The Haveli of Zeenat Mahal is situated in the Lal Kuan Bazaar which lies west of Hauz Qazi in the heart of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi and spreads over four acres of land. Local taxis and auto rickshaws can be rented to access this place including via Metro Rail with Chawri Bazaar Metro Station as the closest metro link.
The Palace or Mahal was constructed in 1846 by the order of Empress Zeenat Mahal, the third and most favourite wife of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II who ruled as the last Mughal Emperor of India between 1837 and 1857 and hence, was named after her as the ‘Zeenat Mahal Ki Haveli’. She gave birth to a son named Mirza Jawan Bakht who was one of the heirs to the Mughal Empire while the other three wives of the Emperor also bore him sons and daughters. He also had many courtesans and had a total of 54 children including 22 sons and 32 daughters; however, no one knows the real reason of how Zeenat Mahal became the most loved and favoured wife of the Emperor amongst the rest.
Since the Emperor was very fond of Zeenat, also spelled as ‘Zinat’, he provided her with the best comforts and royal luxuries and hence, built the Mahal especially for her only which was mainly financed by the wealthy merchants of Shahjahanabad or the ‘walled city’ of Old Delhi. The Palace served as the main living quarters of the Empress and was adorned with expensive items like wall murals and exquisite decoration pieces. She was always given explicit Royal treatment and greeted with loud beating of drums and musical tunes of the hautboy or Shehnai playing and announcements of her arrival in a Palanquin surrounded with her Private bodyguards before the Private Chamber of the Emperor in Red Fort.
After the demise of Empress Zeenat Mahal in 1886 at Rangoon in Burma, the Palace served as the living chambers of the Mistress or Courtesan of the King of Patiala where she would entertain him with dance, music and Mujras. The Haveli was then sold to the Indian Government by the Maharaja before he migrated to Pakistan after the Indo-Pak Partition in 1947. It is also known that the dead bodies of the freedom fighters that were prisoned by the British army were dumped into a well that lies within the courtyard of the Zeenat Mahal Haveli and is still believed to be haunted as per the locals who stay near the Mahal in Chandni Chowk.
Today, this Haveli lies in total neglect and a state of disarray survived only by an imposing doorway or gateway, a few arched corridors or pavilions and the outer wall of the Haveli. It was demolished in 1964 to build a School for girls named as the Zeenat Mahal Girl’s School. A few residents state that the huge Mansion had a beautiful Fountain made of marble and Hujras. There are two tunnels that run between the ‘Lal Quila’ or the ‘Red Fort’ and the Madrasa of Ghazi-ud-din Khan in Ajmeri Gate but unfortunately, it has completely lost its significance today and hence, its purpose was left unknown.
Besides the portion occupied by the Girl’s School, the remaining portion was encroached by numerous shopkeepers. One can see a Spice Grinder factory, a Milk Shop, a Paan Bazaar or Betel Nut Bazaar, a Nursery for Children and a few residential houses here instead of the Haveli.
The Mahal that once stood as the most grand and elaborately decorated Palace in Chandni Chowk is seen today in a very poor condition and hopefully ASI and INTACH had realised the Heritage significance of this Haveli and are taking measures to retain of whatever is left of this beautiful Mansion.
There are no charges to view any Havelis in Old Delhi, however, it is advisable to visit this place at a decent time or alternatively you can opt for a ‘Heritage Walk’ tour at a small fee mainly for the guides, services and commuting purposes organised by numerous Travel Agencies who would not only tell you stories of the Mughal Emperor and Empress but also remind you of the grandeur of the Zeenat Mahal Haveli that once was the residence of Kings and Queens of Old Delhi.