Contrary to the general assumption these days that the Mughal court didn’t build temples, over 100 Mughal-era Mandirs survive in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). Many of these temples were patronised by Mughal Emperors, and today they are perhaps the best-preserved Mughal interiors in the capital, telling the story of a wonderful fusion of religious and cultural influences.
Writers Sam Dalrymple and Rana Safvi take us on a tour of their ten favourite Mughal-era temples of Shahjahanabad.
Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628 – 1658) had designed his capital, Shahjahanabad, with spaces for Hindu and Jain worship. After all, Jain and Khattri bankers underwrote the Mughal economy, as did military aid from the semi-independent Hindu Maharajas. This Mughal way of governing would be copied centuries later by the British East India Company, whose rise was built on loans from Marwari bankers like the Jagat Seths, and military aid from local Maharajas and Nawabs.
While Mughal Emperors Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) was a fundamentalist puritan, who desecrated enemy temples, his successors among the ‘lesser Mughals’ like Muhammad Shah Rangeela (r. 1719-1748), Akbar II (r. 1806-1837) and Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1837-1857) were extremely tolerant towards Hindus. Emperor Akbar II seems to have taken a particular interest in his Hindu subjects and most surviving temples date to his reign.
Today, the best-surviving Jain temples can be found in the Jain Muhalla of Dharampura, and Mughal-era Shiva temples concentrated in the Shaiva Muhalla of Katra Neel area of Old Delhi.
Here are some of the finest Mughal-era temples in Delhi:
#1. Urdu Mandir/ Lal Mandir
Urdu Mandir in Chandni Chowk is the oldest temple in Shahjahanabad, built during the reign of Shah Jahan himself in what was then known as Urdu Bazaar. Jain bankers underwrote the economy of Mughal India, and their temples are some of the most beautiful places in the city. The idol of Tirthankara Parsvanatha dates from even earlier, 1491 CE.
The temple’s history speaks of the complex relationship between the Mughal rulers and temples: erected during Shah Jahan's reign, persecuted under Aurangzeb, then enlarged and lavishly painted by Akbar II.
This interior is probably the best non-Muslim architecture that survives from the Mughal period. In 1857, the British sacked Delhi and most of the city was destroyed. Even the Red Fort is a shell of its former self. These Jain interiors are ironically the best guide to what Mughal Delhi once was.
This Parsvanatha temple was popularly known as ‘Urdu Mandir’ as it was located in the ‘Urdu Bazaar’ area. After the Partition of India in 1947, the name 'Urdu Mandir' fell out of use. Today, most people know the temple as ‘Lal Mandir’.
Location: Opposite Red Fort and Lal Qila Metro Station, on the corner of Chandni Chowk. The exterior was rebuilt with concrete shikharas (spires) in the early 20th century, but the interior is one of its kind.
#2. Charan Das ki Baghichi
Charan Das ki Baghichi or ‘The Garden of Charan Das’ is possibly the only surviving Mughal samadhi built for a Hindu saint. Interestingly, Sant Charan Das, a Hindu ascetic, was extremely close to Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela (r. 1719-1748).
Until recently, Muhammad Shah Rangeela's reign received little scholarly attention. If it was spoken of at all, it was for decline - Persian warlord Nadir Shah sacked Delhi during his rule – the looting of the peacock throne and the Kohinoor diamond.
Scholars are now reassessing his rule as one of the great periods of Indian painting. It is Mughal art at its most day-to-day. Gone are stiff royal portraits and instead we have pictures of Shaiva ascetics visiting Delhi's shrines, of the Emperor himself watching Diwali celebrations, and of the Emperor playing Holi.
Muhammad Shah Rangeela developed a close relationship with Sant Charan Das, a Bhakti ascetic from Alwar, who shunned caste and was believed by his disciples to be an avatar of Sri Krishna. Muhammad Shah held the ascetic in such great esteem that he endowed him with four villages around Fatehpur Beri (today's Chattarpur in South Delhi) for the maintenance of his sect.
Oral history maintains that the Emperor became a disciple of Charan Das himself, and that the saint predicted the invasion of Nadir Shah six months before it happened, though this cannot be independently corroborated.
Inside the mandir are impressions of the saint’s footsteps, as if they were Vishnupada (Feet of Vishnu). The ceiling was covered in the oldest Vaishnav frescoes in Delhi, which were recently destroyed in a botched ‘renovation’.
Location: Mohalla Charan Das, near Chawri Bazaar. Don’t miss the famous Kachoris opposite.
#3. Ghanteshwar Mahadev Shivalaya
This is the Ghanteshwar Mahadev Shivalaya, built under the rule of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It can be found in 'Katra Neel', which was the epicentre of Shajahanabad's Shaivite community.
Ghanteshwar was built over a much older Shiva temple – with the Shivalinga being possibly the oldest in Delhi as per 19th century Delhi historians like Mahamahopadyaya Banke Rai and Zafar Hasan. The temple has interesting paintings of Lord Shiva and other Hindu deities, dating to the mid-19th century.
Location: Ghanteshwar Gali in Katra Neel. Head up Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort and turn right after the Chunnamal Haveli to reach Katra Neel. The Ghanteshwar Shivalaya is today inside a more modern mandir on the left.
#4. Khunnji Shivalaya
Also known as Dhummi Lal Khanna Shivalaya, this was built during the reign of Emperor Akbar II. What makes it so distinct is its lotus-shaped ‘Mughal style’ dome.
An interesting feature of these Mughal-era Hindu temples in Shahjahanabad is that few of them are surmounted by a high shikhara, instead possessing the lotus domes found elsewhere in Mughal architecture.
A fascinating paper by Art Historian Catherine Asher titled Mapping Hindu-Muslim Identities Through the Architecture of Shahjahanabad and Jaipur (2000) takes a detailed look at this peculiar feature of these temples. Prof Asher states that these domes marked 'religious buildings' in general and had no sectarian affiliation.
She goes on to emphasize that what primarily differentiated Hindu and Muslim architecture in the Mughal capital was that mosques would be visible from streets, whereas temples would always be enclosed within walled havelis or gardens. Today, heavily encroached Shiva temples are often all that remain of once much larger structures.
The construction of temples within a garden was hugely popular across the 15th-18th century Gangetic plains and was particularly patronized by Rajputs. But from the late 19th century, as tastes changed, most of these temples were reconstructed with classical shikharas or domed spires.
Location: Katra Neel. Head up Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort, and turn right after the Chunnamal Haveli to reach Katra Neel. Khunnji Shivalaya is in a small haveli structure on your right.
#5. Baba Lalu Jasrai Shivalaya
Baba Lalu Jasrai Shivalaya was built by a merchant named Lala Changamal during the reign of Akbar Shah II. It is in Katra Neel, an area dedicated to Shaiva worship. The apocryphal story goes that the marble used in this temple was brought from the construction surplus kept at the Red Fort by a local devotee.
Location: Katra Neel. Head up Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort, and turn right after the Chunnamal Haveli to reach Katra Neel. Baba Lalu Jasrai Shivalaya is in a small haveli structure on your left.
#6. Gwalior Maharaj ka Mandir
The peculiarly named ‘Gwalior Maharaj ka Mandir’ or the ‘Temple of the Gwalior Maharaja’ has a bit of a mystery behind its name. According to records available with the Gwalior royal family, no such temple or haveli was built by them. So why is it called 'Gwalior Maharaja’s' Mandir? That remains a mystery. Since no historic research has ever been done on the structure, all we have is oral history.
The jhula and chariot were apparently gifted by the Gwalior Maharaj or perhaps they belonged to a man from Gwalior, who moved to Delhi and was known as 'Gwalior Maharaj' out of respect? We will probably never know the real story.
The current owner is Anil Kumar, who bought it in 2006 from a man called Vishnu Das Garg. Anil says that the mandir was built in 1827, which would put it in the reign of Akbar II. Opposite was a much larger haveli that has since been torn down. Nonetheless, it is one of the most beautiful surviving temples in Old Delhi, found deep in Sitaram Bazaar.
Location: From Chawri Bazaar Metro Station, head down Sitaram Bazaar and turn right into Kucha Pati Ram. Head left down Gali Beri Wali, and ask for Gwalior Maharaj ka Mandir.
#7. Jhajjarwala Mandir
These two heavily encroached temples - one dedicated to Radha and Krishna, the other to Shiva - are just off Chandni Chowk, in an alley opposite Paranthe Wali Gali. Like all temples in Shahjahanabad, these heavily encroached structures are probably all that remain of once much larger garden temple structures.
These temples was built by Hardev of Jhajjar in the late Mughal period, although we haven’t been able to find out which emperor ruled at the time. From the architectural style, they were most probably built during the reign of Akbar II or Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Jhajjar was a princely state just outside modern Gurgaon, whose Nawab was famous for riding around on a tiger, but was executed in 1858 for supporting the revolutionaries during the Great Uprising the previous year..
Location: Head up Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort, and turn right down the gali opposite Paranthewali Gali.
#8. Vakil Pura Mandir
There is little information available about this temple, other than that it was built during the late Mughal period. The neighbouring temple and havelis have the date 1841 inscribed on them, which puts them in the reign of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Given the similarities with other Zafar-era temples (compare the Dwarapalas here with those on Ghanteshwar Mandir), we think that Vakil Pura Mandir also dates from that time. Nonetheless, more research needs to be done.
By 1841, the Mughal Empire had all but collapsed, encroached first by the Marathas and then by the rising East India Company. Bahadur Shah Zafar's power barely extended beyond the walled city of Shahjahanabad. Yet his reign also saw a last burst of cultural creativity in Delhi, seen in the poems of Ghalib and Zauq, and in the gorgeous craftsmanship of buildings like this. If the mandir was built in 1841, that would make it one of the last Mughal-era temples ever built. Just 16 years later, the Mughal Empire came to an end.
The mandir is primarily dedicated to Radha and Krishna, but a small Shivalinga also sits at the back. The style is late Mughal, with Maratha influences. Some time in the last five years, some paintings on the doorway to the temple were removed.
Location: Walk to Vakil Pura, between Jama Masjid and Dharampura. The mandir can be found in a small square, surrounded by other temples.
#9. Ladliji ka Mandir
Deep in Old Delhi's main Shaiva locality, Katra Neel, is one of the capital's main Radha temples. It was built during the reign of Emperor Ahmad Shah Bahadur (1756) by a religious ascetic named Naval Goswami Pradyumanji. Like the other Mughal-era temples, it isn’t protected, rarely appears in heritage listings and receives no money for its conservation. Parts of the historic temple have fallen down and replaced by newer concrete structures. The ceiling has a beautiful though fading painting on it, and Victorian tilework covers the outside.
Location: Head up Chandni Chowk from the Red Fort, and turn right after the Chunnamal Haveli to reach Katra Neel. Turn left onto Ghanteshwar Gali and you will find the mandir on your left.
#10. Naya Jain Mandir
Can these temples really be considered Mughal just because they were built during Mughal rule? How involved was the Mughal Court?
Raja Harsukh Rai was the Imperial Treasurer of the Mughal Court – an Agrawal Jain from Hisar in Haryana. In 1807, he built a vast Jain mandir in the area of Dharampura, which had been given to the Jain community for their services to the Imperial Court since Aurangzeb's reign.
There were several Jain temples in the city at the time - notably the one in Urdu Bazaar - but Harsukh Rai wanted this one to be different. Temples weren’t allowed shikharas in Shahjahanabad, but Harsukh managed to persuade Akbar II to let him build a towering shikhara over his temple - the first in the city.
Today, the temple has one of the best-preserved Mughal interiors in Delhi. It also houses a rare illustrated manuscript of Mahapurana of Acharya Jinasena dating to 1420 CE. No electricity or diyas are allowed in the mandir. According to legend, any attempts at lighting were magically snuffed out.
Of all the Mughal-era temples in Shahjahanabad, this is probably the best documented. Tragically, lack of scholarship means we don't have this level of knowledge about most of the other temples in this series.
Location: Dhamapura, near the Jama Masjid. Any cycle rickshaw will know the way. The mandir is slightly beyond Haveli Dharampura, on your right.
It is difficult to paint a 350-year-old Empire with a single brush. While some Mughal Emperors like Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of temples, others patronised temples within the walls of their own capital. The first and last Emperors - Babur and Bahadur Shah Zafar - lived three centuries apart from one another. By contrast, it has only been 170 years since the Mughal Empire ended. And these Mughal-era temples are a testament to this ‘grey’ part of our history.
Sadly, these unique examples of late Mughal architecture are under a threat. Last month, a careless new 'renovation' destroyed perhaps the oldest Vaishnav frescoes in Delhi, at Sant Charan Dasji ki Bagichi. Several heritage activists tried to raise awareness about the destruction. The social media posts went viral on the Internet for an unexpected reason. Rather than outrage about the cultural loss, the general response was shock at the fact that there even WERE historic temples in Delhi.
For more information read Rana Safvi's wonderful book Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi. The expert on Delhi’s Mughal-era temples is Catherine B Asher. Her article, Mapping Hindu-Muslim Identities Through The Architecture of Shahjahanabad And Jaipur is particularly useful for understanding the context of these structures.
Other useful references are Bharat ke Digamber Jain Tirth by Balbhadra Jain, Monuments of Delhi by Zafar Hasan and Waqiaat-e-Darul Hukumat by Basheeruddin Ahmed Dehlvi.
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