Situated at the heart of the bustling capital city, Delhi is the enigmatic Chandni Chowk. It was given birth to life by the vision of ambitious heir of the mighty Mughal Empire, Shah Jahan. The centuries old chowk has been a witness to the evolution of the capital from Shahjahanabad to New Delhi. The bazaar once lit by the silvery facades and luxurious Havelis owned by the high and mighty aristocracy of the capital has turned into a throbbing trading centre bustling with life overages.
Today it has become renowned across the continent for its vibrant wholesale and retail stores. Its serpentine lanes, crowded streets and encroached roads have their own charm for the ordinary. It is its everlasting grandeur which captivates people from every rung of society.
Laying Down the Bricks of Foundation
When the Mughal emperor Shahjahan relocated his capital to Delhi, this square was designed by his beloved daughter, Jahanara Begum. There are many legends which go behind the title of the marketplace. Some historians believe that there was a pool which shimmered under moonlight due to which the entire township seemed to gleam like silver, rendering it the name, Chandni Chowk. Whereas some narrow their focus on the word ‘Chandni’ and believe it to be drawn from the silverware shops that lined the bazaar.
The market was originally divided into four distinct smaller parts, namely Urdu Bazar, Johri Bazar, Ashrafi Bazar and the Fatehpuri Bazar. In stark contrast to its existing description as congested town space, Chandni Chowk was once a stately promenade commonly incorporated in royal processions.
This moonlit square has always had a cosmopolitan air about it. Merchants traversing from across the borders to sell their wares from Europe and Asia resided in the traditional serais or inns which lined the esplanades. Each of these bazaars has come to be renowned for selling a particular commodity. Amidst the mayhem created by the chaotic flow of traffic, life flourishes in this oldest market with gusto. Some of its renowned markets are:
This market is renowned among the cloth traders spanning across all economic groups. In this colourful market, textiles are sold in bulk measured in traditional ‘thaan’ or yarn over metres. The market serves as the epicentre which provides cloth to further retailers at wholesale prices. Of the wide assortment of textiles sold here, some of the renowned types are chiffon, net, georgette, cotton etc.
Dariba Kalan is the talk of the town for its hand-crafted jewellery. Some traditional shops specialise in gold and silver items. From contemporary fashionable designs to traditional kundan laced ornaments, this market is a haven for those in hunt of bridal stuff as well as daily wear.
Perhaps the most enticing thing of all is the varied price range of the products. The market caters to the tastes of all segments of the population. Of all the lucrative products, one rare item that is the talk of the town is the traditional itar, a unique variant of perfume and attar. Its refreshing fragrance is associated with Islam. It used to be in wide circulation in the olden times when the nobility habited at the bazaar, used it in little colourful glass vials.
Urdu Bazaar, originally a military camp market was a major attraction in the city in olden times. Though it was ruined during the revolt of 1857, its name survives as a location near Jama Masjid. Today, one can find the street lined with butcheries, cheap hotels, traditional inns and kebab shacks. Interestingly, the language of poets, Urdu is said to have got its name from this thriving marketplace.
OLD DELHI’S STREET FOOD: A FOODIE’S DELIGHT!
The narrow bylanes of Chandni Chowk have always been a foodie’s paradise. Counting upon its cosmopolitan heritage down in the pages of history, the food fabric of the Chowk has been diversified by the legacy left behind by the traditional trading groups and the ruling class who thrived here in olden times. The aristocratic class which patronised art, music and dance, was equally conscious about its food culture.
According to a legend, the street food of Delhi evolved during the times of Shahjahan. It is said that when Shahjahan shifted his capital to Delhi, his hakim, the royal physician was somehow upset. When asked to reveal the reason, he said that the water of Yamuna was so polluted that the entire population which migrated from Agra to Shahjahanabad with the royal entourage would fall sick.
Hearing this, Shahjahan was caught in a fix because he could not retreat after having shifted the capital of the empire. It was then, that the hakim came to rescue. He said the people will have to consume an ‘extra’ intake of spices to fight against the impurities present in water and then to balance the intake of spices, people will have to consume oil.
This point in history is denoted as the signal of for the beginning of street food culture of Delhi. The emperor ensured that the food was available at every nook and cranny of the town. Hence began the story of spicy, hot and oily chicken tikkas and kebabs for non-vegetarians and gol-gappe, papdi chaat and tikis for the vegetarians.
Since then, Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area has become synonymous with lip smacking street food. Each tourist who steps on Delhi’s soil, makes a pilgrimage to this marketplace to taste this diverse confluence of cuisines. Today some of the renowned shops in the area are being run by the fourth and fifth generation of a family.
But the talk about Chandni Chowk’s food sounds like a half-cooked meal if we do not discuss the spine of the food culture, the Legendary Paranthe Wali Gali! Thriving amidst the confines of the Chowk, the Gali is of Bollywood fame. Tracing back to times of freedom struggle, some of these shops brag about their glorious past with the framed photographs depicting the leaders savouring the delectable paranthas while engrossed in deep discussion.
Today one can find at least a dozen different varieties of paranthas being displayed on their menu board. They are served with an assortment of aloo ki sabzi, sweet banana chutney, petha and mixed achar.
The overcrowded streets and smoky bylanes of the chowk are no deterrent for food lovers when the charm of this erstwhile royal esplanade evokes their heart!
Some Food for Thought…
Even with increasing competition from the numerous local markets and shopping malls that offer modern facilities and conveniences, the sprawling bazaar manages to retain its place as an important marketplace. In the recent months, the government has taken over its shoulder the arduous task of making Chandni Chowk pedestrian-friendly hoping to reinstall its denuded glory.
As the rules of lockdown gradually become relaxed and the traders of the ever-bustling chowk trickle back to work, Shahjahan’s moonlit square will eventually get a new lease of life!