Not far from Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, in a world where the past struggles to coexist with the present, a 129-year-old once-crumbling haveli is asserting its existence. In doing so, it is also drawing attention to the hundreds of havelis in the area that have fallen into either disrepair or misuse.
A short walk from the Jama Masjid police station takes you into Chandni Chowk’s Gali Guliyan, or the brass-makers’ lane, where Haveli Dharampura is located. The alley is barely five feet wide, but clean. Old structures, today threatened by haphazard urbanisation, stand on either side of it. Many have shops in them that sell brass and copper antiques. Some have retained their ancient arches and thick old wooden doors inlaid with brass work — fading remnants of a time long gone that exist only because nobody has torn them down yet.
In this world of paradoxes, Haveli Dharampura, which historic references suggest was built in 1887, is an example of the restoration possibilities for the decaying havelis of Shahjahanabad — the walled city of Delhi.
Till about six years ago, this 19th-century, three-storey haveli too was falling apart and had been declared a “dangerous building” by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The original roof at the upper level had collapsed; the rooms had been randomly partitioned into smaller ones (60 in all); thick layers of synthetic paint had been put on stone columns; and wooden doors and window frames had rotted. “My first visit to the haveli filled me with utter dismay,” recalls Vijay Goel, Rajya Sabha member and president of Heritage India Foundation, who bought the haveli about 10 years ago and spearheaded its restoration along with his son, Siddhant.
What they had initially imagined would be a basic project requiring strengthening and painting of the building turned out to be a mammoth task — of restoring all that the haveli had lost over time, while, at the same time, retaining its original character.
The result is stunning. Stepping into the 600-square-yard haveli today is like entering another era. Like most havelis, this one too is set on a high platform above street level. The grand entrance is complete with a multi-foliated arched gateway, a carved sandstone façade and a wooden doorway that leads to the central courtyard.
Inside, the red sandstone brackets, motifs, stones inlaid in marble and the kiln-baked “lakhori” brick walls speak of Mughal architecture, though later European influences are also visible.
The terrace, which offers a 360-degree view of the haveli, overlooks elements that add to its splendour: jharokas (windows), chattris (umbrellas), baithaks (sitting area) and chabutras (platforms).
“We had no reference point, no example of how this haveli used to be over a hundred years ago,” says Kapil Aggarwal, the architect who executed the project. So, Goel and he went from haveli to haveli in Chandni Chowk, studying the colours and craftsmanship. “The havelis here are different from the ones you see in Rajasthan, which are far more elaborate and ornate. These are mellow and minimalistic,” says Aggarwal.
It took two years to strengthen the structure and rid it of all the ad hoc construction that had taken place. Over 1,000 trucks full of malba (construction material) were removed. While the local masons could help with the strengthening of the structure, the features and interiors required craftsmen trained in specific skills. “We brought them in from Jaipur, Agra, Firozabad and other part of north India,” says Aggarwal.
Material too was sourced from different parts. The yellow stone came from Jaisalmer, the lights from Firozabad, the cast iron railings from Jaipur and the carvings on the entrance door from Shekhawati. The number of rooms was brought down from 60 to 14. Some of the ancient features, such as a forgotten tijori (safe), were left untouched. “During restoration, we discovered an old staircase,” says Goel. “It led to the tijori in the basement.”
Goel says if the havelis of Shahjahanabad are to be salvaged, they need to be turned into financially sustainable places like hotels, restaurants or cultural hubs. “How can the government have the right to declare these structures as heritage properties and then not support them?” he asks.
Conservation architect Ratish Nanda, who heads the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in India and is responsible for the revival of Humayun’s Tomb and its precincts, says all the laws related to heritage structures are driven by penalties. “Instead of saying ‘we will not let you do this and we will not let you do that’, the government should offer incentives such as property tax waiver or permission for change of land use if someone wants to help conserve or restore a heritage structure,” says Nanda.
For the havelis of Chandni Chowk, many of which have been turned into godowns because of their proximity to the Old Delhi railway station, the challenges are huge. Several of them have multiple owners and tenants. In the absence of incentives, the will to restore them is weak. Haveli Dharampura is a rare private initiative.
India has a lot of craftsmen skilled in restoration, says Nanda. “And, we have the knowhow to include modern amenities in historic structures,” he adds. “So, there are no technical challenges.”
Modernised with elements from the past, Haveli Dharampura, with its air-conditioned rooms and state-of-the-art kitchen that can cater to 180 people, is a proof of that.