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Chandni Chowk – The Edifice of a Pampered Princess

JahanaraBegum, respectfully addressed in her time as Begum Sahib or Padshah Begum was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest and most favoured daughter.Her contribution in the fields of arts and learning are well known. Besides, she was particularly appreciated for her interest in plantation of gardens. Chandni Chowk which, as Rebecca Brandewyne writes, since its inception has grown to be the heart and soul of Delhi, was originally located in an octagonal open space beyond Begum Ka Bagh, the beautiful gardens planted by Begum Sahib.


According to one of the legends, Chandni Chowk which means ‘The Moonlit Square’ is called so because Jahanara Begum got a square pool constructed in the centre of the road whose water reflected the moonlight. Today, to the east of the Chowk is the serene Jain Temple with its pristine bird hospital, the great mosque – Jama Masjid, and the massively looming Lahore Gate, the latter of which gives way to Shah Jahan’s magnificent palace – Lal Qila – The Red Fort. From Chandni Chowk there radiates alabyrinth of roads and narrow alleys that have continued to house dozens of bazaars (markets) in the city.Another legend has it that Shah Jahan planned Chandni Chowk so that his beloved daughter could shop for all that she wanted. What significance did these bazaar shave in the life of the princess who at the young age of eighteen lost her mother –Mumtaz Mahal, and responsibly occupied the position of the first lady of the empire?


If one lets their imagination take wings, perhaps one can think of a young Jahanara – ‘the angelic one’, having inherited the passion for building from her father – the builder of the enchanting monument Taj Mahal, excitingly involved in the planning of the Chandni Chowk.


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The Chandni Chowk from the top of the Lahore Gate of the Fort, the canal depicted running down the middle

Artist: Sita Ram (fl. c. 1810-1822)

Medium: Watercolour

Date: 1815

Source: The British Library

She is believed to have never married as no suitable man was considered her equal and this made her a subject of much gossip. She devoted her life to writing, painting and composition of poetry. She is also said to have become deeply interested in the study of the mystical Sufi saints.


Anne marie Schimmel writes that for all her piety and erudition, Jahanara wasn’t a verse to the lighter side of life. In fact, Niccolao Manucci, an Italian traveller and writer, reports that she drank her own wine mixed with rose water.


After Shah Jahan’s death, her sister Raushanara, who was three and a half years her junior and who took the side of their brother Aurangzeb in the battle of succession against Dara Shikoh, superseded her in position and power at the Mughal court. According to Abraham Eraly, the most outrageous scandal about Shah Jahan was his rumoured incestuous relationship with his prodigiously talented daughter Jahanara, which is mentioned by the French traveller Francois Bernier but denied by Manucci. Within the dargah complex of the great Sufi saint belonging to the Chishti Silsila or Chishti order, Nizamuddin Auliya is the tomb of Jahanara. She is said to have built it during her lifetime, inscribing it with the words: “The Lord is the life, all he sustains. Let no one cover my grave. Let it be covered with only greenery. For the poor this grass is a sufficient tomb.

The abated yogini Jahanara, disciple of the Lord of Chisti, daughter of Shah Jahan the brave warrior, May God keep this evidence lighted”.Perhaps, the “abated yogini”, plunged into loneliness after the death of her mother,burdened by responsibilities of the court, torn in the scuffle for power between her brothers, trying her best to fulfill her filial duties towards her loving father, and dealing with the tittle-tattle of her times, found some respite in ‘The Moonlit Square’ and its surrounding bazaars. Today it might be difficult to imagine the same among the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk and the crumbling edifices that still have a faint whiff of the grandeur and opulence of the Mughal times but if one engages oneself in a flight of fancy, one would see a young Jahanara running through the narrow alleys of Chandni Chowk dodging her friends or peeking from her lavish palki or palanquin while travelling through the bazaars or dressed in her consecrated clothing saturated with perfume and scented oil, perhaps just taking a walk on a lonely moonlit night!

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