In the ravages of partition followed by the stress of population and ageing pollution, Purani Dilli (Old Delhi) has stood the test of time like a loving grandmother wanting to pass on her fairy tales to the next generation. At every corner, a building gleams with various empires’ impressions engraved in the wrinkles of this city’s lanes while the aroma of biryani, kebabs and sewai swiftly fills the air, already heavy with nostalgia.
This area, known as the city of Shahjahanabad when the Mughal’s ruled, was celebrated as one of the most advanced and urbane settings of the 17th Century. The spectacular pieces of architecture that have survived, pay homage to a relic of its past rulers.
The bylanes of Old Delhi seem quite congested and chaotic at first, an overwhelming sensory experience, but beyond this hustle and bustle lies a side of Delhi unvexed from ‘The New India’. One cannot miss the exhilarating experience of travelling through nooks and corners on a small rickshaw wriggling through the famous gullies (lanes).
Chandni Chowk, a multicultural haven and one of the oldest Indian bazaars (markets) in existence has been around for more than three centuries. The maze-like alleys of this densely populated market lead to well-established shops that were once visited by merchants from Turkey, China, Holland and other far away places.
The vibrant culture is showcased through the fragrances of places such as Khari Baoli, Asia’s biggest spice market and the Marigold Market, a wholesale flower bazaar tied into the intricate streets of Chandni Chowk. Some of the most run-down-looking buildings have a great past such as Begum Samru’s Palace of 1806 (called Bhagirath Palace) now serves as an electrical market in Chandni Chowk.
Positioned in the middle of the action is Daryaganj book market, the go to spot for book lovers and known as the world’s largest weekly book market. Where one can find the very latest as well as out-of-print books at discounted prices.
The streets welcome you with food carts decked over the sidewalk as the aroma lures you in; offering an overwhelming variety of cuisines that would require multiple visits to cover. Uninhibited to celebrate the influences with authentic Mughlai dishes, the cuisine is generally dominated by meat. The go-to place for all meat lovers would be Karim’s Place established by Haji Karimuddin in 1913, famous for its Kebabs and mutton nahari, while down the street Ghantewale Halwai founded in 1790, one of the oldest mithai (sweet) shops in India welcomes you with its renowned Sohan Halwa and Karachi Halwa.
The historic Paranthewali Gali, a long narrow street, offers a variety of over 30 paranthas! Glazed with mint chutney, achaars (pickles) and simmering curries. Many stalls laid across Chawri Bazaar purvey a diverse range of spicy and flavoursome chats enticing the wedding card and lehnga (trousseau) shoppers. For those with a sweet tooth, the food stalls act as a reminder of the mouth watering offerings of the mughal reign with some of the most authentic phirni and sewai (sweet dishes).
The Old City provides a spectacular gateway to the glories of Mughal architecture, not only showcased by the well-known buildings but evident in the intricacies of the smallest darwaza (door) or jharokas (windows) of someone’s home. For perspective, the Red Fort acts as a focal point of the city, providing a vivacious fusion of Persian and Timurid traditions. A huge and well-designed garden with arrays of multi-coloured flowers, surrounded by several domes and minarets acts as a relic of the past splendour. The monumental red sandstone walls now stand designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jama Masjid ties the entire walled city together. Located in Chandni Chowk, it is one of the largest mosques in the country. As one walks on the floor it is hard to miss the beauty and reference of white and black ornamented marble resembling an Islamic prayer mat. Witnessing a sunrise at Jama Masjid complemented with simmering tea whilst enjoying the spectacle of the mosque’s pigeons swaying around the minarets should be on your bucket list for certain!
The city houses some of the famous havelis (mansions) and palaces such as the Haveli of Mirza Ghalib, Gali Qasim Jan in Ballimaran and the Haveli of Zeenat Mahal as well a Lal Kuan Bazaar whose names make you reminisce about these famous personalities that otherwise may be lost to oblivion with passing time.
The site presents many more vestiges of the past from different era’s in India’s history. The Sri Digambar Lal Mandir, Delhi’s oldest Jain temple (1656), Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib (1783) a symbol of the fight against oppressive rule and the St. James Church (1836) one of India’s oldest churches, all stand as a reminder of our colonial past and tower over the skyline in a show of India’s multicultural ethnicity and architectural influences.
Old Delhi contrasts with the new, polarised India. It is a fragment of the past cultural glory that is quickly eroding with aggressive measures taken to erase its presence in the rest of the country. On a stroll through the innermost gullies, one will notice how mandirs and masjids (temples) exist harmoniously on parallel sides of a road. The streets are where people showcase their religious and cultural dressing with flamboyance, hidden from the conflicting politics.
The same streets also offer a passage into pre-partition India; showcasing its striking resemblance with cities such as Lahore in Pakistan. Lahorenamah a page on Instagram presents visual essays of Old Lahore where the uncanny similarities with the history and architecture of Old Delhi become evident.
Restoring and sustaining such parts of the country is a necessity for a fast-changing nation as it preserves the roots of our people that have experienced many cultural influences. These areas stand as a bridge between the politically estranged yet intrinsically connected countries of India and Pakistan.
The Old Delhi city and market stand unchanged and replicate the vibrant ethos of a multicultural India that once flourished in every street of this vast country; one that didn’t limit itself to any one group or community but rather embraced a mix of people united by shared historic influences. Perhaps it is a window into what could’ve been; a parallel existence for a whole nation before the partition; separated from the divisive politics this ‘New India’.
If you enjoyed reading this, we also suggest: