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Introducing Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk
Before anything, let me preface this guide with a disclaimer: exploring Chandni Chowk takes a bit of getting used to the chaos that pervades the everyday life in Old Delhi. Here I am in the labyrinth of a marketplace called Chandni Chowk, standing elbow-to-elbow with pedestrians who walk like they drive— with full force and not one bit of hesitation.
Heeding the advice from all those who live in Delhi or have otherwise heard about this place, I keep my arms crossed, tucking my phone into the crook of one arm, my brows furrowing in deep concentration and apprehension. Construction divides the main road into two, and crossing requires maneuvering through uneven terrain and exposed litter. Dodging one man’s flying spit, I come nearly face-to-face with a trash bin pouring over the crowded sidewalk.
But in spite of what feels like a shock to the system, the streets are rich with remnants of centuries-old stories. Chandi Chowk holds an iconic status in Old Delhi, dating back to the Mughal period in the 17th century. Known as the Moonlight Square for the reflection of the moon in a pond that once sat in the square, it was a lavish shopping affair for the imperial court.
In present-day Chandi Chowk, traces of its former glamour can still be found in the stately havelis and mosques that intersect the busy streets. In place of court ladies frequenting the shops though, Chandni Chowk has become the perfect initiation into the chaos and charms of Old Delhi. The famous Paranthe Wali Gali serves up some mean parathas with a side of history. Meanwhile, tourists and locals flock the streets for jewelry and saris in every colour and bling possible. Chandni Chowk is an experience one doesn’t forget easily…
Guide to Exploring Chandni Chowk
Getting to and around Chandni Chowk
Chandni Chowk is easily reached by metro. Take the yellow line (line 2) to Chandni Chowk. From there, signs around the station will point you to the closest exit and into a world of sensory overstimulation.
If you look like a tourist, you’ll be stopped constantly by rickshaw drivers offering you a tour. Say no, and move on. Trust your feet and Google Maps, not that you’ll get anywhere faster in the congested traffic of rickshaws, scooters, cows and carts. Follow the crowd and stop wherever something catches your eye. Maybe follow your nose, too, although everything here is so overwhelming to the senses— the smell of burning incense, the smoke that wafts in the air and sinks deep into the clothes, and the confusion as to where to go, and what next. But after a while, the answer becomes apparent with a growling stomach…
Snack food, and especially chai, can be found in every street corner, providing a moment of rest and recharge. In the cool January breeze, a man motions for me to sit on his makeshift couch made from old phonebooks, and hands me another magazine as a tray for my hot cup of chai. But it’s not Old Delhi if it’s not crazy, is it? In a literal scene of drama and comedy, before I get to take my first sip, dogs spring into the alley and fight at my feet. And chaos ensues again…
Paranthe Wali Gali
It’s exhausting navigating the bustling marketplace. The street food vendors know this well, and try to lure us with sizzling pastries deep-fried in an open kitchen. Wielding the crazy flow of vendors and streetwalkers, my friend and I veer into a narrow alley known as Paranthe Wali Gali, where there once were up to 20 shops selling the famous snack food, paratha. Dough flattened into a disk shape and deep-fried, the parathas at Pt Kanhaiyalal Durgaprasad Dixit date back to 1875 and come in a wide selection of fillings. Since we are sharing, we opt for mixed vegetable parathas, which are served on a metal plate with curry and banana chutney. The grease from the deep-fried paratha and the spiciness of the chutney coat our fingers and lips but we find it so addicting that we just have to go for a second.
Outside on the street, a crowd gathers around a man with hundreds of the crispy puris neatly lining his cart. As soon as we lift a finger to indicate one serving, he plunks the round snack food into our respective foil cups and scoops flavoured water over the puris. I pick one up, drink the mix of tamarind, masala and chutney first, then savour the crunch. The flavoured water is cool, light and refreshing and offsets the grease and spices.
Spices and Styles
Exploring Chandni Chowk inadvertently takes you to various bazaars and clusters of shops that put on an impressive display of goods, from spices to saris and everything in between. Following the throng of crowds, stalls line the streets in a smattering of colours and textures. In particular, Dariba Kalan is good for jewelry and perfume shopping. Derived from the Persian word for unparalleled pearl, Dariba Kalan was known for the precious stones and rare gems one could find here. Today, it is popular among tourists and prospective brides looking for custom pieces that will stun for the occasion.
Not far from Paranthe Wali Gali, where the obligatory paratha is enjoyed, head on to a unique market called Nai Sarak, known for its large selection of books and stationery. Books are stacked high and become makeshift partitions between walkaways in between vendors. Whereas textbooks are unnecessarily expensive in North America, it is interesting seeing students coming here to shop for their psychology or biochemistry reference books. With the emergence of online textbooks, the book market is said to be in decline, but makes for a fascinating stop nonetheless.
Points of Interest
Chandni Chowk owes its former glory to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s decision to relocate the capital city to Shahjahanabad, in present-day Old Delhi, bringing with him his penchant for architectural marvels. Along with Chandni Chowk, Red Fort and Jama Masjid are two additions to the city that have stood the weathering of time and continue to be symbols of faith and strength.
You might recognize the stately red facade of Red Fort when you take out a Rs 500 banknote to pay for entry. The distinct Mughal architecture embodies elements of Islamic traditions with Hindu, Timurid and Persian influences. Although walking around the formidable sandstone walls is enough to get a sense of the grandeur of the UNESCO World Heritage site, museums inside the walled fort tell a much richer history of battles lost and blood shed. Today, Red Fort has come to symbolize independence in India. Every year on Independence Day, the prime minister delivers his speech from the fort, with the flag flying high.
Known as the Friday Mosque, Jama Masjid draws a crowd everyday of the week as the largest mosque in India. It took 5,000 artisans for the construction, and can house more than five times the number of devotees in its expansive grounds.
Donning Shah Jahan’s favourite shades, the mosque marvels in brilliant shades of red sandstone and white marble. The towering minarets overlook Old Delhi and provide a moment of elevated peace from the scramble of life below.
Map Guide to Exploring Chandni Chowk
Have you checked out this post about Delhi? There is so much more to do in the city, from historical monuments to belly dancing class. Read all about it in this post! ↡
Read all about Delhi