Two hours in Chandni Chowk

It’s a name that I have been hearing since I was a little girl growing up in suburban Delhi. Chandni Chowk. It wasn’t until I was 20 when I first visited this amazing labyrinth-like market sub town but have hazy memories of being rushed with a long shopping list for a friend’s wedding. I finally got an opportunity to visit this almost mythical (at least in my mind!) place last weekend…a trip much unplanned and pretty much on a whim.

Chandni Chowk is very accessible now with the Metro allowing one to have the freedom to walk around the narrow by-lanes of this crowded locality without worrying about finding a parking spot for your car. The Metro station in Chandni Chowk itself is surprisingly clean (not something I associate with Old Delhi…) and travel friendly. It is right in the heart of the main bazaar, which makes it extremely convenient, if you do not wish to hire rickety auto rickshaws or the hand-pulled rickshaws, and are not overwhelmed walking amongst a sea of humanity!!

Once you cross the very noisy and chaotic road that leads one into the main street, you get this feeling of nostalgia, of reliving history. The first thing that struck me walking on that crowded sidewalk were the “havelis”, many now in a dilapidated state, housing everyone from cheap travel agents to wholesale merchants. A “Haveli” was the traditional housing for the rich of yore, and the house is almost palatial in its scale. A normal Haveli would have a big courtyard surrounded on the four sides by spacious rooms. Many havelis, though non-descript on the outside still exist in all their splendour…though I still haven’t had the good luck to be inside one of them.

It also struck me that in the market, which is perhaps the largest in North India, shopkeepers and merchants selling wares of a similar kind are clustered together, more often than not. I learnt later that in Mughal times, there used to be a zone comprising of houses whose owners shared Landmarks & common feature, usually their mode of occupation. They were called “kuchas”- and many a Mirza Ghalib “nazm” began to have a new meaning for me!!  During Shahjahan’s time, zoning was a commonly accepted feature of town planning. (Hence the names Malliwara, the gardeners neighborhood and Ballimaran, the oarsmen’s neighborhood).

We walked rather aimlessly, much to husband’s irritation, who tends to be more result-oriented than me…but I was not done taking in the sights and smells of this place that had witnessed several hundred years of history. One of the places I was looking out for specifically was the much-famed “Parathewali gali”. With a little help from some friendly shopkeepers, we found ourselves at the entrance of what seemed like an extremely narrow lane where two people would find it difficult to walk together without brushing each other. Of course, they were fighting for space with motorbikes, cyclists and rickshaw pullers who were expertly maneuvering their occupants!!!! The overwhelming smell of pure desi ghee (clarified butter) is hard to miss. For a person who isn’t terribly fond of either the smell or the taste, it was rather strong, but my exploratory instincts over-ran any other feelings at that point in time. We stopped by at a shop that seemed to have a few vacant tables and got thoroughly confused looking at the long list of options of stuffed parathas (freshly made whole wheat breads), ranging from veggie fillings to khoya (sweetened milk solids) to dry fruits. We settled for a rather tame gobhi (cauliflower) and mooli (radish) fillings. For Rs. 30, we got 2 parathas, a potato side dish, 3 different kinds of chutneys and water to drink. Not bad at all….but this is definitely not for the weak hearted, for the parathas are made in pure ghee and shallow fried. But even I (who hates ghee) couldn’t help enjoying the spiced filling and the whole experience.

We stopped over at Haldiram’s, who has made a McDonald-like chain of similar looking (and tasting) food joints serving traditional Indian fast foods. The best thing about them (not different from McDonald’s) is that you can almost be ensured of the consistency in pricing, service and food quality, irrespective of which outlet you have been to. A delicious round of “Raj kachodi” (fried flour-cup filled with lentils, chutneys, curds and an amazing range of the most enticing spices!!) and “kulfi-falooda” (traditional Indian ice-cream flavoured with saffron and dry fruits served with a generous helping of moist noodles!) later- we were almost bursting at our seams, but our hearts couldn’t have been more content. The food also cheered by very bored spouse, and that encouraged me to go for another short walk exploring now the main street.

Chandni Chowk has the distinction of being perhaps the only trade market that also houses an equally amazing number of places of worship of all the prominent Indian religions. Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and Jainism exist side by side in the 2 km. stretch between Fatehpur Masjid to Red Fort alone. Here one can find more than seven Hindu and Jain temples, two Churches, three Mosques and two Gurudwaras. This is excluding the numerous smaller shrines that exist in the remoter parts of Chandni Chowk. If this isn’t a living testimony to India’s very diverse, yet tolerant fabric, I don’t know what is.

On my metro ride back to Connaught Place….I mentally make a promise to come back again……….

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