Delhi's links... .old and new
CHANDNI CHOWK in the Walled City of Delhi often renews its link with the past and many occasions when it saw bloodshed and violence. A few years after Shah Jahan built it, the moonlight street saw Dara Shikoh being taken for execution on a dirty elephant to jeers from the soldiers of his victorious brother, Aurangzeb, and the sighs of the residents. It witnessed more gory sights when Guru Tegh Bahadur and his two disciples suffered martyrdom, and later during the frequent battles for the throne among the successors of Aurangzeb. But the bloodiest sight was the invasion of Nadir Shah and then the "Mutiny'' and its holocaust, which included the murder of the Moghul princes. Rioting in 1947 and other outbreaks of communal frenzy have also been witnessed here even in our times.
But Chandni Chowk has also been the hub and centre of the social, cultural and religious life of the Capital. In front of the Baptist Church, where the British band played once a week, preachers of various faiths gathered for debates, also held in the Pipalwala Bagh whose site is now occupied by Lajpat Rai Market. During the freedom struggle, Chandni Chowk occupied the pride of place and it was here that the procession of the Viceroy Lord Hardinge was attacked and also the great leaders of the Independence movement held their meetings.
Earlier, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Shraddhanand were among the prominent preachers seen here. Vivekananda stayed with his friend Dr.H.K. Sen. One can visualise Swamiji walking down the chowk with his disciples, pausing at the church and sometimes listening to the debates and perhaps joining them. His visit in February 1891 was a landmark and those who came to know him were duly impressed. During most of his three-week visit, he stayed in Roshanara Garden at the house of Shyamaladas Seth. But he kept coming to Chandni Chowk and sometimes visited the Yamuna Bank. As there was no New Delhi then, life in Delhi was confined to the Walled City. The Capital was of course at Calcutta, still Delhi's importance as the former seat of the Moghuls was no less.
History keeps repeating itself in Chandni Chowk -- still the most important market of Delhi. We realise this only when the chowk is closed and life in it comes to a standstill. During the long curfew hours in the 1990s pigeons, which generally flock the fountain, found it convenient to spread out right up to the Fatehpuri Masjid. They swarmed the street unmindful of the armed police patrols. It's the heavy traffic that puts them to flight, and since that was missing they had a field day.
The spirit of solitude that broods over Chandni Chowk on such occasions makes the chowk lose touch with the screeching, throbbing present that in normal times encroaches on its very character of a medieval promenade. Lajpat Rai Market, opposite the Red Fort, has acquired its own character over the years and now seems very much a part of Chandni Chowk. It was only after Partition that this market was built for the refugees from West Pakistan. Before that a park occupied the place. Known as Pipalwala Bagh it was the rendezvous of nationalists who addressed many public meetings here -- Gandhi, Nehru and Swami Shraddhanand among them. Even Jinnah once addressed a gathering at the spot and pointing to the fort said that the legacy of the Moghuls would have to come back to the people after the British left.
But before the nationalist wave swept the country Pipalwala Bagh had a different character. Its proximity to the fort made it an important place and it was here that people wanting to present petitions to the king waited before making their way to the Diwan-e-Aam. During Shah Alam's reign the residents of Delhi gathered here on hearing that Ghulam Qadir Rohilla had blinded the king. Many of them were armed with swords, lathis and spears. That there was no confrontation between them and the Rohillas was perhaps due to the fact that they realised that it would be an unequal combat with the ruthless freebooters.
At the time of Akbar Shah-II the traders of Chandni Chowk gathered here to petition the king about the increasing debts of the members of the royal family and during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar, it was here that the merchants decided to offer financial help for the upkeep of the so-called rebels in 1857. The British troops occupied vantage points in the park after they had recaptured Delhi, demolishing the huts and other structures that had come up at the entrance to the fort. After they went back to their barracks, the park became the meeting point of the Bankas of Chandni Chowk.
Here men exercised in the day at the "akharas" which are now found on the other side of the road. In the afternoon the bhang was concocted in the park and the in the evening people came to stroll and show off their latest clothes. Pipalwala Bagh is now no more and the huge peepal trees after which it was known have been cut down to make way for the market that plied a brisk trade unmindful of the story of the place.
Now Vijay Goel, the BJP Member of Parliament from the area, has taken up the task of restoring Chandni Chowk to its pristine glory. The Chandni Chowk festivals organised by him have enthused the people. If he has his way, the place will become a big tourist attraction.
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