Chunna mal was the wealthiest man in 19th century Delhi. His haveli harks back to a time when the city was moving between two empires
As a local story goes, there was a time when Lala Chunna mal’s family was so poor that they mortgaged a lutiya (tumbler) to a channewala in Chandni Chowk in exchange for money. For years, the channewala’s sons would hang up Chunna mal’s lutiya during Diwali to remind themselves of how poverty can run deep.
History, however, tells a tale of a man, who in 19th century was the richest man in Delhi. He was known for his friendship with the British, properties in Shahjahanabad, business acumen, and charities.
On Nai Sadak, Chandni Chowk, stands the Chunna mal haveli. Anil Pershad, the sixth generation descendant of Chunna mal lives here now. Most of the haveli has been divided among the family and locked up.
From the rooftop, Pershad points to the 120-room haveli, spread across half an acre. The cavernous drawing room with high ceilings, large gilt mirrors and chandeliers gives one a glimpse of what evening soirees at Chunna mal’s would have looked like in the 19th century.
“I never thought I’d end up living here. Now, I can’t live anywhere else,” Pershad says.
Originally from Lahore, Chunna mal’s forefathers migrated to Delhi in the 16th century and built a successful business in textiles, tending to toshakhanas (treasury) of the Mughals.
It was in the period after the 1857 revolt, that Chunna mal came into prominence. The few business families of Delhi lost their wealth, position and, some, even their lives. But Chunna mal, having accurately assessed the outcome of the revolt, threw in his lot with the British.
Naseem Mirza Changezi, a 104-year old freedom-fighter, says: “Chunna mal had access to Lal Qila and being the only money-lender left in town, he knew exactly what was going on inside. He turned informer for the British and, thus, protected his interests in the city,” Changezi says.
After the Mughals were ousted from Delhi, the British drove out the original occupants of Shahjahanabad. Suddenly, they had vacant property on their hands. In the bizarre auction that followed, accounts of which can be found in Narayani Gupta’s Delhi between Two Empires, Chunna mal acquired properties all over the city.
Gupta writes, “Between 1858 and 1862, a land transaction of bewildering complexity was carried out... Lord Canning