Saturday, November 03, 2007

Chandni Chowk

One could stumble upon a piece of history in the most unremarkable bylanes of Delhi. Nowhere is this more accurate than in Chandni Chowk.

One could meander one's way to the house of the eighteenth-century Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib or chance upon the tomb of Razia Sultan, the only woman to have ruled Delhi. History sits cheek-by-jowl with commerce in Chandni Chowk.

Essentially, Chandni Chowk is a street with many alleys leading off it. It has been a flourishing trade centre since its inception in 1650 in Shahjahanabad, or Delhi, as it was known during the time of the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan.

Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Shah Jahan is credited with the creation of Chandni Chowk. It was a tree-lined square that evolved into an avenue flanked by merchants' shops and havelis (houses of noblemen) and used as a thoroughfare for processions. A pool ran down the centre of it and on moonlit nights, the water in the pool shimmered like silver, hence the play of words for the name, Chandni Chowk ( chandi=silver, chandni=moonlight, chowk=square).

Chandni Chowk has also seen its share of gore. A Gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) called Sis Ganj stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur was beheaded on the orders of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb in 1675. In 1739, Nadir Shah, infamous for pillaging the famous Peacock Throne from India, stood on the roof of the nearby Sunehri Masjid overseeing the nine-hour long rampage of the city. During the 1857 Mutiny, the British put on public display, the bodies of the princes of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, at the site of what is now called the Fountain Chowk.

There are numerous recorded impressions of Chandni Chowk by Europeans visiting India in the 1800s. Not much has changed since then, except perhaps that the sauntering camels of that time have been replaced with cycle-rickshaws that can manoeuvre better in today's traffic. Although there are no cheetahs on leashes or trains of elephants,Chandni Chowk continues to be a sensory overload for the average visitor.

The jostle of the crowds is merely one aspect. The cacophony of hawkers announcing their wares and the haggling of the customers mingles with vehicle horns and the lowing of cows gone astray. Add to that the sparkle – of mirrored shop counters and psychedelic wares. If that wasn't enough, there's the cloud of perfume as one passes an attar-wala's (perfumier) stall. Turn you head a few degrees and a chai-wala (tea-shop boy) brushes past, laden with glasses of aromatic spiced tea.

When it comes to taste, nothing beats the array of food available at Chandni Chowk – from j alebis (sweet spiral fritters), to lassi (Buttermilk – mostly sweetened), falooda (a creamy dessert made with rice noodles) to namkeens (savoury snacks). Some shops like Ghantewala, a sweet-meat seller, have been in business since 1740. And Karim's is the place for Moghlai food of the richness that one would associate with the royal kitchens.

If all this proves too limited for one's palate, there's always Parathewali Gali (Street of Indian Breads). Turn off the main Chandni Chowk road and step right into this alley of gastronomic pleasures. There are over forty different fillings that can be stuffed into the paratha or paraNtha as some call it. The fillings range from the mundane (potato, cauliflower etc.) to the exotic (cashewnuts, mince and also a sweet filling called Khurchan). These are deep-fried in clarified butter and served hot on order.
As with Bazaars in many parts of India, Chandni Chowk has its share of specialist lanes that market different commodities. Moti Bazaar is renowned for its shawls, Fatehpuri Bazaar for fabric, Nai Sarak for stationery and books. Khari Baoli is a spice market with a plethora of condiments, pulses, dry fruits and nuts. There's also the street for jewellery and silver ware, Dariba Kalan (derived from the Persian dur-e-be-baha = incomparable pearl). Churiwali Galli, is literally, the street of bangle-sellers. Kinari Bazaar is renowned for its zardozi trimmings and for the tinsel that bedecks many a Delhi wedding.

There's much to gawk at and linger over at Chandni Chowk. This, of course, proves difficult when one is trying to navigate the throng of humans, animals and vehicles while holding on to one's wallet. The trick to making the most of a visit to Chandni Chowk is to tag along with a local who knows the right shop and the right price to bargain for.

One could always escape it all by paying a visit to the quiet majesty that's the Red Fort, not far from the hubbub of Chandni Chowk.

(An edited version was published in the November 2007 issue of 'At A Glance')