Rubric History & Culture

Mughal paintings on Chhatta Bazaar’s arches bloom anew

Restoration has not hindered business at the bazaar

Restoration has not hindered business at the bazaar   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons


Hidden for centuries under whitewash, the 17th century artwork is being uncovered by ASI

I walk through Lahori gate, the main entrance of Delhi’s Red Fort, and find myself in a cool, covered passage with a series of towering arches — nearly 36 feet high — along its length.

On either side of the passage are shops where tourists from around the world are picking up everything from jewellery and handicrafts to traditional toys and selfie-sticks.

Over 350 years ago, the Chhatta Bazaar — or Bazaar-i-Musaqqaf, as it was then called — catered to the daily needs of Shah Jahan’s entourage and extended family — aunts, uncles, soldiers, guards, cooks, tailors and craftspeople, says Sohail Hashmi, historian and filmmaker, who conducts heritage walks in Delhi. The Mughal emperor, inspired by a covered bazaar he saw on a visit to Persia in 1646, commissioned a similar bazaar in Red Fort.

Floral motifs on the bazaar’s ceiling

Floral motifs on the bazaar’s ceiling   | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

While some theorise that this market was meant exclusively for women shoppers, Swapna Liddle, historian and Delhi Chapter Conveyor for INTACH, disagrees: “The Chhatta Bazaar was in fact a very public place, since everyone coming into the fort from the city came this way.”

Tulips and lotuses

Now, slowly emerging from beneath layers of whitewash on the bazaar’s ceiling and arches are exquisite Mughal paintings. I see geometric and floral motifs that have been teased out by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI): a floral vase, a maroon lotus in full bloom, and lots of tulips.

“Tulips and lotuses are often used together,” says Hashmi. The pigments are natural; the blue was extracted from indigo while the red came from ochre.

Hashmi tells me how the bazaar got its historic, stunningly polished white walls, over which the paintings were created centuries ago. Limestone would be dried until it became rock-hard, and then ground into powder and passed through layers of fine muslin. The result, which had the consistency of talcum powder, would be mixed with jaggery, egg white, lentils (urad dal), bel fruit, and powdered mother-of-pearl. After the walls dried, they were polished for weeks with pebbles from the river bed.

There are three levels of high scaffolding where workers have climbed 20-30 feet high and are immersed in the painstaking restoration. They are using a ‘chemico-mechanical’ process to reveal the greens, reds and yellows on the ceiling.

The restoration has so far revealed paintings on the eastern portion of the bazaar, but much remains to be done on the western wing.

The next step will involve preserving the paintings. As a matter of policy, ASI prefers preservation to restoration.

Floral motifs being restored on Chhatta Bazaar’s celings

Floral motifs being restored on Chhatta Bazaar’s celings   | Photo Credit: V.V. KRISHNAN

“We have to maintain the historicity of the monument,” says an ASI official who doesn’t want to be named. In Humayun’s Tomb, for instance, only one large blue star on the arched entry has been restored to its original colour; the rest have just been cleaned up. The idea is to maintain the narrative of age.

Slow fade

Chhatta Bazaar was at the height of its glory during Shah Jahan’s reign, but began to deteriorate as the Mughal Empire declined. The murals needed to be touched up annually, but without resources they faded away.

When the British took over the fort in the mid-1800s, the cells on the second floor were converted into living quarters for soldiers, complete with toilets and kitchen. These have now been restored and remain vacant above the bustling bazaar.

“When the British army took over, they must have thought the walls to be in poor condition and decided to get them whitewashed,” the ASI official says.

“They must have done this first at the end of the 19th century and then the practice must have just continued,” says Liddle. “If you can’t make it look good by restoring it, you just cover it up.” Another ASI official hypothesises that perhaps it was an attempt by the British to erase Mughal legacy.

ASI says that the decision to retouch the paintings has not been made yet. For now, the focus is on ‘exposure and consolidation’, and it plans to finish work before Independence Day. “It is tedious work and requires a lot of patience,” says the ASI official. “There are six or seven layers of whitewash, of different colours.” The workers also need to be cautious, since hundreds of people pass under the arches every day, and the shops stay open too.

In 2001, the shopkeepers at the bazaar were served an eviction notice by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for ‘security and conservation’ reasons. The move, however, was later dropped. “I’m glad,” says Liddle, “because the shops have always been there. This is actually one part of the fort that is being used as it was meant to be.”

I ask the ASI official what the biggest threat to these structures is today. And I’m told that without a doubt it is vandalism. Fortunately for these paintings, they are high above the ground, well beyond the reach of wannabe Banksys.

When he’s not chasing stories, the writer can be found playing Ultimate Frisbee or endless rounds of Catan.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 4:46:01 AM |

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