The story of Shahjahanabad

Shahjahanabad – built by Shahjahan. That is what Shahjahanabad actually means. Just as Tughlaqabad means built by Tughlaq and the meaning of Akbarabad? Well, built by Akbar.

In this last excerpt translated from Bashir-ud-Din Ahmad’s magnum opus on Delhi we have chosen a description of the spread of Shahjahanabad.

“…..Col. Polier (Swiss adventurer, military engineer and soldier who made his fortunes trading in India) estimates the perimeter of the city to be 10 miles, Franklin (William Franklin who has written on the city) says it is seven miles and Captain Archer says that it is five miles. Von Orlich describes Shahjahanabad as the Rome of India and reserves high praise for its mosques, palaces, halls, gardens, the mausoleums of kings, their consorts and the mausoleums of the nobles.

This is what Franklin has to say about the city and its suburbs ‘the best view of the city, its buildings and its ruins is to be had from river Jamna, flowing opposite the fort three miles from the city. The grand ruins of the forts of Ferozeshah and Shershah, the impressive mausoleum of Humayun placed atop a high pedestal, its huge dome and the numerous big and small domes dotting the skyline, some glistening in marble and others aglitter in multi-coloured hues. The Qutub Minar, encircled by hills and reaching for the heavens, marble mansions sprinkled through the undulating landscape of the city, golden domes, the grand enclosing wall, imposing red sand stone gates through which one gets a glimpse of the minarets of the Jama Masjid and the Zeenat-ul-Masjid standing erect and proud, the entire scene (scene used in the original) is extremely interesting, engaging and full of grandeur.’

It is popularly believed that that it took seven years to complete the city. Looking at the expanse of the city and the scale of construction this does not appear to be an exaggeration. Bernier (French traveller Francois Bernier) saw the city in 1666 and this is what he says ‘……it was about 40 years ago that with a few to perpetuate his memory, Shahjahan, the father of the present king Aurangzeb, decided to build a new city close to old Dehli and therefore this New Delhi came to be known as Shahjahanabad or in an abbreviated form as Jahanabad.

Shahjahan, sick of the oppressive heat of Agra, did not think that it was a place that could meet the requirements of a royal residence and so instead of Agra he declared Delhi to be his Capital. Quite a lot of building material was harvested from the ruins that lay scattered all around and that is perhaps why people from other nations have mixed up the two Dehlis. Indians invariably use Shahjahanabad for this New Dehli but since the name of Dehli is more popular in Europe, I too use Dehli in my travelogues. In this respect Dehli is akin to a new city Loire.

Delhi is spread on one bank of the river, the population is spread out in a large arc in such a manner that the city looks like a crescent moon. There is a bridge of boats for crossing the river, The city is protected on one side by the natural defence of the river while on the other it is enclosed by a wall, the enclosing wall, however, is not complete, because there is no moat to defend the city, neither have any defensive provisions been made, there is of course at every 100 steps an old style bastion and an earthen mound in the shape of a raised wall. The width of the citadel wall is about four or five French feet. This enclosing wall runs not only around the city but the wall also runs around the fort ( Red Fort) but the perimeter of the city is not as extensive as people assume it to be. I was able to easily go around the city astride a horse in three hours and I don’t think I was moving at a speed faster than one French league an hour. In this circumambulation of the city, I did not however cover the suburbs of Dehli, they are extensive and spread towards Lahore, the structures of the old city are spread wide and there are three or four smaller settlements near this city as well.

If all of them are combined, the city will become quite large. If a straight line was drawn such that it passed through the centre of the city, the length of the line will be a little more than a league. Though I am unable to give the exact measure of this city, because in the suburbs there are many large gardens and many open areas, we should accept that the extent of the city is simply huge”.

At places the description may not be very exciting but what it contains is information gathered from diverse sources and crossed referenced, something that was not common in the times when this work was written.

When you come across details like the times when new gates were added to the enclosing wall of the city and the times when some of them were demolished and the reasons for their demolition you suddenly begin to look at the city not like something that was completed at one go and then it remained without change till 1857. Texts like Bashir-Ud-Din’s Waaqeyaat is a document that gives you the history of Delhi as something, growing and developing not as something carved in stone for all eternity and it is this reason more than any other that is an argument in it being translated and made available for a larger readership.

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