Dhaula Kuan is a freeway overpass and five-way intersection in South Delhi. It’s where National Highway 8 from Gurgaon comes in to greater Delhi, and it’s also the road to the airport.
Why do they call it Dhaula Kuan? Perhaps not one Delhiite in ten thousand knows the answer. One fellow who does have a few ideas is a Mr. Ronald V. Smith, who, despite his name, appears to be a through-and-through Indian. He has written a book called ‘The Delhi No-one Knows’ (you can read a profile of R.V. Smith done by M. A. Soofi here– please do take a look).
Smith writes in the Januray 15th 2007 issue of the Hindu that Dhaula Kuan takes its name from a well in the area, noting that the area around the well is fine for picnics, “especially when the weather is pleasant and people can sit it out in the open or under the trees the whole day”. As for the well, Smith concedes that little is known of it, only that it is a not-especially-impressive 200 years old. Since it is placed along the Gurgaon road, conjecture is that the Moghul leader Shah Alam had it built. Shah Alam was more of less a puppet figure whose empire consisted essentially of that road and the area around it, and he was fond of surveying his kingdom, often getting thirsty while on the road. There is a well-known saying about Shah Alam which runs thusly: “Az Dilli ta Palam, Badshah Shah Alam”, or ‘From Delhi to Palam (i.e., about 10 miles) is the kingdom of Shah Alam’. The quote still turns up in contemporary politics:
Participating in the debate on inflation, leader of the Opposition Jaswant Singh feigned sympathy with the plight of the prime minister. “Mr Singh’s prime ministership reminds me of the humiliating quip about Mughal emperor Shah Alam — Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam (The realm of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam). In Mr Manmohan Singh’s case, it stretches from Race Course Road [the PM’s house – ed.] to Race Course Road,” Mr Jaswant Singh said (BJP likens PM to Shah Alam, Times of India wire, 2008)
In any case, we’re not sure who built the well, why, or why it’s named Dhaula Kuan (i.e., White Well). The ‘white’ part could refer to a fair-skinned lady, some say. Or perhaps it has to do with the sand around the well, which is white. In either case, “when passing by[,] do think of someone fair. Also, it may make the well blush” (Smith, 2007).
I recently undertook a trip from Haryana to Delhi via Dhaula Kuan, which is why I mention the whole thing. I was in the exceedingly muddy town of Badshahpur- Bachapur, I called it, as I’d only heard it said: later I found it was actually Badshahpur, which makes more sense. On the main road in Badshahpur, I was taken in hand by a rickshaw driver who chatted amiably with me in Hindi, though I can’t say I understood it all. I was taken to a rickshaw, a group rickshaw, or auto in Indian English, the kind that fourteen people get in to- four in the extra-wide seat, four facing, four on the back bumper, one on either side of the driver on jump seats, then the driver, and then a fellow hanging off. We came to Rajiv Chowk- not the code name of Connaught Place, but a different Rajiv Chowk, which was a freeway overpass with a sign reading ‘Delhi, 33km’. The rickshaw driver called for all “Rajiv-Chowk-wallahs” to get off, we each paid Rs. 10, and then I sort of stumbled around in the dark trying to figure out how to get from there to Dhaula Kuan.
I crossed the street and found a number of people standing in the road waiting. Then a sort-of jeep came by and slowed down a bit, and men made to dash into it, and a fellow hanging out called out “Dhaula Kuan, Dhaula Kuan” and so I hopped in as well. After a few seconds, however, some cops in khaki came over, got in the jeep, and began arguing with the driver. It was in Hindi, but we were all in the back area and couldn’t hear much. The cops made everyone up front in the cab get out, began waving around some folded-up, laminated, hand-written papers (apparently the driver’s license), and eventually we were all hustled out the back of the jeep and the cops drive the empty white jeep away somewhere.
At that point a beat-up old ramshackle bus slowed down; on the side was written ‘Rajasthan Roadways’ in Hindi. It slowed, not stopped, and I pulled myself on. I sat in the back. There was a slick fellow in a black jacket that played dance-pop over his cell phone. An older man came round to collect money for tickets, but on asking me something- I didn’t hear him over the bus noise, but I assumed he asked where I was going- I responded ‘Dhaula Kuan’. He nodded and walked off without asking for any money. Free bus ride!
The bus passed some various military canteens and dormitories, and then slowed down. Two rustic fellows in beanies and scarves, each with large buckets of paint stored between their legs, turned round and asked me in Hindi if we were at Dhaula Kuan. I told them we were and we alighted. It was dark out and I saw only a pedestrian overpass, two fellows selling biscuits, chai, and running an STD phone line off an upturned wooden box, and a few people in a bus shelter. That was my first time to Dhaula Kuan, and I knew nothing of the well or of its storied place in history. But next time I end up there, you can be sure I will look for the well and report back to you.