Mal are intact. However the old sabeel or waterhut mentioned by Ahmed Ali in his “Twilight in Delhi” is now fitted with taps for wayfarers to quench their thirst at the entrance of Ballimaran, as the bearded men who poured out water from long-stemmed “lotas” are dead. But some sakkas or water-carriers, whose forebears provided water to Mirs and Mirzas, besides the hoi polloi, are still around in front of the Jama Masjid, jingling their cups as they did at Kashmere Gate, when the Mughal freedom-fighters badly needed water for drinking or to wash their wounds before the dying Brig-Gen Nicholson did so. The hoteliers of Matia Mahal claim to have Mughal recipes as an ancestor of Karim’s had worked in the royal kitchen at the Red Fort, when Mirza Fakru, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s eldest son, distributed bread to the royal residents and acquired the sobriquet of Mirza Chapati. That was around 1857, when the prince died.

The descendants of Nabbu Mian, another cook from those times, serve kakori kababs at Al Kausar, which they claim are prepared according to the secret recipes left behind by him in 1896, and the kin of Maseeta, Ghalib’s famous kababia, may still be found in new Mina Bazar. The walls of Kashmere Gate are pocked with the marks of the cannonading by the British and the remaining skeletal part of the Delhi Gate wall continues to have the sentry tower set up during Shah Alam’s reign in 1804, when Col. Ochterlony defended the Walled City from the attacking Marathas of Jaswant Rao Holkar, who wanted to seize the emperor.

The Phuwwara, which came up on the spot where the bodies of Mughal princes shot by Hodson lay for days, is now part of Bhai Mati Das Chowk and the Kotwali where Guru Tegh Bahadur met his end during Aurangzeb’s reign, continues to evoke memories though it is now part of Gurudwara Sis Ganj, along with Majestic Cinema. The old mohallas of Daryaganj, behind Golcha Cinema, have hardly changed and Tehraha Bairam Khan, where Sir Syed Ahmed Khan lived before going to Aligarh (he returned to see the damage to his ancestral house after the so-called Mutiny), continues to have bharbhooja (gram roaster), sabzi and butcher shops as of old. So wherever you go in these parts you cannot shake off the feeling that Mughal era life and culture lingers even in the 21st century and the ongoing exhibition only highlights this undeniable fact.

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