Nestled in the middle of the walled city of Old Delhi, located opposite the Red Fort, with Jama Masjid in the vicinity, one of Delhi’s busiest, grandest and oldest shopping markets, “Chandni Chowk” was built in the 17th century, when Emperor Shahjahan shifted his capital from Agra to Delhi. It became the heart and soul of the commercial activities of the Moghul Empire and the legend continues till today. The market was once divided by canals to reflect moonlight and that’s how it earned its name, ‘Chandni’ (Moonlit). Once famous for its fountains and shops, gradually the fountains of the chowk disappeared but the shops remained and continued to grow.
Apart from the grand historical background, Chandni Chowk has been highlighted in various bollywood films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Delhi-6 and Chandni Chowk to China making one want a dekko on what is this place all about. A few months into Delhi, I made my first visit to Chandni Chowk, typical ride in the hand rickshaw, a walk around the crowded street and feeding the souls at the famous Parathe Wali Gali (which I feel is over hyped), left us quite disappointed.
Something seemed amiss, it was not what we expected. In my next trip last year, we walked along a row of shops hunting for some artifacts, but the chaotic and dusty display ensured we didn’t buy any, just ended up picking up a copper glass, as we had heard of the benefits of having water stored in a copper vessel. (That’s another thing that the glass was used for 2 weeks and now lies in the far corner of my kitchen, feeling highly underutilized and unappreciated.)
We then visited ‘Karim’s’ at Jama Masjid, its a famous eatery established in 1913 that serves the best kebabs, curries, roti and has even found a mention in the famous Lonely Planet. Have visited Karim’s at Nizamuddin and Gurgaon, but the original, humble and basic setup at Jama Masjid is captivating. Proudly, yet shyly located in an alley off a narrow side lane, almost impossible to not miss, stand a bunch of small eateries, all wearing the same name. We actually enquired which was the authentic Karim’s, only to realize that all the same joint. That outlines and highlights the steady growth in the increasing popularity of the eatery over the years, which made the owners acquire additional neighboring shops to showcase yet another ‘Karims’. It’s amazing to find people from all walks of life- rich, poor, foreigners, teenagers, families, wanderers, locals, sharing tables and tucking away the delicious meal with their hands. Many clicked their snaps with the name ‘Karim’ or with the huge handis the food was cooked in. Highly recommended for the non- vegetarian tummies , be assured of a delectable meal at a modest price. This second trip to the market neither disappointed, nor intrigued me.
It was the third trip last month, that caught my attention and fascination to this place, like a final connect and I found my answer, (though I never had a question) on the hype and drama about “Chandni Chowk”. And when I reflect back on why did this non- glamorous, crowded, old place intrigue me, the reasons are plenty….
It is an unusual street that has several famous religious shrines, belonging to different religions, that coexist, lending the street a genuine cultural harmony. Starting from the Red fort, the area has Jama Masjid, Sri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, Hindu Gauri Shankar Temple, Christian Central Baptist Church, Sikh Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib, Muslim Fatehpuri Masjid dotting the landscape. Almost felt like they had planned to spread around in a sequence, each holding the responsibility to guard & protect a section in the chowk. I could almost visualize an invisible thread connecting them, with which they shared the news and updated each other of the well being of its respective visitors.
The market is far from the conventional air conditioned malls and gorgeous shops with plush interiors in posh markets yet its importance can be boasted. Even though Chandni Chowk appears choked with congestion, it retains its historical character. I felt like I had gone back in time, to an era which the mind had fabricated about the place on hearsay. The simple and small shops in the bylanes magnetize an ardent shopper. Hordes of shoppers throng the cheek-by-jowl shops in the narrow lanes. The market, divided in several bylanes, is flooded with vivid varieties of clothes, perfumes, electronic item, jewelers, sarees, idols of deities, furnishings and silverware. There are lots of narrow lanes with little margin to spare, selling books, stationary, clothing, shoes, leather goods, electronic goods and whatnot. The market offers everything that shoppers might think to buy for embellishing oneself and home as well. One great thing about this market is that you will get all goodies at highly subsidized rates, that’s if one has the time, patience and energy to look around and bargain.
Walking through the lanes, I could not help but notice that this place was a world in itself, like it didn’t know and didn’t care that a world existed outside Chandni Chowk too. Buzzing with activity and hyper energy, seemed like this place has never stopped to breathe, like the clock never stops for a second, like the sun cant set here, ever. Even in the crammed chaos and commotion, there is a method to the entire madness- the tiny shops, the name boards, the goods on display, vehicles, hand rickshaws, pedestrians all seem to be fighting for space and demanding their presence be felt, yet do so without disturbing each other or trying to overpower over the other, they seem to wriggle uncomfortably, nevertheless coexist in harmony. One can stop at a corner and spend an entire evening watching people move about their work, its fascinating. Another striking feature of Chandni Chowk are the overhead wires, some strong and sturdy, while some thin and fragile, a bunch of them suspended by poles, running through a balcony, jumping across the narrow lane, attaching itself to another pole, hanging just above a shop, rising up till the wall of a house, settling back to a pole. My eyes tried following the entire route of the life of a wire, lost my way in between and gave up. Yet, there is an order in this disorder, unconscious and unaware of the chaos below, they seem to take pride in their unique formation and enjoy their privileged view up there.
Amidst the religious places and the shopping bouquet, the place also houses some of Delhi’s oldest eateries and delicious sweet shops. The street side food is worth travelling all the way, bump and push thru the human maze, scramble and nudge to find your space, to taste a variety of mouth watering tikkis, dahi bhallas, phirni, chole kulche served piping hot in plates made of dried leaves woven together or mud pots, back to basics. It surely does enhance the flavor of the food being served. Apparently you can find 1,000 kinds of authentic Indian sweets in Chandni Chowk. Gastronomical delight!
Having travelled from the rich, luxurious history till today’s practical, commercial era, Chandni Chowk has covered a long tireless journey… countless hidden stories, captivating experiences, everlasting hopes all silently placed in this enchanting and charming habitat. Lots has been said and shared about Chandni Chowk, yet it will always have a subtle mysterious aura around it, for every thirsty traveler to unravel.
Belongs to the corporate jungle however, occasionally steps out in search for some sunshine and air! An avid traveler, Renuka likes to explore the most conventional place in an unconventional way. Her Bucket List includes visiting every state in India and writing about each block. She is passionate about Traveling, photography and writing.