Just about any publisher or book distributor worth their salt in Delhi (and even India, for that matter) has an office in Daryaganj. I haven’t been able to figure out the reason for this, but there it is. You can’t be in publishing and not have space in Daryaganj. Consequently, this neighbourhood is almost impossible to visit on a weekday: it’s very crowded and parking space isn’t at a premium: it’s non-existent. The only time when you can visit Daryaganj without the risk of succumbing to hypertension is on a Sunday, when it’s blessedly quiet and empty.
And visiting Daryaganj can be an amazingly rewarding experience, since this area literally breathes history.
Daryaganj means `the mart by the river’ (darya is the Urdu word for river; ganj means mart or wholesale market). Although the river in question—the Yamuna—has since changed its course, it originally flowed by here, along the walls of what was, in the 17th century, an important wholesale market. The Mughal Emperor Shahjahan had established his new capital in Delhi during the latter half of the 1600’s, and Daryaganj, just south of the Imperial Court (in the Red Fort) was where much of the river’s traffic docked, unloading grain and other produce from other parts of the empire. A number of prominent noblemen, such as the Nawab of Jhajjar, also built palatial mansions in Daryaganj.
By the 1700’s, Delhi had slipped into a decline, and a series of disasters—the bloody invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739; a succession of weak-willed rulers; the conquest of the city by the British after the Battle of Patparganj in 1803—resulted in Daryaganj losing its prestige. The nobility fled their mansions, and eventually the British settled in, making Daryaganj and cantonment. The major presence here was that of the corps of Sappers and Miners (colloquially, corrupted to safarmina; old Urdu maps of the 19th century mark the area as safarmina chhauni—the safarmina cantonment).
1857 brought Daryaganj into the limelight, because the Sappers and Miners were at the forefront of the Mutiny. Once the mutineers had been suppressed, the British administration decided to take steps to ensure that the local populace of Daryaganj would never again have the temerity to question imperial dominance. Many buildings (including the Shahjahan-era Akbarabadi Mosque) were razed to the ground, and others—such as the Sunehri Masjid (the `Golden Mosque’) and the Zeenat-ul-Masajid (`Ornament among mosques’) were confiscated by the British. The Zeenat-ul-Masajid, in fact, was converted into a commissariat bakery for the British troops stationed at the Red Fort.
By the time the 1920’s rolled around, Daryaganj was changing its character. The mosques had been returned to the Muslim population for worship; and the administration, in an effort to project a benevolent image, was making grants of land to establish schools, hospitals and charitable institutions, a police station.
Daryaganj today is a very busy commercial district, teeming with people all through the day. But the memories of ages past still haunt this area, and there’s plenty of interesting history hidden within the narrow lanes and bylanes of the neighbourhood to make this a rewarding heritage route. Here’s a suggested itinerary:
Delhi Gate: Park in front of the Hotel Broadway on Asaf Ali Road and walk down (about two minutes’ walk) to Delhi Gate. Straddling a traffic island at the intersection of Asaf Ali Road and Netaji Subhash Marg, Delhi Gate is one of the four remaining gates of Shahjahan’s 17th century city.
The Mortella Tower and the City Wall: Facing Delhi Gate (so that Asaf Ali Road is on your left), turn right and cross the road. A narrow path bisects a park here, leading to a road on the other side of the park. Walk down this path (you’ll see stone ramparts looming on your left, beyond a strip of ground) and walk straight on. The path joins a broad road—Ansari Road, named for a famous statesman—with posh bungalows along the left, and the squat, solid city wall on the right. Walk along the wall and climb up to see the mortella tower midway.
Ansari Road and its colonial buildings: When you’ve descended from the mortella tower, continue to walk along Ansari Road, which soon curves left and penetrates the heart of Daryaganj. This is a fairly broad road, flanked by the offices of publishers, book distributors and other corporate houses. Many of the buildings are new, but every now and then you’ll see signs of colonial architecture: pretty balconies, shuttered windows, semi-circular arches, columns. Keep looking!
Zeenat-ul-Masajid: As you walk down Ansari Road, you’ll come to Ghata Masjid Road, a broad road which you’ll see sloping down to your right. Walk down this road to the imposing Zeenat-ul-Masajid, also known as the Ghata Masjid—you can see the towering minarets and the heavy black-and-white striped domes of the mosque from Ansari Road.
Sunehri Masjid: Once you’ve explored the Zeenat-ul-Masajid, walk back up to Ansari Road and continue walking in the direction you were headed. The road curves left again, and goes past the Jain Temple and Children’s Home, an interesting colonial building dating back to 1903. A little beyond this, the road reaches a busy intersection with Netaji Subhash Marg. At this point, if you look to your right, you should be able to see the ramparts of the Red Fort. Turn right and walk down this stretch for a couple of minutes till you come to the gleaming golden minarets and golden-brown domes of the Sunehri Masjid. Turn to your right into the lane and walk on till the mosque.
Netaji Subhash Marg: After seeing the Sunehri Masjid, turn back the way you came. The main road here—which runs straight on from Red Fort to Delhi Gate—is Netaji Subhash Marg, a very busy thoroughfare that is the hub of Daryaganj. On Sundays, late mornings see Netaji Subhash Marg converted into an open air book bazaar that can be very enticing. Walk on down Netaji Subhash Marg, back towards Delhi Gate. Do keep a lookout for the facades of the buildings along this stretch too—many of them have some lovely colonial elements.
Shroff Charity Eye Hospital: As you walk down Netaji Subhash Marg, you’ll come to a broad lane going off on your left, ending at a distinctive red-painted building. To orient yourself, check that the building on the other side of Netaji Subhash Marg at this point is a large white-painted mosque with its dome lopped off: all that’s left is the drum, or base, of the dome. This also is known as the Sunehri Masjid, and is an early 18th century structure, though it’s been changed so much, it’s lost all its original character. Walk down the lane, which is flanked by some interesting buildings that combine colonial and indigenous elements. The lane ends at the Shroff Charity Eye Hospital.
Kedarnath Road: Facing the hospital, turn right and walk on. You’re now on Kedarnath Road, which runs approximately parallel to, and between, Ansari Road and Netaji Subhash Marg. You can, if you wish, return to Netaji Subhash Marg down the lane you entered; or you can walk on and choose one of the many other lanes that connect the two roads. I’d recommend walking on down Kedarnath Road; this is a quieter, more interesting stretch, with old houses down one side and the grassy patch known as Hindi Park on the other.
Daryaganj Police Station: Shortly after Hindi Park, a broad lane goes past a temple and a series of old offices—including that of a clothing company called Cantabil—off to the right. This lane brings you out onto Netaji Subhash Marg, right next to the large cream-painted, colonnaded bulk of the Daryaganj Police Station. The building dates back to 1930 and though it’s not that well maintained, it’s worth a look anyway.
Just beyond the police station is the Delhi Gate, from where you began the walk.