Haveli Haider Quli in Chandni Chowk boasts history that’s worth retelling, the author finds out.

Chandni Chowk has many old buildings, some with gates that have outlived their utility. Take Katra Neel, which houses merchants and their shops, whose wares are much sought after by both the Delhiwallah and outsider, among them foreign tourists. The same is true of Kinari Bazar despite its narrow street. But Haveli Haider Quli has its own distinctive mark and its history is worth retelling as it has been a residence without a break for some 300 years, which saw many ups and downs in its fortunes. Situated at the fag-end of Chandni Chowk it is now a ramshackle building with a huge entrance that yawns in the face of history, but there was a time when its owner was the big gun at the court of Mohammad Shah. This was literally true because Haider Quli was in charge of the Mughal artillery.

How he got that post is interesting. Hussain Ali, a nobleman was Haider Quli’s patron and introduced him to the royal court, where he was given command of Atish (artillery). Having secured the prized post Haider Quli was egged on by ambition to indulge in intrigues, which were such a regular feature of 18th Century Delhi. Besides other idiosyncrasies, Haider Quli was fond of fakirs and so mendicants found favour in his haveli. Among these was a “mast kalandar” who went about half-naked, beating himself with a chain and walking up and down Chandni Chowk even in the middle of the night. Then there was a fakir from Thatta, in Sind, who meditated at the shrine of Sarmad Shaheed at the foot of the steps of the Jama Masjid. Sarmad, an Armenian, had trading links with Thatta before he came over to Delhi and forsook the world. The fakir of Thatta eventually became a conspicuous visitor to the haveli of Haider Quli.

Having got a hint from those close to the emperor that Hussain Ali should be done away with, he lost no time in hatching a plot. The fakir of Thatta was made to dress up like a woman milk-seller and sent daily to the Red Fort where he came in contact with the mother of Mohammad Shah. Through her help the plot against Hussain Ali began to thicken and Mohammad Shah himself became involved in it. “So much so that when Hussain Ali was present the emperor would speak only in Turkish, a language the unfortunate nobleman did not understand”. A maid, Sadrunnisa also helped. Then one day while Hussain Ali was going in a palanquin, a hired assassin, Haider Beg, accosted him on the pretext of presenting a petition. As soon as the palanquin stopped, the intruder’s accomplice passed on a hookah to the unsuspecting man while Haider Beg plunged a knife into his chest. He then pulled his victim out and cut off his head.

A relative of Hussain Ali, a boy in his teens, witnessed the murder and immediately fired a pistol at the assassin, killing him on the spot. But the other conspirators, who were close at hand, fell on the poor boy and cut him to pieces. Haider Quli was rewarded by the emperor for the murder but was not a happy man after that. His haveli passed into other hands following his sudden death and today is a reminder of one of the conspiracies that marked the reign of the frivolous Mohammad Shah. It is said that Haider Quli was a coolie who was made a courtier after he saved the life of the emperor’s son. But this does not seem to be true. Quli is appended to many Muslim names in history though they were never coolies. The word coolie is derived from “Kuli”, an aboriginal tribe of Gujarat and was later used to describe manual labourers and then railway porters. Now Haider Quli’s haveli is occupied by the nonagenarian philanthropist Narain Prasad and his 93 year-old sister, Sarla Sharma. The haveli is hemmed in by a rabbit warren of shops but at one time it was surrounded by open land and a park. The address, “513 Haveli Haider Quli” is a remnant of the original but still has a fort-like appearance. It consists of three storeys with a concealed staircase for purdah women.

The present occupants are descended from Raja Partab Chander, the founder of Partabpur, now known as Sohna, in Haryana. His descendants were uprooted during Babar’s invasion. Garhmal Shah was the raja at that time. After he was killed, one branch moved to the court of Jind, the second settled down as Mughal munshis near what is now Mori Gate and the third went to join the service of the Nawab of Awadh in Lucknow. The haveli was acquired by the family in Delhi during the twilight of the Mughals and ever since it has stayed put there.