Special Reports

The ruined haveli of Zeenat Mahal

By Firoz Bakht Ahmed + Pix 

Delhi: Few would believe that amidst the squalor and maddening traffic of Bazar Lal Kuan in the walled city of Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi, there stands the haveli (mansion) of Begum Zeenat Mahal, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s queen. This mansion is fighting a losing battle against the ever-increasing demands of the commercial instincts of the people surrounding it.

Zeenat Mahal was one of the most formidable women of her times. She could be categorized among Noorjahan (Jahangir’s wife) Lakshmibai, Razia Sultana, Ahiliabai of Holkar, and Chand Bibi. Though she lived in the Red Fort, she had her own mansion in Delhi’s Lal Kuan. Begum Zeenat Mahal was a pretty doe-eyed maiden, half the age of the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who had lost power and authority in a time of great turmoil. She was freedom fighter who opened the doors of the Red Fort to the rebel sepoys from Meerut on the morning of May 11, 1857.  It was this bewitching beauty that implored the ageing and graying Zafar to delve into romantic poetry when he composed the ghazal beginning with “Le gaya loot ke kaun mera sabro-o-qarar/ Beqarari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisi to na thhi” (Who is it who has robbed my heart of its peace?/ Never did restlessness like this had been your fate). It is pertinent to remember that Zeenat Mahal chose to accompany Zafar into exile in Rangoon.

There was a time when Begum Zeenat Mahal used to come to her haveli sitting in her palanquin through the entrance whose height was reduced in 1900 to a couple of feet. She was led in by her traditional naqqarkhana (drummers). A danka (announcement) was made when she used to come so that the residents would come to greet and salute her. Most picturesque of the remnants of the beauty of yore of this haveli, are the two jharokas (parlours) which too are made of red sand stone.

A glance at the haveli makes one nostalgic with its gate made of red Kota sand-stone having the traditional Mughal arch and huge original iron-studded wooden doors. Not much history of this unprotected monument remains but still it retains its architectural charm.

Till recently there was a plaque atop the haveli mentioning that the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar started building this most elegant edifice for his queen. The plaque is in Persian that cannot be clearly deciphered. Some of the Sepoy Mutiny rebels, who had switched over their loyalty towards the British, attacked the haveli but the solid wooden gates held fort and after normalcy prevailed in the first week of October 1857, the English recaptured Delhi and harmed it because of  their dislike of the Begum.

At the entrance of this once regal mansion, there is a sweets shop because of which the surroundings not only stink but have completely been ruined due to the perennial smoke. The roof is built in the shape of a dome with circular lining of bricks. Fire from the furnace of the sweets shop has burnt some part of the imperial gates. Inside is the Zeenat Mahal Girls’ Senior Secondary School which was established 111 years ago. After the locals had almost destroyed the haveli and occupied almost half of it’s 3000 sq yards area, the government was able to build a school bearing the queen's name. Today it is known as “Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Lal Kuan”.

Mr. Abdul Rauf, a teacher occupying the main portion of the haveli on the Lal Kuan side, has no proper documents to claim his right. Likely there are some washermen and other anti-social elements that have illegally occupied the haveli area though it is the school’s property.

One of them keeps a ferocious dog that’s often unleashed on school-girls and people coming to take pictures of the mansion. Umpteen complaints according to Kaleemuddin, a senior citizen of Farash Khana near the haveli, to concerned authorities have fallen on deaf ears.

According to Basheeruddin Ahmed’s Waqi’at-e-Darul Hukumat-e-Dehli, it used to be a massive haveli earlier, covering an area of almost four acres at the time of Zeenat Mahal.

There was a huge marble fountain with a few hujras (rooms). Besides, there was a huge cellar. There was also a Nagina Mahal (jewel palace) whose entrance was from the backyard towards the Farash Khana side.

Kaleemuddin says that the basic structure of the haveli existed here till the late 1950s as the gateway opened into a courtyard encircled by a series of rooms with carved Kota stone pillars supporting red sandstone arches. Except one, all have been turned into petty structures. The marble fountain had beautiful inlaid waterways. Inside, this was a secluded pavilion with 14 arches and dalaans (open space) quite typical of any haveli. The pavilion built in the shape of the one at the Red Fort was surrounded by marble courtyards on all sides.

Huge banyan trees gave pleasant shade during scorching summers when it was surrounded by the khus (scented jute) screens. There were also two tunnels from this haveli to Red Fort and another to some unknown destination. The present school principal Chitra Gupta told us that while building the school assembly platform when the area was dug, one of the tunnels was found but was immediately closed.

Of the many mansions of Delhi, Zeenat Mahal today remains to be the ugliest for it has borne the brunt of ever-increasing commercial demands of the shopkeepers surrounding it. Right in the heart of the haveli, there is a factory grinding red chilly powder which is supplied all over India.  Besides, the Lal Kuan gate has become an eve teasers’ heaven.

The author is a heritage activist, he may be contacted at firozbakhtahmed07@gmail.com