A Walk Through Old Delhi: The Fusion of Hindu, Muslim and Jain Cultures

Even as Hindutva proponents loathe the Mughal period, in the heart of Mughal Shahjahanabad – or the walled Old City of Delhi, is a glorious tradition of at least a 100 Jain and Shaivite temples that were built during the period.

It was an exploration I undertook with two history buffs – Rana Safvi, medieval historian, author of books on the aesthetic and sumptuous cultural Mughal history, and a pledged believer of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of the Gangetic plains; and Sam Dalrymple, a scholar from Oxford University who is currently writing a book on the “five partitions of India”, set to be released next year.

A week ago, they had both set off to the Old City to explore the monuments that were chronicled in Safvi’s last of the trilogy on Delhi, Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi and a fortuitous visit to the rare Charandas temple in the area – a saint who lived in early 18th century and whose followers reject the caste system. To their horror, a slapdash paint job masqueraded as the “restoration” of perhaps the oldest Vaishnav frescoes in Old Delhi. As Safvi gasps at the sacrilege, she asks, “Why were these heritage Vaishnav paintings not protected? My book 2019 book on Shahjahanabad captures the original in a photograph. And it does not compare to the present botch up.”

It set the duo to undertake a serious look at some of the temples of Mughal India and their series on Instagram has opened up a treasure trove of Shahjahanabad’s “best-kept secret” as Safvi says, of the temples in the heart of Islamic Delhi. The temples not only reveal the vibrant significance of the Jain and Shaivite communities which resided in Shahjahanabad during the Mughal period, but is an architectural revelation of the design and aesthetic of the time, and also the cultural lifestyle of that period.

As Safvi explains, standing in the foreground of Urdu Mandir, now called Lal Mandir, in the former Urdu Bazar, with the Red Fort across the road, “This is the oldest Jain mandir of Shahjahanabad, built during the reign of Emperor Shahjahan,” explains Safvi, “when one of the Jain soldiers in Shahjahan’s army kept three idols in a tent for prayers. Urdu then meant camp, which is how it got its name Urdu temple (camp temple) and Urdu Bazaar (camp bazaar) until Agarwal Jain merchants built a grand concrete temple in the same spot as the tent.”

Safvi says the three idols date back to 1436, and the temple was built in 1656, with active or passive patronage and permission from the emperor. To assert her point, Safvi emphasises that even when the British East India Company took over, the proclamation made in Shahjahanabad was, “Created by god, land of the emperor and command of the Company. In other words, the land still symbolically belonged to the Emperor.”

Safvi and Dalrymple’s Instagram pages also received legitimate questions asking whether an emperor or king can be associated with the buildings and architecture of the time. Some people have asked Safvi, can these temples be considered “Mughal” only because they were built during Mughal rule? Did the emperors patronise or fund the temples, they ask?

According to Dalrymple, whose main study is on the stories that monuments tell, “The timing of when and where a monument is located plays a big part in its story – the term Mughal does not just refer to the royal family, but also to the Mughal court and empire. A Victorian building is called so, not because it was commissioned by Queen Victoria specifically but because it belongs to the era.”

Also, says Dalrymple, Mughal rule was spread across 300 years – while Aurangzeb may have terrorised Hindus, the last Mughal decades had rulers like Akbar Shah II, father of Bahadur Shah Zafar, and Muhammad Shah Rangeela, who was hailed as a patron of the arts. “Can you say Nehru and Modi are the same because both are prime ministers of independent India?” asks Dalrymple.

Safvi explains further when she says the erstwhile affluent Jain and Khatri community leaders played a crucial role in the Mughal empire; the rich community members bankrolled the Mughal empire, even underwriting the Mughal economy; including military aid from these semi-independent rulers. Their clout and privilege can be seen in the heart of Shahjahanabad, designed and built by Emperor Shahjahan when he moved the capital from Agra to Delhi in 1648, with an elaborate blueprint that included specific areas for temples and mosques, amongst all the trappings of a brand new city of fort-palaces, ornate gates, markets, buildings, boulevards, waterways and gardens.

The temples in Shahjahanabad were not only designated in specific designed areas – Jain temples in Dharmapura were given the land for the community’s services to the Imperial court since Aurangzeb’s time, and Shaivite temples in Katra Neel (the location got its name from the indigo traders who first set up shop here) – some emperors even took an active role in temple construction, says Safvi. Most notable were Akbar Shah II, Mohammad Shah Rangeela, and Bahadur Shah Zafar, beginning in the early 19th century.

The decorative Naya Jain Mandir, in Dharmapura, built in 1807, is a classic example of the clout and privileges enjoyed by the wealthy and influential Jains in the Mughal administration. Climbing atop the ornate and sumptuously decorative Naya Jain Mandir, Safvi explains the prestige swayed by Raja Harsukh Rai, an Agarwal Jain, who built the temple and who was the Imperial Treasurer in the court of Akbar Shah II. While there were several other Jain temples around, Rai wanted his temple to be different and he persuaded Shah II to be allowed to build a giant shikhara (steeple) atop the temple, even though the Mughal decree only allowed the inverted Mughal lotus dome.

Spanning the interiors of the ornately sculpted pillars, its delicate, airy tracery carved stone entrance – hard to believe it’s made of stone; a similar one is found in Fatehpur Sikri, says Safvi; apart from the pierced foliage on arches and colonnades, made of polished white marble and classic Mughal inlay work in crushed semiprecious stone. “As you can see, every inch of the walls and ceilings are richly painted with blue and gold, and this temple is a true reflection of what Mughal life would have been at the time,” she says.

It is one reason why Safvi wishes these living monuments to be listed and preserved, as they blow away the Hindutva belief that all temples were demolished by Mughal rulers. But crucially, they need to be preserved because they are symbols of a rich history.

“The Archaeological Society of India (ASI) and other institutions have not listed these temples as heritage sites and they have been largely left to the community’s caretakers. A hundred and more have survived but need a conservationist’s eye, while keeping with the community’s practices and aestheticism in mind.” The list of temples is found in Maulvi Zafar Hasan’s book, Monuments of Delhi, who was an assistant superintendent in the ASI and published in 1916.

The list is glittering: from the Digambar Jain Meru Temple built in 1845, even though the temple’s idols date back to 1491; and its walls, ceilings and marble fluted columns shimmer with intricate paintings of religious scenes all over. The buff sandstone building and intricate paintings on arches reflect what the Red Fort would have looked like, says Safvi. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has restored the interiors though it is unprotected and continues to be a living monument.

Other temples which need to be preserved include Ghanteshwar Mahadev Shivalaya, built during Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time but the temple is built over a Shiva lingam that is probably the oldest in Delhi, say scholars, and it might be the same ‘Visvesara Lingam of Vidyapura’ mentioned in the Saubhare Samhita and the Padma Purana, say Safvi and Dalrymple. Certainly, says the latter, this Shaivite locality of Katra Neel was known as Vidyapura before Shahjahanabad was built.

Then there’s Khunnji Shivalaya built during the reign of Akbar Shah II, Baba Lala Jasrai Shivalaya in the same period and as the priest says the marble was brought from Red Fort, given either by the King or by a devotee; Charan Das ki Baghichi and more. The Shaivite temples were designed to be built in Shahjahanabad in enclosed walled gardens and in grand havelis too, but today, many of them have been encroached and only the Shivalayas remain with the gardens all but vanished.

Paintings in Digambar Meri Temple. Photo: Author provided

The most fascinating for Safvi is also the Ladliji Ka Mandir, one of Delhi’s main Radha temples. It’s also alluring to Muslim devotees of Krishna – like  Safvi. She explains the meaning of this as we climb up the steps to the temple and its courtyard haveli. Muslim Krishna devotees believe in the Hadith, sayings of the Prophet, which mentions that Allah sent 124,000 prophets to Earth and that Ram and Krishna were two of them. This is popular among the Muslim community in the Doab region, writes Dalrymple in his Instagram post on the temple.

The temple dates back to the reign of Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur, in 1756, and was built by Naval Goswami Pradyumanji, whose 10th generation descendants still live in a barely glued together house around the courtyard garden of the temple. Seema Goswami, the daughter-in-law is excited as the family, along with friends, prepares for the anointing of the special day, Flower Shringar of Krishna and Radha. Safvi says Krishna is a symbol of love and is a metaphor for love both in the Sufi and Bhakti traditions.

As jasmine flowers are threaded on leaves from the banyan tree, to leaf garlands and intricate petals interspersed on the flower jewellery to be adorned by the idols in the evening, Goswami invites us for the bhog (religious meal offering). As Safvi talks about her book and matter of factly drops that she is a Muslim, it barely gets a shrug from the boys and girls making the flower jewellery. The bhog is served on a patravali or a dry leaf plate and consists of besan puri, arbi, bhindi, pakora, dahiwale pakora, panna and kheer. Seema is thrilled to serve the bhog to us, the guests. “We’ve been carrying this tradition for over 300 hundred years, and it’s our pride that we can still serve the gods,” she says.

As the excitement bubbles in the quarter in the near-ruin Goswami haveli, even as parts of the temple have fallen, its paintings faded, and newer concrete structures and steel bars shut the main temple, the Goswami heirs carry on the noble and syncretic culture of Shahjahanabad – a fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Jain intermingling in culture, communities, and localities – all “keepers of history” as Safvi describes them.

It’s indeed an elegant, nonchalant and traditional resistance to the battle cry of xenophobic Hindutva.

This article was first published on The Wire.