The lure of Diwali in Delhi – Past and Present

Diwali is a far cry from the days of the Mughals to our present times, when oil diyas have largely been replaced by electric lights of many hues and Delhi is lit up like never before.

The lure of Diwali in Delhi – Past and Present

Women floating lamps in the river on the eve of Diwali.

Diwali in Delhi is a glamorous affair, which transforms the Capital into a veritable fairyland and it does not last one day but right up to Chhath Puja, the sixth day of the festival. The bazaars are gaily decorated and jewellery, confectionery, cloth, shoes, toys and general merchants shops make good business, along with those selling desi sweets and fruit. On Dhanteras brisk sale of utensils takes place to mark Choti Diwali. It is considered auspicious to buy something new on this day. Besides electric lights, there are diyas lighting up homes and markets.

Observed on a moonless night, just the opposite of Holi, which is held when the moon is full, Diwali magic is to be seen to be believed in places like Chandni Chowk, Daryaganj, Kashmere Gate and Mori Gate. The seths of Chandni Chowk keep their shops open till past midnight, waiting for the goddess of wealth Lakshmi to pay a visit and give prosperity. A special puja is offered to this devi in homes also with garlanded lamps lighting up the four corners of the main room and kheel-batasha sprinkled around them.

In front of the main door colourful Rangoli decorations, with a couple of diyas placed around, is regarded as a welcome to the goddess. While celebrations are more widespread now the ones that used to be held at John’s Mills and Swatantra Bharat Mills are still talked about with great nostalgia.


Tracing the history of Diwali celebrations in times past, it’s worth mentioning that in 1911, when the Coronation Durbar took place, they were held with greater gusto. Diwali fell on 21 October, which happened to be a Saturday. Incidentally, Dussehra that year fell on 3 October, which meant only a gap of 18 days instead of the usual 20. This is explained by the fact that sometimes, because of the lunar calculation, one day is counted as two.

Radhey Mohan of the famous Chandiwalley family recalls that from accounts he had heard from elders like Lala Ramkrishan Das, it was a great Diwali. His maternal greatgrandfather, Lala Ishwar Das, after whom a katra in Chandni Chowk is named, and his adopted son, Lala Banarsi Das, were at the helm of affairs. Their shop was in the Meena Bazar of the Red Fort’s Chatta Chowk. Silver (chandi) was mostly imported in those days and made into ornaments and utensils by them.

The most important ritual then (as now) was Ganesh and Lakshmi pujason Diwali evening, which was a family occasion though some traders held the prayers at their shops, where members of their household also came for participation. Kheel-batasha and toys made of khand (unrefined sugar) were sent on big silver plates (thals) by each family to their relatives and acquaintances. The thals went with the sweets, made by special halvis and were a gift along with the mithai. This was the usual practice at most havelis, including the one of Lala Chunna Mal in Katra Neel.

Narain Prasad, scion of another well-known family now a hoary octogenarian, remembers that his grandfather, Lala Jugal Kishore, who was among the founders of Indraprastha Girls’ School, used to see to it that the festival was celebrated in the school housed in the haveli of Rai Balkrishan, in a grand way.

Diwali before the Uprising of 1857 was not such a glamorous affair. The most noted family, and perhaps the oldest, was that of Lala Sri Kishan Das Gurwala, bankers to the Mughals. It came into prominence in 1732. The name Gurwala, wholesale merchants of gur, owes its origin to Lala Radha Kishan.

He had nine sons: Bahadur Singh, Zaokiram, Sheonath, Mokham Singh, Jagannath, Magniram, Kedarnath, Girdhari Lal and Khushal Rai (after whom the kutcha in Chandni Chowk is a famous landmark and where St Stephen’s College was first established). Diwali at the houses of the nine Lalas was a celebration which was talked about the whole year, with many anticipating what form it would take the next year. The diyas placed by them at their havelis had wicks burning in pure ghee(purer than what you can get now) at a time when there were no electric lights.

People from far and near came to see the illuminations, particularly at the house of Khushal Rai (more prosperous than others in keeping with his name) and the fireworks display, which rivalled that in the Red Fort. Diwali was a festival, like Basant, that was celebrated by the Mughals since Akbar’s time and even Aurangzeb was not averse to greeting his Rajput generals and their families on the occasion and receiving gifts and sweets from them.

Mohammad Shah Rangila, his great-grandson, crowned in Fatehpur Sikri, sat with his courtiers while dancing girls with earthenware lamps danced around fountains that sprayed coloured water and, if gossip is to be believed, one of them sprouting liquor which many a nobleman drank with cupped hands to please the dandy emperor. The Diwali of 1857, more than 100 years later, was a dull affair because of the large-scale mayhem by the avenging British after the recapture of Delhi prior to Dusshera.

The nehar or canal that flowed through Chandni Chowk retained traces of the bodies thrown into it and the Lalas had only a mild celebration with a few diyas burning and Lakshmi puja being held privately in homes. The business of the halwais, who made sweetmeats, had slumped and those who used to come for the festival to make a fast buck from places near Delhi, stayed away because of the atmosphere of fear and intrigue.

The Muslim shoe merchants, spending money on illuminations and exchange of sweets with Hindu businessmen to welcome the festival of good luck in the coming year, were under a cloud of suspicion as the British branded their community as the main instigator of the “rebellion” that had ousted them from the Mughal Capital for four months. So the “Jutawalas” were hardly in a mood to join the Diwali celebrations.

But after Fatehpuri Masjid was recovered from Lala Chunnal Mal, who had got it in an auction for Rs 39,650, and the Tommies who had occupied the Jama Masjid along with native solders from Punjab, had left the mood changed and Diwali slowly began to assume its earlier colourful character. The family celebrations were something to talk about as new Lalas had emerged.

Among them the names of bankers like Bishambar Das, who had bought the baradari of a son of Shah Alam II, Pandit Jwala Nath, who purchased the haveli of Nawab Muzaffar Khan and Lala Hardhyan Singh (after whom a road is named in Karol Bagh) bought the haveli of Hamed Ali Khan. Lala Ram Chand, Lala Mehar Chand, Lala Sultan Singh (founder of Modern School, Barakhamba Road), Lala Ram Kishan Das, Lala Sri Ram of DCM, Lala Basheshar Nath and the Chandiwallahs were prominent. They were the ones who kept Diwali glowing in the aftermath of 1857.

In the poor pockets like Mori Gate, Farashkhana, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate and Delhi Gate the illuminations were subdued naturally because of acute poverty. But in Bazar Sita Ram the Kahishta Saxenas and Kashmiri pandits, in Roshanpura the Mathurs, in north Ballimaran the Hindu traders held good Diwali celebrations. One would like to add the name of the Rev B R Winter, in charge of St Stephen’s Church, Fatehpuri and of Mrs Winter to the list of noted Diwali celebrants.

Going back to Mughal times, Diwali diyas lent lustre to the Rang Mahal in the Red Fort. The Mughal connection with Diwali, actually began in the reign of Akbar, who celebrated it with his Rajput wives. Jahangir and Shah Jahan had milder Diwali celebrations and Aurangzeb was content with receiving gifts from his Rajput generals like Raja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur and Jai Singh I of Jaipur.

His grandson, Jahander Shah ruled for just about a year and celebrated his Diwali with his mistress Lal Kunwar. All the oil in the city is said to have been bought by the dandy emperor to light up the night. Diwali was considered even by the orthodox Muslims as a festival of natural joy of God’s creation. “Kheel” incidentally, was mostly sold by Muslim Bharbhujas or gram roasters.

Besides the colourful (Rangeele) Mohammad Shah, his predecessor Farukhseyer had ordered Diwali illuminations at the Delhi Gate he had built on the Agra-Delhi road. A special feature of the Mughal celebrations at Diwali was the bursting of crackers close to the walls of the Red Fort under the supervision of the Mir Atish. According to historian R Nath, in an age when there was no matches the permanent source of fire was Surajkrant.

“At noon of the day when the sun entered the 19th degree of Aries, and the heat was the maximum, the (royal) servants exposed the sun’s rays to a round piece of shining stone (Surajkrant). A piece of cotton was then held near it, which caught fire from the heat of the stone. This celestial fire was preserved in a vessel called Agingir (fire-pot) and committed to the care of an officer”.

The fire was used in the palace and renewed every year. Camphor candles called Kufuri-Shama were placed on 12 candlesticks of gold and silver to light up the palace. This was obviously done on a grander scale at Diwali, when the Akash Diya (the Light of the Sky) was lighted with greater pomp, placed atop a pole 40 yards high, supported by 16 ropes, and fed on several maunds of binaula (cotton- seed oil) to light up the durbar. Just imagine the huge lamp lighting up a Diwali night and casting its glow right up to Chandni Chowk where rich seths had their own lighting arrangements, with mustard oil diyas on every building.

A giant-size statue of Tesu Raja and his wife Jhainji, symbolized by illuminated pots, was also taken out for immersion in the Yamuna. It’s a far cry from the Jashan-e- Chiragan (festivals of lamps) of the Mughals to our present times when oil diyas have largely been replaced by electric lights of many hues and Delhi is lit up like never before, though the crackers spread noise and air pollution. But sweets, toys and gifts abound to spread cheer among the people of both Old and New Delhi.