Kashmiri Gate is one of the original gates of the city of Shahjahanabad. It is unusually placed in relation to the city wall. If you look at the line of the wall that stretches on either side, the gate is placed at a sharp angle in the wall. It is mainly built of the thin strong bricks characteristic of Mughal architecture, with some use of sandstone. The severe damage that is still evident was caused by the storming of this gate which allowed the British forces to enter the city on September 14, 1857.
Leave the gate and walk onto the pavement on the right. You will first pass the Bengali Club building. Bengalis were an important component of the British administrative staff, and their numbers increased with the shift of the capital of the British Raj from Calcutta to Delhi in 1912. Many of them lived around Kashmiri Gate, and with them came their social and cultural institutions. The Kashmiri Gate Durga Puja, the oldest community Durga Puja festival in Delhi, began here in 1910, and is still an annual event, though located elsewhere. The Bengali Club building was constructed in 1925. Sadly, the club lost its premises some years back, and the building is now occupied by a guest house.
If you turn into the street which lies to the right immediately after the club, you can walk along the city wall. To your left lies the area that was a popular residential area till the mid-20th century. It still has some old colonial buildings. Turn into the first arched gateway to the left and walk to the end of that short street.
Turn right, and a short way down you will see on your right the red-painted Sultan Singh building, which was built in the 1890s by Lala Sultan Singh, a rich industrialist of Delhi. It is of an exuberantly eclectic style, combining several Western and Indian elements.
Turn back from here and take the street going straight. It curves to the left and presently you will come to a narrow lane leading off to the right. The lane will bring you to a building just south of the Bengali Club. This is the Kashmiri Gate Market building, also constructed in the 1890s by Sultan Singh. Note the wrought iron pillars and ornamentation.
Walk southwards from here and on the same side of the street you will come across the Fakhr-ul-Masajid or the “pride of mosques”. The main body of the mosque is on the upper floor. This was a common arrangement, as the lower floor was usually occupied by shops, the rent from which was allocated for the upkeep of the mosque.
You can enter the mosque. An inscription over the central arch tells us that it was built in the year 1728-29 by a lady called Kaniz Fatima, in memory of her husband Shujat Khan, a nobleman. The bulbous striped domes and the minarets topped by lanterns are typical of the late Mughal architectural style.
In the early 19th century this mosque as well as a large tract of land behind and on both sides of it belonged to Colonel James Skinner, one of the colourful characters of early colonial Delhi. He was the son of an English father and an Indian mother, and began his career as a mercenary soldier under the Marathas. During the Anglo-Maratha wars, he was expelled by the French generals of the Maratha army, and came over to the British side with the troops under his command. The troops under him formed an “irregular” regiment (so-called because it was not formally a part of the British Indian Army), known as Skinner’s Horse, which is in fact still a part of the Indian Army, and now called the 1st Horse Regiment.
For James Skinner, crossing over from the Maratha side to the British also ultimately led to a conscious desire to emphasise the British side of his ancestry. He sent his sons to England to be educated. He sold his house which was near Chandni Chowk, and instead bought a large estate in the Kashmiri Gate area where the British used to live. Fakhrul-Masajid was on his estate, and Skinner had the mosque repaired so his retainers could use it. The popular story that he had vowed to build a mosque and a church when lying injured on a battlefield, is unsubstantiated.
After the mosque, turn into the broad street to the left, and on your right you will see a large grey stone building. This now houses the offices of the Election Commission, but was built in 1890 for the St Stephen’s College. The College, which began functioning in 1881 out of a modest haveli near Kinari Bazaar, soon shifted to this imposing building, more in keeping with its status as the premier Western-style institution of its time. The building is an eclectic mix of Mughal and Western forms and motifs. The former include chhatris, the chhajja, and the patterned border over it. Western influences are evident in the square porch and balustrade over it. The architect was Swinton Jacob, a proponent of the “Indo-Saracenic” style of architecture which sought to incorporate features of Indian “Islamic” architecture into Classical and Gothic revivalist styles.
Turn right on the main road in front of the St Stephen’s College building and somewhat further down you should see, in an island in the middle of the road, what remains of the Magazine. The magazine was a large compound with several Kashmiri Gate buildings, where ammunition was manufactured and stored for the British Army. In 1857, when Indian rebel troops took over the city, the British officials in charge of the magazine decided to blow it up rather than allow it to fall into rebel hands. Only these gateposts remain.
To the north of the Magazine gates is the Telegraph Memorial, a granite column put up in 1901 to honour personnel from the postal department who died in the uprising of 1857. Cross over to the other side of the road and you will see the grand General Post Office building dating from 1885. This was obviously built on the site of the old magazine.
A little further down the road, to the left is one of the oldest Christian cemeteries in Delhi – the Lothian Cemetery, established in 1808. It is in a pitiable condition, as for many years it was encroached upon by people who had built their homes here. Here and there you may still see some interesting tombstones and plaques.
Turn back from this point and travel northwards on the same side of the road. You will come to a gate on the right that leads to the campus of the Ambedkar University. You need to enter this to see the building known as the Dara Shukoh Library, within which, is the newly opened Partition Museum. The outside of the building has a rather plain neoclassical façade, but it is a delightfully complex structure. This is because it was actually a converted Mughal mansion. This building was part of the estate of Dara Shukoh, the scholarly son of Shahjahan, who was killed on orders of his brother Aurangzeb in 1659. For some time, in the eighteenth century, the mansion was in the possession of a Portuguese lady called Juliana, and then it was sold to Safdarjang, the prime minister.
Excerpted with permission from 14 Historic Walks of Delhi, Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger Books.