Old Delhi’s Colourful Chandni Chowk

Photo by Patrick Horton

An intriguing mix of a history, culture and window shopping on Chandni Chowk

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Chandni Chowk today is a street of shops, decrepit buildings and an excess of traffic. Everything has as much room as a sardine in a tin of sardines. This lost gem of Shahjahanabad, once the most famous street in India, used to have a waterway running down its spine fed from the River Yamuna.  Each side was planted with trees and the houses were large and interspersed with parkland. Up until some time in the early 1960s trams would trundle up and down this road. There are plans to pedestrianise much of the road and reintroduce trams.

A Street for other Purposes

The street was designed by Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan, to serve the ladies of the imperial court. It was mostly for shopping but also for secret liaisons. A woman could meet her lover at a shop, go to his house for amorous purposes and then return to the shop to buy something to preserve her alibi. Presumably her eunuch chaperone could be bribed to disappear for a while.

A History of Horror

The street also has a history of horror. The ninth Guru of Sikhism, Tegh Bahadur was beheaded in this street on the orders of emperor Aurangzeb. On the spot of his execution the Sisganj Gurdwara was built. Adjacent to here is the Sunehri Mosque where in 1739 the invading Persian king, Nadir Shah, stood and ordered the slaughter of the citizens of Delhi. Opposite is a fountain where the bodies of the slaughtered Mughal heirs to the throne were displayed by the British after the 1857 Uprising.

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Take a Slow Wander on Chandni Chowk

Take your time in exploring this street. Look up and look well as you’ll find vestiges of the old splendour in some of the architecture. Also look for the blue and yellow information boards that detail the history of some of the places. And consider, despite the religious rifts that sometimes split Indian society, how much this is an ecumenical street with five major religions having their place of worship here – Jain, Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Muslim.

As most of the points of interest are on this street it’s possible to string them together into a walking tour. Be aware though that this is a very crowded street so don’t hurry and if you’re with others agree a meeting place in case you get separated.

Start the Walk

Start at the Red Fort end of the street and click on the links to get the fuller story.

On the south side of the road visit the  Digambar Jain Temple, behind it the most unusual Charity Bird Hospital, visitors and their donations most welcome. You may spot the bird ambulance in the courtyard, which is a converted  and next door is the Gaurishankar Temple.

Cross the road and go down the lane next to the State Bank of India. At the end of the lane is a small Hindu temple under some trees. Walk around the back and gaze at the cluttered in building with a huge colonnade. This is the woefully faded-from-splendour Begum Samru’s Palace.

Return to Chandni Chowk and continue walking away from the Red Fort.

Fountain Chowk (square) is where the bodies of the slain sons of the last emperor were displayed after the 1857 Uprising.

If you’re feeling hungry or thirsty Haldiram’s at No 1454 is good for somewhere, quiet, cheap and airconditioned.

Cross the road and visit the Sisganj Gurdwara for a free and friendly guided tour by presenting yourself at their information office. Make sure you visit their marvel of a kitchen. Then head to the  Sunheri Mosque next door. On the roof you can stand in the footsteps where Nadir Shah ordered the infamous massacre.

Backtrack towards the Red Fort and take the laneway by the Old Famous Jalebiwala but before that spends a few rupees tasting a bright orange jalebi. Then wander down Dariba Kalan, the gold and silver market.

Take the first right into Kinari Bazaar which is the bazaar for anything to do with weddings. Opposite shop 2031 is Naughara Gali, a lane containing some beautifully painted house fronts, at the end of which is the Jain Svetambara Temple.

Return to Kinari Bazaar, turn left and take the next right into a dog-legged lane, Paratha Walan, the home of several famous paratha (vegetable-stuffed breads) cafes. This lane takes you back to Chandni Chowk where you turn left.

Visit shop 467 and enjoy the fragrances of the Gulabsingh Johrimal incense shop and maybe buy some aromatic joss sticks.  While continuing to the end of the street gaze up at the rather long haveli opposite on the upper side, which spans many ground floor businesses.

At the end of Chandni Chowk is Fatehpur Mosque, visit and then come out and turn left.

This road takes you past the reddy-pink St Stephen’s Church and then via a few bends to the pungent smells of the spice market.

Metro: Chandni Chowk on Line 2

HoHo bus: Red Fort

Also nearby: Red Fort, Jama Masjid

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