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Shahjahanabad: Mapping a Mughal City

Shahjahanabad: Mapping a Mughal City

Delhi’s Shahjahanabad was first founded as an empire’s capital at the glorious height of the Mughal dynasty; from this vantage point, it was also witness to the empire’s decline and eventual extinction. The city would transform profoundly in the aftermath of the Revolt of 1857, with many of its neighbourhoods and buildings obliterated, and many of its inhabitants, including the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, having left, never to return. Fortunately, a mapmaker, working in 1846, painstakingly depicted important buildings, streets, and landmarks, providing a wealth of information about the city as it had evolved up to that time. Shahjahanabad reproduces this large-scale, beautifully drawn and coloured map, and considers the city as it had stood prior to its mid-nineteenth-century changes. It also examines the city, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and explores its diverse communities and important landmarks. With a pull-out map included in the book, this is a must-have for anyone interested in cartography and Delhi’s vibrant cultural history.


The Mughal emperor Shahjahan founded the city of Shahjahanabad in the mid seventeenth century as his capital. The city was located close to a cluster of older sites, at Delhi. There were several reasons for the selection of Delhi as the capital. To begin with, there was an imperial aura, a long history of the city as a capital of empires. This dated from the earliest conquest of Delhi by the Turks, in the late twelfth century, and the subsequent establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. The early Mughal emperors, Humayun and Akbar, had also ruled from Delhi, though the latter had soon moved the capital to Agra. Apart from the imperial aura, Delhi had a spiritual aura as well, as the seat of several Sufi saints, most notably Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya, and Nasiruddin Mahmud Chiragh-e-Dehli, many of whom the Mughals revered. The Hindu subjects of the Mughal emperor associated the site with the ancient city of Indraprastha, connected with events mentioned in ancient texts, including the Mahabharata.

Shahjahanabad was a planned city, the only living, planned, Mughal city extant in largely its original form. Encircled by a city wall, it was situated on the bank of the river Yamuna. The citadel housing the emperor and the royal family (officially named Qila-e-Moalla, ‘the exalted fort’, but today known as the Red Fort) was an important focal point of the city, and the congregational mosque, the Jama Masjid, was the next most prominent landmark. The two main streets led from the Qila – one westwards and the other southwards. These ceremonial avenues were lined with trees and provided with a channel of water that flowed down the middle. Some older road alignments were also preserved, particularly a diagonal axis that ran from the middle of the western stretch to the middle of the southern stretch of the wall of the city. The city included large gardens and channels of water, fed by a canal that brought water into the city from the Yamuna further upstream.

A section from the map focusing on the Qila. Image courtesy: Roli Books

Apart from these landmarks, which were a result of imperial planning, the city contained the homes of its diverse population, and a variety of commercial and religious spaces. The amirs (nobles) built their grand mansions, which housed their extended households, including large entourages of retainers. Traders and artisans built more modest homes and workplaces, in localities which often housed others of their trade. Specialist markets – bazaars, developed along the streets, or in enclosed spaces called katras. Places of worship – mosques and temples, were built, usually by individual patrons, though sometimes by community effort.

Shahjahanabad remained the seat of the Mughal royal family for more than two centuries after its foundation, and important changes took place in the city during this period. Political upheavals associated with the decline of the Mughal Empire, such as civil war between various factions within the Mughal nobility, and invasions, were crises that caused considerable human suffering and loss of property. They also led to some long-term changes in the structure of the city. There were sharp fluctuations in the fortunes of various amirs, and as a result some of the large estates declined. In general, the density of built-up area increased, both in the fort, as the royal family increased in numbers, and in the city, where many of the larger estates were subdivided into numerous smaller plots. Construction was not the only way in which each era of the city’s history left its mark. For instance, in the late eighteenth century, the Marathas became the rulers of the city for a number of years. The legacy of that era was reflected in the numerous place names ending with ‘wara’ – Maliwara, Jogiwara, etc.

In 1803, Shahjahanabad and the territory around it came under the control of the British East India Company. The Company became the de facto ruler of the city, while the emperor and the royal family continued to live in the palace complex, the Qila. The late eighteenth century had been a period of disorders and war in North India. With the British vanquishing most of the other powers by the beginning of the nineteenth century, peace descended. This led to a spurt of construction in the city, as well as greater attention to civic infrastructure, which had deteriorated in the previous years. The channel of water that ran down the two main streets and the gardens, was restored. The trees by the sides of the streets that had died, were replaced. The British also brought new styles of architecture and contributed a new layer of landmarks to the city.

This phase in the history of Shahjahanabad came to an abrupt end with the Revolt of 1857. Soldiers who had mutinied in Meerut the previous evening, arrived in Delhi on the morning of 11 May, and soon the British administration was overthrown, to be replaced by the rule of a court of soldiers, under the leadership of Bahadur Shah, the Mughal emperor. The revolt in Delhi lasted for about four months, after which the city was re-conquered by the British. Its violent aftermath, which convulsed the city, changed the morphology of the city significantly. Property owned by the royal family and others held to be responsible for the rebellion, was confiscated, and some important buildings that made up this property, were demolished. These included the sarai complex at the square known as Chandni Chowk, a major landmark of Shahjahanabad. There were large-scale demolitions inside the fort, since that palace complex came to house the army, and new barracks were built in it. A swathe of land, some 450 yards in width, was cleared around the fort for security reasons. The introduction of the railway in the mid-1860s led to a further round of clearances in the northern part of the city.

See Also

In view of the major changes that took place after 1857, to understand the shape and structures of Mughal Shahjahanabad, one must turn to pre-1857 cartographic and textual sources. The map that is the subject of this book, is a large map of Shahjahanabad in the British Library (IO Maps X/1659). Dated 1846–47, 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 map is large and detailed, and in good condition overall, despite a missing corner which corresponds to the southeastern corner of the city. The inscriptions are in Urdu, and can be read with a moderate level of difficulty. The problem arises from two factors. One is some degree of illegibility. This is caused by wear suffered by the map, smudging that seems to have occurred at some time in its life, and an unclear handwriting. The other stems from the fact that the author of the map’s inscriptions has made a large number of orthographic mistakes. The nature of the mistakes tells us that though he was familiar with the Urdu script, he was unfamiliar with many spellings, particularly of Perso-Arabic words. His approach therefore was more or less phonetic. He applied the same approach to English nouns, both common and proper.

ISBN: 9789392130182

Format: Hardback

Publisher: Roli Books

Year of Publishing: 2023

Price: INR 2,495

The book includes a pull-out of the historic map.

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