City Monument – Sunehri Masjid, Chandni Chowk
Remembering the Delhi massacre.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It was from Sunehri Masjid that the Persian invader Nader Shah watched the massacre of Delhi in March, 1739.
In his book The Sword of Persia: Nader Shah, from Tribal Warrior to Conquering Tyrant, British author Michael Axworthy writes:
On the morning of 22 March, Nader mounted his horse and rode from the palace to the Roshan-od-Dowala mosque (the former name of Sunehri Masjid). As he arrived there with his men about him, some people threw stones from balconies and windows around the mosque, and a shot was fired, killing an officer beside him. He had already made up his mind, but this final insult may have added fury to Nader’s frustration. He went to the roof of the mosque and stood by the golden domes, looking out over the houses, shops and roof of the Chandni Chowk district. He ordered that no one should be left alive in any part where any of his soldiers had been killed, and then drew his sword as a signal that the massacre should begin.
If Nader Shah were to stand in the same mosque today, he would watch the never-ending crowd of Chandni Chowk comprising beggars, pilgrims, shoppers, food vendors and tourists.
Every Delhi guidebook recommends a walk in Chandni Chowk, a shopping street conceived by Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara. At the end of the walk, scholarly travelers, the kind who come to Chandni Chowk to sketch the pattern of the haveli jaalis (latticework) or to study the British influence on Mughal architecture, might remember nothing but the bazaar’s pushy hawkers, made-in-China goods, “the old and famous jalebiwalla” and perhaps the golden arches of McDonald’s. It is possible to miss stately sights like the Central Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches in north India. It is almost impossible to spot Sunehri Masjid.
Facing the busy thoroughfare of Bhai Mati Das Chowk, the mosque is barely visible from the street. Its signature domes are overshadowed by the surrounding buildings. It is less known than Fatehpuri Masjid, the mosque at the other end of the Mughal-era market.
Lacking the imposing scale of Delhi’s grand monuments such as the Jama Masjid, Sunehri Masjid has the fleeting beauty of a haiku. The pillars are carved with green flower-shaped patterns. The arched doors are painted light grey.The roof is bordered by a carved jaali balustrade. A strip is etched with floral designs. The railing on the courtyard is marked at regular intervals with miniature domes. The three principal domes are of gilded copper, which give the mosque its name. Sunheri is golden in Urdu.
Built in 1722 by Mughal nobleman Roshan-ud-Daulah, the mosque was repaired by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, in 1852. It has three courtyards. One looks to the traffic square. Another faces the Seesganj gurudwara, a shrine built on the site where Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru, was beheaded on the orders of emperor Aurangzeb. The last courtyard is set deeper inside the mosque. It is quieter.
The mosque stands on a rather high platform. A narrow staircase leads to the marble courtyard. The prayer space has three chambers, corresponding to the domes of the mosque. Copies of the Quran are placed in niches. The chambers open only during the prayer hours. At other hours, the resident maulana unlocks the doors on request.
In the usually empty mosque, the sounds of Chandni Chowk appear to come from some distant country. Sitting in the courtyard is like being transported into a quiet refuge.
This place, like so many monuments in the city, played its part in a significant episode of Delhi’s history, after which it left the stage and retired.
Landmark in bloodshed