Existing and forgotten traditions of Purani Dilli

“Kanmailiya”, “saqqa”, “tongawallah”, “warq beaters” and calligraphy are words slowly fading away from the dictionary of Delhi, but Purani Dilli- wallas still remember how these and several other things were an integral part of the traditions of Old Delhi.


“Eating with a spoon was looked down upon, and not considered good etiquette. In fact, people would not wipe their hands after washing them because it was believed that impurities from the cloth would enter the food,” said Chief Election Commissioner S. Y. Quraishi, sharing similar existing and forgotten traditions of Old Delhi.

He was speaking at a public lecture on “Old Delhi: Living Traditions” organised by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) as part of its campaign for nomination of Delhi to UNESCO's list of World Heritage cities. Dr. Quraishi, whose family has been living in Delhi for around 500 years, narrated the story of Delhi as a “personal account”. He spoke about traditions and practices that have been preserved by the city despite the changes in its appearance.

He spoke about the markets, food, culture, language, professions and mingling of cultures that is still evident in Shahjahanabad, Nizamuddin and Mehrauli.

Beginning with the marketplaces of Old Delhi, he said that most continue to deal in the same wares as they did years ago. “Dariba was a real scene of culture, not just a market…Khari Baoli was and still is the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, Chawri Bazar is for wholesale paper, Darya Ganj for medical equipment and book publishing, Urdu Bazar is famous for its street food, Nai Sarak for books and stationery, even though some sari trading shops have come up in recent times,” said Dr. Quraishi.

He also mentioned the fading and some extinct traditions like “saqqa”, who would distribute cool water in sheepskin, “kanmailiya” or ear cleaner, who was extremely important for travellers who would want their ears cleaned of dust and sand accumulated along the way.

“Poetry was a full time profession,” said Dr. Quraishi, reciting poetry of greats like Mir Taqi Mir and Ghalib, who belonged to Delhi. “Poetry was, in fact, not confined only to the poets. Hawkers, “saqqa”, “dhobi”, everyone indulged in some form of poetry. More importantly, it was not a preserve of the Muslims alone,” he added. He also spoke about the Urdu language, which was an integral part of the culture of the city.

Dr. Quraishi also brought out the “mingling and closeness of communities” in Old Delhi. “Monuments of five religions stand shoulder in Old Delhi,” he said. The Digambar Jain Temple, which is the “oldest Jain temple in Delhi”, the Gauri Shankar Temple, Sis Ganj Gurdwara, Sunehri Masjid and the Central Baptist Church, are testimony to unity that has existed in the city since centuries.

Diverse festivals

The diverse festivals celebrated in the Walled City, and the famous Old Delhi food which is still sought after, was also mentioned. Dr. Quraishi agreed that the Delhi Metro had helped put Old Delhi back on the culture map of Delhi, especially the variety of food available in the by-lanes.

He also spoke about the “tehzeeb” and culture that people took pride in. “The “ugaldaan”, “paandaan” or spittoon, which people carried with them were a far cry from the present day situation, where every several walls in the city seem to be splashed with “paan” stains,” he added.

The CEC then spoke about the sports and recreational activities that Old Delhi- wallahs indulged in, some of which are still practised, while others like “chaupar”, animal fights, “kabootarbaazi” (pigeon fighting) are slowly dying out.

He ended the talk by taking the audience through pictures of the Anglo-Arabic School where he had studied, the original building of St. Stephen's College, the Hardayal Library (which was renamed from Hardinge Library), Ghalib's house in Ballimaran and Old Delhi railway station, which despite being an architectural “eyesore”, is still an essential part of Old Delhi.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 5:19:34 PM |

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