Chandni Chowk was designed as a marketplace by Shah Jahan’s daughter, Jahanara, with a prominent water body that reflected the moonlight, hence the name. The central path, an imperial boulevard, was what led to the fort’s main gates (which Aurangzeb later shifted to another side of the fortress to avoid public intrusion). “Chandni Chowk was to Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) what Rajpath is to New Delhi,” says architectural historian Surbhi Gupta, founder-director of Rasika Research & Design, a Noida-based studio engaged in Indian architecture, design and research. It has a multi-layered history and great buildings, but its heritage does not lie in the buildings alone. “It exists in the very essence of the place, in its people, their food and culture, in its sights, sounds and aromas,” she says.
The ruins of Khazanchi Haveli, the residence of Shah Jahan’s accountant. The haveli once had a secret tunnel to the Red Fort, which was sealed after the revolt of 1857. Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
Complex as India itself is how some describe Chandni Chowk. So how does one even begin to understand it? “You don’t. You experience it,” says Sachin Bansal, founder & chief explorer, India City Walks, which offers heritage experiences across the country and won a national tourism award for Best Heritage Walk for “The Built Legacy of Mughals”, an exploration of Old Delhi.
Bansal’s office, which was once used by Warner Bros Pictures (India), is located above a row of shops that line the barricaded and dug-up stretch. This part of Chandni Chowk is a film distributors’ hub.
Access to the startlingly open office is through a flight of narrow, steep steps flanked by thick, cool walls. A small army of trained storytellers, some with a doctorate in history, archaeologists, and textile and food historians are a fulltime resource here. As are some rickshaw-pullers from the area, who conduct tours on wheels. Not long ago, as the workers outside dug up the area, the team rushed to recover a concrete slab that surfaced. It turned out to be a remnant of the tram track laid by the British with a layer of the mud track from the Mughal era below. Bansal is pleased about the recovery but says “the only way you can truly appreciate the essence of Chandni Chowk’s vibrant and syncretic heritage is through local immersion”.
Gadodia spice market at Khari Baoli. Photo: Sanjay K Sharma
So I head out to do precisely that. Among the accompanying storytellers is Soumi Roy, a scholar of modern history and former teaching fellow at the liberal arts-focused Ashoka University in Sonepat. At a time when the push appears to be towards homogenisation, Chandni Chowk wonderfully encompasses the many Indias that India is — both in culture and matters of faith.
Directly across the Red Fort is the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, built for the emperor’s Jain security guards in 1656 and also called the “Urdu temple” (simply for convenience, given the language the soldiers spoke). Behind it is the famous Jain Bird Hospital, believed to be as old and which treats injured and ailing birds and then sets them free. A little ahead is the Gauri Shankar Temple said to have been built by a Maratha soldier. Further down is the historic Sis Ganj Gurdwara, the site where the ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded on Aurangzeb’s orders. Adjacent to it is the Sunehri Masjid from where Persian invader Nader Shah oversaw the loot and massacre at Chandni Chowk in 1739. Not far from it, on the opposite side of the road, is the Central Baptist Church — India’s first Urdu church where prayers are still conducted in Hindi, English and Urdu. And at the very end stands the Fatehpuri Mosque.
Sprinkled around are old havelis. Specimens of Indo-Islamic architecture, often with strong Rajput and, later, European influences — with chhatris, marble and red sandstone — many are in a state of disrepair. Many of those that have survived the ravages of time have been given out to banks: HDFC, Bank of Allahabad, Bank of Baroda, State Bank of India (this building with high arches and Roman columns was once the haveli of the indomitable Begum Samru). Chandni Chowk is a thriving business hub and banks are critical to its largely cash economy.
An 1858 picture of a haveli in Chandni Chowk
This is not a place where you will find foreign brands. But there is a McDonalds facing the main road. It announces itself as “McDonalds Family Restaurant” — making it less intimidating and more acceptable to the local population. Its Rs 10 softy is quite a hit with the area’s battalion of daily-wagers. Will the labour still come for ice-cream once the boulevard is ready, I wonder. Given the nature of the place that takes everything in its stride, they probably will. But I am not so sure about the men in distinct red caps who sit outside the Indianised Western joint. These are the ear cleaners, who will — whether you are a man, woman, Indian or foreigner — invite you to get your ears dewaxed. You can identify them by their caps that have earbuds sticking out of them.
Like the ear cleaners unique to the place, food is as much a part of Chandni Chowk’s heritage, beginning with the tea flavours — butter jaleba has gone up from Rs 30 a kg in 1980 to Rs 500 a kg now.
Inside the famous Paranthe Wali Gali, where besides conventional parathas you get those stuffed with lemon, bitter gourd, lady finger and even banana, all deep fried in desi ghee, the sixth generation of Pt Kanhaiyalal & Durga Prasad Dixit Paranthe Wale runs a thriving business. On lean days, the eatery consumes 50 kg of dough; on busy days 80. But in the lane where once 10 eateries served exotic parathas today only about five remain — a sign that conservation efforts need to run deeper and that they also ought to improve the quality of life of the people of the area.
In Chandni Chowk, where the number of shops has grown from some 1,550 in the 17th century to over 8,000 now, the streets are divided into guilds: Gali Khazanchi that largely has sari and trophy dealers; Kinari Bazaar, for all kinds of laces, tassels and embroideries; Esplanade Road, which has camera and bicycle markets; and Ballimaran, which begins with shoe shops that give way to optical stores, then bangle makers, followed by bakeries and finally wedding card shops. “Organised chaos” is how Bansal describes it. There’s a curious story about how Ballimaran, which houses the haveli-turned-museum of the much-loved poet Mirza Ghalib, got its name. Legend has it that it’s here that Unani medicine originated. The hakims (traditional physicians) would first try the medicine on cats, hence the name balli) makers.
While on the main avenue, the wires have been put underground, inside these narrow lanes they precariously crisscross overhead — including outside the stunningly ornate and airy Nau Ghar (nine homes) in the otherwise packed Kinari Bazaar from where designers are known to routinely source fabric.
“Chandni Chowk is complex and overpopulated, but you have to remember that it has grown organically, continuously adding layers,” says a conservationist who does not wish to be named. “The conservation approach also has to be organic, addressing one issue at a time — sanitation, water, power.”
And then callousness is also taking a toll. At the roofless Khazanchi Haveli, once the residence of Shah Jahan’s accountant, beautifully engraved blue and white arches that stand on marble columns were given a dash of red by a film crew that shot a sequence here.
Adjacent to the Fatehpuri Mosque is the Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest 17th century spice market. Here, a soft drone of “chalo (move, move, move)” will follow you if you are in the way of the workers who carry huge sacks of spices up and down the stairs. They are polite, but determined, and go about their job despite the interruption. Like them, Chandni Chowk doesn’t stop. At most, it adjusts its pace — the way it has, temporarily, thanks to the redevelopment chaos.