‘Exhausting’, ‘stressful’ and ‘crowded’ are just some of the adjectives used by most travellers who visit Old Delhi. Narrow alleys, a booming population, busy shops and a myriad of aromas lingering in the air mean Old Delhi is an exotic assault on the senses.
I visited one of Old Delhi’s oldest and most popular markets, Chandni Chowk (translated as moonlit square), which was designed by the Mughals in the 17th century. Today, the area is a treasure trove of history and is home to some of the most famous remnants of the Mughal Empire. Dilapidated havelis (archaic mansions) of the bygone era, historic shops serving secret recipes of 16th century kings and an eclectic mix of bazaars selling everything from fabric, precious jewellery, spices and perfumes are major specialties of Chandni Chowk.
Rickshaws and tuk-tuks are the latest mode of transport in Chandni Chowk and they efficiently wind their way through the congested lanes and choking alleys. In fact, I noticed that the rickshaw drivers had developed a method to make way, and alerted the crowd on the streets with a ‘Hello Madam’, ‘Esqueeze (excuse) me’, ‘Hello Sir’, or ‘Shide (side) please’, which to my surprise worked much better than honking horns or ringing bells!
Chandni Chowk is still a big trading centre of Delhi and an ultimate foodie’s delight. The heritage food and sweet shops of the market are a big hit with students, locals and tourists and serve the best Indian savouries and sweets. For instance, down one dingy lane – characterized by entangled electricity wires, decrepit houses and notorious monkeys – is the world famous ‘Paranthewali Gali’, a street selling paranthas (fried Indian breads stuffed with various fillings), which is home to ancient parantha shops of the 18th century.
It is quite a task to spot the oldest parantha shop, as there are about 5 shops in this lane all claiming to be the ‘real’ one! But after much research with the locals, I found the original. The variety at the shop is just amazing, offering everything from paranthas stuffed with potatoes, cauliflower, popaddums, bitterguard and even condensed milk. The paranthas tasted heavenly and I only stopped because my stomach couldn’t keep up with my tongue after four paranthas!
I visited another legendary shop, the Ghantewala Confectioners (Ghanta meaning a huge bell), which is the oldest sweet shop in Delhi, established in 1790. The story goes that whenever the royal procession of Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar passed the shop, the king’s elephant stopped and refused to move until it was offered sweets from the shop. The elephant wore a huge bell round his neck and continued to ring it until his demands were met.
Today, there are no elephants, canals or royal processions, but Chandni Chowk has passed the test of time and remains a rich source of Indian heritage and history. Its inhabitants are giving in to the temptations of a modern India but its alleys continue to sing tales of India’s cultural and historic past.
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