DIWAN-E-AAM Studio of Mazhar Ali Khan, c. 1840. Image Credit: British Library, London, UK

Things are lost in history!

Even the most endowed cultures have disappeared; cities, citadels, public buildings, imprints of what was once invigorating. To that public memory recalibrates, it often remembers selectively of the ‘past’. This is true of Delhi, one of the most fascinating cities of the world, a city that has changed its demeanor again and again.

With every new avatar of Delhi perhaps the chiseled question that dashed was would Delhi be remembered! The answer lay rooted in a Delhi that would last longer, hanging in there and not fall to another political upheaval capturing our imagination with its high spirits.

Such a Delhi that would last long enough, read over two centuries was founded by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal Emperor in circa 1648 – a walled city with an exclusive citadel for the royal family called Shahjahanabad. Shahjahanabad therefore is the ‘Delhi’ at the heart of intergenerational public memory.

OPN_Old Delhi
BAHADUR SHAH II SEATED ON A THRONE BELOW THE SCALES OF JUSTICE IN THE KHAS MAHAL, SOON AFTER HIS CORONATION IN 1837 The Mughal emperor is flanked by his sons, the older Mirza Fakhru, and the younger Mirza Mughal. An attendant behind holds a yak tail flywhisk. Painting by Ghulam Ali Khan. Image Credit: Qatar Museums, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

A Time Stamp and More

Once India gained freedom in 1947, the cartographic imprints of the entire area changed unrecognisably. The name Shahjahanabad was replaced by an overarching term ‘Old Delhi’ or ‘Purani Delhi’ (colloquial) summarising the essence of a historical, composite, glittering Mughal township!

Old Delhi is like an oasis – a pocket dotted with known and unknown architectural markers, mostly dilapidated, encroached or neglected, shrouded from the rest of the world albeit from New Delhi, a city of newer public buildings, rechristened roads, and upscale neighborhoods.

The rising amnesia about Old Delhi made it slip into a weird combination of invisibility and remembrance - mix of touristy locations and eat out places for most, forgetting how it was India’s vibrant syncretic capital once. Midst its nearly forgotten existence few have been working relentlessly, to resituate Shahjahanabad in its due historical light. Swapna Liddle the noted historian has been one of them.

OPN Shahjahanabad book cover
Shahjahanabad book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Liddle’s recent book ‘Shahjahanabad Mapping a Mughal City’ (Roli Books, April 2023) a remarkable effort supported by a full-bodied visual curation by Pramod Kapoor and Sneha Pamneja is a move towards that direction of freshening memory, reclaiming the history of Shahjahanabad.

The book which is based on a grand cartographic map of the walled city, created in 1846-47 examines each neighborhood, and the diverse communities which lived there, “It is the most detailed available cartographic record of the city before the major changes that were affected immediately following the Revolt of 1857,” the historian writes.

With the map maker remaining anonymous it only adds to Shahjahanabad’s fascinating story, especially in an era when most would leave their signature on their work. Liddle believes, “The mapmaker did not consciously choose to remain anonymous.

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It is just that his name, and the names of the members of his team who must have helped in the surveying and execution of the map, have been lost to history”. She further explains, “As a historian, I like to use all sorts of sources to learn about the past – texts like newspapers and letters, visual material like paintings and photographs, among others. Thus maps are one of several kinds of sources which can give us valuable insights into a city’s past.”

But then transforming a map into a book is an exceptional idea and one would need a passionate publisher. Pramod Kapoor founder of Roli Books pitched in, “This extraordinary map is in the collection of British Library and was shown to me 7/8 years ago by Jerry Losty, one of the most celebrated Art Historians of our time. Taken in by the sheer visual beauty of the map I decided then and there to publish a full book”.

A vibrant, syncretic past

In a way the map is a metaphor of how Old Delhi exits today, unknown to most but a singular tool to understand the vibrant, syncretic past. “Studying Shahjahanabad is a wonderful way of understanding Mughal town planning principles, and these gives us an insight into what the values of the Mughal empire were. These values – the grandeur and centrality of the emperor in structure of the state, the equality of all citizens before the emperor, inclusivity within the social fabric, are all characteristics that the Mughal empire at the time of Shahjahan aspired too.”

Pertinently the resurrection of the blueprint read the map of the bygone city comes at a time, when Delhi is seeing its naturally endowed public spaces shrunk-often in the name of ‘modernisation’.

There was class hierarchy of course, but it did not rigidly determine who lived in which locality. Unlike the gated colonies of modern Delhi, rich and poor often lived next to each other in Shahjahanabad, though of course their houses may be very different


Liddle advocates on the take away that Shahjahanabad has to offer in this context, “it can probably give us lessons in modes of living that we have largely lost – building structures that last for centuries, planning compact cities that are walkable, physical spaces that are also social spaces.”

Kapoor who along with his colleague Sneha Pamneja spearheads the visual curation of the book is also impressed by the far sight of the design, function ability “There’s no doubt that the walled city was planned impeccably in those days and it served the needs brilliantly. With time, changes were brought in. Besides British who pulled down certain structures after 1857 mutiny and replaced them with army barracks, there were other structures that were replaced by the Mughals themselves from time to time.”

Top fatehpuri masjid bottom chandni chowk Image Credit: British Library, London, UK

A city open to ‘flexible’ urban planning by not forcing its ethnic communities or occupational groups to settle together can be attributed as ahead of time. Liddle, whose doctoral work revolves around the same period; the first half of the nineteenth century writes, “The most classic case Dariba, which was in fact established by Shahjahan as a mohallah of Jain Bankers, also very quickly began to show signs of a very mixed population. Fluidity is also evident in the matter of social hierarchy. The mansions of the nobles sit cheek by jowl with those of the most the humble folks.” This free flowing pattern of settlement within a neighbourhood reflects fluidity and multicultural sensibilities of the Shahjahan regime.

An era before national boundaries

In the growing culture of divisiveness, where one often comes across public notices like “this sect not allowed”, “that religion not allowed”, “only married allowed or only bachelors permitted”, Shahjahanabad revealed “markers of cosmopolitanism, natural for a city that was the capital of such a large and multi-cultural empire with interactions with the wider world as well. It was also characteristic of an era before national boundaries, when people became citizens of a land simply by choosing to go and settle there”.

Although Shahjahanabad can surely be counted as a model township but not a sweeping utopian one, “There was class hierarchy of course, but it did not rigidly determine who lived in which locality. Unlike the gated colonies of modern Delhi, rich and poor often lived next to each other in Shahjahanabad, though of course their houses may be very different” points out Liddle.

The extant of modernism in Shahjahanabad is rather striking and maps developed over the decades only sharpen this idea. The map of 1846 perhaps ordered by the city administration, remains one of the most real and critical evidences of modern town planning.

OPN_Old Delhi
Image Credit: British Library, London, UK

A mere shadow of its own existence

Liddle notes “The chronology of the different maps is important. For instance, the maps of 1774 can tell us nothing about the several specific people that the map of 1846 mentions. The latter shows up the houses, shops, and other buildings associated with many historical figures from the time of Bahadur Shah, which the 1774 maps cannot. But the difference is a more fundamental one. The 1846 map is a detailed town plan of the entire city, whereas what we have from the 18th century are plans of individual streets, or specific areas such as the Red Fort. No full map of the city dating to the 18th century has been found.”

Once Mughal Empire crumbled down and emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II was deported to Myanmar, Shahjahanabad was lost in history. In next few decades, the erstwhile city morphed into a mere shadow of its own existence. A large swathe of people migrated, those who were spared of the massacre lived on, leading a life of lingering memories.

At the turn of twentieth century, as India inched towards independence, the area got its present day name ‘Old Delhi’, for by then the idea of a new Delhi/capital had emerged. This was also the time when public memory accounted the ‘historical’ characteristic of a Delhi that had ceased to exist.

What remains today is a mix of everyday living experiences (for the residents of Delhi -6) and people’s memory (for others)! In Kapoor’s words one which is “invariably short and needs to be reminded by the historians,” with “publication of such books”.

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Liddle on the other hand, feels, “Public memory can be an important source for historians seeking to understand the past. It does change with time, so it is important to correlate evidence, for instance that from oral testimony, with other sources too. Once that past is understood in a meaningful manner, it can be an important way for us to understand the present city as well.”

But what when the juggernaut of deliberate forgetfulness strikes in, like omissions in school syllabus, or renaming of roads or the discourse of reclaiming only one bit of the humongous multicultural past, it is then we need to correlate with historical evidences like this insightful map of 1846.

Liddle sets it straight “The Mughal period is an important period in our history during which many significant developments took place, which define our national identity today. So I think the history of that period definitely needs to be studied”.

To that one is reliant on the current readers, the students, or to anyone who would not succumb to the idea of “lost in history”. The author of Shahjahanabad Mapping a Mughal City is optimistic, “I hope my book will be a contribution in that direction”.

‘Shahjahanabad Mapping a Mughal City’

Text Swapna Liddle

Visual Curators Pramod Kapoor & Sneha Pamneja

(Roli Books, April 2023)

Nilosree is an author, filmmaker