In the South Delhi neighborhood of Saket is a place that narrates tales of history, a place that has been a home to those once in search of a shelter, a place that is a melting point of many cultures. The place is called Hauz Rani.
Chances are that you hear about Hauz Rani only while stuck in a traffic jam on the Press Enclave Road or while looking out over the panorama from a Saket mall and finding a rather haphazard and “unauthorised” settlement across the road.
But if you were to talk to some of the oldest residents of this area, they would have one thing to say: “These malls and hospitals are built on our land. We used to grow vegetables here, you know?” Hauz Rani may have, in the last few years, emerged as a hub of “boho” style décor items, budget housing and multi-cultural cuisine, but the residents of this village trace their origins to the medieval centuries.
The village beside a reservoir
In his book The Present in Delhi’s Pasts, Late Professor Sunil Kumar narrates the living history of Hauz Rani or, as it was then called, Hauz-i-Rani (or the Queen’s Reservoir). According to him, the Hauz (the reservoir) predates the Delhi Sultanate and was built by an unknown queen or princess in the 12th century. It soon came to be revered by the locals until its importance was gradually clouded as the city’s attention shifted northward to Nizamuddin and Shahjahanabad after the 15th century. By the 19th century, the Hauz-i-Rani was mentioned only as a seasonal swamp in the survey maps of the Gazetteer of Delhi (1883-84). The settlement that came up around the reservoir, known as Hauz Rani, was, however, already established by this time and continues to carry the name till date even though there are no traces of the reservoir.
We learn about the early history of the Hauz-i Rani through chance. Other reservoirs from the same era existed but were soon forgotten. The Hauz-i Rani was only referenced in the Persian chronicle Minhj-i Sirj Juzjani (finished around 1260) because the early Sultans of Delhi built a city perhaps in the neighborhood. The Budaun Gate, facing the Hauz, was the city’s main entry in the early 13th century. People approaching the town from the north (Bagh-i-Jad, contemporary Jorbagh) had to pass along its banks to get to their destination. There was a large plain beside the Hauz, which Juzjani called “lashkargah”, utilised for military purposes. If the city’s space proved inadequate, this region was used for substantial ceremonial events. At least two significant marketplaces were established near the Hauz-i Rani under Ala’ al-Din Khalaji’s rule (1296-1316). This was mentioned by the Sultanate historian Ziya’al-Din Barani near the Budaun gate, which was adjacent to the Hauz. The Hauz was clearly not located in an isolated area and saw a considerable building and commercial activity around it.
Associating spiritual and divine properties to water bodies was not uncommon in the medieval ages. In fact, the Persian word “abadi” (population) traces its roots to “ab” (water). It was of no surprise that Hauz-i-Rani soon came to be considered divine, especially after its association with the Sufi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya (1238-1325 AD).
In 1315, Nizamuddin Auliya narrated how he came to construct his hospice (khanqah), in Ghiyaspur, a little hamlet five kilometers north of the Hauz. The Sufi saint was tired of living in Delhi’s congested old town and was looking for a new home. It was during one of his prayers at the banks of the Hauz that he received the divine message to go to Ghiyaspur. The area further got prominence after Nizamuddin Auliya’s successor, Nasiruddin Mahmud Chirag-i-Delhi (1274-1337 AD), also chose a stream (Satpula in Khirkee village) close to the Hauz to person his ablutions.
Professor Kumar writes that the area around the reservoir gained prominence and autonomy from the imperial metropolis. Due to its association with the Sufi saints, it continued to lay outside the intellectual influence of the Delhi Sultans. The economic life of the population, however, was intimately tied with the existence of the imperial capital. They either worked or produced goods for sale in the town’s marketplaces. This continues to be the case in the 21st century. As an urban village, Hauz Rani offers low rent and administrative leniency making it a preferred choice for migrants and refugees, students, and low wage workers.
A home for refugees, a melting point of cultures
Hauz Rani (along with other 362 urban villages) falls into the category of Lal Dora (red thread) area originating in the practice of the land revenue department of using a red administrative thread to demarcate living quarters of villages from their agricultural land. These former rural settlements were incorporated into Delhi’s boundaries as the city expanded after 1947 and have resulted in new socio-spatial configurations. Most of the agricultural fields of these rural communities were acquired after 1957 by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and saw the development of the resulting residential colonies. However, the inhabited “abadi” area was left untouched and officially given a special status in 1963 by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi exempting them from building by-laws, construction norms and regulations such as the need for sanction plans. Since then this exemption has allowed these urban villages to accommodate intense construction work and offer spaces at much lower rents than the rest of the city.
Sandwiched between malls, colleges, hospitals and the district court, Hauz Rani today hosts thousands of refugees and migrants from diverse backgrounds.
The narrow lanes here might not offer these migrants familial joys but they do offer vibrant markets and food kiosks. One can find kiosks and restaurants open late in the night selling everything from the humble samosa to the Afghani Bamiyan Burger and Muntoo.
As we travel through these lanes in the month of Ramzan, we bond with people over a few plates of samosas and naans and lots of stories. While some say they miss their homes and customs on Eid, others cherish the things this place has to offer.
On being asked about the celebrations in the “big city” compared to his home in Badaun, Danish, who drives an auto rickshaw, says: “In Badaun, we don’t live in one room sharing mattresses with other people; We sleep with our family and prepare for the morning rituals together. The male members would go for Eid ki namaz and come back to receive a warm welcome from their wives and kids. They’d share the morning meal together, which would be either sheer khurma or some kind of seviyan prepared by the ladies of the house. Once the morning excitement settles in, we would start with our Eid Milan (meeting family and friends), and every kid will get Eidi. If we stay back in Delhi for whatever odd reason, you will find us on the streets plying auto rickshaws from one point to another.”
Another migrant, Abdul, who moved to the city with his family a few years back, talks about how he spends the Chand Raat (the evening before Eid) with his family in Hauz Rani, buying clothes or food ingredients.
“People go to Purani Dilli or Batla house to shop and eat, but they should try Hauz Rani. There is more variety of clothes and food because we have so many cultures here,” Abdul says.
Laila Gazimi, who came from Kabul to Hauz Rani four years ago, says observance of Ramzan has been a completely new experience for many people like her. While she is grateful to have found a safe haven in Hauz Rani and India, Gazimi says it is difficult to fit in and leave behind old traditions and lifestyle.
On the other hand, Maniza, who has been living in Hauz Rani for over 19 years has made these lanes her home and the people around her family. She speaks fluent Hindi and is a well-known face among the local Afghans. On being asked about the kinds of food they’d eat during Ramzan and Eid in Afghanistan, she amusingly says that while Afghan and Indian foods are similar, their preparation styles differ.
While Indian Muslim families celebrate Eid mostly with Biryani and sevaiyan, for Laila’s family and Maniza, Afghan Naan and gravy dishes are a must on Eid.
But even though the food or customs may vary, the essence of the festival remains the same. And that essence is Eid Milan (visiting friends and family on Eid).