When Shah Jahan moved his capital from Agra to Delhi he introduced kuchas and katras in Shahjahanbad too. Their locations were named after famous people or after the trades and professions pursued there. Kucha Ghasi Ram, whose landmark is Bhavani Shankar’s Namak Haram-ki-Haveli, got its name from the astrologer whom the Emperor consulted before venturing out of the city or even to various places in it, so Ghasi Ram became his trusted adviser, according to Mahabir Shankar Mathur. The 88-year-old former resident of Kucha Khushal Rai (named after medieval Rais of the Gurwala family) from where St. Stephen’s College started off, now lives in Mayur Vihar Phase-1 but still visits his old haunts. Mathur Sahib says his grandfather’s grandfather, Dewan Buddh Singh, born in 1770, was the Prime Minister of the Nawab of Jhajjar and an influential man during the time of Shah Alam. The Nawab, however, was executed in the aftermath of 1857. Noted for his exquisite collection of coins right from the time of Akbar to Queen Victoria, her grandson, great- grandson and after, he is quite an authority on Old Delhi with his rupee, anna, paisa, cowrie, damari and dhela tales.

Kuchas (actually koochas) retain their history in name only as the original inhabitants are either dead or have left to live in modern colonies. Kucha Lattu Shah is named after a saint associated with lattoos or spinning tops, but why is not known. Kucha Ustad Hamid is the place where one of the master architects of the Taj and Lal Quila lived. Kucha Rehman, according to Haji Mian, was actually named after Raja Ramrai Mall and is a corruption of the name. Kucha Dilwali Singh, in Ajmeri Gate, is named after the maternal uncle of Guru Gobind Singh, who was attached to the court of Bahadur Shah-I, eldest son of Aurangzeb, who as Prince Muazzam ascended the throne in 1707. Dilwali Singh was the one who introduced Guru Gobind Singh to the Emperor and they formed a close friendship. The consorts of the Guru, Mata Sahib Devi and Mata Sundari lived in the kucha till the time of the invasion of Nadir Shah in 1739, though he died in 1708. They then went away to Mathura and returned after normalcy returned to Delhi and built the gurdwara in Mata Sundari Road.

Kucha Chobdar was named after the bodyguard of Shah Jahan and his descendants. They were the flag-bearers and spear-carriers. Later the kucha was inhabited by dealers in nails (chobas) and other hardware. Kucha Mahajani in Chandni Chowk was so named because of the mahajans or seths who were bullion merchants and moneylenders to the latter-day Mughal emperors. Katra Shahenshah and Katra Nawab were named after two nawabs of the Nizam who built their mansions here.

Kucha Sakka, better known as Sakka Gali, was where the water-carriers or bhistis stayed. Few of them survive as most of the younger generation has taken to other professions and the bhistis are hardly found jingling their copper cups (katoras) in front of the Jama Masjid. Time was when they filled up their mashaks (waterskins) from a well near Hare Bhare’s shrine and offered water to wayfarers but refrigerated water spelt the doom of their profession.

Kucha Baghwala was adjacent to the garden laid out by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter, off Chandni Chowk and has now become Gandhi Park. Kucha Pandit was the domain of the Brahmin pandits, where the author of “Twilight in Delhi”, Ahmed Ali lived before moving to Karachi in 1947. Kucha Patiram is named after an astrologer-cum-vaid who so pleased a Mughal emperor that he named a locality after him. Katra Nil is the historic fabrics and goods market, Bazar Sitaram was the abode of the Kashmiri community, where Haksar haveli was the most prominent building and where Jawaharlal Nehru got married to Kamla Kaul on February 8, 1916. Kutcha Dewan Singh is named after a 19th Century dewan or vazir. Bilaqi Begum’s kucha in Dariba is named after a famous begum of her time. So also are the kuchas of Bibi Gauhar, Kutbi Begum and Fateh-un-Nissa Begum. Katra Zeenat Mahal in Lal Kuan is named after Bahadur Shah Zafar’s queen, whose mahal is now a rabbit warren and badly deteriorated. Kuchas Brijnath, Chaudury, Hira Lal, Aqil Khan, Mir Hashim, Sakhanand (the royal astrologer) and Maulvi Qasim are also named after dignitaries of their time, just like Katras Lucha Singh, Dinanath and Mohan.

All in all, the kuchas and katras tell tales of times past, many of which have been forgotten, to leave behind a veritable puzzle for the researcher and historiographer, as the young group on a UNESCO project is slowly coming to realize in the absence of written history. The problem is that few old-timers are around to play the role of dastangoi, as rightly observed by octogenarian coin-collector Mahabir Shankar Mathur, passing his time in drab Mayur Vihar. It is devoid of colourful history, except for the vanished peacocks that graced the area long after 1803, when the British won the Battle of Delhi against the Marathas, purportedly fighting on behalf of Shah Alam.