New Roads in an Old City

The canvas on which Lutyens designed his New Delhi was not a blank one. While it was a far cry from today’s congested ‘colonies’, the site chosen was still littered with gardens, roads, villages and numerous ruins from past Delhis. Many of the monuments were preserved but the villages and gardens were not so lucky. Some of them, however, live on in a new avatar-lending their names to roads that pass through their old sites. Many of the pre-existing roads were co-opted into the new city-often with a new name. Here I look at some of these lesser known relics of New Delhi’s past.

Lodi Road marks the southern boundary of the Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (as seen in the helpful ‘Welcome to NDMC’ boards that you come across after crossing it). While its present name dates only from the last century, it is one of Delhi’s oldest roads having been continuously used in one form or the other since the 14th century. In the Sultanate era, it took a more northerly route and connected the old capital at Jahanpanah (near modern Green Park) to Firuz Shah’s citadel at Ferozeshah Kotla. The tombs in today’s Lodi Gardens came up along this road. Its eastern terminus gradually shifted to Nizamuddin (known as Ghyaspur then) as the dargah became a preferred pilgrimage spot and Kotla fell to ruins. Akbar’s spectacular Athpula in Lodi Gardens carried one of the offshoots of this road over a minor stream to somewhere around Purana Quila.

In the later Mughal era, the road passed through the estate of the Awadh Nawabs. The second of them, Safdarjung, is buried in a magnificent tomb that lies at its west end. It was probably some years before this that a village called Khairpur grew up around the Lodi tombs. A hundred years later, the railway leading south from Old Delhi Junction bisected this road about halfway through (the railway station of Hazrat Nizamuddin was located at what is today the 13th fairway of the Delhi Golf Course). The building of New Delhi saw a realignment of the railway, the relocation of Khairpur and the road acquiring its present name.

Not too far to the north, the Kushak Road connects the CPWD office to the former Flagstaff House-now better known as Teen Murti Bhavan or the Nehru Memorial Museum. The word Kushak means a lodge and the name refers to Firuz Shah Tughlaq’s hunting lodge, now within the compound of Teen Murti Bhavan. The lodge is pretty well preserved and is built over an embankment. The stream that this dammed was still around during the ASI’s 1916 survey. Firuz Shah had a penchant for building hunting lodges and these may be found elsewhere in Delhi near Jhandewalan (Bhooli Bhatiyari Mahal), the Central Ridge (Malcha Mahal) and near Bara Hindu Rao (Pir Ghaib). Out of these, Malcha is particularly interesting. The village of Malcha stood beside the modern Sardar Patel Road. It took its name from yet another hunting lodge of Firuz Shah, located deep within the Central Ridge. The Government of India evicted the villagers and acquired their land for building Viceroy’s House about a hundred years ago. The villagers, mostly Jats, fought a pitched battle but were ultimately forced to flee. The Mahal itself is very ruined and is occupied by a couple of alleged descendants of the Oudh Royal Family who shun all contact with outsiders and let loose dogs on them.

Barely a mile away, the jamun lined twisted curve of the Sunehri Bagh Road is one of the few exceptions to New Delhi’s straight and symmetrical road layout. It connects Udyog Bhavan to Krishna Menon Marg. The name translates to Golden Garden-perhaps a reference to the many native deciduous trees here whose leaves would have taken on a rich hue in autumn. Nothing survives of the garden but a small Mughal era brick mosque and dargah of the same name exist on the roundabout.

In the same general area and located off Mother Teresa Crescent, Talkatora Gardens derive their name from a pond (tal) shaped like a saucer (katora). The gardens have the ruins of a hunting pavilion once used by Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela. In a curious coincidence, the pond has been replaced by a large swimming pool-a rather absentminded homage by the DDA to a relic of times past.

It may seem interesting that many of these ancient road names in Lutyens’ Delhi date from the Tughlaq times. This is no accident. Firoz Shah’s city-Firozabad- covered all of today’s Shahjahanabad and stretched beyond into the CP-North Campus axis. By any stretch, it was a very large city indeed. The still gorgeous ruins around the cricket stadium that are today pointed out as ruins of that city are but the remnants of the main fort-sort of like what the Red Fort is to Shahjahanabad. They are impressive, no doubt, but would have been a tiny part of a once magnificent city. Much of its buildings were cannibalized to provide stone for Sher Shah’s and Shah Jahan’s cities. Even as late as the 19th century, buildings from that age were disappearing-the Daniell paintings of Kotla, for instance, depict massive ramparts and ruins of palaces that are nowhere to be seen today. The now garishly painted Kali Masjid-probably one of the principal mosques of Firozabad; survives almost intact near Turkman Gate. The name Turkman too is ancient-named after a holy man Shah Turkman Bayabani (‘the Turk who dwelt in the forest) who probably was a contemporary of Aibak. Little wonder then that Razia Sultana would be buried near his grave. The entire area is a massive necropolis of the early Sultanate era-a precursor to Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin. More on that some other day.

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