City Hangout – Dilli Haat, Aurobindo Marg
[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Delhi’s dream village.
In a city as disconnected from cowbelt India as Delhi, it is poignant to enter Dilli Haat (opened 1994), the food and craft bazaar spread over six acres and modelled to look like a North Indian village. The entrance plaque has the image of two belles churning milk into butter. Inside, the brick floor, the thatched roofs, the occasional sarangi players and the open sky give one the illusion of being in a haat, or a village fair. Perhaps closest to Mahatma Gandhi’s romantic ideas of the rural life, Dilli Haat is actually the very antithesis of Indian villages, where caste oppression, poverty and hunger rule the roost. Dilli Haat has no cow-dung on the ground and no one has to relieve themselves in the open (there are clean toilets). If this is how villages are, then why live in Delhi?
Another moving aspect of Dilli Haat is its food stalls, each specialising in the cuisine of one of India’s many states. The cooking is so authentic, the service so efficient and the prices so moderate that you may forget that quite a few of these provinces are wrecked by guerrilla warfare and secessionist violence. There is no better bubble in Delhi.
Take a walk down the chief passageway, avenues, corridors and side courtyards, which are lined with stalls selling colourful handicrafts from different regions. The ethnic attire of the artisans is as colourful. Allotted the selling space for a nominal amount, they come for 15 days, to be replaced by another set. No matter how much you may be tempted by Cashmere shawls, Rajasthani cholis, Punjabi jootis, Lucknawi chikankari kurtas, kolhapuri chappals, bead necklaces, metal pendants, glass bangles, family-size swings, giant statutes or wicker chairs, make sure to check out Madhubani paintings. A speciality of Bihar’s Madhubani district, these images of gods and jungles are drawn by bamboo sticks on a base made of cowdung, neem leaves and multani mitti, with colours extracted from flowers and leaves. If you spot a framed Madhubani hanging in an expat household, be sure it must have come from Dilli Haat. Prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 30,000. Dilli Haat also have theme-based festivals scheduled almost on a monthly basis. Thanks to an eclectic range of artists, you may also get a self-portrait made, or have your name etched on a grain of rice.
Refuel at the region-specific food stalls. Try the wazwan meal at the Kashmir stall. Their dum aloo is hot but delicious. Probably the only place in Delhi where you get zunka bhakar is at the Mahatrashtra stall here. For the very adventurous, nothing is more daring then trying out curries at the Nagaland stall, which comes with raja mirchi, the world’s hottest chilli. The best momos are found at the Manipur stall. For the best fruit beer, it is Nagaland again.
Outside the entrance are unofficial stalls. Visitors get their hands decorated with henna designs and hair braided with multi-coloured threads by professional women. Chai wallas go round with kettles, ice cream carts are stationed on the boundary and young lovers coochi-coo in the lamplight. It is the village of our dreams. Almost.
Where Aurobindo Marg, opposite INA Market, near AIIMS flyover
The Madhubani man
Lucknow’s chikan work
Anyone for momos?
Dining at the Rajasthan food stall
At the Orissa stall
Timepass at the Sikkim stall
Hot meal at the Naga stall
Name on the rice
Closing for the night
Let’s meet in Dilli Haat