| The Red Fort, around which Old Delhi has evolved
His right hand furiously stirring a steaming pot of freshly made potato curry, Mohammed Shamshad recalls the tales he’s heard of the capital.
Of kings mounted on elephants that bore the royal insignia on their foreheads.
Of the majestic Red Fort and the pond opposite that shimmered silver in the moonlight, the bustling bazaar around the pond, and how they came up one after the other almost in the blink of an eye.
Stories of Shahjahanabad in its heyday transport Shamshad back to the early nineteenth century. The samosa seller has heard the tales from his parents, and they from theirs….
Soon, Shamshad might get to relive some of this history.
Delhi plans to restore the glory of India’s former capital, the Mughal seat of power from 1638 till 1857 when the British overthrew the last emperor. Since then, Shahjahanabad has languished in neglect in the backyard of the new capital the Raj built to its south: New Delhi.
Early this March, the Delhi government and a team of senior planners and heritage conservationists decided at a meeting to leave behind decades of dithering.
Finally, the time had come for the beautiful but neglected old capital to be reborn.
| The entrance to Gali Hauz Qazi in Old Delhi: Now (top) and how it should look in the future (painting superimposed on picture)
The idea of re-planning Shahjahanabad — also called the Walled City or Old Delhi — isn’t new. Each of Delhi’s masterplans since Independence has cited the need to preserve the old city’s heritage. But somehow, the ideas were never followed up with action. Until now.
The plan aims to breathe new life into the suffocating old city, whose worn-out body is pockmarked with national treasures — 42 of the 170 heritage monuments preserved by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Senior planner A.G. Krishna Menon, heading the team in charge of Shahjahanabad’s planned facelift, recognises the task won’t be easy.
“Restoring the havelis, modernising the sewerage, water and electricity supplies, improving traffic and parking... the issues are many and complex,” he says, his pen working busily on some of the draft plans at his office of director, TVB School of Heritage Studies, in Vasant Kunj.
It took Shah Jahan 11 years, from 1638 to 1649, to build his capital after shifting base from Agra. The planners, in contrast, hope to give Shahjahanabad the new — or old — look by the September 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Studies on traffic patterns at different times of the day are under way, and detailed plans are being drawn up.
Improving the living conditions for the residents — many of whom, like Shamshad, have lived here for generations — will be the focus of the new plan, according to the Delhi government.
“We need the full cooperation of the residents. The new plan has to serve the interests of the residents first and foremost,” says a bureaucrat known to be close to chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
Menon and his team will be reporting to the chief minister for the implementation of their plans while the Delhi Urban Arts Commission and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) will be assisting them in the planning process.
Shahjahanabad’s majestic havelis — residential quarters on three sides of a rectangular perimeter with a gateway on the fourth side leading into an open central area — will be renovated along their original architectural designs.
“Modern structures, by contrast, have the concept of large lawns with the house laid back in the compound. We will preserve not just the haveli character, but ensure that any rebuilding is done with the same material as the original,” says Menon.
The main streets that connect the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid and markets such as Chandni Chowk were never broad, recalls Shamshad, from the stories passed on to him.
But city planners seem to concur that the most visible deterrent against visiting Old Delhi — cycle rickshaws, cars, trucks and pedestrians jostling for space on roads choked with traffic — is a legacy of the British.
By bringing the Old Delhi railway station into the heart of the city — ramparts of the Red Fort and several spacious gardens were demolished in the process — they encouraged wholesale traders to set up shop in the locality.
With the wholesale traders came, and continue to come, armies of trucks and cycle rickshaws ferrying goods in and out of the narrow alleys, burdening a city ill equipped to deal with the sudden surge in people and vehicles.
“The old city was planned to be self-sufficient. After the railway station was built, it suddenly had to bear the burden of trade for surrounding areas like New Delhi, and with time, other parts of north India,” says professor .P. Jain, Intach convener.
The planners have identified areas outside the Walled City, but equally near the Old Delhi railway station, where they propose to shift the wholesale market.
“The distance will not be any further from the railway station. Also, for those wholesale traders who live in the Walled City, the distance will not be large,” says Menon.
With space between the shops and havelis at a premium, electricity cables dangling dangerously close to each other have led to scores of fires in the region.
A maze of underground tunnels carrying electricity wires across the old city is the proposed solution. The planners want the Delhi government to use highly mechanised digging tools that can scoop out tunnels without disrupting life on the streets above.
Parking, another hassle for those who visit the old city, will also be upgraded.
Detailed drawings have been prepared to accommodate parking facilities for cyclists, two-wheelers, auto-rickshaws and cars without substantially reducing road width. Dustbins, benches and drinking water facilities will be placed near every street corner.
A revamped underground drainage will control the sewage from spilling onto public space.
Specific boards will be put up for advertisements to eliminate the eyesore of hoardings hanging from turrets on architecturally beautiful buildings.
“The old city is now dying. The new plan could prove historic,” says professor Ranjit Mitra, head of the conservation department at the School of Planning and Architecture.
The planners say the lessons learnt from a successful rebirth of Shahjahanabad could be employed in other Indian cities with heritage buildings on narrow roads.
“Traditionally, planning for the heritage part of our cities has been neglected. For instance, in Calcutta, so much money and time has been spent planning Salt Lake, building the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, etc. Old Calcutta has been left to fend for itself,” says Menon.
For Shamshad, the plan could mean the end of a nightmare.
“The memories of Shahjahanabad’s glory are weakening with time. I don’t want my children to miss out on the wonderful heritage that is rightfully theirs.”
If Menon and his team succeed, they won’t.