For book lovers around the world, libraries bring together a world of fascination. Libraries not just store the large, larger and largest volume of books, but big or small, they are also the treasure-trove of knowledge, culture and history. This time around, I am taking you all to a very small library situated in dark alleys of walled city in Old Delhi. Very small, but very unique. Libraries can be unique in their own ways- some in volume of books, some in sheer size of complex, some in collection, some in antiquity, some in architecture and many others in many other ways. Therefore, it won’ be fair to compare a library with 162 million items to a library with just over 21 thousand books. Libraries are dependent on resources, support and patronage and, also on their motives.
So, here is this Shah Waliullah library located in Chooriwalan, in the Pahari Imli area of erstwhile Shahjahanabad. This library actually breaks all stereotypes of a library- it has got a thousands of books cramped in a small room, located in a badly lit street, which has barely got enough space for two two-wheelers to cross each other. Despite of the size, these streets are alive throughout the day… and until way past midnight. This is certainly not the quietest of places fit for a so-called library. And, in fact this library doesn’t preach you to be quiet. There are people coming and going at ease during all times of the day.
But if you think that primary thing that a book should do is to provoke a thought, then this library perfectly fits into that. This library encourages you to talk, discuss and share your thoughts with others while reading the books. Nobody objects, most of them will be part of the discussion which might range from verses of Holy Quran to current political scenario and much more. Books of the library become references for all such discussions. Hence, as opposed to all libraries around the world, this library doesn’t asks you to maintain silence, but it encourages you to break it and speak up.
There is even a story, how this library came into being. It was way back in May 1987 when this Old City are was under grip of frenzied communal riots. Curfew was imposed and common people were reeling under crisis of daily necessities. Few local young people came forward to help the people. Perfectly aware of the lanes and bylanes of the interiors of the locality, they used human chains and hand-carts, cycles etc to provide things of daily necessities to the families in dire need. This episode paved the way for formation of Delhi Youth Welfare Association (DYWA) on 6th December 1990 (a day that was going to change the course of Indian History two years later).
This organisation was prelude to founding of this library on 21st March 1994, when the members of organisation thought of a place where local community could meet and read. Room, which was till then used by the young ones to play carrom, cards or just relax was transformed into a library. Quickly books were sourced from personal collections of members, other people of the locality, through gifts, donations, old bookshops, footpath bazars and whatever means. Rare but forgotten books in many personal collections saw the light since quite a long. Library was named after great Islamic scholar and translator of 18th century, Hazrat Shah Waliullah, who himself was the resident of this historic city. Library went up and running and quickly got popular among the residents. Walls of the small room were thickly packed with books. Floor was carpeted and a low table was placed in the centre for readers to read comfortably.
For Delhi Youth Welfare Association, this initiative of library and all its other activities connected the four pillars of learning and spirituality- the mosque, the khanqah, madrassas and public libraries, a tradition that began almost thousand years ago with the days of Iltutmish. Even before the library came into existence, Delhi Youth Welfare association had started providing free study books to poor meritorious students and other academic help to the needy students. It still keeps doing that with number of students getting help increasing every year.
Another interesting thing about library is its opening hours. I have rarely come across any library which is buzzing with activities so close to midnight. Library opens in the morning at 10 am and closes for lunch at 1 pm. There are few visitors in the morning, mainly researchers. In the afternoon, this library becomes a coaching centre. But the most interesting time of the library comes in the evening, when it opens again at around 9 pm. It remains open till around midnight. One might find it very unusual time for any library, but this is the time, when this library is most alive and kicking.
It then becomes a cultural hub. The reason behind this is that the locality has largely trader community who remain occupied with their work the whole day. The close their establishments in evening and head to library before going for their respective homes. Idea is to read some newspapers, magazines and latest books, as well as also have some discussion with others present in the library on current issues. What more, whole thing can be enjoyed with a cup of tea and occasionally also some snacks. Isn’t this a wonderful idea to make library popular among those whom you won’t relate with reading books in first place. And, this has a larger effect, as it helps develop a culture of reading and logical thinking in their families and everyone attached to them.
But having said this all, this isn’t just a normal community library with some offbeat tunes about location and timings. It is important in many other ways, for which many other top libraries in the world will feel proud of themselves. That is its collection of books, and here I am not talking about their numbers but about rarity. This small library has books in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit, English, Hindi languages. There are around eighty books in this library written in Arabic and Persian, which don’t have any other copy anywhere in the world. That means these 80 books or manuscripts can be found only here in this library. Some of them are said to be hundreds of years old. Besides, there are around 2,500 books here in this library, which can be classified as very rare.
Just a glimpse of some rare books in the collection of this library-
- A hundred-year-old Quran with its every page written in a different style, manuscripts embossed in gold.
- Diwan-i-Zafar, a poetry collection of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. This was printed at the royal press inside the Red Fort in 1855 in Urdu, Arabic, Persian and Punjabi. Interestingly, last few pages of the book have his Punjabi verses written in Arabic script.
- A century old copy of Japji Saheb and Sukhmani Saheb, printed at Lahore.
- A copy of a 600-year-old treatise on logic, manuscripts from Baghdad, Beirut and Saudi Arabia with some rare calligraphy.
- Mirza Ghalib’s Diwan with his seal and signature.
- Books from the personal collection of Nawab Amjad Ali Shah, father of the last ruler of Awadh Wajid Ali Shah
- An illustrated Bengali translation of the Quran from Chitpur in Kolkata, published in the pre-independence years, especially for circulation in Burma, as well as Quran in Bangla published from Deoband.
- A dictionary compiled by Begum of Bhopal which has meaning of each word in six languages. Library has a rich collection of Dictionaries.
- It also has a copy of Sair-ul-Auliya by Nizamuddin Auliya, which dates to 19th century.
- It has a very rare book on medicine which has four volumes spread in more than six thousand pages.
- It also has some very rare religious books including an illustrated Bhagwat Gita in Urdu and Ramayana in Persian.
But these are just a few from this treasure. For its rare collection, this library is also a base for scholars from around the world, interested in doing their research on Islamic literature or the history of Delhi. All the rare books have now been filmed to preserve them. Original volumes are kept safe and filmed versions are kept for display. Books are being digitised and properly catalogued. Number of books in the library are increasing continuously and a large number of books are actually kept outside the library in houses of the members. Library is definitely in need of a bigger place and larger support. So far, members of the DYWA are managing everything on their own, from their own pockets or from charity.
Mohammad Naeem was a young man when he dreamt of this library and DYWA before that. Sikander Changezi, Shareef Quraishi and many others lived this dream with him. Naeem’s hairs have grown grey since then and they have made him and all others a lot wiser. Their team and their will have grown stronger. Stories in media in past three years have spread all the positive vibes about this place. But still, a lot more is needed.
It was well past midnight, when we left the library. Babu Lal was still preparing tea in his unique way at his shop right opposite to Pahari Imli. Though the street from Jama Masjid to Chooriwalan wasn’t as crowded as was during the Ramzan few days back, but still it wasn’t deserted. It wasn’t an usual feeling of returning from a library at this hour, but then this library itself wasn’t usual enough.
How to reach: For all those interested, Hazrat Shah Waliullah library is located right at the start of gali Pahari Imli in Chooriwalan in the Jama Masjid area. From Jama Masjid, towards the Urdu Bazar side, move inside the street that houses all the famous restaurants Al-Jawahar, Karims, etc. Move right at the end of the street and ask for Pahari Imli, its close by.
Have you visited the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Library in Old Delhi? How was the experience? Share with us in the comments section below.
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