City Monument – Phatak Teliyan, Old Delhi
Its oily past.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Cobwebbed by loopy power cables, its old lakhori bricks peer out of the peeling plaster in uneven fragments. Small shops cling to its walls like a limpet. Women, men, children, goats, dogs, cats, roosters trundle and scamper whole day under its arches. Pigeons and crows hover about its upper latitudes. Its mute walls soak in all the gossiping, whispering, shouting, swearing, smoking, spitting, barking, mewing, twittering.
Gateway to a neighbourhood, Phatak Teliyan (aka Telion ka Phatak) is as enmeshed into its surroundings as a fresco is on its lime plaster.
The Old Delhi portal is a centuries-old edifice. Nobody knows its year of origin, but the name is recent. It was part of a sprawling haveli of Mughal-era noble Nawab Muzaffar Khan. The haveli was lost to time’s decadence. The gateway remained, known as Nawab Muzaffar Khan ka Darwaza.
And then. In the 1940s, the so-called “Teli biradari,” the community traditionally occupied in the pressing of oil, took over the locality, and the phatak gradually acquired its current name—says Shafi Dehlvi, who lives in Phatak Teliyan, and belongs to the same community.
A time was when every household here had a small ox-powered oil mill called kolhu, reveals Shafi Dehlvi. The bonded “bail” would be made to circle endlessly around the wooden kolhu, which in turn would extract the oil out of mustard seed paste. The animal would have its eyes covered with a leather patti so that it wouldn’t get dizzy. The oil would be stored in containers such as tasla, martban and matka.
The neighbourhood initially had seven houses with kolhu, says Shafi Dehlvi. Sitting behind his desk littered with files and papers, the social activist waves his arms in the muggy air, and recites the names of Phatak Teliyan’s long departed oil-producing pioneers : Hafiz Lukman, Haji Muhammed Yaseen (Shafi Dehlvi’s nana), Allah Deen, Nanwa Teli (an alley is named after him), Khaju and Choudhury Rahimuddin (he could not recall the seventh name). The community expanded over the years, he says, and over the years, its customary profession dwindled, and finally ended. The last kolhu in Phatak Teliyan was seen at Hafiz Lukman’s, some 30 years back.
No longer permeated with mustard oil’s pungent scent, the lanes today are full of repairing workshops crammed with faulty washing machines, fridges, exhaust fans and ACs. Shafi Dehlvi was the first graduate in his family. His own children have strayed far from the profession of their ancestors—one son is an engineer, another is a professor. The clues to the area’s extinguished past is now to be extracted only from its name.