Crafts and Craftspeople of Shahjahanabad

in Article
Published on: 26 October 2018

Jolly Rohatagi

Jolly Rohatagi is a freelance artist and art historian, based in Delhi.


Shahjahanabad, now known as Old Delhi, has been a city where traditional crafts have been a part of the lifestyle of the residents. There is so much to see in its bazaars as we wade past the fruit sellers, tea shops, cloth merchants, artificial jewellery sellers, etc. The sounds and sights amaze us. We notice that the dialect also changes in Old Delhi––Urdu and Hindi are spoken in a special way. In local parlance, this dialect is known as Dilli Chhe (Delhi 6), named after the postal code.


Residing here are sellers and makers of handicrafts, utility crafts, functional crafts or essential services such as the services of the washerman (who washes and starches clothes), the dyer (or rangrez, who dyes sarees in colourful hues), the tailor, the darner (reffewgar), the medicine men (hakims and vaids), the bookbinders, the makers of intricately engraved copper/brass pots and boxes, the weavers of the charpoy cots, the oil press workers, the silver and gold foil makers, the perfumers, etc.—the list is endless.


Many traditional craftsmen are found in Shahjahanabad even today. Although a lot of artisans have migrated out, the city still teems with artisans and handmade objects. Here we start our journey to meet the craftsmen of Delhi.


Crafts of Shahjahanabad


Some of the older artisans are full of informative stories. They recount history as oral stories they have heard from their fathers and grandfathers. Oral tradition is also used in their way of creating an object of beauty. They tell us that the city was so named since it represented the dehleez (entrance)—like the entrance to a haveli, a grand mansion—to the main land where lived the king and the noblemen; hence Dehli, so spoken in Hindustani language. Some say that it was so named because it represented those with a dil (heart)—hence Dilli. Jahan dil hay wahan Dilli hai (Dilli is where the heart is).


The lifestyle of Delhi has traditionally been wrought by invasions and migrations. We discover many interesting facets and are awed by the richness of this lifestyle. Delhi as a city has always held promises of livelihood to a large number of artisans and the ustad-chela (teacher-disciple) system of learning has always been prevalent. The craftsmen work for a living either as a family or in a kin group. Almost all the crafts are traditional crafts—the ironsmith, the calligrapher, the painters of miniature paintings, the wood and bone carvers, the toy makers, the bookbinders, the kite makers and many more—each plying his or her skills using traditional tools and methods of creating their crafts. As you travel in the various lanes called galis, you come across craftsmen and their disciples continuously at work. You hear the sounds of their tools and the continuous noise that emanates from each workshop.


As we go on, we come across:


Ironsmiths (lohars) – Lohars still make household and kitchen utility items such as iron kadhai (wok), karchhi, khapcha (ladles), and balti (bucket). In Gali Dhobian, behind the Stock Exchange, is the home and work centre of traditional brass workers making statues of gods and goddesses, apart from utensils. They supply to a lot of exporters and to well-known emporiums and shops.


Stone Grinders – With the old grinding stone, these grinders make and decorate items in a nearby shop in the same galli, with the textured designs still used in most homes—for red stone silbatta (pestle), kharal (mortar), etc. These are sold in local shops nearby.


Then there are stone carvers here in the same area. Gravestone carving is done by specialised carvers. They carve beautiful couplets, epithets created and written by qatibs (calligraphers) in chaste Urdu which is then transferred on to the headstone.


Calligraphers (qatibs) – Calligraphers or the qatibs are still in great demand and they do specialised calligraphy in Urdu, Persian and Arabic.


Artists (Naqshanabis) – Miniature painting artists who were brought from Persia by the Mughal emperor Babur recorded his wars and victories in the Babarnama, and later Akbar also employed artists to record history in Ain-i-Akbari. Emperor Jahangir was a great lover of paintings, and he introduced this craft in Delhi. The painter he patronised began his atelier here, and his descendants are still painting miniatures. The miniaturists today sell their paintings in many city markets and craft shops. They used to paint portraits of the royalty and noblemen on ivory—and since ivory is now banned, they use handmade paper instead.


Bookbinders (Zildsaaz) – These were the bookbinders of official papers. Historically, they became very important, once Delhi received its official status as the capital. Since Mughal times, there has been a great tradition of handmade books and bookbinding in many different ways. All are a great source of income to the bookbinders—many of whom are women in the old city. There are makers of:


a) cloth-bound books called bahi khata used by traditional shopkeepers mostly; red cloth outside which is stitched like a quilt, with yellow paper inside—all local merchants used this for writing their accounts.

b) leather-bound books embossed with gold leaf were created after the British took over the capital—these found a market with libraries, courthouses, law chambers and with the intellectuals.

c) Stationery for use in institutions and offices (in recent times).


Carvers – Carvers, especially of ivory, had reached a very high status in Delhi. The prince and the noblemen used these in their homes. The long-lasting ivory which mellowed with time was intricate and beautiful. Crafts like chests and furniture, jewellery and assortment of boxes and many other things were intricately carved in ivory. Since the ban on use of ivory, the carvers began to use bones and special wood to carve beads, hairpins, paper knives, chests, etc. Their skills are acclaimed far and wide.


Potters (kumhars) – Potters made white translucent pots, intricately decorated with blue patterns, for keeping grains, with special clay made from Delhi stone—quartz. It is said that the Mughals were great lovers of birds, especially pigeons and parrots. These were kept in special cages. The same materials were also used for making blue tiles to decorate tombs. Potters learnt the skill of making blue pottery from the blue tile makers who had come from Persia to decorate the domes of monuments. The family of Hazari Mal lived in Sui Walan for a long time. Now his entire family has shifted out to east Delhi and practises this craft. Till date his family makes urns, jars, pots, vases, tea sets, cups and saucers, plates and glasses and jugs in traditional style using Persian imagery. Some of them also create modern designs nowadays .


Bangle makers (chooriwalas) – Bangle makers for centuries have traditionally crafted special bangles in Delhi. The neighbourhood of ‘Chooriwalan’ (bangle sellers)—where they used to stay—is still known by their craft.  Also, lac bangle makers had migrated from Rajasthan to Delhi and settled in this neighbourhood. The gold-leaf decoration of the nausath (literarily sixty-nine) bangles, which were worn by all the ladies when they went to a wedding, or the stone-studded nav ratan (nine jewel) bangles were a part of Delhi’s own culture. Mostly, these were made in Firozabad, and decorated in Delhi. The maniharin, or bangle seller, went from house to house to sell his wares.


Tassel sellersChuteela (hair tassel) sellers along with bangle sellers had a heyday in Pardah Bagh (Ladies’ Garden) near Darya Ganj whenever there were special ‘Ladies Fairs’. Parandi or chuteela, as it is called in Old Delhi, was something most ladies bought for their long and flowing hair.


Mender/darner (raffoo walah) – Menders of silk and woollen items can still be found staying at Kala Mahal, Balli Maran, and Kucha Chellan.


Embroiderers – Embroiderers, especially of zari (golden thread), have a large market in Delhi. Special and expensive embroideries of Delhi include zari, zardozi, karchobi, kamdani, tarkashi and salma sitara. These were patronised by the rich clients. The works were ornate, with heavily encrusted gold thread embroidery on expensive gold and silver brocades.


Decorators of costumesGota and kinari workers of Kinari Bazar work with glittering gold and silver threads, beads and even make theatre costumes—including masks, used mainly in Ramlila and other festive performances.


Perfume traders (Itar Farosh) – Oil makers or the traditional perfumers still run their hundred-year-old shops and have a regular market. Perfumes made from rose and jasmine, hina, firdaus, and that fresh fragrance reminiscent of the first drop of monsoon rain on parched hot earth called mitti or just earth can be found here. There is even a perfume called Kala Bhoot. Strong essence of flowers is even used by the wrestlers in the akharas (where wrestling matches take place) to put off their opponents,


Instrument makers (Saazkaars) – Musical instrument makers who make tablas, nagadas, nafiris, tasheys, sarangis, flutes, dhols, etc., live here and make their instruments which traditional musicians use.


Lathe workers, bisatkaars (artisans) created shatranj, bisat (chessboards), moharey (chessmen), etc., from sandalwood and simple wood, by turning on lathes. Mughals brought their traditional pastime of playing chess with them. The makers of copper pots, pans, and embossed and engraved boxes called chitai work stay at Tiraha Behram Khan, Chandni Mahal, Qutab Road.


Jewellers – Jewellery makers who worked with pearls, bead makers, meenakars (enamellers) and artisans doing kundan work and silverwork, as well as patuas, or the silk thread necklace makers who made traditional tightly strung thread jewellery, are still very popular in Shahjahanabad. There was great demand for special expensive jewellery such as bazuband (arm ornament), pahunchi (wrist ornament), guluband (necklace), and jhumkas (dangling earrings) with intricate designs of foliage and birds, etc., inlaid on gold. There was a colourful craft using glass, stone and diamonds set in gold, very special to Delhi, which was called meenakari and kundan work. This work has a special style wherein the frontage of the jewel is inlaid with precious stones, known as kundan work, and the reverse side of the jewel had ornamental meenakari!


Other crafts – Other traditional craftsmen would also include kite makers, charkhi makers (the rollers for the kite thread), manjha (the sharp kite threadmakers); and toy makers who make toys using paper, clay and wire. There are also makers of the effigies of Ravan and his brothers, Kumbhakaran and Meghnad, for ceremonial burning during the Ramlila festivities. The aatish (fire cracker) makers are also well known. During festivals such as Diwali and Eid, there is a great demand for diyas, especially the chau mukha (the four-sided) ones and candles. They come in various forms, shapes and sizes, and people buy dozens of these during the festivals.


Makers of wooden and cement jaali (intricate carved net-like doors and windows) form another very special grpup of craftsmen in Old Delhi. Householders buy them for their homes. The motifs include flowers, birds, animals, gods and goddesses.


Chilman (bamboo curtains) makers and khus purdah (curtains made with the roots of Khus plant) makers of cane and bamboo were and are still in great demand. The onslaught of summer hikes up the need for having reed and bamboo curtains to keep the sun out. There is also a great demand for the sarkanda moodha (circular stool made from this special grass) commonly used as outdoor stools in Delhi.


Twenty days before Diwali, during the season of festivity in or around October, there is a toy crafted in bamboo and clay called tesu at Shahjahanabad. Children take this moustachioed king on a tripod man-horse along with a decorative pot called jhenjhi to various homes, asking for treats and singing verses. The verse cited below describes a journey of a victorious raider king down the Old Delhi main bazaar—forcing the people of the town to come out and greet him on his way to the Red Fort—as he is entering from Quazi Hauz via Fatehpuri to the Bhavani Shankar temple and thence to the high roof of the Red Fort. He is seen to be asking for a barber who tried to kill him with a knife, and the people greet him with knives and shower stones on him. The memory of the incident which led to this event being celebrated has faded, but the tradition and the song carries on...


Mera Tesu yahin khada

Khaney ko mangey dahi bada

Dahi badey main mirchey bohot

Agey dekho Kazi Hauz

Kazi Hauz main chali churi

Agey dekho Fateh Puri

Fateh Puri main bichey the kankar

Agey dekho Bhawani Shankar

Uskey agey chadhey atari

Nai ney mari Kushal Katari

(snort) Kyo bhai Tesu yeh kya kaam

Raja ji yeh badi salam


(My [horse] Tesu is stubbornly standing here

He wants a treat of yogurt and dumplings

But the yogurt treat has too many chillies

Looking ahead he comes to Qazi Hauz

In Qazi Hauz there is a fight with knives

Looking ahead he comes to Fateh Puri

In Fateh Puri he was pelted with stones

Looking ahead he comes to Bhavani Shankar (temple)

In Bhavani Shankar he climbs the high terrace

There his barber hit him skilfully with a knife

[Snort] Why Tesu what is this sound

Rajaji this is my big salute)


Few know of it, but some elders recall Tesu and relate it to Babban Ban, a mythical king from Mahabharata, whose smiling visage helped armies to win the war. Others said this was a dreaded demon king who didn’t allow weddings to take place unless his own wedding to Jhenjhi was celebrated, while others say this was perhaps a king who became a pauper.


There are many tales regarding this tradition. The artisans tell us that the toy is buried at the dargah of Qutab Sahib at the end of the journey—while some elderly artisan women tell us that both boys and girls carried this toy away for ‘wish fulfilment’, and then it got destroyed at cross-roads. However, celebration of Tesu goes on and artisans still make it, while children play with it.


Craftsmen and neighbourhoods of Shahjahanabad


There are many neighbourhoods where some or many of these craftsmen stay. For instance, if we enter Shahjahanabad from the Darya Ganj side, near Golcha Cinema, the neighbourhoods and the areas that we will pass or walk through have also been traditionally known for the craftsmen they have been homes to.


At the streets of Tiraha Behram Khan, opposite Darya Ganj, adjacent to Golcha Cinema, are homes and workshops of box makers. Fret work is also done here. There are carpenters who make doli or the palanquins for the bride. There are those artisans who are associated with weddings, such as instrument players in wedding bands, the procession light carriers, etc. There are bookbinders staying and working here as well. There are papier-mâché[i] workers too.


A little ahead is Kucha Rahimullah Khan. There are workshops here that polish metal objects, artisans who do the chitai (engraving) on metal objects, and also bookbinders. There are one or two houses of toy makers.


A well-known hub of artisans, Chandani Mahal boasts of being home to the mirasi (musician) community. There are tabla and sitar players as well as musical instrument makers here. Along with them reside embroiderers or zardozi workers, who do fine crafts, such as karchobi, kamdani and so on, traditional to Delhi. There are also parandi makers. They live in small shared spaces and are continuously supplying these to larger producer-cum-contractors. Some box makers also stay here.


Suiwalan is the traditional home of blue potters, where potters have been making blue pottery for over a hundred years. There are also traditional red clay potters along with some bookbinders.


There are two main areas, Qamra Bangash and Ksheer Wala Phatak, where the sophisticated katibs stay on one side, and makers of leaf plates and bowls on the other. Traditional dyers also live here.


The traditional ivory and bone carvers, who work only on bone, wood and stone, and jewellery makers live at Gali Kotana.


At Kallu Hawas ki Haveli live traditional embroiderers, zardozi workers, makers of silverware and tarazu (traditional brass weighing scales), along with chitai workers on metal.


There are homes and places of well-known zardozi embroiderers, salma sitarey (metal wire and discs) workers, bookbinders, makers of intricate carved wooden rehel (traditional cross-barred bookstand) for holy books, and mirror frames and stay at Haveli Azam Khan.


The patua or thread workers live at Chitli Qabar and make jewellery from coloured threads and beads. They also have a great market all over Delhi.


Turkman Gate buzzes with artisanal work of bead sellers—selling all kinds of beads from bones, brass, metals, semi-precious stones, wood, seeds to glass and ceramics, etc. There is also the handicrafts market at Turkman Gate now. Makers of traditional tazia, made of bamboo and colourful threads and paper, for Muharram processions also live here.


There are dye makers and artisans who make metal items by using punching methods at Phatak Teliyan, the area for aromatic oil extraction. They make oils from jasmine flowers, dhoi tilli (washed sesame seeds), khus oil and its perfume or ittar, amla oil and ittar from gulab (rose) and musk (musk oil).


At Kucha Pati Ram, one can find wood workers and those working with fret saws making intricate jaalis.


A lot of artisans are engaged in making ephemeral paper toys for sale in melas and fairs at Gali Shankar Wali. Ramlila is one such sale option. There used to be only two Ramlilas in the city previously, now there are dozens. The paper toys sold in these fairs are locally called phirkiwalals (makers of the colour pinwheel, a popular ephemeral toy for children). Among other toys, they make the ektara (one-string clay and bamboo instrument) and khatkhatia (a clay and bamboo toy on wheel) for children.


On the street leading up to Jama Masjid, at Matia Mahal, we find makers of silver jewellery, traditional tailors stitching custom-made sherwanis and churidar pyjamas, silk and zari jutis and, of course, items from recycled waste.


At the back of Jama Masjid, towards Jannat Nishan gate of Jama Masjid, we can find people making quilts for the winter season and sellers of fire crackers, antiques and metal handicrafts.


Katibs , bookbinders, bangle sellers and makers can be found at Chitla Gate.


Near Nai Sarak, we can find silver foil makers, which is used as covers for sweets etc., and textile printers. Nai Sarak also has bookbinders, gulab gandhis (perfumers) and, of course, saree shops, which give employment to hundreds of embroiderers.


Kinari Bazar also has sarees with extensive varieties of borders and laces, and theatre-related items, such as masks.


At Badey Shah Bullah (commonly known as Barsabula) one can find tin and iron metal items, stoves, tubs and vessels. A lot of these are handmade in workshops, which are located behind Badey Shah Bullah.


At Hauz Qazi, named after the second famous mosque in the old city, there are many shops selling bead jewellery. Gali Shahtara has makers of sandals and chappals. At Kucha Pandit, there are leather workers, brass workers and fret workers.


At Mom Giram, zari and zardozi embroiderers reside, along with weavers and artisans working on karchobi work.


Alongside this at Lal Kuan are makers of everyday objects, such as iron vessels, kadais (wok) and lotas (water vessel). Paper kites are made here along with the bamboo and wood charkhas. The roller for the manjha (sharp glass-encased thread) and aromatic oil and perfumes are also found here.


Near Hamdard Dawakhana at Gali Qasim Jaan reside makers of silbatta (grind stone) with fancy hand-carved surface textures along with engravers of gravestones.


At Kucha Rehmani, we find workers who make velvet-encased fancy boxes for jewellers and, of course, the market for spectacles, shades and all kinds of eyewear.


Gali Chabuk Sawar is known for its famous resident Abdul Rehman Pehalwan, who is an expert in mending broken bones—he massages with special herbs and poultices, and a long queue of people wait for the massage.


At Nabi Karim, there are bag makers.


Ahata Kedara is known for makers of buttons of all kinds.


At Dariba Kalan, gold and silver jewellery is made and old gulab gandhis reside there.


At Katra Mullah, Pahari Anjuman, Churiwalan, one can find tazia makers and makers of pankhas for Phoolwalon Ki Sair. This festival is associated with the dargah of Sufi saint Salim Chisti of Ajmer and with the dargah of Sufi saint Qutab Sahib. This is where the procession of believers who follow the tazia ends.


At Quawaspura Katra, Kala Mahal, the dhobis or the washermen also stay.


Lal Mandir, Jain temple, at the Chandni Chowk crossing is famous for being a hospital for sick birds.


It is here that the journey of meeting the crafts and craftsmen of Shahjahanabad ends.