It was ten in the morning. A bright sunny day was lurking behind a thin layer of mist prevailing all over the city sky. Sitting on the bench of a corner tea shop, next to Gurudwara Shish Ganj Saheb, I was enjoying a cup of tea with a rusk and soaking up the pleasant winter sunshine. On not finding a single juicy story in the Hindi newspaper which I was pretending to read, I raised my thoughtful face up – right in front of me was the road bustling with people and activity, behind which, in the backdrop below the grey dusty horizon, stood the intimidating and once impregnable Red Fort.
Chandani Chowk is an ultimate destination— a rich, colorful history, innumerable architectural marvels, and amazingly inexpensive bazaars. But that’s not all! This market place surprises you with succulent, mouthwatering street food at every corner of the walk through the living history.
Chandni Chowk is truly a microcosm. The entire area has evolved over the centuries of conflict and assimilation of peoples, cultures, and religions. Destroyed and rebuilt many a time, its every attraction is a tale of war, and speaks out loud for its past. Even today, it appears like a thriving medieval city with a tinge of modernity: mosques, shrines, gurudwaras, churches, and 19th century palaces; all teeming with the temples of modernity; mega-size electronic shops, overly crowded trading centers and new-age signposts. They all combine to give a distinct appearance to the place.
Established by the fourth Mughal Emperor Shahjahan and designed by her loving daughter Jahanara in 1650 AD, Chandni Chowk was initially a canal that ended with a fountain. Gradually, around the fountain grew the dense market and timeless landmarks of the future. Later, the canal was transformed into a road and became the main commercial lane of Shah Jahanabad. Now this road connects the Lahori Gate of Red Fort in east to Fatehpuri Masjid in west and divides the marketplace into two halves. Today, the entire area, often called the Walled City is one of the oldest, busiest and biggest wholesale markets in India. Approximately two hundred thousand traders, shoppers and tourists swarm its narrow lanes every day.
I set out on foot and walked down to the narrow lanes of Meena Bazaar to reach the magnificent Jama Masjid. Built between 1644 and 1658 by Shahjahan, the mosque is a perfect example of grandeur and architectural beauty. It has three gates that open towards east, south and north. I chose the eastern gate. It was used by the Emperors. The mosque is built on a hillock above 30 feet from the ground. The flight of 774 steps made up of red sandstone takes you to the massive, rectangular courtyard of the mosque where more than 25,000 people can offer prayers together. The mosque has four towers and two 40 meters high minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and white marbles. You can have a great view of the Walled City from the towers. Jama Masjid is a must visit place if you are in Delhi. I would suggest you to come here, at least once. However, try to avoid between 12:15 pm and 13:45 pm and minutes before sunset. Visitors are not allowed during prayer offerings. The area around Jama Masjid is also famous for authentic Mughalai eateries. So don’t forget to try out at one of those: Karim’s in Gali Kabian. All restaurants are affordable and people are highly efficient and friendly. So you may not have to waste time just waiting for your turn! From here I hired a well decorated, swanky rickshaw to reach the next destinations: Digambar Jain Mandir.
The rickshaw puller took me through the Esplanade Road, which is Asia’s largest camera market. Here you can find the latest models and accessories for your DSLR at reasonable rates. You can also spot the leading shutterbugs of the country looking for something new for their lifetime love! But there is a word of caution: while buying anything, try not to bargain. You may not be entertained.
In a few minutes, I was in front of the medieval Digambar Jain temple. It is made up of red sandstone with fine carvings. Stairs were occupied by stray dogs and footwear of devotees. Like a seasoned football player, I managed to get a space between them to enter the temple. It was constructed in 1650 and popularly known as Red Temple. However, what we see today was constructed after Indian independence in 1947. The Birds Charity Hospital is the most unique thing about this temple. Founded on the Jain Philosophy of aversion to killing, the hospital offers free medical services to wounded birds.
There is another 200 years old temple next to the Digambar Jain Temple. Build by a courtier of the Scindias of Gawalior, the temple of Gauri Shankar is famous for 800 years old Lingam (Phallus Stone) encased in the marble representation of a female organ surrounded by snakes. I sat down on the platform built around a tree in the small courtyard of the temple. Even amidst utter chaos and rush of the busiest marketplace, this place offer tranquillity and peace of mind.
Once you cross the Esplanade Road, a left turn just before Gurudwara Sisganj Saheb takes you to the street of Dariba Kalan. The street is popular for its silver jewelleries, precious and semi-precious stones, and gems. Step in to any jewellery shop and you can find a great variety of jewelleries of your choice. I reckon this is one of the best places to buy ethnic silver jewellery in Delhi National Capital Region. The street further goes into overly crowded and narrow lanes of Kinari Bazaar, which is a favorite destination of cloth merchants and dress designers who come here to buy raw materials for their designer creations.
The Gurudwara Sisganj Saheb is one of the oldest Gurudwaras of Delhi. It was built where the Ninth Sikhguru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded on the order of sixth Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1675 AD for refusing to convert to Islam. The Gurudwara was built after a century by one of his devotees, Baba Baghel Singh. There is also a museum just across the road opposite to Gurudwara. Adjacent to this lies Sunaheri Masjid. From here I moved to Bhagirath Palace Market which was earlier the Palace of Begum Samroo, a Kashmiri Dancer who was patronized by the rulers. Bhagirath Palace is the largest market of electrical and electronic goods in northern India.
It was already half past twelve and I was feeling a bit peckish. The Signboard across the road displaying the name Natraj Dahi Bhallewala drew me to the shop. This roadside eatery, located on the corner of the lane that connects Chandni Chowk Metro Station to the main road, has been serving hot delights on plates since 1940s. Literally, I had to struggle to order Dahi Balle – a concoction of yoghurt, spices and fried dumplings soaked in water. It was really cheap and a real treat to the taste buds.
In Chandni Chowk, there is a by-lane, specially dedicated to paratha – a type of bread that are stuffed and then shallow fried in clarified butter. This Parathe Wali Gali is a by-lane famous for its 19th century eateries. Years ago there used to be ten parantha shop but now only five left to serve hot and spicy delicacies. Established in 1886, Pandit Devi Dayal’s is the first parantha shop in the Gali. This eatery serves more than 20 varieties of paranthas with hot potato curry, pickles and chutneys. Anybody who is coming to this shop must try Cashew nut, Almond, Peas and Mixed Paranthas. They are really awesome and come at very reasonable price! Other 19th century shops include Kanhaiya Lal Durga Prasad and Pt. Gaya Prasad Shiv Charan that offer more than 25 different varieties of paranthas.
There are many more eateries that offer other than parathas. Established in 1790, Ghantewala Halwai is the oldest sweet shop that prides in quality of its delightful delicacies. Here, Sohanhalwa made up of dry fruits, sprouts and sugar is a must try for everyone. Apart from this, Giani’s Falooda and Kulfi Shop, Jaypees’ Snack Corner, Meghraj Halwai, and the Chaatwallah are the foodie’s delight.
From Paranthe Wali Gali I moved ahead to Nai Sarak which houses hundreds of bookshops selling titles on almost all subjects. For a while, I stunned to see the number of books on Medical and Engineering. They were all over, stacked one above another with titles in all fonts and colors kept in front of shops on either side of bylanes which gradually disappeared into dark, claustrophobic tunnels. Another famous area on Nai Sarak is Ballimaran where once noted poet Mirza Ghalib penned the most romantic poetry of Urdu. Now his palace is reduced to a small remnant and protected by the Archeological Survey of India.
Another cultural address of Chandni Chowk is Katra Neel which is the biggest concentration of Shivalayas dedicated to Lord Shiva. Constructed in 1858, Katra Neel was initially Lala Chunna Mall’s Haveli who bought Fatehurpir Mosque when it was auctioned by the British in 1857. The 17th Century mosque, Fatehpuri Masjid stands tall on the western end of the oldest street of Delhi, opposite to Red Fort. Built in 1650 by Fatehpuri Begum, one of Mughal Emperor Shahjahan’s wives, the mosque has a traditional design with the prayer hall having seven arched openings. The Khari Baoli, which is today Asia’s largest spice market, gradually developed after the construction of the mosque. Passing through the spice market, I climbed up to the rooftop of the Gadodia Market to have a view of Shah Jahanabad from the above.
The cold winter breeze was spreading the aroma of old city everywhere. The mist had disappeared and it was a complete blue sky dotted with kites of all colors flying above the closely packed terraces. In front of me was visible the Red Fort and far away I could clearly see a Delhi Metro train approaching the Kashimiri Gate Metro Station.