Popularly referred to as Old Delhi, the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad is one of the “newer” of Delhi’s seven cities, established in the 1600s by the emperor Shahjahan, of Taj Mahal fame. Built as a walled city, the area houses the Red Fort and the magnificent Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, old havelis and bazaars.
This is by far my favourite place in Delhi. Much of the Delhi we see today is modernised and sterile. The area encompassing Chandni Chowk and the bazaars surrounding it seem frozen in time and is what I imagined Delhi used to be centuries before modern bulldozers and builders arrived. Most visitors find it daunting and indeed so did I the first time I ventured here but once I got over the narrow lanes and the lack of street signs, I often find myself happily lost here. And never fear. Kindly shopkeepers – some who speak English – will direct you back to the Metro or your car, or even negotiate with a rickshaw driver to take you there.
The bazaars were important trading centres during Mughal times and they remain so today. You can buy almost everything here. These are the old equivalent of modern day malls and shopping centres. Hardware can be found in Chawri Bazaar; silver, gold and precious gemstones from Dariba Kalan; prospective brides wind their way through Kinari Bazaar, through shops selling heavily embroidered saris and embossed invitations. Technology advances have delivered refrigeration and machinery, beautiful old mansions have become dilapidated, overhead spaghetti of wiring cables brings electricity to the buildings, and the area is still a thriving commercial hub and home to merchants whose forefathers preceded them in their lines of work.
Porters and delivery boys weave their flatbed carts through the narrow by-lanes and jostle for space with pedestrians, scooters, cycle rickshaws and the occasional dog and goat. Carpenters, plumbers, labourers, caterers share sidewalk space with barbers, ironing ladies and ear cleaners with scary implements capable of busting any eardrum at the slightest slip of the hand. It truly is a melting pot of humanity and a gathering in and of all senses.
Old Delhi is as much about the food as it is about the history, shopping and people. Here traditional Mughlai food fuses with Indian favourites, often sold from centuries-old stalwart establishments. Flaky parantha at Babu Ram, Karim’s nihari, Aslam’s decadent butter chicken, creamy lassi from Amritsari Lassiwala, Karachi halwa from Chaina Ram, Kuremal’s kulfi, finished off with a crispy, syrupy piece of jalebi from the Old and Famous Jalebiwala.
In Khari Baoli, the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, invisible spice dust sneaks up your nose, creating an irrepressible urge to sneeze and cough. Fragrant anchors of Indian cooking – chilli, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, coriander – mingle with the city’s smoke and dust. Suppressing the splutter long enough to duck inside a shop, I usually buy a bag of spices at wholesale prices. And with this, I am ready to make another attempt at re-creating the taste of Old Delhi at home in my modern apartment, a far cry from the ancient lanes I’ve just come from.
*The Hindi quote, “Yeh shehar nahi mehfil hai”, is made popular by Delhi 6, a movie about the diversity and communities of Old Delhi. The 6 also refers to the final digit in Old Delhi’s post code.