Delhi through their eyes. – Syed Yusuf

Syed Yusuf Shahab
Hauz-I-Shamsi Burraq Relic
Dargah Nooruddin Mubarak Ghazani
DargahAbdul Haq Mohaddis Dehlvi
Challis Aadalo Ki Mazar
Dargah Sheikh Najibuddin Firdausi

Sufism, an offshoot of Islam, attracts many non Muslims, due to its openness, its vibrancy and the love of its teachers- like Rumi, for God. The language of love, of surrender, of oneness with the Beloved (God), the main tenants of this branch of Islam. The Lost Sufis of Mehruli, was the name of the walk conducted by Syed Yusuf Shahab. Though, we couldn’t visit all the shrines in Mehrauli, as we walked around for four kilometres visiting the hidden gems, only Yusuf knew, it was a wonderful couple of hours spent in great company.

I’ve been told that when I write about the walks, I give away too much information, that’s why one has stopped being too descriptive about them. To know more, purchase the book written by the walk leader- The Lost Sufis of Delhi.

Delhi Through Their Eyes: Connaught Place with Sohail Hashmi

Sohail Hashmi, the most eminent heritage walk leader, in Delhi, took us around Connaught Place, last Sunday. What draws me to his walks, is not just an admiration for his knowledge about the city, per se, but his persona in totality. There’s a gentleness and an intensity, about his demeanour, that draws throngs of people to his walks.

This was the first time, Mr Hashmi conducted a walk in the heart of Delhi- Connaught Place and though he said it required a bit of tweaking, all the participants, really enjoyed walking around, listening to historical facts juxtaposed with his personal anecdotes.

Connaught Place, steers many childhood memories. This hub of New Delhi, is practically where one grew up. Convent of Jesus and Mary, my alma mater which is opposite the Gole Dhak Khana- the octagonal, New Delhi General Post Office Building, is a stone throw away from where all the business and partying take place. Many a birthday parties, dates, class bunks and mishaps have happened in CP. Even now, since one detests malls, many a weekends are spent, enjoying a live concert within these iconic corridors.

Check out Heritage Walks with Sohail Hashmi, on FB, to remain updated on the schedule.

Delhi By Foot

Tareekh-e-Tawaif:Saga of India’s Courtesans
The Shahi Masjid.

‘Ik tum hi nahi tanha, ulfat mein meri ruswaa. Iss sheher mein tum jaise, diwane hazaroon he!’

Tawaif, is a word that’s always intrigued me, much like an adolescent boy, of yore would have been; thanks to the eternal beauty, Rekha and Muzaffar Sahab, who made Umrao Jaan. Any woman, who sticks it to the patriarchy, is greatly appreciated by one and the one’s who could do it with such artistry, beauty and grace, I put them on a separate pedestal.

The first woman poet, to have a printed compilation of her work, Maha Laqa Bai, of Hyderabad was also a famous courtesan.

That also has do with imagery, I’m sure. If my first impression came from Pakeezah, a film that’s considered a classic, I would have been appalled, despite my love for the songs and the painful, angsty beauty of Meena Kumari. The idea, that a woman, only through marriage and parentage, can become pure of heart, takes away the power that some women, who stand on the fringes of society, actually have. Tabu, sitting on a swing, playing Saeeda Begum, with a young Ishaan Khattar, lying by her feet, adoringly glancing at this woman of pleasure, that’s the kind of image that the word, courtesan conjures up in my mind or Manjari performing the Courtesan Project On Stage.

Mariam, a history graduate from Jamia who believes in preserving oral histories, leading us into Qudsia Bagh.
Zubair Idrisi, who plans DBF’s outdoor activities, facilitating the walk.

So, of course I had to go for this walk. The facilitators Zubair and Marriam, took us to the Shahi Masjid first and then to Qudsia Bagh, built by Qudsia Begum, who was the wife of Mohammed Shah ‘Rangeela’. The Begum started as a royal courtesan, became the wife of the emperor, then a high ranking official in the Emperor’s Army and after her husband’s death a regent to her son. It was only after Rangeela’s death in 1748, Udham Bai, the Hindu courtesan, that the emperor had married, took the name ‘Qudsia’, meaning ‘pure, innocent or chaste’. Sounds, familiar?

Mariam Siddiqui, came with printouts of miniature paintings. Some of these illustrations can be found on Wikipedia and other websites. But it was refreshing, to see someone make the effort to print them out, nevertheless.

The young facilitators, took us around to show us the fragments of the palace. While Zubair played a game, with us, Marriam discussed the famous courtesans, the depiction of these courtesans in Bollywood viz a viz Pakeezah ( though her opinion of film, was more about it being Kamal Amrohi’s symbol of love, a Taj Mahal of sorts, to Meena Kumari) and Umrao Jaan; the Randi ka Masjid, the connection of Bollywood with tawaifs through parentage, David Ochterlony etc. What made the walk interesting, was not the recounting of facts, that one can always read ( if one enjoys the activity), it was the feminine point of view, accentuating the power of seduction, not deliberately, though. A little intention, would have been nicer, just a few nuggets from the Suitable Boy or a little more about the state of the women of pleasure in current times or actually taking us to Chawri Bazaar or GB road, would have made it perfect. Nevertheless, Marriam, is an engaging orator, quick witted and the walk was very well researched and facilitated by the two. The banter, the back and forth exchanging of information, between the facilitators also made it a captivating conversation.

Delhi Karavan

Heritage Walk at Purana Qila.

In the heart of Delhi, there’s a beautiful citadel, on Mathura Road, between the Zoo and Pragati Maidan called the Old Fort, better known as Purana Qila. The site has been relevant from time immemorial it seems- starting from the Mahabharat period, to the Mughal Period and even in the The Modern Era. From the beginning there is evidence of a continuous chain of settlement, that can be found here, though the builder of the fort itself, is contested. Humayun ( 1530-40) started to build his city the Deenpanah, after his conquest of Chunnar and Kalinjar and some say part of Deenpanah, is what is now, known as the Old Fort. On the other hand, Sher Shah Suri’s son’s chronicler, mentions that Sher Shah ( 1540-1545), ordered walls around the ‘fort of Humayun’, after he forced the original out. Whereas, some historians argue, that the victor destroyed all the previous buildings before beginning construction.

The only thing that’s certain is that the Purana Qila, was built in the 16th century. Though Sher Shah, was only in power for five years, this citadel is one of his most prestigious projects, yet it is said that before its completion Sher Shah died and eventually the citadel was completed by Humayun. The mile long, stone wall completes an entire circuit and the three gates- The Bada Darwaza, the Talaaqi Darwaza and Humanyun Darwaza are truly impressive. Till about 1913, the fort was actually occupied by villagers, who were made to move out and then it came under the ASI. During the partition it was turned into a refugee camp.

Delhi Karavan, organised a heritage walk last weekend, at the Purana Qila. This was the second walk I attended and the third time I met the founder- Asif Khan Dehlvi, who looks like the rock star of the heritage walk circuit. A tall Pathan man, who gave up his corporate job to conduct heritage walks in the language of love-Urdu. He co founded a heritage walk startup, left that and then in November 2013, he conducted his first walk for his new venture-Delhi Karavan.

Our first encounter, was on a cold winter evening, last November. Asif’s love for Delhi and his spiritual inclination were both quite evident and they left a lasting impression. He’d wanted to read Rumi and Shamz in Urdu, so I got him some books from Kashmir and that’s how we ended up meeting one another, for the first time. He is amicable and an obvious charmer. My opinion was reaffirmed when I attended one of his walks – he has a special way with women, after all if your greatest inspiration is your mother and you only have female siblings, you do learn how to say all the right things . The men seem to be quite taken by him, too. Of all the heritage walks I’ve been on, nowhere have I seen, so many people photographing the leader. He does make a great muse but he is thronged by photographers, so the novelty is missing. It’s the ease and charm with which he takes you around the sites, that make the walks look like performances and makes up for him being a storyteller and not a history buff. Check out the pics to see what I mean.

Asif Khan Dehlvi
Asif Khan Dehlvi

The Purana Qila, is also believed, by many historians, to be the site of the oldest settlement in Delhi, the capital of the Pandavas- Indraprashtha. Various excavations that have been carried out, prove that there was human settlement in this area a 1000 years before Christ. Ever since, I’ve begun work on my new series- Delhi through their eyes and mine, I’ve noticed how, we the privileged may have started ignoring, these archeological wonders, as we spend our weekends at malls and multiplexes but for the less fortunate, this is what family time, still comprises off, which is a beautiful sight to see. Families basking in the sun, children giggling and fighting, the way only children can! As I walked towards Asif and a couple of people who had gathered at the gate at ten, a family sitting on the pavement stopped me . ‘Please book our tickets, online, we don’t have Paytm!’. I promised to return after informing the group about my whereabouts and I did.

The Ministry of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India, have made online bookings mandatory for all the ticketed heritage sites ( though Sunder Nursery is not on that list. Today, I could purchase the ticket from the counter). Due to COVID, even the parking is closed at the venue and till the 26th the venue itself is shut. When you go to the ASI site, it asks you to give the details of your id like an Aadhar No, a Passport No etc and of course your mobile no. It also requires for you to be able to comprehend English. As I bought my e ticket as well as the family’s , another family approached me and then all hell broke loose. Suddenly, one was surrounded by young boys who wanted to learn how to use the site, three older gentlemen from (what I jokingly call my pind) Kashmir, who wanted me to book their tickets as well, as they couldn’t figure out how to. While I was doing that, my phone’s battery was running low, the guards started arguing with the people surrounding me, to leave me alone, while the Kashmiri gentlemen started insisting I take the money…in between all the chaos, when I looked up, the group had already gone in. The ASI, should reconsider this move, at least provide an alternative to people, who are there to soak up the sun, in this harsh weather…in these terrible times and spend a couple of hours with their families. Everyone is not technologically savvy and some people don’t carry their ids around. Paperless entries are fab but a helping hand would be nice.

Though, Asif will tell you about Sher Shah Suri and Humayun he will not discuss the intricate details of the architecture with you. He’ll take you through history, on flights of fantasy, meandering from one fable to the other. To be honest, I spent more time photographing the walk leader than listening to him, on this particular outing. But the general vibe that one gets, about Delhi Karavan, is that it’s a very cordial environment, full of fun and frolic- a group of old friends who like to hang out with each other and explore facets of Delhi, led by Asif, of course, whose been doing this for a long time. Like my distant relative, who is a frequent attendee, vouched for the other day, ‘ and that too, very well!’

Check out their page on FB to know about their walks, which are a bit irregular till March, due to the pandemic. Henceforth, they’ll be back on track.