chapter  3
36 Pages

Negotiating Streets and Squares: Spatial Culture in the Public Realm

Like other great cities, historic Delhi was rich with places for people to meet, mingle, display, observe, and command. When Dargah Quli Khan visited Delhi, the sovereign city of the Mughal kings in the eighteenth century, he was impressed by the prosperous bazaars, the grand mansions, the fine mosques, and the opulent soirees of the elites.1 Within and outside the city walls, Khan visited the numerous tombs of Delhi’s luminaries and saints, and the distinguished houses of music, dance, and prostitution. The bazaars, the chowk or intersections of major streets, the courtyards of mosques and temples, the entertainment houses of the tava¯’if (courtesans), the tombs of saints, the sites of ancient ruins, fairgrounds, water tanks, and the river bank and the many gardens were places of public gathering for the residents of Delhi (Figure 3.1). Although many were open to the public, admission to some was restricted by gender, caste, or religious sect. Wealthy sponsors controlled these spaces where unwritten codes and norms governed access and use. Women of rank rarely appeared in public and then, concealed in purda¯h (veils and robes). Particular gardens and river banks were reserved for their pleasure. Both men and women of the lower castes were not expected to share the water sources and riverfront areas with their social superiors. The square in front of the kotwa¯lı¯, the city magistrate’s office, was an important landmark in the city and had also served for public hangings (Figure 3.2). The ‘picturesque’ quality of the bazaars and the ‘noble architecture’ of the Jami Masjid struck many travelers in the early nineteenth century including, Emily Eden and Bishop Heber (Figure 3.3).2 After 1857, however, as city officials sought to redefine a public realm that was in their control, public spaces became contested terrain in their form, use, and symbolic significance.