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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tales of Doctors, Mughal Royalty and Raj

A doctor in Chandni Chowk. His companion. And countless tales of the days that were, royalty was....

Like blindman Pew in R.L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”, Krishan Sahai, a thickset man tapped his way with a walking stick, reciting couplets of Nazir Akbarabadi or Surdas’ dohas to Dr. Saksena’s clinic in predominantly Muslim Panni Gali every evening. Dr. Saksena was the head of the department of skin and allied diseases at a Government hospital but between 6 and 9 pm practiced as a GP, with burqa-clad women prominent among the patients, like at the clinic of Dr. Mathur near the Fountain in Chandni Chowk. Krishan Sahai would sit quietly on a chair staring into vacancy, at the side of the good doctor whose childhood friend he had been since he lost his sight, and left only when the charitable dispensary closed.

However, there were times when patients were few or far between, like on cold or rainy days and it was then that Sahai would speak to while away the time, followed by some historical anecdote by the doctor, prefaced with the observation that not all the Kayasthas who had followed Shah Jahan to Delhi stayed on. Some went back to Agra, among whom was his great-great grandfather, who preferred the galis of his birthplace to those of the newly-built Shahjahanabad. One story Dr. Saksena never tired of relating was about the first Western-type dispensary set up in Ballimaran by Dr. Balfour, who had been the Civil Surgeon of the Civil Hospital before 1857. This hospital was situated in the vicinity of the Red Fort, near a tank called the Laldigi. However it had only eight indoor patients, leaving enough time for Dr Balfour, an adventurous Scotsman and younger contemporary of Sir Walter Scott, to revise his professional notes (like Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle) made in far-away Edinburgh, where he also learnt to fence, box and hunt deer in the Highlands. When the Great Revolt broke out in Delhi, Dr. Balfour managed to escape, though his assistant, Dr. Chimman Lal (a Kayastha Christian) was among the first to be killed. He found refuge in Kairana, where he was given protection by the Lambardar of that village.

It was on his return that Dr. Balfour set up the Ballimaran dispensary which functioned for three years under the charge of an Indian doctor until the new Civil Hospital was completed by Dr. Smith in 1861, with 28 men and six women as indoor patients, among whom were two princesses and three maids of honour. The operations were, however, performed in a house rented by the Civil Surgeon, which was situated in better hygienic surroundings and also served as the outpatients’ department with native and Anglo-Indian nurses, one of whom eloped with a pauper Mughal prince.

Another story heard from Dr. Saksena was about Mitra Sen, whose samadhi is situated in Mitraon village, west of Najafgarh. INTACH says that the samadhi “is a very striking building, and the only one of its kind in Delhi. It has a central square chamber and a verandah running all around it. Over the chamber stands a domed octagonal chhattri or canopy”. But who was Mitra Sen? Not just another Sen but a powerful chieftain with a private militia in the aftermath of Aurangzeb’s death.

Dr. Saksena quoted from an old gazetteer to throw light on him. “Jahandar Shah took over as Mughal emperor after the death of Bahadur Shah-I and got most of the other claimants killed. Among those who escaped was his nephew Farrukhsiyar who with the help of the Sayyid Brothers defeated Jahandar Shah and executed him in 1712. Seven years later Farrukhsiyar’s reign too ended when he was murdered in the Red Fort. Rafi-ud-darajat, Bahadur Shah’s grandson, was then put on the throne by the Sayyids but the rebel garrison of Agra brought Nekusiyar, grandson of Aurangzeb, out of prison and proclaimed him emperor. The leader of this garrison was Mitra Sen. However the new ruler died soon after and his elder brother ascended the throne as Shah Jahan II for three months”.

In the meantime, added Krishan Sahai, the Sayyid Brothers seized the treasure in the Agra Fort, the property of Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, as also the pall of pearls laid on the tomb of the empress in the Taj on Friday nights and the anniversary of her marriage. After the death of Shah Jahan II, resumed Dr. Saksena. Mohammed Roshan Akhtar, son of Jahandar Shah, was crowned king by the Sayyids and began to rule as Mohmmad Shah Rangila. Mitra Sen managed to win the new ruler’s favour and retired to a remote area of Delhi where he founded Mitraon village and where he continued to live until his death.
Dr. Saksena is long dead and so also his friend Krishan Sahai, but some still remember him as the noted skin specialist who, because of his wide girth, preferred to sit and unravel medieval anecdotes like what caused the death of Bibi Akbarabadi of Shalimar Bagh fame rather than spend the morning exercising in the erstwhile Hewett Park.

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  1. Interesting to read. I have no knowledge of the Mughal rulers between Aurangzeb and BSZ II, except for Mohd Shah Rangila, who managed to make himself famous / notorious.

    How come even in Delhi, history books do not talk about the people who ruled from Delhi / Agra in the not so distant past? A city that wants to move ahead must also be aware of where it has come from.

    Chroniclers like Dr. Saksena are rare nowadays and as the generations pass, a part of our heritage dies with them.

    1. Radhika,

      This is a single case. We do have books / chroniclers in Delhi mentioning about Agra / Delhi rulers. Well, i agree about the case of Dr. Saksena.

  2. Abhay,

    That may be so. What I meant was these books / chronicles are not known outside a niche audience. They need to be circulated among the masses, at least among school/ college children.

    I think you know not many will go looking for history. :) History has to be brought to their notice in an interesting manner.

    1. Well said. Not many take interest now in digging deep to get to the depth of history, and it needs to be presented in a tasty flavor. :)