Historian Rana Safvi and author Sam Dalrymple are on a mission. They are exploring the lanes and alleys of Shahjahanabad in Old Delhi to highlight the Hindu and Jain temples built during Mughal rule. They have called their project Mughal Era Mandir, an initiative to highlight Delhi’s composite past and an appeal to conserve lesser-known heritage sites. Safvi and Dalrymple are recording their working on their Instagram accounts.

Safvi spoke to Scroll.in about the project and what these hidden architectural wonders reveal about the city.

How did the Mughal Era Mandir project come about? What is the idea behind it?
When one thinks of Shahjahanabad (in Old Delhi), the city that was built by Emperor Shah Jahan and became the capital of the Mughal empire in 1648, they think of it as an Islamic city. The defining monument of the city might be the Jama Masjid but we forget that this was a city that was planned by the emperor keeping in mind the various trades and professions of its residents.

Every class of resident had a designated space in the city. For example, indigo dye traders conducted their business in Katra Neel, the Khatris and the Mathurs lived in Roshanpura – they were the scribe and the lawyer class, Sitaram Bazaar was inhabited by Kashmiri Pandits and Brahmins, the Jains lived in Dharam Pura. The elites of that time, including literary elites, lived in Koocha Chelan. The farmers lived in Maliwara and you would find the Punjabi traders living in Punjabi Katra.

Every area also had its own places of worship. And this is what we wanted to highlight. We wanted to let more people know about the Hindu heritage in Shahjahanabad. The temples are also so beautiful, such intricate art works. They are amazing.

Artworks depicting the Vaishnav life in Charan Das ki Baghichi that have now been painted over. Credit: Rana Safvi on Instagram

However, so many of us are not aware of them. Many temples are not listed on the Archaeological Survey of India website as heritage sites and there is no proper care for them. For instance, I visited Charan Das ki Baghichi in 2018. It was built in the mid-18th century during the rule of Muhammad Shah and there were beautiful paintings depicting the Vaishnav life. When I revisited a few days back, I found that the artworks had been painted over. They are no more. We wanted to bring to light how our heritage is not being conserved and the need to do so.

Charan Das ki Baghichi, a Mughal tomb in honour of a Hindu saint. Credit: Sam Dalrymple on Instagram

What has been your most impressive discovery till now?
I have been saying this for years and posting about it on social media: the Jain mandirs of Shahjahanabad are its best-kept secret. There are so many of them and every single one is glorious. I thought I had visited all of them but the other day when I was visiting Sitaram Bazaar, I could see a dome from afar and we walked toward it only to realise that it is yet another glorious Jain temple.

These Jain temples are really well preserved because the Jains are a moneyed class. So they are able to afford the upkeep of these temples. The preservation policies are excellent. When you visit these temples, you can imagine what the havelis and the palaces must have looked like. That makes it a very important resource to understand more about the architectural heritage of Old Delhi.

Naya Jain Mandir in Dharampura. Credit: Rana Safvi on Instagram

In many cases, the Mughals did not give money to build these places of worship. The temples were constructed by wealthy merchants and the Jain panchayats. But without the active patronage of the emperor, none of this would have been possible.

Naya Jain Mandir in Dharampura. Credit: Rana Safvi on Instagram

Tell us a bit about the artworks you found in these temples.
So many people did not know about these Jain temples. For example, the pietra dura inlays in these temples are still intact. A scholar of the Taj Mahal reached out to me. They were surprised to see how well-preserved these inlay artworks were, while some in the Taj Mahal were already beginning to discolour.

This means that the Jain temples were not destroyed in 1857 [when the British laid waste to sections of the city during the First War of Independence]. This is not very long back in time. Only a few years ago we had such beautiful architecture in our midst. They are also a treat for art lovers – a wonderful confluence of history and art.

Pietra dura inlay work in one of the Jain temples dating back to the late Mughal era. Credit: Rana Safvi on Twitter

What has been your most unlikeliest discovery?
I mostly discover my temples through Urdu scholar Bashiruddin Ahmed’s book Waqiat-e-Darul Hukumat Delhi and the ASI manual titled Monuments of Delhi. They list so many temples and shivalayas, and I visit the ones that I find interesting.

Next week, Sam and I will be visiting the Jhajjarwala Mandir. It is very close to the Jama Masjid. Bashiruddin Ahmed wrote about how the temple houses a beautiful black image of Lord Krishna. This image is supposed to be very famous too and I decided to take a look at it myself.

I had already been to this area but never found any temple that was called Jhajjarwala. There is a Jhajjarwala shivalaya in Chandi Chowk that Sam discovered but I couldn’t find anything behind the Jama Masjid. So I came back and read about the temple again. I revisited the area and decided to stay at one of the hotels so I could fully dedicate myself to finding this temple.

One early morning, when the poojas started, I went into a lane that seemed to be attracting all the worshippers. I asked them, “In which temple can I find the image of black Lord Krishna?” An old gentleman pointed towards a temple in response. Interestingly, I had already visited the temple – it was the ISKCON temple.

I went in and discovered that the original temple had been revamped and expanded. It was now a small part of the ISKCON temple premises. I was delighted to finally see the image, especially during its shringhar. It was such a moving experience.

See, we don’t usually associate such images from the Mughal era. But this is how it was.

An image of Lord Krishna at Jhajjarwala Mandir, now known as the ISKCON temple. Credit: Rana Safvi

Apart from the architecture, what is it about the temples built in the Mughal era that intrigues you so much?
The shivalayas that were built in this era were unlike any other. They were built within pavilions which are very Mughal-looking. Around these pavilions would have been gardens, havelis, and dharamshalas. They have now been encroached and only the shivalayas remain.

All of this is very fascinating to me as a student of history. I find it so interesting to examine how things have changed, what are our memories of these structures, and what people remember about them.

For example, if you visit the Ghanteshwar Temple, people will say that the shivling there was made by a rock that was brought by the Pandavas themselves. These are our memories and oral history is so fascinating. I think our collective memory is being distorted and I believe they need to be preserved. Instagram can be a great platform to document these memories and remind people of our heritage.

Ghanteshwar Mahadev Shivalaya. Credit: Sam Dalrymple on Instagram

Do you think people care that the temple they worship at was built with Mughal patronage?
I have never talked to worshippers about it but I have had long conversations with the priests at these temples. I had visited Ladli Ji ki Mandir in Katra Neel a while back. Apart from the temple in Barsana, Mathura, where she was born, this is the only temple dedicated to Radha.

I went there in 2019 when I was writing my book. The priest and I had a long discussion about Radha and Krishna. I am very much interested in Bhakti and Sufism, to me Krishna is the symbol of love. Early in my childhood, I was told that there are 1,24,00 prophets who were sent to each corner of the world; that no part was without out. I respect Lord Krishna and Lord Rama in this light. The Bal Gopal image of Krishna is especially beautiful to me.

Dhummi Lal Khanna Shivalaya built during the reign of Akbar II. Credit: Sam Dalrymple on Instagram

During this project, I went back to Ladli Ji ki Mandir and was greeted by a lady who now looks after the temple. She is the tenth generation of temple guardians. I happened to be visiting on the jal vihar occasion of Ladli Ji. This is a summer celebration where Radha is decked up in flowers and the Shri Krishna Leela is observed in the water. The temple was crowded with devotees and one of them recognised me.

She pointed out that in one of my Instagram posts I talked about Muslims who are also devotees of Lord Krishna. I admitted to it and I told them that I too am a Muslim. The lady smiled at me and insisted that I leave only after having the bhog. They said only the fortunate get to have the rajbhog. This is the kind of love and affection that I have received on my visits to these temples.

This holds great significance in present times. Religion does not divide – if faith cannot make you a better person then what is the point of it?

In 2016, I visited Neeli Chhatri. It is supposed to be the place where Yudhishthira had performed a yajna and the fire has not been extinguished ever since. I gave something in offering and the priest blessed me. As I am accustomed, I said inshallah to his blessings. He looked at me but did not say anything. It did not matter to him that I was of a different faith.

Every place of worship is revered to me. It is a place of spirituality and faith. No matter where we go, we ask blessings from our own gods. Yet standing in any place of worship fills you with a different kind of energy and you feel closer to your god. That is the beauty of faith.

Ladli Ji ki Mandir in Katra Neel. Credit: Sam Dalrymple on Instagram

How do you plan to take this project forward?
People are now uploading photos of places that symbolise secularism and composite cultures. They tag Sam and me and it is such a joy to look at these photos. People are rediscovering their own cities and looking at these heritage sites with a new perspective.

Everybody is tired of negativity and they want to do something to counter it. I think the project has now evolved into a movement, and I hope it continues. Our goal at the moment is to preserve these structures and artworks. We are trying to raise awareness about these precious artworks and hoping that people will not carelessly paint over them. Hopefully, someone will draw the attention of the authorities and we can do something to preserve the smaller shrines.

Is there any plan to make Mughal Era Mandir a nation-wide project?
I don’t think so. That would be incredibly difficult. Shahjahanabad is a tiny part of Delhi yet we keep discovering new things every day. Although I have highlighted a few monuments from outside of Delhi in my book A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories: Lesser-known Monuments of India.

For me, heritage is heritage. There is no Hindu and Muslim in heritage, it is our heritage. Indians have built these monuments and they are looking after them today. We must glorify our own heritage, they are a matter of great pride.

Naya Jain Mandir in Dharampur. Credit: Sam Dalrymple on Instagram