In the heart of Sadar Bazaar, one of the oldest and busiest markets of Gurugram, a multi-storeyed parking lot is being constructed. Until 2020, this parking lot was the site of Kaman Sarai, a structure that, according to residents ,was built in 1820 and has seen a range of uses, from political to commercial to shelter.

While the neighbouring city of Delhi is brimming with heritage sites and monuments, several of which are constantly under threat, it is not as common to come across remnants of Gurugram’s historical past, especially with the city’s dominant image today is that of a finance and tech hub.

Defining the historicity of Gurugram has been a contested position. In 2016, Gurgaon was renamed Gurugram in an attempt to place its history in the era of Mahabharata. While this renaming follows a political narrative, it provides an opening to understanding the diverse histories and timelines that frames Gurugram’s past.

This structure is one such monument of local history that remains important for the collective memory of a section of residents, even as the structure itself ceases to exist.

Remnants of past

Sarais are usually known to be structures that were built under the influence of Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Rule, used as halting stations where travellers would rest. Sarais are found across the country on major travel routes that were used by all kinds of users – military troops, commoners and the elite class. The presence of Kaman Sarai in Gurugram thus alludes to the important position the location held in the travelling routes of people.

Location of Kaman Sarai in Municipal Corporation of Gurugram. Source: Open Street Map 2020, Google Maps 2020, IIHS Analysis 2020

The compound of Kaman Sarai includes an arched entrance gate opening into a free space comprising of rooms and a roofless porch.

The entrance gate of Kaman Sarai. The distinctive structure in Sadar Bazaar is believed to have been built under the Mughal regime. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020
The structure of the gate was designed in the form of an arch made with stone rubble masonry and brick infills. The interior façade features rounded arches with windows above the tiny shops that existed on both sides of the passage. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020
The sarai appeared distinctly colonial in architecture with very thick walls and high ceilings that kept the rooms cool in summer. The passage outside the room had roofs with a classic curved pediment supported by columns. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020

According to the District Gazetteer of Gurgaon (1883-’84), Sadar Bazaar was laid out by Jacomb, a former deputy commissioner of the district, in 1861. Kaman Sarai served as a halt for people involved in business at Sadar Bazaar, and the gazetteer records Sadar Bazaar as a “street of good-brick built shops and a host in trade of grains”.

Passage of the gate at Kaman Sarai. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020

Diwan Rao (name changed), whose family has resided in the locality for several decades, records the structure’s creation to the 1820s when the land was owned by a local resident named Raja Rati Ram. “It was a ghudsal [a structure used to rest travellers’ horses and bullocks] for travellers, along with the guest house for the travellers who came to the city from surrounding villages of Nuh, Mehwat and Farrukhnagar to sell their resources in the market,” he said.

Description of Sadar Bazar in the ‘District Gazetteer of Gurgaon’, 1883-’84 Photo credit: District Gazetteer of Gurgaon District, 1883-’84. (Accessed through google books.)

The Sadar Bazaar is a host to numerous micro-economies supporting the everyday needs of the residents and various livelihoods and this vibrancy is something that has developed over centuries.

Most shopkeepers in the area trace their lineage to Sadar Bazaar – Kaman Sarai locale and have been witness to the sarai’s long term functionality which also tied the community together. One shopkeeper right outside the gate of Kaman Sarai recalls that this structure was where seven generations of his family made their living. His livelihood today too is closely associated with the everyday hustle of the Sadar Bazaar.

The history of the sarai and its surroundings is marked by diverse uses over time. A stone plaque in the area notes that in 1925 Kaman Sarai served as the Zamindar Rest House. Local residents allude to FL Brayne – a colonial Deputy Commissioner in Gurugram who provided further amenities to the sarai.

The stone inscriptions in Kaman Sarai. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020

Kaman Sarai also saw the establishment of the Congress Party Office in 1947, which functions even today. In the post-Independence era, the sarai met the needs of the newly elected government. It served as a residence for Members of the Legislative Assembly from Gurugram. The district then was a part of undivided Punjab.

Since India’s independence, the sarai has been used for diverse purposes simultaneously, or at different timelines – MLA quarters of seven members from Gurgaon and Faridabad, army recruitment office, election office, Buildings and Roads Department (now under Public Works Department) and City Thana for Gurgaon. A Congress Party Office was also set up and exists even today as can be seen in the image above. Photo credit: IIHS, March 2020

The residents reported that the sarai also functioned as a hiring office for the Army in the post-independence period, which was later shifted near Aggarwal Dharamshala under the Sainik Board. An election office and Buildings and Roads department (which is now under Public Works Department) were also set up and later moved to new locations. In 1975, the City thana for Gurgaon was established here and remained for several years until it was relocated in 2005. The last occupants of the Kaman Sarai were police officials of the Crime Branch that was established in 1989 and remained stationed until recently.

Officers of the Gurgaon Crime Branch that has been relocated.Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020

The police officials remember the sarai where the city’s most challenging criminal cases and mayhem were grappled with. From 1980s to the present, Kaman Sarai played a role in safeguarding the city from crimes. A commemoration to this service of the Sarai can be seen in a blockbuster Bollywood film the Bandit Queen where jail scenes were shot in this station.

Clips of the jail scene from the movie ‘Bandit Queen’ shot in Kaman Sarai in 1994. Photo credit: Screengrab/ YouTube

“Kaman Sarai brought people from all walks of life together,” said a police officer who served in the crime branch office of Sadar Bazar stationed in the Kaman Sarai complex.

View of the Kaman Sarai. Photo credit: IIHS, January 2020

Kaman Sarai is an illustration of a historic urban landscape that is layered with history and memories wreathed with the physical structure, market and community. Sadar Bazaar continues to have permanent, quasi-permanent and weekly markets and with its long history and varied uses, residents talk about a sense of togetherness and affiliation that they feel with the place.

For residents living in different parts of Gurugram, Sadar Bazaar is synonymous with Kaman Sara and both spaces are remembered concurrently. A resident living around Kaman Sarai also observes a certain similarity between the Delhi Darwaza in Farrukhnagar and the arched gate of Kaman Sarai, adding that while both the gates have been existing for centuries, it is uncertain if this was built by the Mughals or the Britishers.

Urban memory

These factual uncertainties of history can actually allow one to restore their understanding of a place while contributing to the collective cultural memory of the district. The residents’ association with these structures like sarais or darwaazas offers an opportunity to look at Gurugram in ways other than as a corporate hub.

In a recent development, the complex of Kaman Sarai, except for the arched gates were dismantled for creating multi-level parking. According to the builder, such structures have to keep with the needs of urban residents. Eviction notices were sent to shopkeepers and the others living around the Sarai. The construction became part of debates and arguments among the occupants of Sadar Bazaar, who ultimately witnessed its demolition in mid-2020.

Post-demolition picture of the Kaman Sarai with an empty maidan and construction activities. Photo credit: IIHS, March 2020

Notable historical events are usually commemorated by state-sanctioned systems. We have jayantis and statues for noted personalities, functions on the occasion of important days. And tugs between political factions to manufacture historicity to a district – Gurgaon to Gurugram. But what happens to a fractured community that found a sense of place by the means of a historical structure?

Architectural theorist such as Aldo Rossi developed the concept of “urban memory” – a kind of collective memory that is built through cultural and social relations and experiences of communities and individuals residing in an urban set-up.

Stories and narrations of Kaman Sarai contribute to Gurugram’ urban memory. While the deceased monument does not stand a chance to be restored, oral narratives and history of Kaman Sarai require attention. It requires initiatives for remembrance and archiving these important tales that allows the residents to reimagine their cities.

Tsomo Wangchuk is an Associate at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, New Delhi and has trained as an urban planner.

Nishita Banerjee is a researcher at the Centre for Land Governance in IIHS.

The article is based on a project to map urban heritage in Gurugram.