In our third story of the five-part series on the history and culture of Delhi’s urban villages, we take you through the lanes of Chirag Dilli.
Today, Chirag Dilli is a densely-populated, vibrant urban village in South Delhi, with a sizable population of Brahmins, Jats, Jatavs, Valmikis, Muslims (Querishis and Nais), Punjabis, and Jains. But if you traverse through the alleys of this place, you will discover nuggets of history.
A village built to honor a Sufi saint
A popular tale says that Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq was building his city Tughlakabad at the same time that the city’s revered saint Nizamuddin Auliya was constructing a baoli (currently Nizamuddin Baoli). The laborers preferred to work for their beloved pir which infuriated the Sultan. The angry sultan forbade the workers to work for the Baoli during the day and banned the sale of oil to further prevent them from working at the site during the night. It was then, that one of the disciples of Auliya Hazrat Nasiruddin, performed a miracle and lit the lamps filled with only water. Hazrat Nasiruddin acquired the title of ‘Roshan Chirag-i-Dehli’ (or the glowing lamp of Delhi). He died in 1356 and was buried in the chamber in which he lived.
Though the village is now surrounded by some of the most upscale colonies of South Delhi, till the 1950s, there was nothing but farmlands and dense jungles. Among the wilderness was the shrine of Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmud Chiragh-Dehlavi.
Locals say most families came to settle here in the early 20th century since it was the only village with a fortification wall and gates.
“No matter the religion or the caste, everyone takes their sick children to the dargah for blessings. Earlier we also used to take our cattle there since they were also like our children and babaji protected them from the evil eye. The first milk of the cow was exclusively reserved for the dargah,” says Sanjeev Sehrawat, a resident of the village.
In 1729, emperor Mohammed Shah “Rangeela” built a fortification wall with four impressive gates around the tomb, as an offering to the dargah. According to a study, when Ahmad Shah Abdali, the founder of the Durrani Empire, invaded Delhi in the early 1760s, people from around the region took refuge inside the Dargah walls and never left. The second wave of settlers came in the 1850s when people once again flocked to the fortified area for safety during unrest associated with the 1857 revolt and its aftermath. The safety provided by the gates of the village is perhaps its most defining feature. Unfortunately, the gates are now defunct and only a fraction of their past glory can be seen. The western gateway has completely disappeared and three of them survive — The Northern gateway or the Dilli Darwaza, the Southern gateway or the Kasai Darwaza, and the Eastern Gateway or the Takht Darwaza.
Residents of the village, however, remember how they had taken refuge here during the Partition in 1947. There was a drastic increase in the population of the village after 1947. A significant portion of the land was owned by Khadims (caretakers) of the Dargah , who migrated to Pakistan and were replaced by the Jat community.
In recent years, the urban village has attracted small-scale industries and migrant laborers seeking cheap accommodation in the city. The village has also emerged as the “momo hub”; the lanes are crowded with momo “factories” where the popular street food is packed and distributed among local vendors who sell them in the nearby markets.
Chirag Dilli’s history through the lens of weddings
As we spoke to locals to know more about the history of this village, we realised that the lives and rhythms of the people of Chirag Dilli could also be understood through stories of one of the most important days of their lives: the wedding.
One being asked about the past of their historic village, a woman remarked, “Itihas ka hume itna nahi pata beti. Shaadi kay baad se ye gaon hi hamara sab hai (We don’t know much about history, but this village has been my world after my wedding).”
Sixty-eight-year-old Shanti, reminiscing about her days as a new bride in the village, said: “These days you can dress up whenever you want and eat good food in a restaurant every day. We had limited means back in the day. Forget dressing up, we would take a bath at the village well only once in a couple of days. We would just quickly pour a bucket of water on ourselves (while fully dressed) and that was it. Now imagine being the bride and being bathed in turmeric and milk. It was something.”
The women narrated how families pooled essential food items such as wheat, ghee and sugar. Women would sit together almost a month in advance and start grinding the wheat into flour.
Another resident, Manjula remarked, “No one family would have the food to feed the baraat (wedding procession). A wedding wouldn’t be hosted by just a family, it would be hosted by the entire clan. I remember we would sing folk songs and work on the chakkis (flour mill). Some of us would make and pack ladoos for shagun (ceremony).”
Manjula recalled that in her time brides had no say in choosing their life partner. Many of them would get married at as young as 8–12 years old. She adds “We would just sit in our long veil and not even know who is present at the wedding. The groom and his family would look at the bride’s feet to see if she was fair or not. But these days youngsters say hello-hey, hug and kiss each other before weddings.”
Talking about today’s youngsters, the women arrived at the consensus that “modern love marriages” are better for women since they have the freedom to choose the right life partner. However, they express their concern over the “breaking down” of the “traditional ways” as more and more youngsters are marrying outside their caste. The idea of caste endogamy continues to sway over most residents of urban villages.
Celebrating in the times of turmoil
Shami Sultan, another resident, told us how he met his wife after the Indo-Pak war in 1965. He said, “Everything was unclear when my family met the bride’s family. The War lasted till September of 1965, with sadness in the air; I was merely 21. The then prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, imposed food rationing, which prohibited us from hosting big weddings and gatherings. His idea was to bring the economy back to normalcy, but I just wanted to get married. The mourning and sadness in the atmosphere anyway held us back and ensured a muted celebration, and government prohibitions pushed us further.”
Sultan recalled, “I had a government notice written on my card about the control and regulation. But I could not control it and had 100 people attend my wedding. Food was limited and instead of rice phirni, my wedding had rawa phirni (semolina pudding), pulao, and kaliya. Every guest was served a paan (betel nut) at the end.”
Along with the village, its wedding traditions, women’s choices, and their clothes, food, and culture have also evolved over time. The constant interaction of rural and urban influences is visible even in the most intimate spaces of people’s lives. The tussle between a chocolate cake and a batasha is just as vigorous as the struggle of the individuals trying to embrace modern rules of courtship and at the same time please the time-honoured code of conduct around caste, religion and gender.
The only unbroken thread that binds the community (especially its older members) is their sense of loss; the loss of their farmlands, villages, and their way of life. As Sehrawat puts it: “ Har cheez ke liye paisa lagta hai. Pehle milkar kar lete the. Ab kaun ghar kay bane ladoo-batashe khayega ( Everything costs money now. Earlier we used to manage the wedding preparations together. Who will eat homemade sweets now?)”