Interestingly, our early morning trip to ‘Purani Dilli’ began with a ride in the symbol of modern Delhi, the Delhi Metro. Nidhi and I sit adjacent to each other in office but found the cubicle-less proximity much inducive to deep conversation and missed our station. Grumbling about the shocking speed at which the train traversed through the belly of the city and after paying a princely fine of Rs 50 to the Metro authorities we emerged in the heart of Shahjahanabad, Chandni Chowk.
The rickshaw ride through the ancient bazaar, watching it stir into break of day activities at the leisurely pace befitting the 17th century havelis which line the streets, was enchanting. The aroma of freshly fried puris and milk sweet tea filled the air while the shutters went up revealing shops selling everything from bejewelled sarees to electrical goods. Ajmeri Gate, one of the five remaining gates of Shahjahanabad, stands forlornly at the intersection of several such streets that in a few hours time would see frentic commercial transactions. Our task of photographing the gate for our book Monuments of Delhi was challenging to say the least. The single arched gateway looked imposing but was surrounded by scaffoldings as it is being renovated by ASI. When we attempted a closer inspection we were greeted by a large mongoose family, its current residents, who seemed to take our intrusion well and posed indulgently for Nidhi. The gate’s semi-octagonal turrets on the two sides and embossed motifs still look magnificent though.
We proceeded to Delhi Gate, again by rickshaw. It stands on a traffic island, at the junction of Asaf Ali Road and Netaji Subhash Marg and owes it name to the fact that when Shahjahanabad was built, it faced the old cities to the south known as ‘Dilli’. Today, it is identified with Daryaganj, the hub of India’s publishing industry which lies to its north. Like Ajmeri Gate, it is a single high arch with flanking octagonal turrets. While we took photographs of the gate at high noon, with heavy traffic constantly whizzing past it, we were amazed at how it stood stoically, unattached to the wall of which it was once a part.
When Mughal emperor Shah Jahan laid the foundations of the city of Shahjahanabad in 1638 he enclosed it within walls, bits of which now remain in Daryaganj. We walked to the wall from Delhi Gate crossing the offices of several publishing houses. The almost 13 m high wall, with spear holes and battlements, now serves as a parking space for editors! Cars stand in a neat row ensconced in the arches in the inside wall.
As we wound our way back to the relatively new and structured lanes of South Delhi we made urgent plans to revisit the area to shop and eat, finding it hard to shake the aura of the ancient city that has neither lost itself in the new nor resisted inevitable growth.