Who is a Dilliwala?

Chhat Puja at India Gate, Delhi. Photo credit: S. Subramanium / The Hindu

For most residents of New Delhi, the region known as Old Delhi falls within the realm of the unknown. Aside from business people and those who earn a living inside the walled city only a few from outside the walled city used to venture into, what is derisively called Dilli 6. At least this was the picture till very recently.

With the introduction of the Metro entry into and exit from the heart of the city, it has become less daunting. More and more people from outside the “walled city area” have begun to tentatively explore the narrow winding lanes of Shahjahanabad. Except for those who come to explore ‘history and heritage’ and their numbers are small, consisting mostly of fair skinned tourists, most others arrive to explore the fabled flavours of the street food of Old Delhi or Shahjahanabad to give the place its correct name.

For most residents of the constantly expanding New Delhi, Shahjahanabad is a crowded eating place filled with all manner of delectable vegetarian foods and Chaats, Mughalia Cuisine, (known to New Delhiwalas as Mughlai) and all kinds of exotic sounding sweets, like Paneer ki Jalebi, Cactus ka Halwa, Safed Gaajar ka Halwa, Habshi Halwa Sohan, Haldi ka Halwa, Daulat ki chaat, Kulfi, Rabdi, Khurchan, Bedmi Poori etc, waiting eagerly to be consumed, in short for most visitors, this city, built in the 17th century, is nothing more than a vast culinary extravaganza.


It is for this reason that I have chosen a well known Halwai of Matia Mahal to begin my piece on who is a Dilliwalala. The Halwai I have in mind is Kallan, I do not know if he is still around, I have not noticed Kallan at the shop for some years now, his shop is still there, I bought his Paneer Jalebi last week, the young man who sold the delectable stuff to me could have been his grandson.

Kallan Sweets is located virtually at the head of Bazar Matia Mahal a little short of Jawahar Hotel on the same side of the street as Jawahar. Kallan the owner of the Shop had said something to me, about 35 years ago that has a bearing on our understanding of who actually is a Dilliwala.

A friend, a recent arrival from Lucknow, was told in the matter of fact tone that Kallan was known for, ‘you are not a Dilliwala’, ‘what is so special about them?’ asked the friend whose Lakhnawi ego was hurt, ‘You don’t have it’ was the terse reply.

The friend dragged me to Kallan from Ghareeb Hotel where I was sitting; pointing towards me he asked Kallan, ‘Is he a Dilliwalla?’ Kallan shook his head to say no. I asked Kallan ‘have you heard of Maulana Ahmad Saeed’, he touched his ears and said ‘who hasn’t? He was our leader’. I told Kallan he was my grandfather’s elder brother. For a split second he was caught and then came up with, ‘Have you heard of Mirza Ghalib? We don’t even include him among Dilliwallahs. We are the rubble from which this city was built, the rest are outsiders.’

Kallan was talking about the walled city, but what he said is equally valid for all of Delhi and all the Dillis it now contains. There have always been the original residents of Dilli, peasants, traders, shopkeepers, artisans, masons, crafts persons. Those who built, worked in, clothed and fed the residents of all the Dillis and yet no discussion about Dilliwalas makes even a passing reference to these communities.and all discussions about who is and who is not a Dilliwala are therefore conducted strictly among those who came from outside and over time became Dilliwallas.

Each new wave of settlers changed Dilli and was changed by it. Just as Ghalib and before him Meer Taqi Meer arrived in Delhi from Agra and became iconic Dilliwallas, there have been others who were not Delhiwallas to begin but Delhi embraced them and made them her own.

The Tomars, Pals, Chauhans, Ghauris,Mamlooks, Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodis, Suris and Mughals were all outsiders. The languages, cultures, architecture, scripts, music, attires and cuisines that they brought with them, fused with their indigenous counterparts to create the cultural identity of Delhi and the Dehliwala. These identities were never fixed in time, constantly in a state of flux, constantly mutating, modifying and getting enriched under the impact of myriad impulses, each new identity was thus an amalgam of all the earlier identities and elements drawn from the most recent cultural and social practices.

Each new dynasty built a new capital, some used existing sites like Aibak and Altamash ruled from Lal Kot and Qila Rai Pithora at Mehrauli. Others like Jalal-ud-Din Khilji moved away to Kilokhri, building upon the unfinished palace of Kaiqbaad, Ala-ud-Din Khilji built his Capital at Siri, Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq ruled from Tughlaqabad, his son Mohammad-bin Tughlaq created the Jahanpanah, Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s nephew built Firozabad, the Firozeshah Kotla of today, Sher Shah of Sur and Humayun ruled from Din Panah/Shergarh -the Purana Qila of today and Shahjahan built Shahjahanabad. Later still Surajmal and the Marathas came to control parts of what was left after the depredations of Nadir Shah and Abdali. The Marathas were defeated by the Brits in the battle of Panipat in 1803 and 108 years later in 1911, they began building their capital New Delhi. It is this city that the rulers of a new Independent India inherited, complete with its colonial and bureaucratic spatial pecking order that they continue to use with minor and insignificant change 63 years after independence.

Ala-ud-Din Khilji Built High walls around his city of Siri and later Mohammad bin Tughlaq tried to do the same around his city Jahan Panah(refuge for the world), both tried to protect the peasants of the scattered villages of Delhi from the depredations of the Mongols, who were a constant nuisance in those days, centuries later, the British confined the villagers within the village and decided that their lands could be acquired by the government whenever they were needed. The DDA formed in 1957, gradually acquired most of the Agricultural and village common lands and ensured the almost total exclusion of the village populations from the expansion and development plans of the city that began to grow haphazardly on the lands that once belonged to the villagers and for which they were paid a pittance.

Begining with the 12th century the first of the Sufis arrived and continued to settle here well into the 18th century, Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyaar Kaaki, Shah Turkman Byabani, Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, Naseer-ud-Din Roshan Chiragh-e-Dehli, Ameer Khusrau, Mirza Abdul Qadir ‘Bedil’, Sufi Sarmad Shaheed and others made Delhi their home and settlements grew around them, local populations converted under their influence and two faiths learned to live together, Qawwali developed as did Hindavi, to emerge as Urdu 400 years later, the language of all who lived in this city.

Mongols sacked Delhi but some of them also settled down in Mangolpur just as many of the Sansanwal Jat soldiers of Surajmal of Bharatpur were to do centuries later when they chose to stay back in Delhi’s Katwaria Sarai.

Udhara the trader from Gujarat came to Delhi at the time of Balban and built a baoli (step-well) for public use in Palam, much later traders from Rajasthan settled in Marwari Katra in Nai Sadak and Jats in Jatwara in Daryaganj of the city built by Shahjahan, Muslim Traders from Punjab came during Shah Alam’s time and settled in Balli Maran of Chandni Chowk in Shahjahanabad. The Punjabis who thronged the city in the immediate post partition period are now spread all over the city and are a visible and audible presence among the Dilliwallahs. An Afghan Amir of the Bangash clan came with his large retinue to build Kamra Bangash near Chandni Mahal. Afghan money lenders rented accommodation in Ballimaran for six months every winter, selling dry fruit they brought with them and lending money on high interest, before going back each summer to return next winter. The practice, though much reduced in scale, continues till today, while Afghan traders and students now inhabit the lanes of Jangpura and Bhogal.

Several families of Kashmiri Pandits came to Shahjahanabad because their Sanskrit and Persian Scholarship was needed in the court. The ancestors of Kamla Nehru, nee Kaul, settled probably in Gali Kashmiriyan, of Jawaharlal Nehru next to Neher Ali Mardan Khan and acquired the sobriquet Nehru, the Haksars lived near Bazar Sitaram and Sadak Prem Narain, both perhaps named after two Haksar Brothers, the family of Pandit Anand Mohan Zutshi ‘Gulzar’ Dehlavi, who now lives in Noida, built their Haveli in Kucha Pati Ram, My paternal ancestors, settled in the Kashmiri Katra at the red fort end of Daryaganj, to be rendered homeless, when the Katra was razed by the British post 1857 and now post extremism hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits and poor Kashmiri Muslims in their thousands have come and made Delhi their home.

There were Parsis, Jews, Anglo Indians, Native Christians and others who were a thriving, but now a forgotten presence within and outside the walled city. Bengalis arrived in large numbers with the shifting of the capital in 1911, to live in the walled city and outside while those that came in the aftermath of the partition gradually built their houses in an area, for long called East Pakistan Displaced Persons’ Colony (EPDP COLONY) and now called Chittaranjan Park, presently being overrun by Builders. Other diasporas, Sindhis, Multanis, Tamils, Kannadas, Andhras, Malyalees, Nagas, Meitis, Ahoms, Tripuris, Manipuris, Bhojpuris, Biharis, Uttranchalis, Jharkhandis, 36 Garhis, have all created their own identity markers, temples, markets, schools and what have you.

For millennia people have come from outside Delhi from within and outside India and made Delhi their home. It is the same for any urban settlement.

Any city and any culture that closes itself to mixing of new elements ceases to grow, any attempt to privilege the claims of one set of arrivals over those of the others can only lead to strife and disaffection that may not remain confined within the city. Delhi will continue to be Delhi as long as it keeps its doors open, welcoming all comers, ‘if you live here you are a Dilliwalla’.

[An edited, shorter version appeared last month in The Times of India.]

6 thoughts on “Who is a Dilliwala?”

  1. Uddhara, the trader from Gujarat, who built a baoli at Palam during the regin of Ghyas-ud-Din Balban, had placed a large inscription on the Baoli, the inscription among other things says “Delhi which is in Haryana” the inscription has been quoted in Aasaar-us-sanadeed, Syed ahmad Khan’s work on the monuments of Delhi and in Sanskrit Inscription of Delhi Sultanate by Pushpa Prasad.


  2. sohail, what you have said at the end is very significant, and has to be understood at the deepest level—there is no pure culture, pure language, pure ideology, pure religion, pure cuisine, pure community, pure country, pure history etc.
    in terms of historical evolution, since humans began moving from africa, mixtures have been the basis of life and learning. for example, one can read joseph needham’s work on chinese science and civilization to understand china’s influence on the whole world ( his wife,dorothy helped him quite a lot). or,the influence of arabs in the making of europe–the first paper mill in europe was constructed by them. i do not need to press on the significance of this example. there are innumerable such examples from all over the world including mesopotamia, egypt, india, the aztecs,the mayans etc. movement and interaction of humans, and animals created mixtures, variations, and introductions. bhindi, aloo, gobi, tamatar, and most fruits that we buy in india have originated at different places on this planet.

    sohail, it is important to remember this within the context of indian politics and society. the rss schools( source: tanika sarkar and others; seminar[archives] ) are teaching kids that everything is hindu, everything originated here!! the more one reads about this planet’s history,(let alone human history,which is very recent) the more one realizes that there is nothing like purity. so, people who legitimize/d, propagate/d this false, fabricated idea use/d it to dominate and control others(this has been recorded since the invention of writing, religion, family, and other institutions; not a gift of modernity, as wrongfully assumed by many critics of modernity).

    we know that those who insist/ed on purity of one’s culture, language, community, or religion have either committed mass murders,or imprisoned, expelled, exiled human beings, or resorted to extermination and elimination of what they thought as impurity! in other words, they tried to create an insulated, closed history of their own.

    time may do this for a short time, but time’s being is such that it undoes its own doing.
    (shakespeare, the winter’s tale, act iv, scene 1; not a quote)


  3. Delhi is an amazing confluence of people converging from various parts of Asia over thousands of years. ‘Dilli – Delhi, A Living Heritage’ an INTACH exhibition now on at IGNCA describes the evolution of the city(ies) and the challenges it overcame. The article rightly points out the neglect and marginalisation faced by villagers who originally inhabited it and owned the lands. Their grievances have not been addressed and it is a sorrow that they were deprived of their lands for a pittance. Another example of the working of our archaic, colonial Land Acquisition Act which has to be thrown in to the dustbin. The situation faced by the Delhi villagers also stares at the Koli fisherfolk who once owned Mumbai.


  4. A beautiful insight into the settlers of Delhi. A great treasure of new information that I gained today.

    However, what made me nostalgic beyond limits, were the names so familiar as Kallan mithai wala or Ghareeb Hotel one often passed by on a visit to the grandparents.The ears now resound of other names like Rahmatullah Hotel, Flora and aah! the aroma of the papeys (rusks) we often took ‘straight from the oven’ from the bakeries in Matia Mahal.

    I think I need to stalk Kafila more often.


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