Cover Story

Heritage Havelis of Shahjahanabad

By Jyotsna Sharma   1 Feb, 2017

One of the things you often find on a European travel itinerary is a visit to a heritage house. Till now India was a country where such visits weren’t possible, given the state of our heritage monuments and buildings. However, things might change sooner than we imagined.

When I found out about Rai Lala Chunnamal’s haveli, I immediately thought of Dennis Servers’ house in London.

Dennis Servers’ house re creates the atmosphere of an 18th century Huguenot Silk weaver’s family home. Everything inside the house is just as it would have been at that time. It is almost, as if they got up and left in the midst of a meal; everything is frozen in time, even the beds are unmade and seem slept in. The visitor is meant to use his imagination and senses to experience what they lived like. These visits are chargeable and visitors have to seek appointments in case of special tours. 

Coming back to the haveli, I have to say that getting there was not easy. We got to Naya Bazar near Chandani Chowk and realized that neither of us was carrying any cash. I tried to ask a rickshaw puller if I could pay by Paytm, prompting a dirty look from him. The lanes and bylanes of Chandani Chowk are congested and having people step on your feet is a common occurrence. I got knocked on the head by a heavy vegetable sack being carried by a vendor.

Once the rickshaw dropped us off near the haveli, it took us 15 minutes to find the entrance. The way the haveli is now, the ground floor has a row of small shops through which a staircase goes up to the first floor where Mr. Anil Preshad, the descendant of Rai Lala Chunnamal and the owner of the property, lives.

The haveli was built by Rai Lala Chunnamal in 1850 and is a gazetted heritage building recognized by the Delhi Government. Rai Lala Chunnamal was a moneylender to the Mughal Empire; he was a banker during the time of the British. In fact, he was a major shareholder in the Delhi- London bank, which operated for a few years but probably shut down due to a change in banking laws. Thereafter, he became the first municipal commissioner of British India. After the 1857 revolt, the British organized an auction in which he bought the Fatehpuri Mosque for INR 19,000.  He was quite secular and looked after the mosque well till it was returned to the Muslims in 1877 by the British, who bought the mosque back from Rai Lala Chunnamal by giving him four villages around Delhi. 

Mr. Preshad has preserved a part of the palatial house and some of the objects in it. As we climbed the stairs we saw beautiful blue and white tiles along the staircase, which were imported from England in the 19th Century when the house was being built. The girders have markings on them dating back to the 1800’s. The stone grills of the balconies still have the same pattern as when the house was built. In the drawing room on the first floor, we see Belgian chandeliers and two large Baroque mirrors. Rai Lala Chunnamal on his travels to Europe saw these fabulous items, was fascinated by them, and decided to get them imported. In the drawing room, there is an inscription in Persian stating the date of construction and that the drawing room belonged to Rai Lala Chunnamal.

The haveli was built on three floors and had 128 rooms. We were told that the family kitchen was on the ground floor and that the family never lived there but it was used for ceremonial purposes. We were also shown the little balcony overlooking three windows that the women of the family used to observe functions and festivities when the purdah system was prevalent. 

Mr. Preshad told us that it is difficult to maintain the haveli due to high costs of maintenance and also because it has been divided between different family members, most of whom are not interested in looking after it. He said it would be ideal if the government got involved in helping conserve the place.

Just a few days after I interviewed Mr. Preshad, the Govt. passed a law to protect 551 heritage buildings in the Walled City, under section 7.26 of the Delhi Building Byelaws for Conservation and Protection.  Of these, 475 are havelis. The law also states that any construction related to these havelis will require permission from the Municipal Corporation and the Heritage Conservation Committee. The owners will now also be eligible to receive government funding for the maintenance of these buildings. This is indeed good news for the many haveli owners like Mr. Preshad. 

I spoke to Mr. Preshad after this news appeared. He said while it is heartening to see that after all these years the Govt. has taken a positive step towards protecting our heritage buildings, there is still ambiguity regarding the law in terms of how much money is available as funding and how one could apply for it. Of course, it is a fairly new ruling so such issues will become clearer over time. 

Mr. Mirza, a conservation architect at INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and an expert in restoration of heritage buildings feels that in addition to Govt. aid, sustainability of these structures is very important.  Simply preserving it or repairing it is not enough. If you repair them and then leave them without use then, over time, the buildings degenerate. Self-sustainability through revenue generation was an important point he made.

Secondly, he stressed that from among all the organisations, there should be just one point of contact for obtaining all permissions. For example, Shahjahanabad Redevelopment Corporation (SRDC) Delhi could be one such body. Also, such an organisation could identify one building every year for funding and help can be given to them for restoration & conservation.

The Govt. has certainly taken a positive step towards preserving our heritage buildings. We cannot wait to experience the conserved buildings and be immersed in the history of Shahjahanabad.