I live in a city which is a daily explosion of sights, sounds, smells and sensations. A remarkable mix of the old and new, Delhi is in equal parts beautiful, ugly, temperamental, inspiring, and daunting; no part of the city more so than Old Delhi.
Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi is quintessential Dilli.
Here, ramparts of the historic Red Fort overlook bustling streets and colourful markets. Shops, houses and places of worship co-exist, crammed cheek by jowl. Tangled electricity wires hold up the sky, mocking regulatory efforts to prevent theft through direct-tapping into power lines.
Food-carts and cycle-rickshaws ply alongside cars with deft drivers who believe in their ability to steer through a sea of pedestrians, and park in the tightest of spaces.
In its congested alleys, some of which come to a dead-end, centuries-old havelis in various stages of disrepair have been adapted into modest tenements for several families living under one roof. Some of these families have kept alive businesses that have flourished, withered and survived for over a century; other family trades have fallen by the wayside with the turn of the clock.
Many trading communities live within their guilds, so that the name of each katra (zone) advertises their profession, loud and clear.
Brides-to-be descend upon Chandni Chowk from faraway places (flying down all the way from the US is more common than you’d think) to put together their dream wedding lehengas.
Sweet-makers and snack sellers, whose tiny shops belie their nationwide fame, briskly go about serving edible crumbs of pure heaven.
Faith and religious structures can be found in every corner in India. Chandni Chowk, too, brims with numerous shrines of different faiths.
But the remarkable fact is that the main street of Chandni Chowk has as many as six major shrines of five different religions, in harmonious coexistence – Sri Digambar Lal Mandir (Jain), the Gauri Shankar Temple (Hindu), Baptist Central Church (Christian), Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib (Sikh), Sunehri Masjid (Islam) and Fatehpuri Masjid (Islam).
In the distance stands the Jama Masjid which heralds the beginning of Chawri Bazaar, another bustling market in Old Delhi.
Chandni Chowk (“moonlit square” in Hindustani) was designed in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahan Ara. Shah Jahan had recently shifted the capital of his empire back to Delhi (from Agra), and Chandni Chowk served as a marketplace for the newly built Red Fort which housed the royals.
In line with Jahan Ara’s vision for Chandni Chowk, speciality shops were arranged like a crescent moon around an octagonal pool, whose shimmering water on moonlit nights is believed to have given the chowk its name. Water from the pool flowed into a channel that ran down the middle of the market, forming a watery avenue to the Red Fort.
Today, the Chowk has burgeoned well beyond the initial blueprint, and provides a home and livelihood to tens of thousands.
Like most historical places assaulted by time and modernization, much has changed.
Glorious mansions from the past, stripped of their splendour, have come to terms with the present: a humdrum State Bank of India building now occupies the palace of Begum Samru, a Kashmiri nautch girl with legendary charm and political acumen who helped the Mughal empire in quelling armed invasions as well as palace rebellions, married an immensely rich British soldier, and went on to become the ruler of Sardhana, a principality in north India.
However, some things have not lost their flavour.
Chandni Chowk still retains its commercial heritage as a marketplace of significance. Food lovers still melt into its crowded alleys to sample famous eats. Shoppers still abound, often clueless but determined, in their quest for typical Indian wares at legendary discounted rates. And when the night creeps in and the market lulls itself to sleep, moonlight falls over the tin-thatched and marbled roofs alike, bathing the ‘moonlit square’ in a hushed radiance.